MAY 31, 2016
I am a fan of William Castle, but not a would-be biographer, so it's just an insane coincidence that I watched I Saw What You Did today, as it's also the 39th anniversary of his early-ish death - the sort of thing I would do to celebrate a filmmaker I admired if I knew the date (though a birthday would be more likely than the day of their passing - even for me that's kind of morbid). And if I was doing it on purpose I'd probably go with House on Haunted Hill or something - not this relatively weak effort from the veteran filmmaker. It has its moments, but like The Tingler, the concept is too thin to sustain an entire movie, so the excess "downtime" keeps it from ever really coming to life like his best films.
And it's worth noting that his best films were usually scripted by Robb White, whereas this one was by William P. McGivern, a writer with a LOT of television work on his resume* - and that's exactly what this often feels like. I actually checked halfway through watching to see if it WAS indeed a TV movie, because it had that same sort of stilted quality I associate with such fare of the period, though I was pretty sure I remembered that it wasn't when I saw this movie's section in a William Castle doc I saw a few years back. Nope, it was a theatrical release, albeit one that was saddled with one of the worst scores that I've ever heard for a feature film - it seriously sounded like the incidental music you hear on The Brady Bunch, and I had to laugh when looking up the composer (Van Alexander) when I discovered he did indeed work on a Brady Bunch series (the short-lived variety hour series of the late 70s), plus other sitcoms like Bewitched and Hazel. Honestly, I think half my problems with the movie would have been solved it had a good score behind it instead of this cartoonish nonsense that kept assuring me everything would be OK in the end, like a sitcom.
But even Bernard Herrmann couldn't overcome the fact that the movie's premise was simply too thin for an 80 minute feature. The title refers to what our heroine, Libby, says during her crank calls to random people in the phone book, a joke that backfires when she calls someone who actually DID just commit a murder. The murderer, of course, doesn't realize it's a prank and believes he has been identified, and naturally things turn bad for everyone. But we're something like 35 minutes into the movie before she even calls him, and it's another half hour before he goes to her house. The suspense and scary bites - i.e. the things Castle surely hyped in his trailers (he doesn't do an intro on this one, sadly) - are very few and far between until that point, and even then it's not exactly a nail-biter. At one point the killer actually sets his sights on Libby's younger sister, who is like six years old or something - I mean, come on. Who can possibly get worked up about this? Even nowadays I wouldn't buy her being in any danger, let alone in a 1960's movie.
Then again, it's also a post-Psycho film, so breaking a taboo or two certainly wasn't out of the realm of possibility. And Castle makes sure you remember Psycho, setting the first of the film's two murders in a shower, complete with stabbing and blood circling the drain (though in a fun inversion, the killer is the one in the shower - he pulls his victim - his wife - into it). But when the script has the killer arrive AFTER Libby's best friend - i.e. our most likely teenaged victim - goes home for the evening, you know neither Castle or McGivern are interested in shocking the audience that badly. The girls are safe, the killer is dispatched by a cop, and the movie ends on a legit sitcom line about never using the phone again, where you half-expect a laugh track and/or a cutaway to another family member shaking their head in an "Oh you wacky kids!" way. I mean, I know I said I'm on the hunt for movie movies I can show my son when he's a bit older (but not old enough for the likes of Friday the 13th), but the average episode of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse has as much terror. Goofy almost drowned in that last one!
The movie's big draw was Joan Crawford, who turns in an extended cameo as a neighbor of the murderer, who is pretty much OK with him killing his wife because she's in love with him and sees it as their chance to be together. She also gets to terrorize Libby when she brings her sister and friend to the killer's house to see what he looks like (obviously at this point they don't know he's dangerous - they're just dumb girls who think he sounded handsome from their awkward, brief phone conversation). Crawford thinks Libby is the man's young mistress, chasing her off and inadvertently saving her life, though she is offed herself a few minutes later after confronting the man/professing her love for him again. It's obvious that Crawford had seen better days, and apart from her confrontation with Libby she doesn't get to really do anything that exciting - even her death scene is nowhere near as notable as the earlier one of the wife. Still, I'm sure 1965 audiences were stunned to see Joan Crawford stabbed and killed 2/3 of the way through the movie that gave her top billing.
Unfortunately, her scenes are wholly perfunctory - with the exception of providing the killer with Libby's address (Crawford steals the registration card from the car to get her in trouble with her father), there is really no reason for them to exist. And given the fact that everything revolves around phone calls, I'm sure there could have been another way for him to find out where Libby lived, so even that's kind of a flimsy excuse. When Libby does finally find out that the man is dangerous, it's not because of Crawford's death - it's because someone found his wife's body and word got back to her (from her friend, who heard it on the radio). Worse, these Crawford scenes aren't from Libby's POV, which is kind of crucial for this kind of thing - it'd be like if When A Stranger Calls opted to show the guy calling from the upstairs phone ten minutes before Carol Kane is told that he's in the house. Speaking of Stranger, that film's director Fred Walton directed a TV remake of this one in the 80s, with Shawnee Smith (yay!) in the Libby role and Candace Cameron (!) as the younger sister. As for stunt casting, in place of the Crawford character they had a man - David Carradine in fact, with his brother Robert as the killer (the love subplot was also dropped, obviously). I never saw it, but from the fairly thorough Wiki synopsis it seems like it's similar enough to know it's not worth tracking down, but at least its uneventful plot and minimal body count would be more befitting of a TV movie than a theatrical feature. And it's probably got a better score.
Scream Factory put the film on Blu for the first time (an original Anchor Bay DVD has been OOP for ages), though it doesn't have any real bonus features - just the trailer and a gallery. If you're in the mood for a housebound thriller (one that also feels a bit TV movie-ish at times), they also recently released You'll Like My Mother, which is much better and also has some notable bonus features (well, one, but it's a 50 minute interview with stars Richard Thomas and Sian Barbara Allen). I didn't get around to reviewing that when I saw it and of course now too much time has gone by for me to write it up in any useful way, but it's got better suspense scenes, a more interesting plot, and even though it's longer, much less padding. And I want to stress that I like that Scream puts these lesser known titles out, even if some of them are duds like this, I know there are some fans who will be stoked to have it on Blu-ray, and will appreciate that the company put it out alongside their bigger "gets" (they just announced The Thing today, in fact). I quite enjoyed Mother and that's a title I never even heard of until they put it out - which is a great model, I think, as they use their clout earned from the Carpenter and Craven releases to get fans' attention on these lesser known flicks. You're not going to love them all, but so what? Life's too short to stick with the movies you know you like all the time; take a chance on the others.
What say you?
*And also the novel that was turned into Night of the Juggler, which I just saw for the first time a couple weeks back. Now THAT'S a thriller! It's unavailable on modern home video formats, but I'm sure you can guess a place that has it in full (via a VHS transfer); if you're a fan of kidnapping/thriller types and/or old-school New York flicks, it's a must see.