Some TV movies aim for originality, using the tools on hand to try and rise above constraints, be they financial or artistic; others are more than content to just entertain, with reliable craftsmen who deliver within the confines of the small screen format. In other words, sometimes comfort food tastes just as good as a five course meal, which brings us to Scream, Pretty Peggy (1973), a familiar yet entertaining romp through diseased minds and sharpened knives.
Originally airing on November 24th as an ABC Suspense Movie, Scream, Pretty Peggy had to settle for the rest of the audience that wasn’t engrossed in CBS’ M*A*S*H/The Mary Tyler Moore Show/The Bob Newhart Show. Slimmer pickings to be sure, but not everyone wants to laugh (those monsters), and Peggy certainly is bereft of any. What it does offer, however, is a solid thriller with a slasher bent that boasts a quirky performance from Sian Barbara Allen (You’ll Like My Mother) as the mousy titular character and a subdued turn from the incomparable Bette Davis. All this plus the guy from That Girl too!
Gently crack open the spine of your weathered TV GUIDE and see what’s in store:
SCREAM, PRETTY PEGGY (Saturday, 8:30pm, ABC)
A college student takes a job cleaning for a reclusive artist and his ailing mother only to discover that another member of the family may be responsible for murder. Ted Bessell and Bette Davis star.
We open up with a young lady meeting the wrong end of a blade, wielded by a mysterious night gowned woman stirring in the shadows. Cut to credits and an intro of our heroine Peggy (Allen) as she hits the college campus looking for a job. She takes a position as a part-time cleaner way off campus with Jeffrey Elliott (Bessell – That Girl’s guy), a famous sculptor, and his overbearing mom (Davis). An odd pair, Jeff and mom; he prefers to spend his time sculpting life size demonic figures while mom chooses to stay marinated in booze and scowling at the new help. What is it that they’re so uptight about? Well, it turns out Jeffrey has a crazy sister who has a tendency to wander around the grounds at night, and when the dad of the previous cleaner (our opening kill) comes looking for her, and then he is offed, Peggy starts to think that perhaps she took the wrong job with the wrong family…
If you’re a horror fan with even just a passing interest in the genre, the plot developments of Scream, Pretty Peggy will ring some bells (and if they don’t, all the better), but that’s never interfered with entertainment. Like every other genre, there are only so many tales to tell, and at least legendary Hammer scribe Jimmy Sangster (Horror of Dracula) and his co-writer Arthur Hoffe have chosen a very dependable one to add to (or crib from, depending how you look at it). The kills, while not visceral (they simply can’t be), bow to nascent slasher elements already in place. Yes, I’m dancing here folks; I could throw out one example and the already precarious nature of the mystery would tumble down, so I won’t.
Director Gordon Hessler was already a staple on the scene, helming The Oblong Box (1969), the quirky Scream and Scream Again (’70), and Murders in the Rue Morgue (’71) for the big screen before tackling Peggy. So, there’s a slickness evident, and an emphasis on performance and atmosphere to compensate for a lower budget and stricter standards. (Working within imposed guidelines can lead to the occasional burst of creativity, without relying on shock tactics.) And he has his work cut out for him; again, he has to build up the story (even to fill only 73 minutes) because it’s been told before, but he does a solid job and keeps things moving. Even if you know where it’s going, it’s a fun ride to get there.
Allen was completely unfamiliar to me before Peggy; but her unusual look and sympathetic demeanour quickly gets the viewer on her side as she realizes she’s in over her head. Bessell was well known at the time for just coming off the very successful That Girl sitcom, and he uses his natural likeability to play with viewers’ expectations as to his true intentions. But of course the spotlight can’t help but turn towards Davis as the Elliott matriarch; she dials it back a bit (which is unusual for this part of her career), but manages to let loose in a couple of well timed outbursts. Hessler could always be counted on to draw good work from his casts, and Peggy doesn’t disappoint on that front.
No, the only way that Scream, Pretty Peggy can let the viewer down is by clinging to the belief that every morsel must be unique, and that each meal must awaken new sensations on the palette. Sometimes nothing satisfies like a cheeseburger and a shake though, and this one slides down with an easy smile and a smack of the lips. Treat yourself.