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Death In The Family (1981)
Director: Michael J. Murphy

review by Paul Higson

Several poisonings, a bludgeoning, incest, a couple of bombs, a dismembered burnt arm in a rock pool and a knifing, all in a package only 51 minutes length. In fact, there are more bodies than there are cast members in this one... and still you reach the end and you can't rightly declare it a horror film. It is too bright, too in love with the sunshine and holiday location for that, too fond of the sol, the rented villa and the blue waters. I am beginning to wonder if the part I have played in uncovering and bringing into reach Michael J. Murphy, has not begun to influence me favourably to his work. How is it I can enjoy this film this much when it runs less than an hour and it is so blatantly cheap? Should I even be asking that question? No, because normally feature films running under the hour still feel like time spent, and the reason the question arises is because the film zips by, it starts and then it is over, with so little in the way of opening and closing titles that it does feel unfinished or like a long extract though paradoxically in storytelling terms it is clearly complete and enough. Certainly if this was alone on a ticket I would have felt cheated, but it would never have appeared on a programme alone in 1981 when it was made, and it never saw a movie theatre anyway. Hats off to Richard Ault, a fellow Michael J. Murphy enthusiast, who realised he had this film in the "bottom of a drawer," a hitherto unrecorded, certainly forgotten video release on the Neon Video label in the early 1980s. In our other coverage we have stated that the film ran 90 minutes shot on 16mm, this information provided by Murphy, though it is hard to tell how this considerably shorter film might have been otherwise padded out. It is unlikely it would have worked out as well without the introduction of other characters. Additional plotting around so few players would have been the death of it, or am I underestimating Michael J. Murphy?
   The film opens with Oliver (Russell Hall) at the villa receiving his sister, Debbie (Caroline Aylward), then receiving her some more in the pushed together single beds upstairs. Their new stepmother Shirley (Shirley Carol Aston) shows up the next day, but father Max (Rick Arthur) is absent still. Mary (Jeanne Griffin) is the suspicious housekeeper sifting through their things to prove that Oliver, against his claims, has been on the island longer than he claims and failing to flinch when she catches the siblings in a slobbery clinch in the bedroom window. Beachside, Shirley and the step kids discover the aforementioned charred limb in the shallows and recognises Max's ring on the finger. The police discover that the family yacht has gone to smithereens. Initially assessed by the authorities to have been no more than an accident the incestuous two begin the accusatory finger bit at the stepmother, particularly after spotting her with a young Greek man at the marina. They plot her demise. Mary reveals to Shirley what she has discovered and Shirley takes it to the kids who flare up in response. "You said let her make her mistake," recalls Debbie, "..she just started." When Shirley, in a pique, broaches the sleeping arrangements of the two, Oliver responds:
   "We're not hurting anyone. We're just protecting ourselves from people like you."
   The murder plot begins in earnest only it is Mary who is the accidental victim taking the shower when Oliver starts a bludgeoning, following his sister's urgings to "Make sure you hit her around the neck so it looks like it happened during a car crash."
   The young Greek man is Yannis (Peri Tastsidis), the son of Max's partner, who very nearly scuppers their concurrent plans with a visit when Debbie, in a black wig disguise, was on her way to buy cyanide from the silver jewellery factory in a new tack to slip it into Shirley's lemon tea. Shirley is already in Murphy's trademark bondage scene, tied to a chair, having threatened to call the police, suspecting Mary's murder when blood began pumping back up the shower plughole. It is only a death postponed for Shirley, her corpse set up for a suicide tableau, but not before she has begun to plant suspicions between the kissing sister and brother. Yannis is foolish enough to return with evidence that he will only relate to Shirley. In retrospect, when you consider the evidence is that the burnt arm in the crab pool belonged not to Max but Yannis' father, you really don't feel to bad about the horny young Greek's fate, given that despite this fresh and terrible news he can only think of trying to get Debbie into those twin beds. So a knife in the gut it is for him.
   In a final twist it is Oliver who planned and executed the first murder of their father, and Debbie and her father who engineered all the subsequent murders, persuading Oliver to conduct all of the dirty work so that all the evidence incontrovertibly lies with him. The departing Max and Debbie forget about the electronics studies that he took to remote control the explosion on the boat they and leave Oliver predicting that he will poison himself rather than face the judicial system, which he does, but not before flicking one final switch, having anticipated their game and planted a remote control bomb in her suitcase. It is death all round, a positively Russian experience. Quite slyly the film opens with a brief mention of the years of passage since the passing of their mother, suggesting that this might be the death in the family of the title, that this might all be some innocent drama about coming to terms with grief. Oh foolish us. Yet at the same time it is part that, as it was the mother's death that acted as the catalyst in Oliver's hatred for his father and the entire chain of events. So not so foolish us, we ultimately read into the double entendre.
   There is an astonishing turn of events in this film given the running time and few cast members. There is only one roadside extra throughout, the risks on the low budget enough with the number of camera set-ups to chance further on outside forces like too many exterior locations or participants. As a result most of the action takes place inside and around the villa and it is to Murphy's great credit as a scriptwriter and director that you do not complain about it. I repeatedly raise wonder at the number of camera set-ups on a clearly severe budget so I will account for it, a good example being an exposition scene on the terrace between Shirley and Mary, as Oliver and Debbie stroll away from the house, early on in the film. There are at least four set-ups to cover five shots, though I suspect it to be one camera and five set-ups. In two of the shots the brother and sister can be scene in the background, one of the shots a twin on the women in the foreground, the other an extreme close-up of Mary with the focus on the two beyond. There are over-the-shoulder shots of both the women, and an enthusiastic low angle shot looking up at Shirley. This is constantly intercut material and there is not a single blip in the sequence. Murphy is virtually a technical one-man show on the film and he has to be applauded for such audacious strokes, it is so beautifully co-ordinated, the end edit so smooth the work and thought put into it is probably doomed to go unnoticed by most.
   The film is from the outset clearly dubbed but even this quickly loses your notice, partly because it is a familiar aspect of his films as made around that time, but more likely because the pace of the film detaches you from the flaw. It is noticed only in the oddest moments, like the flat delivery of the words "You bitch!" from Debbie to Shirley at the dinner table, an exchange that was clearly more sharply said on the set, Shirley Carol Aston physically jumping at the receiving end of Carolyn Aylward's venom.
   The film has very little in the way of credits, naming only the actors, and the composer of the score, Philip Love, which may be Murphy again. The film does not even credit a director so it is nice to identify it in electronic print until it can, if it can, be corrected in some modern repackaging. Murphy is particularly good in the thriller territory though there would appear to be some bleeding in of plots from one film to the next. It makes chasing up his 1970s' films more important than ever and his next film Roxi is a return both to Greece and themes of murder in the family. There are an increasing number of featurettes of viewing standard turning up and it would be nice to think that this could be coupled on a DVD programme with one or more of them. Perhaps someone will take that next step and the first Michael J. Murphy boxset appear sooner than later.

Related item:
tZ  Spirit Of Independence: Michael J. Murphy interviewed

Death In The Family video
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Caroline Aylward and Russell Hall





Jeanne Griffin and Shirley Carol Aston





Aston, Aylward and Hall, on the beach





Death in the Family - cast and crew



Special thanks to
Michael J. Murphy
for images above,
and to Richard Ault
for video sleeve.

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