The matriarchal psychodramas of the ’60s bled into the ’70s with alliteration-laden (and questioning) efforts such as Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?, What’s the Matter With Helen? (both released in ’71, and both directed by Curtis Harrington), and the sole directorial effort from noted horror author John Farris, Dear Dead Delilah (1972). Vinegar Syndrome has brought this entertaining Southern Gothic back from the grave with a solid new Blu-ray release that's sure to please fans of ripe, pithy dialogue and surprising splatter.
Dear Dead Delilah starts out with the reveal that teenaged Luddy has murdered her mom because she didn’t want her heading out to see any fellas; we then flash forward 25 years and a now middle-aged Luddy (Patricia Carmichael – Petticoat Junction) has been released from the sanitarium; walking around, she is hit by a stray football in a park belonging to a member of the wealthy Charles clan, and whisked back to their estate. There Luddy is introduced to the family, including Morgan (Michael Ansara – The Manitou), Doctor Alonzo (Dennis Patrick – The Time Travelers), and their oldest sister, Delilah (Agnes Moorehead – Bewitched, and very much alive here, contrary to the title). The whole gang has convened to settle the estate, as Delilah is not well, much to the not-so-secret delight of her kin.
When she mentions that everything on the estate will be given away upon her death, including all the money, she offers up a game: their deceased father buried $600,000 in cash all over the grounds; Delilah tells each family member that if they can find it, it’s theirs for the taking. But greed turns to murder as someone with a very big axe to grind is offing the Charles one by one…
Dear Dead Delilah is a film very much of its time; hiring Moorehead puts it firmly in Ghoulish Grand Dame territory, even though that’s a major misdirect on the part of Farris. Delilah is merely the mechanism for kick-starting the plot and setting her clan scattering like rabid mice scrounging for whatever cheese they can find.
I shouldn’t say merely, though; the true strength of the film is Farris’ dialogue, with sniping siblings spitting bon mots at each other at an alarming rate, not the least of which come from Delilah, who has no problem showing her disgust with a room full of money grubbing sycophants. Dear Dead Delilah is funny, which frankly caught me by surprise—I was expecting arch with the premise, but Farris chooses to play the film as Gothic soap opera with splashes of grue that come out of nowhere.
And they are definitely welcome; if one doesn’t focus on the words, Farris’ visual sense will certainly not overwhelm you, with several shots out of focus that immediately pull you away from the illusion, no matter how heightened. He does get fine performances from his cast, though, who fully understand what kind of film they’re making and rise to the occasion. Dear Dead Delilah has fun with its premise, and that’s a simple pleasure I can get behind.
Vinegar Syndrome seems to have had fun putting together a brand new Blu-ray (with additional DVD) package as well. The newly scanned 2K transfer from 35mm vault elements is probably as good as Delilah is ever going to look—a lot of damage and scratches, but overall a clean presentation, and besides the grit, the film has a grindhouse look that it richly deserves. For those interested in digging deeper, Vinegar offers the following special features:
Family Secrets is an interesting 22-minute chat with Farris, who runs through the project from conception to screen. If you’re looking for a peek behind a tattered, low-budget curtain, this has you covered.
While Dear Dead Delilah toured the drive-in circuit more than once in the ’70s, it’s been largely forgotten in a cluster of films that peaked commercially in the ’60s. Leave it to Vinegar Syndrome to dig it up like long forgotten loot buried on a stately manor. It may be grimy, but it still holds its currency.
Movie Score: 3/5, Disc Score: 3.5/5