Monday, September 6, 2010

Film Review: LET'S KILL UNCLE, BEFORE UNCLE KILLS US (1966, William Castle)

Stars: 5 of 5.
Running Time: 92 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Nigel Greene (JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, THE IPCRESS FILE, ZULU), Pat Cardi (AND NOW MIGUEL, HORROR HIGH), Mary Badham (Scout in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD), Linda Lawson (SOMETIMES A GREAT NOTION, NIGHT TIDE).
Tag-lines: "Lovable or Lethal? Are they bad seeds...or two frightened innocents caught in a diabolical duel with death?"
Best one-liner: "I'm hiding behind a door...but which one? There are so many doors."

I'm speechless. I had the opportunity to see this otherwise unavailable gem as a part of "The Return of William Castle" series at Film Forum last week, and I must say that I haven't laughed as hard or had my mind blown so ferociously since HAUSU. Feeling a bit like a live-action Choose Your Own Adventure directed by Alfred Hitchcock while on a goofball-fueled frenzy, William Castle's LET'S KILL UNCLE BEFORE UNCLE KILLS US has a perverse matter-of-factness, a gushingly infectious joie de vivre, and a 'gosh-darn-it' streak of lovable sadism- all of which serve to confound, confuse, and, ultimately, amaze the viewer. It's far ahead of its time, and as such, its black comedic achievements seem even greater when you realize that this film was marketed (and successfully so!) to children.

Not unlike the sort of vaguely morbid inanity I amused myself with as a youth.

Based on the novel by Rohan O'Grady, the plot is as simplistic as it is ridiculous: upon the death of his father (who I'm pretty sure is played by an uncredited William Castle), young Barnaby Harrison (Pat Cardi) is shipped off to 'Serenity Island,' a cursed, tropical, shark-infested rock where he is set to meet the only other surviving Harrison heir, Uncle Kevin (Nigel Greene). Uncle Kevin is an ex-WWII British commando and a colossal dick who refuses to beat around the bush: he immediately informs Barnaby that they shall commence playing a dangerous game- they must try to murder one another, and the last man standing will inherit the (sizable) family fortune. Only there's–

"One rule of the game I didn't tell you.... UNCLE ALWAYS WINS!"

Nigel Greene's 'Uncle Kevin' has got to be one of the most entertaining villains in all of filmdom. Whether doing karate pratfalls, voraciously devouring raw beef and uncooked eggs, attempting to set children on fire, slapping kids around, wearing a ginormous chef's hat, or hypnotizing with his wild, Svengalian eyes, he approaches it the task at hand with that mild bemusement that only the British can muster, with a curled lip and an upraised eyebrow.

Uncle Kevin prepares to fling an errant youngster.

Now, I'd seen Nigel Greene before- in everything from ZULU to BEAT GIRL to JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS. I was never too impressed, even saying in my JASON review that I thought his Hercules looked as majestic as a car wash employee. As of this moment, I'd like to take it all back. The man is a treasure. And I would go as far as to say that this little known performance has influenced everything from Anthony Hopkin's dinner escapades in TITUS to Richard Burton's Colonel Faulkner in THE WILD GEESE.

Pat Cardi's 'Barnaby' is a complex little lad. On the one hand, he annoys with his self-congratulatory 'Richie Rich' attitude, kind of a proto-Rob Stone (from MR. BELVEDERE).

But on the other, you sort of relate to him: he's being hunted to the death by one smug operator who's forty years his senior and hums little English ditties to himself as he douses his prey in gasoline.

On his own, l'il Barnaby doesn't stand a chance. But when he's teamed with girlish foil Chrissie (Mary Badham- Scout from TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD!?), things start to get really out of hand.

LET'S...KILL...UNCLE...FIRST!

Chrissie really raises the stakes, going from timid tomboy to frenzied, bloodthirsty cutthroat in mere seconds based solely on Barnaby's heavily compressed, haphazard summary of what's really going on– a transformation that's even more hilarious given that Barnaby has done nothing but lie to her up to that point.

Once the war is on (and the Harrison estate declared 'Switzerland'- neutral ground), Castle wastes no time and we are entreated to ludicrous, breakneck game of cat and mice:

Swimming pools filled with sharks!

Whooa-oa-oa-oaaaa!

NUM NUM NUM

The Ketchman- a legless, heavily-scarred local who pops up every once in a while bearing dead fish and sharpened blades for a cheap jump scare:

Played by Ref Sanchez who later ended up as Igor in Woody Allen's EVERYTHING YOU WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SEX BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK.

Unworldly jungle noises (which supposedly emanate from a toucan)! Hypnosis, using a Hong Kong Triad medal as a pendulum! Poisonous mushrooms! Stock footage!

Nocturnal tarantula attacks!


An airplane which runs out of fuel, mid-flight!

We've got all this and more in LET'S KILL UNCLE BEFORE UNCLE KILLS us!

So here's hoping that the semi-recent William Castle box set is doing well enough at the cash registers to drum up a Volume 2, which could conceivably contain such glorious, unavailable offerings as this, THE NIGHT WALKER, I SAW WHAT YOU DID, SHANKS, PROJECT X, THE SPIRIT IS WILLING, or MACABRE.

-Sean Gill

6. BLIND FURY (1989, Philip Noyce)
7. HIS KIND OF WOMAN (1951, John Farrow)
8. HIGH SCHOOL U.S.A. (1983, Rod Amateau)
9. DR. JEKYLL AND MS. HYDE (1995, David Price)
10. MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL (1997, Clint Eastwood)
11. 1990: BRONX WARRIORS (1982, Enzo G. Castellari)
12. FALLING DOWN (1993, Joel Schumacher)
13. TOURIST TRAP (1979, David Schmoeller)
14. THE THREE MUSKETEERS (1973, Richard Lester)
15. BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986, John Carpenter)
16. TOP GUN (1986, Tony Scott)
17. 48 HRS. (1982, Walter Hill)
18. ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO (2003, Robert Rodriguez)
19. TALES OF THE CITY (1993, Alastair Reid)
20. WHITE LINE FEVER (1975, Jonathan Kaplan)
21.
99 AND 44/100% DEAD (1974, John Frankenheimer)
22.
LET'S KILL UNCLE, BEFORE UNCLE KILLS US (1966, William Castle)
23. ...

2 comments:

J.D. said...

Choose Your Own Adventure books... hah! I used to love those as a kid. I had tons of 'em but then I think they all went to cousins or something once I moved on to bigger and better things. Wow, still, I'd love to thumb through one of those books for old time's sake.

Sean Gill said...

I've actually got quite a collection of Choose Your Own Adventures- I reviewed YOU ARE A MONSTER for last year's Halloween Countdown with the intention to do more, but I guess it's slipped my mind. Maybe one of these days...