A good suspense film doesn’t need to have a complex set of variables to be effective. In fact, a minimalist approach can yield plenty of tension. You’ll Like My Mother shows how well the minimalist approach to suspense can work, limiting itself to four main characters in one major location. Along the way, it yields plentiful suspense and also explores some pleasingly complex emotional terrain.
The heroine of You’ll Like My Mother is Francesca (Patty Duke), a pregnant, recently widowed woman who travels into snowy Minnesota to meet her soldier husband’s mother. It’s hate at first sight for Mrs. Kinsolving (Rosemary Murphy), an officious grand dame who lets the young woman know in no uncertain terms that she wants nothing to do with her or her child. Francesca has no problem leaving this unhappy place but gets snowed in, finding herself locked in with an array of dark family secrets and a psychotic cousin named Kenny (Richard Thomas). As her baby’s due date nears, Francesca must find a way out with the help of Kinsolving’s mentally handicapped daughter Kathleen (Sian Barbara Allen) — but the mom and Kenny will be very difficult to escape.
You’ll Like My Mother draws a lot of strength from the chamber piece simplicity of its approach. The plot, drawn from a novel by Naomi Hinzte, has a rather modest mystery at its heart but it works because of a tight yet richly detailed script by Jo Heims, who is better known for writing Play Misty For Me. She invests in the characterizations, taking the time to build a believable and touching friendship between Francesca and Kathleen while also giving us insight into the demons that drive Mrs. Kinsolving and Kenny. Thus, when the thrills really start to kick in during the third act, the audience has a big reason to be invested.
Better yet, You’ll Live My Mother is built on a quartet of stellar performances. Duke makes a resourceful heroine who relies on her intellect and her decency to survive, being strong enough to go toe to toe with the matriarch but warm enough to build a sisterly bond with Kathleen. Allen does a beautiful job in mostly non-verbal role where she has to convey both thoughts and emotions purely through facial expressions and body language.
On the villainous side, Murphy manages to make cruelty seem elegant with her cultured yet vicious turn as Mrs. Kinsolving — and it’s worth noting that she shows some surprising humanity beneath all the calculating as the film progresses. Finally, Thomas is terrifying as the baby-faced psycho lurking the halls: he plays the character like a smart, remorseless “mean kid” in a man’s body and does so with frightening glee.
Finally, You’ll Like My Mother benefits from solid craftsmanship behind the camera. Director Lamont Johnson was a veteran journeyman who worked in both t.v. and film and he shows a craftsman’s ability to stand back and allow the work speak for itself: he lets his cast and the script take the lead in setting the film’s style, subtly deploying stylistic flourishes to enhance and/or comment on the mood of a particular moment. Jack Marta’s cinematography aids his approach nicely, with a few smartly-chosen camera angles heightening tense moments, plus there’s a quietly creepy score from Gil Melle that perfectly suits Johnson’s approach.
In short, this film is a little gem that makes its small scale into a strength. Fans of old-school thrillers driven by plot and characterization should seek it out.
Blu-Ray Notes: Scream Factory just released this title on blu-ray and the results are impressive. The transfer maintains the film’s vintage look while drawing out both the color and detail and the lossless presentation of the film’s 2.0 stereo mix gives it a clean, crisp presentation.
The major extra here is “The Mystery Of Kenny And Kathleen” (55:38), an excellent new featurette drawn from interviews with Allen and Thomas. The two actors cover a lot of material during the generous running time: how Universal dealt with actors in the early ‘70s, their approaches to their characters and the tactics they used to achieve their performances, some nice tributes to director Johnson and how they became a couple behind the scenes. It’s well worth the time for both fans of the film and the actors. A animated image gallery (2:15) and a tense, visually expressive trailer complete the extras.