Director William Castle’s bizarre, schizophrenic children’s nightmare, damn near perfectly realized.
By Paul Mavis
You know…we don’t know what we’re going to do with you, Shout! Factory. Honestly, it’s Valentine’s Day. We write to you. We’ve called on the phone. We comment on your FB posts. We study your Twitter feed. We’ve even camped out outside your main headquarters at night, silently observing you as your employees file out for their various evening activities (also documented). All that…and you still won’t give us the time of day when it comes to screeners. We like to think we’re the patient, tolerant type here at Movies & Drinks…but we won’t be ignored, Shout! Factory.
How apropos, then, that we’re looking this week at your Scream Factory Blu-ray release of Universal’s I Saw What You Did, the 1965 shocker from producer/director William Castle, written by William P. McGivern (based on Ursula Curtiss’ novel, Out of the Dark), and starring Joan Crawford, John Ireland, Leif Erickson, Sharyl Locke, Patricia Breslin, John Archer, John Crawford, Joyce Meadows, and introducing Sara Lane and Andi Garrett (dolls, both of them). A financial disappointment following Castle’s and Crawford’s successful 1964 outing, Strait-Jacket, I Saw What You Did maintains a strange, dream-like tone that weirdly shifts back and forth between goofy teen comedy—complete with unexpected sexual undercurrents—and flat-out horror, with Castle’s assured direction lending the whole thing an amused detachment that looks better and better as the years wear on.
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Pretty brunette teen Libby Mannering (Andi Garrett) has invited equally cute blonde school friend, Kit Austin (Sara Lane), to spend the night at her isolated country house, 30+ miles outside of town. Kit makes the mistake of telling her strict father, John Austin (John Archer), that Libby’s parents will be away for the night; easy-going Dave Mannering (Leif Erickson) has a long-standing overnight dinner/business meeting at a potential client’s home. Kit can, however, stay over at Libby’s house until 11:30pm sharp, when her father will pick her up.
So…when their regular babysitter calls and cancels, Ellie Mannering (Patricia Breslin) wants to nix the trip, but her husband vetoes that, convincing his wary wife that Libby is responsible enough to take care of herself and their youngest daughter, little Tess (Sharyl Locke). The minute the grown-ups leave, the fun begins when the bored teens start crank calling strangers picked out of the phone book (ask your grandparents what “crank calling” and a “phone book” were…). When the girls pick Steve Marak’s (John Ireland) name, Libby does her best sultry voice, asking for Steve when Marak’s wife, Judith (Joyce Meadows) answers. Going into the bathroom to confront the showering Steve, Judith sees that the bathroom has been completely trashed, and a fight ensues, with Steve flipping his lid and viciously stabbing Judith in the shower.
Just then, next-door-neighbor Amy Nelson (Joan Crawford) arrives; she’s been trying to snare big, handsome Steve for herself, and once she eventually realizes that Steve killed Judith, she’s got her leverage. Meanwhile, Libby and Kit are upping the stakes, calling people and stating, “I saw what you did, and I know who you are”—a big mistake when they do it to Steve again, who fears someone saw him bury his wife’s body out in the woods. Amy overhears Steve imploring “Suzette” for a meet, and becomes jealous—violently so when Libby, dragging along a worried Kit and Tess, goes to spy on the “sexy”-sounding Marak, and is caught by Amy. Soon Amy winds up like Mrs. Marak, and Libby and Kit are next, when Marak invades Libby’s isolated home….
It probably seemed like a natural for producer/director William Castle to follow up his big 1964 drive-in hit, Strait-Jacket with another violent, gory Joan Crawford horror pic. After all, Crawford’s turn in Robert Aldrich’s seminal 1962 Grand Guignol, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, had brought Crawford and co-star Bette Davis back from almost total obscurity, remaking them both as proven “names” in the horror exploitation market. However, I Saw What You Did was originally designed strictly as a “teen” outing, with Crawford’s “Amy Nelson” character being quite incidental to the main story.
Nervous Universal studio execs, however, wanted to secure a name actress to help draw in punters, since their two female leads were in reality unknown high school novices. So, the “Amy Nelson” role was beefed up and offered not to Crawford—who may have fallen slightly in the eyes of Hollywood studio heads when she pulled a bogus “sickie” and dropped out of Aldrich’s troubled Baby Jane? follow-up, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte), but to Barbara Stanwyck, who had starred in Castle’s other 1964 outing, The Night Walker (which didn’t pull in nearly as much coin as Crawford’s Strait-Jacket).
When Stanwyck proved unavailable, Crawford was given the nod and filming quickly commenced. Castle had already been told by market researchers that the celebrated carnival midway “gimmick” promotions he inserted into previous movies were no longer selling tickets (the seat-mounted “Percepto” joy buzzers in The Tingler; the plastic sliding “Emergo” skeleton for House on Haunted Hill), so he backed off such interactive tricks for Stanwyck’s and Crawford’s projects, nor would there be any in I Saw What You Did. Castle did try having Ma Bell advertise a phone number for patrons to call, promoting I Saw What You Did, but so many wiseass American teenagers (god love ‘em) made crank calls to the number (what did he expect?), the phone company pulled out…and took their huge plastic prop phones out of the theaters (in I Saw What You Did’s trailer, Castles claims to have had seat belts installed in theaters for this shocker, but sources vary as to whether or not he actually did. I’m doubting it).
Paired on a double bill with the frankly brilliant cast-off TV pilot, Dark Intruder, I Saw What You Did’s reviews were mixed-to-good, but grosses were unprofitable, signaling a permanent slide in director Castle’s box office fortunes, one that would continue down through b.o. misfires Let’s Kill Uncle, two Sid Caesar comedy horror efforts (The Busy Body and The Spirit is Willing), Project X, and his final effort, the truly bizarre Shanks.
William Castle’s reputation with today’s critics and historians is light-years ahead of what contemporaries thought of him back in the 50s and 60s, but I wonder how much of that now is adulation for his carny-like promotional gags (and well-deserved, it is), rather than for his genuine strengths as a director of suspense and horror. Castle certainly isn’t as deep or as profound as his template model, Alfred Hitchcock, but he’s wonderfully energetic and crude in getting across tabloid-style shocks and scares—coarse enjoyments that sometimes overshadow his equally sophisticated ability to unerringly pick a perfectly creepy shot, or maintain an editing rhythm that genuinely puts the audience “off” (for the former, see that flash cut to that old crow who floats out of the dungeon in House on Haunted Hill, while the latter can be found in The Night Walker, which is made up almost entirely of sensuously teased uneasiness).
What’s most interesting about I Saw What You Did is the schizophrenic feel that Castle and scripter William P. McGivern (The Wrecking Crew, Brannigan) weirdly maintain through these bizarre jumps in plot tone. First judging the movie’s opening, with that Doris Day-like, frolicking theme music and Libby’s and Kit’s all-American teenager phone gabbing, you’d think I Saw What You Did was going to be some kind of AIP Pajama Party romp…until you start to wonder why these girls are being “watched” through the P.O.V. eyes of a cut-out mask matte (calling John Carpenter…).
And while their conversation sounds innocuous, their characters are immediately set: cautious Kit fears the wrath of her strict, “peculiar” father, while bold Libby agrees her father is weird, too…but she can handle him (calling Dr. Freud…). Then strangely, Castle switches to more mordant music and employs one of his slow, steady pans across a deliberately phony painted rural backdrop, before dropping in a matte of Tess and Libby’s home, as the credits end. This is story time, Castle is saying, a creepy bedtime tale with bright, chipper characters unaware they’re being watched (by us?) in a completely artificial environment (Castle shooting everything on the Universal sound stages makes it all the more claustrophobic).
And with I Saw What You Did’s strange undercurrent established, the seemingly harmless, innocent, comedic scenes involving the teen girls take on a decidedly more troubling context, seen next to Crawford’s and Ireland’s violent Psycho-like subplot. We may laugh at how normal and cute-acting the girls are, making their prank phone calls—Garrett and Lane really are adorable here: believably, naturalistically goofy and sincere and troubled and funny—which Libby and Tess state they always do when they’re alone and bored (man have times changed).
But what about the consequences of their actions? Castle makes sure to show funny after-effects of their calls (so we won’t dislike the girls), but how many couples, we wonder, may have argued or even broke up after Libby called and pretended infidelity with the male member of a household? After all, Marak’s wife finally loses control when she sees what Steve did to the bathroom, but she was primed to be angry because of Libby’s sultry call (the director’s staging of the shower stall murder is classic exploitation Castle: inverting all the Psycho clichés, the murderer is the one that’s naked in the shower, pulling his clothed victim in with him and viciously stabbing her before powerfully throwing her back out through the glass shower door—a potent bit of 1965 violence).
And while we may at first see Libby and Kit as nothing more than little Gidget clones, Castle and McGivern show they’re far more advanced in their thoughts about sex than we’d imagine from their childish play. After Libby talks with Marak for the first time, she’s positively swooning over the force of his sexy voice, as is Kit (“He sounds exciting!” “See what I mean? Sexy!” “What a sex maniac!”). But if we think she may just be laughing at this older man on the phone, we’re mistaken (just ask Tuesday Weld…), because Libby then dreamily tells Kit how turned on she was by his voice, albeit in 1965 terms (his voice was like a warm hand running down her back, she states—steamy stuff for the teen crowd back then).
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And just hearing his voice still isn’t enough for her—now Libby wants to see him (I guess the “power of the gaze” isn’t strictly male, is it, sniffy “film critics”). Earlier, she had told Kit “everything I want is someplace else,”—apparently, that means Steve, too, because it’s time to put on a dress and mascara and pack up the kids and steal mom’s car to go perv at the perv on the phone. And yet, Castle improbably cranks up the frolicking theme music again as we laugh at how weird this is all becoming: it’s a Disney comedy—the only one, so far, featuring a sadistic stabbing—about a spunky, virginal teen girl getting herself all dolled up and driving almost 40 miles into town just to get a look at a strange older man whose voice sexually excited her during one of her own “heavy breathing” phone calls. And just like Hitchcock’s sexually aggressive Grace Kelly in Rear Window, whose aroused, acted-upon voyeurism triggers violence, Libby’s peeping through Steve’s window almost gets her killed, before Amy suddenly appears and drags her off. Things were never like this for Frankie and Annette!
Crawford’s the nominal star of I Saw What You Did, but she really has the Janet Leigh Psycho role: the celebrity victim unexpectedly bumped off in nasty fashion. And if possible, her scenes with Ireland are even more perverted—for all the wrong/absolutely right aesthetic reasons—than the little girls’. While we’re still trying to figure out just what the hell Libby and Kit are up to, trying to see if we’re watching a teen comedy or not, Crawford comes strolling in as if from another movie entirely (as well as another time period, for that matter) overdressed in an evening gown and bedecked with a ridiculously large, complicated necklace, her ravaged face only highlighted by the necklace’s gaudiness and her tortured wig. Her sudden appearance utterly discombobulates the viewer, making one ask, “Wait…what movie am I watching now?”
Before we even have time to understand who she is and why she’s so familiar with Steve, she’s spitting out Crawford-isms like, “I’m here, Steve! You married a childish, empty-headed little tramp!” and we the viewers are ecstatic that I Saw What You Did has entered a whole new level of eccentricity. As she performs a grotesque parade of 35 years’ worth of her iconic movie expressions, she banters and blackmails hulking, powerful John Ireland (who keeps looking at Crawford like she’s just landed from another planet) with hoot-worthy lines like, “I’ll show you what it means to be taken care of,” and “I met your little business deal, Steve: Suzette….Your taste is sickening!” (Ireland gets the movie’s best, though, when he’s had enough of butch Crawford’s sexual bullying: “You want to crack the whip? Get a dog!”). All is forgiven, though, with Crawford’s death scene, when she shows what a real movie star is, dying by inches after going in for one last, aborted kiss with her lover/killer. A true legend.
The rest of I Saw What You Did is basically haunted house stuff, expertly timed and cut, as Castle (through his ace cinematographer, Joseph Biroc) continues to slowly pan across fog-draped studio-built exteriors, as he tightens the suspense to a thoroughly satisfying level. Castle never forgets to drop in peculiar, off-setting shots just for the fun of it (I love that arbitrary shot of Tess, looking faintly amused as she calmly watches Marak threaten her sister—Castle could only have put that deadpan in for a private laugh), before staging a tense showdown in the fog with Marak pursuing the girls. When little Tess unexpectedly gets snatched out of the fog, I immediately thought of De Palma’s Dressed to Kill; indeed, watching this finely-crafted, utterly bizarre little thriller, any fan of the slasher/horror genre will see antecedents here…although I doubt anyone but mischievous Castle would have his almost-victims immediately laughing after their ordeal, as the camera—and we—safely pull away from these two teen weirdos.
PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.Read more of Paul’s film reviews here. Read Paul’s TV reviews at our sister website, Drunk TV.