Imagine Psycho, but if instead of running a motel, Norman Bates was a sculptor, his mother was still alive and a raging alcoholic and Marion Crane didn’t take that shower, but performed light housekeeping duties and was an art student who had a crush on Norman. By the time the denouement finally occurs, it’s clear that at best Scream, Pretty Peggy was heavily influenced by that earlier, far superior film and the only suspense is whether it really is going to blatantly rip off Psycho. (For fans of homely guys in drag, it happily does!)
But while Scream, Pretty Peggy falls laughably short of its inspiration (the guy is literally sculpting bloody monsters and showing them to Peggy) , it is not without its own perverse pleasures. Those hideous creatures that sculptor Jeffrey Elliot is obsessed with making? Dead people inside! Smelliest art exhibit ever! And Peggy realizes a man has gone missing at the Elliot property because she finds a pair of eyeglasses with the guy’s name emblazoned on the bow! What a lucky break that that one dude whose mom sewed his name into his underwear when he went off to summer camp as a kid, grew up to be the same dude searching for his missing daughter at the Elliots’ house!
If Peggy had ever at least glanced at the back cover of one of the paperback Gothic romances that were so popular in the early 1970s, she might have wondered about the wisdom of taking a job as part time housekeeper at the old Elliot place for 75 cents an hour. Mysterious employer living in large mansion virtually alone? Check! Surly and menacing old hag trying to drive you out of the house? Yep and she even comes equipped with a Chekhov’s Gun! How about that part of the house that’s off limits? Above the garage! Do not ever go in there! Unless guys wearing dresses and lipstick turns you on!
And who is this pretty gal in the picture? A sister? Where is she now? In Italy? Maybe getting married? Oh, by the way, the father of the last housekeeper is stalking me and demanding to know what’s going in the house and where is his daughter. Do I need to worry about that? And I totally love your art! I even went to a showing in New York! (Well, it is called Scream, Pretty Peggy not Scream, Brainy Peggy.)
As the movie progresses though, the creepiest person turns out to be Peggy herself! The script (co-written by Hammer Films legend Jimmy Sangster) is all over the map with her. She’s terribly nosy, but disgustingly polite and sometimes comes off as quite meek. She’s liberated (she actually says she’s “emancipated”) and stands up for herself when negotiating a raise from Jeffrey. But then she says its unladylike for a woman to pursue a man, despite her painfully fawning all over him. Hell, I wondered if through some bizarre twist that she might be the killer! When Jeffrey’s mother (Bette Davis) fires Peggy, you totally understand it! Get out of here you weirdo! We already got a house full of them!
Bette Davis of course blows everyone else off the screen, easily upstaging the oddly off-putting performance of Sian Barbara Allen’s Peggy and the comatose presence of Ted Bessell’s Jeffrey Elliot. Whether it’s shrieking at Peggy to get out, injuring herself in a fall in an effort to find a bottle of hooch or admitting that she let all this madness go on in her house because it allowed to drink whenever she wanted, it’s the most entertaining and memorable thing about a movie that lacks much of anything else of note. (You could almost feel her saying to Peggy during their scenes “I was winning Oscars before you were even born!”)
Once Bette engages in a final dialogue dump to explain everything (it only makes sense if you’re crazy I guess), the viewer is left to ponder exactly why anyone would think hiring another housekeeper after the last one got murdered is a good idea. If the house is too big for mom and Jeffrey to keep up, sell it and move! Why invite ambitious co-eds to snoop around and ask questions that require you to be suspiciously vague and evasive?
Though the final scenes only reinforce that you sat through a vastly inferior version of that aforementioned Alfred Hitchcock classic, Scream, Pretty Peggy inadvertently makes you forget all that when Bette rolls in to save the day one last time, when after the horrible truth about everything is revealed and Peggy is on the phone with the police, Bette plaintively asks “please, can i have a drink?” Knock yourself out, Bette! You’ve definitely earned it with this one!
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