Yesterday’s Child depicts a more innocent time in our history when a messed up rich family with a missing child didn’t have to worry about genetic testing uncovering the awful truth about what really happened all those years ago when mom supposedly lost poor little Ann at the park playing hide and seek. But even living in the dark ages where disgruntled heirs had to just take the word of a stranger who rolls in with just enough circumstantial evidence to convince a desperate and domineering grandmother that the hot little lady on the door step is her long last granddaughter, and more importantly the long lost granddaughter entitled to her dead daddy’s trust, there were other more low tech ways to make sure she really was part of your insane family.
We all know what that means – some good old fashioned mindgames to see if she can be scared off! There’s the mean messages scrawled on her bedroom mirror (“get out slut”), the person who sneaked into her room at night and left her favorite blue teddy bear hanging from a rope at the foot of her bed, and even scarier (but making much less sense) is a skeleton hanging in her closet with lipstick on the mouth! (If Ann was truly a bad ass, she would have taken that thing downstairs the next morning and showed up at the breakfast table with it, throwing it in her creepy cousin’s face saying something witty like, “you left your prom date in my closet, bitch!” But she merely screams, faints and then denies seeing anything to the assembled family later.)
In Ann’s defense though, she is probably too busy adjusting to her new wealthy lifestyle by doing typical rich girl stuff like stealing the tennis pro stud away from her mother! As portrayed by John Wayne’s son Patrick, the serve and volley sex machine Sanford Grant (complete with little 70s pornstache!), while relegated to criminally minimal screen time, proves why Yesterday’s Child is potboiler perfection when he tells mom Laura Talbot (Shirley Jones, who is a must see playing against the nurturing motherly type we are so familiar with from her work in The Partridge Family) that he goes where the work is and that she needs to act her age as he trots off to bang Ann!
Ann apparently resurfaces after the woman claiming to be her mother dies revealing to her the existence of a locket Ann was wearing when she was three years old. The locket has pictures of the Talbots and was given to Ann by Grandma Talbot shortly before she disappeared. Ann’s adoptive father Cliff (Claude Akins) discloses the information to the police and facilitates a meeting between Ann and the Talbots.
While there is no testing that can be done to confirm things one way or the other, a medical exam does reveal that Ann suffers from spina bifida. The Talbots were not aware of this, but Laura quickly (and quite unconvincingly) explains that her little Ann also had spina bifida, but it was such a minor dose, she never mentioned it and forgot all about it. As is required in such films, Laura’s word is taken at face value and little Ann’s medical records are not checked.
The film hits the expected notes in setting up its gothic-style degenerate family with great aplomb. Laura’s husband is seen only briefly at the beginning of the film, in a wheelchair from injuries we later discovered occurred during a fire at the family home. Her grown up brother still whines like a baby to the family matriarch about how she didn’t love him. Ann’s cousin reveals that he overheard his grandmother wishing that it was him and not Ann that got kidnapped and went missing all those years ago. If you look real close, you can ever see a sinister looking housekeeper lurking around in the background!
Once all is revealed during a confrontation between two characters, the movie shifts from its vaguely sinister beginnings to something so nasty, you’re surprised it was coming from a TV movie aired in the 1970s.
Spoilers follow, so skip to the last paragraph if you don’t want to know who does what. The real Ann was murdered all those years ago during a kidnapping scheme perpetrated by Cliff and Laura, who were lovers at the time. Watching Laura talk about how much she hated her baby and wanted an abortion after Cliff reminds her that she gave him the pills to put the child to sleep and probably overdosed the kid in the park before his part in the kidnapping scheme is chilling and makes you wonder about the real origins of the fire that crippled her husband.
It does strain credibility that after all these years, Cliff would resurrect that part of his life as a way to cash in and secure his Ann’s future under the auspices of the missing Ann. Though he seems to think there’s nothing Laura can do about it, unless he has kept some evidence of her involvement in the scheme from 14 years ago, what stops her from going to the police and at a minimum accusing him of fraud in putting forth his Ann as the heiress Ann Talbot, if not being able to pin the murder on him outright? But when your partner is a lunatic who has no qualms about murdering her own toddler, Cliff finds out that the last thing he needs to worry about is her going to the police.
The movie’s big problem though, and I’m not sure if it is an issue with the movie itself or the print I saw (it only ran about 68 minutes, about ten minutes shorter than the official running time) is that it jumps straight from the mystery of what was happening to the big reveal without fleshing out anything it developed in the first 50 minutes. And it does this after wasting precious moments on Ann having flashbacks on what happened during the first 30 minutes of the movie!
Nothing comes of or is resolved regarding the efforts to frighten Ann away from the Talbot clan. Nothing comes of Ann’s affair with the tennis pro that Laura had designs on. Nothing comes of the threats made by the uncle or his weirdo son. Nothing is explained about the fire or what happened to Laura’s husband. I have to believe there is a missing sequence in the version I saw because none of it makes sense from a thriller standpoint (at a bare minimum, you would have to have the tennis pro murdered to justify his presence in the film, right?).
Bizarrely though, the movie still makes sense and is trashy fun even without all the details spelled out – you just have to fill in a lot of blanks yourself. Admittedly, Yesterday’s Child would be an even better dumpster fire of derangement with additional scenes giving us some more awful antics of the folks behind all this and one hopes a more complete print turns up at some point. But even for what was on screen, without any gore and very little violence, this is one of the grimmer and meaner (and by extension, entertaining) TV movies of the era I’ve seen.
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