Writers: Lucio Battistrada, Andrew Baxter, Adriano Bolzoni, and others
Cast: Lou Castel, Mark Damon, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Lucio Battistrada, Andrew Baxter
Italy, Germany 1967
Riz Ortolani offers a standard score for a great neglected Spaghetti Western.
Carlo Lizzani’s 1967 Requiescant is perhaps an overlooked classic. Ironic considering the Latin title translates to mean ‘Rest in Peace’. Alex Cox, who for a generation of film fans, defined the notion of cult and weird movies via his 80s Moviedrome, named it the ‘one film to prove that the Italian Western was not solely Sergio Leone’s’.
The music on Requiescant is by early 50s Italian jazz musician turned composer Riz Ortolani. He passed away in January 2014, aged 87, leaving a legacy that stretches to more than 200 movie music credits, including a Grammy win and an Oscar nomination for the main theme to pseudo-documentary Mondo Cane (1962). He is probably best known for the haunting music on perennial video nasty Cannibal Holocaust (1980). More recently moments of his work were reprised when Quentin Tarantino (Kill Bill, 2003, and Django Unchained, 2012) and Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, 2011) rummaged through his extensive back catalogue.
The Requiescant soundtrack is not nearly as intense or ambitious as, say, the title track from his other 1967 score Day of Anger, but there’s lots to enjoy. The opening moments leading up to a massacre are coloured by a heavily plucked, detuned guitar whose sparseness is warmed by light touches of brass. It’s a signature refrain that is repeated later in the film during an absurd, drunk game of William Tell. Correspondingly the theme tune for the credits that follow the blood-soaked beginning is a much more traditional, orchestral arrangement that flirts with the bright tones of a mariachi band in-between sumptuous, melodramatic string sections.
Overall, it’s a fairly typical soundtrack for a Spaghetti Western. However, unlike the more abstract notions conveyed by Ennio Morricone’s music against the burnt and arid vistas of a Leone production, Ortolani’s musical additions to Requiescant are almost always used to directly inform the mood and action on screen.
Greg Klymkiw’s Colonial Report (on cinema) from the Dominion of Canada
Bob Clark, an American director who wisely moved to Canada and became a landed immigrant during the tax shelter period of the 70s and 80s, made some of the most successful and groundbreaking Canadian films. In addition to the Oscar-nominated Tribute and the acclaimed Holmes (Christopher Plummer) and Watson (James Mason) vs. Jack the Ripper thriller Murder by Decree, Clark’s two other Canadian films are notable for kickstarting the teen sex comedy genre (Porky’s) and the modern slasher film (Black Christmas).
Black Christmas (1974) was not only a huge hit at the box-office, but has become renowned for its alternately creepy and jolting scares, its originality in terms of both direction and writing, and the piquant black humour which drives the movie into territory well beyond strict genre parameters. Plus, there’s a perversely indigenous Canadian quality to it which places it in a realm that yields a movie that’s just enough off the beaten track to make it feel wholly prototypical to the genre, but also marks it as a very special example of Canada’s genuinely important place in the creation of contemporary genre cinema.
To celebrate its 40th anniversary, Anchor Bay Entertainment Canada has recently honoured Black Christmas with an exclusive, all-new, fully restored Blu-ray and DVD ‘Season’s Grievings’ edition that offers a gorgeous transfer and a Criterion Collection-worthy set of fascinating, amusing and informative added value features which feel very much like an ‘Everything You always Wanted to Know about Black Christmas* (*But Were Afraid to Ask)’ compendium in the spirit of the famed Dr. R. Reuben tome of fleshly love.
I recently had the opportunity to meet with three legendary Canadian cast members together in an Anchor Bay Canada boardroom in the St. Lawrence Market area of downtown Toronto. All three represent Canadian thespian gymnastics at their loftiest, but also had important roles in nailing the utter originality of the movie. Lynne Griffin, a renowned stage actress, kids TV personality and veteran of Canadian cinema was the iconic image of sheer terror on all ads, posters and home video packaging of the picture thanks to her extremely unique role in Black Christmas.
Nick Mancuso, the veteran film and television actor, who first burst onto the scene with his astonishing performance as the victim of a dangerous religious cult in Ticket to Heaven provided the sickening, horrifying and definitely iconic voice of Billy, the foul Yuletide serial killer of Black Christmas who is only heard during his numerous obscene phone calls.
The Holy Spirit of this thespian trinity is none other than Doug McGrath, one of Canada’s most beloved actors, first the star of iconic Canuck classics like Goin’ Down the Road, Wedding in White and The Hard Part Begins, then for many years one of Clint Eastwood’s favourite character actors in such great pictures as Pale Rider and Bronco Billy. In Black Christmas, he is the comic relief (along with Margot Kidder and Marian Waldman). Resembling a cross between Buster Keaton and Don Knotts’ ‘Barney Fife’ in The Andy Griffith Show, McGrath plays John Saxon’s thick-headedly inept desk sergeant, ill equipped to handle the wave of murders, assaults and disappearances plaguing the town in Black Christmas.
Here then is our lovely chat, which, frankly, could have lasted the whole afternoon, but sadly did not.
* * *
Greg Klymkiw: So Lynne, I’m sure this must be one of the more ubiquitous queries you get as an actress, but when your character, the sweet virginal sorority sister Clare Harrison in Black Christmas is forcibly enveloped in a plastic see-through cold-storage bag and suffocated to death by the psychopath Billy, it’s not only a jaw-dropping horror set piece, but one of the most terrifying moments in screen history. I can’t help but think how utterly horrifying it was to perform, even with all of the requisite safety measures in place. That surely couldn’t have been the safest stunt to perform.
Lynne Griffin: Well, we didn’t really have any safety measures, but god bless them, it was a risk worth taking for all the reasons you cited, but I was always front and centre in the posters, ads and every DVD cover.
Nothing more fetching than a sexy young lady with her mouth agape, enshrouded in plastic with a look of sheer terror etched into her face by rigour mortis.
Thank you for that lovely compliment [laughs]. And yes, as ubiquitous as I became on all the advertising material, so too are the discussions I’ve had about that scene. If that becomes my legacy, I’m delighted. Even when I go to horror conventions, I make sure to bring plastic bags with me for photo-ops.
Damn, I wish I’d brought one with me today.
The thought had occurred to me to bring one also. I’m still quite able to demonstrate my prowess under plastic.
I imagine the actual suffocation, with all the movement involved might have been somewhat simpler and safer to garner the required effect, but for the rest of the film, we keep visiting your lifeless body sitting rigidly in that creepy rocking chair in the attic. I suspect those shots must have been a killer, so to speak, to maintain the death grimace.
Even when we were shooting, it helped matters that I was an excellent swimmer and able to hold my breath for long periods of time. However, even if they poked air holes in the plastic to allow for subtle breath intake, there’d still be movement and, worst of all, the condensation would spoil the effectiveness of the shots, so to avoid this, it became a huge challenge. We finally agreed that I’d keep my eyes open and hold my breath completely. As a swimmer, I could hold my breath for the entire length of the pool.
Yeah, so you’re not sucking plastic down your throat.
Doug McGrath: That’d be a sure sign your corpse is trying to breathe.
[Mega-laughs all round. McGrath proves that even without cameras rolling he’s a master of the straight face and deadpan delivery.]
Lynne Griffin: There’s that one take in particular where I’m sitting there lifelessly for what seems like an eternity and when I looked at the new Anchor Bay Canada ‘Season’s Grievings’ edition, it sadly occurred to me that for all these years I neglected to include ‘playing dead’ as a skill on my resume.
[More laughs all round. ‘Special Skills’ – even playing dead – can be the lifeblood (as it were) of any working actor’s resume.]
With Black Christmas, Bob Clark really created a horror film which had a huge impact upon North American genre cinema. Clearly influenced by the Italian gialli – even one of your co-stars John Saxon had appeared in Mario Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much – his was the first picture on colonial soil to present the killer’s POV, and it was such a huge hit that it was the film which inspired the entire slasher genre. One of the biggest differences, though, is that all the American films which followed Black Christmas utilised the creepy, twisted, moralistic story element wherein the ultimate heroine and survivor of the homicidal machinations of the slasher was always the virgin.
Not in Black Christmas.
My own virginal exposure to Black Christmas first-run was in a real movie theatre at a time when Canadian films actually played in movie theatres and sitting there, even at that age, I felt like I was seeing something different. The horror and suspense builds, but with a nice blend of genuine characters and a delightful sense of black humour, so that when your character is dispatched, it was, even then, utterly shocking to have such a nice person be so horribly decimated – and even more jaw-dropping, that Clare is the first person to die. Not to take away from any of the lovely surprises in Mr. Hitchcock’s Psycho, but I suspect the shock of Marion Crane dying so early in the film was slightly, moralistically tempered by those scenes of Janet Leigh lollygagging about in her bra with the shirtless John Gavin and then embezzling all that money. But here, we have this sweet, virginal thing adorned in her modest sweater, her chaste relationship with the nice, young hockey player and her excitement over spending Christmas vacation with her mom and dad and yet, she’s the first kill and one of the most shocking and brutal killings in screen history.
[Sounding like the character of Clare here:] It’s unusual, isn’t it?
What were your thoughts when you first read the screenplay?
I was working steadily at Stratford at the time and the idea of doing a horror film seemed like a nice breath of fresh air. Of course, Bob Clark was wonderful. He was so charming and delightful, he could easily sell you swamp land. He’d also assembled an amazing cast and I loved the idea of working with all of them – especially Olivia Hussey, because I really wanted to pick her brain about working with Franco Zefferelli in Romeo and Juliet.
Well, and I’m sure there might have been some burning queries about Leonard Whiting’s pert, shapely bum?
There is that, I suppose.
And of course, when I first saw the ads with you wrapped in plastic, I have to admit, I initially thought it was Olivia Hussey under that huge Glad baggie.
That was a very common experience. Even now, I’ll see one of those ‘Where are they now?’ write-ups for Olivia and they’re actually talking about me. It’s interesting that when I made many thrillers after Black Christmas, I was often cast as a victim. In [Charles Jarrot’s] The Amateur [with Christopher Plummer and John Savage], I was one of the hostages and the first to be shot in the head.
[Laughs] Lucky me, allright. There are, however, many films where I lived to the last reel.
So, here you are, doing some of the greatest theatre in the world at Stratford, then as a nice change of pace, you’re acting in one of the most notorious horror films of its day and subsequently all time, you’re playing a virgin, you get knocked off horrifically and yet, one of my strongest memories of you as an actress is when you hosted this innocent CBC-TV after-school daily programme which was a kind of pre-teen Romper Room.
[Laughs] Yes, it was called Drop-in and I did it for five years and we did it live-to-air. So, at 4.30pm every afternoon we did this magazine-style show with comedy sketches and interviews.
Okay, so I’m not going crazy.
Not at all, that was me.
Nick Mancuso: And what healthy young lad at the time, didn’t have a crush on you?
Tell me about it.
Lynne Griffin: Well, and this virginal quality Bob looked for in Black Christmas makes so much sense. To host those shows, you needed this sense of innocence, but it was also one which all the young fellas lusted after.
The Hayley Mills effect.
Oh, of course. Even now, when I still do the horror conventions, some forty years after, even these men, young and old, come up and they are, dare I say it, lust-filled and talk to me like I’m still this young, hot chick, and it’s so flattering. But there is a lot to be said for this virginal quality. I played the virginal young thing so often, even though, I wasn’t. Well, I was, of course, innocent.
I can accept that. [Then to Nick Mancuso] You’ve made so many great pictures, Nick, and that’s ultimately a legacy worth accepting, but the fact remains that, as a young man, you attached yourself to the off-camera role of Billy who I think is still one of the – no, the creepiest slasher serial killers in the horror genre.
Nick Mancuso: You know, I’ve acted in over 250 films and TV series, three of my pictures are with the National Board of Review in Washington, and the role I’m best remembered for is the voice of Billy in Black Christmas.
[laughs] I don’t know, Nick, Ticket to Heaven is the first major feature film to focus on the evils of religious cults and you’re damn brilliant as the young guy who’s sucked into the miasma of exploitation and then fucking de-programmed. It’s harrowing, memorable and probably going to be your most enduring legacy.
Well thank you. You have to realise that when I did Black Christmas, I was nineteen-years-old when Bob Clark auditioned me and had me improvise a bunch of grotesque sounds for the obscene telephone calls. He hired me instantly and
Gee whiz, tantalising Bob Clark so zealously in an audition to play a sicko is no slouch. Really, bud. In fact, that’s no mean feat.
I knew I had to create this strange voice, so I stood on my head to compress my thorax. And you know, I wasn’t the only voice in the mix; Bob Clark contributed growls and gurgles, plus on one occasion, an actress who was not credited, a stage actress whose name has I’ve forgotten, did some of the higher-pitched screams.
There are a number of sources which state that you appeared on camera as Billy.
No. Never. There is, however, one curious factotum. The producers couldn’t afford to bring Keir Dullea back to Canada to do a few lines of ADR [Additional Dialogue Recording], so during the climactic scenes when Keir goes into the basement to find Olivia, I did his voice.
It’s great that Bob Clark never felt the need to resurrect Billy, as so many of the American slasher films to follow did, and to keep the killer’s identity ambiguous.
It’s an original film on so many levels, but as you touched on earlier, the killer’s POV was already a staple of European thrillers like Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom from Britain – and, of course, everyone was in on it; the French, the Germans and especially the Italians.
Yes, Argento and Bava in particular.
For sure. The Italian influence on Black Christmas and horror films to follow was immense. Bob was a huge cinephile and Argento and all those other guys would have added to Bob’s bag of tricks.
Though it’s safe to say that Bob popularised and made the killer POV all his own in North American cinema.
I can’t take that away from him, but [with tongue in cheek] once again, the Italians are the instigating factor in higher culture.
[Laughing] Well, you’re certainly proof positive of that. In fact, speaking of Italians, your surname is identical to that of the legendary Frank Mancuso, CEO of Paramount and MGM, but weirdly I’ve seen you mixed up on less reliable online sources as Frank and vice-versa.
There’s lots of strange stuff like that, especially after I’d wrapped on the Stingray series, I was hired to star as Rudy Giuliani in a series focusing on his pre-Mayoral days as New York’s crime-busting D.A. and was paid a ridiculous amount of money for a show that eventually didn’t even go to pilot. While waiting for that to not happen, Mancuso F.B.I went into production with Robert Loggia as ‘Nick Mancuso’. I called Loggia up and he said in his trademark gravelly voice, ‘Yeah, hey kid, I know. I love the name and thought it might do you some good.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, right asshole!’ Then the producer of the series said he’d go through all the scripts and change the name from Nick to Nico. I said, ‘That is my name!’ [Nick’s full name is Nicodemo Antonio Massimo Mancuso – hence ‘Nico’, hence ‘Nick’.] The asshole then told me to get a good lawyer. Ah man, the weird things that happened because of my name. There was a spa in L.A. I occasionally went to and I was very good friends with Frank Mancuso who went there also, but years later, I got a call from the spa wanting to confirm my booking for thirty people! And not just a mere booking. They wanted to confirm that I’d paid for thirty people in full. Thirty people! It turned out to be from Frank’s son, Frank Mancuso Jr. This Mancuso link is so weird. There’s apparently a new show with a detective called Nick Mancuso. So let them, I say. And screw them!
Here you are though, an actor known primarily as the voice of a foul-mouthed serial killer, when you have indeed been in a whole whack of films, and some of them like Ticket to Heaven and Maria Chapdelaine are not just classics of Canadian cinema, but great pictures – period!
None of them made money! Black Christmas DID and DOES, to this day, make money. Of course, we get nothing in residuals for it. [Lynne Griffin and Doug McGrath chime in with full concurrence.] But you know, Black Christmas is one of those films that lives well beyond that sort of thing and is indeed a very special picture for all of us. Aside from Bob Clark’s masterful direction, a terrific cast, a well structured story and screenplay [written by Canadian A. Roy Moore], it’s a film that really deals with the deep unconscious, aloneness, sexual lust and isolation experienced by so many young people. To this day, it’s still that way. There’s also the clear linkage between sex and violence. [In stuffy Brit sotto voce] Not to get too philosophical about it, dear boy, but as Aristotle said, the function and purpose of drama is catharsis… [and back to normal Mancuso timbre] Purgation! And of what? Pity, or compassion and terror. Terror is the frozen fear that lives in the deep unconscious of the community and the young characters in Black Christmas get to purge it on the screen. Of course, as one gets older, the linkage between fear and sex, or rather the fear of sex is abated by the sure-fire cure of marriage.
[Huge laughs all round.]
Well you know, Doug, it’s very cool to speak with you about your participation in Black Christmas, which occurred several years after the first time – as a kid – that I encountered you on screen in Don Shebib’s Goin’ Down the Road. You know, when most Canadian movies actually played in real movie theatres.
Doug McGrath: At one time. A long time ago.
And you know, I pulled the movie pages from the newspaper archives from my hometown – Winnipeg! The ads were huge and the movie actually played for four weeks in one of the biggest movie theatres in my sleepy old prairie winter city. So here I am, ten or eleven-years-old, and I saw Shebib’s picture on the opening weekend. In fact, I didn’t even initially connect the dots that I was about to see a Canadian movie. I just went to see as many movies as I could. But as the picture unspooled, I became completely enraptured in the fact that something seemed so familiar in ways I’d never experienced at the movies before. It was Canadian and not only did I love the movie, but the feeling of experiencing something so Canadian. This was something I don’t think I’ll ever forget and it instilled in me, even back then, the importance of seeing movies that were Canadian. Of course, as a kid, I saw you in Wedding in White and The Hard Part Begins and a few years later, still a kid, I saw Black Christmas first-run. Of course, I noticed your name in the credits, along with a bunch of other Canadians and I was plenty excited. I loved movies, especially horror movies, and here I was about to see a Canadian horror movie. You, however, totally blew me away in that – at the time and even now – because amidst the carnage and chaos you’re standing there like some bizarre cross between Buster Keaton and Barney Fife from The Andy Griffith Show, and I pretty much peed myself laughing. I think what’s so great about your performance is your utterly straight face as this complete incompetent cop.
Yeah, I kind of fell into that performance because the writing is so strong.
How the hell did you keep a straight face when Margot Kidder gives you her telephone number with the new phone exchange ‘Fellatio’ and then having John Saxon and the other cop cracking up when they discover that you’ve been had?
[Chuckles] You know, that’s maybe a kind of good question. I was feeling a kind of frustration.
You? Or the cop’s frustration?
Well, both I think, and as I felt that double-edge frustration, I responded to the character as written and said to myself, ‘Okay, let’s go with this.’ And in a strange way, the character was sort of close to myself, so I also chose to play it like myself. It’s funny, I wasn’t prepared for it and yet, the writing is so good I realised, once on the set with Margot and John Saxon, that I needed to go with the frustration. Sergeant Nash really wants to be a good cop, but he keeps having stuff thrown at him that he’s not equipped to handle. And it’s so funny that [the arc of] the character builds to that point when he’s on the phone with John Saxon who tells him ‘not to fuck things up’ and maybe, for the first time, he realises he truly has. Yes, he is the comedy relief, but when I discovered that, I also knew that playing it straight was the right thing to do. It helped that Bob seldom said anything. He obviously was getting what he wanted and that’s a great feeling for an actor. And then there’s Margot Kidder, someone I had the deepest respect for. She’s spelling out the word ‘Fellatio’ and part of me is reacting to Margot doing that and another part of me is reacting to it like I would react and, of course, as the Sergeant – as written – would react.
Nick Mancuso: Bob was always such a generous director. He’d always give you the space you needed to nail it just perfectly.
Doug McGrath: He was so great. Keep in mind, I’d just come off doing one heavy realistic film after another like Goin’ Down the Road and The Hard Part Begins…
And lest we forget, the unrelentingly real and almost unbearably depressing Wedding in White where Carol Kane is forced into a shotgun marriage to an old man by her father Donald Pleasance after she’s been raped and impregnated by your character.
Oh gosh, yes. So here I am in ultra-realistic mode and I’m playing a role that’s supposed to be the comic relief in a scary horror film. I was so grateful to Bob that he let me find the realistic side to the bumbling desk sergeant. Actually, I worked with him soon after Black Christmas on Porky’s. That’s where Bob continued to use his faith in both, the shot and the actors within it, and also how he instinctively would just hold the shot. He’d hold and hold and never break up the natural rhythm of the scene.
[If you’ve seen Porky’s, you’ll know exactly the points in the film where McGrath has you rolling in the aisles – especially during some very long shots. If you haven’t seen it, just do so. McGrath delivers one of the great comedy performances from the latter chunk of the last century, as does his Canadian co-star Kim Cattrall.]
And in Black Christmas there’s the scene where you’re trying to explain the Fellatio telephone exchange to John Saxon, this incredibly stalwart figure who, as part of his character, is supposed to be holding back his laughter and trying to keep a straight face while a cop in the background is howling with laughter as the scene plays out. And witnessing your character’s utter straight-faced incredulity that there’s something wrong with a phone exchange called ‘Fellatio’, I can’t help thinking how hard it must have been for Saxon to stay in character and not cough up huge guffaws.
[With an ever-so slight touch of puckishness] Well, that may be so. Believe me, I kept my eyes on John for the whole scene.
* * *
Black Christmas is available in the all-new ‘Season’s Grievings’ Blu-ray/DVD from Anchor Bay Entertainment Canada Ltd. If you’re in the Dominion of Canada, it’s available everywhere. If you’re a foreigner, you’ll need to order it as an import from Amazon. It’s well worth it.
If you live in Toronto, you’re going to be blessed with a screening of an archival 35mm print at the TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) Bell Lightbox with a live appearance from Keir Dullea, and then again at The Royal Theatre in Toronto’s Little Italy featuring live appearances by Lynne Griffin and Nick Mancuso. At this latter screening, packaging artist Ghoulish Gary Pullin will be unleashing his ‘Season’s Grievings’ variant edition of the poster art. This gorgeous silk-screened poster, featuring metallic links, is limited to only 80 copies.
You can read Greg Klymkiw’s review of Black Christmas on his website The Film Corner.
Do what all stalwart Canucks in the colonies do – celebrate the birth of Baby Jesus with Black Christmas.
Cast: Udo Kier, Geraldine Chaplin, Matthieu Amalric, Charlotte Rampling, Maria de Medeiros, Louis Negin, Géraldine Chaplin
The co-writer-directors talk about the perks and pitfalls of collaborating, Udo Kier’s haircut and the best remedy against forgetting people’s birthdays.
No barrier could hold what is unashamedly unleashed in Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room, and equally there is no stopping the wonderfully twisted mind of the Canadian filmmaker as he consistently pushes further the various ideas he has developed in his previous films, from his hypnotic debut Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988) right through to the magical and haunting Keyhole (2012). This time, Maddin has co-written and directed the film with his collaborator Evan Johnson (who has been working with Maddin since 2009). Together they have crafted a perfectly chaotic, yet fiercely formal, billet-doux to the lost, destroyed and forgotten films of previous decades by reimagining their very essence, sometimes based on little more than the original title of the films or the bare bones of their narrative. Immersing itself in a mad melange of wild plotlines, colour saturations, tints and overlays, the film initially evolved out of an even more ambitious project called Seances. Maddin and Johnson made lost films in public, filming at the Pompidou Centre in Paris and at the Phi Centre in Montreal, and these films will be made available next year on a website devised so that each user’s experience is unique and unreproducible. Part of this complex project, The Forbidden Room can and should be watched a number of times, not only to discover the cinematic treasures it hides but to appreciate the relentless effort and sheer love that went into its making.
Pamela Jahn sat down with Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson at this year’s Berlinale to talk about the perks and pitfalls of collaborating, using intertitles in talkies, Udo Kier’s haircut and the best remedy against forgetting people’s birthdays.
Pamela Jahn: You’ve been working together on other projects in the past, but this is the first time you are officially co-directing. How did that come about?
Guy Maddin: We all worked together on the companion piece to this project, the interactive website called Seances, ‘we’ meaning Evan and I, and also our third writer Robert Kotyk. We co-created it just through discussions in the screen editing room. But when it came to shooting, Evan and I were very close together, we’re inseparable. I consult with Evan for advice all the time. I tend to hold the camera more often…
Evan Johnson: I never hold it.
GM: But you have done on other films, on My Winnipeg and other short films, you’ve actually done the cinematography, so occasionally you do shoot. And it’s basically all just filmmaking. In the same way I long had a guilty conscience about my editor John Gurdebeke because, if an editor gets a bunch of found footage and makes a documentary out of it, he’s called the director, but if he’s just editing footage that we’ve shot, he’s called the editor. And I remember years ago, before I started working with Evan even, I asked John if he wanted to be called the co-director, but he said, no thanks, he’d rather be paid. So I kept him to that but I do try to give a shout out to him as a fellow filmmaker. And Evan is my co-director because he, too, is a filmmaker, even though our duties aren’t exactly the same. I couldn’t have made the film without him, or the editor, but John got paid eventually and Evan and I haven’t, so there’s that. Evan also does editing, or assistant editing for John, who gets things in a rough draft from us. And he does all the colour timing and effects along with his brother, the production designer Galen Johnson. I don’t do any of that, but I sit in a big comfy chair and write intertitles, the silent movie text.
What inspired you in the first instance to use both dialogue and intertitles in your films?
GM: I first became inspired to include intertitles with dialogue by the precedence set in Josef von Sternberg’s The Scarlet Empress. I like the way he uses intertitles with lots of dialogue and I thought, yeah, why would you abandon this wonderful vocabulary unit, just because you can have actors talk? Why not put these intertitles in which you can really establish a lot of flavour, in which a lot of expositional work can be done. And just like the way a child – if he or she learns a new word – doesn’t cough up the last word, so the vocabulary just keeps getting bigger and bigger. So, we kept the intertitles as an option here as well, even though our movies are essentially talkies.
The film is multi-layered with different storylines, genres and characters. How did you decide how to connect the various parts and, eventually, to frame everything with a prologue on how to take a bath which feels like another film within the film?
GM: When we were shooting some of the larger elements – there is a Filipino ‘Aswang’ vampire film and lumberjack-‘saplingjack’ film – we knew that those where going into the feature, and we knew ‘How to Take a Bath’ would be part of it. But then we had to start planning the links, and some of that was done after the shooting was done, which meant we had to go back and shoot some transitions. The narrator of ‘How to Take a Bath’, Louis Negin, and I ended up in Havana last year on a vacation together, and at one point I put him in a room – he didn’t really know what was happening – and I just pulled out my camera and there I had him. I mean, it’s clearly not shot the same year, the same country, the same camera, because I just opened up the laptop with his lines on it in really large font, and I just sort of scrolled down for him while holding the camera, so he could read the lines. But I love that because I’ve always loved the way my granddaughter could just gleefully slap together items and make a collage or a drawing, something with a noodle glued on, and I love the way Ed Wood or Oscar Micheaux did the same thing with film. And so I thought, well, I need some transitional exposition from Louis, and I’ll just take my camera and shoot this stuff before he goes to the beach.
Despite the dipping in and out of different storylines you end up with a surprisingly classic melodrama-like structure that carries the film.
EJ: We literally structured the whole thing like a classic Hollywood movie.
GM: Yeah, we bought Robert McKee’s book on how to write a screenplay, or a story, or whatever it is called – I never said I read it, but I bought it. But no, we worked way harder on this. I like working quickly on set, but I’ve always kicked myself for working too quickly at the screenwriting stage and never writing a second draft, and this time, we did second and third drafts of each different episode even. It took a long time, but I really enjoyed collaborating with Evan. I have always feared confrontation, and whenever I drew up designs for sets, half the time, the production designer would say, ‘No, you can’t have stairs’. I think I made eight movies before I finally got three steps in a movie! So in a way, collaborating was actually just compromising heartbreak and me hating myself for not sticking up for myself. But in the writing room we’d all collaborate and we argued things through and whenever it got personal – we can argue quite vehemently – there was no hurt feelings, and I think I learned that from Evan and it feels really good. And since his brother is the production manager there is none of that other stuff either. I got stairs, I got other things… I understand that things needed to be cheap but I was never just told, ‘no, you can’t have this or that’. And because they are brothers, they almost always worked things out between them and I never had to deal much with that. Before, my editor was my collaborator, and the most important collaborator was the happy accident, but now I have many collaborators and I really love collaborating.
You mentioned the Seances project earlier. Can you tell me a bit more about it?
GM: We shot a bunch of our own adaptations of long-lost films at the same time in Paris and in Montreal, in some cases with the same cast even, like improvised live ‘happenings’. That’s going to be an internet interactive, where anyone visiting the website can call their own a seance of lost cinema: little fragments of films will come up and interrupt and combine and collide to form new narratives. The programme will generate a title for that film, you’ll watch it and then it’ll be lost again. The programme creates and loses unique films and the title will be entered in an obituary list. Hopefully the two companion pieces will help each other, that’s the master plan.
Are you using some of the footage from The Forbidden Room when creating those seances?
GM: There is a little bit. Some the stuff from the film will be used as raw material in Seances, but it will be much altered in many cases, because they are alternate plots that you can change to incredible degrees by just re-wording the intertitles. That part gets hard because you have to come up with a completely different story that somehow fits the same edit – that’s the part that has racked my brain the most. But it’s really fun, it’s really satisfying when you come up with a plot that somehow fits. I guess it’s somewhat akin to Woody Allen’s What’s Up, Tiger Lily? where he took the whole movie and changed its plot, but I’ve never seen the film, I’ve only read about it. And with Seances, there are literally 500 billion different permutations that are possible and I still don’t have a concept of that number, so every now and then I go, ‘Are we really losing and destroying those movies afterwards?’ But yes, we are!
You’ve also made an incredible effort reworking all the palettes and colour-timing the raw material, as if to give it a new life of its own.
GM: At one point we discovered that movies weren’t just being lost in the 20s and 30s but that the Khmer Rouge destroyed many films in the 70s and sometimes they even murdered the directors. And there were low-budget exploitation films that were getting lost just because there was only one print and the director lost track of it, or he died and his widow didn’t care, something like that. There were lost films from all over and, for example, when Evan was colour-timing that little musical number with the obsessive man he decided to give that a lurid 70s palette. Whether or not it reads as that is beside the point, but it just felt ‘nower’, not just imitating the very limited two-strip Technicolour palettes of real film history – basically a blueish green and a pinkish apricot – but creating other palettes as if from a parallel universe of something.
EJ: I think in that case it was more Udo Kier’s haircut.
GM: Yes, Udo had a blonde Moe Howard thing going that determined the palette. It was really despairing while shooting because it was my first experience shooting in raw colour HD video and I just didn’t have the right attitude, I wasn’t seeing things that were really beautiful. But I have a lot more courage now, knowing how much the footage can be fixed. I actually made a colour movie way back in 1992 (Careful) where I controlled the palette literally by painting everything. I would paint people’s faces, their clothing, the walls… I even painted the plants, literally. But because we were so poor on this film, we had to take our props from anywhere and there was just no palette to the naked eye, no order, no control, no art, no thought put into the colour. I just couldn’t afford to think about it, so it had to be added later.
Given the low budget, you worked with an incredible cast. How did you convince them to take part in the project?
GM: They just seemed to be up for an adventure, because there is no way they could have known what exactly they were doing. I just told them they’d be acting in public. They saw the scripts eventually because they had to memorise some lines in some cases, but I think they were just up for finding out. We didn’t waste time asking people who would just say no. It was just a matter of meeting everyone for a coffee or lunch, one on one, talking to them for a little while and, every time, they agreed to show up. I couldn’t believe it. I was just waiting for them to just storm out of the set, but they never did.
As always in your work, there is a great sense of humour in the film.
GM: I’m a laughter slut, ho ho. I always take a laugh. I know people earlier in my career didn’t know whether the laughs were intended or not, so it made people very uncomfortable or embarrassed for me to the point where they had to go home early. But then, because I never quite had the nerve to make a joke, if it got laughed at, fine, but if not then I could save my dignity and the joke hadn’t failed. This time though, I started to make some changes and I made some conspicuous gags – although they are not that conspicuous, there are still probably not more than two people laughing at once.
You talked about your obsession with dreams before and there are some Freudian references worked into the film. Are you a fan of his work?
GM: I am a fan in theory, but I think my publicist at the Sundance film festival described me as a six-year-old pervert…
EJ: a cross between Eisenstein, Italo Calvino and a six-year-old pervert.
GM: Exactly right. I’ve only read a little bit of Freud, on the interpretation of dreams, standing up in a book store and it just ruined dreaming for me for the next couple of months because I was interpreting them while having them. And I like having dreams, they just come out of me and mystify me, and I start figuring them out later, but I don’t need Freud’s voice nattering in my ear all the time telling me what to think. So I just have a basic cartoon understanding of what’s going on, just like a lot of people probably did before he existed anyway.
How much of this film derived from your dreams?
GM: A few episodes came straight from dreams – that I am willing to admit. I don’t know about Boba and Evan. But there are a few guilt dreams and empowered-ness dreams… The dead father one is a recurring dream I’ve had since my father died in 1977. But there are other things like forgetting wives’ birthdays… there are not just dreams, they happened in real life too, and then they revisited me as nightmares over and over again. It’s about time to get over that. And what I’ve learned is that by making movies about things that really matter to me, things that I have experienced, I sort of cure myself of them. It’s a form of therapy. I don’t know what kind of therapy that is, aversion therapy maybe, where you just make yourself sick of something, because in the act of making something that matters to you into a movie, you have to turn it into work units, you have to cast the thing, you have to design a set, you have to shoot it, edit it, sound design it, then you have to talk about it with people and by the time it’s finally over, you’re cured. I’m cured of My Winnipeg, I’m cured of my childhood, so now I am finally cured of forgetting peoples’ birthdays – I am going to keep forgetting them, but I don’t care anymore.
There are good reasons why Britain is the home of the wolf.
In 1281 King Edward ordered the extermination of all wolves from his kingdom. Organised hunts had been going on for years and bounties had been offered by monarchs in the past for wolf pelts, but this was a full on attempt to wipe the creatures out. From this point on, any reference to wolves are vanishingly rare in the British Isles and any attempt to spot the last wolf or pinpoint the date is silly. A throat was cut, an animal trapped, or a lonely sick old thing died in the depths of the forest and they were gone. But things that we destroy entirely have a tendency to haunt us in our imaginations. Hollywood shoots its Indians throughout the early days of cinema and right into the 70s as a tacit admission of the genocide. They have to be the threat. They have to be an existential threat. After all, there’s no point killing a whole population so entirely if you’re not going to do them the honour of dancing on their graves and pretending they constituted some kind of threat. Like muscle memory we are forced to kill what we have already killed over and over again.
And so the howling of wolves has a peculiar place in the British imagination, wrapped up with guilt and the prevailing westerly wind blowing through the ghosts of forests long since chopped and burnt. It is an atavistic fear, for once upon a time we were torn apart by those teeth, felt those eyes watching us from the dark, detected the movement of the pack out there where the flickering light from the camp fire wouldn’t reach.
The two earliest Universal adaptations of the ‘wolf man’ are both set in the British Isles. Interestingly the first less successful version, Werewolf of London (1935), has the threat come from foreign parts as a kind of revenge of Empire narrative. Wilfred Glendon (Henry Hull) is a botanist hunting an exotic plant in far-flung Tibet when he is bitten by a creature. On returning to England, he is warned by a mysterious stranger that he has been bitten by a werewolf and will ‘attack the thing he loves most’, clumsily tying lycanthropy up as the animal lust that stands in opposition to romantic love. Although the first werewolf in the cinema feels very much like a vampire/Jekyll and Hyde mash-up and was probably influenced by Guy Endore’s novel The Werewolf of Paris, it firmly establishes the werewolf on British soil and will leave a clawed paw print on Warren Zevon’s hit song ‘Werewolves of London’ and John Landis’s 1981 comedy horror An American Werewolf in London.
Watch the trailer to The Wolf Man (1941):
The breakthrough came with Lon Chaney Jr.’s more famous follow-up The Wolf Man (1941). Set this time in Wales, the film sees a distinctly burly Larry Talbot (Chaney Jr.) return to his ancestral home to reconcile with his father, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains). Larry becomes romantically interested in a local girl named Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers), but following a wolf attack Larry begins to change. The change itself became a moment of cinematic magic as the man transformed before our very eyes and a highpoint in all the subsequent sequels and spin-offs. Unlike Dracula and Frankenstein, the Universal wolf man had no literary precedent – if not the animalistic Mr Hyde or perhaps a hint of the demon dog from The Hound of the Baskervilles. This meant that screenwriters such as Curt Siodmak were free to invent and manipulate the lore as they wished. A popular character, the wolf man would reappear in early mash-ups like Frankenstein Vs The Wolfman, and with She-Wolf of London even get a female make-over in 1946, re-establishing the English location.
Unfortunately, the quintessentially English Hammer production The Curse of the Werewolf (1961), introducing Oliver Reed to cinema audiences for the first time, was set in Spain, somewhat oddly as it was based on Endore’s The Werewolf of Paris mentioned earlier. But An American Werewolf in London (1981) quickly recognised the home of the wolf. Sure, there was The Howling and Albert Finney in Wolfen, all released that same year, but wolfs in the backwoods of California or prowling New York City seem silly and will always seem silly compared to a foggy night on the Yorkshire moors, interrupted only by a brief respite in The Slaughtered Lamb. The Americans are natural innocents abroad, similar to Henry James’s heroines. And it isn’t only in the damp of the English evening that they find the horror, but also in the grimier reaches of Soho.
Watch the trailer to She-Wolf of London:
Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber (1983) took on the grisly adult themes of fairy tales, bringing the sexual, erotic and violent subtexts to the surface. Unfortunately, this idea has curdled into a lumpy mess of origin stories such as Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) and Maleficent (2014), but Neil Jordan’s adaptation of Carter’s story The Company of Wolves (1984) is an imaginative and at times genuinely disturbing take on the wolves that plague the English mind. Beginning in present day, the film frames everything as the nightmare of a pubescent girl, Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson). Her dream begins with the ‘nightmare’ of her sister being hunted and devoured by a pack of wolves, signalling immediately that nightmares – as Freud taught – are nothing more than fantasies we don’t want to admit to ourselves. A series of tales told by her Grandmother (Angela Lansbury) all warn of the wolf as a male threat to a young girl, a husband who might respond to a call of nature at night and come back changed, a travelling man whose eyebrows meet in the middle, an aristocrat with frivolous interest in destroying a girl. Set in the woods of Shepperton Studio, Jordan complained about having to film the same 12 trees on an obvious sound stage, but the sunless dreariness of the woods, the claustrophobia – we are after all in a young girl’s head – all lend themselves to a growing sense of entrapment. In fact, there are animals throughout the film waiting to burst out, under the skin, in dinner parties, eyes shining in the night. And so it is with a dreadful inevitability that, as the film draws to a close, the line between waking and sleeping is also breached and the wolves crash through the windows of our cottages hungry for their ultimate revenge.
A new special edition release, includes the director’s short films and music videos, and a director approved High Definition transfer
Distributor: Arrow Video
Director: Jörg Buttgereit
Writers: Jörg Buttgereit, Franz Rodenkirchen
Cast: Monika M., Mark Reeder, Lena Braun
The German filmmaker talks about women aggressor characters, the banning of his film in Germany, realism and truth.
After last year’s groundbreaking DVD release of Jörg Buttgereit’s punk-art bombshell Nekromantik, Arrow Video is making its 1991 sequel, Nekromantik 2, available on home video for the first time in the UK. Banned in Germany at the time, Nekromantik 2 is the female pendant to the original film, starring the disarmingly sweet Monika M. as a necrophile torn between a dead and a living lover. Slicker and more melancholy, although still punctuated by moments of hilariously incongruous humour, the second instalment of corpse love mixes pop art and gore to probe the limits of the normal and the abnormal.
Virginie Sélavy talks to Jörg Buttgereit about women aggressor characters, the banning of the film in Germany, realism and truth.
Virginie Sélavy: After Nekromantik, you initially refused to make the sequel people were demanding. What prompted you to make a Nekromantik sequel after making Der Todesking in 1990?
Jörg Buttgereit: I was always playing with the expectations of the audience, so when I made Der Todesking after Nekromantik people were surprised. I was trying to get more freedom to do what I wanted to do. After I had that freedom with Der Todesking I wasn’t afraid to do a sequel anymore because I knew I could do something different, I didn’t have to do the same thing all over again. The fact that the Wall came down in between the first and the second Nekromantik was a good way of having a different point of view on the topic. And of course this time the film was made from a woman’s point of view, which is something I felt was necessary, because all the movies I made before had a male audience.
Did you always want to make the film from a female perspective?
Yes, I think so. The idea might have come to our minds when we did one of the episodes for Der Todesking, the ‘ego-shooter’ woman. That was also a female take on the male character from Taxi Driver. That was something we explored more accurately in Nekromantik 2. And in the first Nekromantik we had Beatriz, who was also a very strong woman, so it was just taking it a step further.
So you were interested in depicting a woman aggressor rather than a woman victim.
Yeah, which is something that from today’s point of view may not look too exciting, but 25 years ago it was still necessary. And it worked out in a way, because one of the first festivals the film was invited to was a feminist film festival in Vienna. It was a film festival that only showed films with women aggressors. But I wasn’t allowed to go because I was a man. That was a little depressing! They screened films like Empire of the Senses and Ms 45. They made a hardcover catalogue for the festival. I think it was the first film book that Nekromantik 2 was in. They told me that afterwards they had a shooting lesson for women. The festival was called Mörderinnen.
You have said that the film was liked more by women than by men. Do you think that’s still the case?
Maybe that was the case when the film came out. But the fact that the film got banned in Germany made it very attractive to people who didn’t like it in the first place, which didn’t do any good for me because I wasn’t allowed to distribute the film for two years. But for me it was very satisfying that there was a female audience at all for a horror film. That wasn’t very normal in those days. We’ve just been to some festivals with German Angst in Austria and with Nekromantik 2 in Finland, and I was surprised to see how many female audience members we had – really young female audience members. After a screening of German Angst I was so curious that I approached the young girls and asked why they watched a film like that. My episode [in the three-part anthology] is very close to Nekromantik 2 I think. To them it felt very normal to watch these films, they couldn’t really explain. So it was a very satisfying experience to see so many young women attending screenings of horror films.
Do you think that the fact that the film is about a woman also played a part in the reaction of the authorities in banning it?
That’s very hard to say. If I think about it today, maybe. But the Werkstattkino cinema in Munich, where the raid happened in 1992, was raided on a regular basis. The same thing happened for Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. So I think that for the authorities it was just another one of those films, and they didn’t even know it was a German film. When they banned a movie like Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 or an American horror movie nobody complained because in the case of TCM 2 there wasn’t even a German distributor, so it was very easy to get rid of those films. But when they took my film I had to fight back because they were trying to destroy the negative, something that was really frightening, and that resulted in raids on our homes as well. So what they did was more like a political attack. And maybe it was also due to the fact that it was my third movie. When I made Nekromantik it played in exactly the same cinema in Munich but nothing happened because the authorities didn’t know me. After the third movie it was ‘OK, this guy is not going to stop if we don’t do something’.
It’s interesting that you made the first Nekromantik as a reaction to German censorship but nothing happened and it was only with the sequel…
Because Nekromantik was so small. It was me driving around with the film prints to all the different cities. Nobody had seen the film. If you wanted to see it you had to go to a midnight screening and district attorneys don’t go to midnight screenings. Sometimes it’s easy to get away from censorship by just making it exclusive. We hadn’t put it out on VHS, that came a year later, so it was a really underground independent film. Everybody heard about the movie. I think the first screening in Berlin of Nekromantik was in a three-seat cinema and 500 people came. After that screening it was just word of mouth. But with Nekromantik 2 it was different, it was reviewed like a normal movie.
Did you still feel you were making a film in reaction to German censorship when you made Nekromantik 2?
I was feeling quite secure, quite free to do what I wanted. So when I heard that the movie was confiscated in Munich, I wasn’t there, I was in Paris, promoting the release of Der Todesking I think, and Nekromantik on VHS. Someone phoned me in Paris and told me the cinema had been raided and I would be charged with ‘glorifying violence’. I didn’t take it very seriously in the first place, but when I got back home and they had raided the place of the producer it got quite serious.
What do you think of that accusation of ‘glorifying violence’?
That was the usual way of getting rid of movies like this, it’s a paragraph of the law where you can skip artistic freedom. It’s aimed at Nazi propaganda. If you glorify violence against foreigners you’re doing something against the law and you should be treated like a criminal and not like an artist. That’s the concept behind it. So I didn’t take that accusation very seriously because I knew that it was not true. That’s why the film was unharmed in the end, because it was not true. The judge watched the movie and an art historian came up with a thesis about it being a metaphor for East Germany and then the film was cleared. If you watch it it’s very obvious that it doesn’t promote violence against other people. It was stupid to take this kind of bullet-proof paragraph of the law to get rid of it, they were just too lazy to think about it.
There is a direct reference to real-life necrophile Karen Greenlee in Nekromantik 2 through one of her drawings, which appears on Monika’s wall. This grounding in reality always seems essential to you.
Yes, of course, because that’s something normal horror movies do as well – ‘what you’re about to see is based on actual fact’ – all this stuff gives films a more realistic and threatening kick. But my films are about real horror, not about walking dead and ghosts from another world. I wouldn’t dare to touch stuff Hollywood could do better. If you work with friends, there’s no money, it’d be ridiculous to do something like Lifeforce [laughs]. You have to stick to your abilities, throw everything away that could be ridiculous if you tried it. I think that’s why so many independent or low-budget horror movies suck, because they want to do the same things as Hollywood, which is pointless in the first place because those movies already exist, so why bother doing it again?
The film pragmatically looks at the reality of being a necrophile, for instance in the first scene, when Monika can’t have sex with Rob’s corpse because it makes her physically sick.
That’s something Dennis Nilsen describes in his book, Killing for Company, which I’d read before doing Nekromantik. There are pictures in Killing for Company where he drew how he put the corpses and the heads in plastic bags, and where he put air freshener in, which I was trying to copy exactly. If they could choose I think they would prefer a living person, but that’s so complicated sometimes [laughs]. Dennis Nilsen had living people in his flat but he was afraid that they would go away, and so he got them drunk to make sure that they would stay. It’s a very innocent and childish concept but he, and Monika too, would have preferred to have a living partner, and that’s what the movie is about. That’s why she’s trying to make the straight relationship work with Mark Reeder.
There’s something funny, but also quite poignant, about the scene when Monika is taking pictures with Rob’s corpse on the sofa.
Again it was a way of trying to picture what I read in books like Killing for Company, having a relationship with this person that you killed last night [laughs]. That was something that fascinated me. When Dennis Nilsen killed someone, he took a necktie from them and went to work the next day with these clothes. He was pretending that this was normal, and for him it was normal. I’m trying to show something normal, which is of course funny and creepy.
The idea of what is normal and what is not normal runs through the film. There’s a really interesting contrast in the film between Monika and her very unconventional desires, and Mark, who works in porn, but is very conventional in terms of his romantic relationships.
That was something I had in mind all the time. It’s still true because if I tell people today that I’ve just done a horror movie called German Angst, they don’t say, ‘That’s great, tell me more about it’, they say, ‘Why? Why do you do this? What’s wrong with you?’ In Germany you have to justify what you do, and people treat you like you’re not normal, but I always felt normal, and I felt more honest in doing these kinds of movies. So that’s maybe the main theme behind it, the need for all German horror film fans and horror filmmakers to justify themselves all the time.
Why did you decide to repeat the climax of the first film in the credits of the sequel?
I think it was mainly because of the fact that Nekromantik 2 starts very slowly and I wanted to have something at the beginning that makes you aware of the fact that there will be something terrible happening after a long wait. Many horror fans were waiting for a film like Nekromantik 2 and I was not giving them what they wanted, I was playing with expectations again. So with the credit scene at the beginning I was making them feel safe so they wouldn’t walk out after five minutes [laughs].
You also include a parody of Louis Malle’s My Dinner with André. Why that particular film?
At the time the film was made I had a subscription to Fangoria and I learned English from reading all the letters in that section of the magazine. There was often hate mail that would say, ‘If you don’t like this horror movie, then go and watch My Dinner with André, so My Dinner with André was like the antithesis of a horror movie. When I thought of the concept for a film-in-a-film, I hadn’t even seen My Dinner with André [laughs]! So it’s mainly a spoof on this very dumb approach horror fans have to art movies, where they just won’t watch them, and that was me playing with the expectations of the audience, giving them an art movie. That’s why the characters in that film-in-the-film are played by famous underground artists Wolfgang Müller and Käthe Kruse from the group Die Tödliche Doris. I said they should be naked and I asked them to find out what they could talk about, and so this is like a spoof on the narrow-minded horror fans [laughs], and I’m having a laugh in the back of the cinema about the horror fans who have to sit through this art stuff.
How important was it that you found Monika at a screening of Lucio Fulci’s House by the Cemetery?
The fact that she was there on her own was something that was not ‘normal’ at the time, and it meant that you could at least hope that she would be open-minded to be in an art movie about necrophilia. I don’t know how aware she was of what she was doing. She was very flattered that everybody was giving her so much attention and that we liked every move she made in front of the camera. We never talked much about it. I can’t really remember directing her like, ‘This is your motive’, and stuff like that. It was more like, ‘OK, the camera is here, you walk from here to there to put this on that’. It was a very pragmatic way of directing. That’s always the way it is with me. She had seen Der Todesking and she watched Nekromantik, and that was more than I could have explained.
Did she have a problem with any of the things that she had to do?
No. That was something I was very curious about too. That was maybe one of the main concerns. I told her what we were showing on screen to make sure that we didn’t exploit her. That was something we talked about a lot and I gave her the chance to be in the editing room in case something wasn’t kosher with her.
What do you think she brought to the character?
The most important thing, innocence. Because she didn’t know anything about acting, or about necrophilia [laughs]. And beauty, of course. The perfect contrast to the idea of necrophilia. When we were doing these films we didn’t know what we were doing. But that’s still the idea now. When I work for the stage I make sure I don’t know exactly what I’m doing. For German Angst it was necessary for me to put something dangerous in the movie. So I took this young girl who was not experienced in acting, and that was my dangerous item for the film. That’s what I look for. I’m not trying to make normal pictures like Hollywood, I look for some kind of truth or authenticity.
Interview by Virginie Sélavy
The interview was first published in December 2015 for the release of Arrow Video’s limited 3-disc digipak (Blu-ray, DVD and CD soundtrack).
Cast: Romola Garai, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Dean Andrews, Julian Barratt, Jane Asher
For Halloween 2015, BBC Radio 4 commissioned a pair of new radio adaptations of modern horror stories. Alongside an hour-long dramatization of Koji Suzuki’s The Ring (Ringu), the BBC also broadcast a revised version of Nigel Kneale’s 1972 TV drama The Stone Tape directed by Peter Strickland, best known for his films Berberian Sound Studio (2012)and The Duke of Burgundy (2014). This chilling play, considered a classic of 1970s television, relates the tale of some audio researchers investigating a haunted Victorian mansion, using difference frequencies to try and explain ghosts as a playback phenomenon, due to the fact that the stones of buildings capture recordings of the past.
The 2015 radio adaptation moves the temporal location of the play forward to the end of the same decade, when home recording had started to become a normal occurrence, and removes some of the story elements concerning pre-existing ghosts, to concentrate on the arrogance of the researchers creating a dangerous and uncanny situation all by themselves. An alternate download version of the play (available alongside the traditional stereo mix as broadcast on Radio 4) was partially recorded using ‘3D audio’ a.k.a. binaural sound, where a manikin dummy is used in the studio to simulate the position of the listener, with microphones attached to the sides of the dummy’s head to capture sounds at the distance and location where they would be heard from a listener’s ears.
Alex Fitch spoke to the director of the new Stone Tape to talk about his move from cinema to radio, his interest in 1970s drama and the aural influences on his radio play.
Alex Fitch: This is your second radio play after The Len Continuum, which featured your Berberian Sound Studio collaborator Toby Jones, but with The Stone Tape you have brought more filmic techniques to radio, in the sense that you’ve created more of a surround sound soundscape.
Peter Strickland: Yeah. The first one was more of a straightforward drama; I didn’t want to do anything gratuitous with the sound in Len, but with The Stone Tape the sound is so inherently part of the narrative, and part of the appeal. There are a lot of records that I love and I felt that if they’re going to be shoe-horned into the script, there’s no point in doing it. With The Stone Tape it was crying out to have these ideas informing the whole play, such as Arvin Lucier’s ‘I am sitting in a room’ or Robert Ashley’s ‘Automatic Writing’. So, it was a great opportunity to pay tribute to music, rather than anything to do with film. There’s the original Stone Tape, of course, but I wasn’t really thinking of any other films at all.
You used a 3D microphone set-up that records sounds coming from all directions. Did that make any difference to mixing the tracks for radio, or did you do two different edits – one for broadcast and one for download?
There are two different edits. When we did the assembly edit, the sound that was recorded using the microphones attached to the dummy head was mixed into one track. My editor John, who was doing this using ProTools, has one track for the straightforward edit and another for the sound from the dummy head. It was quite complicated – with radio it’s so complicated, you sometimes only listen to temporary audio, but for us it was sometimes two or three different edits within sentences, which can be a nightmare with the dummy head in terms of the whole special quality – if an actor moves slightly that’s going to disrupt things.
Only at the last minute did we realise there was a bit of spare time – not for the radio edit, but for the binaural download – so what we did was extend some of the things that had to be shortened for radio. So we extended the scream decay at the end of the play. James’s experiments with resonance were extended, but as far as I remember there were no extensions to the amount of dialogue; there was no time to do that.
It would be great if they released a soundtrack of the actual sounds; James Cargill did a lot of work and Andrew Liles did as well. There are five separate components: James did all the electronic tones and the library music at the beginning; Andrew did the vocal sounds; Steve Haywood and Raoul Brand took what was recorded and added all these analogue effects; Eloise Whitmore was on hand with the Nagra 4D, plus the whole mix, the foley and everything; and then Chris Pike worked with Eloise on the 3D sound.
When we recorded with the Nagra, the fidelity was so good that we could barely hear the difference between it and digital. So, we did this thing where you can feel the difference when you go from tape to ‘real sound’. We didn’t want to cheat it, Steve gave us the option of using a high gain to make it sound a bit ‘crunchier’, but I thought that was a bit of a shortcut. If the Nagra 4D is that good, let it sound that good. So what we did was: for the 3D sound we used mono, which seems kind of perverse! We’re spending all this money on this incredibly expensive studio and then we’re using mono for about 30% of the whole play, but what that does is really interesting regarding the contrast in sound. If you have 3D sound being used all the way through, you become numb to it somehow. By dipping into mono when it switches to tape, it seemed like a good way of solving the whole thing.
And also, because the play is very specifically located in 1979, you probably wanted to limit yourself to the technology of the time, so it sounded authentic
Well, that was the thing. Even though we recorded the whole thing on digital, when we did the tape parts, that was recorded on the Nagra 4D, which has been around for donkeys’ years! Obviously the original play was 1972, but by moving it up to the end of that decade, a lot of the possibilities of sounds fitting into smaller spaces don’t sound quite as preposterous as it would have done 7 years earlier. I really wanted this idea that, if not clearly a ghost, there’s a lot more in this version on the fact that this is something much more that they can monetise, and either use it for the consumer market – which is essentially what the mp3 generation has done – or for MI5 or MI6, in terms of setting a whole house up as a recording device.
So, I wanted to expand on this and get into the idea of how we perceive recording and playback set against the time we live in. It’s all dictated by what’s happening at the time. In the 1970s you were still thinking about side A and side B – to get beyond that concept is quite strange – whereas now young people don’t even know about side A and side B.
It seems almost a natural progression for you to move into radio, particularly following Berberian Sound Studio, which was also an obsessive attempt to find some meaning in layered sound, which seems to offer many parallels with The Stone Tape. Is there something about audio, which you think other filmmakers don’t explore, that you’ve had an opportunity to do more with in your work?
I don’t pay too much attention to that. It’s just stuff that works for me in some way. I wouldn’t say it’s always that way – the last film I did, The Duke of Burgundy, had nothing to do with sound. We do our best with it, but we didn’t want to be emphatic with it, we don’t want to be gratuitous. I suppose a lot of filmmakers get their cues from painting, for me it’s always from sound. With my last film, the whole structure of it came from my listening to minimalist music, even though it wasn’t a film as concerned with sound.
I grew up listening to a lot of records that were fascinating. I was always dying to use some of Arvin Lucier’s ideas in something, and I think The Stone Tape was the first thing that was the perfect way of doing that – a way of looking backwards from what Lucier was doing. He was trying to annihilate his voice and we’re trying to do the opposite, bring back a voice from annihilation! On the one hand, it might be seen as a very dry, academic piece of work, but on the other hand it was something very sad – here’s this character that doesn’t like his voice and he wants the dominant frequencies of this room to smooth it out, he wants his voice to be subsumed. All of us can relate to that in some way.
But also thinking of your debut film – Katalin Varga(2009) – you created a lot of atmosphere in that film just from discordant noises overlaid with images of landscape. So I think it’s a tool that isn’t used enough by some filmmakers, and by using this technique, you’re experimenting with its possibilities as a threatening presence within the film.
In hindsight, yes. When we made that film, it was my habit of working. I took this long gap between making short films and my first feature and got into making sound stuff. So I’d developed this habit of working, which no one gave a damn about at the time! I’m not saying that out of sour grapes, it just took me by surprise when the film got recognised for its sound. I thought: ‘What?’, because people always did that on records and no one really paid attention.
So, I never thought in a million years that it was going to be special I was just making this story, working by habit, and then all this. There was that very pleasant shock when we made that film, and that’s what led on to Berberian, thinking of all those records that I loved, and if you use those ideas, combined with imagery, somehow it clicks with people. The best example is Krzysztof Penderecki’s music for The Shining(1980); on vinyl people find it too academic, but on film there’s something about the timbre and the dissonance that really ignites how you see the scenes.
So, a long way of answering your question is: I just work that way out of habit! After Varga, I thought: ‘people are responding to the sound’, and that had never happened to me before.
Obviously you’re a child of the 1970s, but it’s also a temporal location you keep returning to. The Stone Tape is set in 1979, the opening credits of The Duke of Burgundy hark back to the 60s and 70s’ style of credits, and Berberian Sound Studio is set in the 1970s as well. Is there something about that decade you’re almost trying to exorcise through your work?
I think it’s just childhood. Many directors just reference their childhood. If you think of the 1980s, the directors of Back to the Future (1985), Gremlins (1984), and Blue Velvet (1986) were all going back to their childhoods in the 1950s. People’s childhoods are just perhaps more intense; whatever you experience or perceive embeds itself in you more, whatever you perceive now just goes straight through your head, like water off a duck’s back!
The way I saw television, the way I heard music, it somehow had this uncanny feel to it, and that’s something that stays with you. Was it a particularly odd decade? Maybe not. This generation working now just happened to be kids in the 70s. Perhaps in 20 years’ time you’ll have people looking back at the 1990s in a strange way, but for me the 90s was completely strait-laced. I think that’s all it is. I’ve become aware of that; Varga was the only contemporary story I’ve directed, but for some reason I always end up in that blasted decade!
Was the original Stone Tape something that made an impression on you, when you were young?
No, because I didn’t see it when I was young. I was born in 1973 and must have missed it when it was repeated in the 80s – I saw it much later. I saw it sometime last decade, so it didn’t have the same resonance… A lot of people I spoke to found it absolutely terrifying when they were children, but I was more into it for the whole sonic notion that was being explored, these notions of natural acoustics and so on.
I found it uncanny, but what we wanted to do – when Matthew Graham and I wrote the script – was to focus more on the melancholic side of Jill, and the slightly creepy nature of it. But I think I never found it really terrifying. The stuff I found terrifying was more mainstream like The Omen (1976) – Billie Whitelaw’s eyes – and so on. It’s strange, even with M.R. James, the only one that scares me is Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968).
With this radio version of The Stone Tape, you’ve cast comedy actors as two of your lead roles – Julian Barratt and Julian Rhind-Tutt. Is that because their heightened performances work well with horror, particularly on radio where it’s just voices?
I didn’t pay too much attention to that, there’s definitely some humour in the script, but in terms of casting I thought they would be interesting. What I wanted to do, and I guess it all goes back to when you hear bands like Joy Division, is that they have these gloomy personas, but when you hear about them, they’re just a bunch of lads messing around.
I think having worked in studios a lot, it is quite laddish in there. You get this kind of cabin fever, people just get on each other’s nerves, they start messing around and playing up, so I wanted an element of that kind of banter you get in the studio, especially back in the 70s where there was this casual sexism. To be a woman at that time, with all those blokes, must have been quite unpleasant. Also, what I like about that is that it sets up this fairly innocent framework, and when the creepiness does come in, it’s a bit more of a contrast, perhaps. I wasn’t interested in having a creepy atmosphere throughout the whole thing. The first half is more like a bad version of Fawlty Towers, and then slowly things happen. I never wanted to have any kind of background music, every single sound in the play is diegetic, and everything comes from what the characters are doing, even if the radio is on in the background. I never wanted to creep people out, the films I find scary are the ones where nothing is signposted too much. A lot of the terror I find is in Michele Haneke’s films – they’re stone cold silent. So, I’m only using the sound for when the characters are employing this machinery, this sonic drilling.
It’s a great sound in itself, and it’s a sound I like – you don’t need much more than that. There’s no emotive element to it. It’s cold and hard, and I really enjoy that.
Before the release of recent international hits like Run Lola Run (Lola Rennt, 1998), Good Bye Lenin! (2003) and Downfall (Der Untergang, 2004), much of the attention post-war German cinema had received had been directed towards art-house favourites such as Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. However, from the mid-1950s to the late 70s, West Germany had a thriving and popular movie industry, producing a seemingly endless wave of pop-culture films, from so-called ‘Sauerkraut Westerns’ to an impressively large number of soft-core sex comedies and pseudo-documentaries, including the notorious Schoolgirl Report (Schulmädchen-Report, 1970-1980) series.
Perhaps the finest of all these German genres and sub-genres was the Krimi (short for Kriminalfilm), a lucrative, highly entertaining series of crime thrillers that dominated the domestic box-office from 1959 until 1972. In that 13-year span, more than 50 Krimis were produced, with 11 released in 1963 alone – almost one a month. The majority of them were produced by just one company, the Danish-German production house Rialto. From the start, Rialto relied upon a stock ensemble of German actors, some of whom would appear in dozens of these films and quickly become A-list German celebrities – among them, the young but ambitious Klaus Kinski, for whom the Krimis became the first step towards international stardom.
The crime thrillers produced during the 60s and early 70s were primarily inspired by the works of a single author, English mystery writer Edgar Wallace. As well as providing the script for the classic King Kong (1933), Wallace wrote hundreds of novels, short stories and plays – many of them adapted for the big screen – eventually becoming one of most successful authors of his day. Although his fame declined elsewhere after his death in 1932, he remained an exceptionally popular figure in Germany, his works kept alive in the 1950s by made-for-TV productions and stage performances. The success of these led Rialto boss Constantin Preben Philipsen to begin producing a series of big-screen Wallace adaptations, starting with The Fellowship of the Frog (Der Frosch mit der Maske) in 1959, based on the novel of the same title. When the film became a box-office smash, two more Krimis were rushed into production, The Red Circle (Der rote Kreis) and The Terrible People (Die Bande des Schreckens), both released in 1960. That year also saw the release of The Avenger (Der Rächer), an independently produced Wallace adaptation. Threats of legal action from Rialto put paid to any more of these, but CCC (Central Cinema Company, Rialto’s main competition in the genre) pressed ahead with their own Krimis, most of which were based on stories written by Wallace’s son, Bryan Edgar Wallace, or by lesser-known writers such as Francis Durbridge.
Watch the German trailer for Der Frosch mit der Maske:
These four films established the pattern for most of the subsequent Krimis, including cast, characters, locations and plotlines. Typically the films star either Joachim Fuchsberger or Heinz Drache as a dashing young detective – private or official – matching wits against a criminal mastermind responsible for a wave of murders, robberies or blackmail attempts. Known by a nickname such as ‘The Frog’, ‘The Shark’, ‘The Magician’ or ‘The Laughing Corpse’, the villains usually wear a costume or disguise that varies from the unlikely – in The Mysterious Magician (Der Hexer, 1964), the criminal puts on a facemask and becomes the spitting image of a cop, right down to the voice (!) – to the ludicrous – ‘The Frog’ wears a cape, elbow-length rubber gloves (all in green of course) and a fencing mask with what appears to be two ping-pong balls glued to the front. Naturally, the climax usually features a grand unveiling, in which the villain is revealed to be one of the film’s least threatening characters. In many respects, the villain is the polar opposite of the detective hunting him down. Unlike the exciting, youthful heroes, the villains are usually stuffy, older men, stuck in boring but respectable jobs, with solicitors, office managers or clergymen being the most common. On several occasions they harbour a secret romantic desire for the main female character, but are pushed aside quickly when the dashing young hero arrives on the scene. Such films typically end with the villain kidnapping the girl, allowing the hero to come to her rescue. There are exceptions: The Door with the Seven Locks (Die Tür mit den 7 Schlössern, 1962) features a mad scientist trying to sew a man’s head on to a gorilla’s body in a bizarre parody of Nazi scientific experiments.
Equally as important are the supporting characters, who were just as popular as the leads; even more so in some cases, since the villain was generally played by a different actor each time, whereas the lesser characters were almost always played by the same handful of actors. One of the most famous supporting actors was undoubtedly Klaus Kinski, who made his first appearance in a Krimi playing an ill-fated small-time crook in the independent hit The Avenger. After the success of The Avenger, Rialto quickly put Kinski on their payroll, along with his co-stars Heinz Drache and Siegfried Schürenberg. He would go on to appear in a further 20 similar films, almost always as a minor criminal – often a safe-breaker, blackmailer or smuggler – destined to die long before the end credits roll, killed off by much more important villains. Arguably, his best Krimi performance was in 1962’s The Inn on the River (Das Gasthaus an der Themse), in which he plays a slimy black market trader, looking truly unpleasant in a dirty white suit, a panama hat and in desperate need of a shave. Ironically, it’s also the only time Kinski plays one of the good guys: he’s a brilliant undercover cop trying to crack a smuggling ring led by the mysterious ‘Shark’.
Watch the German trailer for Das Gasthaus an der Themse:
Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the Krimis was their location. With a handful of exceptions – including a lonely Scottish castle and a Spanish holiday resort – the majority of them were set in London. Few of the films were actually shot in England, however, with the streets of Hamburg and Munich filling in for Whitechapel and Soho, while Denmark and the Schleswig-Holstein region doubled for the Home Counties. This somewhat shaky illusion was complemented by oft-repeated stock footage of double-decker buses in Piccadilly Square and bowler-hatted businessmen crossing Westminster Bridge, not to mention numerous portraits of the Queen on office walls. Needless to say, the London of the Edgar Wallace films bears little similarity to the real city, and occasionally sports hilariously surreal touches. The most bizarre of these can be found in the final scene of The Inn on the River, where two characters stand on the south bank of the Thames, with cargo ships going by and the Oxford-Cambridge boat race taking place in the foreground! Not quite so over the top are the omnipresent telephone boxes (even in forests and on wharfs), the striking Rhineland castles just a few miles from London and the decidedly continental strip-clubs and jazz bars.
Influenced by 1940s film noir, the majority of the Edgar Wallace films were shot in black and white, with Rialto only making the change to colour in 1966 with The Hunchback of Soho (Der Bucklige von Soho). Although the quality declined with the advent of colour, the best of the Krimis boast stylish, atmospheric black and white cinematography that rivals anything produced by Hollywood during the period. Much of this was due to the partnership of Alfred Vohrer, the most prolific of the Kriminalfilm directors, and his regular collaborator, Karl Löb, a veteran cinematographer who served his apprenticeship in the 1930s and had recently worked on Fritz Lang’s final film, The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse (Die 1000 Augen des Dr Mabuse, 1960). Together, the pair created a distinctive double world for the Krimis, with the first a stereotypically English London: stately homes, blue-blooded aristocracy, double-decker buses and the Houses of Parliament. Beneath that is the other London, a dark underworld of sleazy bars and clubs, shady-looking characters and a wealth of vice, violence and crime. The first London is populated by pretty young girls and respectable men in suits; in the other, most of the men bear scars or some form of disfigurement, and the women are a little older and wear too much make-up. This contrast is reflected in Löb’s cinematography: scenes in the above-ground London are generally brightly lit and shot in sunshine, while in the underworld it always seems to be night, and even the interiors are dark and dimly lit.
Watch the German trailer for Die Toten Augen von London:
Vohrer and Löb made their auspicious debut in 1961 with The Dead Eyes of London (Die Toten Augen von London), a film widely considered to be the finest Edgar Wallace production ever made, and perhaps the closest the form ever came to genuine horror. Based on a Wallace story that had already been adapted as The Dark Eyes of London (1939) with Bela Lugosi, the German version stars Joachim Fuchsberger as a Scotland Yard detective trying to solve a wave of murders committed by a gang of blind criminals as part of a life insurance scam. The victims are all short-sighted, rich businessmen drawn into the fog-bound rabbit warren of the London back streets – where the blind killers have the advantage – and subsequently drowned. Vohrer and Löb exploit the horrific potential of the material to the hilt, painting a portrait of London as a city of perpetual fog and darkness, where the shadows are deep enough to hide a monster in – even a monster the size of ‘Blind Jack’, an enormous creature played by Ady Berber. In the 1940s and 50s Berber had been a professional wrestler, before retiring and moving into films, where his hulking frame and lopsided grin made him an ideal monster. Berber appeared in several Edgar Wallace films, and his roles are among the most morally complex in the entire genre. Although he sometimes behaves like a monster, he is always depicted as being mentally disabled, and is often abused or manipulated by the villains, which makes him a more sympathetic character than the majority of the criminals. In The Dead Eyes of London, Blind Jack is only a minion, being controlled by a man who poses as a priest running a home for the blind. His tenants are being bullied into carrying out his schemes under threat of death. Wallace Krimis often feature low-level crooks in similar positions, who frequently end up as victims before they can ‘do the right thing’ and inform the police. In contrast, the main villains are ruthless and greedy, without a shred of decency or compassion.
Still a criminally (no pun intended) overlooked strand of European cult cinema, the Edgar Wallace Krimis deserve to be rediscovered, and this may be helped by the handful of ground-breaking articles written on the subject, not to mention a series of recent, high-profile German DVD releases, some of them with English subtitles and audio tracks, which will allow international audiences to sample the considerable pleasures to be found in these exceptional films.
Nell Zink was born in California in 1964 and now lives in Bad Belzig, just south of Berlin. An avid, but secretive writer, she published her debut novel The Wallcreeper when she was 50, which she wrote in three weeks and sold for $300 to a small American publishing house, Dorothy, which focuses on books about or by women. She’s the author or the irreverent comic novel Mislaid (4th Estate) and is working on a new novel, Nicotine, which will be published next year. Below, Nell Zink picks God as her filmic alter ego. Eithne Farry
What film character would I be? This is a trick question, given that God has appeared in several films. Clearly I’d like to be God. At the same time, I’d prefer that people think of me as a heartbroken Anouk Aimée or Juliette Binoche. I’m certain the latter has appeared opposite God, notably in Kieslowski’s Three Colors: Blue. As God, I would passively watch her suffer – just as viewers do while watching the film, come to think of it – feeling pleasure even at the sight of her blood. Then, being God, I would be mistaken for her when I went out in public. ‘You’re a goddess!’ my fans would cry out.
It’s also a trick question because good movies center on intractable conflict, guaranteeing that most characters will suffer truly bad times right up until the end. Happy characters tend to be crazed ecstatic sprites like Miyazaki’s Ponyo or sociopaths who thrive on conflict à la James Bond. But being James Bond, or even Ponyo, would mean putting up with situations that would break Juliette Binoche’s heart and injuries that dwarf her lightly scraped knuckles in Blue (I like watching people who can sit calmly through splatter movies wince when that happens), such as drowning.
In any case I know for a fact what character I already am. Fred and I went to see the Mike Leigh movie Happy-Go-Lucky when it came out. I emerged feeling very depressed, certain I was virtually indistinguishable from the lonely, cynical, deluded, horrible driving teacher Scott.
‘Niemals!’ Fred said. ‘Du bist Poppy!’ He went on to detail my resemblance to the film’s gratingly bubbly, fun-loving, imperturbable, helpful and quite defiantly alcoholic kindergarten teacher. I was so relieved. Scott is arguably a lot closer to being a heartbroken Juliette Binoche. But Poppy is very nearly God.
The Act of Seeing
By Nicolas Winding Refn and Alan Jones FAB Press
FAB Press have just launched a lavishly produced book of American film posters put together by Nicolas Winding Refn and Alan Jones, which is due to be published on 5 October 2015. Although it includes some well-known titles (such as Snuff), most of the films are so obscure that Alan Jones said at the book launch at the BFI that he had only seen about a quarter of them. A collection of beautiful, inventive designs that enticingly accompany exploitation titles such as The X-Rated Supermarket, Obscene House, The Nest of the Cuckoo Bird or The Abnormal Female, it is both a fascinating time capsule and a record of mostly forgotten films.
The Act of Seeing comes with an exclusive one-sheet style movie poster signed by Nicolas Winding Refn for everyone who buys direct from FAB Press.
Below is an extract from the book’s introduction by Nicolas Winding Refn.
Some years ago I purchased a collection of American film posters from author Jimmy McDonough, who had crawled through all the infamous Times Square cinemas back when that entire area was a no-go zone for most people. He had literally acquired the one-sheets (as this common display format is termed) by surreptitiously unpinning them from the walls, taking them out of dirty glass front-of-house frames or finding them lying around in dusty basements.
One day I had dinner with my friend and film journalist Alan Jones, who suggested I collate them into a book because so many of the titles included were barely even half-remembered, some totally forgotten, others completely obscure or talked about in hushed tones from the yearning point of view of never being seen.
THE ACT OF SEEING is a personal aesthetic expression, an album of poster images artfully put together to represent a fantasy world I can never now experience. The cultural environment these films were created in was long gone by the time my family moved to New York in 1978 when I was 8 years old. I was forbidden to walk down 42nd Street because my mother warned me it was such a dangerous and scary place. Of course that completely entranced me, mythologizing the place further, making it even more exciting and alluring. Now that I’m older, and have my hands on these unexpected posters, I’m able to envision what it must have been like to be a compulsive cinemagoer during this thrilling time, then enter that world vicariously in my over-active imagination through my prized items. It’s why I present these posters to you now, for you to do the same.
Dan Richards was born in Wales, grew up in Bristol and studied creative writing at UEA. His latest book The Beechwood Airship Interviews (The Friday Project) heads out into the British cultural landscape and explores what it means to make art for art’s sake in a climate that is increasingly driven by cash rather that craft through interviews with the likes of Judi Dench, Bill Drummond, Jenny Saville, Manic Street Preachers, and Stewart Lee. Below, Dan Richards picks Cecil B. Demented as his filmic alter ego. Eithne Farry
A misunderstood auteur with an uncompromising creative vision, dragooning collaborators with his strange, hypnotic, slightly crazed charisma, a quasi-religious figure with his gang of tattooed film fetishists – a kind of Baader-Meinhof Ed Wood
What a guy!
John Waters said he created Cecil B. after being branded a lunatic version of Cecil B. DeMille – father of the US film industry, bastion of Hollywood – in an early review. Eternally the opportunist magpie, Waters logged and hid the shiny epithet away to polish it up in 2000 for this black comedy about the kidnap and subsequent conversion of spoilt diva A-lister Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith) by Cecil B. Demented for his underground opus.
Played by Stephen Dorff with the kind of dead-eyed commitment Johnny Rotten embodied in the protean Sex Pistols (They mean it, man!), Cecil B. needs a star, so he and his crack-prom posse take one at gunpoint.
The film that follows (a mess of school play scripting, shoddy sets, seedy porn glamour, kamikaze trash polemics, teenage pouting, and situationist violence) looks more like an early Manic Street Preachers promo than a major film release (the Manics, another band of brothers named after a critical brickbat):
‘The slash and burn of the white-hot metal will brand you forever with the logo of Cecil B. Demented. Wear the privileged scar of cinema sainthood with pride and horniness.’
‘We’ve all taken a vow of celibacy for celluloid. No one gets laid until we finish our movie. We’re horny, but our film comes first.’
At heart it’s a mad film about making mad films, a childish dream of mayhem – What if we exploded the movie world? What ifLost Boys channelled Challenge Anneka to make a shoestring La Femme Nikita with real guns!?
Limos are trashed, the Baltimore Film Commission, Hollywood, The Man, The Mainstream, Forrest fuckin’ Gump, Patch prick Adams, the real-life careers and reputation of the cast, Waters himself; everyone gets a pasting; thoroughly rained on with gratuitous scattershot gonzo shonk.
And through it all, at the heart of the film, the film within the film, sits Cecil B. Demented, horny, armed to the teeth, wired, barking orders, plotting his gaga Dada ascension to the pantheon of Preminger, Lynch and Anger.
A beautiful Baader-Meinhof Ed Wood dressed by Vivienne Westwood.
What a guy!
Enjoy a 2-4-1 ticket offer on all events in the BFI’s John Waters season by simply quotingWaters241online, in person or over the phone 020 7928 3232. For full programme info and to book tickets online, visit theBFI website
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews