Sharp, atmospheric, well-mounted little suspense thriller, with socko performances.
By Paul Mavis
If you’re like me, you’re locked down against your will, and there’s damn little to do other than foment violent revolt and watch TV. Nothing gets my bloodlust up like a good Waltons rerun on MeTV, and that got me to thinking about its star, Richard Thomas, a terrific actor who unfortunately got stuck in the public’s mind as the sensitive, kindly young author John-Boy Walton he played in CBS’ marvelous 1970s drama. Well, as dedicated followers of the actor know Thomas is quite versatile, even playing a psycho, which he did particularly well in You’ll Like My Mother.
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Shout!’s Scream Factory label has released on Blu-ray You’ll Like My Mother, the 1972 neo-gothic horror chiller from Bing Crosby Productions (released by Universal), based on the novel by Naomi Hintze, scripted by Jo Heims, directed by Lamont Johnson, and starring Patty Duke, Richard Thomas, Rosemary Murphy, and Sian Barbara Allen. A quite modest critical and commercial success when first released in movie theaters, You’ll Like My Mother reached a much wider and more appreciative audience when it was subsequently run (and re-run, and re-run…) on television in the 1970s, due to Thomas’ The Waltons fame. Seen today, it’s a model of tight, intelligent, no-frills suspense. In a most welcome surprise for a relatively low-profile title, Scream Factory has included lengthy new interviews with Thomas and Allen here (a big plus for fans of the reclusive actress), discussing the movie’s production, along with a photo gallery and original trailer for this very nice-looking 1080p HD 1.85:1 widescreen transfer.
Heavily pregnant widow Francesca Kinsolving (Patty Duke) has traveled three days by bus from Los Angeles to snowy, frigid, rural Minnesota in the hopes of meeting—for the first time—her dead husband’s mother. Francesca had eloped with Matthew during a two-week Army leave; his death in a plane crash seven months ago has left the grieving mother-to-be searching for some connection with his family…particularly since Matthew spoke so highly of his mother. Local bus driver Red Cooper (Robert Redford look-alike Dennis Rucker) is concerned for tramping-through-the-snow Francesca, but she assures him she’s only visiting the Kinsolvings for the night (maybe) and that she’ll probably be back at the local store for the evening bus out of town.
Too bad, then, the coming blizzard snows her in at the vast Kinsolving mansion…because Mother Katherine Kinsolving (Rosemary Murphy) is a cold, cruel, patrician presence who openly questions Francesca’s baby’s legitimacy, and who makes it clear she wants nothing further to do with her dead son’s new “family.” Francesca is shocked to discover Matthew never mentioned a sister, mentally challenged Kathleen (Sian Barbara Allen), but she is aware of stories about Matthew’s cousin, Kenny (Richard Thomas) whose portrait hangs in the mansion—a troubled youth who once pulled the shell off young Matthew’s turtle just to watch it die. When Katherine’s car fails to start, Francesca is stuck there for the night…so why is her cocoa laced with sleeping pills?
When a terrified, battered Kathleen gives Francesca a newspaper clipping indicating Kenny is an escaped rapist/murderer, her troubles are only beginning; she goes into labor and her baby is delivered still-born by nurse Katherine. Or is it? When Kathleen shows Francesca that her baby did indeed survive, and when Francesca discovers that Kenny is hiding in the mansion—which reveals a rather shocking twist to the story—it’s a cat-and-mouse game of wits to see if Francesca and her baby can escape with their lives.
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You’ll Like My Mother was a particular favorite of mine anytime it popped up on the late, late show back in the 70s; its PG-rated chills were perfect for late-night TV viewing (admittedly its restraint could be a possible liability for some of today’s more jaded viewers brought up on pornographic gore). Since it was so ubiquitous on television back during the early-to-mid 70s, and because of its similarity, both thematically and structurally, to so many similar made-for-TV movies that were produced around that same time—as well as the presence of TV-familiar faces like Duke and Thomas—it’s not surprising quite a few You’ll Like My Mother fans question whether it was originally made for the small screen (it wasn’t). Its director, Lamont Johnson, was certainly no stranger to television, though, having toiled in episodic series work like Steve Canyon, Peter Gunn and Dr. Kildare through the 1950s and 1960s, before he was helming interesting big-screen features like Kona Coast, The McKenzie Break, and The Groundstar Conspiracy.
It’s fair to argue that all that fast, clean, to-the-point TV work of Johnson’s may have helped shape You’ll Like My Mother’s admirably “straight” tone. After all, screenwriter Jo Heims (Play Misty for Me, Breezy) has the recognizable elements for a real gothic horror potboiler here, including a vulnerable mother-in-peril, locked up with a bizarre family with a deadly secret—an initially spooky mentally challenged girl, a waspish maternal figure of cruel menace, and a charmingly boyish psychopathic rapist—in a vast, unnerving, remote castle/mansion cut off by a blizzard. In another director’s hands, this could be the stuff of broad, melodramatic horror, with over-hyped flourishes of lighting and camerawork—as well as hammy, obvious, “sinister” overacting—that would lazily play right into audiences’ expectations for a genre piece like this.
Not so with Johnson’s direction, or with Heims’ script. You’ll Like My Mother eschews the red herrings and complicated, scammy plots we find so comforting in these kinds of outings. Francesca knows right from the start she’s in terrible danger (it’s nice to have a heroine who doesn’t take forever to figure things out); she knows who’s threatening her, and she knows what she has to do to survive. There’s no scheme to kill the baby (Kathleen confirms that deaf Katherine truly believed the baby was still-born; Kathleen saved it without her mother knowing), or to pull an elaborate ruse on the townspeople concerning Francesca’s sudden arrival. It all feels quite matter-of-fact and spur of the moment, and thus, quite plausible…and realistically scary. Director Johnson stays grounded, as well. Nobody is leaping out of dark shadows; the eerie mansion is mostly shot in a square, credible manner. Johnson avoids tricky lighting effects or camerawork, saving overt stylization for just one scene—ironically; the birth scene, a normally joyous occasion made terrifying here by Duke’s realistic screams and optically-printed frame shudders and warping, all in service of our already well-positioned dread for both mother and daughter’s safety.
Admirable, too, is Heims’ and Johnson’s refusal to go deep into the psychology of the characters. Duke and Allen make their characters’ simple motives crystal clear: Francesca is trying to save her baby (Duke has the easiest role, and makes it work), and poor, tormented Kathleen wants to help Francesca and the baby survive—that’s it (it was a big loss when cult actress Allen decided to step away from acting in the 1980s; she’s superlative here in a turn that features far more subtlety than you’d expect when essaying such a character). The motive for Katherine’s actions aren’t twistedly unique, based on a scarred psyche (nor supernatural, which would be the next cliché on the list for a movie like this). SPOILER ALERT It’s the oldest story in the world for her: money, as well as simple animal protection of her children (just as the latter becomes for Francesca). We may see Katherine briefly protect Kathleen from the physical abuse of her brother, Kenny, and even try and deflect Kenny’s growing need to abuse Francesca (she deliberately puts him off her scent, concerning the keys, slapping him and yelling, “Stop trying to make things happen!”).
But she’s a killer, nonetheless; our first introduction to her is her blithely and cruelly poo-pooing Kathleen’s wracking, wailing laments over the kittens Katherine has drowned (imperious, frightening Murphy is letter-perfect here). And when she spies Francesca escaping, Katherine sics the psychotic Kenny on the fleeing pregnant woman without hesitation: she knows what Kenny will do to her. As for Kenny, he’s evil, pure and simple, and clearly enjoys his own cruelties, yet the movie never gives us any background, or excuses, for his nature or deeds—he just exists to torment, to rape, and to kill (as I wrote earlier, it’s a pity the multi-talented Thomas had to fight The Waltons stereotyping; he’s excellent here, as always). We don’t need to know anything more than that, to scare us in You’ll Like My Mother.
You’ll Like My Mother isn’t perfect; there are holes here and there that can distract when you’re thinking about the movie after it’s finished. For instance, what is it that everyone in town already knows about the Kinsolving family? Why does Red react negatively to Francesca’s announcement that she was married to Matthew? And why doesn’t the night time store manager answer her question about the family? He knows something’s wrong with that family. What is it? And how does Red, a longtime resident, not know that something fishy is going on with who, exactly, is claiming to be Mother Kinsolving? Indeed, wouldn’t he let someone know that a previously unknown heir had arrived for the Kinsolving money, since Katherine lets us know it all went to her? The town wouldn’t think something was up there (when Red finally checks back on her, he’s still in the dark about what’s what)?
And how about the baby? That’s one conveniently quiet one-day-old baby. Maybe the others might not hear it caterwauling through the heavy oak doors and attic floors every five minutes…but I doubt it (and they don’t have Duke feeding the baby nearly as often as it would need to be—she’d be traipsing up and down that hallway every hour on the hour). As for the violent finale, there’s something fishy in that freeze-frame shot of Thomas, just before we suddenly find Murphy cradling her son (any time I see an awkward freeze-frame like that I immediately smell a compromised, post-production “fix” for some kind of continuity problem). Still…those are relatively small carps for an otherwise expertly-constructed, smartly-performed little thriller.
Scream‘s main extra for this smart Blu-ray transfer of You’ll Like My Mother is a pretty hefty The Mystery of Kenny and Kathleen (55:34) doc, that features new alternating interview clips from stars Sian Barbara Allen and Richard Thomas—pretty cool for an admittedly marginal (in terms of mainstream viewer recognition) title. Both actors start from the very beginnings of their careers, through to You’ll Like My Mother, an important stepping stone for both young actors (Thomas was finishing up a three-year contract commitment for Universal, while new contractee Allen—in the last class of such players for the studio—was debuting on the big screen). Allen speaks quite a bit about the concrete elements of her performance here—how she moved her hands, how she made herself cry—while Thomas speaks to his deliberate choice of keeping Kenny chillingly opaque in terms of motivation.
I’m a huge Waltons fan (I’m not ashamed), but I don’t know if I’ve ever before heard an interview with Thomas. And I must say: he’s remarkably articulate about his craft (without being pompous), while remaining cogent (a really tough row to hoe). I can’t remember a more eloquent dissertation on performing from an actor. Fans of the publicity-shy Allen will want this interview just for her thoughts alone on dating Thomas, whom she famously co-starred with again on The Waltons (their somewhat differing takes on the relationship are amusingly cross-cut here), as well as her explanation for why she disappeared from movie and TV-making (her big, “mysterious” story, as some fans like to believe, is actually not all that uncommon for actresses in Hollywood. Unfortunately.).
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.