This is one movie that needs its happy ending. For almost the entire time, Billy Gray’s Robert Jr. plays an incipient juvenile delinquent. His clueless parents indulge him completely. Blaming Matlock (Kurt Kaszner) for his dog’s death, he runs amok; even the Mayberry-like townspeople buy into his witch-hunt. When he gets caught in a lie he sulks, and then his parents apologize to him. Only destruction satisfies his rage; to the point of sabotaging the whole community by draining the last barrel of smudgepot oil.
Actually, all the kids are jerks here. Robert’s bullied by other boys and has to deal with the haughty Camille (Anna Glomb). The child actors are excellent. It’s almost as though they’ve become victims from Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, and refugees from The Bad Seed. It’s painful to watch; Hayley Mills wouldn’t have lasted a day with these kids. One thing that does emulate Pollyanna is the dilapidated Victorian, suitably occupied with an eccentric (Matlock). The first scene showing Robert and other kids pranking the house Trick or Treat-style is pretty cool. It sets up later nighttime scenes where the tables are turned on Robert.
The eerie fog conjures up some nightmarish stuff: Robert looks like he’s going to be hit by a car, but it’s two motorcycles that emerge and rush by on either side of him. Later, as he tries to run away from Matlock, he’s engulfed in fog again; only his falling into the irrigation ditch stops this hallucinatory scene. Another interesting bit develops at the doctor’s (Matlock’s) former house. With the older kid, who’s vaguely menacing, he explores the vacant, boarded-up place. He’s a bit scared by the other boy’s ghost/murder tale. We’re left in the dark, so to speak. Does this mean that Matlock has killed the doctor and taken his car and his identity? I would’ve liked to have had this scene earlier to develop the sense of mystery.
If nothing else, a possible murder mystery would’ve given he townspeople more to get stirred up about than a dog-poisoning. But that raises a question: wouldn’t people know that Matlock was really the doctor? Even if the doctor hadn’t been around for some time, there were plenty of old folks who would’ve known what he looked like; especially if he showed up again. Anyway, I was glad to see the reunited happy couple, and both Matlock/the doctor and Robert finally show a better side. It’s significant that Robert not only realizes he “has some serious thinking to do,” but, after Matlock gives him a new puppy, he’s even nice to Camille.
Hopefully Camille will have a good influence on him so he doesn’t become another Rebel Without A Cause. Talk About A Stranger is entertaining; particularly when the moody atmosphere takes over. I’d just like some more mystery–either a creepier Matlock or a more dangerous (but less pesky) Robert. 5/10.