My old nemesis Frederick Wertham comes up in the book. It’s interesting, because it’s specifically intended to refute what made me so angry about him in the first place. One of the characters in the book had a session with Freud and was analyzed by one of his disciples, and she mentions Wertham in a positive light. She calls him an inspired psychiatrist, but we get considerably more reason to believe that the character she’s disdaining by saying he isn’t as good as Wertham is right about things. It’s kind of satisfying, given Wertham was alive at the time. And in fact his goddamn book came out the same year.
Christine Penmark is a happy wife and mother. Sort of. Her husband is away on business and will be for some time to come. There was some kind of unpleasantness in Baltimore before, but they’ve moved, and her darling daughter Rhoda is happily ensconced at the most exclusive private school in [mumble mumble], possibly Louisiana. Only there’s something off about Rhoda. Who is currently obsessed with the fact that another kid at the school won the medal for most improved penmanship. Then, while they’re at the kids’ school picnic, the other boy drowns.
Slowly, Christine realizes that there is something terribly, terribly wrong with Rhoda. With the help of Reginald Tasker, she begins to learn things about her own past that she’d been repressing that are the key to what’s wrong with Rhoda. She’s known all along that Rhoda is a horrible liar, and she was kicked out of her school in Baltimore for stealing, but is there more? And is there anything more she can do about that?
The movie’s pretty close. We actually see Kenneth Penmark, played by William Hopper a year before he was Paul Drake. Christine is Nancy Kelly, and Rhoda is Patty McCormack. The cast list is considerably shortened from the book, but we get upstairs neighbours Monica Breedlove (Evelyn Varden) and her brother, Emory (Jesse White), whose last name I’m not sure we ever get. We also, however, get creepy handyman Leroy (Henry Jones), the Daigles (Frank Cady and Eileen Heckart), and—in a departure from the book, where he’s dead—Christine’s father, celebrated writer Richard Bravo (Paul Fix).
Oh, and they change the ending. Well, they have to; the original ending goes against the Code and was simply not permitted. Honestly, I’m a bit surprised that they were able to make the movie in the first place. It’s kind of how you see that the Code was weakening, if you want the truth. While it was all terribly shocking, to explore a young girl who was Born Evil, it’s the kind of thing that could arguably be seen as a mockery of God, since the girl wasn’t born perfect. And that’s to say nothing of the line—kept from the book—about how such people are throwbacks to humanity fifty thousand years ago.
Don’t get me wrong; it’s definitely true that a lot of serial killers have horrific upbringings. John Wayne Gacy’s can make you cry until you remember that, you know, he was John Wayne Gacy. How much that’s true of all serial killers, though, is still up for considerable debate. The current consensus seems to be that, although you cannot make a serial killer from scratch, you can certainly exacerbate the damage in an already flawed personality. We’re doing a lot more research on the subject than was done in the ‘50s, let’s be clear, but the idea that you might consider doing research seems to have not occurred to, say, Wertham.
Almost all the serial killers described in the book are real, with the exception of the one who drives much of the plot. What I find deeply interesting is that she is executed in the book and disappears in the movie. You’d think the Code would have prohibited that, but I guess not. Anyway, the issues of the story are intense, even if the movie’s ending makes me laugh out loud. I get what it’s going for, but man is it silly, kind of breaking the mood of something deeply intense.
Things are happening next month, but we’ll be into the Wild West with The Stars in Their Courses, which became the John Wayne movie El Dorado. So yeah, pay me for going a bit outside my comfort zone by contributing to my Patreon or Ko-fi!