Curtis Harrington’s Ruby (1977) is a perfect example of what I like to call a or something film, to wit: Piper Laurie follows up her Academy Award nominated turn in Carrie (’76) to headline as a former gun moll haunted by her dead ex while she runs a drive-in and her 16 year old becomes possessed by said dead ex. Or something. Fractured and scattered but a whole lot of fun, Ruby is positively littered with or something’s and I kind of love it for that.
Released by Dimension Pictures in late June, Ruby was a big hit with audiences, returning $16 million off of a sub million dollar budget. This was clearly the Carrie effect; I remember the trailer playing on TV at the time, and my wee mind was blown by the final image – a woman in a red dress being dragged underwater. For a kid with an early thirst for horror, trailers were the quick fix, the rush of the unseen and as far as we knew, the never to be seen. (Hey, we didn’t know home video was coming up; so if we missed it, we had to hold out hope for it to show up on TV.) Carrie’s trailers the year before worked exactly the same; sharp cuts, slashing music, cryptic voiceovers, all of it hitting my young receptors in the most chilling way. Now, let’s be clear: Ruby is no Carrie. However, other than sharing Ms. Laurie and two grandstanding performances, they do have another factor in common: a willingness to follow through on their crazy convictions; Carrie with its supernatural extensions of a young woman’s coming of age, and Ruby with its tale of revenge and possession. Or something.
Let’s start at the start, shall we? It’s 1935, and Nicky (Sal Vecchio – Oscar) takes his best (and very pregnant) gal Ruby (Laurie) down to the swamp (?) for a moonlit picnic which is quickly shut down by the arrival of his rat-a-tat gang, who want him out of the way, see? By the end of the night, Ruby’s family is up one daughter and down one boyfriend.
Flash forward 16 years, and our favorite moll is owner and proprietor of Ruby’s Drive-In, catering to families and horny teens at a buck a carful (an extra quarter if you have someone stashed in the trunk). Helping her out at the drive-in and the bedroom is Vince (Stuart Whitman – Demonoid), who was part of Nicky’s crew, as are some of the other employees: Barney (Len Lesser – Blood and Lace), Avery (Jack Perkins – Grand Theft Auto), Jess (Eddy Donno – Invaders from Mars), and Louie (Paul Kent – A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors) work the concessions and projection booth while Ruby looks on with her telescope from her manse upon the hill. Jake (Fred Kohler – The Ten Commandments) holds a special place by Ruby’s side; blind and confined to a wheelchair, he’s the one she professes her love to, in between drunken dances in her ballroom.
Meanwhile, Ruby’s daughter Leslie (Janit Baldwin – Swamp Bait) , who has been mute since birth, starts acting up (including a bullet-ridden face stigmata, just like dear old dad) on her 16th birthday and one by one Nicky’s old gang starts being crossed off Ruby’s payroll in mysterious ways. Is Nicky back from the beyond looking for vengeance, or is someone…just kidding, it’s definitely Nicky.
Oh Ruby, what a tangled web you weave; part possession, part ghost story, a treatise on alcohol abuse and toxic nostalgia (or something), and an avenging mobster tale all adding up to a little less than the sum of its parts. But man, what parts.
Four long (and very lucrative) years after The Exorcist, people still clamoured for demonic imps, and Leslie fit the bill although it’s not Pazuzu but rather her prohibition bustin’ pappy exerting his influence. And exert he does; he insinuates to his boozy floozy Ruby (dammit, so close to a rhyme) through Leslie that she was behind his demise, and honestly it’s hard to tell as George Edwards’ (Harper Valley P.T.A.) and Barry Schneider (Mother’s Boys)’s screenplay flips on that rather important plot point right until the very end. But that’s okay, because these are “moments” guys; the whole film is built on set pieces and creative deaths that work well due to Harrington (What’s the Matter with Helen?) ’s expertise in staging. By this time in his career he was more or less resigned to TV work, which shouldn’t be dismissed; his soft focus style was well suited for television, and leant a certain economy that was effective for horror on the big and small screen.
And the drive-in too, which Ruby uses as not only a great practical location but a melancholic signifier of Ruby’s passage of time; she was a showgirl once upon a time, see, and now all the kids want is to make out in cars watching monster movies. (Her drive-in is showing Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, which wouldn’t come out for another 7 years; somehow the anachronism only adds to the charm.) Harrington always had a romantic slant to his work, and was quite fond of the ‘30s through the ‘50s; the nostalgia factor works here because drive-in culture by the ‘70s was already steeped in it with American Graffiti (’73) and the Happy Days TV series, Formica and Brylcreem pushing tommy guns and Victrolas’ aside as a blurry eyed Ruby weeps for a bygone era.
But this was the ‘70s post The Omen (’76), and Nicky has some colourful tricks up his sleeve; hanging by film stock, car speaker pole impalement, and soda machine suffocation are only a few of the unique ways that Harrington dispatches the gang in a pretty gentle R rated way. (His work never comes across as particularly vicious or mean spirited.)
But again, the tug of the revenge tale keeps pulling the narrative in different directions, as do scenes of Ruby’s regret and anger at the life she had to give up to raise a child, played with um, a lot of gusto by Laurie in a role that lacks the purpose and finesse of Mrs. White, yet contains all of the hysteria and indignation. Hold on tight to her performance; she’s committed to guide you through the various disparate strands and does an admirable job of it.
Baldwin will also draw your attention with an eerie/creepy portrayal as the possessed Leslie, who seems so even before Nicky’s return; Whitman is so laid back (as always) that someone should have followed him around with a mattress in case he nodded off mid-sentence, and I neglected to mention Roger Davis (House of Dark Shadows), who shows up as Whitman’s prison shrink and also happens to be a parapsychologist, to help decipher the possession. Or something. Like a Dusk ‘til Dawn showing at the local outdoor cinema, Ruby never lets you rest for too long before the next reel unfurls in front of sleepy eyes. Before you drift off though, don’t forget that the red dress drowning was filmed later on against Harrington and Laurie’s wishes; they wanted a more romantic ending – you know, even though Nicky was trying to kill Ruby. Or some…never mind. See you at the drive-in.
Ruby is available on Blu-ray from VCI Entertainment as a 2-Disc Special Edition.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: GIRLY (1970)