Pastoral Suspense: DEADLY STRANGERS (1975)

Today Sterling Hayden is best remembered by film lovers for his memorable roles in a number of classic noirs and westerns that air on TCM regularly as well as subsequent standout parts in Kubrick’s DR. STRANGELOVE: OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964), Coppola’s THE GODFATHER (1972) and Altman’s THE LONG GOODBYE (1973).

Late in life tall and brawny actor also made a brief but notable appearance in an unusual thriller called DEADLY STRANGERS (1975), which I was compelled to revisit again over the weekend. Directed by the talented Sidney Hayers (CIRCUS OF HORRORS; 1960, BURN WITCH BURN; 1962, THE TRAP; 1966, REVENGE; 1971, A BRIDGE TOO FAR; 1977) and starring Hayley Mills along with Simon Ward, this low-budget British horror effort may not rate as one of Hayden’s finest hours among his devoted fans but I think the film is worthy of reconsideration due to its smart direction and probable influence on some beloved horror classics including John Carpenter’s original HALLOWEEN (1978).

DEADLY STRANGERS, much like HALLOWEEN, opens with a murder shot from the point of view of the killer. This deadly altercation takes place inside a hospital for the criminally insane where we witness a night nurse brutally attacked and killed. The audience is forced to follow the murderer as they make their escape from the hospital while assailing guards and breaking into nearby homes to acquire new clothing, money, and transportation. We never see who the killer is and we won’t discover their identity until the film’s final moments following an arduous road trip across the gray and rain-soaked British countryside. But as the old saying goes, it’s the journey and not the destination that truly matters here.

The journey in DEADLY STRANGERS is taken by a young woman named Bell Adams (Haley Mills) and her driving companion Steve Slade (Simon Ward). These two strangers meet after Bell escapes a rough encounter with a truck driver who attempts to sexually assault her. Naturally, Bell is shaken up by the attack and reluctantly accepts a ride from Steve who smells of booze and has obviously been drinking while driving. It turns out that it is Steve’s birthday and he’s celebrating by himself. At least that’s what he tells Bell, but as these two attractive young people share a ride and slowly get to know one another it quickly becomes apparent that they might be harboring some dark and ultimately dangerous secrets.

In a series of recurring flashbacks creatively framed by hazy camera filters, we learn that Bell is suffering from trauma following a car crash that killed her parents and left her to fend for herself while living with a lecherous uncle. Steve’s alcohol-laden memories suggest he has a rather ferocious sexual appetite that involves a foot fetish and a penchant for pornography, masochism, and women’s lingerie. It would be easy to peg the uneasy Bell and the sexually obsessed Steve as the “deadly strangers” hinted at in the film’s title. But as their road trip progresses I found myself rooting for these two sad and deeply troubled individuals who encounter plenty of other oddball characters who may pose a threat, including some menacing bikers and 60-year-old Sterling Hayden.

Hayden arrives midway through the film to offer Bell a ride after she abandons Steve for a brief time in order to do some grocery shopping. With his boisterous voice, unplaceable accent, bushy gray beard, driving cap, and Inverness coat you’d be forgiven for mistaking Hayden for director John Huston who relocated to the U.K. in 1952. Besides making a couple of films together (THE ASPHALT JUNGLE; 1950 and WINTER KILLS; 1979), the two men also shared a similar sense of style and desire for adventure. And although executives at Paramount studio had once promoted Hayden as “the most beautiful man in the movies” as he aged, the temperamental actor seemed to take on the appearance of a grizzly old sea caption, which was undoubtedly cultivated by his fondness for boating and ocean travel.

In DEADLY STRANGERS the aging Hayden woos young Bell with his vintage roadster, verbose conversation, and flamboyant personality. It might be hard for some to believe that the young and leggy Bell would be easily attracted to Hayden’s rough and tumble character but his sudden marriage proposal to her midway through the movie is surprisingly heartfelt. Age differences aside, these two quirky characters seem to share a common unspoken bond that is broken when Steve reenters the picture and ushers Bell back into his vehicle. However, this is a suspenseful thriller and Hayden eventually returns and gives chase to Bell and her male companion in a heart-pumping cross-country pursuit.

Director Sidney Hayers’ often referred to DEADLY STRANGERS as one of his best films and I agree. It also provided beloved child-star Haley Mills with one of her most accomplished adult roles and allowed the underrated Simon Marsden to display the chameleon-like qualities that made him an interesting successor to horror icons such as Peter Lorre and Anthony Perkins. The film’s shockingly graphic murders with strong sexual undertones recall early British thrillers including Michael Powell’s PEEPING TOM (1960), Robert Hartford-Davis’ CORRUPTION (1968), and Alfred Hitchcock’s FRENZY (1972) but Hayers’s film distinguishes itself due to its progressive pacing, low-key score and rural setting that evokes a kind of pastoral suspense reminiscent of the best folk horror films.

The soggy British backroads traveled during this 1970s road trip are strangely seductive thanks to an abundance of greasy cafes, sprawling muddy fields, and threatening strangers who seem to appear around every twisting byway. In addition, a plethora of red herrings are sure to keep plenty of viewers guessing who the killer is until the credits roll but don’t expect any sudden relief from Hayers’s gripping drama. This nail-biting mystery ends on a dreary and melancholy note that evokes broken taillights and dead-end motorways.

DEADLY STRANGERS is currently streaming on Amazon available on DVD but reviews suggest that it’s an unofficial bootleg. The curious can also catch it on YouTube as well as Daily Motion although the print quality is abysmal. Like many of Sidney Hayers’ forgotten experiments in terror, the film deserves a more considerate release and hopefully, that will happen in the near future.

by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally published at