Three years ago, little Susan Shelley sat singing an eerie lullaby while her mother Jessica (Zsa Zsa Gabor) lay dead on the floor and her bedroom went up in flames. Now teenage Susan (Susan Gordon) is overjoyed when daddy, Edward (Don Ameche) brings her home from convent school, though less happy he has married her former governess, Francine (Martha Hyer). At the family mansion, the still mentally unstable Susan is reunited with cousin Anthony (Maxwell Reed), who bears facial scars from his failed attempt to save Jessica from the fire, and learns from croaky, brutally plainspoken lawyer Mr. Clayborn (Wendell Corey) how while the house now belongs to the government, its luxurious furnishings were bequeathed to her. While Susan has a fortune held in trust till she turns twenty-five, Edward is broke with a greedy young wife to support. If Susan should die or else go completely crazy, the money will be his. If something happens to Edward, the money goes to Anthony.
Struggling to reclaim her sanity, Susan hears voices coming from her stuffed toys and from old portraits shrieking “murderer!” while a creepy beatnik doll croons a familiar lullaby (“The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out. In your stomach and out your mouth…”). She is drawn to a portrait of her mother bearing an expensive necklace that has gone missing. Incidents like an attack from one of Anthony’s pet hawks and the seeming appearance of Jessica’s fiery ghost, trigger repressed memories as Susan tries to recall how her mother really died.
Picture Mommy Dead seems like Gordon’s entry into the “crazy young girl” trend being played with varying degrees of success throughout the Sixties. It is the kind of tacky thriller one can imagine having a large camp following among fans of the ridiculous and overwrought. Every character has a scheme up their sleeve, though the fact they are neither saintly nor wholly deplorable adds a (very) slim layer of complexity. Supporting players Reed, Corey, and Hyer (Oscar nominated for Some Came Running (1958), she married producer Hal B. Wallis) savour screenwriter Robert Sherman’s ripe dialogue, but Don Ameche plays things commendably straight. For the most part anyway.
Though lively with lurid incident, for a thriller this is somewhat low on suspense. Gordon tries to whip up some garishly gothic atmosphere (e.g. cross-cutting close-ups on those chattering toys) that often slides into ludicrous kitsch when Susan shrieks at visitors, attacks mommy’s portrait, or is attacked in bed by an angry hawk. The producer-director cast his own daughter in the leading role. Susan Gordon was a charming child performer in The Five Pennies (1959) and her father’s The Boy and the Pirates (1960) and Tormented (1960). Her presence befits the plot’s queasy, incestuous undertones, but her shrill, whiny performance does little justice to a tricky role. Zsa Zsa Gabor vamps it up onscreen for only a handful of pink-tinted flashbacks, yet still manages to be less than believable as the object of so much love and devotion. It’s a solid time-waster, though charming as camp with a third act murder that spins the plot into a whole other country of madness.