This remarkable black comedy is often listed as a horror film yet it has more nervous laughs than shivers. It’s a solid idea: cruelly marginalized old folks get madder than hell and just won’t take it any more. Or maybe they simply go nuts. The cast of ‘over seventies’ playing over eighty is just marvelous, and one murderous little pixie is a delight: Paula Trueman. Things do become absurd but the universally-understood premise stays firm. . . we’ll all be there sooner or later. “A Murder A Day Keeps the Landlord Away.”
KL Studio Classics
1974 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 96 min. / Street Date November 2, 2021 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Peter Brocco, Frances Fuller, William Hansen, Ruth McDevitt, Paula Trueman, Ian Wolfe, Linda Marsh, Douglas Fowley, Kenneth Tobey, Wesley Lau.
Cinematography: Isasdore Mankovsky
Art Director: John Retsek
Film Editor: Peter Parasheles
Original Music: Bernardo Segáll
Written by Larry Yust, Bennett Sims, Howard Kaminsky
Produced by Marshall Backlar
Directed by Larry Yust
Movies began skewing ‘youthful’ ever since the 1950s, but old folks never got much of a cinematic break except as comic or sentimental relief. Leo McCarey’s tragic masterpiece Make Way for Tomorrow impressed Hollywood in 1938, but its theme was deemed just too sad for the mainstream. When ‘mature’ actors scored, it was mostly for being funny. A high-quality star in this vein was Thelma Ritter, who was great when serious, too. Then there are actors who began playing old folk in their ’30s, like the nearly-immortal Ian Wolfe. Unless somebody happened to snag a TV role as the dotty granma or granpa, work might be steady but recognition elusive. An exceptional actress that may have made this movie seem viable is Ruth Gordon, who capped a long performing and writing career with a return to the screen in eccentric senior citizen roles.
Producer Marshall Backlar (Pretty Poison) and director Larry Yust assembled this 1974 show featuring a full cast of ‘unknown but ubiquitous’ film thesps, all of them over fifty. They hold the screen with ease, and one is so good that she should have been given star billing. The quirky movie Homebodies never had a day in the spotlight and in fact wasn’t given much of a release. Although it’s more accurately a deadpan black comedy, horror fans discovered it through an enthusiastic report in the 1987 Hardy Encyclopedia of Horror. Did the show perhaps receive better distribution in the U.K.?
In total denial of their impending eviction, a half-dozen pensioners refuse to leave an aging Cincinnati tenement slated for demolition. Entire blocks will be razed and they can see a high-rise going up a block away, all the doing of developer Crawford (Douglas Fowley). Social worker Miss Pollack (Linda Marsh) has run out of patience with the tenants, who have been squatting for six months, their rent checks returned. Widower Mr. Sandy is a packrat would-be author who doesn’t want to leave his ‘research materials’ behind. Mr. Loomis (Ian Wolfe) insists he’s still the superintendent, and is painting the facade even though the wrecking ball is due. His dear wife (Ruth McDevitt) tries to explain her situation to her daughter on the phone, but is ignored. Mr. Blakely (Peter Brocco) is blind but knows his neighbors by their footsteps. The nervous Miss Emily Wilkins (Frances Fuller) hasn’t left her top floor apartment in years and is tended to by the diminutive Mattie (Paula Trueman), a crafty and frankly nutty little busybody.
Mattie independently takes the first step by sabotaging the construction around the corner . . . except that a construction worker is accidentally killed in the bargain. Seeing that a work delay will also delay the demolition, Mattie arranges another construction ‘accident’ that kills three more. Miss Pollack drives some of the tenants to their ugly new rooms in a large housing complex — but the group sneaks back to the tenement on its own. Miss Pollack checks to see if the missing Mattie and Miss Emily are hiding out in the old building, and . . .
Although Mattie takes the lead the squatters band together to defend their turf, banking on the fact that nobody will suspect them. Just the same, that wrecking ball keeps getting closer.
Perhaps Homebodies can be filed next to 1979’s geezer crime tale Going in Style, with George Burns, Art Carney and Lee Strasberg. That show also depicts old folks as real people, not comic relief and not the noble, self-sacrificing couples in disaster movies that volunteer to perish, ‘because they’re old anyway.’ Forget those clichés. The residents in Homebodies’ old building aren’t going to surrender quietly, even if one or two are a little loose in the head.
When Mr. Loomis insists on painting a building slated for demolition he’s making the same declarative statement as a campus activist occupying a building: I Won’t Be Ignored. Miss Pollack brushes off Mr. Sandy’s talk about his hoarder’s nest of papers and books, all dedicated to a novel he’s written about his beloved wife. Mr. Blakeley plays the violin whenever he’s alone. A lifetime at one address enables him to white-cane his way about almost as if he were sighted, and moving to an unfamiliar new place will again make him dependent on others. The somewhat withered Miss Emily is a shy recluse who pretends that her husband still dines with her every night. Does she have a right to her fragile fantasies?
Mattie is the catalyst in this pensioner wrecking crew. Tiny but feisty, she scoots around the neighborhood eating prunes out of a cardboard box and conniving bits of mischief that might delay the destruction of their home. Adversity has broken down any inhibitions Mattie may have had about mayhem. When her first prank results in a death, a green light goes off in her consciousness: if nobody cares whether she and her neighbors live or die, why should they go quietly? Legitimate self-defense can take different forms, including outright killing. Although the absurdities do eventually stretch credibility we understand the chemistry: these old folks are fighting for their lives.
Ian Wolfe (age 78) is the grand old man of the film, having worked steadily since 1934 playing opposite everyone — Peter Lorre, Clark Gable, Bette Davis, James Dean — and for directors Hitchcock, Wyler, Disney, Wilder, Lang, Preminger and George Lucas. The next most familiar face is William Hansen (only 63!), a veteran easily spotted in Fail Safe and 1776. Film noir fans will know first-billed Peter Brocco (age 71) as the skinny, sneering villain of several fine thrillers. He has memorable parts in His Kind of Woman and The Narrow Margin and is also a great mad doctor in Our Man Flint.
The actresses have extensive experience in glorified bits but Homebodies gives them real scenes. Ruth McDevitt (age 79 but looking younger) ran a pet store in The Birds and had a little more to do in Dear Heart.
The interesting Frances Fuller (age 68) had been a perky ingénue in the late 1920s. Showy stage roles led only to a couple of pre-Code features, after which she returned to the stage and maybe twenty small film roles spread over forty years. Fuller’s emotionally fragile Miss Emily eventually gets into the spirit of the game.
The mischievous Paula Trueman (age 77) ought to be given billing in a box. Forever cute and pixie-eyed, Trueman didn’t work steadily until the late 1960s, when she showed up in everything from Paint Your Wagon to Moonstruck. Nobody on the street pays Mattie any attention. She can sneak in and out of the construction site — nobody accuses a 5-foot old lady of loitering with intent. Mattie has the nerve to sabotage an elevator, wield a mean knife and cart a corpse in a wheelchair halfway across town. All of the cast members get to play dead-pan, slow-burn reactions to various grisly scenes, but Paula’s are the most rewarding. Her Mattie is an engagingly tough cookie, with snappy, sharp answers for the frustrated Miss Pollack. Her crinkly eyes beam with delight every time one of her nefarious plans pays off.
Homebodies remains interesting because 1) its vision of the abandoned elderly rings true, and 2) the pensioners’ resistance mirrors ‘pointless’ violence seen elsewhere in society. Once they cross the line ‘not to spill blood’ there’s no turning back. The show indeed slips into horror territory with the big-time developer that evicted them. When they function as a gang the tenants seem capable of anything. After hiding a body they discover that a part of his foot is sticking out. But old folks are resourceful problem-solvers: a convenient fire axe is just a few feet away.
The last reel begins to slip a bit, with Mattie running amuck, threatening her fellow neighbors. But the tone remains consistently droll. The recurring image is a line of little old folk making their quiet way to a killing or slipping back home, knowing they’ve delayed the wrecking ball by a few hours.
We wonder if this show was a partial inspiration for Mick Garris, Brad Bird and Matthew Robbins’ sweetness & light sci-fi comedy *batteries not included, in which an endearing group of tenement denizens are saved by mini-UFOs, as in ‘The Cobbler and the Elves.’ The appeal of Homebodies for this viewer is watching its ‘minor’ players take a shot at slightly more substantial characters. How nice for Paula Trueman to get at least this showcase to shine.
The ensemble of elderly supporting players reminds me of the one or two attempts in the ’60s and ’70s to fashion a movie around over-the-hill actors familiar as western bad guys. Somebody really should have rounded up capable western actors that invariably got gunned down in reel 3: Jack Elam and Lee Van Cleef got to take their victory laps, but what about Ralph Dumke, Jack Lambert, John Dehner, Robert J. Wilke, Chuck Roberson, etc.? It would have been nice to see them as reformed old bums, banding together to do something honorable.
The filmmakers wisely do not surround the tenants with nasty ‘enemies.’ The construction workers just want to be safe at work, so it’s in no way amusing when several get electrocuted or fall from a great height. Veterans Kenneth Tobey (age 57, The Thing from Another World) and Douglas Fowley ( age 62, Singin’ in the Rain) play the worried foreman and the angry developer. They treat the pensioners the way everybody else does, as stray dogs to be ignored or shooed away. Not getting enough sympathy is Miss Pollack (Linda Marsh), the tired social worker who can’t hide her lack of patience. Being nice doesn’t help when you’ve got a ‘cruddy job’ and become an obstacle to somebody’s else’s perceived survival. The filmmakers take a neutral stance, giving Homebodies its black-comedy edge.
Don’t expect huge laughs but the funniest sequence tops similar scenes in other shows. Mattie hasn’t driven a car in 40 years but must ditch an incriminating automobile. It’s just one more challenge for the spunky old dame. I never cared for the ‘wacky fun’ of Ruth Gordon driving like a maniac in Harold and Maude, peeling rubber like a hot rodder. Mattie’s halting, erratic jolt & jerk ride, running over curbs and not stopping for red lights is hilariously believable. A cop car parallels her for a minute to check her out, until she flashes an adorable smile in their direction: they wave and move on.
The lesson of Homebodies is not to mess with sweet old ladies like Mattie: when crossed there’s no limit to her malice . . . with a smile.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Homebodies is a very good presentation of this previously scarce ‘unusual’ thriller. It will likely divide viewers into two groups, those tickled by its quirky originality and those wondering when the geezers will go away so the movie can begin. The good transfer brings out the dank quality in Isadore Mankofsky’s cinematography. I don’t think the remaster was made from a lab printing element. Although the image is pleasing it does look like the source was a projection print. Mankovsky’s expressive lighting conveys the comfort of those crumbling but cozy apartments. Miss Emily’s face is worn but her salon is rich and welcoming, at least before the demolition dust gets in. Larry Yust stays with his actors at all times — we can tell he’s in love with Paula Trueman’s face.
Director Yust gives us a full commentary, communicating pride in his show even if it never found an audience. We learn that the shoot was split between Cincinatti (the urban renewal scenes) and downtown Los Angeles (the construction site). Several matte shots combine the two locations. This was no fly-by-night production. The tenement interior was a full multi-level set, and the actors were all transported to Cincinatti for exterior work. Yurt remained close with Paula Trueman, hoping to get another show before the cameras.
When producer Marshall Backlar says the film wasn’t released in America he must mean that it was under-released. It was handed off to a distributor that decided to use it as a tax loss, he explains. Backlar praises his partner Yust and says his executive producer James Levitt was from the family that built the ‘Levittown’ projects.
Without a known star like Ruth Gordon or George Burns we can see why a distributor might shelve the show. A cute TV spot and trailer are included. I think I first saw Homebodies on a VHS tape loaned me by fellow Cannon editor Todd Stribich. Even open-matte, greenish and fuzzy, we could tell it had something special.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Audio commentary with director Larry Yust, video interview with producer Marshall Backlar, TV Spot and trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: December 6, 2021
Text © Copyright 2021 Glenn Erickson