Summer reading (and viewing) demands a lapse of taste (let’s save the serious stuff for the first autumn chill), so I’ve been happily cooling off in a witch’s pond of pulp Gothic romances circa 1970. I adore them! A close aunt of mine, as eccentric as any dowager you’ll find on these faded pages, used to keep a stack of these in her attic along with the Creepy and Eerie comics belonging to my cousin, which formed my early literary development and fostered in me a love of horror, romance, and camp.
I cherish my small collection of Magnum Gothic Originals gleaned from used bookstores. Even in the “Easy-Eye” large print (thank God) format, most of these clock in under 300 pages, making for perfect beach reading.
To accompany the Gothic themes, I’ve been watching some of my old favorite TV Movies of the Week on Youtube.
What’s wonderful about these Made for TV movies is that they often provided roles for aging movie stars, allowing for that wonderful sub-genre now known as Grand Dame Guignol (I believe the great Charles Bush coined that phrase). Beginning with Sunset Boulevard, Baby Jane, and continuing on in many B-horror movies, and on television as well. A beautifully bee-hived Joan Bennet fluffing her lines in Dark Shadows is one example, and of course the incomparable Barbara Stanwyck who starred in three Movies of the Week: The House That Would Not Die, A Taste of Evil, and The Letters. Campy yes, with less than stellar production values. Notice the boom in the shot? Aaron Spelling: “Who cares? Print it! Let’s move on!”
Today, television has equaled or eclipsed feature films in quality, but at that time it was considered the death knell of an actor’s career. And yet Stanwyck is the consummate professional, knocking it right out the park in her portrayal of the duplicitous mother who brings her daughter, Susan, home after the girl spent seven years in the sanitarium in Switzerland (don’t you love it?). At the start of the film and in a series of flashbacks we learned that Susan is brutally raped when she is thirteen which had rendered her catatonic. These made for TV movies didn’t shy away from controversial subjects, and the scene is shockingly explicit. Disturbing too, is that mommy dearest allows the playhouse, along with Susan’s toys, to rot away in the woods as a terrifying reminder of what happened to her.
It doesn’t take long for weird stuff to start happening at the West Coast tudor mansion as grown up Susan is haunted by the same man who attacked her (we are led to believe it’s her alcoholic stepfather, but twists are in the midst). The story borrows heavily from Diabolique with the ultra disturbing body in the bathtub motif, but something so affecting deserves to be stolen, again and again.
Another treat in the pantheon of players is one of my personal favorites: Roddy McDowell, who plays the kind-hearted, but skeptical doctor. McDowell, of course, has an extensive filmography and never shied away from TV. The man worked, a lot. He also directed one movie in 1970, The Ballad of Tam Lin, starring an aging Ava Gardner as a witch who lives off the succor of the young, hip, swinging Londoners she surrounds herself with. As best friends with such grande Dames as Elizabeth Taylor, I’m guessing he knew something about it.
A Taste of Evil is a densely-packed 71 minutes of TV (minus commercials on YouTube) with great performances and a bone-chilling soundtrack. Stanwyck running around in the rain carrying a shotgun is one of the great moments in Grand Dame Guignol as in the quintessential dignified arrest at the end, which Charles Bush exploits to great hilarity in Die, Mommy Die!
A Taste of Evil may not be everybody’s taste, but fans of Gothic camp will eat it up.