The Mad Room (1969) ***

Tight little thriller lifted by excellent performances from Stella Stevens and Shelley Winters focusing on murders a dozen years apart. Mandy (Barbara Sammeth) and older brother George (Michael Burns), incarcerated in a mental institution after the murder of their parents, the twist being nobody can discover which child was responsible, are released into the custody of big sister Ellen (Stella Stevens), secretary to wealthy widow Mrs Armstrong (Shelley Winters) and betrothed to her son Sam (Skip Ward).

While concealing the children’s past, Ellen persuades Mrs Armstrong to offer them lodgings, that arrangement coming unstuck when the kids demand a room where they can go “to work things out.”  Armstrong is a bit barmy, engaged on building beside her home a museum to her husband, hence contractors and construction workers on site, and a horde of “ladies who lunch” involved in fundraising. She has also appropriated masseur Armand (Lou Kane), husband of alcoholic Mrs Racine (Beverly Garland), to fulfil her sexual needs.

Don’t worry – the poster doesn’t give the game away.
The blood comes from Stella Stevens discovering the corpse.

When Mrs Armstrong threatens to chuck the kids out, she comes to a sticky end, and the question is raised again of whether Mandy or George are responsible. Mandy is the more highly-strung, stubborn and likely to challenge authority. George appears predatory, stalking the maid. Both are convinced the other is guilty.

Meanwhile, Ellen undertakes to remove the body and pretend Armstrong met her death by accident at a beauty spot, no mean feat given the palaver caused by the builders outside and the constant need for construction decisions and the unexpected arrival of a posse of ladies including the alcoholic Mrs Racine intent on raising merry hell.

It’s part whodunit, part nutcases-on-the-loose, part film noir, part slasher picture,  and part grand guignol. Hands are severed and blood is used to daub flowers on the walls. It’s tense enough even before Armstrong’s demise. She’s not only a loony, but untrustworthy, selfish, capricious and demanding, and it’s as much as Ellen can stand to constantly iron out all the loose ends in her employer’s life. But she sounds believable, an earnest do-gooder even while conspiring against what she sees as Ellen’s gold-digging.

Ellen, life thrown into turmoil after the death of her overbearing impoverished parents and only now building a new identity removed from the shadow of the children, faces the prospect of losing her ideal future. While it would have suited her for the children never to be released, she exhibits surprisingly a strong emotional attachment to her siblings, willing to both shelter and protect them, and conceal again their crimes.

Initial tension revolves around a chase, savage dogs, a shifty maid and Ellen dealing with the manipulative Mrs Armstrong, holding her own long enough until she is safely married, while further pressure builds with the necessity to cover up the murder, explain Mrs Armstrong’s absence, cope with the sudden influx of people and ascertain who has the murderous tendencies. There are some excellent scenes and twisty payoffs, and quite a bit of misdirection – the chase, rabid dogs, a childish song – and some inspired drama such as Mrs Racine letting rip, and Mrs Armstrong’s growing puzzlement.

Stella Stevens (Sol Madrid, 1968), normally eye candy or in a supporting role, is a revelation as Ellen, creating a grounded personality, with several changes of emotion and except for being a little pop-eyed on occasion carries off the part tremendously well and not falling prey to the temptation of grandstanding. Shelley Winters (A House Is Not a Home, 1964), who knows all about playing larger-than-life characters, tones it down here, even the obvious nuttiness reined in.

Michael Burns (That Cold Day in the Park, 1969) is the better of the two younger actors, while Barbara Sammeth’s (Foul Play, 1978) stiffness could be put down to inexperience – this was her debut. Otherwise former horror queen Beverly Garland (Stark Fear, 1962), one-time horr

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