Film Review: A Murderous Game Is Afoot In William Castle’s ‘Let’s Kill Uncle’
by Rachel Bellwoar
June Skinner wrote Let’s Kill Uncle using the pen name Rohan O’Grady. William Castle’s film adaptation has two names, too — Let’s Kill Uncle and Let’s Kill Uncle, Before Uncle Kills Us. While it might just seem like a difference in length, “Let’s Kill Uncle” paints Uncle (Nigel Green) out as a victim. The trailer plays along, asking of Uncle’s would-be murderers: “Are they bad seeds … or frightened innocents caught in a diabolical duel with death?”
The trouble is the “bad seeds” in question are twelve-year-olds. Barnaby (Pat Cardi) is Uncle’s nephew. His dad (Castle, in a cameo appearance) died in a car accident and now he’s meant to live with a relative he barely knows. Chrissie (To Kill A Mockingbird’s Mary Badham) is a girl he meets on the boat ride to the island where Uncle lives. Since she’s the only other kid around, they end up becoming friends despite not really warming to each other at first.
Chrissie is the one who suggests they kill uncle. The title isn’t a lie but, as “Before Uncle Kills Us” indicates, Uncle wants to kill Barnaby first to get his hands on Barnaby’s fortune. That’s why, while “Before Uncle Kills Us” provides a more complete picture of Barnaby’s situation, “Let’s Kill Uncle” is a better name. It’s a title that prepares you for the kids from The Innocents, and instead makes them the Baudelaires from A Series of Unfortunate Events. It’s unexpected, but that’s what makes this movie so much fun. It’s willing to go to extremes.
Sharks in swimming pools. Tarantulas in jars. Let’s Kill Uncle doesn’t use traditional murder weapons, and in many ways it’s like watching a live action Wile E. Coyote cartoon. Luck, not strategy, is often what saves Barnaby and Chrissie, forcing Uncle to come up with new, ridiculous schemes.
Uncle, meanwhile, is Count Olaf without the disguises. He does wear some pretty amazing costumes that add to the absurdity, like a martial arts robe and a suit with a chef’s hat, but what makes him scary is the fact that he doesn’t try to hide what he’s up to, even offering Barnaby advise on how to defend himself. He wants Barnaby to put up a fight because otherwise the game is too easy and that’s what murder is for Uncle – a game. It’s disturbing and baffling and Green’s performance is unnerving, but predictable? Never.
Some of the scares get a little too random; namely the Ketchman (Reff Sanchez), whose introduction seems like it’s meant to go somewhere, but mostly Let’s Kill Uncle is a popcorn movie that kids and adults can enjoy alike.
Kino Lorber’s release includes a new, on-camera interview with Cardi and an excellent commentary by film historians Kat Ellinger and Mike McPadden. Cardi only has nice things to say about Castle and Badham and brings up a different ending to the movie that the studio kiboshed. Ellinger and McPadden consider the Disney, family vibe that Let’s Kill Uncle gives off, despite the darker subject matter, as well as ways in which the film deviates from the book.
Let’s Kill Uncle is available now on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.