A reader wrote to recommend this to me, and it sounded like a hoot, so to the top of the pile it went. This is produced by Robert Aldrich, the man responsible for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, and one suspects that he is trying to assemble similar elements here to try to play off that success [the title, for example]. We open at a funeral where the widow, Geraldine Page as Claire Marrable, is plucking flowers from the arrangements to take home. Then she is informed by a lawyer that her husband spent all their money, leaving her with nothing but the house, and oh by the way the house is owned by the bank. Next we see she's a a different house in Arizona, and she bludgeons this woman and buries her, planting a tree on top. Then the credits, where we surmise from the title of the novel this is adapted from, The Forbidden Garden, that this garden will probably become the resting place of a few more residents.
We now meet Claire's housekeeper Miss Tinsley, who is the recipient of a lot of haughty bitchery from Claire. I suspect that one of the things Aldrich thought among the most appealing aspects of Baby Jane was seeing older women being total bitches to each other, and if you like that, there's plenty to be had here. Tinsley asks Claire to enquire after a sum she has invested with Claire's financial advisor, which she's worried about because it was her whole life savings. Then Claire decides it's time to go plant that tree--in the dead of night--and before you know it, Tinsley is getting the ol' shovel treatment and is buried there under the new tree.
Now we meet some peripheral characters who are hard to sort out at first. There's this relatively horrible couple, who are Claire's relatives, and are hoping to get money out of her after she passes. There's short-haired blonde Harriet, single mom who meets Mike, handsome salesman or some such who has a great deep Sam Elliott-like voice. He rents her this cottage right out by Claire's, where Miss Tinsley used to live. The movie is pretty fast and loose with who all these people are and how much time has passed between every event. But it settles down now.
Ruth Gordon arrives as Alice Dimmock, replacement housekeeper. Claire is nice to her at first, but soon the old haughty bitchery appears, as well as discussion of where Alice should invest. There's also a dog, Chloe, who causes Claire to fly into a rage every time he snoops around in her garden. Keep an eye on this dog. Soon Alice is sassing Claire right back, and we can see that she's highly suspicious. Gordon brings her typical shrewd intelligence and daffiness to her role, but she's much more subdued here than other more famous roles you may know her from.
SPOILERS > > >
Then one day Mike is visiting Alice, and you're like "How do THEY know each other?" when you realize that Alice is Mike's Aunt, and they both knew Miss Tinsley, and are undercover investigating what happened. Soon after Alice lies to get out for the day, and Claire snoops and finds out what's going on. Meanwhile Mike asks Harriet out to explain why he was seen with the local tart, and she leaves her ten-year-old son unattended for the whole afternoon and evening. Meanwhile the dog is out there snooping in the garden again, which never fails to infuriate Claire, and she tries to woo it into the garage for a little poisoned snack, but this dog is too smart for her. In fact, this dog turns out to be the smartest character in the movie.
So that night Claire is readying Alice for the fertilizer treatment, when they have it out, and it comes down to a physical struggle. Alice has the old hag down on the floor as she wields the giant statue, but when given the chance, fails to bash Claire a good one. She may live--or not live--to regret that. She then breaks cardinal rule number two and turns her back on Claire for long periods while she makes a call to the police. Have these people never seen a movie before? Anyway, she gets the head-bashing treatment that she was so loath to give out and the next day is being driven or to the old pond and is still conscious as Claire drives her car into it. You keep thinking "Okay, she's going to fight back. Okay she's going to swim out (of the giant open door just waiting for her)," but no. She dies. Even at the very end I was expecting to see her among the group of accusers, but no. She died. Surprise.
So Claire goes home and invites Harriet over for some drugged milk, and stupid Harriet goes along with it. This chick is a dumb bunny. Hello, when the person who has been a total bitch to you the whole movie, and whom, by the way, you strongly suspect of murder, invites you over for a friendly tea, DON'T GO. Christ, these people! Sure enough, Harriet and son get drugged, and are magically transported back to their cottage (another of the movie's little ellipses), where Claire soaks their surroundings is gasoline and torches the place. Good riddance, simpletons!
By the way, I have not mentioned the loud and ostentatious screeching string music that pervades the whole film, and gets really grating. Anyway, time for the arbitrary ending? You bet! Claire wakes to a bright new day, only to look outside and find all her trees dug up. Did the dog do it all? I would have been into that ending, that finally its the dog, her one intelligent antagonist, that brings her down. And it still could have been, because frankly I doubt any of the human characters had the brains. Anyway, she comes out, and we soon see that the whole cast, including Harriet and son, only slightly singed, and the sheriff, there to accuse her. Yep, the jig is up, and all that's left is for her is to throw a big crazy scene at the end. There's a good irony when she discovers that her late husband's stamp collection, which she dismissed as worthless at the beginning of the movie, is actually worth a hundred thousand dollars! So she didn't have to murder anyone at all! That's just to show us all that there usually ARE alternatives to murder, although they may be considerably less satisfying.
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It sure was wacky, but if you've seen your fair share of these kinds of movies, it's unlikely to raise your pulse much. I might have appreciated it more if it wasn't so obviously trying to ride the coattails of Baby Jane, and as I said, it seems the main thing it carried over from that movie is the fun of seeing loony older women be complete murderous bitches. That's there, and it's amusing, as well as a pinch of wacky late-sixties styles to gape at, and of course Ruth Gordon (being nowhere near as fun as you want), but the whole thing is quite static and uninvolving. The tone is just very sedate and runs straight through without ever raising a pulse. And while Geraldine Page goes for it and is quite fun as an uber-bitch, even that gets a little old.
If you want to see this, I would make sure you've seen the William Castle classics such as Homicidal and Strait-Jacket first. They have all the respected actresses being murderous bitches you could want, but also add involving stories, characters who ARE smarter than the dog, and decent photography and careful compositions.
Eh, it's okay. Recommended for those who get off on seeing older women being campy bitches.