In the pantheon of directors known for horror, Curtis Harrington never received the recognition he deserved. It may be that unlike his contemporary, Dan Curtis, he did not produce a work that became a part of popular culture. He doesn't have a Dark Shadows or The Night Stalker on his resume.
His most famous works are probably the two theatrical vehicles in a grand guignol vein: Who Slew Auntie Roo? and What's the Matter With Helen?, both starring Shelley Winters.
With those pictures, Harrington found comfortable success in a cycle of films clearly inspired by the classic 1962 Robert Aldrich picture Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.
The Killing Kind is one of his lesser-known productions but is worth seeking out. As with some of Harrington's previous films, an aging actress found a part she could sink her teeth into. Ann Sothern was perfectly cast...and fans of her long career might be forgiven if they were shocked to see her in a story containing elements that may have been bizarre...even in the early '70s - rape, revenge, incest and depravity.
Terry Lambert (John Savage) has been hanging out with the wrong crowd. One day, he and his group of male friends chase Tina Moore (Sue Bernard) on a beach and under a boardwalk. The young men proceed to gang rape the young woman. Terry is reluctant but the other guys pull his shorts down and force him to participate against his will. For his part in the crime, he serves two years in jail.
Upon his release, Terry goes to live with his mother Thelma (Ann Sothern) at a boarding house she runs for mostly elderly people. Although she wasn't expecting to see him, Thelma seems happy to have him home again.
After a rest, Terry eats with his mom...the first home cooked meal he's had in a long time. Thelma asks that he not tell anyone where he's been. "I told everybody I know you've been away in the peace core. Don't you think that's best?" she asks. He agrees.
That night, Thelma is wistful. She tells Terry she's convinced of his innocence and puts the blame squarely on the victim, going so far as to say she wishes Tina was "dead."
There's a new resident at the house the next morning. It's a young, pretty woman named Lori Davis (Cindy Williams). She's in town to pursue a modeling career, a notion that Thelma ridicules.
Thelma tells her son to keep away from Lori. After all, the last time he paid attention to a girl, he spent time in the slammer.
This is a mother and son relationship that is unorthodox to say the least. When his mom asks Terry for a kiss...she insists that it be on the mouth. It's behavior that doesn't go unnoticed by some of the boarders, including a spinster librarian named Louise (Luana Anders) and her father (Peter Brocco), who is unnerved by the fact that Terry is around.
The old man's instincts are correct. Terry takes to being a peeping tom and watches Lori undress in her room through a window. One evening, Lori hears a noise (a cat's meow) and Terry is so afraid of being caught...he actually suffocates Thelma's cat that he's been holding in his arms...in order to keep it quiet. His mom later finds the dead animal in a trash can.
Thelma continues her unhealthy obsession with Terry, taking pictures of him by the pool and filling a wall in the house with photos of him. Meanwhile, Terry fuels his own fantasies by masturbating to girlie magazines...and memories of the rape. He even calls Tina and gives her a vague and anonymous threat.
Terry starts to lose it even more. When Lori flirts with him at the pool, he nearly drowns her as Thelma looks on. Mom is not sympathetic and calls her a "cheap whore."
Terry has other things on his mind...namely a score to settle with the woman responsible for his prison term. He follows Tina home on a darkened road and forces her to swerve off a cliff and crash in a fiery explosion. "Looks like you got your wish," he tells his mom when she hears the news on the radio.
Terry also has a fascination with little animals. He buys a bird for his mother to replace the cat he killed...and helps Mrs. Orland (Marjorie Eaton) dispose of a huge rat in her room by picking it up and placing it in a trap, snapping its neck immediately and making the old woman faint.
Meanwhile, Louise...who's bored with her life and taking care of a sickly father, takes to drinking in her room. She finds the mysterious Terry attractive and confesses she'd like to burn all the books in the library where she works and put glass in her dad's food. She makes a move on him and he balks. Embarrassed by her unsuccessful come-on, she retreats to her room in tears.
Louise later tries to apologize to Terry, blaming her behavior on being inebriated. Terry is uninterested...which causes Louise to compare his lack of success with women to his guitar playing. Furious, Terry threatens to hit her with the instrument before smashing it on the ground.
The flirting with mother continues although Terry loses his cool one afternoon when Thelma refuses to say who his father is. "You're nothing but a fat whore," he screams at her. Soon after, he sneaks into Lori's room and browses through her portfolio and personal belongings.
He also has other unfinished business...with the lawyer who was unable to get him off the hook. He pays Rhea Benson (Ruth Roman) a visit and after speaking briefly with her, he slashes her face. Whereupon he forces her to drink countless glasses of alcohol until she passes out. Terry then sets Rhea and her house on fire.
When he returns home, Thelma is curious about where he's been. But Terry is secretive. And feeling smothered by her love, he almost strangles her while massaging her neck. The near matricide is interrupted by Lori, who insists that someone fix her broken shower.
Although Thelma is startled, Terry makes it up to her by flirting some more. But he won't come clean about the deaths of Tina and Rhea. The conversation makes him flip out, however...Terry runs out of the house screaming and jumps into the pool.
While Lori is out of the house that night, Terry decides to change the head in her shower. She returns and finds him hard at work. This situation is too tempting for Lori so she puts her arms around Terry's bare chest and kisses him.
He begins to see images in his head of the rape and of his overbearing mother and gets violent. When Lori screams for help, he smacks her and chokes the girl to death in the tub.
Thelma finds him the next day in Lori's bathroom. He had spent the entire night slouched on the floor. To her horror, Thelma sees the young woman's body lying in a shallow pool of water. Wanting to protect her son, she helps him get rid of the corpse. Together, they put the body in a garbage can and drive it to the dump in a U-Haul.
Louise watched some of this unfurl and has a chance for revenge because of her humiliation and spurned advance. She phones the police.
But Thelma has her own plan. When she and Terry arrive back at the house, she offers to fix him some chocolate milk. And proceeds to lace it with a chemical to put him out of his misery. She takes one more photo of the only person she ever truly loved and he dies in her arms.
The Killing Kind is a truly decadent little film that would never be made today. The dusty setting of the boarding house and a cast of unsavory characters in a uniquely rich '70s atmosphere...combine to make this an unforgettable viewing experience and a buried treasure worth excavating.
The two leads are terrific. Ann Sothern is blowsy and extraordinary as a mother with less than healthy designs on her loopy son. She doesn't make a false move. Full of power and pathos, Sothern is a joy to watch.
John Savage, whom some critics mistakenly refer to as "miscast," is totally believable as the ill-fated Terry.
Curtis Harrington would go on to direct several TV films, including Killer Bees, The Dead Don't Die and Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell.
Although he helmed the 1977 Piper Laurie thriller Ruby for theatres, he seemed most comfortable working for the small screen, helming episodes of Baretta, Wonder Woman and Charlie's Angels.
Sothern's last film would be The Wales of August in 1987. She died in 2001 of heart failure at the ripe old age of 92. Savage would receive major recognition and an Oscar nomination for The Deer Hunter five years later.
Cindy Williams, of course, had an interesting career in movies cut short by her role in the smash sitcom Laverne & Shirley...a move that made her a household name by the end of the decade.