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KinoKultur: recycled thrillers—Scream, Pretty Peggy and The Screaming Woman

Scream, Pretty Peggy

KinoKultur is a thematic exploration of the queer, camp, weird, and radical releases Kino Lorber has to offer.

Pretty Peggy Johns (Sian Barbara Allen) wants to do her best for the environment. Yet while she rides her bicycle, bell-bottoms billowing, through the California hills to Elliot Mansion in Scream, Pretty Peggy (1973), the most ecological thing she does is star in the film, which is assembled entirely from recycled plots and recycled stars.

Scream, Pretty Peggy and The Screaming Woman are two new-to-Blu-ray TV-movie thrillers from the early 1970s starring dames of Classical Hollywood. Each is a knowing hodgepodge of different Hollywood horror tropes that, instead of languishing in “hagsploitation” hell, allows its special guest star to shine.

The Screaming Woman
Kino Lorber

1972’s The Screaming Woman stars legendary actress and Ryan Murphy plaintiff Dame Olivia de Havilland. This ABC Movie of the Week sees de Havilland as Mrs. Laura Wynant, an invalid woman in lavender, newly home to her California estate from a stay at a mental hospital. On her first day trip around her estate, she happens upon a dog furiously digging in the ruins of an old smokehouse. Suddenly, she hears the cries of a woman buried alive underneath her and resolves to rescue her.

But getting help is frightfully more difficult than Laura anticipates. No one believes her. Her son, schemes to get control of the land, thinks she should be recommitted. Her trusted friend (Joseph Cotton) and doctor (Walter Pigeon) suggest she be sedated. Her new suburban neighbors want nothing to do with her. And the police won’t respond to any more of her calls. If she’s to rescue the woman in time, Laura will have to overcome intoxication and isolation.

Though filmed in a real California subdivision behind the studio on a quick schedule The Screaming Woman’s modest budget was wisely used to secure its talent.

The Screaming Woman’sRay Bradbury-penned story is rich with dramatic irony and boasts costumes by style icon Edith Head and score by a soon-to-be-famous John Williams. This pedigree marks it as higher-end made-for-TV movie. Though filmed in a real California subdivision behind the studio on a quick schedule (best evidenced by an unscripted chase between Dame de Havilland and a raccoon) The Screaming Woman’s modest budget was wisely used to secure its talent.

Everyone is fully invested in their performance, though some perhaps go further over the top than others. It’s a result of de Havilland being on set. She gives 110% percent in a film that doesn’t require her to. Her Laura is fraught with complexity and contradictions; we’re able to empathize with an otherwise melodramatic story because of the gravitas Dame de Havilland can impart through her character and choices.

…by allowing the central character to be a mature woman, The Screaming Woman cust right to the quick of how society treats older women: straight to the condescending doubt and patronization.

It’s a familiar Gaslight-style plot set in the decaying California upper class. Instead of setting the tale in the Victorian era, like so many others, The Screaming Woman brilliantly transports its motifs to the then-contemporary. But perhaps its most ingenious twist comes from Bradbury: the updating of the lead heroine’s age. All too often, the horror of Gaslight plots comes from a young woman slowly coming to believe that she’s losing her faculties.

But by allowing the central character to be a mature woman, The Screaming Woman cust right to the quick of how society treats older women: straight to the condescending doubt and patronization. Yet old age can bring with it memory loss, which the picture leans into to further blur the line between the real and the imagined.

Scream, Pretty Peggy
Kino Lorber

Just as The Screaming Woman upcycles the Gaslight motif, so too does 1973’s Scream, Pretty Peggy recycle the twist Psycho made popular thirteen years before. The film opens with a figure in a billowing nightgown killing an unsuspecting woman trying to escape. When Peggy Johns arrives at the Elliott mansion to answer the call for a new housekeeper, she knows nothing of the former missing housekeeper or the uneasy family that lives within.

After the death of her daughter Jessica, Mrs. Elliott (Bette Davis) has remained reclusive with only her sculptor-son, Jeffery (Ted Bessell) to look after her. Old and surly, Mrs. Elliott doesn’t take to Peggy right away, but Jeffery certainly does. He’s so taken with her that he shows off his latest project—a series of hellish statues, his visions of evil. But when Peggy starts to dig into the mystery of the previous housekeeper, allegiances change. Peggy must not only survive the terror that lurks within the house. She must also solve it.

As with Davis’ other notable thrillers like Watcher in the Woods or Burnt Offerings, Scream, Pretty Peggy leans into her raspy voice and piercing dagger looks.

While not as gripping as The Screaming Woman, Scream, Pretty Peggy has its moments—namely any time Bette Davis is on screen or it shows off Jeffery’s horrifying artwork, which is richly textured, gory-looking, and welcomingly out of place in this otherwise buttoned-up New Romantic style gets shown off. As with Davis’ other notable thrillers like Watcher in the Woods or Burnt Offerings, Scream, Pretty Peggy leans into her raspy voice and piercing dagger looks. As Mrs. Elliott, she gets to play a drunken matriarch worthy of Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neill, who’s guarding a secret so that she might stay alive.

When a sensitive male character refers to “Mother” in a thriller, you know we’re in Psycho territory, and Scream, Pretty Peggy lifts more than just the transvestic reveal from the classic Hitchcock film. Though this mother is very much alive. It’s a combination of Psycho and House of Wax that’s as slapdash as it is entertaining.

It (Scream, Pretty Peggy) sees the seams of the pulp motifs that make up its plot and encourages its audience to play along and guess which trope comes next.

There’s something in the way Scream, Pretty Peggy filmed that suggests it knows that’s more quilt than quality, especially when it uses the commercial breaks to almost comically predictable effect. It sees the seams of the pulp motifs that make up its plot and encourages its audience to play along and guess which trope comes next.

At the beginning of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), the first of these “psycho-biddy” films (also starring Davis), Joan Crawford’s character Blanche is watching reruns of her old movies on TV. She delights in seeing them again and the new fans she’s making, much to the maniacal displeasure of her sister Jane (Davis). It’s the jealousy of this new fame that drives Jane to commit her unspeakable acts.

The Screaming Woman and Scream, Pretty Peggy gave these titans of Classic Hollywood a chance to work again, to tell contemporary stories and show they still had the stuff that made them famous, allowing new generations to discover their tremendous body of work.

Films like The Screaming Woman and Scream, Pretty Peggy demonstrate the ways TV helped recycle classic film plots and stars. Often coupled with airings of classic films, many of which would not have been seen since their theatrical release, these made-for-TV films offered a kind of synergy, an opportunity for audiences to (re)discover other people and properties owned by the studios.

It’s tempting to call these films “rip-offs” and cast them as derivatives of greater works. But The Screaming Woman and Scream, Pretty Peggy gave these titans of Classic Hollywood a chance to work again, to tell contemporary stories and show they still had the stuff that made them famous, allowing new generations to discover their tremendous body of work. Such up/recycling by TV-Movies such as these was and is vitally important to the preservation of film legacies. They’re tools that kept history in front of new audiences through ever-changing mediums.

For further information on television’s use of Classic Hollywood personalities, see Recycled Stars: Female Film Stardom in the Age of Television and Video by Mary R. Desjardins (Duke UPress, 2015) which was massively influential in my reading of these two films.

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