31 Days of Horror: Film 14: How Awful About Allan (1970)

It’s time for the 31 Days of Horror: 2014 Edition. For those of you who weren’t around for last year’s journey, the plan is to watch at least 31 horror movies I’ve never seen before and review them all. So sit back, strap in, and enjoy my journey down the rabbit hole.

There’s a fine line between typecasting and savvy casting when using an actor known for an iconic role. In the wake of Psycho, Anthony Perkins became an expert in that difference, playing both sides of that divide. Late in his career, he was forced into typecasting in such forgettable junk as Psycho III and Edge of Sanity. But in the immediate years following Psycho‘s success, he negotiated the public’s perception of him as the awkward, yet sympathetic, madman next door into an eclectic batch of films, resulting in good to great movies like The Trial, Catch-22, and Pretty Poison. I would not term the made-for-TV movie How Awful About Allan as good or great, but it does find Perkins cannily tweaking his persona to keep the audience off-balance.

Opening with a bang, the film finds Allan (Perkins) staggering through his house as smoke fills it. Flames engulf his father’s room. Despite the fact that he is obviously dead, Allan’s sister Katherine (Julie Harris) rushes into the room in a desperate attempt to save their father. Allan staggers out of the house as firefighters rescue Katherine, who winds up with a badly burned face for her troubles. But Allan doesn’t escape the tragedy unscathed. Psychologically traumatized because it was his negligence that allowed the fire to start, he goes blind.

Eight months later, Allan has regained some of his sight. In numerous POV shots, director Curtis Harrington shows Allan’s regained sight is merely the ability to see people and objects as blurry blobs. Released from the mental hospital in which he has been since the fire, he returns to his father’s home to live with the high-strung Katherine (who now wears a plastic appliance over her cheek to hide her scar). Hoping for some peace-and-quiet to continue his recovery, he is horrified to discover Katherine is renting out a spare room to a student from the university where she works. Just as intrusive to Allan’s solitude is Olive (Joan Hackett), his former girlfriend who is eager to resume their relationship.

The actual nuisances of Olive’s attention, Katherine’s prickly attitude, and the noises made by the unseen lodger would be bad enough, but Allan’s internal demons will not leave him alone. Believing that everyone in his small town blames him for his father’s death and Katherine’s disfigurement, he starts to hear a voice call to him. Is the voice in his head or is the lodger trying to drive him mad? Allan’s paranoia heightens, frightening Olive and causing Katherine to urge him to return to the hospital.

The question of whether or not Allan’s tormentors are in his head or someone actually trying to drive him over the edge is handled with the subtlety of a sledgehammer by Harrington. But Perkins understands how to play Allan with the sympathy and jittery intensity to actually cast doubt on to the proceedings. Just as good at keeping the audience guessing is Harris. Carrying the baggage of her performance from The Haunting—in which she turned sexual repression into an art form—her turn as Katherine feels uncomfortably real as she sadistically tightens the screws on poor Allan with her passive-aggressive behavior.

If only the film around Perkins and Harris matched their commitment. Working from a script by Henry Farrell (adapting his own novel), Harrington doesn’t have much story to tell. The film really feels like an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents stretched out to 75 minutes. While he does supply some horrific moments—the opening fire is surprisingly intense for a TV movie of the time—Harrington never really gets a handle on the tone. Of course, just standing back and letting Perkins and Harris do their thing is hardly the worst strategy a director can employ. But hints of a more ambitious movie rise to the surface through some creepy flashbacks and a nutty climax. It’s too bad that Harrington largely settled for playing by the TV movie handbook.

Despite feeling like a padded out short film, How Awful About Allan is worth watching for Perkins and Harris. Their tense relationship provides its own form of quiet horror that is more intriguing than the actual plot of the film, making it an inadvertent example of how good casting can elevate a below average production.

You can contact me at obsessivemovienerd@gmail.com and read all the extraneous crap that goes through my head by following me on Twitter.

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