Silvio Narizzano, 1965
Starring: Tallulah Bankhead, Stefanie Powers, Donald Sutherland
On the eve of Patricia’s wedding to her boyfriend Alan, she decided to pay a final visit to Mrs. Trefoile, the mother of Patricia’s deceased fiancé, Stephen. Though he died a few years ago in a car accident, Mrs. Trefoile is determined to view Patricia as Stephen’s rightful wife and the older woman is horrified to learn that Patricia is a “modern” woman: she goes about unescorted by a man, smokes and drinks, and so on. An extremely right wing Christian, Mrs. Trefoile decides on a last ditch effort to purify Patricia’s soul, with the help of her two nefarious servants.
Fanatic — more colorfully known to US audiences as Die! Die! My Darling!, a title popularized by the Misfits song of the same name, which I now can’t get out of my head — comes hot on the heels of a series of black and white, contemporary set thrillers penned by Jimmy Sangster. This is certainly not of that ilk, nearly all of which have an emphasis on inheritances and familial madness, and a series of characters conspiring to drive a central female character insane. With a script from the great Richard Matheson and a tone that ranges from camp to black comedy to hysterical violence, it really reminds me more of the kinds of films Pete Walker would make roughly a decade later, like Die Screaming Marianne (1971), House of Whipcord (1974), or The Confessional (1976). All of these are concerned with moral hysteria, in the sense that a clearly insane, conservative older character torments and often tortures and kills a younger character (generally female) for what are regarded as outrageous offenses.
Based on Nightmare, a novel by Anne Blaisdell, Fanatic also borrows heavily from “hag horror” or “psycho biddy” films like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and Hush… Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964). Hammer actually turned their attention to that subgenre for awhile after Hammer’s suspense films with entries like The Nanny (1965) and The Anniversary (1968), both starring with Bette Davis. And like Davis’s role in those films, Fanatic’s primary strength lies in its casting of theater actress Tallulah Bankhead, coming out of retirement to make what I believe was her first and only horror film. It’s particularly hilarious that Bankhead was cast as in the role of the aging, moralistic spinster, as the real-life actress was known as much for her stage/screen presence as she was for her lifestyle, which involved excessive, drinking, smoking, drug use, speaking her mind, and sexual affairs. She once referred to herself as “ambisextrous” — in reference to allegations about her numerous affairs with famous actresses — and said of herself, “I’m as pure as the driven slush.”
The only problem with casting Bankhead in the film is that everyone else — including actors like Peter Vaughn (Straw Dogs, Brazil, Symptoms), Maurice Kaufmann (The Abominable Dr. Phibes, A Shot in the Dark), and a barely there Donald Sutherland as Mrs. Trefoile’s mentally handicapped handyman — pales in comparison to her. Poor television actress Stefanie Powers is not only stuck with one of Hammer’s typically bland, defenseless heroine roles — if I had a drink for every time Pat could have defended herself from Mrs. Trefoile, I would die of alcohol poisoning — but she’s left with little other option than to sleepwalk through the role. Mrs. Trefoile is simply so over the top that Matheson would have had to make Patricia a great deal for colorful for the two to share their screen time remotely evenly.
And, at least in part, it is Patricia’s thoroughly milquetoast personality and lifestyle that makes her such an unlikely, unfortunate target for Mrs. Trefoile. Like many of Pete Walker’s protagonists, she hasn’t actually done anything to deserve the insane, frothing wrath directed at her and is merely living according to very average social mores. To add insult to injury, Patricia is not even the one to get vengeance on Mrs. Trefoile at the end of the film and — after a character in the Trefoile household springs into bloody action — Patricia runs straight to the arms of her boyfriend. Excuse me while my eyes roll themselves right out of my head.
Director Silvio Narizzano is sort of a bizarre exception to Hammer’s rule of using repeat directors like Terence Fisher or Roy Ward Baker, and I can’t tell if it’s his fault or the script’s that the film careens back and forth between comedy and horror. There are some nice visuals, including a picturesque country village (which is apparently the same set as Village of the Damned) and some pleasant homages to Hitchcock. Overall, this is absolutely worth seeing for Bankhead’s great performance — one of her last — that reaches an amazing level of histrionics. It’s available on DVD from Sony, though it deserves better.