While I’m not sure if I saw this Made for TV thriller on it’s initial release in 1972 when I was but five years old, I do know I saw it at some point as a little tyke in the 1970’s. The memories I’ve retained of the film are fleeting aside from a couple of key points and more importantly I’ve never forgotten that it scared the hell out of me.
So here I am fifty years following it’s network debut and thankful that it has resurfaced on blu ray via Kino Lorber Studio Classics which has allowed me to go back in time and relive the chills and thrills of this Ray Bradbury story brought to the screen via director Jack Smight and featuring one of my all time favorite leading ladies, Olivia de Havilland.
A modern day 1972 setting finds Olivia a wealthy landowner who has seen building and housing developments surround her estate bringing with it unwanted neighbors. In the opening scene Olivia embarks on a carriage ride and I’d like to point out, I do believe that’s her holding the reigns forgoing the use of a stuntwoman as the horse trots at a steady pace. Riding through her property she’ll come upon a dog digging in freshly turned earth where long ago a family smoke house once stood. She’ll shoo the dog away but swears she hears a faint voice from a woman below the surface moaning for help.
It’s at this point my memory banks kick in thanks to an ingenious shot of a woman buried alive with barely her face protruding from the dirt in an underground cavity. Yeah that freaked me out as a kiddie.
Olivia’s character suffers from crippling arthritis and is off to get help but will only be met my doubts and twisted eyebrows. Her son, Charles Robinson, and the family lawyer, Joseph Cotten, believe she’s stressed and imagining things. After all, she’s just been released from a hospital due to a mental breakdown.
And so the stage is set in Bradbury’s story.
The more Olivia complains to everyone that a woman is buried alive on her estate, the closer she’s punching her ticket to the looney bin which is exactly where Robinson and his bitch of a wife, Laraine Stephens, want to send her so they can sell off the remaining lands to a developer and cash in their winning lottery ticket.
Even a call to the local police doesn’t help Olivia when the officer shows up having just told his superior he doesn’t think he should be bothering with a “batty old lady.” A short visit and very little effort turning any dirt over by the officer at the scene leaves Olivia in desperation.
Having a reputation amongst her neighbors as a recluse and nutty at that, Olivia finds very little help when approaching a strip of houses imploring anyone to accompany her to the sight where she has again heard the “screaming woman” begging for someone to dig her up from her would be grave.
Like a Hitchcock film, the problem is presented to us front and center. There’s little doubt that there is indeed a woman hanging on for dear life just below the surface and we’re even given the facts as to who has “killed” her and disposed of her body.
It’s when Olivia knocks on the door of neighbor, Ed Nelson, that she’ll find herself in great peril. It’s Nelson’s wife buried on Olivia’s property and he put her there after a nasty argument that ended tragically. Olivia is now a loose end that must be dealt with if Nelson is to remain a free man continue a relationship with his much younger girlfriend, Alexandra Hay.
Now it’s just a matter of whether or not Olivia can somehow stay alive and save the life of the “screaming woman.”
Still to come is the payoff scene. The one that I’ve never forgotten and the same one that haunted my dreams when my age consisted of a single digit.
I must say that this was a very physical role for the one time Maid Marian of Sherwood Forest. Between the carriage ride, to running at a good tilt herself at various points in the film in search of help to getting down on her hands and knees digging a ditch with little more than a small garden tool, Olivia proves a trooper. Considering she lived to be an astounding 104 years of age, I guess we shouldn’t be too surprised.
Aside from a part in the box office bust of 1970, The Adventurers, this was Olivia’s first starring role since 1964’s thriller, Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte. 1972 also saw her make an appearance in the film Pope Joan but aside from that she’d back off once again only to resurface in the star studded, Airport ’77. Her participation in that film allows me to say I did indeed see an Olivia film on the big screen during it’s first run.
Unlike her costars, Joseph Cotten, and playing her physician, Walter Pidgeon, Olivia never worked steady in the realm of the TV Movie. Made for TV movies were the rage during the 1970’s and offered up plenty of work for one time leading men and women. Most genres were tapped for the medium. Westerns, dramas and comedies but it’s the thrillers/horrors that are more often than not fondly recalled.
While all three “names” in this above average TV movie of the week date their careers back to the 1930’s and 40’s, the only time Oliva had shared the screen with either Cotten or Pidgeon was when she costarred with Cotten alongside Bette Davis in Sweet Charlotte and that was only due to Joan Crawford’s withdrawal from the follow up meant to reteam her once again with Bette and director Robert Aldrich after the smash success Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Olivia would work with Cotten once again when he too boarded the ill fated flight of Airport ’77. Heck, they even boarded The Love Boat together in a 1981 episode of the popular show.
Always one to keep my eye on the opening credits, I spotted the multi Oscar winner, Edith Head, as the film’s costume designer. Edith worked with Olivia on both 1946’s To Each His Own and 1949’s The Heiress. Both films scored Olivia the Academy Award for Best Actress and deservedly so. If you’ve yet to see those films, you’re really missing out on a pair of classics. (Especially The Heiress)
I’ve lamented for many years that there are so many forgotten gems from the TV Movie era, specifically the 1970’s so this is a most welcome addition to the vault here at Mike’s Take and thankfully Kino Lorber Studio Classics has begun to unearth a number of these including The Victim (1972), Scream Pretty Peggy (1973) and even the celebrated Night Stalker series and accompanying pair of telefilms that starred Darren McGavin.
All of which proves there’s still hope for more of these long forgotten favorites.