It only takes one flop to cut a director’s career short. Just like they’ll always be those who wonder what films Charles Laughton could’ve made if The Night of the Hunter had been better received upon its release (instead of finding its audience later), any plans actor-turned-director Roddy McDowall might’ve had to make more movies after Tam Lin ended after its difficult post-production.
That’s not to suggest you should go into Tam Lin expecting another Night of the Hunter, but whatever flaws Tam Lin has, McDowall didn’t play it safe with his first feature. Based on the Scottish border ballad, “The Ballad of Tam Lin,” by Robert Burns, William Spier wrote the screenplay, which sees Tam Lin’s name changed to Tom Lynn, and English actor, Ian McShane, in the title role. Tom, like a slew of other young things, is part of the crowd that follows Ava Gardner’s Mickey around. He’s even her current favorite, which comes with the privilege of being her lover as well as her houseguest.
No one seems unhappy with this arrangement, however, until Janet (Stephanie Beacham) shows up with a dog. Apparently, another young thing (The Vampire Lovers’ Madeline Smith) had ordered one, though Janet has her reservations about handing the dog over. Mickey is the one who ultimately convinces her that the dog will be safe, but it’s during this visit that Janet and Tom first lay eyes on each other, an encounter that will trigger an epic romance (as signified by the fact that they keep finding each other and crossing boundaries to be together) and a fallout between Tom and Mickey.
But what exactly does Mickey want with these directionless youths? Going by the tag line on the slipcase for Imprint’s Blu-ray box – “She drained them of their manhood… and then – of their lives!” – the answer is obvious. Mickey’s a vampire, who’s feeding off these kids to stay young and beautiful. The film, however, doesn’t really corroborate this theory.
Sure, Mickey has a preoccupation with age. There’s even the suggestion that Tom is food, from Mickey biting him a few times, but as believable as Ava Gardner would be a vampire (she’s never looked more glamorous wearing Balmain’s gowns), Tom never shows any signs of being worse for wear after spending time in her company. Hungover, yes, but no less vital and energetic.
That doesn’t mean she isn’t dangerous. In an early scene Mickey lays out the rules for a saxophone player who’s considering joining their troupe and it sounds pretty simple: “…you stay as long as you want, or as long as I can put up with you. Whichever period might be the shorter.” Mickey demonstrates the latter when she kicks out Tom’s predecessor (played by future Withnail & I scribe Bruce Robinson), but that was the agreement. Mickey may play games, but they’re supposed to be fair.
As soon as Tom shows signs of wanting to leave, though, the illusion of choice is ruined, and Mickey’s true intentions are revealed. Tam Lin never quite makes clear how powerful Mickey is supposed to be. While the film often closes in on Mickey’s eyes, or uses the editing to imply that she can see Tom when he’s not there, other times she seems reliant on her spy, Elroy (Richard Wattis), to keep her apprised of what’s going on.
The film also keeps implying that Mickey’s downfall is imminent, which puts a damper on the threat she poses. While it’s Tom who’s usually seen wearing golden sunglasses, they’re actually Mickey’s – she says so when she takes them off the saxophone player’s head – so while it’s Tom who reacts to the fortune teller’s death sentence like it’s for him, Mickey should be the one who’s concerned.
Mickey’s obliviousness also undercuts her attempts to come across as omniscient, like when she tells Tom it would be a bad omen if they were seen together yet doesn’t realize it when they are (despite Tom not being so subtle about waving people away).
It’s also curious that Mickey never tries to go after Janet or have her join their coven, especially since she seems quite taken with Mickey at first. In person, granted, Janet seems like she might be on to her but that’s disproven as soon as she describes Mickey as “kind.” Targeting Janet would’ve been the villainous thing to do – blame the new girl instead of blaming Tom – but, whether it’s because she’s the vicar’s daughter or because Mickey thinks Tom’s the easier prey – Mickey mostly leaves Janet alone.
Imprint’s Blu-Ray is loaded with new interviews including Roddy McDowell’s biographer David del Valle, actor Kiffer Weisselberg (who played Tom’s main rival, Oliver), actress Delia Lindsay (who plays a member of Mickey’s second coven), and the film’s first assistant editor, Peter Boyle. There are also new audio interviews with McShane and Beacham, and a visual essay by film historian Kat Ellinger, which looks at the two mothers in Tam Lin, as well as the film’s gothic elements and portrayal of Gardner as an older, gorgeous witch instead of the more typical depiction of older witches as hags.
McDowell’s introduction to the film from the 1998 VHS is included, but oddly impersonal (while McDowell has nothing but praise for Gardner, he doesn’t talk like someone who’s worked with her before). There are also two commentaries. One is by Dr. Adam Scovell, who wrote Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange, and claims Tam Lin was one of his favorite discoveries while working on the book. The second is by film historians, Vic Pratt and Will Fowler, who try to breakdown their feelings on key scenes, like Janet’s ambiguous conception
One thing that’s missing is a bonus feature on the music by Stanley Myers and Pentangle, which helps tie the film back to its source material (Burns’ poem), but otherwise Tam Lin is a strange, uneven affair that has been lovingly packaged for Blu-Ray by Imprint.