It may simply be coincidence – but then again it may not – that one of the most striking, fascinating pieces of film music I have ever heard provides a soundtrack to one of the most visually repulsive and disturbing film scenes I have ever seen. I am speaking (of course?) of Riz Ortolani’s score for Cannibal Holocaust and in particular the track listed on the soundtrack album as ‘Adulteress’ Punishment’.
It begins with the simple alternation of two notes, a major second apart, deep in the register of a fuzzy Moog synth bass. On the screen, we see a man on a small handmade raft rowing to shore in long shot.
At 0:10, an electronic percussion sound enters – probably the same high tom from a Synare drum synthesizer used in Anita Ward’s hit disco single ‘Ring My Bell’ the previous year. We cut to a mid-shot to reveal that the boat also holds a naked woman, tied by her hands and feet, and struggling to get free as the oarsman drags her to shore and ties her to a post on the muddy beach.
At 0:42 seconds, the violas and low register violins come in, with a very rich, almost pungent sound. At the same time, the oarsman pulls his captive’s legs apart and triumphantly produces some sort of stone with which he proceeds to rape his supine prisoner. The strings stretch and pull, seemingly yearning through more and more dissonant intervals.
At 1:22, the cellos enter, but instead of grounding and resolving the tension of the violins, they only unsettle the ground even further. As Monroe – the film’s putative hero – and his guide look on aghast, the rapist discards his first stone and clumps together a mound of wet mud, placing a series of sharp pegs to protrude from it. We catch a close-up of the victim realising what he is doing and there is an arresting break in the musical tension: the strings suddenly modulate to the major key in a move that is at once strangely sweet and perversely romantic sounding.
But the relief is short lived. Within ten seconds, we have returned to the high-wire astringency of the original key and the assailant is now pummelling the genitals of his victim with this new weapon in horrific close-up. Her belly is awash with blood and high strings enter, playing the opening theme in the manner of a fugue.
As he goes on to bash her brains in with the same tool with which he has just mutilated her sexual organs, the harmonies ripen, grow increasingly tense, recalling Ravel’s famous String Quartet or Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder. Finally, the strings subside, the woman is dead and pushed out to sea. The Moog bass also fades as Monroe’s guide explains that the awful punishment we have just witnessed is ‘considered a divine commandment’.
Many commentators have noted the ‘violence’ of the synth in Ortolani’s score (e.g. Kay Dickinson), its ‘perverse cruelty’ (Kristopher Spencer) and the contrast with the ‘beauty’ of the strings, which combine to make the film’s brutality ‘all the more unexpected and horrific in contrast’ (Randall D. Larson). As Jennifer Brown notes in her study of cannibalism on film: ‘Riz Ortolani’s orchestral soundtrack is a crucial part of the impact of the film, haunting and affective. It contrasts jarringly with the violence of the images on the screen making them paradoxically beautiful in their goriness.’ In a way, the contrast Brown mentions, this tension between image and music, is already fully present in the music itself, in the very jarring piquancy of the orchestral harmonies.
In an interview (available to watch on YouTube), Ortolani himself has referred to his music for this scene as ‘a religious adagio’. Reflecting the guide’s statement that this punishment is ‘a divine commandment’, Ortolani says of his score, ‘it had to give the tone of a religious piece’, but at the same time sound ‘modern and striking’. Listening to the piece again, we can hear how the combination of aspects of fugue and passacaglia (the repetitive Moog bass ostinato) reinforce this ‘religious’ dimension. Indeed, we can recognise some of the same sense of ‘painful longing’ as in Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, which had been used in the baptism sequence of The Godfather just a few years earlier.
Arguably, however, Ortolani’s music neither simplistically upholds nor respects the characterisation of this horrific act as sacred, and therefore worthy of some sort of culturally relativist respect. Nor does it seek to expose, by association, the violence and brutality supposedly inherent in all religions by their very nature. Instead, the piece presents both these interpretations at once, rubbing them up against each other in a kind of perverse sonic parallax.
Cast: Klaus Maria Brandauer, Julia Jentsch, Jeanette Hain
In 2009, Antonin Svoboda made a TV documentary about the Austrian-American psychiatrist and experimental scientist Wilhelm Reich. He has now returned to the subject with a feature biopic that focuses in particular on the second half of Reich’s life and work in American exile. Drawing on the depth of knowledge that Svoboda has acquired working on the project over many years, the film stars Klaus Maria Brandauer as Reich, who lends a compelling presence and dignity to his character.
Reich, who devoted himself to searching for the fundamentals of life, arrived in America in 1939, after fleeing Nazi Germany. His story is related with the help of flashbacks to his earlier career and the research that led him to a theory postulating the existence of a bioelectric life-force energy called ‘orgone’, which, according to Reich, flows through all living beings. Blocking up this force with social taboos and ideological nonsense could only lead to harm – for the individual and for society. However, his radical dream of liberating human individuality made Reich an increasingly dangerous opponent to the American system and, in 1956, Reich found himself on trial, charged with fraud and sentenced to two years in prison, while six tons of his publications were burned by order of the court. Intriguingly shot, yet not free of dramatic flaws, the film manages to be both understated and epic, leading up to Reich’s death in jail, reportedly of heart failure, only days before he was due to apply for parole.
Pamela Jahn talked to Klaus Maria Brandauer at the 50th Viennale in October 2012, where the film had its world premiere. It opens for a theatrical run in Austria this month.
Pamela Jahn: What attracted you to the character of Wilhelm Reich?
Klaus Maria Brandauer: I read the script and thought the theme was very fascinating. As an actor, you don’t necessarily play a part simply because of the character, but because of the story and the environment associated with this character. And in the case of Wilhelm Reich, I found that environment very intriguing. The story offers so much scope to express yourself because it describes not only a moment in time, but the 20 years Reich spent as an immigrant in America after leaving Germany in the late 1930s to escape the Nazis. And sometimes this relates back even to his earlier life – which you gradually learn from selected flashbacks – and the difficulties he’d experienced when he was young. Both his parents died very early, the mother committed suicide after having an affair with his tutor, soon after the father died of tuberculosis; then the Russians invaded and Reich and his brothers flew to Austria where he joined the Austro-Hungarian Army during the First World War. After the war, he went to Vienna where he studied medicine and became a student of Sigmund Freud, because he was also very interested in psychology and the social environment of human beings and their relationships with each other. But then he became somewhat disillusioned with Freud’s psychoanalytic method, and unlike most analysts, Reich was not content to keep silent, so he took his own path. But I think what is crucial to understand in his case is that he was not only a doctor or psychoanalyst, but a sociologist who did a lot of research on the situation of women in the 1920s in Austria, for example, because he was convinced that everything is related to everything else in this world and beyond. To some extent he was also a visionary, because he was convinced that one day somebody would prove that everything that we think, see and feel, as well as what we dream and what we imagine, that all this is ‘true’ and part of our human identity.
But instead of the freedom he hoped to find in the US, he was crushed by the American legal system.
Yes, because he was a very strong opponent of the war, of any kind of conflicts really, but most importantly of nuclear power. Although he had some conversations with Einstein about his discovery of ‘orgone’, he didn’t support the invention of special nuclear material or atomic energy, simply because it was first and foremost invented to kill people. And that’s where our film starts, in the moment that he believes himself living in a free country – an exemplary democracy, as it where – and all of a sudden he’s no longer allowed to carry out any research because he’s against nuclear weapons and also against any methods of manipulating the human psyche. So the Americans chase him, he is maligned and later even put into jail based on faked witness statements, and there he dies.
But to get back to your earlier question, Reich is only one example of many, and still there is something special about him as a man and as a scientist in the way he fought against the oppression of others, and of their thoughts. And in terms of his own work, he just wanted to carry out his research, independently and without getting on anyone’s back. That’s what fascinated me about Reich.
Talking about your work, you’ve had a remarkable career both on stage and on screen, but you always seem to remain truly faithful to theatre.
Because for me film is not more exciting than theatre, that’s nonsense. Today, as an actor, you work in television and if you have the time, you play in theatre. But when I first started, it was the other way around. When someone offered me a part in a film, back then I said, ’No thanks, I do theatre!’ But in a way it doesn’t really matter. There are people who work more in film and television, and then there are others who do more theatre – everyone has their own priorities. And of course it’s easy to think that film work is better paid, which it is, and that’s why people go for it. But if you’re a true actor, you just love doing theatre, so I don’t really have a preference.
Would you like to direct again as well?
Of course, but the two films I have done so far [Georg Elser – Einer aus Deutschland (Seven Minutes, 1989) and Mario und der Zauberer (Mario and the Magician, 1994)], I was really dying to do, and even when I watch them today, I think, ‘Thank God that you’ve done this!’ But to direct another film, I would first of all need a lot of time, like Antonin, who spent more than eight years developing The Strange Case of Wilhelm Reich. Or, take Sidney Pollack’s Out of Africa (1985), it took years and many drafts to get the screenplay right and still no one wanted to finance it. And before Pollack, it was John Frankenheimer who tried to make that film. It was only because they were friends, and Pollack had worked as an assistant for him in the past, that Frankenheimer said, ‘Look, why don’t you give it a try? You’ve just had a major success with Tootsie, maybe you can do it’. And Pollack did. All I’m trying to say is that there is always an awful lot to do before, eventually, you can see a film on the big screen, especially in Europe, and in smaller countries like ours, it’s a nightmare to even just get it financed in the first instance.
Did you see parallels between Antonin Svoboda’s work on The Strange Case of Wilhelm Reich and your first film, which was also shot in the English language, about Georg Elser, the man who attempted to assassinate Hitler in 1939?
It’s difficult for me to say, because Antonin is a professional filmmaker who went to film school and, originally, I was only meant to play Georg Elser in the film and John Frankenheimer was supposed to direct it. But when John came to Europe the dollar hit rock bottom, which was terrible for the production because the entire budget deflated within seconds, and then John said, ‘It’s not going to work like that, let’s just leave it’. One or two years later the producer of the film, John Daly, called me up and asked, ‘Klaus, do you still want to do that film about Elser?’ I said, ‘Of course, it’s a great project, but who’s going to direct it? Is John back onboard?’ And he said, ‘No, not John, you!’ Two weeks later I was sitting in LA trying to plan how I could make this work. So I called my friend Lajos Koltai, the Hungarian cinematographer, and said, ‘Listen, we always wanted to make a film where there is hardly any dialogue’. Because what has always annoyed me, even when I was younger, was that there is too much talking in film, as if it was literature. Film is a visual medium and is meant to express with images in the first instance, not with words. And Koltai said yes, and we made the film together in the end. But again, I am not a filmmaker, I didn’t show up on the set and said, ‘OK, focus at 45 please’. I learned all that from Koltai. I really wanted to make this film because of the story and Georg Elser as a character, which fascinated me in a similar way that Wilhelm Reich does now, partly because they were both outsiders. The difference is that one of them knew he was going to die and the other one didn’t stand a chance.
What do you feel an actor has to have these days?
I have been doing this job for 50 years now and I still don’t really know. I just found a way to do it, like others did before me, more or less, with different premises. I am artistically minded, I need literature, I need music and so on and so forth, and I can try to express other people’s words and stories in many different ways and different formats: in an audio play, a TV production, on stage or on the big screen, it doesn’t matter. The most important thing is that you’re not trying to act, but to explore something, to delve into the character. Nobody likes actors who act, not in theatre and even less in film. Anyone can recite a text or a dialogue, but it’s my responsibility to bring this person to life – that’s my duty. But in order to succeed, it has to be the deepest passion of your mind and heart to be human. And I mean you as a person! In other words: you have to know for yourself whether you call the tune on a Stradivarius or you’re just scraping a fiddle. Of course you can develop through practice, but if you don’t care about it at all, sooner or later others will. Most importantly though, and this is the real problem: art makes no sense at all. But that’s why it is so fascinating.
Are you driven by self-doubt or disapproval, either as an artist or personally?
A devout human being, who believes in God, but who doesn’t sometimes doubt, will never find that God and is a complete idiot.
I first saw Edmond in 2005, the year of its release, and the effect it had on me is difficult to rationalise and describe. I watched the film at a festival of American cinema in Deauville, a small coastal town in northern France, the kind with expensive boutiques, valet-driven sports cars, wide Edwardian promenades and raked sand. Blinking myself back into this surreal world and bright sunshine, I felt panicked, overcome with skin-crawling claustrophobia. I was repulsed. It wasn’t the kind of repulsion I had felt at other times in the cinema. Those instances had always been short and physical, like wincing through the torture scene in Oldboy (2003), but this was something very different, despite the presence of vivid violence (also, oddly enough, teeth-related in one scene). This repulsion lingered and didn’t entirely make sense, like the lasting discomfort after a nightmare where nothing happens. It’s hard to judge Edmond as a good or bad film, but it is certainly one of the most intellectually and morally repulsive films I have had the displeasure of viewing.
The plot of the film, adapted from a play by David Mamet and directed by Stuart Gordon, is fairly simple and conventional in its trajectory. Edmond Burke, played by a soul-sucked, monotone William H. Macy, is an everyman city suit, disaffected and disappointed. He leaves his New York office building and, in turn, his immaculately groomed wife before embarking on a seedy urban odyssey of epic yet well-trodden proportions. The camera follows him past neon-lit dollar stores, down dark side streets, on a graffiti-scrawled subway carriage. It’s a journey that starts in a bar, takes in a clichéd list of lowdown dives (strip joint, brothel, pawn shop), escalates to murderous rage and ends in a prison cell; all the while framed and propelled by a tarot reading, in which the fortune teller warns Edmond, ‘You are not where you belong’. Peace and belonging, it appears, can only be obtained behind bars. Freedom is achieved by escaping the seemingly free outside world. The script brings up a number of existentialist questions that echo the storyline of Albert Camus’s L’Etranger.
David Mamet’s script is brutal in its language. The terms of abuse are misogynistic, homophobic and, perhaps most vehemently, racist. Central to the film is the idea of an emasculated white man, fearful and yet jealous of the black men he meets on the mean city streets, which amount to a skewed landscape of hustlers, pimps and thieves. Edmond believes that he has been conditioned by society to pity and fear black men (‘47 years says he’s underpaid, he can’t get a job, he’s bigger than me’) and has been caught up ‘in a mess of intellectuality’. He has been ‘taught to hate’ by society but also forced to hide this loathing. His journey allows him to throw off these shackles and embrace his true feelings: an aggressive combination of hatred and bigotry. He cries with the zeal of a new convert: ‘If it makes you feel whole, say it. Always say it. There is no history, no laws’. After killing a black pimp in an alleyway, Edmond recalls how he saw the man as a human being for the first time during the attack.
When shaking off his former self in this way, Edmond can be seen as a riposte to societal pressure and political correctness, suggesting that we are compelled to suppress our true, less complicated instincts and selves under enforced social veneers. But while striving for authenticity might be admirable in many ways, the film presents a loathsome view of what lies beneath: a survival-of-the-fittest competition filled with racial, national and gender stereotypes. It’s an ugly and – to my mind – repellent Catch 22 and the classic manipulator’s trick: an argument founded on shaky premises but one that does not allow for any counterpoints, because it’s already shut out and sewn up the alternatives in a horrible, confusing mess of faulty logic. And that is what I find skin-crawling and claustrophobic about this script. We are confronted with one man’s incoherent, hate-filled ramblings, which spew forth from a mind obsessed with notions of control and power, and expected to find some profound or revealing universal truths. When incarcerated, Edmond muses on whether the only person who can truly understand life is ‘some fuck locked up who has lots of time for reflection’. Are we meant to see Edmond as a prophet? The script, acting and direction never make it clear whether we are supposed to have any sympathy for this character. There are no moral shifts or shades of grey, as in Taxi Driver (to which the DVD’s blurb makes a comparison). It’s all just one colourless, incessant, relentless monologue. It is suffocating. The script gives the audience no air to breathe, no room to think beyond or challenge its view of humanity. And perhaps that’s the point – that Edmond’s narrow view is terrifying and repulsive up close – but it’s a point that’s also never made clearly. The film is a dialogue-heavy 88 minutes of macho polemic that chases itself round in circles. The talk is about big themes – sex, power, religion, money and race – but the exchanges are unsatisfactory. Characters re-phrase each other’s sentences or talk at each other in an endless stream of questions. These are clever tricks but they leave the audience a bit cheated: ideas and concepts come and go as quickly as the next phrase arrives.
Towards the end of the film, it appears that redemption may be on its way when Edmond is forced to share a cell with a black prisoner and confront his newly vocalised racism. Standing face to face with his cellmate, he acknowledges that perhaps his beliefs mask another truth: ‘Every fear hides a wish’. His fellow prisoner forces Edmond to perform oral sex, towering over his cowering body, trapped in a corner of the cell. Edmond seems horrified at first about his homosexual experiences – we see him complaining to the prison priest – but the two eventually unite and end the film curled around each other in bed. While this neat, final twist might imply that Edmond has undergone a transformation, acknowledging and following a latent desire, one gets the sense that this development could be as quickly overturned as all his other so-called insights (his view of sex as salvation, his initial racism, his brief interest in a church meeting, his remorse at killing a waitress after a one-night stand). Despite a goodnight kiss, there is no connection, understanding or meaningful interaction between Edmond and his fellow prisoner. Edmond continues his questioning of life – now confined by prison bars rather than outside societal expectations – while his cellmate answers indifferently. He reaches no conclusion and neither do we. Edmond is searching for meaning and understanding in his life but cannot find it and, while he searches, he feels the need to involve everyone around him: the waitress is killed because she fails to agree with Edmond’s assertion that she is simply a waitress rather than an actress (which she aspires to be); the pimp is killed at whim because he does not give Edmond what he wants; and his cellmate is forced into listening to his endless philosophical quandaries. There is a pitiful bullying quality to the character of Edmond and the dialogue of the film itself, as they force secondary characters and the audience into following Edmond’s existentialist journey rather than forging their own.
The character of Edmond embarks on a path of personal enlightenment that challenges societal preconceptions, but what results is an individualistic, ugly, aggressive worldview based on a macho, racially discriminatory premise. And because of the bombarding style of dialogue, it’s a view that does not allow for any dissenters despite its striving for individual authenticity. It’s one I find thoroughly ugly to witness. It is not easy to analyse and unpack all the reasons why I felt such violent, bone-seeping disgust at Edmond. I can list the aspects I disliked about the film but, in many ways, repulsion is deeply personal. It feels like one of the most primeval, instinctive emotions a human being can experience: it’s a flight-or-fight instant reaction. To be made to feel that way for an hour and a half is quite a feat.
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson
Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained mixes a narrative of oppression – being a thematic follow-up to Inglourious Basterds (2009) – with the director’s trademark ultra-violence and profanities. Both films, and presumably also the forthcoming Killer Crow (mooted as the third film in his trilogy of oppression), also specifically reference Italian action films from the 1960s and 70s. Basterds was loosely inspired by Enzo G. Castellari’s The Inglorious Bastards (1978) while the second is not only inspired by Django (1966), but also exists as the latest instalment of the long-running saga that followed Sergio Corbucci’s film.
In Corbucci’s original, Django arrives in the form of taciturn gunslinger Franco Nero. As he settles into a one-street town as the de facto sheriff, a ubiquitous Western / samurai film plot ensues, with a Mexican gang and the soldiers vying over a cache of buried gold. Corbucci makes his hero one to remember – from the iconic coffin the gunslinger pulls behind him to the casual torture the bad guys inflict on anyone who crosses them, including a graphic ear-severing scene probably stuck in Tarantino’s mind long before he considered making a sequel to the film.
Django (1966), Django Shoots First (1966), Some Dollars for Django (1966), Django Kill! (1967), Django, Prepare a Coffin (1968) and Sukiyaki Western Django (2007) are all available on Region 2 DVD, with Django (1966), Django Kill! (1967) and Sukiyaki Western Django (2007) also available on Blu-Ray.
In the Electric Sheep anthology The End , I wrote about Italy’s laissez faire approach to (zombie) sequels, and similarly when Django proved a hit, a variety of other Westerns already in production saw their names changed to capitalise on its success, including 1966’s Some Dollars for Django (cashing in on two Italo-Western franchises) and Django Shoots First (1966). One of these, Django Kill! (aka If you live, shoot! 1967) is an unusual homoerotic Western / horror hybrid particularly worth tracking down. Its touches of surrealism, Christian iconography and dreamlike flashbacks prefigure Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo (1970) while the graphic disembowelling of a man shot with golden bullets anticipate the gore in Italy’s cannibal films in the following decade.
A craze of retitling led to another seven Django films in 1967 alone, and by 1968 Italian directors had had enough time to start making actual Django sequels rather than just naming unrelated films as such. One of the most notable is Ferdinando Baldi’s Django, Prepare a Coffin (1968), a prequel best known for its soundtrack by Gianfranco Reverberi, which was sampled by Gnarls Barkley for their hit ‘Crazy’. In Prepare a Coffin Terence Hill takes on the title role, undercover as a hangman in order to create a gang of his own to revenge his murdered wife. Although somewhat slow, the neat plot and iconic music give the film some credibility as a bona fide Django film and it’s nice to see Hill take the lead in a non-comedic Western.
Double bill DVDs of Django Kills Silently (1968) / Django’s Cut Price Corpses (1970) and Django and Sartana’s Showdown in the West (1970) / A Man Called Django! (1971) are available on Region 1 DVD
Another eight Django films turned up between Baldi’s film and the following year’s One Damned Day at Dawn… Django Meets Sartana! (1969), in which two iconic gunmen meet for the first of five team-ups. By the end of 1972, the number of films that were either made as sequels to Django or merely titled as such had reached the improbable total of 30. By that time, the entire genre was on its last legs, and apart from continuing international capitalisation on the success of the franchise – such as the Nero-starring Keoma (1976), retitled Django Rides Again in some countries – it took the interest of the original actor himself for the saga to be belatedly revived on its twentieth anniversary.
Django 2 / Django Strikes Again (1987) sees the character return from self-imposed exile to save his daughter from Hungarian slave traders, and like the following year’s Rambo III (1988), features a monastic anti-hero, cheesy 1980s production values and signs of franchise fatigue. Apart from an extended cameo by Italophile Donald Pleasence, Django 2 has little to recommend it beyond the novelty of seeing Nero back in the title role.
The combination of Luis Enríquez Bacalov’s returning classic Django theme, stylised ultra-violence, and Quentin Tarantino attempting an improbable accent is actually not first found in the latter’s Django film but rather in Takashi Miike’s Sukiyaki Western Django (2007), in which Tarantino stars as the mentor of a female assassin. Cultural references fly thick and fast as Miike mixes the War of the Roses, flamenco, a schizophrenic sheriff in the mould of Gollum, cowboy-versus-samurai action and a small boy caught in the middle, destined to grow up to be gunslinger Django. This Japanese remix is a heady brew of all that has gone before, marred only by the director’s ill-advised decision to have his cast speak English, learned phonetically.
Django 2 / Django Strikes Again (1987) is available as a Korean DVD import
Racial tension was present in some of the more Zapata-type Django instalments and Django Unchained (2013) brings racism to the fore in the latest version of the character. Unlike his predecessors, Jamie Foxx isn’t cast as another incarnation of the original, but rather as a freed slave turned hunter under the aegis of Christoph Waltz’s mild-mannered bounty killer. Waltz steals the movie, but Foxx himself is an appealing lead with nouveau riche affectations, wearing a bright blue outfit with ruffs for his first visit to a plantation as a free man. Tarantino’s best film since Pulp Fiction allows the director to combine the tropes of a buddy movie with a Western that tackles the intolerance of the old West head on, leading to a variety of uncomfortable moments for the audience, in which they have to challenge the appropriateness of their own enjoyment.
Gravedigger, hangman, undead messianic widower, orphaned samurai, freed slave: the Django franchise has encompassed a multitude of styles, actors and directors over the last six decades and inspired enough genre-defying movies to make both the most famous instalments and some of the least known Django films worth tracking down before the title character drags his gun-filled coffin into that final Western sunset.
In Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), Donald Sutherland’s grieving architect John Baxter mutters ‘I haven’t thrown up for 20 years’. His being sick is not only a marker of his increasing lack of control – he has a drinking session waiting for his wife to emerge from a pair of clairvoyant sisters – it is also of a piece with the general queasiness of the film. The world is a dirty place, full of spilled food and rubbish. Everything tilts in Venice, a disorientating confusion of memory and vision, with the past, present and future bleeding into each other.
Vomit comes up every now and again. Usually it arrives in expected contexts: a shocking murder scene will see a weak-livered deputy losing his lunch while the hardened investigator pries with a pen. But of late regurgitation rates have gone up. In Saving Private Ryan (1998), the sight of soldiers vomiting from a combination of seasickness and fear over the sides of the landing boats was as shocking as the violence and gore to come. It made the war dirtier than we are used to it. The same year, The Thin Red Line similarly has a soldier dribbling bile and complaining to being ‘sick in his stomach’.
Vomit as a physiological reaction to fear, pregnancy or horrific disgust is one thing. In The Exorcist and The Fly vomit becomes a weapon; in the former as a sign of repellent disrespect and in the latter an acidic leg-melting mess. Peter Jackson – in his earlier incarnation as a master of cheap sicko horror movies – rivalled John Waters in his strategic use of puke. See the appropriately titled Bad Taste (1989), or Meet the Feebles (1989). However, nowadays vomit has become so profligately used that it almost feels like a box to be ticked. The very fact that ‘gross out’ has become a comedy subgenre in some ways has robbed vomit of its shocking, subversive effect. Paul Rudd can blow chunks in I Love You Man (2009) without any fear of alienating the audience. Hot Tub Time Machine (2011), Date Night (2010) and Bridesmaids (2011) all have comedy vomit scenes and the Jackass series features several sequences where vomit is induced and delivered. The reminder that we are bodies, and the humiliation and social embarrassment that can sometimes cause, comes as a cathartic release: if we all admit to it then there is less shame, less embarrassment. Whereas John Baxter is slightly wondering at his loss of control, vomiting for Steve Carell is something that he can literally take in his stride. Team America: World Police makes the point with brilliant aplomb. When having drowned his sorrows in a bar and reached his clichéd low point, the puppet hero vomits prodigiously in the street, he does so to rousing music. Hitting the lowest point is indicative of overcoming it, so following the reductio ad absurdum, the lower the depth, the more heroic the inevitable recovery.
The over-the-top grossness of the comedy risks becoming humdrum via repetition and lacks the savagery of what must be the vomit scene to beat all vomit scenes: Mr Creosote in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983). It’s not only the shock of the vomit, the meaning of projectile, or the explosive ending, it’s the context: the restaurant of refined diners, Eric Idle’s Noel Coward impresario and John Cleese’s officious maître d’, and most of all food. Creosote introduces the ‘Autumn Years’ section of the film and behind the hilarity and Gargantuan humour, there is also something genuinely and savagely disturbing. The film recognises this threat, with Creosote introduced to something like the Jaws theme. He is greed personified, an accelerated cycle of self-destructive overconsumption and waste disposal. His spewing is the death wish, hilarious and fucking disgusting.
Cast: Katharine Isabelle, Antonio Cupo, Tristan Risk, David Lovgren
Sexy and horrific, shocking and thoughtful, gorgeous and freakish, humorous and disturbing, American Mary sent a blast of fresh air through FrigthtFest back in August where it wowed the horror crowd. It opens in selected UK cinemas today, with the DVD and Blu-Ray release following shortly on 21 January.
Katharine Isabelle (Ginger in John Fawcett and Karen Walton’s 2000 Ginger Snaps) plays Mary Mason, a medical student whose moral signposts are pushed further and further out by financial necessity as she is drawn into the underground world of illegal surgeries and extreme body modification. The second feature by Vancouver twins Jen and Sylvia Soska, following Dead Hooker in a Trunk (2009), it is a boldly original conflagration of rape-and-revenge story, psychotic doctor/sadistic nurse characters and fetishist world with a feminist twist. Mary may indeed appear in sexualised fetish outfits, but she is no typical victim or mere eye candy. Disenchanted and angry against those she used to look up to, she uses her fine skills with a scalpel to stand up to the authority figures who have abused their power.
American Mary is a film with tremendous heart as well as terrific cinematic qualities. Complex and morally ambiguous, Mary is capable of repulsive acts, but never loses our sympathy. The body mod characters are handled sensitively, with the Betty Boop-like Beatress Johnson and Barbie-wannabe Ruby Realgirl equally grotesque, fascinating and moving. Ruby Realgirl in particular is a tragic character, provoking only violent disgust when she finally achieves the mass-market doll’s asexual sexiness she had longed for so much. In that as well as its main character’s story, American Mary brilliantly deals with the contradictions and pressures, but also the possibilities and variations, of modern female identity.
Virginie Sélavy talked to Jen and Sylvia Soska and Katharine Isabelle about the monsters of the filmmaking industry, the importance of Ginger Snaps and making a feminist horror film.
Virginie Sélavy: American Mary seems like a big leap from Dead Hooker in a Trunk (2009). What changed?
Jen: We had a little bit of money (laughs). A tiny bit more. But we knew we had no money when we made Dead Hooker in a Trunk so we picked grindhouse filmmaking, so hey, if there’s a few flaws that’s OK, that’s the style. With this one we wanted to show people that that’s not all we’re capable of. It’s more of a love letter to European and Asian cinema, especially as we’re such big fans of horror. Horror movies can be beautiful and operatic, I was really proud to be able to do that with the second film.
Sylvia: Dead Hooker in a Trunk was really to say, ‘here we are’, and American Mary was to say, ‘here is what we can do’. The main thing that changed was us in every way. When we made Dead Hooker in a Trunk we were super young, we were very ambitious, our hearts were on our sleeves, you can really see that. And then in American Mary, we’ve seen a lot of monsters, we’ve battled a lot of demons…
Jen: …and now we’ve become psychotic surgeons
Sylvia: … and we’re little bit pissed off about it! (laughs)
Yes, I read in an interview that what happens to Mary is a parallel for what’s happened to you in the world of filmmaking.
Sylvia: Very much so. It just became a little more honest than I originally intended because we wrote it in two weeks, and I was thinking, I just need to put something in there that I can relate to, and I put a lot of personal stuff in there. And when you put a lot of personal stuff in a film, it’s more than just you who sees it. It was nice to have that kind of dialogue because I know a lot of working women come into contact with a few monsters, even working men, and it was nice to hang those monsters up in a storage locker.
American Mary can be described as a rape-and-revenge story to some extent. Did you want to bring a fresh spin on that sub-genre?
Jen: I think the way we shot it was definitely something we wanted to put a spin on. And to say that it’s rape-revenge, I think that Mary went through a lot of things in the film that kind of tear away at her, and no one event is more than the other: having to compromise her morals with the surgery at the beginning and then the surgery with Ruby, and then finally those two sacrifices that she makes to continue with her medical profession, and then she finds out that the people she’s idolising are not exactly what she was hoping for.
But most rape scenes are shot to be completely gratifying to men, and we even had some notes, ‘you’ve got to make sure that Katie’s tits come out at some point’, and we said ‘absolutely not’ because then, not that I have something against nudity, but the main thing that everybody would be talking about would be, ‘oh here’s Katharine’s breasts, oh my god, how fantastic’.
Sylvia: And considering how rape is one of those things that is rampant in our society, and almost shameful to even mention, if you show it in the horrific light that it is and people are like, ‘it is a very long and upsetting scene’, I’m like, ‘yeah, because if you are in that situation you don’t get to cut away’. A lot of it is on her expression and on his expression. I love watching how difficult it is for people to watch because it is realistic, it is real horror, and it is what a horror film should have.
It was a huge and welcome contrast to rape scenes in some of the films that showed at FrightFest last August. Do you feel you’ve made a feminist horror film?
Jen: Very much so. When we have films like Twilight, that go under the guise of ‘this is a female’s film’, my god, I hope that’s not a female’s film, because I think back in the dark ages a woman defined herself by who she’s with, and men defined themselves by what they do professionally, and to go back to pining over two guys, what about your own life? The writer of Twilight said that she was a big fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which just blew my mind because this is a very self-assertive woman who is in charge of her own destiny with some guys in the background. We also took the crap of why doesn’t Mary leave with the guy at the end, or why does she not get the guys to fight her battles for her. I think there is such a lack of women fighting their own battles that are portrayed in films.
Sylvia: Yeah, it’s an agenda of making women seem weaker and subservient and I just couldn’t stand that, especially after the horrific event that happens between her and her mentor, people are like, ‘why doesn’t she cry?’ And I’m like, ‘how many movies have you seen where something horrific happens and the female character is crying and then calling someone else to help her?’ No, I don’t want to see that anymore.
Katharine, do you feel you play a feminist heroine in the film?
Katharine: I absolutely do. I’ve done a few horror movies and it’s absolutely refreshing. The character of Mary on paper has no redeemable qualities. She’s not that pleasant, she’s not that kind, she has no friends, she has no family. She’s very narcissistic and self-absorbed, and that was refreshing in itself. I tried my best to make the character likeable without sweetening anything, without dumping any radical rigid feminist plotlines and themes! (laughs) I think it was the most true-to-life character that I’ve ever had the opportunity to portray because all the time in film women are, like Sylvia said earlier, those sort of easy bake kind of cookie images, like the slut, the tease, the good girl next door. And to have a character that was so multi-dimensional, that didn’t have any particular redeeming qualities, but was still likeable, was still strong, was still interesting and stood up for herself and gave not one fuck about anyone else, or what anyone else thought, or what anyone else expected of her, is something that I think we need to see more of in film and in society in general.
You played another very important horror female character in Ginger Snaps. She was also something refreshingly new.
Katharine: Yeah, I’m really blessed to have been given those two girls, Ginger and Mary. In Ginger Snaps, I was 17, I didn’t know what the hell was going on. But that’s what she says in that movie, a girl can only be a bitch, a slut or the girl next door, or something like that. And it kind of came full circle for me with American Mary, it’s like maybe that’s what would happen to Ginger if she didn’t end up being a werewolf – she’d be a weird psychotic surgeon! (laughs)
Sylvia: That’s really interesting because when I was a teenage girl Jen and I were called the Fitzgerald sisters because we were so similar and dark, and that movie got me through a lot of things, being teased a lot, mocked, and I got a lot of strength from those girls. And now you’re playing this next decade of a same kind of power female – now I’m going to have to write a forty-year-old! (laughs)
Jen: We actually have a forty-year-old housewife role…
Sylvia: It’s fun to see that, because you were not only a big part of my growing up as a teenager but a lot of girls growing up as teenagers, and to get you to do this next step is really interesting.
You deal with body modification in a complex and sensitive way. What led you to set the film in that world?
Sylvia: We wanted to have people from the real-life community: they don’t take off their horns, they don’t put their tongue back, they don’t change, it’s their life choice. And more often than not people are going to judge them because of this choice of how they feel more comfortable in their own skin. This is probably the first movie that just focuses on the body mod culture and I wanted to have a good first introduction. I wanted to have respect for the people who looked over the script, the people who came from the society to actually play themselves and be authentic, and it was my goal to do these people a proper representation. And some people will always be ignorant but I hope it educates and shows that these are just people, just like if I got a Mohawk it’d still be me, it just doesn’t change anything.
Jen: You’d look cute with a Mohawk.
Sylvia: I’m going for it.
American Mary will be released on DVD and Blu-ray from Universal Pictures (UK) on 21 January 2013 and opens at UK cinemas on 11 January 2013 (Frightfest).
Jack Wolf wanted to be a singer, but he got waylaid by faerie tales. His debut novel, The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones (Chatto & Windus) is a dark and deliciously twisted Gothic tale of goblins, mental instability and love. Tristan Hart, who’s the bloody heart of the novel, is a young 18th-century physician, who has a penchant for pain; neatly encapsulating the tenor of the times, Hart is a complicated blend of Enlightenment forward thinking and the violent superstitions of the past. This explains his love of gore, and philosophy. His filmic alter ego is JF Sebastian from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Eithne Farry
If I were a film character, who would I be? I’d be JF Sebastian from Ridley Scott’s dystopian sci-fi vision of the future, Blade Runner. I first saw this film when I was a teenager, and the question that runs through it – ‘what is real?’ is one that has excited me creatively and philosophically ever since.
JF Sebastian is a hopeless loner, like me. He is socially awkward, like me, and again like me he prefers the company of those friends he has made for himself. Of course, my friends, in that sense, are characters in my novels rather than genetically engineered creatures, but I think my point still stands. Who’s to say that in some different universe I am not a genetic engineer doing exactly that?
In this world, however, I am a writer. And because I am a writer, and my creations cannot physically exist in this world with me, I have one great advantage over JF Sebastian. My characters cannot blame me for what befalls them. Unfortunately for JF Sebastian, however, his creations are alive; and his greatest creation, Roy, comes back to kill him –by killing his creator acting out a metaphor for the inexcusable human hubris of ‘killing God’. But was JF Sebastian ever truly God? Clearly not, although, certainly in Roy’s eyes, he obviously seemed to have usurped the divine power of creation.
Poor JF Sebastian. Perhaps he did not truly understand the implications of the work he was doing for the Tyrell Corporation. But when do any of us really get the chance to comprehend the full significance of the things that we create? If we could see that, perhaps we would be – almost – godlike. But would we ever choose to create anything?
Or perhaps JF Sebastian did know, and knew better than anyone else in the film (he is supposed to be a genius, after all) – and chose creation anyway. Publish and be damned, they used to say in the book trade. In his case, perhaps it was always going to be a case of publish and be killed – but to die at the hands of his greatest triumph was perhaps not so bad an exit.
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews