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  Mad Room, The Family Plot
Year: 1969
Director: Bernard Girard
Stars: Stella Stevens, Shelley Winters, Skip Ward, Carol Cole, Severn Darden, Beverly Garland, Michael Burns, Barbara Sammeth, Lloyd Haynes, Jennifer Bishop, Gloria Manon, Lou Kane
Genre: Horror, DramaBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: Ellen Hardy (Stella Stevens) hails from a family with a grim secret, not one she is about to share with just anybody, and certainly not her employer Mrs Armstrong (Shelley Winters) for whom she works as a live-in secretary of sorts, arranging her calendar and financial affairs. But now comes the news Ellen's two siblings are to be released from the home they have been staying in ever since they were children, and as they are both teenagers, it is important to find them somewhere to live. However, as that home was a mental asylum they had been committed to - this was part of the consequence of that grim family secret - it is dubious that anyone will want to take them in anywhere...

Can Mrs Armstrong be persuaded by Ellen that there is really no danger, and her brother George (Michael Burns, kind of a more presentable Michael J. Pollard) and sister Mandy (Barbara Sammeth) are able to be reintroduced to society perfectly safely? This was based on the old theatrical warhorse Ladies in Retirement which had been filmed a couple of decades before with Ida Lupino where she played the Stevens role, though there were changes made to the basic plotline, most obviously that the siblings were now a lot younger, and most blatantly, instead of a slice of delicate Gothic this was a great, big, thumping unsubtle slab of grand guignol, or it was eventually.

In truth, for the first half The Mad Room was somewhat dry, resembling one of those sunkissed American TV movies only with franker language and situations, but stick with it because there were compensations for making it through a lot of set-up. The opening titles more or less gave away what the big secret was, newspaper headlines detailing the sensational murder case that Ellen has had to live with all these years, but really this was more a descendant of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? That film featured ageing stars and revitalised a few careers, not least Winters' who took into the role of batty older lady like a duck to water, possibly thanks to not much acting being involved.

However, Winters was not playing the villain here, and in an inversion it is the kids we are meant to be wary of, though they appear to have settled down, aside from a few quirks - Mandy needs her safe space, the "mad room" of the title, like the one she had in the asylum where she was able to unwind and pray. The only room available for that kind of meditation in Mrs Armstrong's is the attic, which the older lady is not happy about the girl using, not least because she is having renovations and additions done to her property (Severn Darden is the head builder). But there are elements that would put anyone on edge, from the team of huskies that are fed with raw meat to the husband of Mrs Racine (Beverly Garland) who may be servicing the local ladies in more advanced form than his purported and sought-after massages.

So far, so TV soap, but director Bernard Girard had higher hopes for the project, therefore was bitterly disappointed when it was re-edited against his wishes and flopped when it eventually was released. We've heard tales of cinematic woe like that before, but Girard truly suffered and his other projects were not only placed on the back burner, but cancelled, prompting to leave Hollywood and a promising avenue in his career in a state of disillusionment. A real shame, because The Mad Room was not half bad once it worked up a head of steam, pinballing from crazy plot twist to crazy plot twist with increasing abandon, though George's interracial affair with maid Carol Cole (daughter of Nat King Cole) is probably less shocking now than it was in the late sixties. Still, we do have the gory murders, a dog with a human hand in its mouth, and the big revelation as to what is really going on (which is guessable). A movie of two halves, but the second made up for the first in camp bad taste. Music by Dave Grusin, with Todd Rundgren also heard.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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