Color, 1976, 91m.
Directed by Nicolas Gessner
Starring Jodie Foster, Martin Sheen, Alexis Smith, Scott Jacoby, Mort Shuman
Kino Lorber (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), Signal One (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK RB/R2 HD/PAL), MGM (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
Color, 1976, 91m.
Easily one of the creepiest PG-rated films ever made, this eerie Canadian production left a massive impression of countless '70s youngsters and continues to captivate anyone who stumbles across it. The macabre story flirts with gothic horror and classic suspense without quite settling into either, casting a unique, atmospheric spell of its own that has yet to be duplicated.
Young adolescent Rynn Jacobs (Foster) lives in a remote house she shares with her writer father, who is never seen by the public. Her presence attracts the attentions of Frank Hallet (Sheen), a married man with children who barely conceals a nasty taste for little girls, and his prying mother (Smith), a landlady and real estate agent intrigued by the absence of Rynn's father. As it soon turns out, the absent dad has been dead for quite some time, and the orphaned Rynn has been left with the tools to survive by herself until she reaches legal age. Unfortunately a grisly accident leaves her with a body to stash in the cellar, and it's only with the help of a new young friend, amateur magician and makeup aficionado Mario (Jacoby), that she stands a chance of fending off the wolves at her door.
Picked up by American International Pictures for American distribution, this film is based on a slightly stronger novel by Laird Koenig, who wrote several memorable paperback chillers and would pen screenplays for Terence Young including Bloodine and Inchon. Obviously the big selling point here is the amazing cast, with Foster (who made Taxi Driver, Bugsy Malone, and Freaky Friday the same year) delivering a terrific performance that keeps you firmly on her side no matter how extreme her behavior might seem to outsiders. She also has great chemistry with Jacoby, an excellent actor best remembered for the traumatic made-for-TV terror favorite, Bad Ronald, and Martin Sheen (who hadn't headlined a film since Badlands at the time) delivers a palpably skin-crawling turn that pays off in an understated but extremely haunting final scene. He actually has very little screen time in the film, but his bookend scenes at the beginning and end are a perfect way to structure the story. Hungarian-born director Nicolas Gessner hasn't been the most prolific filmmaker in the world (this is easily his best work), though he did turn out the worthwhile Charles Bronson thriller Someone Behind the Door and the odd Sharon Tate comedy, Twelve Plus One. Somehow everything clicks here, with the striking seaside Quebec locations providing the perfect late autumn atmosphere (this is a great one to pop on for Halloween) and composer Christian Gaubert (a frequent orchestrator for Francis Lai) providing a delicate quasi-classical score.
Perhaps because of its PG rating, this film stirred up more than a few critics and parents' groups at the time with its depictions of underage trauma and a brief love scene, which is discreetly handled but would never fly in movie theaters today. Many people assumed this was made for TV given its low-key ambiance and frequent airings at odd hours of the day, and the small screen actually may be a better way to make its acquaintance, preferably late at night with chilly weather outside. Vestron issued the theatrical version back in the '80s, but when MGM inherited the title and released a DVD in 2005, it turned out to be a slightly stronger version before it was approved by the MPAA. Most notably, Foster's character has a quick rear nude scene (body doubled by her older sister, not very convincingly), and Jacoby drops an f-bomb at one point, which still wouldn't have been off limits for PG territory at the time. In any case, that version has since become the standard on home video (including an MGM reissue paired up with The Hotel New Hampshire, a pretty twisted double feature) and TV, with airings on MGM HD reflecting the stronger cut as well.
MGM's HD master made its first transition to the UK home market with Signal One's separate Blu-ray and DVD editions in October of 2015, with the former looking especially fine with a pin-sharp rendering of the film's delicate landscapes and detailed interior design for Rynn's house. Blacks are appreciably deep and rich, creating a nicely dimensional appearance throughout. Fans should be very happy. The LPCM mono track sounds excellent, and optional English subtitles are provided. Extras include an audio commentary by yours truly and Tim Greer, which obviously can't be evaluated here but will hopefully be enjoyed, and the original AIP theatrical trailer.
Released in May of 2016 was the premiere American Blu-ray of the film from Kino Lorber, featuring an identical transfer but with a completely different slate of extras (apart from the trailer). Gessner provides a new commentary track and apologizes for his accent up front, though he's quite easy to understand as he talks about going after the novel's rights, working with the unusually intelligent Foster, and scouting locations in Canada, while detouring through various other tangents of his career with mentions of Christophe Waltz and Anthony Perkins. There are a few silent gaps scattered around but it's an informative and very welcome crash course in how he made the film. None other than Sheen turns up for a new 27-minute video interview in which he warmly recalls his director and shares his thoughts on his fellow actors, with anecdotes including the use of a very dead, very frozen gerbil for one key scene. A 5-minute Sype conversation between Sheen and Gessner is also a nice little bonus as they warmly catch up and talk about the collaborative nature of putting the film together and how pleased they were with the end results.