The reputation of this one rests largely on the fact that it was the sole directorial effort of former child actor McDowall; for fantasy buffs, he had just appeared as Cornelius in PLANET OF THE APES (1968) and would feature in 4 of the movie sequels and even the spin-off TV series – indeed, he only missed out on BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES (1970) because he was involved in making the film under review; his other genre efforts include IT! (1967), THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (1973) and the two FRIGHT NIGHT pictures from the latter half of the 1980s.
Inspired by a Robert Burns poem, TAM-LIN (as it is better-known – another alternate title is the terminally silly THE DEVIL'S WIDOW!) deals with a Succubus-like wealthy woman called "Mickey" (played by Ava Gardner in pretty much her last leading role, which she naturally gives it her all and, even at 48, looks ravishing, apart from being decked-out in expensive clothes) who, as a means of preserving her own vitality surrounds herself by myriad youths in her vast country estate (this being the "Age Of Aquarius" these are hip, uninhibited – indulge in all sorts of charades to while away the time, including a fortune-telling bid which suddenly turns scary – but also aimless types, so that whenever she decides to let one of them go, they invariably plead with her to remain).
Occasionally, she even chooses a young man among them as her lover but holds the reins tightly on him, as if forever conscious of the volatile nature of the relationship; tending her affairs is waspish Richard Wattis (usually seen in comedies but perfectly cast here, especially effective when he provides details to Gardner's current partner about his predecessors' tragic deaths, subtly alluding to his own fate were he to break free of his mistress' clutches!). The latter (named Tom Lynn!) is played by Ian McShane and, needless to say, he falls for an outsider before long – minister Cyril Cusack's daughter Stephanie Beacham; though Gardner does not mind his attentions towards the latter initially – she is even protective of the girl when the latter pays them a visit and is taunted by the others (these include Cusack's real-life daughter Sinead, future film director Bruce Robinson, as well as Hammer starlets Joanna Lumley and Madeleine Smith, who demonstrates her immaturity by yearning for a puppy though she still gets to utter a line that perfectly encapsulates the predominant liberalism of the era, "I'll swallow anything as long as it's illegal"!) – but when things get serious, and Beacham becomes pregnant, she takes a different attitude altogether.
Consequently, Mickey becomes bored with her 'guests' and has them replaced – keeping only one young man who had most actively pursued McShane for his 'betrayal' – only these seem to be most receptive to her 'evil' nature. They kidnap the hero (just as he is about to elope with Beacham, whom he had even dissuaded from aborting her child), who is then let loose to literally be chased through the swamps; however, he has been drugged and he hallucinates himself at the center of a number of terrible predicaments: he is turned into a living teddy-bear(!), attacked by a giant snake and even engulfed in flames (unfortunately, the otherwise quite satisfactory widescreen VHS source is exceedingly dark during this sequence, so that one has to make an effort to discern just what is going on
though I wonder whether it was intentionally mystifying – again, shot by Billy Williams!). Anyway, with Beacham by his side, he manages to overcome these 'punishments', so that Gardner has no alternative but to give up and seek her 'life-affirming' kind of thrills elsewhere, with Wattis and the afore-mentioned hanger-on (who has effectively become McShane's replacement) in tow.
The pictorial Scottish setting and evocative folk score (by Stanley Myers and the group Pentangle – coincidentally, former band member Bert Jansch would pass away the very day after this viewing!) anticipate THE WICKER MAN (1973; whose co-star Diane Cilento, eerily enough, I have just learned died yesterday!); similarly, the depiction of a romantic idyll through a series of freeze-frames (a tell-tale sign of McDowall's passion for photography) look forward to the bloody murder set-piece in the recently-viewed WELCOME TO ARROW BEACH – released 4 years later and, as it happens, a film made by another actor-turned-director i.e. Laurence Harvey. By the way, THE BALLAD OF TAM LIN was originally released in the U.S. via a reportedly much-altered version that stressed the horror elements; this came to be because the company that financed it, Commonwealth, folded around this same time and the picture was subsequently bought and distributed by AIP! In the 1990s (the days of VHS and shortly before McDowall's death), the film was restored more or less to its original form by none other than Martin Scorsese – but, being currently unavailable on any official digital format, it remains an elusive beast...