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Hipster Holy Grail: The Strange Possession of Mrs. Oliver (1977)

The Hipster Holy Grail is a weekly experiment where I try to find and review a movie that's at least 10 years old and has less than 5,000 ratings on IMDb. I always hope to discover something amazing. Sometimes I don't.  This week, I watched....

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

If you ever have a hankering to recreate the tedium of jury duty, check out The Strange Possession of Mrs. Oliver.

My Rating: 1 / 5

The Plot Summary

We open with footage of a burning house, over top of which the opening credits roll.  There's some eerie music implying that it may be a spooooky fire of some sort.  Then it softly transitions to a foggy graveyard, and we see a car driving to a nearby church.

Two folks are in the car: Miriam Oliver (Karen Black) and Greg Oliver (George Hamilton), a humdrum husband and wife.  They go into the church to join a funeral ceremony in progress.  It's very surreal and decorated kinda strangely - instead of pews, the attendees are sitting in sparse, independently stationed chairs, and the walls, floor, and ceiling are all a sterile white.  It feels more and more bizarre until Miriam goes to a coffin at the other end of the church, then looks inside and sees... herself!

Insert screaming and a dramatic cue, and then Miriam wakes up in her boring house with her boring husband.  Turns out that was just a nightmare, and the only interesting part of the movie is now over.

So, here's the deal.  Miriam and Greg got married not that long ago and don't really talk about... well, anything, honestly.  They're a pretty shitty couple.  Or at least, Greg is a shitty husband.  He appears to have married Miriam only so he can say that he has a wife.  He shows absolutely no interest in her whatsoever and barely makes an effort to acknowledge her existence.  Not that Miriam tries very hard; she spends the entire first half of the movie acting like a doormat and begging for the slightest scrap of attention.

Since they barely talk to each other, you never really get a clear understanding of how they met, who they are, or what life was like before the movie began.  There's some conversation here and there implying that Miriam was possibly in a psych ward or is recovering from an illness of some sort.  But whatever might have happened, it's over now, and they're making plans to have kids soon.  As a result, Miriam is not allowed to get a job or do anything interesting, because she needs to be ready to stay at home and be a full-time mom.

Naturally, Miriam gets bored.  She's not pregnant yet and doesn't have anything to fill her day, so she spends a lot of time window shopping at the mall.

One day, she sees a red shirt that mysteriously catches her attention.  She can't shake off the idea that she should buy it.  Then she sees a blonde wig and has a similarly magnetic attraction to it.  She tries both on and starts having daydreams about dancing at a nightclub.  In her dreams, she is Fun Miriam, a blonde bombshell who's energetic and full of life.  Back in reality, the clerk at the store tells her she looks fabulous, but Miriam freaks out and refuses to buy either the shirt or the wig.

Plot twist!  Later, Miriam goes back and buys them.  Didn't see that coming.

There's a bunch more tedium here where Miriam has daydreams about Fun Miriam and then feels bored with her regular life, but let's ignore all of that because it's all pretty much the same thing. Bottom line: she's tired of staying at home all day.

Miriam drives around for awhile one afternoon and finds herself inexplicably drawn to a seaside town.  Since she's desperate to go somewhere to try out her new shirt and wig costume, she rents a cottage and decides to spend a week-long vacation in the town.  Briefly there's a confrontation between her and Greg about it, because he dislikes the idea of his wife not being at home all day, but he gets over it and she's off.

Now that she's on vacation, Miriam puts on her Fun Miriam outfit and goes to a bar.  The bartender seems to recognize her, but she can't figure out why.  Then a creepy patron played by Robert Lyons recognizes her as "Sandy," and starts berating her for not answering to the name.  Creepy Dude gets really belligerent, but then another rando guy comes and invites Miriam to dance.  So, she dances.  Then she has another weird daydream / flashback moment where she feels out of her body, and it freaks her out.  She runs away in a mild panic.

Miriam has the "I'm in the coffin" nightmare again that night.  The next morning, she comes across a stray dog that won't leave her alone.  She tracks down the owner of the dog to a nearby house owned by Mrs. Dempsey (Jean Allison).  Mrs. Dempsey isn't home at the moment, but she has a painting in her living room that looks exactly like Fun Miriam, down to the red shirt.  This freaks Miriam out, so she waits for Mrs. Dempsey to get back so she can find out who the girl in the painting is.

When Mrs. Dempsey shows up, she freaks out, too because Miriam looks exactly like her daughter (who was also named Miriam), who died a few years ago.  Mrs. Dempsey goes on to explain that the girl in the painting is Sandy, dead Miriam's best friend.

Miriam starts running away in a panic, and then comes across Creepy Dude again.  Only this time, Creepy Dude is clearly trying to kill her.  Miriam runs away from him while having a psychological breakdown as a bunch of repressed memories come back.  Suddenly she remembers that she actually is Sandy, not Miriam - Miriam Dempsey was her best friend who was tragically murdered by Creepy Dude, Sandy's ex-boyfriend, after he got angry one night and set fire to Sandy's house.  Sandy's mind broke from the horror and since then she has been trying to become Miriam to revive her somehow, and she repressed all memory of being Sandy.  Creepy Dude is now trying to kill her to make sure she doesn't rat him out to the police.

Creepy Dude pins down Sandy / Fun Miriam and is going to kill her, but then Greg shows up out of nowhere and scares him away.  Greg goes to comfort his wife, and she says, through tears, "I know who I am now!  I'm Sandy!"  And then the movie just ends.

Way to go, movie.  You finally got around to a halfway interesting conflict and then you ended immediately after without any semblance of rising action or resolution.  That's barely even a first act.

What I Liked / Didn't Like

Holy shit, this is one of the most boring movies I've ever seen.

Part of the problem is the direction and cinematography.  It's not that it's shot poorly - they do their best and some of it is actually quite beautiful, like the foggy graveyard that opens the film.  But like 80% of the movie is a tight shot of Karen Black's face in various states of contemplation.  I don't care how gorgeous your actress is or what she's doing.  If that much of your movie is just the same thing at slightly different angles, it's going to be dull.

Even worse - the pacing is awful.  There's so little content that it feels bloated even at a scant 72 minute run time.

Mrs. Oliver makes this strange assumption that you'll be so invested in Miriam's emotional state from the get-go that you'll tolerate every soul-aching second of her day-to-day life.  So it's not just that you see her look at a wig and think, "I see, she's got an inexplicable urge to put that wig on." No, no, no.  You'll see her think about it for minutes at a time, and then she'll leave the room and think about it, and then she'll come back to the room and think about it some more.

To put it another way: this is a movie where the most significant thing that happens for the first 28 minutes is that the main character buys a wig.  A wig.  This is the high point.  And it's not like she suffered a horrible fate and has a terribly scarred scalp or anything like that - no, no, no, she just really wants that wig and wasn't sure if she should get it, but then she got it, and now she has it.  That's a true story from Miram's life.  Would you like to hear more stories about Miriam today?

I'll say this much in the movie's favor: if it was trying to get across how terrible life must have been for women back in the days when gender inequality was even worse than now, mission accomplished.  I wouldn't have made it as a woman in the 1800s.  If all I had to look forward to was to sit around all day and occasionally cook or clean, I'd shoot myself in the goddamned head.  And if my husband locked the gun away?  I'd find a solid rock.  Trust me.  That tedium's gonna end right fucking quick, buddy.

...except that this movie takes place in the 1970s when it was okay for women to work.  So, it's not like they could have been going for too much of a message about gender roles.  Sure, Greg is a dickhead and restricts Miriam's life quite a bit, but was that really the movie's point?

I can't find a lot of merit to this movie except that I would use it as an extreme example of why I didn't love movies like It Follows or House of the Devil.  All of these movies share a common thread: they're slowly paced (emphasis on slow) and trade off a narrative build up for an atmospheric build up through lingering shots and use of music.

I don't think this approach has to be bad - it works terrifically in The Thing, for example.  But if you're going to go for that slow, moody approach, you have to start with something that's actually scary.  When the guys in The Thing are sitting around staring at each other, it's tense because they're trying to figure out which one of them is actually a hideous monster that's going to rip everyone else to shreds.  When Miriam sits around staring at a wig in Mrs. Oliver, she's staring at a fucking wig.

In short, I wouldn't recommend this one.

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth?

Not a ton.  It's got Karen Black and was written by Richard Matheson, so it's got the "betcha didn't know they made this" angle working for it.  On the other hand, there's nothing interesting or hipstery about the content.  It's just a crappy made-for-TV movie that time couldn't remember.  I can give it 35 obscurity cred for having just under 200 ratings on IMDb, though.

Let's go with a total of 45 hipster cred out of a possible 100.

Where You Can Watch

I found The Strange Possession of Mrs. Oliver on Youtube.  It's probably still there.