Dual Plots, Demon Possession, De Palma: Ruby as Interesting Failure

by Katharine Coldiron Volume 25, Issue 5 / May 2021 12 minutes (2969 words)

Ruby (Curtis Harrington, 1977) drips anachronism, emits confusion, and refuses to resolve so stubbornly that it ends up with appeal. At first, it seems to be an embarrassing failure, but looking closer, it’s an interesting one. On the surface, standard bad-film problems abound: the sets look motel-cheap, the special effects are poor, and the majority of the lighting is dead flat, all to the detriment of the film’s atmosphere. Although the film is set in 1951, the actors wear long pointed collars and floppy hair, courtesy of 1977. The screenplay makes acrobatic leaps in logic, some casting choices are bad, and multiple characters slot easily into cliché.

Down a layer or two, Ruby makes for an unusual case study in bad film. Unraveling its special badness is harder than it looks. Piper Laurie acts with as much extremity here as in the prior year’s Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976), but just as in that film, her exaggeration works extremely well for the character. Centrally, the plot is really two plots, smashed together like colliding trains. In the wreckage is a mess of a movie, but one that has ineffable pleasure embedded in the viewing experience.

1. Dual

At the macro level, I know exactly why Ruby doesn’t work. It’s clearer every time I watch it: those two plots. One of them is a gangster movie about Ruby Claire, and the other is a demon movie about her daughter Leslie. I don’t really know if, with some movie, someday, you could mix these two genres successfully. The demon movie trend of the mid-1970s required the spirituality crisis the nation was undergoing at the time to cohere, while the fast-‘n’-sleazy type of gangster movie Ruby imitated had been out of fashion for decades. Plus, the gritty realism of one genre clashes with the supernaturality of the other, so you’d have to tap-dance pretty fast to combine them well. Ruby is not the movie to pull this off.

In the gangster movie, Ruby Claire, moll to gang leader Jake Miller, falls in love with Nicky, an ambitious young gang member, and becomes pregnant by him. Ruby’s true loyalties are perhaps unclear to both Nicky and Jake. The rest of the gang kills Nicky on the night Ruby gives birth to her daughter, Leslie. This occurs in 1935. Sixteen years later, Ruby runs a drive-in movie theater, where all the members of the gang involved in Nicky’s murder are employees, except Jake, who is blind and wheelchair-bound.

In the demon movie, Nicky haunts the drive-in, possesses Leslie (who is a standard-issue Creepy Girl with Vague Powers), and horribly kills the former gang members one by one. A parapsychologist comes to the drive-in to help solve the murders and figure out what’s going on with Leslie. At the end, Ruby, who has never really let go of her old love, willingly walks into the swamp with Nicky’s ghost, bound to him rather than to her daughter and her present-day life.

Both of these movies are Ruby, and as the two paragraphs above indicate, no summary is complete without both plots. But since the two plots follow different genre conventions, the viewing experience is unsettled, even unpredictable. Although neither movie is especially imaginative within its genre, pushing them together discombobulates the viewer enough that she cannot be quite sure what’ll happen next. Even Piper Laurie noticed this, in her memoir: “It was a strange script, with a couple of genuinely original scenes.”

My initial guess about Ruby and its weird dual storyline was that some producer had found two weak screenplays and decided to combine them into one. We’ve got this ghost story, but it’s a little too thin and obviously imitative of The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973). We’ve got this gangster movie, but it doesn’t really have a story beyond the first half-hour. Hey, let’s shove ‘em together, that’ll make 90 minutes.

I was wrong. Or at least I could not find any evidence that I was right. The screenplay was written by George Edwards, a frequent professional partner of director Curtis Harrington’s, from a story by Steve Krantz. I could not determine the contributions of the other credited writer, Barry Schneider (whose illustrious screenwriting resume includes Roller Boogie and Cocaine: One Man’s Seduction). I also couldn’t determine how much the screenplay had changed across the process of filmmaking.

Harrington’s posthumously published memoir, Nice Guys Don’t Work in Hollywood, offers just three pages about Ruby, and a good half of that word count is complaint about Krantz, who produced. He explains: “George Edwards…had a script about an ex-gangster’s moll who runs a drive-in movie theater and is possessed by the spirit of her dead father.” This wording may indicate that Edwards’s original screenplay was about Leslie running the drive-in, not Ruby, which hints at big changes between conception and execution. (Perhaps it’s just badly worded—the book was published after Harrington died. An editor might have received more clarity from an author who could respond to notes.) Harrington admits that the screenplay “was indebted to The Exorcist, which was quite a hit at the time.” Maybe Edwards had written the gangster parts in haste to fill out a script that copied The Exorcist too closely, or maybe the possession bits weren’t as unoriginal in the screenplay as they ended up being in the finished film. It’s not clear. But the screenplay certainly wasn’t a Frankenstein of two distinct ideas; rather, it was poorly conceived.

2. Overlap

The problem I have in writing about Ruby is where to begin: with what’s good, with what’s bad, or with what’s mysterious. The first two categories overlap a lot. Ruby manages to fold good into bad and vice versa so thoroughly that it’s a difficult film to assess. Thus, an interesting failure, my favorite kind of bad movie.

Piper Laurie’s performance is technically, perhaps, bad, but she throws herself into it with the abandon of a woman in Hollywood over 40 and the skill of an actress at the height of her powers. She’s over the top in a way that the role demands, to a result that’s extremely pleasurable for the audience. Ruby is a loud, drunken, melodramatic tornado of a character, and if Laurie had toned her performance down even a micron, the character would not have worked.

Stewart Whitman is miscast as Vince. The character is rough-edged and pretty dumb, and Whitman emits thoughtful and kind. But that means he and his character fade into the landscape a little, leaving more room for Laurie, Roger Davis (unnerving as parapsychologist Dr. Keller), and the sound design (spooky electronic noise and instrumental variations on Ruby’s one hit song, “Love’s So Easy”).

The story has poeticism in it, especially in its Gothic conclusion— Ruby trance-walking into the swamp, compelled by a ghost to abandon her life altogether, has some actual gravitas (good). But it’s ruined by the final two tacked-on shots, filmed by the execrable Krantz for about three dollars, showing a fake Laurie being drowned by a fake skeleton (bad).

Leslie is a pretty clichéd character, but that’s good inasmuch as we know what to expect from her. Moments in which the film tests suspension of disbelief (when Ruby bonks Leslie on the head with a wooden mallet that belongs in a Wile E. Coyote cartoon, not in Ruby’s attic; the sheer amount of red apparel Ruby wears) also traffic in camp, and wind up being delightful rather than cringeworthy.

Dismissing a film like Ruby doesn’t tell us nearly as much as parsing out what’s wrong with it and what’s good about it. All the more tantalizing a task when one element of a film can fall into both categories.

3. De Palma

As for what’s mysterious about Ruby —aside from how the patched-together screenplay came to exist, there is plenty. One mystery, which got weirder the more I considered it, is how Brian De Palma connects to the film.

Piper Laurie is the most obvious node. Before De Palma’s Carrie, she hadn’t made a movie in 15 years, and then in two movies within two years, she played a nutty mom to a teenaged daughter with paranormal powers. Apparently, this was coincidence. Harrington writes that her casting had nothing to do with Carrie, and in her own memoir, Learning to Live Out Loud, Laurie indicates that the first screening of Carrie occurred while she was already shooting Ruby. But it was De Palma who coaxed her back into film, and Harrington who seized on her immediately afterward.

Then there’s The Fury (1978), also directed by De Palma, a bloody, tightly made film about the paranormal, in which a sinister John Cassavetes seizes control over two teenagers with strong psychic powers. His relationship with Amy Irving’s character in that movie resembles Dr. Keller’s with Leslie, such that I felt sure Ruby was cribbing from The Fury before I looked again at their release dates.

Janit Baldwin, although Ruby’s credits claim to “introduce” her, had a small part in De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (1974).

Strangest of all, some wardrobe from Phantom made its way into Ruby. Around minute 16, a pair of tough characters are passing by at the drive-in, and one of them half-turns his back, showing that his denim vest is patched with the distinctive Death Records logo. Bodyguards are shown wearing vests like it in Phantom. Ruby was an independent production, so perhaps the costumer bought or rented some back stock from Fox. Perhaps the guy was an extra in both films and kept his costume from Phantom. Perhaps the vest ended up in a thrift store and the Ruby costumer bought it there. The vest could have gone from one production to the other in any number of ways, but it’s a head-snapping coincidence nonetheless.

4. Anachronism

The fact that a vest from a movie made and set in 1974 appears in a movie made in 1977 and set in 1951 is only a fraction of the anachronism that plagues Ruby. My research couldn’t uncover Edwards’s motivations for writing a period piece, but the mid-70s teemed with 1950s nostalgia: American Graffiti (George Lucas, 1973) and Happy Days (1974-1984), Grease (Randal Kleiser, 1978), Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (stage drama, 1976). Given the (unfashionable) 1930s gangster ideas that set Ruby’s story in motion, it’s possible Edwards wasn’t trying to capitalize on this trend at all, but had instead written the screenplay out of his own private nostalgia.

In any event, the movie is unsuccessful as a period piece. No one in the 1950s wore their hair like Ruby does, or like Stuart Whitman does. The clothes are badly and closely cut, a hallmark of 1970s polyester blends. Leslie’s clothes and hair are entirely wrong for young people in 1951. Although the word was created in the late 19th century, “parapsychology” was a fringe idea until the early 1970s, and it’s doubtful that Vince could have met a parapsychologist by chance, particularly one working at a prison (for some reason). A small budget explains the visual anachronisms, and a hasty screenplay explains the logical ones. But it also seems like the decision-makers on this production didn’t really try to get the period details right.

The repeated inclusion of scenes from Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman (Nathan Juran, 1958), playing at Ruby’s drive-in, is a glaring problem in this regard. The movie is seven years away from release when Ruby takes place. I can’t figure out why Harrington chose this movie above all others; to move forward despite that seven-year error, he must have had a good reason. It escapes me.

Ruby attempts to be metatextual, given its setting at a drive-in and given that, as Harrington notes in a DVD special feature, “this film was designed to a certain extent to be a drive-in movie.” Hence, 50 Ft. Woman should have some special resonance to the plot of the film. I’m not sure it does. Murky ideas about women as unstable, predatory forces do swirl around in both films, and the monster in 50 Ft. Woman is human, not animal or insect, as in many other 1950s genre films. It’s also perhaps more instantly recognizable than any other monster movie of its day. None of this overcomes the mistake of its appearance in 1951; none of these are good enough reasons for it to appear in Ruby. As far as any thematic connection between the films goes, another, correctly contemporary monster movie would likely have sufficed.

Further, there’s the predictive anachronism of the Keller/Leslie relationship. When I first became fascinated with Ruby, I thought the dynamic between Dr. Keller and Leslie had been copied from other movies. I had seen films and read books where a male scientist becomes fixated on a girl or a young woman with psychic powers of some kind. It seemed like a mini-trend of the late 70s and early 80s, films and books with this idea.

I had remembered things in the wrong order. Leslie’s behavior (and especially her possession-voice) are influenced by The Exorcist (1973), but the works I’d been remembering with similar man/girl relationships were The Fury (film, 1978) and Firestarter (book, 1980). The Fury was a book first, but it came out in 1976, too late to influence Edwards’s screenplay. Carrie (book 1974, movie 1976) was an influence generally on the weird-supernatural-girl minigenre, but Harrington specifies that “Ruby had been written long before that film’s release.”

Dr. Keller’s somewhat creepy attentions to Leslie during the third act echo Fathers Karras and Merrin in The Exorcist as they tend to Regan. But Keller’s expertise is not religious. His interest in Leslie reads as scientific, closer to the threatening, exploitive figures in The Fury and Firestarter. The Fathers do not have any of that for Regan.

What baffles me is how Ruby could have been first among these films. The pattern of behavior Keller and Leslie display feels prescribed, as if it’s been done in a jillion movies already. The scene when he wets her brow with a washcloth, saying “You’ve got to fight it, Leslie,” is so familiar I can barely watch it. How could it have come first? And how could these later films, far more prominent, have been influenced by dinky little Ruby, which did well at drive-ins but otherwise sank without a trace beneath 1977’s turbulent cinematic seascape?

The likeliest answer is that pesky Something In The Air effect, which explains the two Prefontaine movies in 1997-98, the two Mars movies in 2000, and the various Florence Foster Jenkins movies in 2016. It’s not satisfactory, but it’s an answer.

5. Resolve

Along with its mixed ones, the film does have a few genuinely good qualities. Before Leslie discovers Louie’s corpse, when she’s gently touching plants in the foreground and the body is spiked in a tree in the background, Harrington has made a decent horror tableau. The incestuous scene in the attic, when Nicky, possessing Leslie, dances with Ruby, probably lands differently depending on the viewer, but I find it perversely well-made. Ruby’s behavior, obsessing over Nicky and swanning drunkenly about her home like a tarted-up Miss Havisham, is both campy and riveting. Although Dr. Keller is generally out of place as a character, Roger Davis makes the most of his odd role. The bits of Ruby that lean toward ghost story, rather than demon story, are generally decent—Nicky haunting Ruby’s nights, in dreams and out of them; Ruby and Vince guessing at Nicky’s motivation; the ease with which Ruby chooses Nicky’s ghost over anyone living.

Of course, none of this is enough. Ruby still fails.

I can look at the film and consider what I would have done to make it succeed. Remove the whole Dr. Keller angle; make the murders significantly less bloody; focus more on how Ruby hasn’t moved on from Nicky—less on her rage and more on her sorrow. Give it all mood, not fake blood and lightning strikes. Figure out a thematic connection to 50 Ft. Woman and play it up.

Yet the silly, lurid half of Ruby is enjoyable, too. Maybe I’d remove all the mood and the poetic parts and stick with the The Exorcist rip-off destined for the drive-in. Draw out the possession much longer. Show Leslie committing murders herself rather than giving that task to Nicky’s ghost. Develop an actual antagonism between Nicky and Keller rather than just one confusing line (“Vince is next, Keller!”). Make it a hackfest. Buckets of gore tossed at the drive-in screen.

But that would not fall in with Ruby’s hazy, in-between properties—the ones that made it stick in my head in the first place. Either choice to fix the film would make it one thing, easy to pin down and categorize, easy to forget. Ruby’s flaws are egregious, but it is not a forgettable film. Its conflicting priorities and the tension they cause make it memorable, at the same time as they make it suck.

There is no way to resolve this, the issue of Ruby’s major flaws so often being its major advantages. Combining its two stories proved impossible for the filmmakers, and determining for certain what is a feature and what is a bug has proved equally impossible for this critic. The only sure thing is how interesting Ruby is as a failed film, how the merged columns of its flaws and features make it intriguing.

Dual Plots, Demon Possession, De Palma: Ruby as Interesting Failure

Katharine Coldiron is the author of Ceremonials (2020) and a monograph on Plan 9 from Outer Space (2021). Her work on film has appeared in Bright Wall/Dark Room, ASAP/J, Vague Visages, Bitch, and elsewhere.

Volume 25, Issue 5 / May 2021 Essays   cult cinema   curtis harrington   horror