Picture Mommy Dead (1966)


From the time I was a very young kid I didn’t want to do anything but make movies the rest of my life.


Bert I. Gordon

With Picture Mommy Dead, Mr. B.I.G. (Bert I. Gordon) takes on a different kind of giant: William Castle. In fact, were in not filmed in color, and were Castle not on the decline with I Saw What You Did (1965) and Let’s Kill Uncle (1996), you might think Picture Mommy Dead was a thriller made by Castle, not Gordon. Regardless of who directed it, it’s still only an average movie-watching experience.

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The victim of psychological trauma in Picture Mommy Dead is Susan (Susan Shelley), a teenage girl who witnessed the murder of her mother three years earlier and is now being released from a mental institution. When her father, Edward (Don Ameche), and his new wife, Francene (Martha Hyer), Susan’s former governess, take her home, she’s haunted by foggy memories and become confused about what is real and what isn’t.

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The film begins with a terrific little scene that perfectly encapsulates my synopsis. When Edward takes Susan from the St. Maria Convent & Hospital, he asks her, “Aren’t you going to kiss your mother?” Susan replies, “Francine isn’t my mother. She’s dead… isn’t she?” The poor girl is confused before she even gets in the car. It’s not going to get any better for her when she sees her mother wandering the halls at home… on the anniversary of her death, of course.

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When the “family” meets with Mr. Clayborn (Wendell Corey), the court-appointed trustee for Susan’s estate, we learn that she can’t touch the money until she comes of age. Her father, who is flat broke, can’t touch the money, either, unless Susan is permanently committed…or dies. He needs her permission to even have a sale in the house to raise money. There’s the motive: getting rid of Susan. However, her father isn’t the only one with that motive…

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Should Edward die, the money goes to Anthony Flagmore (Maxwell Reed), the dead mother’s cousin. He greeted Susan when she returned home, half his face scarred from dragging Jessica’s (Zsa Zsa Gabor) body out of the fire the night she died. He behaves oddly by doing things potentially damaging to Susan, like hanging the large painting of her mother with the sparkling diamond necklace in the hallway. “I thought it would be appropriate,” he explains.

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Speaking of the diamond necklace, it’s one plot point too many intended to intensify the mystery. Susan is convinced she’ll find something to prove who really killed her mother; however, she can’t remember what it is. Francine also wants to find it, but that’s because – SPOILER ALERT! – she’s a gold digger and thinks it would provide for her the life of luxury she so strongly desires. So, she’s another person with a motive for getting Susan out of the way.

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My favorite parts of Picture Mommy Dead are the catty exchanges between Edward and Francine. She says she loved him once, but then he became poor and boring. In another scene, Edward reminds Francine that they meant something to each other once. She replies, “I got pneumonia once, but I got over it.” He describes her plan for money to flow to her through Susan and himself a “pipe dream.”

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All of this happens in the first half of the movie, leaving the remaining running time for Susan to experience dreams and illusions, and for the potential villains to plot against her… and each other. The only sympathetic person is Susan, and you can’t help but feel her pain when she exasperatingly says, “What’s the matter with me? I can’t remember… yet I can’t forget.” Susan Gordon was Bert’s daughter, but the movie may have been stronger with a different actress.

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It sounds like Picture Mommy Dead has a lot going for it. On paper, it does. However, perhaps hurt by so many other movies like it, it’s just average. There’s nothing to make it stand out from the crowd. Bert I. Gordon was a little too late to the game in an unfamiliar sub-genre. Now, if Anthony’s pet hawk were a giant pet hawk, Gordon would be in his comfort zone, and the rating would be a very different story.

 

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