Back in 1935, gangster’s moll Ruby Claire (Piper Laurie) saw her boyfriend Nicky Rocco (Sal Vecchio) shot dead by four criminal associates. Sixteen years later, these men are employees at the drive-in movie theatre Ruby now runs alongside her faithful companion Vince (Stuart Whitman). A series of freakishly gruesome murders claims the lives of the aging gangsters while Ruby’s mute daughter, Leslie (Janit Baldwin) begins behaving in an increasingly strange manner.
Hastily assembled, in what was likely an attempt to cash-in on star Piper Laurie’s Oscar nominated turn as the bible-thumping psycho-mama in Carrie (1976), Ruby also dovetails with the Seventies’ nostalgia for Fifties pop culture and director Curtis Harrington’s track record with “crazy old biddy” movies. Harrington always had a fine feel for period detail and a knack for delving beneath the veil of nostalgia to explore the seamier side of the past, as evidenced in chillers like What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971) and Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1971). Of course sticklers for period detail will note, while the film is set in 1951, Ruby’s drive-in screens Attack of the 50ft Woman - which was released several years later.
This casual gaffe is endemic of the film's infuriatingly haphazard nature wherein every character seems to exist in their own movie and none have any impact upon the seemingly predetermined thrust of the narrative. That includes parapsychologist Dr. Paul Keller (Roger Davis), who initially serves as our narrator before this device is abruptly dropped. Vince brings Keller to try and get to the bottom of these supernatural events, but while marked as the hero, the good doctor largely hovers ineffectually spouting a whole lot of metaphysical hooey. Equally puzzling is why so much screen-time is given to the town floozy (Crystin Sinclaire) whose activities have nothing to do with the plot at all. While leading players Piper Laurie and Stuart Whitman bring a degree of pathos to their roles, the supporting cast pitch their performances at an intrusively broad level.
“Blood and guts, that’s what people seem to want nowadays”, says Ruby upon observing a horror movie has been packing them in at the drive-in. Harrington seems to share that lament, being more interested in exploring her inner torment, something that echoes his other works where characters are haunted by their past and psychological traumas are made physical through violence. Ruby is tortured by the thought Nicky died believing she betrayed him. She remains insanely possessive of his memory, to the point where she denies Leslie any knowledge of her father. However, the film's producers called on Harrington to deliver muddled, nonsensical riffs on scenes from Carrie and The Exorcist (1973). He does so with clear disinterest, falling back on crass humour (a victim stashed in a soft drinks machine from which a fat lady gulps a big glug of blood) to compensate for the slack pacing and inconsistent set-pieces. There are a handful of effectively eerie moments (as when Leslie morphs into a bullet-ridden corpse speaking with Nicky’s voice) with one or two ghostly attacks that are stylishly done (e.g. victims whipped by supernatural gales or impaled on the cinema screen), but these only compound the film's curiously aimless, meandering tone. Harrington was reported to have clashed with co-producer Steve Krantz, who later mounted a more blatant Carrie cash-in called Jennifer (1978). Krantz replaced Harrington’s original “romantic” ending with a more overtly horrific finale, supposedly shot by Stephanie Rothman, former Roger Corman protege, noted feminist and director of The Velvet Vampire (1971), after Harrington and Piper Laurie both refused to take part. Strangely, this revised and frankly slapdash ending earned the film what little notoriety it has and remains fondly regarded by fans to this da, even though it shatters the delicate mood and overall intention of the melancholic story.