The Killing Kind (1973)
By: Mr Intolerance on May 18, 2010  | 
Dark Sky | Region 1, NTSC | 1.85:1 (16:9 enhanced) | English Dolby Digital 2.0 | 95 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: Curtis Harrington
Starring: Anne Sothern, John Savage, Ruth Roman, Luana Anders, Cindy Williams, Sue Bernard
Screenplay: Tony Crechales, George Edwards
Country: USA
External Links
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The first time I watched The Killing Kind, I remember being distinctly unimpressed. But I kept thinking about it – and that's got to be the mark of a good film, so I resolved to watch it again, and so here I am appropriately enough (or not) on Mother's Day re-watching and re-evaluating The Killing Kind.

Terry has been in gaol for sexual assault, but now he's out on parole and going back to work at the Hollywood boarding house run by Thelma, who really puts the "mother" back in "smother". Their relationship is a very ambiguous one, to say the least, and at times a very difficult one to watch, with its intimations of the Oedipal. Matter of fact, it's a little unclear that she is his mother to begin with, given he addresses her by her first name. He's an odd fellow is Terry, with a sort of distant, disconnected kind of air about him. Thelma babies him (with the chocolate milk she's constantly feeding him being the motif to look for) and deludes herself into thinking that Terry didn't take part in the gang-rape that opens the film (although there are moments when she acknowledges his crime, reminding him to keep his hands to himself) – true enough, he's forced into it, but he has told her that he never touched the girl, which isn't exactly true. Terry claims that the victim lied, the lawyer was incompetent and the judge unfair, and when Thelma states off-handedly that she wishes the victim was dead, Terry doesn't make any comment, but the look on his face speaks volumes.

So does the fact that when new tenant Lori (played by Cindy Williams, future star of Laverne and Shirley), an aspiring photographer's model turns up the following day, Terry greets her dressed only in his underpants, which leaves her a little non-plussed, to say the least. Thelma warns him to stay away from Lori, but her motives are not purely to keep him out of the joint for another stint. The bizarreness of their relationship is only emphasised by their laughter over the death of one of their previous tenants. Thelma refers to them as "The Two Musketeers", effectively drawing a line about them that excludes all others, but it's pretty rapidly apparent that Terry finds this all a bit too smothering.

In contrast to this, we see Terry and Thelma's neighbours, a father and his daughter Louise who are meant to represent a normal family, but are every bit as abnormal, albeit in a different way – bloodless and disconnected. The daughter takes an interest in young Terry, despite her father's admonitions to stay away from him, also letting us know that Terry once tried to set the house on fire. All families have their little quirks, dysfunctions and oddities, the director seems to be saying – it's the scale of them that differs. Terry and Thelma's are on a very large scale indeed… Terry's new hobby of perving on Lori while strangling the family cat would tend to indicate this, as much as the Louise's spying on Terry with a pair of binoculars at the same indicates her own abnormality. Voyeurism is a motif that recurs in the film – even when looking at the gang-rape scene, Terry is quite happy to watch what's going on, he doesn't intervene and it's only when he's forced into action that he shows any kind of emotional response.

Terry poses for Thelma in a range of different ways while she photographs him, the proud, devoted mother – and you can understand why she does so, I mean the upstairs doesn't have nearly enough photos of Terry from every stage of his life on the walls, obscuring any square inch of space. Terry likes photos, too, but the women in them are usually in a state of undress, and he like to look at them real hard, replaying images from the rape in his mind while masturbating. And right after executing the five-knuckle shuffle, he does something that his parole officer probably wouldn't be too keen on – he calls Tina, the rape victim. Tina, it would seem, is rather the promiscuous little minx these days, and Terry doesn't seem to like that all too much. No, he doesn't like it one little bit, as Tina soon finds out.

Lori also finds that her landlady's son is someone to be wary of when horsing about in the pool with him – Thelma's not too happy about this either, calling Lori a whore and telling her she led Terry on to strip and half-drown her, but then that may just have been the shock of finding her favourite kitty-kat dead in the trash – all of this observed by Louise. Terry's also starting to terrorise the other tenants, beginning by showing one of the many old ladies in the boarding house exactly how a mouse-trap works – by smashing the skull of a live rat causing her to faint. I'm not too sure how real the violence against the rat (or indeed the cat whose neck Terry stretched) is; nevertheless, it's pretty darned disturbing.

Louise pays a visit to Terry that night, wanting him in her pants, and with some disturbing things on her mind to share with him. Now to my mind, she's been presented as a reasonably normal character up until this point, and a point of audience sympathy given her grim, suffocating relationship with her demanding, clingy, complaining father, but Harrington yanks the rug out from under our feet remarkably effectively, and with consummate skill – Louise is still a credible character, but all of a sudden we're separated from her; we want distance from her and her desires.

But not as much distance as we want to put between Terry and Thelma. As the film progresses, so does our feeling of discomfort about the nature of their relationship. "Stop it, or I'll get a hickey!" Do you know that when Thelma said that to Terry, I actually turned away from the screen? There are some things I think you could never be de-sensitised to. Director Harrington states in the interview that accompanies the film that when The Killing Kind was shown to an executive from Universal, they said they had no idea of how to market the film. I can well believe it. Incest is a line that the majority of the human race is unwilling to cross, even in terms of fictional representations of it. It touches on an instinctive revulsion, an emotional gag response that is triggered here by Terry and Thelma's unsettling love games. The excellence of the performances of John Savage and Ann Sothern respectively gives what you're watching a kind of credibility that makes the whole thing seem even worse.

Lori and Louise have two very different episodes with Terry – Lori is still terrified (no pun intended) of him, and the fact that he's cutting up her underwear with razor blades is reason enough to be; Louise turns up to apologise for her words the previous night, but when Terry insults her, she turns the tables on him and cuts him to the quick, accusing him in a metaphoric way of impotence. Terry, whose first sexual experience was rape has already made the link between sex and violence – so when he can't indulge in one, he goes directly towards the other, and pays an unwelcome visit on the female lawyer who couldn't defend him.

"Women are meant to be soft and cuddly, and they smell so sweet and pretty." Terry's views on the fairer sex are based on an ideal to do with his mother, an objectification that allows him freedom of action. Tough women are a wall he vainly beats his fists on – the judge who sentenced him, for example, or even Louise. "Soft and cuddly" women like Lori, or Tina are the kind of women he wants, women he can subjugate. The lawyer is somewhere in between, but Terry has an edge with her.

Terry seems to be re-evaluating his relationship with his mother somewhat (he really doesn't seem to know what the hell he wants from her), and experiences a strange dream tying sex, the women in his life, the rape and being a child all together in a fashion that would have the average analyst asking for danger money. Thelma seems to be thinking things through with a bit less family bias, too, once she hears about the death of Terry's lawyer – there's a conversational stand-off, with her asking him if he did it, and him not exactly answering, but giving it the old, "You don't think I did it?" routine. Exactly what Thelma's thinking is up for question. They avoid the topic through Thelma's reminiscences about Terry as a child, while their Myna bird begins its litany of "Are you a good boy?" Tension mounts. Neither character is happy, and both of them are aware of it.

Something has got to give.

And give it most certainly does. I'll leave you there to watch the final act for yourselves – just like snu-snu, it'll blow your mind, and takes a number of people with it. I've got to say that watching this film a second time has proven a most rewarding experience, and I like it a hell of a lot more than I did the first time through. I think initially I was expecting something more explosive, along the lines of Poor Pretty Eddie, Fight For Your Life, The Candy Snatchers and the like. The Killing Kind is a much more subtle film in some ways, and in others even more gratuitous, sleazy and lurid than some of exploitation's real rough trade.

As an examination of family relationships, The Killing Kind isn't too…well…kind. There's either an unhealthy proximity that shuts out anybody else and allows for excuses to be made for any terrible behaviour on the part of other family members, or a resentment and frustration that twists people into somebody negative, somebody who given a more free rein, they would never have been. Director Harrington states that his films usually contain elements of tragedy, and to my mind, this is one of them – families are claustrophobic greenhouses breeding sickness, or an arctic tundra of isolation.

I was also wondering whether or not the director was deliberately making a statement on the nature of human evil. Some people are born bad, he seems to be saying – that's certainly the case with Terry, and, it would appear, Thelma. When Thelma learns of Tina's death, she takes it very calmly in her stride, despite the fact that it's clearly implied that she knows Terry, her dear little sociopath, did it. That's not exactly effective parenting.

It became apparent to me as the film went on that Harrington is also discussing the nature of imprisonment and freedom. Sure Terry was in gaol, but he was free of his mother – to my mind once he returns to Thelma's boarding house, he's simply swapped one gaol for another, and if anything, this one's a lot worse for him, keeping him locked up in a stultifying relationship that is offering him nothing more than treading emotional water. Louise is similarly trapped by her paraplegic father; instead of the explosive rages Terry flies into, she escapes through bitterness and booze. Thelma is trapped by her mundane job, by the house and her memories, by routine (the sequence in the Laundromat testifies ably to this). And so we return to the notion of voyeurism – when you're trapped behind bars, it's really all you've got to do – to look at what you cannot have.

And it is the central idea of voyeurism that fascinates me the most. Watching other people whether they are aware of it or not – the fetishistic nature of it, and the notion of power in that form of relationship; it's kind of like the relationship between a sadist and a masochist – who's really in charge? The viewer, or the viewed? My vote is on the latter, as it's the nature of what they do that gives pleasure or not to the spectator. I get the impression that Harrington is trying to communicate one of a range of ideas with this idea of observation: firstly, perhaps that people don't interact effectively, and therefore cannot know one another, and people are scared of what they don't know – and so you observe (as Louise does, thus gaining power); or that it's to objectify something or someone, raising or diminishing their importance according to how you want them to fit in with your desires; or that the image of people has somehow replaced the importance of an actual person – we willingly substitute the image for them (Terry's pornography, TV and film generally). Whichever way you shake it, we're all of us prisoners of one kind or another, we're all on the inside looking out.

One thing is certainly sure: The Killing Kind will most definitely stay with you long after you watch it.
The picture looks great – maybe more films should be locked in a vault for over thirty years having hardly ever been watched. In that regard it's a shame that the film looks as good as it does. It's a crystal clear image with only minor speckle and grain – as usual, Dark Sky do not disappoint.
The audio is also fine, with the glitch-free 2.0 mono track being all the film really needs.
Extra Features
The only Extra is a 22 minute interview with director Curtis Harrington, where he discusses his career in general, and this film in specific. It's quite an interesting interview, and to be quite honest it's amazing that we even have the film itself, given the history of The Killing Kind's appallingly mismanaged distribution.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
Ultimately, The Killing Kind is a grim, callous, claustrophobic film packing a considerably visceral punch in depicting the tragedy of modern existence. The direction, script and acting are of a noticeably higher standard than your average early 70s US exploitationer, and its view on contemporary life and especially family values is particularly unflinching. The Killing Kind is not for everyone. Nevertheless, it comes to you very highly recommended indeed.

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