Cannibalism! Forced lobotomies! Gay sex! Nervous breakdowns! Is it the latest experimental horror film direct from some permissive European culture? Nope. Suddenly, Last Summer, written by Tennessee Williams in 1958, was initially a one-act play staged as part of a double-bill. In 1959, the play was turned into a film starring Katherine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, and Montgomery Clift and is, to this day, one of the most awesomely terrifying and affective southern horror movies ever crafted.
Some people could probably argue with me about whether or not Suddenly even classifies as a horror film, but once you’ve lost yourself in this film for the first time, I think you’d be hard pressed to disagree. Suddenly tells the story of Catherine Holly (Taylor), a young woman who has been institutionalized after a nervous breakdown that she suffered when she witnessed the murder of her cousin, Sebastian Venable. Violet (Hepburn), Sebastian’s mother, will do everything in her power to hide the circumstances surrounding Sebastian’s death, even if that means lobotomizing Catherine against her will. The only person concerned with Catherine’s well-being is Dr. John Cukrowicz (Clift), a young, idealistic doctor at the asylum who helps Catherine try to remember what really happened to Sebastian while they were on vacation in Europe.
Isn’t that what love is? Using people?
Personally, I am such a huge fan of southern gothic mysteries in general, that Suddenly, Last Summer easily would have appealed to me regardless of the material. But this classic, Oscar-nominated movie is really just straight up scary. As viewers, we are kept in the dark about Sebastian’s death so in a way, we are experiencing Catherine’s psychological torment right along side her. Then, piece-by-piece, as each element that lead to his murder is revealed; we learn that Sebastian was the kind of guy who probably didn’t fit in so well in polite Southern society in the 50s. If you know even a little about Tennessee Williams, you probably know where this is going, but frankly, even as a lover of all things Williams, nothing could have prepared me for the visceral punch that this little gem of a film packs.
I know “old” movies aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, especially when those movies aren’t obviously horror films. But Suddenly, Last Summer is one of those rare movies that I can watch over and over again and never get tired of it. It’s layered, and creepy, and Katherine Hepburn plays a mother that in my estimation could rival Norma Bates for the “Nice Going Mom!” Award. There are elements of the film that seem a little homophobic through our more modern lens, but if you read the original play and understand William’s subversive style, the film is far less bothersome. More importantly, no matter how many times I have watched Joseph Mankiewicz’s Suddenly, Last Summer, it scares the ever-loving hell out of me. If you’ve seen this movie (or watch it, which you should. I don’t write these for my health!) I’m definitely curious what you think, so let me know!
Classic Hollywood Fun Fact: Suddenly, Last Summer was filmed after Montgomery Clift almost died in a car accident (it was actually Elizabeth Taylor who saved his life.) Filming on the movie began not long after Monty left a psychiatric facility to try and deal with his addiction to alcohol and prescription pills, so he was having trouble keeping his focus. The entire cast and crew rallied around Clift, with the exception of director Joseph Mankiewicz. Mankiewicz treated Montgomery like crap and repeatedly demanded that he be replaced in the film (despite the fact that Elizabeth Taylor refused to make the film without him.) Katherine Hepburn was so disgusted by Mankiewicz's behavior that when a wrap was called on the movie, she asked him if her continued services were required. When he said no, Kate walked up to the director, stood in front of him, spit in his face, and walked off set.
And that is why Katherine Hepburn was a badass and one of my favorite people ever.