The Killing Kind (1973) ***½
In recent years, I’ve really acquired a taste for what you might call “inner workings of a diseased mind” movies. You know the kind of movies I’m talking about— they’re usually pretty light on plot and heavy on character, and since about 1980, they’ve generally taken the form of slasher films that play out from the killer’s point of view. The tradition goes back well before that, however, dating at least to the 1960’s, and I’m quite ecumenical in my appreciation of the form. The Killing Kind is an early-70’s take on the “lifestyles of the dangerously insane” theme, and despite sometimes looking like it was made for TV, it really is a highly effective and often genuinely disturbing film.
As is so often the case, we begin by establishing what made our psycho a psycho in the first place. Seventeen-year-old Terry Lambert (John Savage, later of Carnosaur 2 and They Nest) is out at a mostly deserted beach with some friends of his when the rest of the guys get it into their heads to gang-rape a girl named Tina (Sue Bernard, from Necromancy and Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!) under a nearby pier. Terry himself doesn’t much care for the plan, but his pals grab him and force his participation nevertheless. They’re all caught soon thereafter, and Terry spends the next two years in the pen.
The first place Terry goes upon his release is the mansion-turned-boarding house owned and operated by his mother, Thelma (Ann Sothern, of The Manitou and Crazy Mama). Thelma is overjoyed to see her son again after all this time (and surprised, too— Terry never told her he was getting out), as are the old ladies who make up the bulk of Thelma’s clientele (all of whom have been told that Terry’s long absence was due to a stint in the Peace Corps). So, for that matter, is an aspiring model named Lori (Cindy Williams, from Beware! The Blob and Spaceship), who has just recently begun renting a room from Terry’s mom. Lori finds Terry extremely attractive, and seems to find his unusually close and almost childlike relationship with Thelma charming. And, of course, she doesn’t know what the boy’s been up to for the past two years. The same cannot be said of the woman next door, however. Disgruntled librarian Louise (Luana Anders, of Dementia 13 and The Pit and the Pendulum) knows perfectly well what Terry and his friends did that day at the beach, and that knowledge forms the centerpiece of a complex of twisted sexual fantasy, which leads her to do things like spy on Terry through binoculars from her bedroom window when her decrepit, controlling father is asleep.
By this point, I think you’re beginning to see what it is about The Killing Kind that makes it so fascinating. Terry may be the main psycho around here, but damn near everybody in this movie is somehow nuts. Thelma and Terry’s love for each other is not at all the normal, healthy bond between mother and son, and looks like it’s been straining to turn sexual— from both ends— since Terry entered puberty. Louise soon starts prowling around the Lambert place, looking for opportunities to seduce Terry into raping her. Lori runs hot and cold toward Terry, giving his deranged mind ample reason to accept his mother’s contention that the new girl in room three is a tease and a harlot, fully deserving of whatever misfortune may befall her. So when Terry’s thoughts turn to violent revenge, first against Tina, then against the lawyer who failed to keep him out of jail (Ruth Roman, from The Baby and Day of the Animals), and finally against Lori as well, he finds himself in a situation tailor-made for keeping his crimes a secret. The people who are best positioned to spot the warning signs and save Terry’s victims from their fates are prevented by their own mental kinks from seeing that the object of their warped affections has become a vicious serial killer.
As is so often the case with movies of its subgenre, characterization is all-important in The Killing Kind. With so little in the way of linear plot, the filmmakers have no choice but to rely on smart casting and convincingly written character details. This is a much more difficult trick than it sounds, primarily because both smart casting and convincingly written character details are really pretty tall orders— as the vast number of movies that fail to achieve either irrefutably demonstrates. The Killing Kind gets both right, however. Ann Sothern is simply brilliant as Terry’s simultaneously smothering and enabling mom, and John Savage is just as believable in the part of the woman’s lunatic son; few movies I’ve seen have featured a relationship that rings as true as the love turned cancerous that serves as this film’s driving force. Meanwhile, the parallel dysfunctional pairing between Luana Anders’s Louise and her father seems just as real, deftly sketched out in just a handful of short scenes. This is not to say, however, that The Killing Kind is successful as a character study only. They may not be particularly graphic, but the three key murder scenes have real bite to them, especially the highly imaginative vengeance that Terry wreaks upon his hapless attorney. Bloodless though they may be, these deaths are invested with a powerful undercurrent of psychological cruelty that makes them far more disturbing than even the most gore-soaked killings in a typical 80’s slasher movie. The Killing Kind is most definitely one to look out for.