Appellate Judge Tom Becker don't like spiders and snakes, but a crazy gang moll might be what it takes to love him.
Our review of Ruby, published September 12th, 2003, is also available.
"Christened in blood
Curtis Harrington came a little late to the crazy-old-lately horror genre that was kicked started by Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? in 1962. His What's the Matter with Helen? lacked both suspense and camp value, despite a script by Baby Jane author Henry Farrell and aging stars Shelley Winters and Debbie Reyonlds in the lead roles; Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? also starred Winters, but this slow-moving, soft-horror take on Hansel and Gretel did little to burnish Harrington's rep.
After the interestingly pervy The Killing Kind, Harrington worked in television for a while, then came back to features with 1977's Ruby, another foray into not-so-grand guignol, but one that drew from some more contemporaneous films: Carrie and The Exorcist. Unfortunately, while the film tries desperately to be shocking, atmospheric, and over-the-top, it's just a pointless and overwrought mess.
Piper Laurie, newly minted horror star, thanks to her Oscar-nominated role in Carrie, plays the titular Ruby, a one-time mob moll whose honey was rubbed out, gangland-style, just before she birthed his baby in 1936. It's now 1951, and Ruby owns a drive-in theater where most of the old gang works. It's a mighty forward drive-in, too—the only film they show is Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, which wasn't even made until 1958.
Unfortunately, things at the drive-in are not all bliss and popcorn. The retired gangsters are dying in bizarre and, frankly, stupid ways. There's something supernatural afoot, but the slightly deranged Ruby's only barely seeing it. She stumbles around, sometimes drunk, clinging to her days of bygone glory and tending to her mute daughter.
Her more level-headed business partner and part-time lover, Vince (Stuart Whitman, The Mark), figures out that otherworldliness is at play and sends for a paranormally gifted friend (Roger Davis, Dark Shadows), who divines that Ruby's long-dead squeeze is back for a little beyond-the-grave vengeance.
Why did he wait 16 years to start these pyrotechnics? Beats me. Why does Ruby's daughter start channeling her absentee dad and doing the Regan MacNeil spider walk? Ditto. And wouldn't a spirit know exactly who did betray him and not have to be poking around for answers and skewering the innocent? You'd think…
Ruby is a drive-in horror movie, but it seems to have been made for people who wouldn't normally go to drive-ins. The characters are middle-aged, the gore is anemic, and the period setting—and references to an earlier period (the '30s)—makes it all seem quaint. The trailer and ad campaign played up the possessed daughter angle, but this takes up only a few minutes of screen time. Most of the film is made up of the paunchy, aging gangsters being unconvincingly sent to bunk with the fishies and Laurie's florid ramblings as the titular former floozy. It's far from scary or suspenseful, and interesting mainly as a curio.
While Ruby might be a silly, campy misfire, it's a bold stroke of brilliance compared to the over-fried Cheeto that is Kiss of the Tarantula.
In this film, which is far more drive-in appropriate and far less coherent, we meet tarantula-loving pre-teen Susan, whose father is a mortician and whose mother is a slut. Mom is planning to off Dad and run off with his brother, a sheriff, but when Susan overhears the plot, she sics her spiders on her mother. One loud heart attack later, and it's a one-parent household.
Flash forward, and Susan is a really pretty teen with the usual movie-teen problems: namely, the rowdy boys in town think she's a freak because she lives in a funeral home. When they break in and slaughter one of her pet tarantulas, she exacts revenge by unleashing a candy box full of the furry fellows at the drive-in. Her tormentors suffer and die, not from tarantula bites, but things like broken windshield glass and being crushed up against a speaker pole.
The killings and other minor horrors continue apace, though strangely, no one actually dies from a tarantula bite. Plot points and extraneous characters are randomly introduced and just as randomly discarded. The whole thing leads to an icky, incest-heavy attempted seduction and an elaborate problem-solve that has nothing to do with tarantulas, bullies, or drive-ins, but is fun to watch, if a tad labored.
This one's a bargain-basement schlocker on par with Don't Look in the Basement, Don't Go in the House, Don't Open the Door! or any of those imperatively titled horror films, but without the (deserved or otherwise) cult cred. Made by people you've never heard of and starring people you've never seen (except, maybe, character actor Eric Mason, who plays the nasty uncle), this is a real no-frills affair: no budget, no scares, and no sense. Sure, the scenes of marauding tarantulas are creepy, and my hat goes off to any film that provides work for tarantula wranglers, but the whole thing is so haphazard and amateur, it's like watching outtakes from a decades-old film school project. In her first and only screen appearance, Suzanna Ling, who plays Susan, Friend of Spiders, is remarkably beautiful in a Sharon Tate sort of way, but her mainly passive character doesn't have enough to do to make her a full-on scream queen. Things like atmosphere, pacing, and suspense are in short supply here; this was definitely the film you made out during back in the open-air movie heyday.
Ruby's letterboxed transfer is in pretty good shape, but the anamorphically enhanced Tarantula's image is dreadful. Audio is reasonable, though far from great. Trailers are the only supplements. Evidently, an earlier release of Ruby contained a few extras, including a commentary with Laurie and Harrington, and I don't know why VCI didn't just re-release that version.
A drive-in bill of lowered expectations, Ruby and Kiss of the Tarantula are easy enough to sit through, but I wouldn't break out the gourmet popcorn.
Not guilty as these things go, quite guilty as goes everything else.
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