Saturday, September 20, 2014

#1,496. Stark Fear (1962)

Directed By: Ned Hockman

Starring: Beverly Garland, Skip Homeier, Kenneth Tobey

Tag line: "I ain't gonna hurt you... I just want company..."

Trivia: Beverly Garland says this is her least favorite of all the movies she's made

1962’s Stark Fear may think it’s a psychological drama, but don’t let it fool you; with its story of an abused wife who’s ogled and grabbed by almost every guy she meets, this movie is pure, unadulterated exploitation.

To help make ends meet, housewife Ellen Winslow (Beverly Garland) accepts a job as the personal secretary of Cliff Kane (Kenneth Tobey). Unbeknownst to Ellen, Kane and her husband Gerry (Skip Homeier) are business rivals, and there’s a history of bad blood between the two. When Ellen returns home from her first day at work, she finds an angry Gerry waiting for her. Accusing her of stabbing him in the back, he threatens to divorce her if she keeps the job. Not willing to risk her marriage, Ellen quits, but not even this can calm Gerry down. He storms out of the house, and doesn’t return.

A few days later, Ellen pays a visit to Gerry’s boss and is told that Gerry has abruptly taken a 4-week leave of absence, which, because he didn’t clear it first, is grounds for dismissal. With his job hanging in the balance, Ellen sets out to locate her husband, and after speaking to family friend Ruth Rogers (Hannah Stone), discovers he’s been leading a secret life. In fact, Gerry’s not even from Pennsylvania, as he claims; he was actually born and raised in the small town of Quehada, Oklahoma. Hoping to find him there, Ellen visits Quehada, where she meets Gerry’s lecherous old pal, Harvey Suggett, who, after making a pass at her, fills Ellen in on the details of Gerry’s checkered past (which includes a mother, also named Ellen, who treated him badly). While still in Quehada, Ellen runs into Gerry, who accuses her of spying on him. Fearing what he might do to her, Ellen runs away, only to be cornered by Harvey, who rapes her. Her life in a shambles, Ellen tries to pick up the pieces by once again going to work for Cliff Kane. But when she makes one last ditch effort to save her marriage, it results in a tragedy that threatens to destroy what little self-respect she has left.

While it certainly has all the makings of a searing family drama, Stark Fear comes up short in the character department, which ultimately prevents it from developing into a serious take on relationships. The chief problem is the husband, Gerry, who from the word “go” is a total jerk, treating his wife like dirt in their very first scene together (in a fit of anger, he destroys a portrait of Ellen that was hanging on the wall). As a result, Gerry is never anything more than an absolute prick, leaving us to wonder why Ellen wants to save their marriage in the first place. In fact, Ellen doesn’t have a normal relationship with any of the men in this picture. Whether holding a conversation with one or simply passing them in the street, every single male character Ellen encounters undresses her with their eyes, with some (like Harvey Suggett) allowing their infatuation to get the better of them. Even her “professional” association with Cliff Kane eventually develops into a romance. But while it fails as a drama, Stark Fear offers up just enough sex and violence to make it a solid exploitation flick, and on that level it works fairly well.

With an intense performance by Beverly Garland (who looks a little like Janet Leigh in this film) and more sleaze than you can shake a stick at, Stark Fear won’t teach you anything about the nature of relationships, but it will hold your attention.

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