“The Phone Is Not the Only Thing That’s Dead In Susan’s House”
Welcome to 4:3 & Forgotten — a column where I get to look back at TV terrors that scared adults (and the kids they let watch) across the limited airwaves of the 70s. This week’s entry sees TV’s favorite witch stalked by a killer, but with the newly ended Bewitched in her rearview mirror, Elizabeth Montgomery is forced to rely less on her twitching nose and more on her instincts if she wants to avoid becoming The Victim.
When: November 14th, 1972
Kate (Montgomery) is living the life in San Francisco, but something suggests she check in on her sister Susan. She calls and discovers Susan is leaving her husband Ben and moving out of the house, but when Kate offers to drive down to help Susan declines saying a storm is approaching. What’s a little bad weather between sisters, Kate decides, and soon she’s on her way to Susan’s.
Turns out the weather is pretty bad indeed, but there’s something far worse coming too. By the time Kate arrives the house is empty — well, maybe not empty exactly — and Susan’s nowhere to be found. (Spoiler, but not really as we the audience are given a glimpse early on, but poor Susan’s dead in a basket in the basement.) Her absence only grows more confusing when Kate finds her car in the garage and her keys and wallet in her bedroom. Mrs. Hawkes (Eileen Heckart) the housekeeper arrives acting like nothing’s wrong, Susan’s husband who’s supposedly on a business trip actually lost his job a month ago, and the storm is only getting heavier.
Will Kate be the night’s next victim? Maybe.
The Victim is pure simplicity in both setup and execution, but rather than be a bad thing it works to the film’s advantage by narrowing down the focus. It’s all about the suspense, and Montgomery does strong work as the center of it all.
It’s made clear pretty early that this isn’t a case of paranoia fueling empty fears — I did mention Susan’s cold, dead eyes staring out from a basket turned casket in the basement, right? — as someone has committed a murder. From there director Herschel Daugherty and writer Merwin Gerard craft a near real-time tale of one woman’s night of terror, and Montgomery proves she’s capable of more than just magically-infused comedic hijinks.
We’re given at least two suspects, and both carry a threatening weight. Susan’s husband feels like the natural choice as an impending divorce and financial troubles are classic motivations for murder. But don’t discount Mrs. Hawkes. She’s aggressive in her treatment of Kate, and it only worsens once it’s revealed that Susan fired the old woman the day before. More motive! Kate confronts her, and it makes for one of the film’s tensest sequences as she tries to make the older woman leave. The scene’s well-lit, and she’s not necessarily in physical danger at that moment, but the tension of confronting the woman fills the screen. Between the two of them viewers are kept on their toes regarding the killer’s identity, and most will see their suspicion trading places throughout.
More traditional suspense makes its presence known too in the form of the big, dark house and the stormy grounds. Kate’s exploration of the basement and nervous stroll out to the garage have a creepy air about them, and Daugherty captures the architecture and shadows well enough to suggest someone could be hiding within. POV shots add to the unsettling fun as circumstances find Kate alone in her battle of wills with whoever’s hiding in the dark, and she leaves viewers torn between finding her brave or thinking she’s an idiot.
Montgomery sells it all, though, and it’s her strength as a performer that pushes and pulls us along with Kate’s every step. The film was made just after the very successful Bewitched came to an end, and it’s clear Montgomery was in the mood for something a tad bit darker and more dangerous than playing her own naughty twin. (Shout out to Samantha’s sister Serena!) She more than acquits herself in the process.
The Victim is a solid-enough chiller for fans of murder, Bewitched, and things that go bump in the night.