DIE! DIE! MY DARLING! was dismissed by critics and slipped past audiences in 1965, nestled on double-bills as a throwaway addition to a spate of shockers that trailed in the camp-gothic wake of Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? The rather silly US-market title might have had more box-office success if they’d kept the original and more appropriate Fanatic (add an apostrophe and reap another million bucks). It’s a neat, compact little chiller now gaining some afterlife appreciation.*
In England to meet with her new fiancée, an American woman (Stefanie Powers) makes a courtesy call on the mother of her previous, deceased betrothed. The older lady (Tallulah Bankhead) in short order reveals herself to be a religious wackjob and the visitor, initially bemused by the goofy mutterings of ‘Mrs. Trefoile’ and the oddness of her servants, becomes upset as things turn nastier, then terrified when she finds herself a prisoner. Don’t take candy from strangers, don’t hitchhike and don’t accept invitations to stay overnight from people who come to lunch packing a Bible.
The trim Hammer production is craftily directed by Silvio Narizzano (his first feature, followed by the hit Georgy Girl), and bears scripting from the renowned Richard Matheson, adapting a novel by Anne Blaisdell. Aided by sharp lensing from Arthur Ibbetson, it keeps suspense tuned and believability conveyed for 97 minutes, not overstaying its welcome with excess padding.
The cast seals it, led first and foremost by a grand sally into demented territory from Tallulah Bankhead in her last film role. Powers, 23, was getting the buildup treatment (The Interns, McLintock!, Stagecoach) and this is probably her best work. I confess to never getting her appeal, which to my guess likely had more to do with inside connections than any standout charm or look. She’s certainly miles better than Jill St. John, who was similarly given chance after chance and never mastered anything beyond a bikini. She’s good here, and if you’re a Powers fan you’ll be impressed. Mrs. Trefoile’s ominous caretakers are the silent, imposing Yootha Joyce, a nasty, beady-eyed Peter Vaughan and mentally-impaired Donald Sutherland, who convincingly looks and acts like he would be challenged by oatmeal.
“A mirror? Is it to adorn yourself, to observe yourself? Mirrors are not but tools of vanity, Patricia – I know! Vanity – sensuality, Patricia! The Bible speaks of our vile bodies.”
Worn by her profligate lifestyle and substance abuse, Bankhead at 62 hadn’t appeared in a film for 12 years (she’d only graced a handful from 1918) and further disguised her once-striking appearance by eschewing makeup as the hattermad Trefoile, wielding her marvelous voice like a scalpel: she lays into the insanity with a vengeance, acid-etching the potential mother-in-law of your nightmares.
*From Rebecca to Straw Dogs: there must be some damp Dark Age microbes lurking in those remote Briton village estates that provokes so much repressed anger: consider searching for a love mate whose family digs are Spain or Italy. Goosed by the shock value of Psycho, the Baby Jane Family featured Golden Age leading ladies who seized some autumn glory by brandishing shears, axes and rat salad. Bankhead and this worthy entry had to claw for turf with Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, Straight Jacket, I Saw What You Did, Berserk, The Nanny, Whatever Happened To Aunt Alice?, The Night Walker, The Devils Own and What’s The Matter With Helen? The original 1961 novel was “Nightmare”, penned by Anne Blaisdell, who was actually Elizabeth Linington, writing 16 novels under her real name and another 69 by way of pseudonyms. As to mothers-in-law from Hell, how would Bankhead’s Mrs. Trefoile emerge in a battleaxe royale with ‘Mrs. Marcus’, spawned by Ethel Merman for It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World ? Equal shares….?