What Became of Jack and Jill? is the forgotten stepchild of the Amicus Productions filmography, the most obscure of all their horror/thriller films, and the only one that's been basically ignored on home video (pretty much every version you can find these days is sourced from the same faded, full-frame 16mm print). And this goes back all the way to the beginning. The film, adapted by Roger Marshall from Laurence Moody's novel The Ruthless Ones, and directed by Bill Bain (making, I believe, the only feature film in a long, prolific career for television), was shot with an eye towards a 1971 release date, and it even had a title reflecting that: it was produced as Romeo and Juliet '71, which I think gets at the brutal cynicism of the piece better, even if I get why that needed to be changed for marketing. But when Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky, the film's producers and the heads of Amicus, saw what the filmmakers had crafted for them, they freaked out. The film was so unrelentingly mean, the story goes, that the producers didn't want to be associated with it, and so it was shelved for a year. Eventually, the U.S. distribution rights were picked up by 20th Century Fox, who made a decent amount of money with it on the grind house circuit in 1972; it came out later the same year in the UK and didn't really do much of anything, and hasn't ever been un-buried in all the decades since.

This is a just fate. What Became of Jack and Jill? may or may not be so unrelentingly vicious that it's a black mark on the Amicus name, I don't know. It's not my job to care about that. I will say that the viciousness and vileness are somewhat mitigated by how bloodless and sexless this is; it's kind of amazing that it did well in the American grind houses, because it was able to get by with a PG rating in that country, and it's not even like it had to cheat to get there. Yes, the PG was much harder in the early '70s than afterwards, but it's still pretty chaste in everything but its sordid, acidic view of the world.

And in that respect, absolutely, this is pretty unpleasant stuff. The problem is that it's tediously unpleasant: it's asking us to wallow in the filth with a pair of horrible, unlikable characters, but they're also not at all interesting to make up for it, and their bad behavior tends to repeat itself in a droning way across all of the film's very slow-moving 93 minutes.

So now that I've gotten you all hyped up, let's meet our wicked little Romeo & Juliet for the modern age, our wretched Jack & Jill going to fetch a pail of murder. Jack, or more properly John Tallent (Paul Nicholas) is a lazy 21-year-old who does nothing at all with his life; he lives with his grandmother Alice (Mona Washbourne), and sort of takes care of her, but this mostly means that he tells her he's doing the things she asks for, but he only really does the things she'll definitely find out about. Meanwhile, he and his girlfriend Jill Standish (Vanessa Howard) smoke dope and plan the old woman's murder. Literally, this is what they get up to almost with Jill's very first line of dialogue, as they're loafing around near Alice's husband's grave. Seems that John has quite an inheritance coming, and they've worked out a plan to extract it in about three weeks' time, though even that's almost too long for Jill to wait.

The plan is, at least, a bizarre one. Like many an old woman before her, Alice is convinced that The Youth are up to no good (excepting her very good boy John, of course), and coupled with her limited access to the world outside, this has made it easy for John to start feeding her stories about a young people's uprising. Specifically, he has led her to believe that a youth party is rioting in the streets, proposing to kill every citizen over the age of 80, so they stop bleeding away the resources that make it so hard for young folks to get started in life. And with Alice already 78, she'll have barely any time left if this youth party gets its way. The idea, then, is that once she's good and keyed up, he'll burst in one afternoon with the news that a roving band of killer twentysomethings is going to pull her out of her house to execute her, and this ought to put enough of a strain on her weak heart that she'll drop dead of fright, without a speck of evidence tying John and Jill to the crime.

I at least like where the film's head is at. Using the generational conflicts that had been such a reliable fuel for the '60s edition of the culture wars as the grist for an exploitation-style psychological thriller is definitely something - not necessarily something good, but better for bad movies to have at least some measure of an idea, rather than just existing there like a dead fish. And it helps that the film hasn't completely stacked the deck. There isn't a single moment where John and Jill come across as even vaguely likable or sympathetic, partially because of how they've been written and partially because of the performances: Nicholas is haughty and smug, keeping his head tilted just so to suggest a preening superfluity of ego, while Howard elevates Jill's sour-faced bitchiness to something like a virtuoso performance of small variations on one intensely off-putting, grating attitude. They're both miserable company even without the fact that they're sociopaths. But at least Bain and Marshall don't take the easy route of making Alice a flatly sweet old lady in contrast, and Washbourne doesn't play her that way, either. Part of what makes John and Jill's plan work is that Alice is naturally suspicious and judgmental of young people, with the reflexive hatred of the new that is the privilege of old age. She's also slow-witted and readily confused as well, making her less of a sympathetic figure than a pitiable one.

Having generational conflict as an organising principle, though, doesn't mean that What Became of Jack and Jill? does anything good with it. Bain is a fine enough director, making the messy warren of rooms and collected detritus of the Tallent household into a sufficiently threatening, claustrophobic space. And in the small number of scenes where a real conflict comes to a head, he does excellent work in blowing horrifying chaos into what otherwise functions mostly as stagey realism, getting a lot of impact from the contrast. But he's helpless to do anything with the pacing of the story, or the repetitive arguments between John and Jill (neither of whom is capable of communicating in anything other than the form of an argument), and the large-scale structure of the narrative means that we have nothing else to do but watch these two bitching each other out for basically the entire second half of the movie. As long as Washbourne remains present to serve as a contrast to the ugly mood they bring into the film, it's at least tolerable, although never really more than that. Whenever the film is entirely focused on the young couple, and it's focused on them a whole lot, it's very nearly unwatchable: we're trapped in tight spaces with two dreadful, miserable characters, with nothing to do but watch them be evil in boring, unimaginative ways.

Is this the same as being wantonly immoral and bleak, or whatever else spooked Subotsky and Rosenberg? It certainly makes What Became of Jack and Jill? a preposterously unenjoyable film, too grimy to be fun without being so tawdry that it takes on the unsavory appeal of unapologetically sleazy trash. It's crummy in its meanness, a bizarre fit for Amicus's love of the silly, kitschy side of horror, but without the conviction of its own nihilism. One never likes to say that a movie "deserves" to have been overlooked by history, but in this case, I can't come up for a single reason why it shouldn't be.