Thursday, October 14, 2010

VHS Vortex #21: Deadly Strangers (1974)

If you're wondering why it's #21 of a column that has never appeared on this blog before, you have reason to, but here's why: for nearly two years, VHS Vortex was a monthly wee thing I wrote for Real Groove magazine, who sad to say, went under a couple of weeks ago (must-read eulogies here and here). It was a bit of an unusual column in a sense that it wasn't tied to anything commercial, it wasn't promoting any current product - it was pure indulgence on my part (thanks Duncan!), a reason to go through my VHS stash which otherwise would have remained unwatched for years. But it also gave me a chance to shed some on light on interesting, rare, off-the-radar, offbeat movies, yet unavailable on DVD, that would've gone unnoticed.

So I thought I'd share my last column, which was to appear in November's issue, here. I don't think I'll ever get paid for watching VHS ever again (though I'd be more than happy to...), but I've been thinking about possibly continuing the column here. Anywho we'll see. Copy + paste, final VHS Vortex:

By the time Hayley Mills dropped her top for Sidney Hayers’ 1974 road thriller Deadly Strangers, she was well into her attempts at scrubbing away her career-defining squeaky-clean image as Disney’s top child actor of the ‘60s. She’d already done non-family-friendly psycho-thrillers like Twisted Nerve (’68) and Endless Night (’72), and with this trashy, sleazy film, Mills couldn’t be further away from her Pollyanna days.

She plays Belle Adams, a twenty-something beauty who accepts a lift from a trucker when her car breaks down. Not long into their journey, the man stops the truck and proceeds to rape her (“I thought we’d settle the fare”), but she makes a run for it and catches a ride from another passing stranger, Stephen Slade (Simon Ward), who’s a tad friendlier, more dashing, but a little disconcertingly drunk. Meanwhile, there’s a murderous psychopath on the loose in the countryside…

Not a lot of what happens here is remotely plausible, and it’s not difficult to guess the outcome, but Deadly Strangers is fast-paced, well-acted and rousing enough to forgive its rougher edges.

The film basically amalgamates two genres: on one hand, it dabbles in the psycho-sexual themes of films like Psycho and Peeping Tom, and on the other, exploits our fears of thumbin’ a ride a la The Hitch-Hiker, Road Games et al. To be sure, the psychological stuff doesn’t rise above exploitation, delivered none-too-subtly via standard horror-trauma flashbacks into the characters’ pasts: Slade has trouble in the sack with his wife due to his love of dirty mags, Adams haunted by a traumatic past where her parents died in a car accident and she’s forced to live with a creepy uncle.

But the rapport the pair build during the film, by turns jovial, sexually tense, and off-kilter, is engrossing and suspenseful (their best scenes are played out in simple passenger/driver-conversing shots), and veteran TV director Hayers, clearly not working with a particularly large budget, makes the most of the depressing, soggy Midlands landscape to drench the film in atmosphere. There’s also an oddball, goofy appearance by Sterling Hayden as a heavy-bearded, jalopy-driving old-timer that adds an element of welcome quirkiness to the mainly sombre drama.

Deadly Strangers was released on VHS in the US by Paragon Video Productions in the ‘80s – apparently cut – and an English-language DVD has yet to surface yet. It’s no forgotten classic, but if you like this kind of thing, it’s worth hunting down.

1 comment:

  1. Man I will miss these heaps Aaron. They definitely need to continue somewhere, somehow. Really like this madman-loose-on-America's-roads genre. Esp Paul Walker's enjoyably ludicrous Road Kill/Joy Ride from 2001.