Judge Christopher Kulik wrote this for review purposes only.
She's alone. No One Believes Her. And There's No Way Out!
Imagine being in the middle of nowhere. All you wanted was to take a quick rest during your travels, stopping to get some food and drink. Then, your spouse disappears without a trace. The locals aren't willing to help, remaining silent and ominous. Even the police, while being sympathetic, can't seem to come up with any clues. As day turns into night, your nerve-wracking search is taking a toll on your sanity, making you more vulnerable to whatever malevolent forces were responsible for your spouse's disappearance.
Confession, I'm a sucker for these simple, eerily effective set-ups. Such movies as George Sluizer's The Vanishing and Jonathan Mostow's Breakdown remain nail-biting endeavors in my book, as they build in intensity at every twist and turn. Adding to those theatrical films is a tightly-wound TV thriller broadcast as a Movie Of The Week back in 1973. In case you missed its debut on ABC, Dying Room Only now comes to DVD for the first time as part of the Warner Archive collection.
Somewhere in the Arizona desert, the Mitchells are driving home after a little vacation. Their trip was delayed because Jean (Cloris Leachman, Young Frankenstein) wanted to take some pictures for her children, exasperating her husband Bob (Dabney Coleman, Nine To Five). Since night is coming in a few hours, they agree to stop for a bite to eat at a run-down, crummy diner.
From the moment they enter the diner, things don't smell right. The owner is a tattooed brute named Jim Cutler (Ross Martin, The Wild, Wild West) who's hardly accommodating, displaying an attitude which would make anyone feel intimidated. The lone customer is Tom King (Ned Beatty, Superman), a loutish slug who seems to be there only for the beer.
After Jean adjourns to the bathroom for about ten seconds, she comes out and sees Bob is gone. He isn't outside or in the bathroom. Jim and Tom claim they didn't see him leave. Are they telling the truth? Did Bob simply leave Jean there? Or is what happened far more insidious?
Adapting his own 1953 short story of the same name, Richard Matheson delivers a solid exercise in suspense. The writer behind Duel and I Am Legend knows how to carefully construct a nightmare, and he strikes again here. The set-up, rhythm, and conclusion are all executed with supreme skill. The direction by TV vet Phillip Leacock (Gunsmoke) is efficient, and the chilling music by Charles Fox (Foul Play) is perfectly implemented. Nearly everything works here, with only the climax flirting with disappointment, preventing Dying Room Only from being the knockout it could have been.
Aiding the film immeasurably is first-rate performances by all. The A-list cast on display is certainly unusual for a Movie Of The Week, and every actor is just great. Leachman is commanding in the lead, as we feel her desperation and panic every step of the way; the lesser-known Martin projects the right amount of asperity; Beatty adds color and vinegar to his role as a smarmy buffoon; and a youngish Coleman makes an indelible impression, despite having limited screen time. As a bonus, we also have Louise Latham (Marnie) as the creepy manager of the adjoining motel.
Considering its almost forgotten status, Dying Room Only is a prime candidate for the Warner Archive collection. Like all other releases from the collection, however, don't expect the presentation to be pristine or the discs loaded with extras. The full frame image isn't half-bad, with the expected dirt and debris, and a modest amount of print damage. Sometimes the picture is fine, but most of the time it's tainted with anomalies. Luckily, the dialogue is easy to understand on the mono track. No subtitles or extras; in fact, the only benefit is chapter stops every ten minutes. Thus, the $19.95 price tag is pretty stiff, so if you can find it for rental somewhere that would be the best way to go.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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