Monday, October 18, 2010

31 Days of Avunculicide!

Let's Kill Uncle!  (Universal, 1966)

Before the Camera:

Nigel Green  (Jason and the Argonauts)
Mary Badham  (To Kill a Mockingbird)
Pat Cardi  (Horror High)
Robert Pickering  (The Reluctant Astronaut)
Linda Lawson  (Night Tide)
Ref Sanchez  (Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask)
Nestor Paiva  (The Creature from the Black Lagoon)

Behind the Camera:

Directed by William Castle

Produced by William Castle and Dona Holloway

Written by Mark Rodgers, based on the novel by Rohan O'Grady

    By 1966, William Castle was getting a little tired of being King of the Gimmicks. He'd been directing movies for more than two decades, but ever since he'd introduced his first promo gimmick eight years previously in 1958's Macabre, the gimmicks had started to take over. So for a few years, he'd started easing away from them. The previous few films had mostly made do with goofy prop giveaways at the theater (gold "Zotz" coins for Zotz! in 1962 and cardboard axes for Strait-Jacket in 1964) though after the phone company got mad at him for giving out fake giant phones and promoting prank phone calls with I Saw What You Did in 1965, he altered that promotion and quickly threw together his last big gimmick: the back section of the theater was roped off, and the seats had seat belts added, to "prevent you flying out of your seat in fright." When his next film came around, this adaptation of Rohan O'Grady's novel, he left the gimmicks back home and made the movie stand on its own merits.
    We start right off with a car accident, and we see the driver, bloody faced, lolling dazedly through a cracked windshield. But it's not so cracked that we can't recognize the man: it's William Castle himself in an unbilled cameo! Turns out he was a millionaire named Harrison, and his death leaves two heirs, Harrison's brother Kevin (Green) and Harrison's son Barnaby (Cardi). We meet Barnaby as he argues with his new best frenemy Chrissie (Badham - light years from To Kill a Mockingbird thanks to mean ol' Mr. Puberty putting her in what I'll delicately call an awkward phase.) Barnaby is being accompanied by police sergeant Travis (Pickering), ostensibly for security but really to give the film a romantic lead-male. Chrissie is travelling to visit her Aunt Justine (Lawson), ostensibly because her Aunt lives on a remote island with a population of three (not counting sharks or tarantulas), but really to give the film a romantic lead-female.
    With all that in place we get to the island, find out it is indeed surrounded by angry mutant sea bass with lasers mounted on their...no, wait...sorry, it's sharks. Just plain old sharks. As we leave the boat that brought them out, I have to mention that we get some of the last screen moments with great character actor Nestor Paiva on that boat (or ship, as he corrects Barnaby). He seems a little less than his usual jovial self in his brief scenes, probably because he was very ill at the time and passed away not long after.
    On the island, Uncle Kevin is all military pomp and politeness, but when alone with Barnaby, he soon shows his true colors and tells the boy he needs the entire $5 million inheritance for himself and is going to bump the boy off, making it look like an accident. An understandably upset Barnaby confides this to Chrissie, who then proves to be a dangerous little cookie herself when she declares the movie's title - "before he kills us!" And Uncle Kevin does add Chrissie to his list of potential victims as soon as he knows she knows he's out to get Barnaby. From there each side takes turns trying to kill the other, with hypnosis, poison toadstools, fire, the sharks, the tarantulas, and underfueled planes all coming into play. Who will survive and what will be left of them?

For some reason this film has never had a video release in any format, making it extremely hard to find pictures from it.
Here are three bad small ones to try to take the place of one good normal sized one. *sigh*

I first heard about this movie more than 25 years ago from my pal Richard, who had seen it someplace. But as mentioned above, there has never been a video release, so I never managed to see it, until Turner Classic Movies showed it a week or so ago. Sadly, my expectations after 25 years left me a little high and dry on this one. I find the opening car crash out of place, despite giving director Castle his screen time. Nigel Green is a lot of fun as Uncle Kevin, but neither Pat Cardi or Mary Badham generate much sympathy with their obnoxious roles (written that way, to be fair). And Robert Pickering and Linda Lawson are hopeless, screeching the movie to a wooden halt anytime they share the screen together. The murder attempts are very weird. Uncle Kevin is really trying to kill the kids, but Barnaby doesn't do much back; it's really Chrissie who is the murderous one of the younger set. She comes up with the idea to kill the Uncle; she comes up with the poison toadstool idea, and she is the one who lets the fuel out of the plane. She's positively psychotic! Barnaby only musters up one good attempt with the tarantulas.
    In truth, after building the movie up in my mind for two decades, I was expecting gleeful black comedy, with lots of wicked laughing (Mu-hu-hu-hu-ha-ha-ha!) from both sides, and a true appreciation of each failed attempt by the intended target, forcing them to go bigger and crazier with the next scheme. But not so much, here. Green goes there, at least somewhat, but Cardi is just not up to the task, and Barnaby is written a little too passively in the interests of audience identification. And speaking of passive, what the heck happened to the climax of this picture? I prefer my movies to end, not just stop.
    If ever there was a movie crying out for a remake, it is this one. If the Lemony Snicket movie had done better, I bet it would have already happened, as the two are thematically sort of similar. Let's Kill Uncle is skewed a bit older, though, making it ripe for a really much meaner version, where the uncle and the kid are truly evil, and the audience identification comes from others around them who face death, doom, and destruction as collateral damage in the escalating war between uncle and nephew. (Maybe I should shut up about it and just write the damn screenplay!)
    This is too tame to be fully appreciated by those who like their mayhem gritty and graphic, and too dark in tone to be enjoyed as a family entertainment picture, so in the end it can only be recommended to William Castle completists.

Let's Get Out of Here ?

The Line gets a real workout in this movie, with Mary Badham throwing it out three times at approximately 24:00, 25:00, and 26:00 to indicate her readiness to leave the old hotel, and then Pat Cardi drops it at about 1:06:00 because he thinks his uncle is lying in wait nearby.

Eye Candy ?

Mary Badham is twelve in the movie, and Linda Lawson wears too many loud striped pants outfits. No dice, ladies.

Buddha Man's Capsule Review

Buddha Man says "If there was ever a William Castle movie
crying out for a cool gimmick, it was this tepid thriller."

Let's leave Uncle be, then, and til next we meet, you Can Poke Me With A Fork, Cause I Am Outta Here!


  1. Actually, you should write something in the spirit of this movie, and do it the way it needs to be done.

    You've got the tone in mind. It's your kinda flick. And the idea of a gradually escalating war of heirs made my eyes light up.

    Write it. Find a home for it. I'll see it on opening night.