• U.S.

Cinema: Northern Gothic

2 minute read
Jay Cocks



Screenplay by JO HEIMS

Snow just won’t let up. Car won’t start either. Doorknobs turn mysteriously. Stairs squeak like trampled mice. The cocoa is spiked. The room is locked. The baby is born dead. No escape.

Such trappings of the Gothic genre creak as badly by this time as the front door of the requisite sinister mansion. Director Johnson does not precisely succeed in making all these antique devices seem fresh—that would be asking too much of anyone—but he contrives to invest each scene with an effectively clammy inevitability.

A pregnant young widow (Patty Duke) spends three days riding buses from Los Angeles to Minnesota to visit her mother-in-law, whom she has never met. Patty’s husband, before his death in a military-plane crash, had assured her she would like his mother, but the hard, hostile woman (Rosemary Murphy) she finally meets bears little resemblance to his fond descriptions. Patty’s only friend at the forbidding family estate is her husband’s half-witted sister (Sian Barbara Allen), who babbles incomprehensibly while pressing a newspaper clipping into Patty’s palm. Apparently a homicidal rapist is loose (Screenwriter Heims doesn’t miss a trick) and, good heavens!, he looks just like the ne’er-do-well nephew (Richard Thomas), who turns out to be hiding in the laundry room and prowling the corridors at night. Under all this pressure, no wonder Patty gives birth prematurely.

Rosemary Murphy is excellently witchy and bitchy, and Thomas is convincingly pathological. Adding to the unlikely credibility of all this is the fact that the film was shot entirely on location, enforcing the sense of isolation and calamity. The snow is not only abundant but real, as is the house, which is at once magnificent enough for the Ambersons and spooky enough for the Canterville ghost.


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