Thursday, August 1, 2013

The William Castle Blogathon: I Saw What You Did (1965)

The following essay is the second of two Thrilling Days of Yesteryear contributions to The William Castle Blogathon, currently underway from July 29-August 2 and sponsored by The Last Drive-In and Goregirl’s Dungeon.  For a full list of the participants and the films under discussion, click here.

In an early trailer for the William Castle film I Saw What You Did (1965), the esteemed schlockmeister warned audiences that a section of the motion picture theater would be equipped with seat belts for the benefit of those audience members “who might be scared out of their seats!”  After all, ISWYD “is a motion picture about UXORCIDE!”—and there’s nothing more terrifying than that.

Well, I might be engaging in a little levity there.  “Uxorcide” is just a fancy term for killing one’s wife—which, if what my parents watch religiously on WSB-TV’s newscast is true, is apparently a common occurrence in the city of Atlanta.  As for the seat belt idea…somebody scratched that shortly before the release of the film.  This is a good thing, because the (relatively) gimmick-free ISWYD is one of the director’s best films—not that it doesn’t have its weaknesses.

Teenager Libby Mannering (Andi Garrett) has invited her best friend Kit Austin (Sara Lane) over to Mannering Manor for dinner on the same night her parents (Leif Erickson, Patricia Breslin) have an appointment to sup with friends in Santa Barbara.  The Mannerings have hired a sitter—not for Libby, but for her younger sister Tess (Sharyl Locke)—but the woman calls up at the last minute to cancel and so the parents are faced with a decision: should they go ahead with their plans and allow Libby to be in charge or no?  Well, what the hey—she’s old enough!

The Mannering house is located out in the middle of what we West Virginians affectionately call “B.F.E.”—and after getting the grand tour of the grounds, and the horse stable, and the goat, Libby and Kit are predictably bored.  They decide to prank people at random by telephone, which is falling-down hysterical when you’re twelve years old but sort of loses its novelty as you mature into adulthood.  At one point during the evening, the targets of the girls’ tomfoolery are told: “I know who you are…and I saw what you did…”

"Do you have Prince Albert in a can...?"

One of these phone calls is made to Steve Marek (John Ireland)—though it’s his wife Judith (Joyce Meadows) who initially takes the call.  As movie luck would have it, the Mareks’ marital counseling hasn’t yet quite taken hold and in a psychotic fit of rage, Steve kills Judith in the shower (a none-too-subtle homage to one of Castle’s idols, Alfred Hitchcock).  Now Steve is saddled with the task of dumping his wife’s body…and this is complicated by the arrival at his doorstep of his neighbor, Amy Nelson (Joan Crawford), who makes no secret of the fact that she’s been carrying a torch for the Stevester for quite some time now.

Though Libby and Kit lost interest in calling the Marek house about the time Mrs. M told them their husband was in the shower, they return to their fun when they remember his phone number…with the help of a generous dollop of peanut-butter-and-jelly residue Tess left on the phone book page.  Steve answers the phone just as he’s returned from depositing the ball-and-chain in a shallow grave.  “I know who you are…and I saw what you did,” Libby tells him breathlessly—words she will soon regret.

A precursor to teen slasher genre of films like Halloween, I Saw What You Did was scripted by William McGivern—based on a 1964 novel entitled Out of the Dark by Ursula Curtiss.  It’s a taut little thriller that I think holds up rather well despite a musical score by Van Alexander and Jerry Keller that’s more fitting for a 60s sitcom (think Gidget Meets Richard Speck).  The movie also spotlights some real nail-biting moments of “reach-out-and-grab-ya” suspense, and there are several sequences that demonstrate how much of a Hitchcock devotee William Castle was.  I’ve already mentioned the Psycho-influenced shower scene, but there’s an additional Hitch-like moment where Ireland’s killer is burying his wife’s corpse and is distracted by a dog who barks at him…alerting the canine’s owner that something is not kosher about the situation.  Our sympathy is with Ireland—though it shouldn’t be; if he had been discovered at that moment, the tragic events that follow might not have taken place.  It’s always reminded me of the scene in Psycho where we wait anxiously with Anthony Perkins’s Norman Bates as he’s sinking Marion Crane’s car in the swamp behind the motel.  (There was a time when I would dismiss stuff like this from Castle as derivative…but seeing as how Hitchcock was inspired in the first place to make Psycho after the success of Bill’s and Roger Corman’s films I’ve done a complete one-eighty.)

Granted, ISWYD is not perfect by any means—the plot hinges on a few coinky-dinks; Howard Thompson of The New York Times humorously pointed out in his review: “As for why the children's parents…would leave them alone in a wide-open house miles out in the country, we'll never know.”  I also agree with Thompson that the film’s running time should have been tightened somewhat; the middle portion of the film, featuring La Crawford, is most unnecessary—at times it’s difficult to discern who’s the greater menace, Joan or the killer.

Joan reportedly got $50,000 for four days work on this film—and though her performance in the film was originally supposed to be merely a cameo (she had worked with Castle previously on the lovingly demented Strait-Jacket) she wound up with top billing (which I’m sure Universal was only too happy to promote, goosing the box office take and all).  By this point in her career, Joanie was trading in on her What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? notoriety (she was originally supposed to appear in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte but bowed out to illness…or what was diagnosed in medical circles as “refusing to work with Bette Davis ever again”) and sadly, ISWYD would be Crawford’s last American feature film.  (I bow to no one in my respect for Joan, but in a match between her and a serial killer I’d bet on Crawford.)

The performances of ingĂ©nues Andi Garrett and Sara Lane have come under a lot of criticism from reviewers mostly due to their inexperience (the actresses, not the reviewers)—I honestly don’t have a problem with the two neophyte thespians (even the kidlet who plays Tess doesn’t get on my nerves, and that’s saying a lot for me) because I think they accomplish what Castle set out to do: convey a fresh-faced, squeaky-clean innocence while The Big Bad Wolf (Ireland) is on the prowl.  The two girls’ relationship with the killer they’ve yet to meet is to me one of the fascinating aspects of the film; they’re attracted to the savage brutishness of Steve Marek, with Libby (Garrett) going on and on about how “sexy” he sounds.  (Libby even gussies up for a potential meet-up with Marek by putting on a new dress and makeup.)  I guesstimate that I’ve seen ISWYD maybe a half-dozen times over the past several decades (I first viewed it on TBS eons ago, and at one time owned a copy of the DVD that’s now OOP) and when I watched it again a few weeks ago on Me-TV’s Svengoolie it was the first time that I recognized Lane as the actress who played Elizabeth Granger on The Virginian from 1966 to 1970.  (Garrett wasn’t as fortunate: a smattering of bit parts on The Wild Wild West and Black Sheep Squadron and that was it.  Robert Conrad must have been looking out for her.)

Ireland and Crawford got to work together a second time (they were in Queen Bee together), and there’s first-rate support from TV veterans Leif Erickson (The High Chaparral), Patricia Breslin (The People’s Choice), Joyce Meadows (Two Faces West) and kiddie-show host Tom Hatten.  I also tend to chortle at the presence of B-movie great John Archer (who plays Kit’s father), whom OTR fans know was a one time “Shadow” while the regular Lamont Cranston, Bret Morrison, was doing his bit for WW2.

I Saw What You Did got a reboot in 1988 as a TV-movie with Shawnee Smith and Tammy Lauren as the prankish teens and Robert Carradine as the killer who just wants to be left alone to off his girlfriend.  It wasn’t particularly well-received (though it did manage to win an Emmy Award for its cinematography) and I think some of that might be due to its over-the-top finale (which I’ll keep mum about for those who haven’t seen it).  I’ll also put a tick-a-lock on my mouth about the 1965 original ends…only to say that if your eyes didn’t roll back in your head like mine did you are a tolerant, tolerant individual.  Despite its weak ending (and Patty Duke Show-esque score), I Saw What You Did is one of my favorites of William Castle’s extensive cinematic oeuvre.  The man did not know the definition of the word “restraint” (“That's it, baby—when you've got it, flaunt it…flaunt it!”) but he left us with a legacy of wonderful movie entertainments, and that’s not bad for government work.


DorianTB said...

Ivan, although I've heard of I SAW WHAT YOU DID, I've never actually had the opportunity to see I SAW WHAT YOU DID (neither the original nor the TV remake), but it sounds like Castle did an overall good job in this teens-in-peril yarn, despite its occasional dragging. It'll be interesting to see Joan Crawford and John Ireland together, at the very least. Your comment "Gidget Meets Richard Speck" cracked me up! Thanks for in including the NY Time movie review, too! Swell post, Ives, as always!

Brian Schuck said...

I too have somehow missed ISWYD over the years -- interesting for someone like myself who's been such a big William Castle fan for so long. Of course, the popularity and availability of his "gimmick" films of the late '50s and early '60s is so much greater than the later thrillers, even with the presence of folks like Crawford, Stanwyck, Taylor and Ireland.

And then there's the child actor thing. An effective thriller with watchable child actors is rare, and in spite of his talents, Bill's results with the youngsters tended to be tedious (13 Ghosts succeeds in spite of Charles Herbert).

Still, going to be on the lookout for this...

Silver Screenings said...

I agree with Dorian - I'd like to see John Ireland and Joan Crawford together on screen too.

I'm not that familiar with William Castle's work, but blogathon posts like yours have really done a good work of "cataloguing" his work.

The Metzinger Sisters said...

Great write-up on one of Castle's best films. Unlike Straight-Jacket, this flick is can hold up under repetitive viewings and still remain fresh and enjoyable. We'll have to look into that TV movie version, there's something really good - in an awful sort of way - about tv movie remakes. The only thing I didn't understand in ISWYD is why would John Ireland leave such a dish as Joyce Meadows to go off with Joan Crawford? Boy do these aging actresses suffer from youthful illusions!