Picture Zsa Zsa Gabor lying dead on the floor of a room as it goes up in flames. Picture her daughter singing a creepy nursery rhyme as she watches. Picture that girl being sent away to a mental facility due to a breakdown, and her subsequent return home to her father and her new stepmom. Picture the teenage girl hearing voices and seeing her dead mother appear throughout the manor. Now I need you to Picture Mommy Dead (1966), Bert I. Gordon (that’s Mr. B.I.G. to you)’s high strung, gothic chiller with a surprising amount to say about family dynamics, psychotic lineage, and their fragile nature.
Released by Embassy Pictures in early November, Picture Mommy Dead (aka Color Mommy Dead) cost a million to make and cruised through the theatres and drive-ins second billed as befitting a B.I.G. release. This just seemed another potboiler designed to boost yet another fading actress (in this case Hedy Lamarr, who was dropped due to exhaustion and recast with Gabor) back into the spotlight through an exploitation film. While Gabor doesn’t really fit that bill (she was always more of a personality than actress), the film itself is as weird as mid-‘60s horror gets, mixing incest, mental instability, and jealousy into a frothy 82 minutes.
We open with Ms. Gabor quite dead on her bedroom floor, with daughter Susan (Susan Gordon, Bert’s real daughter) singing her ditty about worms going in and out before she snatches mommy’s hawk-shaped diamond necklace from her crispy corpse. Cut ahead three years, and Susan, now a teenager, is greeted at the convent/mental hospital by dear old dad Edward (Don Ameche – Trading Places) and her former governess/new mommy Francene (Martha Hyer – The Sons of Katie Elder).
As soon as Susan gets back to her old (and repaired) mansion, she starts to hear her stuffed animals talking to her. She also receives visits from mother. Since mom left everything to Susan in the will, the only way that the opportunistic Francene and her lover Anthony (Maxwell Reed – Sea Devils) can get their hands on the fortune is to have Susan committed again for good, or to have her dead for good, whichever comes first. And then there’s the mystery as to who killed mommy in the first place…
Picture Mommy Dead is a title that immediately brings to mind What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (’62) and Hush, Hush…Sweet Charlotte (’64), two examples of “hagsploitation” that piqued audience interest for a spell. And the comparison is apt, as all three are lurid melodramas with cooked birds, faulty elevators, half-baked visages to terrorize more delicate sensibilities. And while Mr. B.I.G. isn’t as slick as Robert Aldrich, he certainly has always lived up to the “B” in his name.
Bert I. Gordon was more at home with giant men, ants, and chickens (!) than he was with oversized parlor dramatics; Picture Mommy Dead proves that he could turn away from the fantastic towards a tempered approach without missing a beat. Don’t worry though; there’s enough family hijinks and double crossing to keep the viewer engaged, giant rats be damned.
The plot is heavy on the Gaslighting and is frankly nothing new; where Picture Mommy Dead earns its kudos is in the lean, muscular direction of Gordon and the surprisingly witty script of Robert Sherman, who wrote mainly for television (The Invaders, Barnaby Jones, Fantasy Island). The film does possess an episodic feel, it’s true; one doesn’t mind too much though as the truncated running time and shorthand psychology makes for a fascinating feature.
Much is made of Susan’s recovery at home and the precarious nature of her mind – of course in every B movie every couch jockey suggests returning to the scene to “confront” ones sins and traumas, without much concern for psychic scarring itself. None of these films would exist without the “face your fear” mechanism (to be fair, that’s a lot of horror). And there is a good amount of confrontation in the film – not only Susan and her fears, but most deliciously between the triumvirate of Edward, Francene, and Anthony. Husbands and wives and lovers and ex-lovers and it soon feels like a soap opera if immolation and implied incest came up right before the station break; one gets the feeling that even the team of Aldrich and Bette Davis wouldn’t have touched this material.
Which is too bad, really; between the lively performances of the cast (perhaps Gordon is a little overburdened with carrying the picture), the ribald and catty dialogue, and Gordon’s knack for cheap thrills, Picture Mommy Dead proves that decorum shouldn’t always win out. Sometimes you just have to burn that bedroom down.
Picture Mommy Dead is currently available as an Italian import DVD from Golem Video.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM (1973)