Release Date(s)1966 (June 2, 2020)
Studio(s)Universal Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: C-
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: B+
As a kid, William Castle was one of my favorite directors and I looked forward to his latest films with eager anticipation. The Tingler was my all-time favorite, with its lobster-like title creature supposedly crawling its way through the movie theater as seats got buzzed while Vincent Price urged audience members to scream to deactivate it. Next-best for me was House on Haunted Hill, in which a skeleton emerged from the side of the screen and glided over the heads of yowling kids. Castle sure had a knack for showmanship. He even convinced Joan Crawford to make personal appearances at movie theaters to plug Straight-Jacket. Let’s Kill Uncle, Castle’s first film in color, pales by comparison.
Let’s Kill Uncle (also known as Let’s Kill Uncle Before Uncle Kills Us) has no gimmicks and reflects a very subdued William Castle. Twelve-year-old Barnaby Harrison (Pat Cardi) has just inherited a fortune from his late father. Accompanied by chaperone Sgt. Frank Travis (Robert Pickering), he is sailing to the island home of his uncle and guardian, Major Kevin Harrison (Nigel Green, The Ipcress File). On the ship, he meets Chrissie (Mary Badham, To Kill a Mockingbird), who is on her way to the island to visit her Aunt Justine (Linda Lawson). They seem to dislike each other from the get-go, bickering and insulting each other.
With his eye on the $5 million inheritance if Barnaby is out of the picture, the Major decides to use his commando skills to kill the boy. After an attempt to hypnotize him into committing suicide fails, the Major sets in motion a plan to stage an accident. Barnaby and Chrissie realize what’s going on and decide their best course of action is to kill the Major. They look upon this as a game, albeit a deadly one.
With no way off the island and the Sergeant and Chrissie’s aunt never seeming to be around, the game is afoot. The Major has declared the house neutral territory—Switzerland—but rather than stay inside, the two kids spend their time exploring the island and roaming through the jungle as the Major stalks them. He stocks a swimming pool with a hungry shark, sets a huge fire, and makes other attempts on the kids’ lives while they try to kill him with poison and by emptying his airplane’s gas tank.
Green’s performance is hardly sinister, and this might have to do with Castle’s direction. Even when he’s plotting terrible things, it seems he’s just pretending. What’s needed from him is more of a commitment to the character and an ominous aura. Someone like Vincent Price—Castle’s previous leading man—would have infused the Major with greater malevolence yet still maintained the dark humor of the script.
Cardi is a good actor but is burdened by sub-par dialogue. At times, his Barnaby appears clever beyond his years, at other times hopelessly naive. There’s no consistency in his characterization. Badham is a reliable sidekick as she becomes co-conspirator with Barnaby to murder the Major. With her pigtails and Southern accent, she incorporates some of the tomboyishness of her Scout Finch.
The premise of the film is pretty good but its execution is routine. It lacks suspense as the life-or-death competition never seems authentic, and the ending is a complete disappointment. The film is based on a much darker novel by Rohan O’Grady, in which Barnaby is a devious and hateful child, but the studio felt such a character would be too intense. The resulting picture looks more like one of the made-for-TV movies that Universal was churning out around the time of its release. Castle misses many opportunities to throw in some scary moments, particularly in the abandoned hotel that Barnaby and Chrissie explore. Apart from his earlier promotional gimmicks, Castle knew how to provide genuine scares and get under the skin of viewers. Let’s Kill Uncle is far from the director’s best.
Let’s Kill Uncle comes to Blu-ray from Kino Lorber Studio Classics featuring 1080p resolution in the widescreen aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Picture clarity is excellent, with facial details, patterns in wallpaper, objects on Aunt Justine’s kitchen shelves, and clothing patterns appearing clear. The Technicolor photography is rich and vibrant, particularly in the lush green island jungle, the rich blue of the water and the sky, and a red blouse and a green robe that Aunt Justine wears. Unfortunately, the bright palette undermines the sinister game being played. Everything looks too cheerful. Even the dilapidated, abandoned Serenity Hotel isn’t dark or shadowy enough to create the proper atmosphere. There’s a poor match between the pool’s surface, covered with dead leaves and debris, and the underwater view of a shark in clear water obviously filmed elsewhere. The appearance of the groundskeeper, a legless, badly, scarred man who ambulates on a wheeled platform, is included for a “Boo!” moment when Chrissie unexpectedly sees him for the first time.
The English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is most impressive under the title credits. The Herman Stein score is dramatic, with kettle drums and an eerie oboe solo promising an exciting film to follow. Dialogue is distinct throughout. Nigel Green’s British accent sets his character apart from the American cast, and his first appearance is staged as a star introduction. Creepy sounds abound, from doors slamming, stairs creaking, and plaster falling, to a toucan shrieking. English SDH subtitles are an option.
Bonus materials include an audio commentary, an interview with actor Pat Cardi, and two theatrical trailers.
Audio Commentary – Film historians Kat Ellinger and Mike McPadden share this commentary. The film opens with an ominous score by Herman Stein. The first scene features a brief cameo by William Castle as the dead, bloodied millionaire. The film is described as a “one-of-a-kind experience” and a film that “speaks to children.” Brief career overviews are provided. Robert Pickering was “1960s television handsome” and acted in many TV movies. Mary Badham is described as a “force of nature.” Barnaby is more heroic in the film than the book, in which he terrorizes everyone on the island. Early dialogue suggests but doesn’t show that Barnaby got into trouble on the ship bound for the island. Comparisons are made between the portrayal of Barnaby in novel and movie. The film contains gothic elements, such as the eerie abandoned hotel, the disfigured groundskeeper, and the omnipresent danger of death, though the shark in the swimming pool is “comically ridiculous.” Director William Castle discouraged Pat Cardi’s father from criticizing his son’s performance. Castle spent a lot of energy making sure Cardi and Badham were comfortable during filming. The kids had a habit of wandering off and watching other movies being filmed on the lot. Geared toward a young audience, Let’s Kill Uncle is a “dark fairy tale.” Castle was able to change his directing style depending on who he was talking to. The commentators discuss many of the gimmicks Castle incorporated in his earlier films.
Mr. Castle and Me: An Interview With Pat Cardi – By the time of Let’s Kill Uncle, William Castle had given up on gimmicks and was concerned more with the story. Cardi’s favorite director when he was a child was Castle. When Castle learned that Cardi liked reading and magic, he would give the boy magic tricks from the Hollywood magic shop they both frequented. Cardi was suggested by casting director John Badham, Mary Badham’s brother. Cardi hit it off with Mary right away, noting she was “open and easy-going.” He and Mary developed their characters by themselves. Nigel Green was a well known British actor who stayed in character throughout the entire shoot. When he learned the film was based on a novel, Cardi was eager to read it and was surprised at how differently the character of Barnaby was portrayed. Castle took liberties with the book to make it more palatable to the studio. The fate of the uncle differs dramatically from the book. Cardi believes Let’s Kill Uncle would have been a fine movie for TV. The film played theatrically for a week and then “Universal buried it.” Let’s Kill Uncle is Cardi’s favorite film performance.
– Dennis Seuling