Folks shouldn’t forget to invite THE BEGUILED (1971) to the horror party. Just because nothing supernatural is going on and hardly anybody gets killed, doesn’t mean it won’t bring any bean dip. Directed by DON SIEGAL (INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS ‘56) and starring frequent collaborator CLINT EASTWOOD, THE BEGUILED spins a delicate, deleterious web adapting the southern gothic novel A PAINTED DEVIL by THOMAS CULLINAN. If you appreciate the ominous beauty of NIGHT OF THE HUNTER or the psychosexual undercurrent of THE INNOCENTS you should get along with this movie just fine. Its blade is sharp enough that you may not realize that you’ve been cut until the film is over.
EASTWOOD (in his prime, I must say) plays injured Yankee soldier John McBurney who is discovered and drug home by a young girl (ubiquitous seventies child star PAMELYN FERDIN.) He finds himself being nursed back to health in an all-girl Confederate school and, although the ladies present express their trepidation about allowing the enemy in, it may be he who should be apprehensive as their bedside manner ends up being more Annie Wilkes (MISERY) than Florence Nightingale. A handful of the women instantly establish designs upon McBurney and he, operating as a blank slate, allows them to project whatever they like upon him. It isn’t long before romantic fantasies are clashing and colliding and amity is thrown to the curb. Events eventually come to such a head that manipulative “McBee” pays for his underestimation of the fury of a woman scorned with a rather symbolic and wince-worthy loss of an appendage.
EASTWOOD showcases murkier depth than is usually associated with him and the supporting players are equal to his best. GERALDINE PAGE, as headmistress Martha, is chilling in her self-deceptive rationalizing and RAPE SQUAD’s JO ANN HARRIS plays the perfect pouty vixen. During my last viewing though, I came away more impressed than usual with ELIZABETH HARTMAN who portrays the fragile Edwina. Turns out the Academy Award nominee voiced Mrs. Brisby in THE SECRET OF NIMH and tragically took her own life in 1987. The way all of these characters are represented with their own inner voices and personal flashbacks is unusually keen. There are no specific bad guys here really, just a group of people whose motivations and aspirations don’t mesh. Outside of the alarming operation scene, THE BEGUILED treads softly but the mood established is cozy-creepy and the film has a rather luxurious candle lit glow. No, the supernatural does not come out to play, but thanks to cinematographer BRUCE SURTEES (whom EASTWOOD would wisely borrow for his own PLAY MISTY FOR ME later the same year) the movie feels legitimately haunted anyway.
THE BEGUILED is precise in its understatement and it’s one of those movies that refuses categorization and therefore tends to get lost in the shuffle. Perhaps too, it was difficult for audiences to except EASTWOOD as such a calculating character who uses his masculine charms to get his way. He’s no mere “womanizer”; he blatantly exploits romantic expectations to his advantage and yet still evokes sympathy like a wounded bird. In any case, this is one of EASTWOOD’s best performances and further indication of what a fine, thoughtful artist SIEGAL could be. With one foot in the lovely and one foot in the grotesque, THE BEGUILED may not be traditional horror fare but it if you ask me, it does fall into that smaller category of a “great film.”