The Attic (1980)
Directed by George Edwards and Gary Graver
Written by Tony Crechales and George Edwards
Starring Carrie Snodgress, Ray Milland, Ruth Cox, Rosemary Murphy
The 1973 film The Killing Way presented the gruesome murders of women that follow the release of a man convicted of rape. I’ve never seen it, but that’s okay. It’s irrelevant for this review except for its connection to The Attic. You see, the main characters of The Attic — Louise Elmore and her father Wendell — were side characters in The Killing Way, played by Luana Anders and Peter Brocco. Writers Tony Crechales and George Edwards decided to reuse them here, making it not quite a sequel but at the least a shared universe. Fortunately, this loose connection means that you can enjoy The Attic without having seen The Killing Way.
The problem is that it’s not the easiest film to enjoy, although I convince myself every time I see it that I do. Nominally a horror movie, which is evident only in the final moments, it’s more of a character study rooted in pop psychology. The character being studied is Louise Elmore, played by Carrie Snodgress. The film seems to believe that she’s an alcoholic, which is portrayed as simply drinking a lot. She has been the head librarian for twenty years, during which time she started a pile of books on fire. For some reason, she was kept on until now, but it’s all over for her. She’s being let go and will be training her replacement, Emily Perkins (Ruth Cox). On top of that stress she has to take care of her father, who was crippled because of a fire at his business that Louise likely started. Father Wendell constantly ridicules and berates her, which makes tending to his needs a literally thankless task. Her only happiness lies in the past, with memories and film of her fiancé before he vanished on their wedding day. So we have a lonely, care-taking, alcoholic with a penchant for arson who’s about to lose her job. Something’s got to give, and it’s going to have to be the audience.
We now enter the realm of things you might not want to know. This includes spoilers, but you really might just not want to know.
Rather than have Louise snap and start burning everything down or go with a slow burn that ends with an explosion of her pent-up frustrations, Crechales and Edwards give us nearly a full movie of filler. Louise befriends Emily and sets to work solving her problems. Louise masturbates. Louise plays with her monkey. Louise– No, that wasn’t a euphemism. For some reason, a local pet store has a monkey, and for some additional reason Emily decides to buy the damn poo-flinger for Louise. The best part of the whole movie is Milland’s exaggerated double-take when he first sees her little Dickie. There’s also a humiliating one-night stand with a sailor, just to keep nothing happening. The whole thing feels awkward — not in a “wow, this gets at uncomfortable truths” way but in a “I really shouldn’t have read my cousin’s slash fiction” way.
There are really two stories here. One is a mild comedy about Emily, who gets her life under control with the help of her kooky mentor. This isn’t bad, but it’s pushed almost to the background. There’s only one scene of Emily that doesn’t center on Louise. The story that the movie prefers is that of Louise essentially killing time until the ending. A lot could be made of the opposite paths that the women are on, but you’d have to do it yourself. The writers merely present events as though they’re unconnected, and largely that’s what they are: random scenes that don’t add up to much. Certainly there’s no coherent sense of Louise that’s built out of them. She’s a frustrated, alcoholic child of a tyrant, who maybe acts a little childish and self-deprecating. That’s it. That’s the entirety of her outward expression of being a psychological powder-keg. In a movie that gives us nothing but character scenes, this lack of genuine tension is fatal.
This is the first entry in both my 2016 Hubrisween reviews and a new non-arachnid endeavor: The Ray Milland Project. Milland is one of my favorite actors of the 20th century, with a career that spanned 7 decades. He became a minor star as a leading man in romantic comedies at Paramount. Then he refused a role and was punished by being forced to take the part of an alcoholic in The Lost Weekend, a role that everybody else at the studio was turning down. The film earned him an Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role, and for a time he got a lot of plumb assignments. By the time of The Attic he’d become a character actor, and the character was Horrid Old Man.
Wendell Elmore is almost a parody of a Milland character of this last phase of his career. He’s bitter, stingy, cruel, and reflexively demeaning. As we’ll see in other of his films from this period he’s also manipulative, particularly in his efforts to keep his daughter under his control. Two things send this character over the top. One is that he gets into a deadly grudge match with Dickie, Louise’s monkey. Yes, Ray Milland versus a monkey. That would have been another good movie with the proper focus. The other is a master stroke of evil, and the first reveal in the sudden orgy of “things actually happening” in the final moments of the film. Wendell has not been confined to his wheelchair for quite some time. He’s been faking his infirmity for years in order to keep Louise feeling guilty. That’s messed up, right there. Of course, he’s been up to much worse, but the sheer dedication to this deception is impressively vile.
I really wish I liked this one. The insanity of the finale and Wendell’s total bastardry are delights, and the whole business with the monkey is some choice absurdity. It’s just that the rest is so pointless and tedious that it’s hard to stay engaged in the movie. That must be why I’ve seen it more times than Jaws.