How can a film with the likes of Don Ameche, Martha Hyer, and Zsa Zsa Gabor be so bad? Okay, Gabor’s name should have tipped me off, but what exactly enticed the latter two stars to join this? Far from the worst horror film I’ve watched, Picture Mommy Dead is on par with several late-1960s horror movies featuring once A-list stars. The problem lies in our leading actress, Susan Gordon, who single-handedly destroys any sense of suspense the movie evinces.
Released from a mental asylum after the death of her mother, Jessica (Gabor), Susan Shelley (Gordon) comes home to find her father (Ameche) has married her former governess (Hyer). At the same time, with her mother’s death, Susan learns she’s come into a huge inheritance. Unfortunately, stepmother Francene has expensive tastes and, in order to gain control of the money, wonders whether Susan would be better off back in the asylum. When Susan starts seeing her mother throughout the house, is this Francene’s doing or is Susan really going crazy?
Before discussing how terrible Gordon is, there’s quite a bit of praise I can dispense. This is probably more in line with the Hammer style of horror films as opposed to the cheap style AIP cultivated. The Flagmore estate where the Shelley’s take shelter is opulent, and looks like a place Zsa Za Gabor would call home. Obvious correlations between this and Gaslight are evident, with the audience questioning whether Susan is being driven mad by her father and stepmother, or not. The relationship between Francene, her former lover Anthony (Maxwell Reed) and the dead Jessica also draws parallels to Rebecca, albeit with a male Mrs. Danvers. You also see shades of The Innocent’s. All of these far better movies leave you wondering why you’re watching this, but the fact these allusions are present open up the possibilities of a finer film than what we get.
Gabor is a third-choice actress…and in this case, she was. Hedy Lamarr and Gene Tierney were slated for the role of Jessica Flagmore Shelley, but Tierney was dissatisfied by the part and Lamarr was fired for passing out from nervous exhaustion (or being caught shoplifting depending on the source). The role of Jessica is definitely where you’d have your brightest star; she’s showy, glamorous, and probably got a hefty paycheck for only twenty minutes of screentime. Gabor is gorgeous in a role that’s far from taxing; she’s an exquisite corpse for all intents and purposes. For their part, Ameche and Hyer are fine. Ameche’s mostly a red herring, while Hyer is ferocious, although the movie relies on her bursting out of her clothes for a cheap thrill too often, but Hyer’s primed for the wicked stepmother role.
And that leaves Gordon as Susan. Being director Bert I. Gordon’s daughter explains her casting. Only 17 at the time, this was the last film of Gordon’s career before she retired. Her affected performance generally consists of scrunching up her face in a cross between confusion and wondering what stinks. Failing to help matters is there’s never any depth to her character. Too often the script has her repeat questions, as if she doesn’t understand or is mentally incompetent. By the third act, she’s taken on this child-like quality that’s creepy in itself, but then segues into a bizarre incestuous relationship where she refuses to let any woman “take” her father from her. At the end, father and daughter are placed in a position where you’re thinking they’re dating. It’s weird as all hell.
If you enjoy Ameche, Hyer, or Gabor, then certainly give Picture Mommy Dead a watch. It’s another in a long-line of horror films featuring once legendary stars desperate to stay relevant, but Gordon’s unclear character and awful acting sinks the picture.
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