Let's Kill Uncle
Cast & Crew
Barnaby Harrison, a 12-year-old orphan who has inherited $5 million, is brought to a tropical island by Police Sgt. Jack Travis to stay with his uncle and guardian, Maj. Kevin Harrison, a former British intelligence commander who is next in line to inherit Barnaby's fortune. Chrissie, a youngster Barnaby's age, travels on the same boat to visit her attractive Aunt Justine; the only other person on the island is a legless native who lives in an abandoned hotel near a shark-infested swimming pool. One day the major hypnotizes Barnaby and tries to get him to walk off a steep cliff; but Barnaby is stopped when Justine calls to him from below. When Barnaby accuses his uncle of trying to kill him, the major cheerfully confesses, explaining that he needs the $5 million and suggesting that they make a game of his murder. Though Chrissie and Barnaby have been quarreling continuously since their arrival on the island, Chrissie, upon learning of Barnaby's dilemma, becomes his ally and suggests that they kill his uncle. But despite the aid of the shark, poisoned mushrooms, tarantulas, and fire, all murder attempts from both sides end in failure. Agreeing to end the game in a draw, the exhausted major decides to forget about the inheritance. As his uncle leaves the island, Barnaby wishes him luck. After his departure, the two children begin to argue again.
Robert R. Bertrand
Edwin H. Bryant
William D. Decinces
John Mccarthy Jr.
Waldon O. Watson
The Gist (Let's Kill Uncle) - LET'S KILL UNCLE
The film opens with a pre-credits sequence showing a nighttime car crash and a bloody victim in the driver's seat (a morbid unbilled cameo by William Castle himself). A voiceover news bulletin sets up the plot: "Russell Harrison, millionaire industrialist, was killed an hour ago. He apparently lost control of his car. He was alone. His only survivors are his son, Barnaby Harrison - age 12, and a brother, Major Kevin Harrison - British Intelligence, World War II hero." The opening credits appear over a montage of toy soldiers, and the early tone of the film quickly establishes that this is a movie geared for kids. Barnaby (Pat Cardi) is accompanied by police Sgt. Jack Travis (Robert Pickering) on an eight-day voyage to the secluded Serenity Island, home of the Major (Nigel Green). Travis must keep Barnaby from bickering with young Chrissie (Mary Badham), traveling to stay with her Aunt Justine (Linda Lawson). Well before the appearance of the murderous Uncle Kevin, there are signs of menace; at one point the ship's Steward (Nestor Paiva) tells Barnaby that the island is haunted, and later, in her Aunt's tidy kitchen, Chrissie has a startling encounter with Ketchman (Reff Sanchez), a legless island native clutching a large knife. When Uncle Kevin arrives via a small plane he wastes no time in telling his nephew, "You're a charming child, Barnaby, but five million dollars charming you are not." Barnaby confides in Chrissie, who not only believes him (although he has often told her lies), she conceives the simple notion, "Your Uncle's trying to kill you, right? Well - let's kill Uncle first!" What follows is a comically morbid back-and-forth of deadly traps and schemes involving hypnosis, tall cliffs, poison mushrooms, fire, a tarantula, and a shark-infested swimming pool!
Mark Rodgers' screenplay for Let's Kill Uncle was based on a 1963 novel by Canadian author June Skinner, writing under the pen name Rohan O'Grady. The juvenile leads in the film were chosen by Castle and by Universal casting director John Badham, the future director of such films as Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Blue Thunder (1983). For the role of Chrissie, Badham looked no further than his younger sister Mary, who a few years earlier had been Oscar-nominated as Best Supporting Actress for her unforgettable performance as "Scout" in To Kill a Mockingbird (1963). Badham had also recently seen the feature And Now Miguel (1966) starring Pat Cardi in the title role; he brought Cardi to Castle and said "...Here's Barnaby." Castle agreed. Contacted for this article, Pat Cardi told TCM that Castle had to battle with the studio to get him the part; Cardi's parents were then engaged in a dispute with the studio over his contract following the shooting of And Now Miguel. Cardi had been a fan of all of Castle's earlier films; he said, "when I saw 13 Ghosts was playing at the Crown Theater [in his hometown of Pasadena, California], I missed school for a week. I don't think I missed a single screening. Getting a part like 'Barnaby' in a William Castle movie was a dream come true."
When he found out that he would be starring opposite the Oscar-nominated Mary Badham, Cardi says that he was "totally intimidated," but fortunately, "on the set we became pals. She is an Alabama girl through and through and was nothing but fun to be around the whole time. We stayed close friends for years and visited each other during every summer (she lived in the South). When she was 16 and I was 17 I told her I wanted to marry her one day. We went on to meet other people and each settled into very long successful marriages. She and I still meet for dinner when she is in town."
In interviews over the years, performers who had worked under Castle have indicated that he did not give much direction to the actors in his films, and Cardi reports that on Let's Kill Uncle, "he respected our comments and pretty much let us have our way with the characters. I think that was a flawed decision. Looking back I needed him to tone my performance down, make it more natural and nuanced." In the film, Barnaby is certainly spoiled and rather obnoxious, which is a contrast in style to the winking performance that British character actor Nigel Green gives as Uncle Kevin. Green had just come from showpiece roles in the acclaimed Michael Caine films Zulu (1964) and The Ipcress File (1965), and was looking at Let's Kill Uncle to help launch his career in America. Uncle Kevin does not show up until a half-hour into the film and he gives the proceedings quite a boost, and of course, the story also takes its darkly comic turn at that point.
From a production standpoint, and given the relatively low budget of the film, Let's Kill Uncle was treated much like one of the many TV productions then shooting at Universal Pictures. There was only one day spent filming on location - at Portuguese Bend near Malibu for the cliff sequence. Everything else was filmed on soundstages, using redressed standing sets from such Universal shows as Run For Your Life, McHale's Navy, The Munsters, and Gidget. Asked if director Castle ever became upset during the shooting of the film, Pat Cardi told TCM, "he only exploded once on the set that I saw. A message had been sent down from the MCA black tower [headquarters of Universal's parent company] to lower Barnaby's inheritance (for which Uncle wants to kill the kid) from $20 Million to $5 Million. Bill stopped production and went into a rant. He would not roll again until the jerk that was trying to cramp his script came before him. [MCA head] Mr. Lew Wasserman himself showed up on the set in his black suit and huge glasses. He spoke quietly to Mr. Castle, who seemed to have a rather sheepish demure smile on his downcast face. Lew lectured him quietly for a few moments and started to walk away. Then he turned and said, 'Bill, do like I asked and change it to $5 million - for $20 million, I'D kill the kid!'"
The musical score for Let's Kill Uncle is credited to Universal contract composer Herman Stein, but is punctuated by several stock music cues from older Universal films. Most glaringly, the famous three-note "Creature sting" from Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) blasts out during a couple of moments intended to make the viewer jump out of their seat. If Castle had been able to stage his scenes more convincingly with an increased sense of urgency, and if the viewer loyalty had been steered toward the juvenile leads rather than to Uncle Kevin (Barnaby is not sympathetic so there is no contest - the viewer is anxious for his demise), then he might have been successful in launching a previously untapped movie genre: black comedy for kids.
Let's Kill Uncle was noticed by most mainstream outlets and the critic for Time magazine wrote that the film "...is just one more budget dreadful from the monster mill operated by Producer William Castle," that is, until the point that young Chrissie tells Barnaby "Let's kill Uncle First!" "From here on," the writer continues, "it turns into a wonderfully wacky game of you-stab-my-back-and-I'll-stab-yours." This critic has high praise for Nigel Green, writing that "the spider, as a matter of fact, is the only performer who manages to steal a scene from Actor Green, who comes across as the most stylish blackguard since Cyril Ritchard, as Captain Hook, got gobbled up by that slimy green clockodile."
The New York Times, never known as a source of great praise for Castle's films, called Let's Kill Uncle "...the least bad chiller ever made by William Castle." The critic goes on, "if the producer could also direct, though he won't give up trying, this little suspense yarn would have been quite nice indeed, instead of pretty fair. [It is] certainly the best plot he has worked with in years. And we're not forgetting the runner-up, 'I Saw What You Did,' when two giggly teen-agers accidentally phoned a murderer. It's the children's hour again, and maybe Mr. Castle had better keep Pied Pipering. ...What went wrong? Mr. Castle, who has paced the film like molasses. Even so, the situation itself is beguiling and the two youngsters and the blandly wide-eyed Mr. Green sustain the tension with their pert playing, at times blithely humorous. ...The picture has an aptly tingling climax and fades out with a flick of disarming irony."
By the time Let's Kill Uncle was released, Castle had already moved his production operation to Paramount Pictures. For Paramount he produced and directed two all-out comedies starring Sid Caesar, The Busy Body and The Spirit Is Willing (both 1967); returned to serious science-fiction with Project X (1968) starring Christopher George; and produced the biggest box-office hit of his career, Rosemary's Baby (1968), directed by Roman Polanski.
Producer: William Castle
Director: William Castle
Screenplay: Mark Rodgers (writer); Rohan O'Grady (novel)
Cinematography: Harold Lipstein
Art Direction: William D. DeCinces, Alexander Golitzen
Music: Herman Stein
Film Editing: Edwin H. Bryant
Cast: Nigel Green (Major Kevin Harrison), Mary Badham (Chrissie), Pat Cardi (Barnaby Harrison), Robert Pickering (Travis), Linda Lawson (Justine), Reff Sanchez (Ketchman), Nestor Paiva (Steward)
by John M. Miller