Release Date(s)1973 (October 5, 2021)
Studio(s)Universal Television (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: C+
- Video Grade: C+
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: B+
TV movies of the 1970s often attracted female stars of the big screen whose careers were in decline. Ingrid Bergman, Lana Turner, Olivia de Havilland, Rita Hayworth, Ginger Rogers, Shelley Winters, and Maureen O’Hara all accepted roles in made-for-TV movies. Bette Davis was especially prolific in her small-screen pictures, making more than ten over a twenty-year period. Among them is the thriller Scream, Pretty Peggy, originally broadcast on ABC on November 24, 1973.
The film opens with a young woman trying to leave a house late one night when a mysterious figure emerges from the shadows and violently stabs her to death. We then cut to college art student Peggy (Sian Barbara Allen) at the college employment office. She takes a job as part-time housekeeper far from campus for artist Jeffrey Elliott (Ted Bessell, TV’s That Girl) and his mother (Davis). Jeffrey sculpts huge demonic figures alone in his studio while his mother spends her days drinking and scowling at Peggy. We learn later that Jeffrey has an insane sister who wanders the grounds at night and may be responsible for the murder of the woman at the beginning of the film and a second, equally violent murder.
Though Bette Davis gets star billing, the film focuses on Ms. Allen’s Peggy, as we see events through her eyes. Her outgoing, pleasant manner often seems exaggerated. She seems more than willing to do the work and even does little extras, like taking a tray of tea into Mrs. Elliott and bicycling the long distance to and from campus. Her soft-spoken style alternates with an aggressive push to observe the artist at work and get personally involved in his life, but this aspect of the story goes nowhere. Peggy eventually comes to realize that there’s danger in the Elliott house but can’t comprehend how great it is. Unfortunately, Ms. Allen doesn’t have a strong screen presence and her Peggy comes off more as a nosy interloper than a damsel in distress.
Ted Bessell conveys an easygoing manner as Jeffrey, a dedicated artist who sees in Peggy a sort of kindred spirit. She admires his work and tells him that’s the main reason she wanted to work for him. Naturally, he’s flattered and the two develop a pleasant working relationship as Peggy insinuates herself more and more into the family.
Davis’ performance relies mostly on harsh looks, rude comments, wide-eyed stares, and ominous warnings. Sixty-five at the time, Davis speaks haltingly, with odd emphases, adding to Mrs. Elliott’s strangeness, but her character is not fleshed out. She’s on hand mostly for her star power and commanding presence.
Director Gordon Hessler (The Oblong Box) has crafted an atmospheric, often creepy film with moments of suspense. Because of censorship, the violence is far from what you would see on the big screen and this dilutes the tension, making things look too neat and clean. Shot routinely with few memorable compositions or cinematic touches, the film looks like what it is—a made-for-TV, low-budget picture shot mostly on studio sets with unimaginative production design. The Elliott mansion, for instance, should look a lot more foreboding than it does.
Written by Hammer scribe Jimmy Sangster and one-time screenwriter Arthur Hoffe, Scream, Pretty Peggy borrows from so many other horror film and thrillers that genre aficionados can easily figure out the root of the evil that pervades the Elliott household. Even if you’re a newcomer to thrillers, you might find yourself way ahead of the plot.
The new 2K restoration of Scream, Pretty Peggy by Kino Lorber Studio Classics, featuring 1080p resolution, is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.33:1. Much of the film has a drab look, with no bold colors. The exception is the bright red, life-size, scary-looking sculptures Jeffrey creates. A mysterious figure seen at night wears a flowing dress that looks like a shroud. The night scenes have a bluish cast, making them look simultaneously artificial and eerie. A figure seen periodically behind a curtain through a window in an apartment above the garage sends a chill.
The soundtrack is English 2.0 Mono DTS-High Definition Master Audio. Optional English subtitles are available. Dialogue is clear throughout. Davis’ speech is somewhat eccentric, and isn’t as conversational as that of Allen and Bessell. In a kitchen scene, the sound has a slight echo. The score by Robert Prince is typical of TV movies of the period—generic and undistinguished. The music does little to enhance mood. It’s just there.
Bonus materials include an audio commentary and several TV spots, and newly commissioned cover art.
Audio Commentary – Film historians Troy Howarth and Nathaniel Thompson share this commentary. The first murder victim, seen in the film’s opening, is Tovah Feldshuh in her screen debut. TV movies in the fall of 1973 proliferated and many were shown within a three-month period. This was the “Golden age of the made-for-TV movie.” Films were turned out in a matter of weeks by studios that had contract players and crews. Locations were limited and speed of production was important. Product was “cranked out” on a regular basis. Many of the actors in Scream, Pretty Peggy also worked on Night Gallery, another Universal production, which featured directors Steven Spielberg, John Badham, and Jeannot Szwarc. The Elliott home seen in the film is an actual California house that was frequently used in TV movies. Bette Davis is inhabiting her “grotesque persona” established in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and her character is ambiguous. We don’t know if she’s good or evil. Ted Bessell, is slightly bland, slightly dull, with a trace of creepiness. Sian Barbara Allen is not a terribly sympathetic heroine, vacillating between simpy and pushy. Writer Jimmy Sangster’s work for Hammer Films is discussed. Many of his films have been referred to as “mini Hitchcocks.” Sangster directed many American TV episodes and produced an eclectic and interesting body of work. Charles Drake, who plays the murdered girl’s father, was a veteran character actor who appeared in both theatrical and television movies. Scream, Pretty Peggy is reminiscent of a number of films, including Psycho, The Spiral Staircase, Homicidal, and House of Wax. TV movies gave older actresses a showcase and an opportunity to work after their big screen careers had faded. Director Gordon Hessler had a successful career in England before his career was derailed. He came to America, worked on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, produced at American International Pictures, and did good journeyman work on TV.
TV Spots – Four brief TV spots advertising movies in the thriller genre are included:
- Scream, Pretty Peggy (:34)
- Fear No Evil (1:35)
- Ritual of Evil (1:38)
- Kolchak: The Night Stalker (:34)
The newly commissioned cover art for this Blu-ray release was created by Vince Evans and is dominated by a close-up of a plunging knife with Bette Davis’ character of Mrs. Elliott in the background looking over her shoulder with menace on her face. The Blu-ray disc sits in a blue amaray case with this artwork, housed within a limited slipcover featuring the same new art.
Scream, Pretty Peggy is interesting primarily as a late-career effort by Bette Davis. Eager to work, she became less discriminating when roles offered her were less than spectacular. She gives the role her all and understands that Mrs. Elliott is supposed to be enigmatic and imposing. As a thriller, the film relies too much on other, better films, and lacks a distinctive style.
- Dennis Seuling