~ by john cribbs ~

November 4, 1982 – Los Angeles.

"The person you think you love is not me at all. It is someone you have made up in your head."

These words were written by 22-year-old actress Dominique Dunne in a letter to John Thomas Sweeney, and would later be read at his trial for her murder. Dunne had been involved with Sweeney for less than a year, but it was enough time for him to beat her so badly she once showed up to shoot a guest spot as a battered teenage mother on "Hill Street Blues" and barely required makeup. He later claimed that she looked down on him considering her good education (like Sharon Tate, she studied and spoke Italian fluently) and family's wealth, that she would provoke him to into fights. But as anyone who knew Dunne would later confirm, this was bullshit – despite his reputation as a master chef at one of LA's trendiest restaurants Sweeney was an insecure loser, a ticking time bomb with a history of physical abuse against women he had been involved with. After a particularly violent incident Dunne called off their relationship, but Sweeney started stalking her and showed up at her house on October 30, 1982 while she was rehearsing for an upcoming role in the TV series "V." He grabbed her by the neck and threw her down on the driveway, where he strangled her into unconsciousness. She fell into a coma and died five days later.

That's an unfortunate way to have to start the second entry in this week's Murdered Actresses series, but moreso than the other women I'm writing about Dunne wasn't given a chance to advance far in her career. Today she's remembered more as a victim of abuse and misjustice, and due to her short filmography (she has only 14 credited roles, three of them TV movies) it's difficult to focus on the work rather than the regrettable circumstances of her death. But I'm going to try. Dominique's only theatrically-released feature film was Poltergeist, my favorite haunted house movie of all time, and although her part isn't huge she definitely makes an impression. So, who's up for a little visit to the Other Side?

Funny thing about growing up with a movie: in more recent viewings of Poltergeist I find myself connecting more with the adults in the film than the kids. In what I think is probably my favorite scene, the Freeling family and visiting ghost scientists have a sort of impromptu sleepover during the downtime between hauntings. Having hit the wall of (un)reality by the insane supernatural activity inside the house, Beatrice Straight's parapsychologist Dr. Lesh cuts the condescending "expert" persona and tries to alleviate the terror of frightened but inquisitive eight-year-old Robbie. I used to share in Robbie's comfort at Lesh's breakdown of the afterlife but now I'm drawn to what the scene says about her, how saying these things out loud to placate a child's sense of unclouded idealism reawakens a faith in her polluted by years of scientific inquiry. Through the child, she's tapping into a sense of fear and awe that she's been missing or never had - and, like her, we the audience engage the events of Poltergeist through the children's experiences, which in my opinion is what makes the film such a success.

The first of the two climatic ghost attacks, in which the adults work together to save Carol Anne from the phantom spectre with the kids out of the picture*, isn't nearly as exciting as the second in which the entire family fights to survive. I think that's because when the children aren't there to channel the horror, it isn't as effective; not because a threat to kids is scarier than a threat to grown-ups, but because the children absorb it differently, and that's why their presence is so integral to the film. These kind of things happening to older characters in The Haunting, The Innocents and The Changeling share the ominous aura but not Poltergeist's seamless foray into the film's more fantastical elements.

Of course there's the ongoing debate over who had more creative control over the movie, director Tobe Hooper or producer Steven Spielberg, but I won't get into that here. All I'll say is that it's interesting to see how the man who created the nameless kin of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre**and the one behind the similarly unnamed clan in E.T. The Extra Terrestrial collaborated to create the Freelings, a typical suburban family with enough realistic foibles to just barely skim the surface of dysfunction. The parents are disenchanted liberals who share a roach in bed even while the career-minded dad reads a Reagan biography. Dunne's, as the eldest daughter Dana, seems streetwise and just slightly rebellious, giving jeering construction workers outside the house a piece of her mind in what is the actress' most memorable scene of the film (she also recognizes the hotel out on 78 – Dana!) The two youngest children have their own problems, Robbie's childlike phobias approaching anxiety disorder territory and Carol Anne talking to "TV people" like she's glad somebody's finally paying attention to her. It's by fulfilling their roles as responsible, loving parents that Steve and Diane can save their family from complete annihilation – in a way Poltergeist is the perfect family film, rotting unearthed corpses a bonus.

Performing Dana must have been a tough balancing of mature adolescent and terrified child for Dunne. She's portrayed in the film as a standard teenage girl, harassing her younger siblings and getting caught on the phone after hours. When the crazy shit goes down she has a near freakout episode and cools her heels for a good portion of the movie off-screen at a friend's house, but in a way she’s the most important of the three Freeling kids. While Robbie is menaced by hungry trees and killer clown dolls and Carol Anne's abduction by evil spirits develops into the focus of the film Dunne’s relatively unscathed Dana becomes the adventitious audience surrogate, seeing everything without the active engagement of a victim or protector. That might sound like I'm making excuses for her character's abeyant bystanding but honestly I feel like her presence is vital to the events. None of the children, as characters, are particularly well drawn as anything beyond their basic roles in the story yet serve as portals to the fantastic events Hooper and Spielberg conjure up, Dana even moreso than the younger two. And unlike less sympathetic younger hauntees in films like Amityville Horror and The Shining, the point-of-view of these characters is easily accessible. They're part of what makes the film so iconic.

Dunne's last appearance was a "miniscule part" (as she described it in a letter to a fan) in The Shadow Riders, a TV movie directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, whose work includes a couple John Wayne westerns (McLintok!, Chisum, The Undefeated, Cahill) and the star-studded The Way West. Most notably though he may be the most prolific maker of "ragtag team on suicide mission" war movies: he directed The Devil's Brigade (a flawed but interesting Canadian Dirty Dozen), The Wild Geese, The Sea Wolves and sequels to The Dirty Dozen and Bridge on the River Kwai.*** So Shadow Riders, a western saga adapted from Louis L'Amour's novel about a ragtag team of cowboys on a risky mission, was right up his alley. But despite his credentials and a notable cast headlined by the power teaming of Tom Selleck and Sam Elliott, the movie's fairly clunky and not nearly as fun as it should be.

It opens promisingly enough with Confederate soldier Elliott about to be executed even though the war has just ended. Indignant about being shot, he asks what he's accused of: when he's told that they suspect him of blowing up a bridge he responds in that great gruff Elliott tone "Of course I did ya dumb knobhead, I'm a soldier!" He's saved at the last minute by a group of fellow Rebs led by Geoffrey Lewis (of Clint Eastwood's late 70's/early 80's stable of actors) and returns to his home town where he's immediately nearly executed a second time! This time he's saved by brother Tom Selleck, a womanizing roustabout of a soldier who fought for the other side. The pair head back home only to discover that their two sisters and Elliott's old flame have been kidnapped by the same band of soldiers that saved his life the first time he was under the gun. Turns out a defiant Lewis has refused to let the effort die and is holding the girls on a beach in Texas** **, intending to trade them for guns and ammunition with which to stage a second coming of the South.

That complicated and hugely coincidental plotline shapes into a sort of adventure-comedy with Selleck and Elliott putting together a group of hardened riders to rescue the innocent young girls; one of the two sisters (finally getting to it) is Dominique Dunne. Really the script only calls for her to hang out on the beach, but I guess that's not too far from what Sharon Tate was asked to do in Don't Make Waves*** ** and, in all fairness to her minor role, a Colonel Sanders-looking villain singles her out as the prettiest of the lot. Lewis initially makes for a threatening baddie and Dunne does a serviceable job of looking alternatively scared and exasperated, but the story never really achieves the high level of danger her predicament should inspire: it's like a Disney version of The Searchers. Although the issue of female inferiority in a post-war climate is touched upon it's largely ignored in favor of some good old rootin' tootin' fun in the saddle with our heroes getting into all sorts of Old West high jinx. McLaglen really works the "ragtag team" formula into the mix when the guys break their uncle out of jail so he can join them on the mission – utilizing inmates for a good cause is the go-to gimmick of these kind of flicks. There are some cute moments and it's not entirely soft (it's not too often you see the good guys lock the bad guys into a cantina and throw in a stick of dynamite,these dudes play dirty!) but it's hard to get past things like a tense escape attempt that's scored by goofy banjo getaway music. I kept expecting Selleck and Elliott to jump into the General Lee and haul ass down the road. Needless to say Dunne doesn't fulfill the same role of audience delegate in Shadow Riders that she did in the previous film: it's just too silly.

I don't buy into the whole Poltergeist "curse," but the killing of Dunne and subsequent tragic death of 12-year-old Heather O'Rourke give the film an air of mournfulness. Just this year, Lou Perryman (a Hooper regular who had a small part as the cameraman) was also senselessly murdered in his home. At the same time these losses give Dr. Lesh's speech to Robbie a poignance that's almost life affirming: you want to believe that the souls of the dead find the light and an equity of mind and spirit is achieved. At the end of a trial during which the defense attorney was able to block damning testimony from friends of Dunne and his old girlfriends, Sweeney was convicted of voluntary manslaughter rather than second degree murder. He served only 2 1/2 years before being released and immediately landing a new high-paying gig at another famous restaurant. Dominique's mother and her brother, actor Griffin Dunne, stood outside the restaurant giving out fliers to patrons which read "The hands that prepared your food strangled Dominique Dunne on October 30, 1982." Sweeney was fired, forced to relocate and change his name. A small retribution, but hopefully one that affords fans of her short career, if not her immediate family, some kind of closure.

~ NOVEMBER 4, 2009 ~
* Unless of course you count 4-foot tall Zelda Rubinstein, who any kid could beat up (and should, for her Tobe Hooper bashing on aintitcoolnews - you heard that kids of the world, fatwa on Rubinstein).
** I know, they’re named "the Sawyers" in part 2 but in the first one Leatherface, Hitchhiker et al have no surname.
*** He was also behind the camera for the Joe Don Baker epic Mitchell, a genuine classic for fans of “Mystery Science Theater 3000.”
** ** Although it is clearly a beach on coastal California.
*** ** Also appearing in Riders is Katherine Ross, who beat out Sharon Tate for the 1968 "Best New Star of the Year" Golden Globe award.