Synopsis: A wealthy woman is trapped in a house with no electricity or phone during a storm. A killer has murdered her sister, stuffed the body in the basement, and is now after her.
Stars: Elizabeth Montgomery, George Maharis, Eileen Heckart, Sue Ane Langdon, Jess Walton, Richard Derr, Ross Elliott
Director: Herschel Daugherty
Running Length: 73 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: A few years back, I fell into the vortex of educating myself on the television movie of the week boom of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Most younger audiences don’t remember how popular these weekly entertainment events could be; even I caught on at the tail end of their golden years. Running 90 minutes with commercials, favorite TV celebrities (and the occasional old-time film star) were the headliners of movies with various topics, from social issue dramas to creaky mansion horror. Delivered with high-quality production values shooting on studio lots provided a smooth transition for performers to go from their series commitment to the longer feature work.
Some titles would have a long-lasting impact and usher in exciting new talent, like Steven Spielberg’s landmark Duel in 1971 (which we discussed already this year), but most have been lost to time and live in the fond memories of those that watched them live. While 1972’s The Victim isn’t the first made-for-television movie we’ve featured in 31 Days to Scare (and it won’t be the last), it was the one I had heard enough about that I positively leaped toward the pre-order button when boutique label Kino Lorber announced they were releasing it on Blu-ray. Restored in 2K, the 50-year-old film looks marvelous, and it was an excellent way to experience the highly regarded classic for the first time.
Having recently decided to separate from her husband, Ben (George Maharis), Susan (Jess Walton) arrives at their sprawling home in Monterey for peace and quiet. The divorce has been a long time coming, so there’s an element of relief at this moment, which is why she politely declines when her sister Kate (Elizabeth Montgomery) asks if she wants her to drive in from the city to keep her company. We know both sisters come from money, yet the isolated house where Susan is staying is owned by her soon-to-be ex, who is away on business and giving her the space she needs.
Kate is persistent and still feels like Susan might need her, and when she can’t reach her on the phone a short time later, she decides to visit her anyway. Undeterred by a highway patrolman who discourages her from completing her journey due to an oncoming storm that will wash out the roads, she arrives to find her sister missing. Only a stern hard-of-hearing cleaning lady (Eileen Heckart, The First Wives Club) is present, and she’s not forthcoming with any details of where her employer has gone. Of course, we know where she is because director Herschel Daugherty shows us…she’s been murdered and left in a wicker basket in the basement.
Susan’s murder isn’t a spoiler, but Kate finding her and finding out who did it is the other shoe that Daugherty and screenwriter Merwin Gerard (adapting a short story that had been filmed for TV multiple times already) keep dangling over our heads for much longer than some may deem necessary. There’s an awful lot of Montgomery walking around the house, lighting candles, blowing out candles, turning on lights, turning off lights, calling out to see if “anyone is down there,” and then going to investigate anyway, and so on. Yet, oddly, it manages to create a startling amount of tension, with the characters doing very little in terms of actual forward-moving action. All while a thunderous storm is happening outside, Kate becomes further isolated from the outside world.
In her first project after an eight-year run in Bewitched, Montgomery quickly switched gears and established herself as the in-demand, go-to actress for lead roles in television movies. She would play many victims but just as many victimizers in her time before her sad death at only 62 from cancer. She’s perfect here, and the change from care to concern to fear to terror is smooth and entirely believable. This changing of the seasons, if you will, is the critical reason why the viewer will also start to fidget nervously as her character again ventures into a potentially dangerous space.
Yes, The Victim stretches for too long, and especially when the solution is presented, it lingers when it could accelerate the pace. Remember how this was initially consumed. It had commercial breaks, so the pacing would always be staccato. Luckily, Montgomery and especially Heckart (sublime as the cranky maid who might not be a killer, but you could imagine her planning a death or two) snatch the audience back after each noticeable commercial break and lead toward a finale that comes quickly and just as quickly finds the film finished.
Also somewhat bewilderingly known as Out of Contention (?), I can see why The Victim is cited by many as a movie that “scared me to death when I was a child” because it has that aura of fear running through most of its latter half. Watching it today, it’s pretty mild if we’re being objective after the fact, but watched with all the lights out late at night? It does have its effective passages.