Let’s not judge Burt Kennedy for directing the Hulk Hogan vehicle Suburban Commando. Let’s remember him for something much better — All the Kind Strangers.
Written by Clyde Ware — a writer/director/producer who worked on shows like Airwolf and Gunsmoke, as well as TV movies like The Hatfields and the McCoys and The Story of Pretty Boy Floyd — this film reeks of backwoods menace. No wonder — Ware was born in West Virginia and his second novel, The Eden Tree, was a semi-biographical read which scandalized his hometown.
Jimmy Wheeler (Stacy Keach, Butterfly, Mountain of the Cannibal God) is a photojournalist traveling through via car to Los Angeles. He runs through a small Southern town where he sees Gilbert, an adorable child, walking on the side of the road. Seeing that the kid is hefting some heavy groceries, Jimmy offers him a ride. As the road goes further and further into the woods, the rain increases. Soon, he realizes he’s trapped in a house of seven children.
The oldest, Peter (John Savage, Hair, The Deer Hunter) has hidden the fate of his mother and father from the town, using various resources to keep their power on and training vicious dogs to protect the children. Their father was a bootlegger and mother a schoolteacher (what a match!); when she died, he drank until he fell from the roof.
The rest of the children — John (Robby Benson, who sings two songs on the soundtrack), Martha, Rita, James and Baby (named because their mother died before they could name him) — need guidance, so Peter sends the younger ones out to lure people to their home. Then, they evaluate whether or not they’ll be good parents. If they’re fit, they stay. If not, they’re free to go. Or that’s what the kids think. Evidence points to another more grisly fate.
There’s a new mother already in the house. Carol Ann (Samantha Eggar, The Brood, Demonoid Messanger of Death, Curtains) has been taking care of the children for some time. She has seen plenty of other father figures and while she asks for help, she also knows that everything seems pointless.
Jimmy has to convince the kids that he’d make a good dad while trying to find a way to escape. But between the multitude of kids and dogs, as well as his car being sunk in the swamp, he starts losing hope as well.
I have two issues with this film. Things get wrapped up with way too neat of a bow. Jimmy gives a speech to the kids which saves his life and Peter asks him to walk him into town so that they can get some help. Jimmy doesn’t even talk about the police and when you know that these kids have murdered numerous “kind strangers” you have to wonder if he traded his freedom in for some complicity in the crimes. Second, for being a photojournalist, the only camera that Jimmy has is a Polaroid, which would not be good enough to be printable in the 70’s. I know that it makes good theater to have him show Gilbert the photo as it develops, but it’s a stretch.
All the Kind Strangers is a small screen Deliverance, yet it has some fine acting from Keach and Eggar. It’s restrained, but there is more not seen than seen that makes this movie slightly scary.