‘Psychic! Psycho! Macabre!’
Deadly Strangers is a 1974 British psycho-thriller feature film co-produced and directed by Sidney Hayers – Circus of Horrors; Night of the Eagle; Assault; Revenge – from a story and screenplay by Philip Levene. It stars Hayley Mills, Simon Ward, and Sterling Hayden.
The film’s original title, which seems to have been deleted from all prints, was Silhouettes.
Belle Adams (Hayley Mills) has narrowly avoided being assaulted by a scuzzball lorry driver (Ken Hutchinson) but runs into travelling salesman Steven Slade (Simon Ward) who is glad of the company and so agrees to get her to her desired destination of Wycombe. Clicking on the radio, in true horror film style, a news announcer warns of a lunatic on the run from the local asylum.
After turning off the report before we learn any more details about the escapee, we are soon alerted to the fact that Slade is perhaps not all that he seems – he appears unfamiliar with his own car, struggles to recount personal details and disconcertingly, lies to Adams to ensure she misses her train and is stuck with him for the foreseeable future.
Even more worrying, is the murder of a female petrol station attendant, when the couple stops off to fill up.
On the off-chance we have any doubts whatsoever, Ward seems very keen to avoid the numerous roadblocks dotted around the countryside to try and capture the fugitive, blaming his bashfulness on the fact he’s drink-driving (very reassuring).
After spending the night in the car, Stevens awakes to find Adams has vanished and assumes she’s gone for good – in actual fact, she’s just nipped along to the local shop but Steven’s heightened emotions lead him to drive off at high speed alone.
Finding herself abandoned, Adams meets charming American Malcolm Robarts (Hayden) who, despite his advancing years, manages to woo her into his vintage car with the promise of dinner (and breakfast).
Meanwhile, Adams has started to suffer occasional flashbacks to sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her drunken uncle, whilst Stevens recalls his impotency and voyeuristic tendencies.
The former strangers are soon reunited but are trailed by Robarts who seems to be trying to warn about imminent danger. Failing, he contacts the police as we are forced to contemplate that perhaps Adams is not the damsel in distress we had originally assumed… or maybe she is? Or maybe it’s someone else?
The film offers us three very clear options; it’s either Adams, Stevens, or an unlikely third who is the escaped lunatic. As we are given the entire film to mull this over, the ending can’t be a surprise of any sort, though it’s handled relatively well.
Neither of the leads is particularly likeable – this is fine in terms of Stevens (though he does seem to be channelling the spirit of Michael York, somewhat) as he is the most likely culprit, but Adams is not a character we warm to, even having seen the scenes of her having been abused when younger.
Her primness – though we are treated to a couple of unexpected nude scenes – and the lack of discernible threat throughout the majority of the film leaves the film a rather flat experience.
The introduction of Robarts and one of the cinema’s most remarkable beards turns out to be little more than a distraction, offering much but seemingly having a good deal of the role written out mid-way through.
The film does reveal a gloriously grotty view of 70’s England, greasy spoon cafes, confused fashions, unconvincing bikers, girlie mags prominently displayed in a local newsagent’s window, and a hopeless police force all there for us to enjoy.
The setting of Weston-Super-Mare, near Bristol, is perfectly unassuming and bland, the every-day community being home to crazy psychopaths being a staple of 70’s British horror and thrillers.
The score by Ron Goodwin is unremarkable, a disappointment from a man capable of memorable themes such as The Day of the Triffids and Where Eagles Dare.
Daz Lawrence, HORRORPEDIA
“Sub-Hitchcock melo-thriller with enough red herrings to sink a ship. Smartly enough done, but the grisliness needs balancing by humour.” Leslie Halliwell, Halliwell’s Film Guide
“It’s not much, but because it manipulates pruriently the devotion of viewers of a certain age to innocent Hayley Mills, it does have a certain pungency.” RoMMer Reviews
“Spiced with a few off-kilter touches (Sterling Hayden’s performance as Belle’s would-be rescuer is bewilderingly watchable) and imbued with an overcast dankness, this underseen downbeat ’70s terror is worth seeking out.” The Terror Trap
” … competently done, yet it’s the landscape of rural seventies Britain that makes the most impression from its bumpy roads to its off-season seaside towns, both curiously bleak and melancholy. This is quite an atmospheric work and director Sidney Hayers toils hard not to give anything away and point us in the wrong direction…” Graeme Clark, The Spinning Image
“Sole redeeming feature is Hayley Mills, who suggests an actress capable of much better things than she has been offered recently. Hayers, to his credit, does exploit her best quality – an insolent, slightly offhand sex appeal.” Chris Petit, Time Out
” … the film’s outcome is so evident from the first five minutes that all subsequent scenes serve only to highlight and compound the improbability of the principal characters’ behaviour. Hayley Mills and Simon Ward struggle valiantly to disguise the fact of their miscasting, but lost causes are clearly not their métier.” Clyde Jeavons, BFI Monthly Film Bulletin
Cast and characters:
- Belle Adams – Hayley Mills – Twisted Nerve
- Stephen Slade – Simon Ward – Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed; Holocaust 2000; The Monster Club
- Malcolm Robarts – Sterling Hayden – Venom (1981)
- Jim Nicholls – Ken Hutchison – – Straw Dogs
- Belle’s Uncle – Peter Jeffrey – Goodbye Gemini | The Abominable Dr. Phibes | Dr. Phibes Rises Again
- Café Owner – Hubert Tucker
- Petrol Station Attendant – Nina Francis
- 1st Motorcycle Youth – George Collis
- 2nd Motorcycle Youth – Ralph Arliss
- Stephen’s Girlfriend – Juliet Aykroyd
- Motorcycle Policeman – Roger Nott
- Hotel Receptionist – Norman Tyrrell
Level Crossing, Hewish, Somerset
The Pub, East Harptree, Somerset
Deadly Strangers is apparently in the public domain so free to view online.