Air Date: Nov. 6, 1971 (ABC)
Production Companies: Mark Carliner Productions
Running Time: 75 min.
Available on: YouTube
Written by: Josef Stefano
Based on the 1971 novel, There Was an Old Woman, by Elizabeth Davis
Directed by: Jud Taylor
Cast: Shelley Winters, Stuart Whitman, Bradford Dillman, Carol Eve Rossen, Roger Perry, Gary Clarke
Ladies and gentlemen, we have a new leader of the pack for my favorite 1970s TV horror film: Revenge! We’re only up to the end of 1971, and there are eight more years to go, but it’s going to take a lot to top this one. From cast to script to direction to music, Revenge! (not to be confused with the 1971 theatrical release of the same name starring Joan Collins) is familiar, but unexpectedly good.
Shelley Winters is the villainess, Amanda Hilton, who, during a fun opening that makes you believe this might be a briefcase switcheroo caper, imprisons the man she believes wronged her daughter in a cage in her basement. One of the movie’s brilliant achievements is that we never know if Frank Klaner (Bradford Dillman) actually met Amanda’s daughter when he was on a business trip to Atlantic City, or if his friend played a prank by using his name.
I won’t reveal how one of the men wronged her, but it ended disastrously and Amanda is livid about it. While being verbally assaulted by her, Frank asks, “Why couldn’t she turn to you?” This is an example of only one subtle detail that adds infinite depth to the story. She never answers him, instead becoming more angry with him, but her reaction answers a lot… in our imaginations (the best place for it to be answered.)
Similarly, but even more complex, we never know if Mark Hembric (Stuart Whitman), the psychic Frank’s wife, Dianne (Carol Eve Rossen), hires to help her find her missing husband, is really a psychic or not. He claims to be a con artist, using tricks to fool his clients and maintain his lifestyle. But is he making a false claim to avoid the police and media spotlight and to protect Dianne?
Although not a twist like in screenwriter Josef Stefano’s Psycho, it’s nevertheless an unusual plot point that it’s Dianne who’s the real psychic. Her actual talent scares Mark, whether he’s legitimate or not. If he is, she’s more powerful than him. If he isn’t, he’s experiencing a phenomenon he knows nothing about. Either way, his motivations are complex and he has reasons to not become involved. Also, either way, he’s still somehow a good guy.
Director Jud Taylor keeps things moving along and gives the TV film a theatrical look. Our heroes creep around the big house while Amanda may or may not be unconscious on the living room sofa. A slow walk upstairs for Dianne, even when we know nothing is up there, is terrifying. Likewise, a ramp downstairs to the basement so Amanda can slide down a big trunk (in which to presumably hide a dead body) is shocking.
She’s serious about her business. Before long, she’s spreading plastic and carrying an axe. This allows her on two occasions to spring out of nowhere and go on the offensive in a way that only Shelley Winters in full tilt crazy mode can do it. That means two jump scares, which is a pretty good ratio for its 75-minute running time. Add a race against time to all the purposeful ambiguity, and Revenge! is something special.