A cat and mouse game played in the confines of an Victorian mansion, as a young femme feline is hounded by religious dogma. Richard Matheson adapts Anne Blaisdell’s novel NIGHTMARE but embellishes the story with his palsied humor ripe with pre-marital strife, a union falling to pieces before it even joins in holy matrimony.
Patricia decides to visit to her ex-fiancé’s mother-in-law, to pay her final respects to the memory of the man she once loved, to ease the suffering of a woman who has lost both a son and potential daughter. Pat is a fiery American Girl, raised on promises and the spirit of independence, whose vexing relationship with her new lover is apparent from the outset: Patricia takes accelerates towards her fateful destination. She soon learns that Mrs. Trefoile (a wonderfully zany and overwrought performance from Tallulah Bankhead) is a religious nut who has finally cracked, surrounding herself with servants who exploit her madness in hopes of an inheritance, with a minor appearance of Donald Sutherland as Joseph, a mentally challenged handyman.
The film can be read as a treatise on religion when scripture supersedes law and human rights, whether screeched by the extremist or preached by the conservative. Mrs. Trefoile condemns the wicked Patricia because she isn’t pure and has tainted her son’s everlasting soul, and locks her up until she can be spiritually cleansed. The story also becomes a conflict between beauty and the beast: in other words, youth and old age. Patricia is forbidden from wearing makeup and wearing red (the Devil’s color) so she can be a sexless form of clay and mud. But Mrs. Trefoile was once a refined beauty, revealed in her secret room dominated by a painting of her deceased son, painted shortly before his death. Patricia attempts escape after escape and is never willing to compromise her life, and spends most of the film in bondage, slapped around, and verbally abused. Mrs. Trefoile does god’s work and punishes her perverted servant, and suffers the consequences of trusting a backstabbing maid.
Final Grade: (B)