Here’s a secret. For as much as I enjoy pedigreed horror films dripping with social criticism, there is nothing quite like an old-school horror film brimming with schlock and fun. Once the domain of the Saturday afternoon movies, forgotten low budget horror films are finding a brand new audience thanks to bootleg YouTube videos and VOD. And so I thought it was time to revisit one of my very favorite horror films of questionable taste: Curtis Harrington’s Ruby (1977).
Coming on the heels of her explosive turn in Carrie, Piper Laurie is luminous as the titular character, a woman trapped by her murderous past. With a borderline camp aesthetic that works because of the character’s showgirl past, Laurie’s performance fuels the atmospheric tone of the film, which is evocative of drive-in horror.[i] By blending a bit of 1930s supernatural dread with a heaping helping of 1940s film noir, Ruby manages not to trap itself in the decade in which it was made. The end result is a film that feels dated but in the best possible way.
Opening in 1935, the film wastes no time in establishing Ruby as the girlfriend of notorious gangster Nicky Rocco (Sal Vecchio). Their romantic interlude is interrupted by a hail of gunfire that leaves Nicky dead and sends Ruby into labor. Sixteen years later, Ruby is running a drive-in movie theater aided by the men who murdered Nicky. Her daughter Leslie (Janit Baldwin), mute since birth, is strangely drawn to the legacy of her father with a fierceness that borders on obsession. Rounding out Ruby’s inner circle is Vince (played with verve by Stuart Whitman), the man whose unrequited love for Ruby leads to very questionable judgement. One by one, the people surrounding Ruby and Leslie begin to die off in horrific fashion and Ruby is convinced that Nicky has returned from the grave.
One of the reasons that Ruby deserves a lot more credit in horror circles is the unabashed way it plays with perverse sexuality. Given that Leslie (as it turns out) is possessed by her demonic father, it isn’t a stretch to think that daddy dearest will still be sexually attracted to her mother. The abnormal attraction Leslie continually demonstrates for her mother is a bizarre mix of a child yearning for the affections of her distant mother and a lover wronged. The most disturbing of these scenes occurs in an attic when Leslie, possessed by Nicky, begins to seduce Ruby.
As the most erotically charged moment of the film, the scene contains blatant overtones of incest (Ruby seeking the affections of Nicky while he resides in Leslie’s body and Leslie willingly being possessed completely by her father) that are even more disturbing because the scene is framed through the conventions of Gothic romance. Not only is the presence of an angry ghost at play in the scene, but the focus on repressed fears and desires combined with the visual spectacle of dripping blood all create a very Gothic experience.
One of the reasons this scene stands out so much is because of how the rest of the film is so unabashedly derivative. Leslie’s possession and subsequent bed squirming under the watchful eye of the film’s authority voice, Dr. Keller (Roger Davis), instantly brings to mind The Exorcist (1973). Similarly, it is impossible to watch Leslie standing wide eyed and possessed in a flowing white nightgown and not think of Carrie (1977). When you add to these questionable homages the unapologetic camp quality that permeates the film, you have the very definition of a movie crafted specifically for the drive-in. Harrington plays with this idea by setting the film at a drive-in located adjacent to a mosquito-ridden swamp which, coincidentally, was also the site of Nicky’s murder. You can’t get more on the nose than that, but the pacing of the film, coupled with its unintentional humor, make it a fun ride nonetheless.
While the film definitely falls into the category of camp-horror, there are enough moments of shock to placate fans of old-school horror. My personal favorite is the reveal that Ruby keeps beside her bed not only a framed photo of Nicky, but a jar of eyeballs belonging to Jake (Fred Kohler, Jr.), the man who spearheaded Nicky’s death. The death scenes, fueled by memorable performances from a virtual who’s who of character actors, are also just bloody enough to give a bit of spectacle to the film.
I can’t claim that Ruby is a good horror film, but it most definitely is an entertaining one. It’s worth picking up the DVD with commentary by Harrington and Laurie because it gives insight into that very bizarre and downright laughable ending. If you’ve ever seen this one, drop us a line. I’m dying to hear what others think of this forgotten gem.
[i] Horror at the Drive-in: Essays in Popular Americana by Gary Don Rhodes (McFarland, 2008).