Picture Mommy Dead (1966) is a wonderful tribute to its producer and director, the legendary independent filmmaker Bert I. Gordon, who recently celebrated his 98th birthday on September 24th, and whose career spanned over six decades. Dubbed "Mr. B.I.G." by Forrest J. Ackerman both for his initials and his frequent use of XL-sized monsters, Gordon made his mark with a series of low-budget sci-fi pictures including The Cyclops (1957), The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), and Earth vs. the Spider (1958). Gordon's career continued into the 70s including Food of the Gods (1976), and his most recent film was Secrets of a Psychopath (2015). Picture Mommy Dead features no larger-than-life monsters (though it does take place in a large mansion), however the film displays the director's flair for economical thrills and a cheap but effective sense of style.
The story is about a young girl, Susan (played by Susan Gordon, daughter of the director), who has been in an asylum since her mother, Jessica (Zsa Zsa Gabor), burned to death in a fire years ago. She is released into the custody of her father, Edward (Don Ameche), who has remarried to her governess, Francene (Martha Hyer). Since Jessica left most of her wealth in a trust to Susan, Edward has no access to the fortune—unless his daughter can be legally pronounced insane, and nothing would make Francene happier than to see Susan locked away so she and Edward can enjoy his dead wife's riches. Meanwhile, Susan keeps having flashbacks to her mother's death—which might not have been accidental, after all.
Unlike many of Gordon's other films, Picture Mommy Dead doesn't rely on special effects or other visual gimmicks, but instead concentrates on character, story, and atmosphere. The 4k restoration presented by Kino is visually stunning and shows the opulence of Gordon's film, especially the interior design and decor of the mansion where most of the film takes place. Like a lower-rent version of the castles and crypts in Roger Corman's Poe cycle, Gordon's mansion becomes increasingly claustrophobic as the story progresses, with its characters doomed to never be able to escape the past trauma trapped within the expansive walls.
Overall, Picture Mommy Dead is wonderfully macabre and gothic, an understated and economical chiller that features a great cast, and an incredible behind-the-scenes crew that includes costume designer Leah Rhodes (former apprentice to Orry-Kelly and who designed wardrobe for many classic Warner Bros. films such as The Big Sleep, Strangers on a Train, and early Doris Day films like I'll See You in My Dreams, Tea for Two, Starlift, By the Light of the Silvery Moon, and April in Paris), cinematographer Ellsworth Fredericks (the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and underrated westerns like Seven Angry Men, Shotgun, At Gunpoint, and Canyon River), and set decoration by Academy Award-winner Hal Pereira (who won for his work on The Rose Tattoo but was also nominated 21 other times for films like Vertigo, Roman Holiday, and To Catch a Thief).