Adulterous lovers Kathy Atwell (Jaclyn Smith) and Steve Fuller (James Franciscus) share a steamy shower room clinch, while unbeknownst to them a tape-recorder hidden somewhere in the house eavesdrops on their every word. Kathy is unhappily married to Wendell Atwell (Mike Connors), a business tycoon in Phoenix, Arizona who seemingly can’t go five minutes without heaping abuse upon the poor woman. However, her beauty and popularity earned through charitable work with local orphans makes Kathy his prized possession, so divorce is out of the question. To Kathy’s horror, Steve poisons Wendell then convinces her to stash the body in her freezer. His plan is to pick up a briefcase with $1 million dollars in dirty money that Wendell stashed in an airport locker, whereupon he and Kathy will flee the country. The next morning Kathy awakens to discover Wendell’s body has vanished while another corpse lies in its place. Then suspicious cop Lt. Donner (Robert Mitchum) starts snooping around.
Often misleadingly tagged a horror film (since early days when posters featured a naked Jaclyn Smith menaced in the shower, to its most recent release as an unlikely “former video nasty” from schlock merchants VIPCO), Nightkill was intended to be a breakout vehicle for the beautiful Charlie’s Angels star but wound up going straight to television. Smith - who initially tested the waters with some fun exploitation TV movies, notably Escape from Bogen County (1977) - never joined the big leagues but did become queen of the mini-series, from which this tepid thriller is fairly indistinguishable. One wonders whether the Coen Brothers ever saw Nightkill given how it shares a few plot elements in common with their infinitely superior Blood Simple (1983), but stands as a textbook example of how not to do this kind of thriller right.
It clearly wants to update The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) by way of Les Diaboliques (1955) but the shapeless script by writers Joan Andre and John Case fumbles every twist, piling one after another till this winds up a convoluted mess. The conclusion seems obvious in hindsight but remains frustratingly vague. More problematically, given Kathy is no murderous femme fatale but an essentially decent, downtrodden victim, the plot proves something of a demoralizing sequence, especially the nasty denouement that involves a scalding hot shower and seems unnecessarily harsh. Though Jaclyn Smith seems ill at ease, her mannerisms seem appropriate to the material and she engenders sympathy for her harried heroine.
By unfortunate contrast, Robert Mitchum sleepwalks through his pivotal role as Lt. Donner, bringing none of the menace of his famous film noir roles. Of the supporting cast: B-movie queen Sybil Danning is wasted as a socialite, Fritz Weaver over-acts as Kathy’s lecherous lawyer who can’t stop slobbering over her, and James Franciscus barely registers. Mike Connors, star of Mannix the long-running Seventies detective show, is amusingly cast against type as a bullying cowboy tycoon who sells biological weapons, bullies his Mexican servants, berates Kathy for her charity work, and keeps caged monkeys in his living room whom he goads into fighting each other. Presumably, he also enjoys punching old ladies and kicking puppies. His resemblance to J.R. Ewing from then-popular TV soap Dallas was surely intentional.