As this famous 1959 movie adaptation of Tennesse Williams’ play opens, it’s 1937, New Orleans. A wealthy widow, Violet Venable (Katharine Hepburn) is mourning the death of her only son as she simultaneously tries to procure a lobotomy for her disturbed niece, Catherine (Elizabeth Taylor). Catherine, the only witness to the aforementioned son’s untimely death, is too traumatised to remember any details.
Though not strictly a horror film, Suddenly Last Summer is redolent with the macabre. It’s a wordy affair, perhaps too verbose to hold the attention of many of today’s horror enthusiasts, but these words evoke scenes of startling violence with almost existential overtones. Suggestive without being explicit, the narrative teases the viewer, hinting through lush language at unspeakable atrocity.
It takes skilled hands not to let this potent study of obsession and insanity, with its recurring imagery of death and devouring, soar off into the realm of ridiculous melodrama, but Hepburn and Taylor are more than equal to the task. The film’s suspense hinges on the character of Catherine, and Taylor is magnetic in the role. It’s hard to take your eyes off her. In black cocktail dress with cigarette in hand, she paces the corridors of the asylum to which she’s been confined, a picture of smouldering but clearly sane desperation. (Note for horror buffs: if you’re curious as to where the asylum scene in Nightmare on Elm Street 5 came from, look no further!) Suddenly Last Summer is testament to Taylor’s talent as an actor, a fact that often seems overshadowed by the attention paid to her beauty.
Though I was a little disappointed to discover at film’s end that Aunt Vi had not, in fact, eaten her son in a fit of cannibalism (something I’d been genuinely expecting – the mind of the modern horror viewer!), Suddenly Last Summer is rich and complex. A study of the violent consequences of jealousy, pride and repressed desire, it has no need of overt gore.