Saturday, November 20, 2004

Die Sister, Die! (1972)

This one opens with a thin trail of blood trickling off of a wrist into a small puddle on the floor, which marks the high point of actual (as opposed to dreamed) gore in the movie. Not surprisingly, the advertising promised rather more thrills than the movie itself delivered, especially in the case of the 1-sheet posters which depict an attractive young woman in a revealing red dress running in terror toward the viewer, with the tagline "Go ahead and scream Amanda - it can't help you now!" Audiences were no doubt chagrined to learn that the Amanda in question was 61-year old Edith Atwater, bearing a passing resemblence to Stephanie Cole's Diana Trent character from the British TV series Waiting for God. Thankfully, we are spared the sight of Ms. Atwater in the dress in question.

Atwater plays Amanda, a moody heiress with some love/hate issues revolving around her dead father. Her brother, Edward (Jack Ging), a would-be playboy, resents the control Amanda holds over the family finances and plots to eliminate her. He rushes to her house and feigns sadness in front of the family physician upon learning that she had tried to commit suicide (hers was the bloody wrist in the opening scene), but only as a gambit to put himself above suspicion when he actually does try to get rid of her. Makes perfect sense, right?

But for a plan as feindish as his, one needs a well-preserved 38-year old barmaid with a sordid tale to tell. So he tracks down Esther Harper (Antoinette Bower) to a steakhouse cocktail lounge, where he confronts her with her past: she was once a nurse for an elderly millionaire who she eventually married and who left her his entire fortune (remember, Anna Nicole Smith was only five years old when this movie was released). Sadly, the unnamed nonegenarian's family intervened and screwed her out the the millions, ruining her budding nursing career in the process. Clearly, she's perfect for the job, which will involve only making sure Amanda's next suicide attempt is successful, not actually killing her.

The scene is set, until Esther meets Amanda and is taken aback by her haughty sarcastic tone and emotional vulnerability. She pulls the condescending bitch act, yet is still bracingly honest. Amanda suspects a plot from the beginning and announces "Don't play games with me, Esther, I play for keeps." Nevertheless, everything seems to be going according to plan until longtime family retainer Mrs. Gonzalez spills the beans on the third sibling, an absent younger sister who was allegedly her father's favorite, but who took off for points unknown so soon after her father's death she didn't even stick around for the funeral. When Esther discovers that her bedroom, formerly inhabited by the missing sister, is still full of her clothes, momentos, and photo albums, questions begin stirring in her brain.

The standout acting really comes from Edith Atwater, who does a great job as the arrogant WASP dowager. Balancing her out is Jack Ging, who looks (and acts) like a parody of William Shatner. Antoinette Bower spends her best moments looking wide-eyed and emotionally conflicted. Of course they're all upstaged by a fantasy/nightmare sequence which involves horror effects so crude and exaggerated they would make Herschell Gordown Lewis hang his head in shame. At one point Amanda literally tears another person's head off with her bare hands, throwing it at the wall where it shatters like ceramic.

I recommend Die Sister, Die! for students of film marketing as a case study on how insanely a promotional campaign can diverge from a film's actual content and themes, and to people with a fetish for rich, sarcastic senior citizens.

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