Starring Nigel Green, Pat Cardi, Mary Badham
Directed by William Castle
Distributed by Kino Lorber
William Castle is best remembered as a consummate showman, elevating his lurid low-budget affairs with in-theater theatrics and nation-wide gags that lured horror hungry audiences to the big screen. But by the late 1960s Castle’s directorial output began to wane along with his cinematic creativity, too – though one of his final pictures behind the camera also features one of his most deviously twisted stories (adapted from a 1963 novel of the same name). The suggestively titled Let’s Kill Uncle (1966) plays out like a deranged Disney film with teenager Barnaby Harrison (Pat Cardi) inheriting $5 million (upon reaching legal age) when his multimillionaire father (a cameo by Castle) dies in an auto wreck. The 15-year-old Barnaby is sent to live with his uncle, Major Kevin Harrison (a splendid Nigel Green), on a remote, nearly-deserted island… where the Major, currently scraping by on meager means, intends to reunite his nephew with his father and thus inherit the money himself.
The problem with that plan is that early on Barnaby gets wise to his uncle’s scheming ways and he teams up with Chrissie (Mary Badham), the only other kid of his age on the island, to beat uncle at his own game. The film makes this extraordinarily interesting by laying all cards out on the table during the second act. Barnaby knows Uncle Kevin wants him dead, and Uncle Kevin makes is perfectly clear he will do everything possible to make Barnaby’s death look like an unfortunate accident – but while the two remain under his roof the grounds are to be treated “like Switzerland”, meaning no murderous attempts at home. Barnaby and Chrissie have two minds to set on the task but neither has knowledge of the island like Uncle Kevin. Plain old murder would be such a boring way to go, though, so both teams make use of poisoned toadstools, fire, hypnosis, tarantulas, and a literal shark pool in their efforts to come out on top.
The premise of the film is almost too good and Castle can’t quite get the story commensurate with the pitch but, man, it’s still a helluva fun time. The saturated ‘60s Technicolor cinematography is sumptuous, and with the pair of child actors as co-stars the aesthetic gels with similar looking, but much softer, pictures Disney was cranking out at the time. Plus, there’s this malevolent air of whimsy to the whole affair; Uncle Kevin is nothing if not a gentleman. Outside of the home he is ruthless and cunning in his outlandish efforts to kill Barnaby; inside, his avuncular tendencies remain and he isn’t above treating Barnaby to rich cuisine and certain pleasantries. The dichotomy of their relationship is fascinating and the lack of pure malevolence definitely gives this picture a vibe few possess.
Castle reportedly clashed with Universal over the film’s tone and story elements, which might explain why this feels like a bit of a compromised picture. The ostensibly horrific plot of an uncle scheming to murder his orphaned nephew in order to purloin his inheritance stands incongruous to the light, jovial direction many of the failed attempts take. The ending is just downright odd, too, and it has been said by star Pat Cardi that several endings were filmed but “Universal picked the worst one”. I’m not able to find any information about the contents of the alternate endings but the current one, though it feels fully compromised, does contain a few interesting elements that I hadn’t expected, so in that sense it mildly works.
The 1.85:1 1080p image is an excellent presentation, especially when considering the film never had an official DVD release anywhere in the world and this HD presentation (coming from a new 2K master) is likely the best it has looked for audiences since the 1966 theatrical release. Taking that into account, the image dazzles thanks to rich Technicolor photography and a wealth of colors populating the sparse island – the greens and flora of the island look incredibly lush. Dirt and debris aren’t an issue and the picture on the whole looks rather clean and vibrant.
A straightforward English DTS-HD MA 2.0 track delivers the audio, offering great presence and balance to the dialogue along with the whimsical, playful score by composer Herman Stein. No hissing or other anomalies were detected. Subtitles are available in English.
- NEW 2K RESTORATION OF THE FILM
- NEW Audio Commentary by Film Historians Kat Ellinger and Mike McPadden
- Theatrical Trailer 1
- Theatrical Trailer 2
- Optional English subtitles for the main feature
Campy and inconsistent as it is, I kinda loved this film before ever watching it because the premise is intriguing and knowing William Castle it was bound to be entertaining. Of Castle’s directorial efforts during his heyday this is one of his least-known titles and it should hopefully garner more of an audience thanks to this fine release.