Wednesday, May 18, 2016

MADHOUSE


Jim Clark, 1974
Starring: Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, Robert Quarry, Adrienne Corri

In a lot of ways, Madhouse marks the end of an era. A coproduction between American company American International Pictures and British studio Amicus Productions, it didn’t perform particularly well in the box office, possibly because it's a particularly campy blend of comedy and horror, quite divergent from Amicus's portmanteau films or their generally grim, realist-themed features like The Psychopath or What Became of Jack and Jill? It was also one of the very last horror films for both AIP and Amicus. For the latter studio, it came hot on the heels of anthology films Tales That Witness Madness and From Beyond the Grave, and it was followed by just one horror title, The Beast Must Die. It was also Vincent Price’s last horror film until The Monster Club (1981) several years later, though Madhouse is sadly his last starring role in a genre film.

Though somewhat inferior to the similarly themed AIP title Theatre of Blood, Madhouse is a fun film that is lovable despite its faults -- and, at least for me, seems to get better with each viewing. The glorious Price stars as Paul Toombes, an aging actor who stars in a horror film franchise. His character, Dr. Death, is at the height of his popularity and Toombes is about to marry his lovely costar. On the night of their engagement party, his fiancee is murdered. Toombes is suspected, but instead of being formally charged, he is committed to a mental hospital for having a breakdown. Years later, he re-emerges from the hospital and tries to start up his career again, but the murders resume. Has Toombes totally cracked? Or is someone setting him up?

This is a rare Amicus production starring Price and, like most of their films, is entertaining despite its flaws. Admittedly, this feels far more like an AIP production and even lacks the theme of a despicable central character being punished for their transgressions. Though Toombes is so full of himself as to be unlikable, he has really become the unfortunate target of a much more dangerous, homicidal adversary. These themes of paranoia, conspiracy, and narcissism are balanced by some delightfully cheesy moments. Overall, the plot doesn’t go out of its way to make a whole lot of sense, but that hardly matters and there is still a lot to like about the film. There are some beautiful, vividly-colored set pieces (in typical AIP fashion) that manage to be both creepy and campy at the same time. Though light on plot and believability, Madhouse is like a fond farewell to the glory days of Price, AIP, and even Amicus. It has a lot of great moments of meta-theatricality and in-jokes for fans of Price’s earlier horror films, which should endear it to the actor's die-hard fans.

Madhouse also benefits from a great cast. There's an appearance from the sexy Linda Hayden, a young British actress known for her genre work in the '60s and '70s, such as Taste the Blood of Dracula and Blood on Satan’s Claw before she moved onto sex films. There are also great cameos from Peter Cushing as a pathetic writer and Robert Quarry (Count Yorga, Vampire) as a sleazy producer. Quarry is even forced to make an appearance in his Count Yorga costume, which is a nice in-joke for genre fans. Scream queen Adrienne Corri (A Clockwork Orange, Vampire Circus) also pops up as a crazy spider lady who lives in a spooky old house and, in my opinion, she's one of the best elements of the film.

Price is fittingly sad as the pathetic, confused Toombes. He clearly doesn't know whether or not he has been committing the murders and this keeps the suspense (and humor) going. There is also a nice twist at the end of the film and Toombes’ attempts to investigate only serve to get him into more trouble. As I mentioned, there are numerous references to Price’s earlier horror films with AIP and some of them are actually shown as clips in place of the Dr. Death films, while others are echoed in the death scenes, all taken from Toombes’ films. 

Director Jim Clark was better known as an editor and made his career working on films such as one of Britain’s finest, The Innocents (1961), the Hitchcockian Charade (1963), Bond film The World is Not Enough (1999), and many more. His work here is competent and assured and it's a shame that it was only one of very few films he helmed as a director. Madhouse was loosely based on Devilday (1969), a novel by Angus Hall. In it, Toombes’ character is far more unpleasant and lacks the charming, sympathetic qualities Price brought to the film. While this is more in line with Amicus's themes, I believe I prefer the film as it is, with Toombes ultimately winding up a pathetic, if begrudgingly likable figure who is victimized by a far more sinister force.

Madhouse is available as a single disc split feature with Theatre of Blood and in the same format as part of the MGM Vincent Price Scream Legends box set. It comes recommended, particularly if you want a creepy comfort film light on actual scares, but heavy on the black comedy. I've really come to love this film, primarily because of the outrageous interplay between Price and Cushing -- who have lost none of their vim and vigor by this point and engage in a real battle of scenery chewing -- as well as the colorful side roles by some true '70s horror luminaries.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS

Roy Ward Baker, 1973
Starring: Peter Cushing, Herbert Lom, Ian Ogilvy, Stephanie Beacham

A newlywed couple, Catherine and Charles Fengriffen, can’t seem to escape a curse visited upon Charles’s bloodline thanks to the horrible actions of one of his debaucherous ancestors. Of course it is the innocent and impressionable Catherine who must suffer in her husband's stead and everything from phantom rape, hauntings, and diabolical pregnancy is visited upon her. Though Charles loves her, he steadfastly refuses to believe her claims, though everyone around them drops like flies. A knowledgeable, sympathetic doctor comes from the city to help Catherine with a difficult pregnancy and is the only one who seems to believe her, but can he get to the bottom of the Fengriffens’ supernatural problem before it's too late?

While Amicus primarily released anthology films, And Now the Screaming Starts was one of their few single narrative feature films. While most of these — such as The Deadly Bees, The Psychopath, and What Became of Jack and Jill? — have modern day settings, this title fits in with Amicus films like The Skull and I, Monster in the sense that it has the lush period setting monopolized by Hammer, but includes far seedier and more lurid subject matter. Essentially a curse has been visited upon the family because Henry Fengriffen (the dashingly smarmy Herbert Lom) takes it upon himself that it’s his right as lord of the manor to rape a servant’s wife on the couple’s wedding night. When the servant tries to defend his bride, he has a hand lopped off for his troubles. And of course there is something unpleasant in the the curse that says it will be visited upon a virgin Fengriffen bride; Charles’ mother was not, conveniently allowing his generation to side step the problem.

Certainly one of the most bombastic titles of British ‘70s horror, And Now the Screaming Starts is based on the novel Fengriffen by David Case. The plot retreads familiar enough group that it isn’t going to really surprise any horror devotees, but — as with many of the Amicus films — it goes out of its way to tick off a number of horror tropes and goes out with a surprisingly morbid ending, the type almost never used by Hammer. Between the sexual violence and the fact that Catherine is terrorized almost nonstop for 90 minutes, anyone expecting the restrained parlor room horror that turns some genre fans away from Hammer might be pleasantly surprised.

The cinematography and costumes are lovely, but the script is unfortunately lackluster, as is the case with many of these stand-alone Amicus plots. It's definitely worth seeing for fans of Peter Cushing, who plays the cultured city doctor who sort-of-kind-of-not-really saves the day (and nearly saves the film), or Stephanie Beacham, who is lovely as always as Catherine Fengriffen and far less annoying than she is Dracula A.D. 1972. The film was helmed by the great Roy Ward Baker,  responsible for some of my favorite British horror of the ‘70s, and his direction is assured, making the most of a string of supernatural attacks that don’t quite deliver as much suspense as they should. Whether this flaw is due to their need to compete with Hammer or merely difficulty finding a solid writing team — American novelist Robert Bloch was generally responsible for the studio’s best scripts, but he popped in and out over the years — I can’t really say.

While this counts as a pleasant way to spend a rainy afternoon and would make a nice addition to an evening of Gothic horror, it's not quite on the required viewing list. It’s not nearly as silly as The Beast Must Die — another late period, stand-alone film from Amicus — and simply can’t compete with the frenzied furniture chewing found in Madhouse thanks to the collaboration between Peter Cushing and Vincent Price. But overall, I do think it’s a neglected entry in the studio’s canon and one that will probably find a few unsuspecting fans. Check out the Dark Sky single disc DVD.

LA FEMME PUBLIQUE (1984)


While literary inspiration played a prominent role in the early career of Polish director Andrzej Zuławski — resulting in outright adaptations in the case of his first two short television films,
 Pavoncello (1969) and The Story of Triumphant Love (1969), as well asL’important c’est d’aimer (1975) and his rudely interrupted production of On the Silver Globe (1988) — possibly his most ambitious attempt came at the midpoint of his career with La femme publique (1984). Co-scripted by French writer Dominique Garnier, the film is an adaptation both of Garnier’s memoirs of her early years in Paris, and of Dostoyevsky’s chaotic, reactionary opus from 1872, Бесы (Bésy) aka Demons. (Though it is often translated as The Possessed, I’ve decided to go with the more literal title, partly because “possessed” is misleadingly passive in the context of the novel’s plot.) This might seem like a fundamental contradiction — as Garnier’s memoirs focus on themes of femininity, sexuality, and art, while Dostoyevsky’s novel is a hysterical meditation on political violence — but it’s a contradiction that is not only key to understanding the film but lies at the heart of much of the director’s output in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

La femme publique
 follows Ethel (Valérie Kaprisky), a model and actress auditioning for a part in an upcoming filmic adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s Demons. Despite her inexperience, she is hired by the charismatic yet abusive young director, Lucas Kesling (Francis Huster), a Czech émigré working in Paris. They begin a complicated sexual relationship as the production gets underway, and the stress of both causes Ethel to slowly lose touch with reality. She also finds herself drawn to Milan (Lambert Wilson), another Czech émigré who mistakes her for his missing wife, Elena (Diane Delors), a role Ethel willingly accepts. But she comes to believe that Elena may have been murdered and it seems Milan has been drawn into a plot of political violence.

On the surface level, La femme publique has some of Zuławski’s cinematic signatures: it essentially focuses on a tortured love triangle and it deals with the lives of artists. But — like The Devil and On the Silver Globe — it can be frustratingly abstruse and cannot be seen as a direct adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s novel, but rather something of a spiritual successor. Never an easy director to pin down in terms of genre, where some of Zuławski’s earlier films experimented with elements of the horror genre — such as The Third Part of the NightThe Devil, and Possession — La femme publique abandons that approach for a blend of drama, romance, and political thriller that simply can’t be classified.
Perhaps intentionally, this has parallels to Dostoyevsky’s complex maneuvering inDemons, which is also a dizzying blend of genres, themes, and subplots. James Goodwin wrote, in Confronting Dostoevsky’s Demons: Anarchism and the Specter of Bakunin in Twentieth-Century Russia, “Demons is not a historical novel in any traditional sense, but a complex, hybrid entity that combines elements of separate, unfinished projects into a synthetic ‘chronicle’ of political conspiracy. It is a work, moreover, in which suicide, rape, grisly murder and sadism mix rather unexpectedly with comedy and even buffoonery” (3). Like Dostoyevsky, Zuławski divides screen time between two major (though overlapping) plots with terrorism and political violence as a strong subtext. I think a grasp on the novel and its themes is key to understanding the film, far more so than Garnier’s memoirs, for instance.
And as with Zuławski’s final film, Cosmos (2015), he was ahead of the curve with his choice of source material. Goodwin explains that Demons was actually one of Dostoyevsky’s least popular works for the majority of the twentieth century, particularly in Soviet countries, and it was not widely read until several years after the release of La femme publique. He wrote, “the novel’s circulation in Russia did not begin to meet popular demand until the final years of perestroika, which saw the first separate edition of Demons in nearly a century. Over the next six years, from 1989 through 1994, Russian publishing houses produced at least eighteen new editions of Demons” (1). This was largely due to the difficult and controversial nature of the book, which is packed with scalding indictments of political violence, terrorism, and the open-ended, ineffectual sort of leftism that made the book just as relevant in the 1970s as it was in the decade of its release, the 1870s.
Demons initially follows two aged friends, the failed academic Stepan Verkhovensky and his demanding benefactress Varvara Stavrogina, and the goings on in their small town. But it soon comes to focus on their respective, somewhat estranged sons, Pyotr Verkhovensky and Nikolai Stavrogin. While the younger Verkhovensky is involved in some sort of underground revolutionary organization, Stavrogin is the subject of much gossip about his scandalous behavior, which includes a possible affair with the beautiful Lizaveta Tushina and a secret marriage to the mentally unstable Marya Lebyadkina, who is essentially the town fool. Verkhovensky is devoted to Stavrogin, but cultivates a group of young co-conspirators and even a local following that includes the governor’s wife. His scheming results in chaos at a town ball, arson, and a dizzying number of murders that climaxes with Stavrogin’s suicide.
In Demons, Dostoyevsky describes the terrorists led by Verkhovensky as “nihilists,” though this isn’t really accurate but reflects the political climate in Russia in the 1860s. In Margaret Heller’s essay, “Dostoyevsky on Terror and the Question of the West” inTerror and the Arts: Artistic, Literary, and Political Interpretations of Violence from Dostoyevsky to Abu Ghraib, she explained, “The thought that terrorism and nihilism belong together is not a new one, for there is a close connection between the history of the two terms, both in their origins in late eighteenth-century Europe and in their elaboration during the nineteenth century in Russia. They were, in fact, coined roughly in the same period, the time of the French Revolution. A connection between the philosophy of nihilism and the politics of terror was made by Joseph de Maistre, a Catholic conservative, who argued that the former’s assertion of human freedom from authority had, as its necessary consequence, the latter. Maistre’s denunciations of theophobia, ‘the insurrection against God,’ nihilism (rienisme), and any belief in political progress due to human enlightenment, were especially influential in Russia as the result of his period of exile in that country” (84-85).
Demons was actually inspired by influential anarchist Michael Bakunin and the revolutionary Sergei Nechaev, particularly the relationship between the two men, Nechaev’s crimes, and his later trial. Heller wrote, “Nechaev was a particularly unscrupulous figure, who had managed to charm Bakunin, and he became the model for the character Peter Verkhovensky” (87). There are strong parallels between the two, namely a talent for manipulation, a tendency to turn on collaborators, and murder. Little in the way of actual terrorist actions occur in the novel, though, and much of the conspirators’ time is devoted to verbal conjecture and secret meetings, with one important exception. Heller wrote, “They possess no common ideology, but rather display a range of theoretical positions. Their leader, Peter Verkhovensky, decides to solidify the loyalty of his followers by having them participate in the killing of one of their number whom Peter has falsely accused of treachery, just as Nechaev did in real life” (89).
As in the novel, the use of political terrorism in the film is murky and constantly overlaps with the events of the characters’ private lives, particularly their fraught romantic relationships. Zuławski’s films are frequently described as hysterical and while this is really too limiting of a description, he certainly captures the spirit of hysteria and frenetic energy that is at the heart of Demons. The novel’s somewhat anonymous narrator relates the conspirators’ reaction to a certain scene — an act of arson that temporarily covers up a double murder — that sums up the spirit of the film as well: “’It’s all incendiarism! It’s nihilism! If anything is burning, it’s nihilism!’ I heard almost with horror; and though there was nothing to be surprised at, yet actual madness, when one sees it, always gives one a shock.”
Though it is relatively restrained, Zuławski does weave his own tale of political violence in with Dostoyevsky’s. Kesling explains that he wants to adapt the novel because it is “a prophetic tale about those who try to change the world through violence,” and in a strange way he becomes the embodiment of both Stavrogin and Verkhovensky. Zuławski selects key scenes from Demons to include as the film-within-a-film and the majority of these have to do with political content. The scene of one of Verkhovensky’s meetings is brilliantly filmed as a sweaty match in an indoor tennis court, where it is declared that “murder, blackmail, extortion, bombs” will be added to their agenda, and a list of people to be killed should be drafted immediately.
In addition to this film-within-a-film, Zuławski makes clever use of television broadcasts and media, a technique he would return to for La fidélité (2001). This is where Ethel learns of the murder of a woman with gold high heels who has had her fingerprints burned off with acid —who she believes is Kesling’s former lover, Elena, that he has murdered and whose identity she will soon come to accidentally assume — as well as the assassination of the Archbishop. The man is shot to death while getting into a car at a party given in his honor, which is seen on TV with a glimpse of Kesling in the frame. It is implied that the director not only filmed, but also orchestrated, this event.
Ethel also physically takes part in this sense of escalating violence: barely 20 minutes into the film, she and Kesling are caught a riotous protest in the streets, she and Milan are later involved in car chase which ends in a shootout and an explosion, and Zuławski lingers over the filming of a key concluding scene from Demons, where the character Shatov is shot in the head and executed. It’s important to note that Milan is essentially a stand in for Shatov and the two have an overwhelming number of similarities.
And just as Dostoyevsky was reacting to Russian radicals in the nineteenth century, soLa femme publique is a reaction to the revolutionary leftism that grew out of what is now known as the New Left. A loose movement in the ‘60s and ‘70s that resulted in much positive change — including advances in civil rights, gay rights, women’s rights, and freedom of speech — it also had a perhaps inevitably violent side. What began, for many, as a sort of post-Marxist protest against Stalinism, the Cold War, and the war in Vietnam, among other things, resulted in mass student protests in England, France, Germany, and the US. This led to the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Parisian uprisings the same year that effectively shut down the city and even, temporarily, the national government, as well as rioting in Poland that resulted in deaths and extensive property damage.
But this took an even darker turn in the ‘70s and early ‘80s with the emergence of several radical, militant groups working throughout Europe, many of whom were responsible for wide-scale terror campaigns: assassinations, kidnappings, bombings, arson, attacks on embassies, airplane hijacking, and even bank robberies. Organizations like the German Rote Armee Fraktion, the Irish Republican Army, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — and its most visible member, Ilich Ramírez Sánchez aka Carlos the Jackal — were instrumental in shaping contemporary understandings of terrorism.
Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski, who, like Zuławski, was kicked out of the country and forced to emigrate west, wrote often about the contradiction at the heart of leftism, particularly how the idea of utopia could so quickly become a fascistic quest for personal power for a select few. In “The Concept of the Left,” he wrote, “A utopia, if it proves so remote from reality that the wish to enforce it would be grotesque, would lead to a monstrous deformation, to socially harmful changes threatening the freedom of man. The Left, if it succeeds, would then turn into its opposite—the Right” (147). It seems to be this violent, ugly transformation that Zuławski is attacking in La femme publique. Certainly in later interviews, he was deeply critical of anyone that supported such organizations, directing a fair amount of vitriol towards German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who was rumored to have financially supported the Rote Armee Fraktion.
As in Demons, these historical organizations, and La femme publique, the central revolutionary figures seem to be on more of an underhanded quest for power than really desiring any long-lasting societal transformations. Merriam-Webster defines terrorism as “the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion.” While Kesling is ultimately revealed to be secretly orchestrating a political assassination, he also uses these principles on his film set and in his private relationship with Ethel; coercion, humiliation, violence, and even blackmail become regular occurrences. He says to her, “You’re mine. I made you. I can take you back or send you back whenever I want.”
Mary McCarthy’s sentiments on Verkhovensky in “Ideas and the Novel: Dostoevsky’s ‘The Possessed’” for the London Review of Books could easily be applied to Kesling. She wrote, “The only demon is Verkhovensky, who believes in nothing, has no ideas or principles. If he is an Idea, which I wonder about, it is an idea without specific content – a principle devoted (but not dedicated) to destruction. He is aware of a lack in himself, which is why he turns to Stavrogin. The nucleus needs a centre, and he himself cannot be that, for he is not within but without – a manipulator and strategist.” But the words of Joyce Carol Oates, writing about Demons for The Georgia Review, also ring true for Zuławski’s fictional director: “A demonic frenzy is loosed about him and through him, yet Stavrogin is dying of boredom. Like Raskolnikov in his cramped cell of a room, Stavrogin, though he wanders through Europe, though he makes a pilgrimage to Mount Athos, and visits Egypt, and even Iceland, goes nowhere at all: he is suffocating, doomed.”
In uniting the two figures of Stavrogin and Verkhovensky within one character, Kesling, and fleshing out the romantic angle, Zuławski draws an elegant if jarring parallel between the themes of the two books that inspired La femme publique. On one hand, there is the story of the Pygmalion-like relationship between a megalomaniacal director and an inexperienced actress who is objectified almost to the point of farce; on the other, a tale of political violence orchestrated by a nihilistic fantasist. And just as Stavrogin commits suicide at the end of the novel — leaving a note that says, “No is to blame, I did it myself” — Kesling actually hangs himself while filming the same scene. But, very much unlike the events of Demons, Zuławski’s first major female protagonist is left standing, theoretically in control of her own destiny.

Originally written for Diabolique.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

ASYLUM (1972)

Roy Ward Baker, 1972
Starring: Peter Cushing, Britt Ekland, Robert Powell, Herbert Lom

One of Amicus’s final horror anthology films is this underrated effort set in a mental institution, in which a prospective new doctor, Dr. Martin (Robert Powell), is set with a challenge that will determine his employment. The former head of the asylum, Dr. Starr, is suffering from a mental breakdown and a case of split personality. Martin must interview several patients and correctly work out which one is Starr. While stylistically similar to Amicus’s previous films, Asylum is a breath of much needed fresh air, because it abandons the formula used on all the studio’s previous portmanteau films. In efforts like Tales from the Crypt, The House That Dripped Blood, Torture Garden, and Vault of Horror, a group of strangers come together and learn their potential fates – typically from an ominous, possibly supernatural figure – only to be told at the conclusion that they are already dead (and presumably in hell).

In the first story, “Frozen Fear,” a female patient (Barbara Parkins) tells Dr. Martin about how she came to be in the hospital. Her married lover (Richard Todd) killed his wife — after surprising her with the gift of a large freezer in the basement, which she is implausibly thrilled by — not realizing that her recent foray into voodoo will ensure she returns from the grave, even after being dismembered. Though this one has some amusing elements, it’s actually the weakest of the bunch and asserts, with very few exceptions, the fact that British studios should just never dabble in tales of voodoo and Afro-Caribbean magic. Admittedly, though, I was relieved by two things. First, this tale made it easy to assume that a certain tone was set for Asylum, which was blissfully not true; secondly, that the studio didn’t blow their load all at once, as were, by putting the anthology’s best story first, as is the case with many of their other portmanteau films.

The second, far superior tale, “The Weird Tailor,” is one of Asylum’s best. A downtrodden (and almost humorously Dickensian) tailor (Barry Morse) is wondering how he will pay the rent when a mysterious customer (Peter Cushing, in excellent form) suddenly comes into his shop and commissions a new suit. Made of strange material and to a set astrological timetable, it becomes clear to the tailor that there’s something odd about the suit, which even absorbs a stray drop of blood, leaving behind no stain… Though the tone of this second chapter is far different from the first, it does introduce a theme that would run throughout Asylum, another element lacking in the studio’s earlier anthology films. Every story has to do, in some form or another, with the animation of uncanny anthropomorphic figures: a corpse, a mummy, robotic figures, an imaginary person, etc. While American novelist Robert Bloch wrote many of these scripts for Amicus, the stories in Asylum were largely based on his own tales and I wish this unified theme was something the studio had thought to bring to their earlier works.

The next story, “Lucy Comes to Stay,” is another of my favorites thanks to the completely unexpected presence of the radiant Charlotte Rampling. She stars as Barbara, a woman returned home to live with her brother (James Villiers) after a stay in an asylum. She is frustrated with her brother’s uncertainty about her mental health and his insistence that she be monitored by a nurse (Megs Jenkins). But soon her mischievous friend Lucy (the lovely Britt Ekland of The Man with the Golden Gun and The Wicker Man) convinces her that what they really need to do is get out of the house…

Rampling is excellent, as always, and it’s a real treasure to see she and Ekland playing off of each other. They’re an example of the film’s incredibly solid cast, which includes Cushing (in “The Weird Tailor”), Patrick Magee as the stern, unforgiving doctor who demands that Dr. Martin find the real Starr, and the great Herbert Lom, who is fantastic in the last episode, “Mannikins of Horror.” In a spin on James Whale’s Dr. Pretorius in The Bride of Frankenstein, Lom plays Dr. Byron, a madman who is experimenting with what he calls “soul transference,” where he intends to send human consciousness to small humanoid robots. The effects are undeniably silly in this one, but it’s weirdly effective thanks to Lom’s delivery.

While most of these Amicus anthology films have predictable endings, I’m not going to ruin this one for you. It’s not at all obvious who is the real Dr. Starr — and there are many worthwhile contenders — but the film’s conclusion probably won’t be all that much of a surprise. Still, I remember not being overwhelmingly fond of it this one, but revisiting it has really changed my mind. If you find Tales from the Crypt to be uneven, or even just a one-trick pony, definitely give Asylum a shot. Hell, it’s worth it just to see Charlotte Rampling lose her marbles. Pick it up on DVD.

Daughters of Darkness: Episode 5

The fifth episode of the podcast I'm co-hosting is now up!

From the Diabolique site:


In the fifth episode of Daughters of Darkness, Kat and Samm continue on to the second part of their four-episode discussion of director Andrzej Zuławski. This time they discuss his work in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, when he was forced to leave Poland over the controversy surrounding his film The Devil (1972), which was banned by the communist government. His first French film, L’important c’est d’aimer (1975), which really launched his career in Europe, featured an international cast including Romy Schneider, Fabio Testi, and Klaus Kinski. Set in the worlds of soft and hardcore pornography, as well as avant garde theatre, it explores the tragic love triangle between a struggling actress and a photographer. 


This is followed by a lengthy discussion of On the Silver Globe (1988) — a surreal sci-fi epic based on a novel written by his own uncle — a film he returned to Poland to make after the success of L’important c’est d’aimer. But after a costly and intensive shoot that was nearly complete, the Polish government canceled this production and Zuławski wasn’t able to complete it for another decade. It remains unfinished, though it was recently restored. The episode concludes with a look at Zuławski’s most famous film, Possession (1981), an unsettling work about the dissolution of a marriage in divided Berlin starring Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

POSSESSION (1981)

As I’ve been slowly making my way through Andrzej Żuławski’s catalogue for Diabolique, I think the title I’ve dreaded writing about most is the director’s only English-language film and his most well-known, Possession (1981). Made in the wake of his divorce from actress Małgorzata Braunek and the frustrating, failed production of On the Silver Globe (1988), shut down due to interference from the communist Polish government, Possession is ultimately about the breakdown of a marriage in divided Berlin. It attracted to cult cinema fans because of its numerous horror genre and crime film elements, as well as an almost violently disorienting sense of the surreal. To my dismay – and probably more so Żuławski’s, though he commented that this is how he initially pitched it to a producer – it seems to be generally known as the film where a woman fucks an octopus.

Mark (Sam Neill) returns home to Berlin from an undisclosed assignment somewhere in the East, possibly espionage-related, that has kept him away from his wife, Anna (Isabelle Adjani), and young son, Bob (Michael Hobgen). But Anna is planning to leave him and it comes to light that another man, the suave yet domineering Heinrich (Heinz Bennent), has been in the picture for some time. Despite the fact that their marriage is rapidly disintegrating, Mark is desperate to get Anna back. He has her followed by a private investigator (Carl Duering), who learns that she rents a dilapidated apartment, where she keeps a horrible secret.

Possession has frequently been labelled a horror movie, with numerous critical comparisons to David Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979), another film that examines the devastation caused by divorce and the literally monstrous potential of female sexuality. But one of Żuławski’s many strengths as a filmmaker is his penchant to defy genre and use it to his own ends rather than the other way around, a tendency that can also be seen in films like The Third Part of the Night (1971), The Devil (1972), and Szamanka (1996). Labelling Possession a horror film is unfairly limiting. It does have a monster: a nightmarish, tentacled mass designed in essentially one night by effects wizard Carlo Rambaldi (of Alien fame) that is not only Anna’s lover, but was also birthed by her. And it does have numerous, often gory acts of violence, including self-mutilation and murder.

But the film’s monster — and its horror elements in general — are little more than a MacGuffin. It follows an emotional logic that is governed only by the chaos and horror that accompanies the dissolution of its central romantic relationship, a journey undertaken by Sam Neill’s Mark. A loose stand in for Żuławski himself, Mark is actually the last in a line of somewhat passive, bewildered male protagonists that guide the director’s early films, including The Third Part of the Night, The Devil, and L’important c’est d’aimer (1975), a type he wouldn’t return to until his recent, final film, Cosmos (2015). Mark’s sole motivation is to get Anna back, though it seems increasingly like his interest lies in possession rather than love. Control and domination — psychological as well as physical — are important themes of the film. Mark demands Anna’s return, not with romantic gestures, but by telling her, “you must restore order.”

Ingeborg Bachmann, remembered for her affairs with writers Paul Celan and Max Frisch as much as for her own poetry, said in an interview, “Fascism is the primary element in the relationship between a man and a woman.” Anna’s actions — hysterical and nonsensical as they may seem — can be understood as attempts to exercise control over an environment in which she has none, in which control is constantly usurped. Mark asks what she really wants, but won’t let her speak. And Heinrich, who imperiously states, “no one has a right to impose his will on anyone,” is the most manipulative of all.

Their ultimately united attempts to encroach on Anna’s freedom, which includes harassment, surveillance, physical abuse, and the employment of a private detective, mirror the film’s Berlin setting: a city divided on one side by the cheery, forced optimism and political corruption of the Bundesrepublik Deutschland, and on the other by the claustrophobically impoverished communism of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik. While Heinrich initially seems like a comical figure, Żuławski described him as “dangerous like poison,” and connected him to a wider discussion about Possession, the legacy of communism, and Anna’s search for freedom. He discussed the fact that Heinrich perhaps believes he has liberated Anna. Żuławski said, “Maybe in a sense, he did. That reminds me of an old communist saying – Liberated towards what? What do you want to do with your liberty? Do you liberate in order to destroy?”

Anna’s search for liberation is the true center of Possession’s universe and she is the reason why I have such a profound, admittedly uncomfortable attachment to this film. As a teenager and young adult, I didn’t really have any female role models or even really fictional female characters to whom I could relate. In my mind, being biologically female was circumstantial and had no more or less of an impact on my identity than being left-handed or being born in the 1980s. You can imagine my delight, then, at a relatively minor line in Possession: Helen — Bob’s school teacher and Anna’s double — says, “There is nothing in common in women except menstruation.”

But because of my difficult personal history, I have a more challenging time encountering female characters who have dealt with sexual trauma and/or mental illness. This is due to the fact that, unlike their male counterparts (at least in terms of mentally ill male characters, as male rape/abuse survivors are almost nonexistent on screen), both mainstream and cult cinema generally present them as little more than hysterical stereotypes. For example, as much as I love Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Polanski’s sniveling heroine, utterly devoid of personal agency, is one of the worst perpetrators of this type in modern genre cinema.

Anna, though, is a revelation. I’ve heard criticisms that her behavior — brought startlingly to life by Adjani in one of the most remarkable performances in cinema history — seems overwrought and unbelievable, but to me, it was more than just plausible, as I lived several of these moments. I saw Possession for the first time in my early 20s and it was incredibly liberating to see this acted out on screen and presented at face value. Żuławski, never one to coddle his audience, mercifully refuses to explain her actions away and never apologizes for her. Her seeming psychosis can’t be chalked up to a single act of horrific trauma, but rather is just the accumulation of Hamlet’s “slings and arrows,” the gradual psychic erosion of life itself.

I know I’m certainly not the only writer or fan to have this reaction. In the introduction to House of Psychotic Women, Kier-la Janisse’s seminal volume on female hysteria in film — which doubles as a memoir — she wrote, “It all started with Possession… There was something terrible in that film, a desperation I recognized in myself” (7). Anna is a physical manifestation of the absolute horror of emotional intimacy, which provides a more palpable sense of terror to Possession than either tentacled monsters or bloody murder. Her inability to understand or even express herself becomes a like contagion, a force that must be exorcised, and it makes her act in increasingly erratic and incomprehensible ways throughout the film.

In Julia Kristeva’s Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, she writes about this nebulous sense of loathing, disgust, and taboo as a way to define the self. “‘I’ am in the process of becoming an other at the expense of my own death. During that course in which ‘I’ become, I give birth to myself amid the violence of sobs, of vomit” (2). Anna’s actions — which include self-mutilation, destruction of her home, unrestrained screaming, and what can only be described as a psychogenic miscarriage with noxious physical side effects in a subway tunnel — are almost literal interpretations of Kristeva’s theory.

While it’s easy to make sense of abjection as that which is repulsive or even outré, Kristeva notes that it is primarily about breaking down order and control, another key element that aligns it with Possession. She writes, “It is thus not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order” (4). It’s not that Anna doesn’t love Mark, but she’s unable to reconcile her desire for independence with the necessarily confining aspects of romantic and domestic life. It is when Mark (and later, Heinrich) forces the issue and becomes more controlling, including a brutal scene of spousal abuse, that she becomes more reckless and ultimately violent.

During one of their biggest fights, he both begs and commands her not to walk out the door. As a last resort he tells her pointedly, “Please don’t make me force you.” She screams in his face, “You can’t stop me! I’ll open the window and jump.” It’s not that Anna actively wants to commit suicide, but she is physically incapable of abandoning her struggle to discover who she is and what she wants without the rigid social structures that accompany committed relationships or even motherhood. At one point Helen says to Mark, “It’s so sad for you that freedom seems to mean evil,” a comment that seems to relate to this conflict with his wife.

On the surface level, there is a film noir-like duality between Anna and Helen, respectively recalling the tropes of femme fatale and the dutiful wife. Though they are physical doubles, Anna is violent and seductive, a danger to the family unit, while the majority of Helen’s screen time is concerned with childcare and domestic activities. It is partly this stereotypical vision of motherhood that Anna rejects. Kristeva describes abjection as a kind of “narcissistic crisis,” a desire to return to a “self-contemplative, conservative, self-sufficient haven” (14). Bob, Anna and Mark’s young son, becomes tragically caught up in these selfish impulses that both parents, but particularly Anna, exhibit.

Żuławski — obviously sympathetic to both families and children — uses the child as something of a moral barometer, shifting the audience’s sympathies in favor of either Mark or Anna. Early in the film, in order to try to manipulate Anna, Mark tells her he won’t see Bob, but is soon proven a caring father. Maybe the most heartbreaking moment concerning the child is when Mark returns home from days in the hospital and finds Bob left all alone, for an undisclosed amount of time. If you’ve never been neglected by one parent and then had to witness the agonized reaction of the other, it looks a lot like this.

Even before the film’s midway point, Anna has become obsessed with her monstrous offspring to the exclusion of all else. Kristeva writes that the abject is inherently perverse, taboo, and that it “kills in the name of life” as Anna literally does, to protect her progeny/paramour. “Abjection is a resurrection that has gone through death (of the ego). It is an alchemy that transforms death drive into a start of life, of new significance” (15). The octopus creature is a manifestation of this alchemical process and is itself a force of creation. At one point in the film, Anna expresses a desire to “pierce reality” and the creature seems to have literally done this, resulting in more doubles than just Anna’s mirror image, Helen, but other, more alien duplicates that seem to have sinister intentions.

In this sense, Possession shares much with Żuławski’s first film, The Third Part of the Night: biographical elements, uncanny doubles, imminent apocalypse, and a sense of the sublime. Kristeva writes, “The abject is edged with the sublime. It is not the same moment on the journey, but the same subject and speech bring them into being… The symptom: a language that gives up, a structure within the body, a non-assimilable alien, a monster, a tumor, a cancer” (11). As I explained earlier, the monster is really only a MacGuffin, but remains a visceral (and viscous) symbol of Anna’s existential terror, a simultaneous longing for life and death that is profoundly erotic.

I’m reminded of a line from Measure for Measure, when the lovelorn, imprisoned Claudio states, “If I must die I will encounter darkness as a bride, and hug it in mine arms.” This morbid sensuality seems an inherent quality of Adjani’s — she would exhibit it in other films from the period like The Story of Adele H (1975), The Tenant (1976), and especially Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) — but also bleeds through the film’s general framework. While the use of nudity and physical contact is sparing and almost chaste, Żuławski, with the help of writer Frederic Tuten, makes particularly compelling use of dialogue, building a strangely erotic layer into the language and verbal tone of the film.

And while the character of Anna is undeniably a masterwork — and Possession itself — she is not Żuławski’s ultimate creation, but is the key to understanding a transitional point in his career as a director and thus in the unique series of female protagonists that would follow. Almost all of his subsequent films — La femme publique (1984), L’amour braque (1985), Mes nuits sont plus belles que vos jours (1989), La note bleue (1991), Szamanka (1996), and La fidélité (2000) — are defined by complex women. Like Anna, these characters (and the actresses that portray them) traverse a broad range from the basest abjection to the most sublime depictions of romantic love, in both cases often violently defying social constraints.

In conclusion, my frustration with Possession is two-fold, almost contradictory, and is certainly focused at filmgoers rather than the filmmaker himself. On one hand, it is directed at those who praise the film but fail to seek out any of Żuławski’s other offerings, despite the fact that this is easier to do with every passing year. On the other hand, it is also with those who write off the film for being absurd or purposefully not making any sense. It makes far too much sense to me and remains one of the finest films to aggressively and honestly tackle the subject of emotional agony.

Originally written for Diabolique.

THE VAULT OF HORROR

Roy Ward Baker, 1973
Starring: Terry-Thomas, Curd Jurgens, Tom Baker, Michael Craig, Denholm Elliot, Dawn Addams, Anna Massey

It's safe to say that Roy Ward Baker is one of my favorite British directors of the '70s. Responsible for such Brit-horror greats as
Quatermass and the Pit (1967), The Anniversary (1968), The Vampire Lovers (1970), Scars of Dracula (1970), Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971), The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1974), and so on, his films have a certain panache that make them worthy of any horror fan's attention. He had a prolific television career, as well as a productive beginning in non-genre cinema. He even directed the only film about the sinking of the Titanic that I'll watch willingly — even with enthusiasm — the wonderful A Night to Remember (1958). While he primarily directed films for Hammer, his brief turn with Amicus resulted in some of their most fun later period films, including Asylum (1972) and ...And Now the Screaming Starts (1973).

The Vault of Horror aka Further Tales from the Crypt or even Tales from the Crypt, Part II is the sequel to the anthology film Tales from the Crypt. While this is generally seen as the superior film and does have a magnificent story about a murderous Santa Claus — maybe my favorite segment in any horror anthology film — I have come to enjoy the two films about equally. Both are based on the EC comics series, Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror, though I believe all of this film's stories are taken specifically from the Tales from the Crypt series.

Five strangers are stuck in a lounge due to a broken elevator, and they share their own stories of recurring nightmares. In the first tale, "Midnight Mass," a man (Daniel Massey of Bad Timing) tracks down his sister (Anna Massey of Peeping Tom and Frenzy, also Daniel Massey's real-life sister) to a creepy, seemingly abandoned town. He kills her to usurp the family inheritance, but when he goes to dinner afterwards, stumbles across a nest of vampires. This is absolutely one of the best tales in the film, though it's curious that, as with Tales from the Crypt, the anthology begins with perhaps its strongest entry.

In "The Neat Job," a fastidious man (the great Terry-Thomas) is newly married to a well-meaning but messy woman (Glynis Johns of Marry Poppins, who is particularly adorable here). She gets tired of his nagging and snaps, unleashing all of her fury and insanity on his head. With a hammer. While I wasn't initially all that fond of this second entry, Thomas and Johns deliver such compelling performances that it becomes sort of infectious. Plus, once you've lived with a particularly annoying roommate, family member, or significant other, I think this takes on a whole new significance.

The disappointing third tale, "This Trick'll Kill You," follows a tourist (Curd Jürgens) and his wife (Dawn Addams), as they attempt to steal a magic rope from an Indian girl (Jasmina Hilton). When they murder her and try to work the trick out for themselves, they get much, much more than they bargained for. More entertaining is "Bargain in Death," where a man (Michael Craig) is buried alive as part of an insurance fraud scheme, but his partner (Edward Judd) double crosses him. Coincidentally, two medical students (Robin Nedwell and Geoffrey Davies) need to dig up a body to help with their studies. When the gravedigger discovers the body is still alive, all hell breaks loose.

Though I think "Midnight Mass" is the best of all these stories, my favorite is perhaps the final segment, "Drawn and Quartered." where a painter (Doctor Who's Tom Baker!!!!) living in Haiti seeks the aid of a voodoo priest to get revenge on three men who swindled him. When he returns to London he paints three cursed portraits, but must protect his self-portrait so he doesn't come to harm himself. After the tales are complete, the elevator doors open to a vast cemetery. It turns out that the men are doomed spirits cursed to relive their mortal sins -- to the surprise of absolutely no one who has seen a single one of these Amicus anthology films. Overall Vault of Horror is not as scary or successful as Tales from the Crypt, but it's still worth watching, namely for these creepy and entertaining segments.

It's available as a two-disc double feature with Tales from the Crypt from MGM's Midnite Movies series or as a nice double feature Blu-ray. Though Tales from the Crypt looks great, Vault of Horror is an absolute piece of shit. It would be nice if someone would restore the print, but I'm not going to hold my breath. I should also mention that it's an edited print, with a few choice moments of gore shaved by British censors back in the '70s.