Scream Pretty Peggy (1973) poster

Scream Pretty Peggy (1973)


USA. 1973.


Director – Gordon Hessler, Teleplay – Arthur Hoffe & Jimmy Sangster, Producer – Lou Morheim, Photography – Leonard J. South, Music – Bob Prince, Art Direction – Joseph Alves, Jr.. Production Company – Universal.


Sian Barbara Allen (Peggy Johns), Ted Bessell (Jeffrey Elliot), Bette Davis (Mrs. Elliot), Charles Drake (George Thornton)


Art student Peggy Johns eagerly accepts a low-paying job as part-time housekeeper for Jeffrey Elliot and his aging mother. Jeffrey is a renowned sculptor and Peggy a fan of his work. As she settles in, she learns of Jeffrey’s sister Jennifer who has gone mad and is kept locked in the guesthouse above the garage. She is warned to never go in there. At the same time, the previous housekeeper’s father turns up looking for his daughter who has disappeared. As Peggy’s over-inquisitiveness draws her to try and befriend Jennifer, the crazed Jennifer starts to threaten her.

Understanding the context of Scream Pretty Peggy requires a brief history of the Psycho Film, as the film feels like a Venn Diagram of a whole bunch of overlapping talents and themes that emerged under it. The psycho film was popularised by the success of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). This gave birth to a string of copycat films throughout the 1960s, all of which were founded in improbable plots and borrowed Psycho’s twist revelation of a gender-conflicted psycho who had adopted the split personality of his late mother.

One of the most prolific copiers of the Psycho-inspired fad was England’s Hammer Films, who had created a surge in horror films in the late 1950s with their Frankenstein and Dracula films and then after Psycho came out branched out into making a series of Psycho-Thrillers. (The films that came out here are collectively referred to under the umbrella of the Anglo-Horror Cycle). One of the other offshoots of the 1960s psycho film was the Grand Dame Guignol fad, which began with What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) that featured Bette Davis and Joan Crawford as aging sisters tormenting each other. This begat a spate of copycats for several years after with other aging actresses brought out of mothballs to go completely nuts.

All of these strands come together in Scream Pretty Peggy, a TV Movie produced for ABC. There is a script from Jimmy Sangster, the Hammer Films writer who had worked on their most influential works and created the improbably contorted scripts for most of their psycho-thrillers. (See below for Jimmy Sangster’s other films). Director Gordon Hessler was another Anglo-Horror alumni, although had not worked at Hammer Films. (See below for Gordon Hessler’s other films). And finally there is Bette Davis who gained a new career boost playing mad deranged old women following the success of Baby Jane. She doesn’t exactly play the same here, although the casting leans into the suggestion of that.

Bette Davis as Mrs. Elliot in Scream Pretty Peggy (1973)
Bette Davis as Mrs. Elliot

Within this, Jimmy Sangster and his co-writer Arthur Hoffe steal the basic plot of Jane Eyre (1846) in which a governess (who becomes Sian Barbara Allen’s housekeeper here) signs on to work at a big old house (relocated to California here) where she becomes attracted to Rochester, the brooding master of the house but then finds a mystery woman has been locked away. In the Bronte book, the mystery woman is Rochester’s maddened former wife, while here it is a maddened sister kept locked in the guesthouse above the garage. That has been fed through a twist ending that has been blatantly stolen from Psycho.

Scream Pretty Peggy is a fairly average assemblage of these tropes without being particularly standout. Bette Davis’s presence distorts your expectations of the film as being another Grand Old Dame film and that she is going to deliver another of those performances, whereas hers is merely a supporting role as an elderly woman with an alcohol problem. Sian Barbara Allen makes for a fairly drippy lead, while Ted Bessell offers little more as the male lead. He does create some cool-looking sculptures in a vivid scarlet material, which slots into another trope of the psycho film – the psycho artist who has a habit of encasing human bodies inside the sculptures as derived from A Bucket of Blood (1959) and going all the way back to The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933).

Jimmy Sangster’s other genre scripts are:– X the Unknown (1956), The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Dracula/The Horror of Dracula (1958), The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), The Man Who Could Cheat Death (1959), The Mummy (1959), The Brides of Dracula (1960), the psycho-thrillers A Taste of Fear/Scream of Fear (1961), Paranoiac (1963), Maniac (1963), Nightmare (1964), Hysteria (1965), The Nanny (1965) and Crescendo (1970), and Dracula – Prince of Darkness (1966), all for Hammer. Sangster’s non-Hammer scripts are the medical vampire film Blood of the Vampire (1958), the alien invasion film The Trollenberg Terror/The Crawling Eye (1958), Jack the Ripper (1959), the Grand Guignol psycho-thriller Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1972), the tv movie psycho-thriller A Taste of Evil (1971), the occult tv movie Good Against Evil (1977), the occult film The Legacy (1979), the spy tv movies Billion Dollar Threat (1979) and Once Upon a Spy (1980), the psycho-thriller Phobia (1980) and the story for Disney’s The Devil and Max Devlin (1981). As director, Sangster made three films:– The Horror of Frankenstein (1970), the lesbian vampire film Lust for a Vampire (1971) and the psycho-thriller Fear in the Night (1972), all at Hammer..

Gordon Hessler’s other genre works include:- The Oblong Box (1969), Cry of the Banshee (1970), Scream and Scream Again (1970), Murders in the Rue Morgue (1971), the classic fantasy film The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973), the tv movie The Strange Possession of Mrs. Oliver (1977), Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park/Kiss in the Attack of the Phantom (1978) and the ghost story The Girl in a Swing (1988).

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