The lone feature film directed by TV star Darren McGavin, made at the same time he was working on his great The Night Stalker franchise, Happy Mother’s Day, Love George is something of a lost, unpolished gem amidst the enormous panoply of ‘70s horror cinema. McGavin, who starred in the Robert Clouse-written Something Evil in the same year, here adapted another Clouse script, set in a small town in coastal New England. Ron Howard plays Johnny, a teenage hitchhiker who arrives in town on a mission slowly unveiled during his ambling yet silently purposeful wanderings in the town. He visits a diner managed by Ronda (Cloris Leachman) and her boyfriend Eddie (Bobby Darin), and then hovers outside the manse of Ronda’s estranged sister, the patrician Cara (Patricia Neal). When Ronda sees Johnny in the diner she immediately realises that he is her son, whom she gave to a travelling preacher and his wife and paid them to raise him.
Young Johnny, having accidentally learned his identity when he discovered a stash of Ronda’s letters kept by his adopted mother, has come not just to meet his biological mother but also to learn the identity of his father. This however proves a secret so disturbing that Ronda can’t reveal it. Johnny is picked up by the local sheriff, Roy (Simon Oakland) because the town has been beset by a series of missing person cases recently, but as Roy extracts the details of Johnny’s identity, tries to browbeat the lad into leaving unsatisfied because his coming will inevitably stir up old traumas, traumas Roy partly understands because he grew up with Cara and Ronda. But Johnny verbally outsmarts him, and Roy reluctantly releases him.
Like some of the best examples of ‘70s horror cinema, including Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971) and Communion (1976), Happy Mother’s Day, Love George starts with eminently normal characters and situations and deftly charts their personal quandaries before edging into darker generic territory. Here the story and setting, emphasising old frustrations, deep repressions, and familial dramas, seems close to Edward Albee or William Inge, or films about small town weirdness like Peyton Place (1957) and Home From the Hill (1960), or indeed modern, earnest studies like Secrets and Lies (1996). Unsurprisingly for an actor turned director, McGavin’s chief pleasure clearly lies in exploring his characters’ interactions and mining his impressive cast’s gifts, teasing out patterns of behaviour welded in place by time and attitude, and flavourful vignettes that illustrate his characters, like Johnny seating himself down in a prim New England church and singing along to a hymn with the outsized gusto for his adopted father’s tent shows.
Particularly vivid is Neal’s deliciously arch, crusty Cara, who treats Roy like he’s still the delivery boy he once was, and exchanging barbed wit with her carelessly randy neighbour Piccolo (Joseph Mascolo), whose open displays of carnal joy with his girlfriend offend Cara but also please her in giving her something to carp about. Johnny’s reunion with his distraught mother, well-played by the ever-excellent Leachman, is played for traditional pathos, although charged with undercurrents of Johnny’s half-admitted anger and determination to solve all the mysteries plaguing his sense of self. “Get on with the business of your life,” Roy tells Johnny, but he retorts, “This is the business of my life.’
Cara, meanwhile, is disappointed by her lunky son Porgie (Ron Applegate), who’s lowered himself to working on a fishing boat and marrying the indolent Yolanda (Gale Garnett), but most of Cara’s interest goes towards her daughter Celia (Tessa Dahl), who’s been schooled by a tutor and left with a toffy-nosed English accent. Whilst Cara apparently worries about Celia’s virtue, Celia herself is quickly revealed as incredibly dirty-minded: when she spots Johnny she adopts him like one of the stray kittens living in the tool shed, and tries to seduce him, after spying enthusiastically on Piccolo’s love life. McGavin lets his film quietly build with a rigorous sense of mystery, both emotional and circumstantial, and conveys blend of wistful melancholia and free and easy moodiness that defined a lot of early ‘70s filmmaking, reinforced by the folky soundtrack.
The direction is generally graceful and competent throughout, and occasionally striking; particularly in a series of intimate, encircling shots that dissolve one into the other as Celia and Johnny hide together in a closet from Cara, charged with protean eroticism and unease. McGavin simply but rigorously creates an atmosphere of solitude as experienced from different viewpoints, Johnny on the street and Celia from her high window, quietly discerning between Johnny’s investigation and Celia’s voyeurism as Johnny contemplates unknown interiors, potential homes and hidden traps, whilst Celia dreams about freedom to indulge erotic raptures. Veteran cinematographer Walter Lassally’s evocative photography helps, keen to the atmosphere of the place, opening and closing the film with panoramas of the town as night becomes morning, and skilfully capturing the starkness of figures and buildings upon the edge of the ocean that charges the film with a sense of alienation.
The mirroring of Johnny and Celia continues with increasingly dark intent as the narrative swerves after threatening to turn into one of those ‘70s films about quirky outsiders and whacko clans – Harold and Maude (1970), Something for Everyone (1970) – or a middling family drama, into horror territory. McGavin’s direction fumbles a little in setting up this segue, although the film is dotted with signs of menace under the surface, like a shot early in the film that shows Johnny strolling past a skeletal hand jutting from beach sand, a child uncovering a skull later on the same beach, and a shot in the twilight of Johnny approaching Cara’s house with Celia slipping away in silhouette behind him with a mysterious bag of tricks. The film takes a long time – too long, probably, for most genre aficionados – to show its hand, and the very non-horror movie-like title bespeaks a certain level of unease about
McGavin seems happier emphasising casual and everyday forms of brutality and cruelty that pepper our lives, anticipating Stephen King in that regard, in vignettes like the plebeian Eddie, incensed that Ronda will take in Johnny at his expense, catches the lad and beats him up. Still, the horror does come, with the film turning towards a covert slasher movie at an unexpected juncture and wrought in a very unexpected perpetrator, albeit one that makes perfect sense in terms of the film’s meditation on the slow poisoning effect of repression and intimately coded family grievances: Celia is not just exasperatedly horny and adolescently perverse, but actively psychotic, propositioning men around town and killing them if they reject her.
Cara tries to put this down to her own failed, masochistic attempt to abort her as a foetus after Cara killed her husband, the eponymous George, for his affair with Ronda, which of course produced Johnny. But the overwhelming impression is of innocence distorted by the half-hidden gravitational forces of adult strangeness and brutality. McGavin also stages the eruption of horror well when it finally comes, as Piccolo, encouraged by his lover Crystal (Kathie Browne) to meet with Celia at Cara’s beach house to get her to stop throwing him rude propositions. Crystal waits outside, and, after Piccolo doesn’t return, ventures within the house to discover a grossly morbid tableaux of bloodied and rotting victims, and Celia herself, having swapped her dirty old man’s dream of a schoolgirl outfit for blue flannel and a colossal gore-smeared meat cleaver Such is Crystal’s panic that she kills herself trying to leap out of a second-floor window, crashing into the mirror she was admiring herself in moments before, whilst McGavin interpolates a brief, almost subliminal flash cut back to Celia within the house, not giving chase but standing dazed repose, like the serial killer’s equivalent of a post-coital fugue, dreaming of shattered bodies satisfying outsized appetites.
The performances are uniformly strong, particularly Leachman, Neal, and Darrin, whose last film this was before his death in open-heart surgery. Howard is surprisingly effective in playing Johnny, who has a slightly wilder, desperate, more furious edge to him than the other teens he usually played at the time. But Dahl is the film’s wondrous wild card: Neal’s real-life daughter with Roald Dahl, she dabbled in acting for a time before becoming a writer and mother to model Sophie Dahl, and inhabits Celia with humour and affecting pathos, as when she desperately unclothes herself in hoping to coax Johnny into bed, cringing in neediness, a neediness she secretly exorcises in bloody rituals in secret. The revelation that Celia is the killer is, indeed, sadder considering that Celia’s seems the most empathetic character in the film (‘70s horror films, by the by, were a strong time for female killers: see also Jose Larraz, Jesus Franco, and Dario Argento, before slasher films made them almost universally male). Celia remains empathetic, however, even as she knifes her mother to death and roasts kittens, because Dahl never stops playing her in a key of sex-struck gaucherie, even calling out with painfully anxious enthusiasm as Johnny walks by her in the back of a police car. McGavin only really fumbles at the climax, with a clumsy and unnecessary use of slow-motion and a disorientating jump cut that makes the resolution momentarily unclear and generally anti-climactic, when the film might easily and happily pushed into more gaudy, insane territory: many genre auteurs would have started where McGavin leaves off. But the quality of homely tragedy resonates at the end as everyone’s efforts to satisfy their deepest needs leaves them dead or cut off from ever answering those needs, in an intriguing, uncommon film.