Disturbing tale about grooming marking the debut of Linda Hayden could not more accurately reflect changes in public perception from over half a century ago. What had originally seemed a movie about a young woman wreaking havoc on a middle-class family is now more easily recognized as a more sympathetic study of a young girl denied familial attention attempting to find a stable and welcoming home.
After the suicide of her mother (Diana Dors) Luci (Linda Hayden) is taken in by Robert (Keith Barron), a highly successful doctor and ex-lover of her mother, and his wife Amy (Ann Lynn). His marriage to sophisticated housewife Amy is distinctly rocky. They live in a fabulous three-storey house on the bank of the Thames with son Nick (Derek Lamden), a typical teenager the same age as Luci but who is sexually naive, confused and hypersensitive. Amy comforts Luci when the young girl has terrible nightmares and ends up sleeping in the same bed until she realizes how inappropriate is such behavior.
Nick chances his arm with Luci but is continually rejected, not surprisingly since his approach is more than a tad creepy, spying on her in the bathroom, entering her bedroom when she is naked, leching after her in the garden. Robert is the only one to try and keep his distance and in the absence of her own father becomes the subject of a father fixation.
Conditioned to accept the advances of older men finds her in potentially unsavory situations in a cinema, a club, and with a friend of the couple (Dick Emery). That she apparently welcomes such attention reveals the depth of her grooming, not just forced to watch her mother make love, but, as suggested in a flashback, the mother complicit in not preventing her lovers making a play for her. If Luci appears sexually confident that only disguises her inner turmoil, a desperate need to be loved, lack of proper parenting and setting of boundaries and having chanced on a proper home determined to do whatever it takes to remain there.
It is actually Ann who is the disturbing element, eventually overcoming her own inhibitions and not only seducing the girl but telling her that if she wants to remain in the house she will need to twist Robert round her little finger. And the only way she knows how to do that is follow her mother’s example and exploit her sexuality. If Luci appears exploitative in the context of the family that is only because they are not privy – as is the audience – to the depth of her nightmares, the constantly reappearing image of her mother dead in the bath, her mother’s leering lovers. Even when she goes over-the-top with make-up or clothing there is an innocence to such behavior, little more than a young woman testing boundaries and trying to find her way. Any intelligent assessment of what is going on would clearly see the child as the victim.
The grandeur of her new potential home bears no comparison to the poky working-class council house she occupied up north. For a child with such an impoverished upbringing, she is fairly grounded. She is not the wild child you might expect from her upbringing. She fits well into family life, happy to listen to classical music, and to Ann’s astonishment can actually cook breakfast and knows how to lay a table, skills her spoiled son patently lacks.
Considerable efforts are made to make each character more rounded. Robert hates his wife’s sophisticated parties and is an insomniac judging from the stack of books on his bedside. The guilt he feels for abandoning Luci’s mother, apparently his one true love, in favor of ambition, is exacerbated by Luci’s presence that reminds him not only of a path wrongly chosen but of what he has lost, that relationship ripped asunder when abortion entered the frame.
Ann clearly needs to project success, expensive clothes and champagne the least of their lifestyle, and with little outlet for pent-up emotion and a need to mother settles on Luci as the object of, initially at last, her affection. Nick hides his cigarette ends in a matchbox, would accept Luci as just a friend, occasionally rising to the role of protector, delighted to be seen in the company of a beautiful girl. Teenage fantasy in other words but with an edge of entitlement that goes too far.
In her debut Linda Hayden (Taste the Blood of Dracula, 1970) is superb in an extremely difficult role and it was a shame that it was the sexual part of her portrayal that made its biggest impact on future movie producers rather than the sensitivity of her performance, the look in her eyes when she is shown her bedroom for the first time is amazing. Also making a movie debut Keith Barron (Nothing But the Night, 1973) lacks the mellifluous tones that were later his hallmark and his performance as unloved husband and guilty ex-lover is very well observed.
Ann Lynn (I’ll Never Forget Whatsisname, 1967) has the most challenging role of a woman tortured by desire she has until now kept hidden or under control. Derek Lamden did not make another movie. Diana Dors (Hammerhead, 1968) has a fleeting role.
It wasn’t the fault of director Alasdair Reid that uber-producer and marketing kingpin Joseph E. Levine (The Carpetbaggers, 1964) wanted to sell a different movie from the one that was made, focusing on titillation and turning Luci’s sexual confusion into something predatory. The idea that this movie is a sexualized film noir is a marketing trick. Closer re-examination reveals that Luci is entering a disturbed household, one she lacks the skills to negotiate and is in reality the exploited one.
In fact, Reid (Something to Hide, 1972) did a very commendable job. He made some bold decisions especially relating to sound. The opening credits are accompanied by the sound of a dripping tap that would turn into a cascade of water. That would become a recurring motif, along with steam. Most scenes lacked music. Although most nightmares are image-driven, the initial one is full of clashing sound as well as disturbing sights. As the movie hits its stride, a clever device is adopted, showing disturbing images outside the house that are actually, you quickly discover, another nightmare. Mostly the camera remains fairly static but it occasionally swoops to represents anxiety from one point-of-view. The bulk of the story takes place in the house but when the camera goes outside, to a disturbing scene on the river for example there are original ideas, one character speaking through a megaphone.
Passed by the British censor with an X-certificate then and an 18-certificate DVD today, it still has the power to shock. However as far as I can see it was last classified in 1994 and I have written to the BBFC to see if that classification should still stand.
Well worth a reappraisal.
Network has this on DVD.