Thursday, December 13, 2012

On the Celluloid Chopping Block: RUBY (1977)

Curtis Harrington’s RUBY is one of those films I was infinitely familiar with before I ever saw it.  After all, it is nearly impossible to go digging into old Box Office and Variety issues without encountering that singular image of a screaming blood soaked girl, who I always incorrectly assumed was the Ruby of the title.  That image and title coupled with the casting of Piper Laurie always made me think RUBY was a quickly done CARRIE (1976) knock off.  That couldn’t be further from the truth and – thanks mostly to a badass sale at VCI Entertainment – I was finally able to see RUBY this past week.

The film opens in 1935 with gangster Nicky Rocco (Sal Vecchio) going on a moonlit date with the titular Ruby Claire (Piper Laurie).  Nicky is apparently quite the romantic as he has taken her out to a swamp. But before the duo can cuddle in the arousing aroma of swamp gasses, some of Nicky’s associates show up and fill him full of lead.  The pregnant Ruby collapses as her beau sinks to the bottom of the swamp.  16 years later, Ruby is still living on the land with her and Rocco’s young daughter Leslie (Janit Baldwin, the young girl gracing the powerful poster images). Quite the entrepreneur, Ruby has built a drive-in theater on the land where their casino used to be and hired Nicky’s killers to run the place.  Around the anniversary of her lover’s death and Leslie’s birthday, the mute daughter starts to act strange.  Even worse, the conspirators involved in Nicky’s death start turning up dead.  Vince (Stuart Whitman), one of the gunmen, begins to suspect something supernatural is involved and invites Dr. Paul Keller (Roger Davis), a doc he met while incarcerated who dabbles in parapsychology, to the location.  The doc quickly surmises that not only has gangster Nicky Rocco come back for his revenge, but that he is using his own daughter as his instrument to enact it.

One of the great things about VCI’s special edition release of RUBY is the nearly 1-hour conversation that director Curtis Harrington has with film historian David Del Valle.  The cheerful discussion covers his entire career, but one of the more fascinating revelations was that this disc represented the most complete version of the film and that most viewers were only familiar with an altered version via TV broadcasts and VHS releases.  As revealed by Harrington, the producer removed several violent scenes and added unauthorized new footage to help pad out the running time for the television airings. When it came time for the VHS release, the TV print was the one erroneously offered.  What’s that?  A VHS version with additional footage?  I’m all over that.  After a bit of online searching, I realized I already owned the offending copy of RUBY on VHS (a scenario I’m sure all video junkies, professional or not, reading this can relate to) but hadn’t watched it yet.  With the theatrical release fresh in my mind, I dove into this one and was amazed by the differences.

For clarity’s sake (and what is left of my sanity), I’m only going to write about what was added to theatrical version and not meticulously focus on what was removed.  Suffice to say nearly every blood/body close up ends on the cutting room floor and the biggest excision is the finale involving the man in the wheelchair and the revelation of what Ruby has in her jar.  Both versions open with the 1935 prologue and unfold in the same manner until roughly the 21 minute mark.  It is here that the TV version offers up the first amount of new footage.  It is a nearly 3 minute scene set inside police headquarters.  Sheriff Rich (John Crawford, who is not credited for his work) opens the conversation by saying he is trying to “figure out where my wife goes every night.”  This new subplot actually stems from a scene earlier in the Harrington version where a couple making out at the drive in and the woman reveals her husband is the sheriff.


It is here that Deputy Len reveals that there has been some trouble at the drive-in.  He says a local boy said he saw a man hanging in the projection booth (the film’s first murder).  When the deputy went to investigate, he was met by Vince, who covers up the death by saying it was just people letting the horror flicks get to them.  The deputy then reveals both he and the sheriff have a previous history with the mob folks by saying, “You know, the way we had things going with folks down at the drive-in.”  The deputy then also reveals he thinks he spotted the sheriff’s wife there, causing the sheriff to say, “Looks like I’m going to have to do a little checking up at home and at the drive-in.”  Ah, infidelities, a true staple of TV fodder.



Around the 27 and a half minute mark is where the TV version inserts four new scenes back-to-back.  In total, this chunk runs just under 7 minutes and comprises the largest amount of new footage.  First up is a two minute scene of the sheriff in bed with his wife Mae Belle (Mary Margaret Robinson).  He questions her about her whereabouts on her nights away and she says she has been going out to church socials.  Ha!


He then tells her about the trouble up at the drive-in, which leads her to ask, “You don’t suppose those killings are starting up again, do you?”  Man, does anyone in this town not know this secret?



This scene is followed by a 90 second bit with Barney (Len Lesser) doing some work on the speakers at the drive-in while the younger Kenny bitches about his lack of increased pay. Aggressively grabbing the audience by the collar rather than gently leading it by the hand, the poor kid starts asking about the old roadhouse and then says, “I got a feeling all you guys got something to hide.”  When he asks about the swamp, Barney warns him to stay away from the swamp.  Real subtle there, Mystery Ghost Director.




The kid then asks what happened to Jess the projectionist and Barney says he got a call from his brother and had to leave.  He then pulls the kid face-to-face and sternly says, “Just forget it kid.  Mind your own business and you’ll live a lot longer.”  As if minimum wage weren’t insulting enough!  


The next new scene defines time padding.  For some odd reason, the makers of the new footage brought back the character of Lila June (Crystin Sinclaire), the bitchy teen who shows up at the drive-in each night with a different date. She is shown at home on the telephone and coos about the expensive gifts she gets while holding the necklace from her “really nice” friend (you know, the guy who tried to rape her a few scenes ago!).


Lila June’s mother comes in and then tells her to get off the phone.  She then asks her daughter where she goes every night and Lila says she goes out to homework study groups and sometimes to babysit.  Damn, this town loves its groups. Anyway, mama ain’t buying any of that and blows her story full of holes by asking, “Who do you babysit for?”  Lila then protests and says, “Mama, why are you asking me all these things.  I’m a good girl.”  Her mom then finds the necklace and asks, “What’s this?”  Obviously this is an utterly pointless new scene.



The fourth scene of this new section marathon involves the sheriff heading to the drive-in to ask some tough questions. The sheriff asks about the hanging report from last night.  He then asks when Vince is and Barney says he is out looking for Leslie, who he describes as a “strange girl.”  Sheriff Rich then tells Barney of their old relationship, “I want you to forget how it used to be.”




The confrontation ends with the following exchange.

Sheriff: “I’m warning you.  You tell Vince 
for me. It’s a new ball game.”



Barney: “Sheriff, no need to get steamed up.  We was 
always able to take care of you. It’s no different now.”


The next half hour or so of the TV version follows its theatrical blueprint as Leslie starts showing her odd behavior and guys get killed.  Around the 64 minute mark, three more new scenes involving Dr. Keller (Roger Davis, returning for this role) appear.  The first is a 3 minute scene of him going to the town bar looking for George Whitehouse, editor of the local newspaper.  He finds Mr. Whitehouse playing a mean game of pool by himself (ha!) and explains who he is.



Keller asks about the background of Leslie.  Whitehouse says, “Nothing to tell, she’s retarded that’s all.” Ha! Keller says, “I believe something happened to her 16 years ago at birth, something horrible and tragic.  Perhaps even before she was born.”



Keller then asks questions about what happened at the old roadhouse casino and how it relates to Leslie.  Mr. Whitehouse fills him in on the details of what went down back in the day, but gets all grumpy (as small town newspaper editors are prone to do) when Keller asks if there were any killings.  Jeez, can’t a guy play pool by himself in peace? Keller then says he walked around the swamps when he first got here and gets all moody (as small time parapsychologists are prone to do) when saying he felt death there. Anyway, the editor lets him know their conversation is over via the classic “I’m focusing back on my game” body language snub.  Burn!




The very next scene has the sheriff inside his greenhouse watering some plants.  His deputy brings in the doc because he “heard he was asking questions downtown.”  Again, Dr. Keller shows he is nobody’s friend as he asks about the events from 1935 and the sheriff says, “That was an unfortunate case.”  The doc begins to outlay his evidence so far and gets the sheriff all flustered when he asks where Nicky Rocco is buried.  The sheriff says, “A doctor should be interested in pills and medicine.”  Keller then whips out his “you wouldn’t be hiding something” line, but the tension is broken when the sheriff’s wife enters.





After Keller leaves, the deputy returns as the sheriff talks with his wife.  “He knows everything damn thing,” the sheriff cries.  The deputy asks if he should “take care” of him and the sheriff objects, causing the deputy to say he will just scare him.  The wife then tells her sheriff husband that “you better do something old man or some young man will take your place.” Ouch!  Rub it in, why don’t ya?



The next scene is the final bit of new footage as we get a minute long scene involving the deputy attempting to scare off Dr. Keller.  Having received a car ride, Keller gets out and begins walking back to the drive-in when a series of gun shots ring out.  He ducks behind a tree as a few more shots are fired.




It is then revealed that Deputy Len was the one doing the firing.  Apparently his plan was the worst because not only did it not scare Dr. Keller off, but it resulted in the film unfolding to its end credits without the benefit of any new footage. You know you suck when you’re written out of footage especially to be written in.


The only new inclusion after this is the very last shot in the film’s credits:


Ah, our old friend Alan Smithee!  At least they got creative with the spelling.  While it has never been confirmed, the internet tells us the writer/director of this new footage is rumored to be Stephanie Rothman (she has denied this). Whoever it was, I guess we can commend them for actually bringing back some of the film’s original cast members, but I don’t think the footage could have been more mundane.  I mean, you work in this whole “the sheriff and deputy were in on it too” deal, but don’t have the common courtesy (or sense) to give us an extra kill or two off of that?  I’d say “why bother?” but I know the intent was solely to pad the film’s running time for TV airings.  Even worse, we get continuity errors like the drive-in in the new scenes looking nothing like the ones in the original scenes.

Harrington’s RUBY is by no means a perfect film, but the original version has some really great acting, interesting set pieces, and some genuinely spooky moments.  Do yourself a favor and check out the DVD if you’ve only ever seen the VHS version.

Moments of Clarity:

1 Reactions:

  1. very impressed with this review....you did your homework and this may remain the best source on the internet for comparing the two versions. Thanks for the kind words regarding my interview with Curtis...I did another one for my Sinister Image cable show and this will be coming out very soon on blu ray will keep you posted.

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