Sunday, November 14, 2010


USA/1973/Directed by Curtis Harrington

Directed by one-time experimentalist filmmaker Curtis Harrington, The Killing Kind remains one of the best examples of early-seventies sick sinema. The film borrows its ideas and themes from a number of sources - most notably Psycho - and blends them into a strong psychological thriller that is murky and dark without being relentlessly depressing.

The film opens on a deserted beach, where a group of male youths are enjoying their pack rape of a young tease named Tina (Susan Bernard, the pretty little imp from Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!). Although Terry (John Savage) is an unwilling (and unable) participant in the activities, he is the only one who is charged for the crime, and ends up spending two years in jail. Upon his release, he returns to live with his mother (Terry Southern) in an old, moody boarding house filled with mostly elderly women for tenants.

Almost immediately, we can see that the relationship between Terry and his mother is a little bit off-kilt. He calls her Thelma instead of ‘mom’, they kiss each other on the lips, she fondles his hair playfully, and they indulge in physical wrestling matches. Although Harrington never fully exploits it, there is an obvious sexual tension between mother and son, and the performances by Savage and Southern are terrific, and the chemistry in their scenes together strong and electric.

The Killing Kind is a film filled with ugly, repressed characters. When a frustrated neighbour (the wonderful Luana Anders) visits Terry at night, she tells him “It must feel wonderful….being raped. I wouldn‘t have told on you”. Oddly enough, it’s Terry who emerges as one of the film’s most sympathetic characters - even though he degenerates into a sadistic, psychotic killer, he seems as much an oedipal victim as a brutal monster.

What little humour is present in The Killing Kind is extremely black in tone. Terry and Thelma work themselves into fits of laughter talking about how one of the elderly boarders died after having a seizure and falling into the frozen foods cabinet at the local supermarket. In the words of Thelma: “She became a frozen stiff”. In another surprise sequence, when pretty young Lori (future Laverne & Shirley star Cindy Williams) tells Terry to “Loosen up”, he responds by trying to drown her in the swimming pool!

By the end of the film, we realise that Terry’s time in jail have had little to do with his present state of unbalance. The character he has become is what he was always destined to be, probably since early childhood. His killing of Tina and the female lawyer he holds responsible for putting him behind bars doesn’t purge him of his homicidal rage. It merely opens the floodgates to his true self, and he soon turns his attentions to the innocent Lori.

A film deserving of more praise than it currently receives, The Killing Kind was for years only available on long out-of-print VHS, until finally being released on DVD in 2007 by Dark Sky Films in a nice, uncut anamorphic widescreen print (along with an interview with Harrington recorded not long before his death).


Copyright John Harrison 2010