Despite owning multiple copies if this film — its public domain status means that it ends up on all manner of DVD compilations — I’d never sat down to enjoy it before.
Shot after Corman Corman’s recently completed The Young Racers* — on which Coppola had worked as a sound technician, this was intended to be a rip-off of Psycho, but with more brutality. So, you know a slasher. Or a giallo, more to the point.
Coppola wrote the script to Corman’s requirements and although he was given total directorial freedom, Corman declared the finished film unreleasable and brought in Jack Hill to finish the movie.
Monte Hellman also filmed a five-minute intro that had a D-13 test to see if people were psychologically fit to see the movie. That’s what we in the movie-loving business call padding.
While out rowing in the middle of a lake after dark — really a bad idea all around — John Haloran and his wife Louise (Luana Anders, who along with William Campbell and Patrick Magee, had come to this movie from the cast of The Young Racers) are arguing about his mother’s will, which will all go to a charity in the name of Kathleen. As they bicker — and row, row, row the boat — John keels over from a heart attack and dies, which means that Louise will get nothing of his fortune. So she pretends that he’s still alive and invites herself to the Haloran family castle while her husband is away on business or at the bottom of the lake.
Perhaps going to that castle was not the best of ideas. The family is, charitably, bonkers. Her dead husband’s brothers Billy and Richard join their mother in a ritual that remembers the long-lost Kathleen, who also drowned, and Lady Haloran faints every single time.
That’s when Louise gets the bright idea to start acting like Kathleen is communicating to her from the land of the dead. At one point, she swims to the bottom of the lake and begins placing the dead girl’s toys in the water. Underneath the water, she finds Kathleen somehow perfectly preserved and when she surfaces, she’s killed with an axe. This is the sequence that sold Corman on the movie.
Here’s a crazy fact: this movie is where the Tom Petty song “American Girl” gets some of its lyrics from. In reference to another woman, Referring to another woman, Louise says, “Especially an American girl. You can tell she was raised on promises.”
It gets wilder from here with statues at the bottom of ponds, long-buried secrets and plenty more murder. It’s not the best film ever, but for a debut — well, Coppola had only made two nudie cuties before this — it’s worth a spin. And now Lionsgate is releasing a Director’s Cut nearly sixty years after this was made that will include an introduction and commentary by Coppola, as well as the D-13 test.
You can watch this on Tubi.
*They had $22,000 left, just enough to make a movie. Coppola was already a mover and shaker, gaining an additional $20,000 in financing himself by pre-selling the European rights to a producer named Raymond Stross. Now, he didn’t tell Corman that and had moved the original $22,000 into a bank account in case Corman wanted his investment back.