Set in Ireland, as members of the Haloran family are conducting their annual commemoration of the death of a beloved daughter who drowned six years ago. The deceasedís brother Peter Read is returning to the family home with his gold-digging wife Luana Anders when a bout of bickering sees him have a fatal heart attack. Anders, knowing that nasty matriarch Eithne Dunne will cut Anders out of any inheritance if she knew of Readís death, arrives to greet her in-laws pretending that he is still alive. Soon we find that Andersí presence seems to have aroused a demented axe murderer who starts bumping people off. Could it be one of the family who are behind the killings?
This cheapie is the result of debut filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola having worked on legendary B-movie producer Roger Cormanís 'The Young Racers' as an Assistant Director. Coppola, who only had a nudie pic to his name as director ('Tonight for Sure'), would use the same sets and several cast members of 'The Young Racers' to create an entirely new picture for American International, to be shot for $22,000 in two weeks.
In addition to perhaps calling it the first slasher film (A term more applicable here than with 'Psycho' or 'Peeping Tom', if you ask me), I guess you could call the film 'Psycho' (a seemingly major character gets bumped off early, for starters) by way of 'The House of Usher', directed by a wannabe William Castle, which is really bizarre given the opulent, lavish look of many of Coppolaís subsequent films. Itís not a typical Coppola film by any means, presumably because AIPís budget wouldnít allow Coppola to indulge in any opulence, but Coppola does try to make it work as best he can despite lame material (the ending is both predictable and stupid) and fairly boring characters. Thatís odd given Coppola himself wrote the damn thing, pretty much handicapping himself as a director. Itís a creaky old tale involving murder, a crazy family, and an inheritance, an archaic (and entirely transparent) plot if ever Iíve seen one. I mean, there are 'Scooby-Doo' mysteries with similar goings on, often to more entertaining effect.
And thatís a shame, because the film does indeed have an upside, especially given the budget. Despite the shoddy print I viewed, the images in this film are so terrific that Iíd suggest the film wouldíve made a helluva silent film, especially given how dull the story is and how lacking the character depth is. Cormanís films, unlike other low-budget efforts, always looked more expensive than they were (think his AIP cycle of Edgar Allen Poe films). The B&W cinematography by Charles Hannawalt is truly outstanding under the circumstances. Hannawaltís lighting is superb (especially the underwater scenes), and although Iím not sure if itís Deep Focus or not, both foreground and background are pretty clear in each scene. Thereís a terrific axe attack underwater that through expert cinematography and editing, looks far gorier than it really is. Actually, for 1963 this is remarkably gory, though perhaps tame by todayís standards. Itís remarkable to see a (terrific) decapitation in 1963, even though we donít see it all. The axe attacks show a filmmaker who knows what he is doing and can measure it against how much money he has to do it with and work inside of that. I just wish he wrote himself a script that was worth a damn, because this mightíve ended up one of my favourite Coppola films.
Overall, itís an interesting curio from a filmmaker in his infant stage, but not a particularly distinguished or terribly captivating film. Love those axe attacks, though.