OK so there is no exclamation point in the original title of this TV movie from 1971, but surely it deserves one? Growing up a queer teenager with a love for glossy American soaps like Dynasty and Melrose Place, there were two words that would set my little gay heart alight at the mere hint of them. Aaron Spelling. So confronted with the possibility of a proto-slasher TV movie produced by the very man himself – and starring Stefanie Powers to boot – you could colour me very excited.
Having struck up a Twitter friendship with the fabulous Amanda Reyes and invested in her amazing book, ‘Are You In The House Alone: A TV Movie Compendium’, my trawl through American TV movies with a campy horror edge had to begin with this gem. The premise is simple – five female friends head out to a remote island for their college reunion. Only an escaped lunatic is on the loose and looks set to pick them off one by one. So far, so slasher. But remember this is 1971, and apart from Bay of Blood (Mario Bava), slasher movies as we know them were still in their infancy. This, coupled with the fact that a TV movie couldn’t get away with showing explicit gore, nudity or a particularly high body count, meant that ‘Five Desperate Women’ would be low on the kills and the blood.
But what it’s high on is the camp! The cast of five women consists of Stefanie Powers (Hart to Hart), Joan Hackett, Jill Sommars, Denise Nicholas and the fabulously named Anjanette Comer. In that lineup you get a Southern belle drunkard, an effortlessly stylish lady of colour, a sardonic cynic, and a mentally unstable pathological liar. You can’t go wrong. Particularly when these ladies dress to impress in the best that early 70s beach-wear has to offer. Think Biba-60s it-girl by way of middle class housewife chic and you’re halfway there. In fact here’s some devastating imagery to better explain!
Our ladies are taken to the island by captain Meeker (Bradford Dillman), a shifty drifter type who’s immediately set up as the would-be killer. But once they get to the island and meet the more heroic and affable handyman Wylie – played by Robert Conrad – it becomes obvious to us hardened horror hounds that the more placid, respectable male eye candy is the one to watch. Eagle-eyed queer viewers like myself will also have one extra advantage on their side when sniffing out the bad guy. In the prologue we see the escaped convict bump off an unsuspecting man on a beach, but to keep the villain’s identity a secret we only ever see him from the waist down. To put it mildly, Captain Meeker’s posterior doesn’t match up to the killer’s, so we know the minute we see Wylie’s peachy behind that he must be the psycho!
Like any good TV movie, Five Desperate Women is efficient in its pacing. It only has one hour ten minutes (if you take out the ad breaks) to get the job done so there is no messing around. But there’s still time for some great character development as we see dippy Dorian (Hackett) become overly attached to a stray dog and go off at the deep end in glorious camp fashion when it meets a grisly end. Spoiler – she’s also the killer’s first female victim, meeting her maker in a surprisingly scary strangling scene.
Meanwhile the other ladies turn to booze and histrionics to cope with the realisation they’re stuck on an island with a crazy person. The only way off is their boat, which of course explodes before they can reach it. So faced with spending the night here they actually do all the right things – namely they lock both men out of the house and hunker down to wait for daylight and tomorrow’s supply boat. This gives us time for some juicy dialogue between surprisingly well drawn and brilliantly acted (except for a dodgy Southern accent) characters.
So whilst we don’t get a Michael Myers style stalk and slash massacre we do get all of the camp fun vintage TV boxes ticked. One inexplicable moment, which can only have come from a misguided attempt to eek out the tension, shows Mary Grace (Sommars) being strangled by Wylie whilst the three remaining women simply stand there and throw rocks! After almost a minute of head-scratching they do finally leap to their friend’s rescue and club the villain to death. But what the hell took them so long? Were they so whacked out on Dorian’s valium and vodka that they couldn’t bring themselves to bare their claws?
A minor quibble. Five Desperate Women is a fabulous way to pass an hour or so and well worth the watch for fans of big hair, big female voices and a nice build of tension and drama. See it here in all its VHS glory:
Thank you Amanda Reyes for bringing this gem to my attention. Grab her book here: