Is This Woman The Ultimate Gold Digger?

stella stevens arnold web sizeYes, without a question. I mean, other women have married old men who are half dead for their money, but this one married one that was all dead. Stiff as a board, dead as a duck, yet, thanks to some highly skillful embalming, still remarkably fresh! This is just the start of the grim and gruesome humor on display in a delightfully morbid 1973 obscurity called “Arnold.”

I first watched this thing back in the late 80s or early 90s and I’m pretty sure I taped it but VHS being crap – fungus, you know – the recording probably had to be thrown out. It’s such an out-there movie that I have never forgotten it and have over the years tried to find another copy of it but to no avail. It has never received a DVD release, and the VHS version is out of print – and on top of that it’s VHS. Why this hasn’t been put on DVD is a mystery. Not only is it far better than most of its genre, but it also features a truckload of well known names – Stella Stevens as the corpse’s bride, Roddy McDowall as its brother, Elsa Lanchester as their likeably daffy sister Hester, Victor Buono as a nervous priest, and even M.A.S.H’s Jamie Farr playing Arnie’s Indian majordomo in black-face, or is that brown-face? And is that racist – a Lebanese wearing make-up in order to play an Indian? These days it probably wouldn’t even make it to the screen, but the bizarre casting choice adds to the absurdity of the thing. Considering all the DVD releases given to old movies nobody’s heard of, it is inexplicable why this one is so neglected. On greed alone you would think the company that owns it would want it out there. Luckily for fans of the weird and morbid, Google’s complete disrespect for other people’s copyright means it can easily be viewed at certain sites. Say no more.

The director was one Georg Fenady, mostly known for his TV work on things like Quincy M.E, but this is a movie that belongs to the writers, two gruesome-minded little gremlins called Jameson Brewer and John Fenton Murray. Brewer was quite a successful writer in his day, doing a lot of stuff for TV and cinema including co-writing “The Incredible Mr. Limpet,” a movie in which Don Knotts turns into a fish and joins the fight against Adolf Hitler! The other writer was John Fenton Murray, also a successful TV writer who worked on things like “The Red Skelton Show” – on which Jamie Farr was a regular second banana. One of the producers, Andrew J. Fenady, worked mostly in TV, though the other, Charles A. Pratt, seems to have stuck mostly to movies like “Walking Tall,” “Willard” and “The Great Santini.” And the company responsible was Bing Crosby Productions, best known for “Hogan’s Heroes.” There’s a pattern starting to emerge here, and its initials are T.V. Perhaps this all helps to explain why the film fell into obscurity – maybe everyone involved went back to their TV work and forgot about theatrical projects altogether?

SPOILERS AHEAD

But back to “Arnold.” As the film opens, gorgeous young air hostess Karen (Stella Stevens) is marrying her elderly and thoroughly deceased beau Lord Arnold Dwellyn (Norman Stuart giving a wonderfully understated performance,) who at the ceremony gives his “I do” via a tape deck in the side of his coffin. Having a low opinion of marriage, and thereby seeing all wedding ceremonies as a sort of funeral, I at first failed to get the joke, but it sunk in after the local cop pointed out to the local grave digger how unusual this all was. Later that night the will is read, by Arnold himself – the tape deck again – and it turns out he’s leaving virtually everything to the hot hostess in the wedding dress. This causes great consternation to the corpse’s widow as she gets nothing but the Rolls, her title, and one share in a cosmetics company. She doesn’t have long to regret this bit of bastardry, though, as she soon falls victim to a cold cream with a PH content so tragically low that her face proceeds to fall off in chunks. Young Karen herself has mixed feelings about her husband’s will. On the one hand she is now rich as a skunk, but on the other hand she has to keep the corpse with her all the time or she loses the moolah. But then her boyfriend (the corpse’s brother) reminds her that there is also a stash of cash hidden in a secret vault somewhere in the house and that if they can get their hands on the money the gorgeous young thing won’t need to stay with the dead man till she carks. There follows a mad dash for the stash of cash, accompanied by a variety of grisly and melodramatic deaths. Has the cuckolded curmudgeon somehow found a way to strike back from beyond the grave? Is it one of the relatives trying to wipe out the competition for the estate? Various taped admonitions from the late Lord start arriving at rather appropriate times, and they continue to pop up right until the end when the last domino falls, so someone is closely following the actions of these greedy pigeons…

The deaths are surprisingly gruesome for a dark comedy from the early 70s, we even get to see Roddy McDowall’s guts splattered all over Arnie’s coffin – the rest of his assorted bits and pieces, we are later informed, were found scattered all over the room in which Arnie and his coffin rest. This unexpected outburst comes courtesy of a velvet suit that suddenly becomes several hundred sizes too small. No sympathy from me, anyone wearing a velvet suit deserves to be crushed to death. Another guy ends up in a garbage truck, the kind with a built-in compacter, and all that is left to bury is his foot, the rest being carted off to the garbage dump. The Lebanese Indian loses his head while looking for the stash of money, and poor Karen and her lawyer are squished to death inside a shower the walls of which are like something straight out of Poe’s “The Pit And The Pendulum,” and later plonked in a car and set on fire, a series of events which leads the local cop to deliver a delightfully inappropriate description of the victims – “Flat as griddle cakes, they were, and cooked to a turn!”

Only then do we find out who is responsible for all the carnage – yes, it’s the family cat. Pissed off at being left out of the will he has taken his revenge in a series of bizarre and unlikely murders. No, I’m kidding. It was actually Hester, the daffy old sister, aided by Jonesy, the local gravedigger, and working to a plan concocted before his death by the corpse in the drawing room. The problem with accomplices, of course, is that you never know when they are going to go down to the local pub, get a snootful and start blabbing about things best left forgotten, so the daffy old nutter clocks her henchman over the head and dumps him in a grave he had been thoughtful enough to dig for himself. After having Arnie cremated against his last wishes, Hester places his ashes in a vault in the family crypt, then suddenly realizes that the perfect place for a vault full of money is a vault! And sure enough, in a hidden chamber at the back of the thing is the cash everyone has been searching for. But what’s this? Oh, no! Poor old Hester has triggered some sort of booby trap and now she’s imprisoned in the vault, left to die a slow and agonizing death while yet another tape tells her how disappointed Arnie is that not even she could be trusted. Yes, by the end of the movie everyone is dead. Even a raven who likes to hang around the graveyard gets eaten by the cat and shall thus caw – nevermore. Hell, for all I know the cat was grievously wounded in the fight and later died from his injuries – it’s that kind of movie!

All this is carried on in true gothic horror fashion, with dark and stormy nights, permanently foggy graveyards filled with gnarled trees and old tombstones, creepy music and, needless to say, a spooky old house. You expect to see Vincent Price shambling around being neurotic and lamenting the death of his late wife, not Stella Stevens making funny faces at her lawyers! The whole thing adds up to a movie which is surprisingly dark and atmospheric, delightfully morbid, grotesquely amusing, and just begging for a hell of a lot more attention than it gets.

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