How Awful About Allan (1970) How Awful About Allan (1970) **

     After 1960, it really didn’t matter what Anthony Perkins did with the rest of his career. Even if he somehow managed to get himself cast as Tarzan or Robin Hood or Jesus Christ, he was still never going to be anything other than Norman Bates in the eyes of the average moviegoer. It is therefore interesting to note that Perkins spent most of the 1960’s working in Europe, and that even there, he wound up cast as a lunatic or at least in a film involving lunatics more often than not— if an escape from typecasting was part of his overseas agenda, then the project didn’t go very well. And of course, once the focus of his acting shifted back to the States in the 1970’s, it was pretty much one naked attempt to trade on his Psycho notoriety after another until his death from AIDS-related pneumonia in 1992. A lot of actors would face such a fate with open and vociferous resentment (and many would be justified in doing so), but Perkins seems to have taken it more or less in stride. At the very least, he certainly gave his 30-year succession of sickos, psychos, and weirdos his all, and presented every indication that he was having fun doing it.

     With How Awful About Allan, Perkins brought his well-honed routine to television for a production that actually owes at least as much to Gaslight as it does to Psycho; the title character may be nuts, but he seems more likely to become a victim than a killer. Allan Cawley is the son of esteemed university professor Raymond Cawley (Kent Smith, from The Spiral Staircase and The Night Stalker) and a teacher in his own right. We meet the Cawleys at an unfortunate moment indeed, for some cans of paint which Allan carelessly left in his father’s study have caught fire, and Raymond is trapped in the room with them. Allan is unable to fight his way through the blaze to rescue the old man, and when his sister, Katherine (Julie Harris, of The Haunting and The Dark Half), makes an attempt of her own, she accomplishes nothing more than to burn up half of her face. It’s all too much for Allan. Overcome by guilt for failing to restrain his sister, for failing to save his father, and for leaving that paint out where it could catch a discarded match or stray pipe-tobacco ember in the first place, he winds up stricken with hysterical blindness.

     Allan spends the next three months in a mental hospital under the care of Dr. Ellins (Robert H. Harris, from The Invisible Boy and Valley of the Dolls). Ellins assures Allan that there is nothing at all physically wrong with his eyes; indeed, he has regained his vision to approximately the same extent that he has accepted his moral blamelessness for the fire in the study and the resulting tragedies. Now that Allan can at least sort of see, Ellins thinks it’s time for him to leave the hospital and start trying to get back into the swing of his normal life. Allan agrees that he’s eager to be back on the outside, but he doesn’t seem to have much faith in the success of his readjustment. Ellins is more confident. So long as Allan takes it slow, he should be fine— and besides, Ellins has a trusted colleague in Allan’s hometown, and the doctor apparently already has Allan accustomed to using a tape recorder as a surrogate shrink whenever he feels an urgent need to talk his way through a problem.

     A lot has changed around the Cawley place during the last three months. The damage to the study seems to have been irreparable, and the scorched room is now boarded up both inside and out. Katherine’s boyfriend, Eric, has skipped off to take a job in Australia, and Katherine hasn’t seen him since shortly after Allan went into the hospital. She’s had a hospital stay of her own, too, and now wears a thin latex prosthesis to disguise the scarred region of her face. But the biggest change concerns the family’s financial situation. With Raymond dead, Allan out of work, and Katherine having only her miniscule typist’s salary to get by on, it has become necessary for Katherine to rent out what used to be her father’s bedroom. Allan isn’t happy to hear that he’ll have to undergo the next stage of his convalescence with a stranger in the house, and it seems to make him especially nervous to contemplate sharing his living space with somebody whom he not only has never met before, but will be unable to see properly until his cure takes full effect. Katherine’s assurances that Harold Dennis (Billy Bowles, of The Todd Killings), the undergrad who has arranged to rent the room, will stay out of Allan’s way and might even be able to relate to him because of an affliction of his own (his vocal cords were damaged in an accident, leaving him unable to speak above a whisper) do little to appease her brother. Indeed, Allan is so fixated on solitude that he even refuses to see Olive (Joan Hackett, from The Terminal Man and the 1977 TV movie that is probably the least famous of the several films called Dead of Night), the next-door neighbor with whom he had been in love before the fire.

     It quickly becomes obvious, however, that so much alone-time is not good for Allan at all. Right from the start, he is openly mistrustful of his sister, accusing her of wanting him back in the hospital. He also develops a paranoid fixation upon Harold Dennis— whose behavior is, to be fair, just a little bit weird. As Katherine promised, the young boarder keeps to himself, so much so, in fact, that Allan never sees him around the house after his initial visit to check out the room— Allan just hears him from time to time letting himself into his bedroom in the middle of the night. It also strikes Allan as strange that Harold keeps the door to his room locked at all times. So it is perhaps to be expected that Allan initially fingers Harold as the culprit when somebody begins waking him up in the wee small hours and trying to scare him. But then a reconciliation with Olive brings to light the information that Eric (Trent Dolan, of Chatterbox and Satan’s Princess) is back in town, and has been since about the day before the Cawleys’ new lodger moved in. So here’s one to think about: Olive has never seen Harold, whether entering, leaving, or just hanging out inside the house. Allan’s few “sightings” of the lodger reveal nothing about him, since Allan still can’t see anything more than vague shapes and a bit of color. What if there actually is no such person as Harold Dennis? What if the man in the room across the hall from Allan is really Eric? What if Katherine is deliberately messing with Allan’s head in order to make him re-commit himself so that she and her supposedly vanished boyfriend can have the house all to themselves?

     The trouble with How Awful About Allan is that most of those questions answer themselves, at least in general terms, simply by virtue of being raised in the context of what we know is supposed to be a suspense movie. Of course Katherine is trying to drive her brother batty— there wouldn’t be even the barest hint of a story otherwise! All that remains to be seen is whether or not Allan is right about her using Eric as an accomplice, and which of the several possible motives for her devious behavior is the correct one. Neither of those minor mysteries is especially interesting the way they’re handled here, and the hurried cascade of revelations that brings the picture to a close doesn’t help matters any. How Awful About Allan is technically quite well-made— especially for a TV movie— and both Anthony Perkins and Julie Harris give highly effective performances, but none of that can prevent the film from feeling like it’s misplaced its point somewhere.



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