The Anniversary (1967/1968) *Ĺ
So it looks like I accidentally shamed the B-Masters Cabal into a roundtable. A few months ago, I mentioned in one of my reviews that 2014 marked the Cabalís fifteenth anniversary, and the next thing I knew, e-mails were shooting back and forth among my colleagues, saying in essence, ďOh, crap! We really ought to throw together something to commemorate that, shouldnít we?Ē We quickly settled on films about anniversaries as the topic, and since I was in a Hammer mood anyway, what with all the Dracula flicks Iím reviewing this time out, I put in my bid for The Anniversary, the last of three batty old lady movies the studio made in the wake of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. It seemed like a good idea at the timeÖ
What I didnít realize was that The Anniversary is less a Baby Jane cash-in than a Mulligan for The Old Dark House, a film I hated intensely, remade from one I hated even more intensely. Ostensibly a black comedy of manners, in practice itís just 95 minutes of Bette Davis being extravagantly shitty to people whoíve done very little to deserve it, and coming out on top in the end. Itís like Thanksgiving Dinner with Your Brotherís In-Laws: The Movie.
Davis (whom Hammer had used before in The Nanny) plays Mrs. Taggart, one-eyed widow of a respected construction baron, and heir to his business empireó the good name of which sheís spoiling just as fast as she can. Each of her three sons works as a department foreman on her building sites: Henry (James Cossins, from Privilege and Fear in the Night) as the overall boss, Terry (Jack Hedley, of Witchcraft and The New York Ripper) as master carpenter, and Tom (Twisted Nerveís Christian Roberts) as master electrician. This despite the fact tható and indeed becauseó Mum knows they have no aptitude for the jobs. When we meet the Taggart boys, theyíre shirking their hapless ways through putting up a townhouse development. Itís Friday afternoon, and the first buyers of the patently incomplete properties are due to move in tomorrow, but thereís no discernable urgency to the work. Thatís because everyone on the staff always knew that the official completion date was wildly unrealistic, and because Mrs. Taggart really doesnít give a shit whether her wares are fit for human habitation anyway. What she cares about is her annual anniversary party. It starts tonight and runs through the weekend, and her boys had better all be there regardless of whatever else they have going on in their lives.
Actually, whatever else they have going on in their lives is apt to be rather a sticking point this year, because Terry and Tom each have big news for their mother. The conflict-averse Terry plainly dreads delivering his. He, his wife Karen (Sheila Hancock, from Night Must Fall), and their huge brood of terrible, porcine children are all pulling up stakes and moving to Canada. This will greatly inconvenience Mrs. Taggart, because itís difficult to brow-beat someone on the other side of an ocean. Tom, meanwhile, is getting married to Shirley Blair (Elaine Taylor), which will also inconvenience Mrs. Taggart in the sense that she will no longer enjoy uncontested mastery over her youngest son. Not only has Tom not told Mum about that, but he also hasnít told Shirley that Mum doesnít know about her. Fireworks are pretty much guaranteed.
The fireworks in question are almost literally the whole of the film from the moment Mrs. Taggart comes downstairs to greet her not exactly adoring family. She belittles her sonsí talents and accomplishments, insults Terryís children (the only slightly deserving targets she draws down on, honestly), casts aspersions on the intelligence and chastity of Karen and Shirley. She interrogates Shirley about her background in the rudest possible manner, impugns Tomís motives for dating her, and makes fun of her deformed ears. Most of all, she does everything in her power to thwart her sonsí escape plans, seeking to break up Tom and Shirley and to prevent Terry from ever setting foot in Canada. In extremely roundabout ways, she even tries to kill Shirley and Karenó or rather, to suborn their uteruses into acting as her assassins. But mostly, Mrs. Taggart talks and talks and talks, so that by 58:17 (I looked at the counter on my DVD player and made note of the time) there was nothing in all the world I wanted more than for Bette Davis to shut the fuck up.
The only times when Mrs. Taggart isnít running her yap have to do with Henry, who spends most of the movie off in a little subplot of his own. Henry is probably supposed to be gay (the taxonomy of gender nonconformity was less precise in 1967), and certainly suffers from a compulsion to wear womenís clothes, their underwear especially. This first comes out when Shirley storms upstairs in a huff, goes to the room where sheís supposed to be staying, and finds Henry trying on her bra, panties, and stockings. I donít see how thatís possible, honestly, since James Cossins is twice Elaine Taylorís size, and director Roy Ward Baker cuts away before we see what Shirley sees. Itís only her hollering from upstairs that lets us know what just happened. Anyway, the point is, the prospect of ratting Henry out to the police keeps being raised by one side or another as a gambit in Mrs. Taggartís dick-measuring contest with her kids, until finally the reality of legal trouble rears its head when Henry is caught but not identified stealing a neighbor ladyís underclothes from a laundry line in the backyard. Savor that moment, because itís one of the few times Baker ever lets you out of Mrs. Taggartís living room.
The Anniversaryís spatial confinement is the most obvious tell that this movie was adapted from a stage play. Like many such adaptations, The Anniversary does itself no favors at all by sticking so resolutely to one location, or by limiting its drama to that which can be carried aloft on 20,000 cubic meters of hot air. But this picture is even more grating than the typical Broadway or West End transplant, because it feels less like a stage play on film than a monologue on film. Iím repeating myself, but the point cannot be stressed too much: Bette Davisís mouth is running almost constantly, for so long that I now find myself hating the sound of her voice. I suppose it wouldnít be so bad if her incessant ranting were funny or witty or incisive or even just deservedly spiteful, but it isnít. Itís just noiseó and hateful noise, directed against vulnerable targets for no good reason. As I watched, I kept wondering why The Anniversary felt so loathsome even though my favorite episodes of ďStar Trek: Deep Space NineĒ are the ones that create excuses for bitch-offs between Garak, the disgraced Cardassian spy, and Gul Dukat, the equally disgraced Cardassian general. The difference, I think, is that Garak and Dukat both give as good as they get, and that each in his own way earned the otherís hatred and contempt fair and square. Mrs. Taggart, on the other hand, is an internet troll on the Material Plane, hurling random bits of invective (with a special emphasis on slut-shaming and veiled homophobia) in all directions without much caring what hits whom where, just so long as she hurts somebodyís feelings somehow. And the hell of it is, I think weíre supposed to like her, and to cheer when she finally puts down what was starting to look like a successful filial revolt. I guess thereís a bit of morbid fascination in seeing Bette Davis do a precognitive Daniel Tosh impression, but seriouslyó fuck this movie.
This review is my contribution to ďB-Mentia 15,Ē the B-Masters Cabalís 50th roundtable, and the one in which we celebrate our 15th anniversary with reviews of films about other peopleís anniversaries. Obviously we hope that ours turns out less catastrophically than most of the ones weíll be writing about. Click the link below to see what my colleagues brought to the party.