John Bleasdale looks at the role of sociologists in modern horror cinema.
Who are the go-to baddies in horror movies today? Dead Korean girls who don’t own hairclips? Nah. Zombies? Per-lease. Paedophile killers with blades for fingers? Nope. So who? And I don’t even necessarily mean the villains you see. I mean the evil that lurks behind the monster, the way the real villain of The Exorcist is not the demonically possessed girl but the Catholic church, which foists such an evil universe on us that makes demonically possessed little girls possible.
So who is it? Who are they? The millennial equivalent of vampires and werewolves.
John Bleasdale turns to cinema in an attempt to understand the outcome of the American election.
About five months ago I wrote a piece for Electric Sheep about ‘Watching Tarkovsky in a Time of Terror’. The first line was ‘2016 has been one rolling piece of shit’. Well, the shit has rolled on. The scything of musical legends has continued; hospitals have been bombed with nary a word of protest and the human tragedy of the refugees was apparently solved by picking a handful of children and then destroying what was unironically termed the Jungle. Add to this the American election concluding in what can only be thought of as the biggest prat-fall in world history and we have one of those years that would be best described in Latin but with a heavy emphasis on the Anus.
The great Russian master’s work offers hope in troubled times.
2016 has been one rolling piece of shit. Imagine the burning things Spartacus’ slave army roll down the hill into the advancing Roman army in Kubrick’s epic film, but imagine that the things on fire are bundles of shit and that will give you some idea of 2016’s unrelenting avalanche of bad, worse and worst news. Already reeling from the Bataclan and San Bernardino massacres from 2015, we’re now seeing people being shot, blown up, hacked with knives and axes and driven over by trucks – a failed coup in Turkey, a wedding party blown to smithereens, the endless horror of Aleppo. The geographical list now associated with individual atrocities is becoming depressingly long, blotting the Google map of our psycho-geography with cigarette burns of destruction. I know we shouldn’t succumb to terrorism; and I understand, statistically, I’m more likely to be killed from a bee sting than a car bomb, but it’s pointless to ignore the fact: the terror is working. The Western mind is closing: a deep Brexit of the soul has begun; the far right is on the rise; racism rears a brutish face and, as Yeats might put it, President Trump shuffles towards Bethlehem to be born.
So why am I watching the films of Andrei Tarkovsky? Why am I doing anything for that matter that doesn’t involve wailing and gnashing and the rending of garments? Well, the mundane reason: I need to review them. It’s summer and nobody else was up for three hours of a Russian monk trying to draw pictures on a church wall in black and white. But as I watched late into the night, each film seemed to echo my own doubts: ‘What’s the point? How can you continue? How can anyone continue?’
Tarkovsky’s first feature Ivan’s Childhood shows us a war child on the Eastern front, whose world is made up of rain-filled craters, nightmare forests and the constant possibility of violent death. For all that Ivan’s no victim. His childhood is more this war-torn present than the dreamlike memories of a time when his family were still unkilled by the Nazis and he is eager to be sent on suicidal missions behind the lines. Life during wartime is going to present its share of horror – as distinct from the terror we live with – but it was with Andrei Rublev that Tarkovsky gave his audiences a portrait of the nightmare of history and how it hammers people into submission, silence or death. Terror is everywhere in his 15th-century Russia. Whether it comes from a group of soldiers beating up a jester, the warring noblemen, two brothers locked in such deadly enmity that they will jealously blind artisans to stop them repeating their work, or invading Tartars: violence can be sudden and brutal and the art of the eponymous artist Andrei – the icon painter – is compromised by the violence of the church of which he is a member and its (and his) official patrons. Horses are often used throughout Tarkovsky’s movies as a symbol of hope, of life itself. In a horrific scene of siege, a horse gets thrown down a flight of stairs, swept into a river and finally stabbed to death in the field. That’s what happens to hope. That’s what happens to life. Following such violence, Andrei gives up. Stops working. There’s nothing to be said; no glory to be celebrated. Only guilt and withdrawal. Fear and loathing.
It’s a radical but not unusual revelation. The Holocaust makes poetry impossible. The rest is silence – but the silence will be broken by a young boy, the only surviving member of a bell-making family (another child Ivan) who supervises the casting of a giant church bell as he’s the only one left with the secret knowledge of how to do it. The Prince threatens death to the workmen if they fail, but miraculously, from earth, water and fire they cast this beautiful industrial machine that rings. It breaks Andrei’s silence as well who, inspired by the boy’s art, returns to the world, so to speak. But the boy is distraught. There was never any secret, he confides. This is the mystery of art for Tarkovsky: there is no mystery. The miracle is we don’t need miracles.
This empty mystery returns throughout Tarkovsky’s films: an enigma wrapped in a puzzle. In Solaris, it’s the sentient planet, trying to communicate via our memories, our love, ghosts and regret. In Stalker, it’s the Room inside the Zone, a room in which whoever enters gets what they always wanted. The catch is they don’t necessarily know what they want until it’s too late. An unhappy party of men journey to the Room, and one of them has a bomb. Can there be no good in the world? Must it always be destroyed? In Sacrifice, it is the end of the world in a nuclear war, played out as the nightmare of an aging theatre director. When history is rewound and war impossibly, magically averted, the director burns down his house as the doctors come to cart him off to the local looney bin, but his insanity is the most rational reaction to the crazier world-wide destruction that is threatened.
Throughout all of his films, Tarkovsky offers love, self-denying, self-sacrificing love as the only answer. For all their highbrow reputation, the films never shy away from raw emotion, just as his raw materials are as elemental as fire, water, earth – often all represented in the same masterfully composed shot: a fire burns, rain pours and a wind wants to tear the trees from the ground. The resilience of his vision and the reason they spoke through the pain of this moment in history, this shitty piece of 2016, is due to their confrontation with the pain and suffering of the world, the mediocre evils as well as the atrocious ones, and to still offer liberating hope. Albeit hope that risks being knocked down the stairs and stabbed with spears.
Andrei Tarkovsky’s films are released in the UK by Curzon Artificial Eye.
The second part of a diary of watching Mario Bava films over a week.
It was January, cold, and everyone was dying. I chopped enough wood for the week and stored it against the wall with the kindling. There were frosts every night at Castle Bleasdale – my current residence, a shuddering pile located on the River Piave where the plains meet the first mountains of the Dolomites – but while my wife and children slept fitfully upstairs, I would get the fire roaring, turn out all the lights and watch a film by Italian horror director Mario Bava. Prior to this week, I’d never seen any of his 30-odd films. This is the second part of my scientific record of the Mario Bava season at Castle Bleasdale.
Read part one of watching Mario Bava films over a week.
Friday, 15th of January, 2016
The funeral took place in the local cathedral and outside the sun was strangely, unseasonably warm. I know I’m not going to stir up controversy on my next assertion but I don’t like going to funerals. This one was not the worst. My student, although not old-old, was not young either. He filled a cathedral with family and friends and because of my damned atheism I stood outside and listened to singing of the choir of Alpine soldiers coming from the church. Afterwards they brought out the coffin and people tried not to be too loud when they met friends they hadn’t seen for months, years in some cases. Funerals have this strange social substratum. I wandered home depressed, stopping at the supermarket to stock up on firelighters and food for the weekend. I was going to stay inside and watch as many Mario Bava films as I could. I wanted nothing to do with the sunshine and blue skies. I would close the shutters and keep going. The film I took to next was Black Sabbath – from whence the name of Ozzy Osborne’s heavy metal band – an anthology that is a little too in awe of its Hollywood legend Boris Karloff and young American star Mark Damon. The first film is about a beautiful woman who is bothered by a telephone call from a stalker – possibly her ex who has escaped from prison. It’s a Tale of the Unexpected and highly effective in a sinister voyeuristic way. The second is a classic tale of vampirism and possession but it is fairly rudimentary. The colours are excellent. Mario Bava colours everything with the vividness of boiled sweets. Reds and greens, blues and vermillion. The last story is the one that is really creepy as a nurse (Jacqueline Pierreux) is called to a house to prepare the body of a dead medium for burial. The rictus grin of the freshly dead is off-putting enough to ward anyone off but our nurse spies a ring that she would like to steal.
Saturday, 16th of January, 2016
It has just occurred to me that I haven’t seen my wife or my children since the end of last week. Could it be they aren’t upstairs after all? I’ve been eating alone. Bowls of boiled potatoes sprinkled with vinegar and black bread with white butter. The same meal again and again. Hatchet for the Honeymoon does away with any vestige of mystery and takes on the murderer’s point of view. Blessed with the kind of Crystal Ken handsomeness that only existed in 1970, Stephen Forsyth plays John Harrington, the owner of a haute couture house that specializes in bridal wear. Unhappily married to Laura Betti, Harrington is also a self-aware psychopath who kills brides-to-be with a cleaver – not, note, a hatchet. Bava takes a slender plot with many familiar genre elements – a suspicious police detective circulates, Mrs Harrington has a séance – and makes it into something stylish and weird. Harrington’s objectification of women, his impotence and his mania are coolly represented. His charisma and his honesty make him a proto-Patrick Bateman. He watches his prey with a set of binoculars and then, sitting with his wife, reverses them so she is far away. This kind of visual originality is something I’ve come to expect from Bava and the murders are all used as moments of striking invention, each one vaguely trippy as the screen dissolves into a liquid state, colours explode and the soundtrack lays it down heavily. Each murder also brings about a further flashback, a little like Sergio Leone’s Once upon a Time in the West (1968), to the kind of Freudian backstory that Hitchcock loved. At the end of Black Sabbath, Bava pulled his camera back to reveal that Karloff was in a studio riding a fake horse and surrounded by stage hands moving the scenery about him. Bava likes to show that he’s not taking everything seriously, and here again he uses one of his own films on television as an excuse for the screams the policemen heard. Does watching horror films cause violence? No. But they can be handy in getting away with it. I also watched The Evil Eye, an early film about an American woman visiting Rome and witnessing a murder. It was black and white and John Saxon was in it, the way he pops up in films all over the place. He stars in a Dario Argento movie but I’m too tired to type his name into IMDb tonight. The fire died and the room is full of smoke.
Sunday, 17th of January, 2016
The bells in the village toll for another death. This time the 90-year-old mother of a friend. I can tell that it is her. She’s been at death’s door since Christmas. The bells toll once for a man, twice for a woman, and they toll twice so it must be her. It can’t be anyone else. They bury the dead quick in Italy so the funeral will be tomorrow or Tuesday at the latest. Today is the last day of my Mario Bava season and I still have many films to get through. I begin with Rabid Dogs. Completed in 1974, the incomplete film was seized following a bankruptcy wrangle and didn’t get cut and released until the late 90s. Bava is trying his hand at the Polizia genre, which exploded in the mid-70s in Italy and told brutal, violent stories of cops and robbers. Following a heist gone wrong, three bandits grab a hostage and carjack an unsuspecting father who is taking his son to the hospital. The atmosphere is laden with tension and the claustrophobia of a sizzling car in the middle of a Roman summer gets progressively more uncomfortable. The bandits are a psychopath, a leering, sweating rapist and one icy professional. A fantastic twist elevates the film. The same is true for Bay of Blood, a slasher often cited as a primary inspiration for all the Friday the 13th style movies that were to follow. A complex legal case regarding a piece of property on a bay is the MacGuffin, but essentially Bava produces a daisy chain of stylish, elaborate and occasionally ridiculous kills with a variety of weapons and murderers capped off with one of the funniest and most daring twists of any of his films.
Monday, 18th of January, 2016
I woke up early this morning. I just lay in bed and listened to the sound of the wind that always blows strongly in the valley in the morning following the river down from the mountains. I wonder about the morality of what I’ve done. Mario Bava took time to make those films. A lot of time. Poured a lot of effort into them. But I just watched them in a week. Half a lifetime’s work probably. And I watched it in a week. It seems unfair, disproportionate somehow: the asymmetrical warfare that criticism wages against art. I can’t help but hope that people stop dying now. January has been so fatal. I don’t want to get out of bed. I don’t have the strength to lift myself, like the corpse in the ‘Drop of Water’ sequence of Black Sabbath. Maybe I too wear a horrid grin. I wonder if the wind blowing outside is the same Italian wind that blew in Mario Bava’s imagination. It is blowing so strong that it almost takes away the sound of the bells tolling. This time they only toll once.
It was January, cold, and everyone was dying. I chopped enough wood for the week and stored it against the wall with the kindling. There were frosts every night at Castle Bleasdale – my current residence, a shuddering pile located on the River Piave where the plains meet the first mountains of the Dolomites – but while my wife and children slept fitfully upstairs, I would get the fire roaring, turn out all the lights and watch a film by Italian horror director Mario Bava. Prior to this week, I’d never seen any of his 30-odd films. This is a scientific record of the Mario Bava Season at Castle Bleasdale.
Monday, 11th of January, 2016
David Bowie died last night. An inauspicious beginning to the week, to the year in fact. I resist the temptation to watch The Man Who Fell to Earth – there’ll be time enough for that later – because tonight I must begin my journey into the cinema of Mario Bava. I’ve put it off too long and now it calls to me. All the wonderful titles: lots of blood, lots of black, covens of witches and parties of demons. I eschew the synopsis and trailers and pick Blood and Black Lace from 1964. In Italian (and I watch it in Italian) the title is Six Women for the Murderer. The first thing I notice is the wind. A wind blows through the film as a series of murders are committed around a fashion house. The models and the owners are somehow involved. Throughout there is an air of scandal and the diary of a victim becomes a focal point for many of the characters. There is a widespread guilt. The women fear exposure as much as they do the murderer who stalks them with his strange cloth mask, as if he (or she) were fashion itself. The murders are brutal and the sadism of the killer mixes with obvious misogyny, as the fear of the women is accentuated and one of the women has her face thrust against a red hot stove. Everyone is trapped in or about the creepy villa and Bava is obviously attuned to the Gothic. The wind slams windows and billows curtains. Mannequins stand frozen waiting to come to life. There is drapery and blood and the grotesque comedy of death which leaves the women in poses without poise, eyes bulging, faces ruined, mere things to be carted around. This is the very beginning of the giallo, a whole genre dedicated to the fascination of what beautiful women look like when they’re frightened, and later when they’re dead.
Tuesday, 12th of January, 2016
Last night I tweeted about my first Mario Bava film and Massimo B. sent me a message from Amsterdam. They’re making a horror movie: would I submit a treatment? I base it on Blood and Black Lace and send it off. He gets back to me. Read it, liked it, will be in touch. Heartened, I build the fire up. It’s almost too hot. Outside there is a full moon casting sharp shadows. The cold is so intense, it’s like you’re immersed in freezing water. My daughters and wife sleep upstairs. I have chosen Kill Baby Kill (1966). A title that Roger Corman might have been proud of. Operazione Paura in Italian! But the film opens like something out of Hammer. A village is approached. There’s a terrible secret. The young doctor arrives to assist with the investigation of a grisly death. The local villa houses a Miss Haversham of sorts, who in the ruins of her former glory, surrounded by the dolls of her lost child, leaks a malign influence onto the village. The corruption of the locals see them hounded to death if they spill the secret. Inside the corpse of the young girl – an apparent suicide – a coin is found. The investigating policeman is found killed and the coroner, played by the impossibly square-jawed Giacomo Rossi Stuart, teams up with a local girl (Erica Blank), who has returned after a long sojourn away to find out what is going on. Bava is extremely good at the traditional elements of the horror story. As with Blood and Black Lace, the wind moans and shutters slam. A little girl wanders the film, a terrifying precursor to the little red riding hood of Don’t Look Now and a ball bounces down a spiral staircase and we could be forgiven for thinking it settles in a corridor of the Overlook Hotel. As the film slides effortlessly into the surreal, the haunted house becomes increasingly psychotic and beguiling. As I turn off the lights and lock all the doors before going to bed, I catch sight of my own reflection and recoil at the lurid grin that contorts my face.
Wednesday, 13th of January, 2016
One of my students died. Death comes by email these days, or worse still, Facebook. I learned of a suicide via Facebook two years ago. Last year Twitter alerted me to the massacre in the offices of Charlie Hebdo. The world we live in death comes tweeting. The fire is lit early this evening. The Planet of the Vampires (1965) was Bava’s foray into science fiction. He also directed comedies and Spaghetti Westerns. Two space ships land on a mysterious planet after they pick up an SOS message. As they land, the crew are gripped by a mass psychosis and set about trying to kill each other. Once recovered they find that the crew members on the other ship were similarly affected but had gone the whole hog and murdered each other. The film was made on the cheap with only a couple of rocks, some slow motion and a wind machine with which to make an alien planet. The wind blows again and seems to be a crucial element to the Bava universe, that invisible force that we all take for granted but which moves and affects the world. Likewise there are invisible beings on the planet that can only be perceived by their effects on others as they reanimate the corpses of the dead crew and attack the living. Bava regular Barbara Steele joins US TV actor Barry Sullivan in trying to make the sets and the situation credible. The creepiness is well done and although everyone involved denies it, there is more than a germ of Alien here, though Bava’s film borrows liberally from Forbidden Planet (1956) as well it must be noted.
Thursday, 14th of January, 2016
I’m rehearsing a play to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday when I get the news that Alan Rickman has died. I saw Rickman in St. George’s Hall in Liverpool perform Hamlet in the mid-90s. He was a wonderful Dane and I walked back to my student digs blathering fake Shakespearean verse. I take the rest of the day off and decide tonight I will double bill Mario Bava. The fire is lit and the wood is consumed, the flames, reaching high into the chimney as if they’re trying to grab something. Just as Dario Argento – influenced by Bava’s Blood and Black Lace is claiming the giallo for his own, Bava lurches back towards the Gothic, which lies at the heart of his concept of horror. Baron Blood has the Italian title Gli orrori del castello di Norimberga. Peter Kliest (Antonio Cantafora) visits the castle of his ancestors where he meets Eva (Elke Sommer), a student who is studying the ancestral pile, which is due to be sold. A series of murders coincide with the arrival of the wheelchair-bound Alfred Becker (played by an ageing Joseph Cotten), the new owner of the castle. There is gruesome murder, an Iron Maiden gets some use and a wonderful foggy chase. Joseph Cotten can’t really compete with the grisly make-up of his un-rejuvenated Baron, but it doesn’t really matter as it is the Austrian castle that is the true star of the film. Released the same year – 1972 – Lisa and the Devil also starred Elke Sommer, this time as Lisa, an American tourist in Spain. Here she meets a strange man (Telly Savalas) in a mannequin shop. He bears a striking resemblance to a fresco depicting the devil on the wall of the local church. Lisa loses her group and is given a lift by a rich couple and their chauffeur, who in turn find themselves stranded near a fog-shrouded villa, the butler of which is the mannequin-lugging devil. Invited in, the travellers find themselves part of a weird role-playing game as a mother and son see in Lisa a resemblance to a sweetheart long dead. There is necrophilia, sadism and black magic at play as Leandro (Savalas) manipulates everyone in the house like the mannequins he positions, which come to life. Leandro could be seen as a stand-in for the director himself, manipulating pain and grief and exhuming memories in order to make his own entertainment. Savalas sucks on a lollipop throughout the movie, a detail that he liked so much he used it for his iconic TV detective Kojak, which he filmed the following year.
Friday, 15th of January, 2016
The funeral took place in the local cathedral and outside the sun was strangely, unseasonably warm.
Cast: Fabio Testi, Cristina Galbó, Karin Baal, Joachim Fuchsberger
Italy, Germany 1972
Massimo Dallamano’s Catholic girls’ school psycho-sexual thriller combines elements of German and Italian genre cinemas.
A German-Italian co-production, Massimo Dallamano’s What Have You Done to Solange? is one of several films intended to bridge the gap between the West German Edgar Wallace krimi and the Italian gialli. The relationship between the two subgenres dates back to the late 1960s, when gialli like Antonio Margheriti’s Naked You Die! (1968) were released in Germany in black and white (despite being shot in colour) to resemble the classic Wallace krimi in appearance. At the same time Rialto Film, the primary producer of the Wallace films, were trying to find ways of revitalizing their formula, in response to declining popularity. Their first attempt, Double Face (1968), was certainly equipped for lasting cult appeal, being directed by Italian horror legend Riccardo Freda and co-written by the future ‘godfather of gore’ Lucio Fulci. It also starred Klaus Kinski in a rare leading role, as well as a number of Euro-horror veterans, including Gunther Stoll, Margaret Lee and Annabella Incontrera. Unfortunately, Freda’s star had waned by that point, and despite the efforts of the cast, Double Face is bland and uninvolving.
The film’s commercial failure doused Rialto’s interest in further ventures, and the matter might have rested there, were it not for Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. One of the big European box office hits of 1970, Argento’s debut feature sparked off a wave of similar thrillers, bringing the giallo firmly into the mainstream. In Germany The Bird with the Crystal Plumage was distributed by Artur Brauner’s Central Cinema Company (a.k.a. CCC Films), Rialto’s main competitor in the field of the Wallace krimi. Brauner added a spurious credit to German prints of the film, claiming it was based upon a story by Bryan Edgar Wallace, the son of the famous author whose own works had been adapted by CCC Films. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage was then marketed to German audiences as an authentic krimi.
Having noticed the film’s impressive box office takings, Rialto decided to attempt another krimi-giallo crossover. Although most of the technical aspects of What Have You Done to Solange? were left to the discretion of the Italian crew, Rialto made a number of changes to bring the film closer to their previous Wallace krimi, including setting the film in London. The main detective would be played by Joachim Fuchsberger, Rialto’s most popular leading man, while the German wife would be played by Karin Baal, the star of two earlier Wallace films, including The Dead Eyes of London (1961), arguably the finest example of the form. A single line of dialogue was added to justify the appropriation of the title of a genuine Edgar Wallace story for the film’s German title (The Clue of the Green Pin), despite the two stories having absolutely nothing in common.
Enrico Rosseni (played by Fabio Testi, best known for his role in The Garden of the Finzi-Continis) teaches Italian and gymnastics at a prestigious Catholic school in London. Even though his severe German wife Herta (Karin Baal) teaches at the school as well, Enrico is having an affair with one of his students, Elizabeth Seccles (Christina Galbó, The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue). During one of their meetings, Elizabeth sees a young girl and the flash of a knife, but Enrico angrily dismisses her claim. The following day a girl’s body is discovered in the same location, with the victim another student of the school. Even though Elizabeth is a key witness, Enrico discourages her from contacting the police because of his marriage. When another student is murdered, Enrico realizes that Elizabeth is not just a witness, but a key figure in the events unfolding and a potential victim too.
Despite its hybrid origins, What Have You Done to Solange? is very much a classic example of the 1970s giallo. As usual, the police are present but take a backseat role to the hero’s amateur investigations. Although Enrico himself is not a witness to the crimes like his counterpart in Dario Argento’s thrillers, his girlfriend Elizabeth is, and she experiences the same confusion and progressive revelations as the heroes of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Deep Red (1976). The killer is visible only as a pair of black-gloved hands, although we hear his voice. His motivations are a little more complex. Instead of being a witness to, or a victim of, a traumatic event, he’s taking revenge on behalf of that victim. The incident itself is one of the most unpleasant of its kind and certainly effective, but would perhaps be more appropriate for a Roman Catholic country; the United Kingdom’s laws on the subject make such events largely unnecessary (a similar point applies to Elizabeth’s age; in Italy she would have been over the age of consent). The brutal and sexualised nature of the killings (and their motivation) is sharply at odds with the standards of the Wallace krimi, which rarely featured graphic violence and generally couched any sexual content in a light-hearted tone.
By technical standards, What Have You Done to Solange? is exceptional, especially the cinematography. Although best known as a producer of notorious splatter movies (including the excellent Beyond the Darkness) and hardcore pornography, Aristide Massacessi (a.k.a. Joe D’Amato) is a skilled cinematographer whose framing and shot composition are consistently solid. Director Dallamano is a capable cinematographer himself, having worked on A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For A Few Dollars More (1965) before moving into direction. Together Dallamano and Massacessi create a stylish, visually interesting film, with a number of memorable and eye-catching moments. Legendary composer Ennio Morricone provided the scores to more than a dozen gialli in the early 1970s, including Argento’s early thrillers. His work on What Have You Done to Solange? relies on many of the same motifs and themes that characterise his other giallo scores: angular, discordant bass figures; wordless child-like singing; high-pitched, screeching strings. Despite this, it’s a strong enough score, and certain passages correspond well to the images they accompany.
Although Dallamano is happy to kill off the girls in a brutal fashion and use them to provide the film’s plentiful nudity, there is something sad about his portrayal of these young women. They are essentially adrift in the world. Their parents are generally absent from the film and when they do appear, they present a rose-tinted, idealised view of their children that shows no awareness of their growing physical and mental maturity. Their Catholic upbringing provides them with plenty of rules and admonitions against sin but offers them no help with their predicament whatsoever. The other adults in their lives are equally hopeless. Their teachers (aside from the priests) include a lecherous hypocrite who ascribes to them every kind of sexual vice but spies on them in the showers. Even Enrico, the one teacher who takes their side in disputes with the school, is having an affair with a girl not yet halfway through her teenage years, and is not above pressurizing his lover to give in to his sexual demands. With no guidance except their own instincts, the girls drift into the clutches of perverts, sleazy photographers and backstreet abortionists.
The execution and genre mechanics make What Have You Done to Solange? an excellent example of its kind, but it possesses an emotional resonance that lifts it above the majority of its contemporaries. It is not a flawless film; Inspector Barth’s assertion that showing the teachers graphic crime scene photos is a ‘necessary formality’ is ridiculous and grotesque, while Enrico’s sudden change of heart is poorly handled and does the character no favours (indeed, none of the film’s characters are anything other than one-dimensional). Despite its shortcomings, What Have You Done to Solange? is a first-rate giallo that deserves this new restoration.
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.
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.
I recently answered a few questions about Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) on Radio 4’s Today programme on the occasion of the film’s re-release in cinemas. Set in a circus, Freaks tells of the love of midget Hans for beautiful trapeze artist Cleopatra, and the revenge of the other deformed performers when they find out that she has only married him for his money. The brief radio spot centred on whether the film’s representation of disability was offensive. As it was not possible to go into much detail in such a short time, this article is a follow-up, expanding on the issue in greater depth.
It is interesting that 73 years after its release and numerous positive reviews, it is still the question of the film’s exploitative character that was the focus of the Radio 4 spot. The fact that some of the initial American reviews and audience reactions were very negative, and that the BBFC refused to grant it a certificate in 1932, effectively suppressing it for 31 years, seem to have been enough to lastingly colour the perception of the film. Also detrimental was the exhibition of the film on the grindhouse circuit after the war by exploitation king Dwain Esper, under the title Forbidden Love. It was only after the film screened at Cannes in 1962 that the BBFC allowed a limited release with an X certificate in the UK the following year.
And yet, the early responses to the film were more complex and mixed than this may suggest, and it was even a box-office success in a number of cities in its full-length version, before it was cut by producer Irving Thalberg from 90 to 64 minutes, with a happy resolution tacked on at the end. More importantly, the reasons for which the film was vilified by some critics at the time would be deemed utterly unacceptable now, and demonstrate exactly the kind of intolerant, insensitive attitude towards difference and disability that director Tod Browning intended to fight. The Variety review started with praise but found fault with the story: ‘Freaks is sumptuously produced, admirably directed, and no cost was spared. But Metro failed to realize that even with a different sort of offering the story still is important. Here it is not sufficiently strong to get and hold the interest, partly because interest cannot easily be gained for a too fantastic romance.’ In a passage that has now been cut from the text published on the Variety website, it went on to state: ‘It is impossible for the normal man or woman to sympathize with the aspiring midget.’
This sort of ambivalence was found in many of the contemporary reviews. Richard Watts, Jr., wrote in the New York Herald Tribune: ‘It is my impression that Freaks is, in its quite repulsive fashion, a dramatic and powerful motion picture. It is obviously an unhealthy and generally disagreeable work, not only in its story and characterization, but also in its gay directorial touches. Mr. Browning can make even freaks more unpleasant than they would be ordinarily. Yet, in some strange way, the picture is not only exciting, but even occasionally touching… Mr. Browning has always been an expert in pathological morbidity, but after seeing Freaks, his other pictures seem but whimsical nursery tales.’
Also symptomatic of the time’s attitude to disability, The Film Daily found the reality of the performers’ deformities an obstacle to the enjoyment of the film: ‘It is a most unusual production, made at the time when the horror cycle appeared to be in full sway, and as a picture of this type it was produced with expert hands. But the nature of its theme makes its chances problematical. First, the fact that the ugly human monstrosities in this picture are that way in reality, whereas in other films the audience knew it was all make-believe seems to induce a different and not pleasant reaction.’
Contributing to the problem was the critics’ view of cinema as entertainment rather than art, as one of the articles on Freaks published in the trade journal Harrison’s Reports suggests: ‘Any one who considers this entertainment should be placed in the pathological ward in some hospital.’ And the Louisville Times: ‘I cannot believe such a show will entertain any but the morbidly curious, or those poor souls with jaded appetites who are even looking for a new thrill.’ (This view of cinema has been one of the grounds for the BBFC’s decision to cut or ban films in the UK, including A Serbian Film a few years ago.)
Tod Browning was most certainly a film artist who created a powerful and singular world of dark, disturbing poetry and bizarre beauty, exploring the marginal, misshapen, misfit corners of humanity. Yet he was also an entertainer. At the age of 16 he ran away from his well-to-do family to join a circus. For a number of years he did various jobs there, including performing in an act called ‘The Living Hypnotic Corpse’, before acting in slapstick short films in Hollywood. His directorial work includes comedies and exotic dramas, as well as the first horror film produced by a major Hollywood studio, Universal’s 1931 Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi, which was a big box-office success. This enabled him to make Freaks for MGM the following year, but the financial failure of the film derailed his career. However, he managed to make Mark of the Vampire in 1935, and, more importantly, the masterpiece of fantastique cinema The Devil Doll in 1936.
Tod Browning’s background goes some way towards explaining the richness and complexity of Freaks, and the tenderness he felt for his characters. His work at the circus gave him a deep understanding of, and affinity with, the deformed members of his cast (the circus was the setting for a number of his films). His insistence on casting real ‘freaks’ gives the film a gritty documentary aspect that deepens and adds substance to the strange and nightmarish atmosphere. His respect for his cast is also demonstrated by the fact that he insisted that his performers had other talents and were not simply cast for their deformities. Early scenes show the sort of prejudice and taunting that the characters constantly come up against. Later sequences portray the characters in their daily lives: the armless Frances O’Connor eating dinner with her feet; the birth of the Bearded Lady’s baby; Siamese twins Violet and Daisy Hilton with Daisy’s fiancé. Some of these scenes, such as the courtship of the sisters, are full of humour and lightness, which adds another level to the representation of the characters. Others, such as when Prince Randian, a man without arms or legs billed as ‘The Living Torso’, lights a cigarette, will have audiences stare in disbelief and wonder at the skill and ingenuity involved in performing a seemingly impossible act. Some will argue that featuring such scenes is no better than the exploitative freakshows that treated people with deformities as mere attractions. Indeed, one of the problems Freaks has had to face in its reception is that, as a film about freakshow acts, it has been confused with the freakshow itself. There is no denying that these scenes have a spectacular quality, but it is a spectacle presented to elicit not uncharitable curiosity or horror, but admiration for the inventive manner in which the characters deal with the difficulties of daily life.
Watch the original trailer for Tod Brownings’s Freaks:
These scenes are also important for another reason: they contribute to the fact that the disabled characters never appear as passive, weak, dependent people, but as fully functioning, mobile, autonomous human beings, including those with the most challenging deformities. In keeping with this, they are given a full range of emotions, from love and desire to violence and vengefulness. It is very clear that the film’s sympathy lies with the ‘freaks’, and that physical deformity is not equated with wickedness, rather the opposite: the villains of the story are the characters associated with physical perfection – the tall, blonde Cleopatra and her strongman lover Hercules. But Tod Browning does not offer a facile, simplistic vision of the disabled characters as poor helpless victims of their villainy, and he gives them the power to act on their emotions, including the darkest ones. The extraordinary final scene, in which the ‘freaks’ wreak their revenge on Cleopatra and Hercules during a dark stormy night, menacingly crawling under the trailers towards their victims, is made all the more creepy and nightmarish by the deformities of the characters. This has been seen as exploitative by some as a scene that re-establishes the association of physical deformity and villainy. But this simply ignores that the scene is part of a whole, and that Freaks shows the many facets of its characters. By presenting a morally complex, physically active portrayal of fully rounded characters, Tod Browning treats his disabled characters exactly as any able-bodied character. This refusal to paint a worthy, sanitized view of disabled people as all-good unfortunates to be pitied may well be one of the reasons for the discomfort the film has caused in some viewers and critics.
Another thing worth noting is that most films that deal with disability will only have one disabled character, an anomaly among the norm, an exception among the majority. Freaks remains deeply unusual in that the majority of its cast is disabled or suffering from a deforming illness. The circus is their world and there it is the able-bodied characters who are the exception. The film gives visibility, legitimacy and screen presence to a large number of people who would have been ignored by the film industry. Tod Browning introduced the reality of disability and deformity in the midst of a Hollywood obsessed with physical perfection (MGM was Greta Garbo’s studio). The protests of MGM personnel during the shooting are revealing of contemporary social attitudes to disability and the sort of reaction the cast would have had to face on a daily basis. The studio executives refused to take their lunch with the performers because they could not stand the sight of them, which meant that most of the Freaks cast had to eat outside in a tent especially set up for them. This shocking aspect of the production highlights how subversive the making of such a film was in the context of the time.
Throughout his work Tod Browning was interested in the blurry line between what is considered normal and what is seen as abnormal, and one of the implications of Freaks is that that line is easily crossed. It is something that he explored in The Unknown (1929), a film that provides an essential point of comparison with Freaks. In this silent film also set in a circus, Lon Chaney plays Alonzo, a knife-thrower who pretends to have lost his arms in order to woo the pretty ringmaster’s daughter Nanon (Joan Fontaine), who has an uncontrollable phobic fear of hands. There is a stunning scene, remindful of the scene in Freaks when Frances O’Connor eats and drinks with her feet, in which Lon Chaney lights a cigarette with his feet, his arms lying motionless by him, having become so used to pretending to be a cripple that he forgets to use his arms in private. The Unknown is the fascinating tale of how a man, seemingly ‘normal’, falls for a girl with an ‘abnormal’ sexuality, acts ‘abnormal’ to seduce her and then really becomes ‘abnormal’ in his desperation to secure her, only to find out that she has become ‘normal’ and now wants a ‘normal’ partner – again, a strongman.
Watch a clip from Tod Browning’s Unknown:
Emphasizing the idea that the line between ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ may not be as clear-cut as it may seem, it is suggested in Freaks that the ‘tall people’ may not be as fully endowed as they should be, and therefore are ‘abnormal’ too in a fashion. In a spirited quip to Venus, Phroso the clown reveals that he is impotent (‘You should’ve caught me before my operation.’). And in a scene that was edited out, the sexually frustrated Venus wants to look for ‘a couple of sailors’ and ‘have some fun’ (which became ‘falling in love – getting married – having kids’), which would place her very much outside the moral conventions of her time and therefore make her a social outcast.
Both The Unknown and Freaks are as much about sexual abnormality as they are about physical and social abnormality, and it is perhaps its sexual undertones that made Freaks so unsettling to early viewers, despite the fact that many of these scenes were cut out. The characters of Lon Chaney in The Unknown, Venus and Phroso in Freaks, are about sexual excess or lack, and the impossibility of making individual desires coincide. Throughout his films, Tod Browning shows much sympathy for misguided, mishandled, mismatched, miscalibrated desires and the terrible, tragic acts they lead people to commit. Hans’s desire for Cleopatra is poignant because, despite his childlike appearance, he is a man, as he constantly reminds everyone, and she does not treat him like one, as exemplified most dramatically in the humiliating wedding scene where she carries him on her shoulders in a grotesque cavalcade around the deserted banquet table. For this, she will pay dearly, and will be made ‘one of them’ after being horribly mutilated by Hans’s friends (the violence has been cut out in the film as it stands). Her punishment for scorning his manhood is to be stripped of her beauty. As for Hercules, in the original version he was castrated by the deformed characters, making the sexual element of the film very explicit. The seemingly ‘diminished’ characters are able to take away the potency of the traditional virile strongman. Sexual and social power are aligned here and the ending depicts a subversive act of revenge by the powerless ‘abnormal’ against normative potency.
And yet, amid the darkness, there is also a humorous and lighter side to the strangeness of human desire: in a scene where Siamese twin Violet is kissed by her suitor, sister Daisy is seen to visibly enjoy the pleasure of the kiss. It is a lovely scene that celebrates the wondrousness of human life and an openness to all the shapes and forms that it may take. And so the answer to the question ‘Is the film offensive?’: no, certainly not, because it paints an exceptionally complex, nuanced, multi-layered portrayal of human beings on the margins of mainstream society that refuses to kow-tow to conventions and offer any facile reassurances.
The first film I ever saw at the cinema was Star Wars. I was six years old. We queued outside the cinema in northern English cold, and, by the time we made it into the packed auditorium, the front crawl had already crawled and the Storm Troopers were storming the rebel ship. I wouldn’t see the complete film until 24 October, 1983, when it debuted at 7.15 in the evening on ITV, at the time Britain’s only commercial TV channel. Five and a half years had passed and yet Star Wars had been a constant in our games and our toys, as well as listening to the soundtrack and reading and re-reading George Lucas’s first novel with ‘16 pages of color illustrations’.
Today the situation is obviously different with instant downloads, simultaneous DVD releases, or at the longest a wait of a few months before a film can be owned and re-watched over and over again, complete with audio commentary, deleted scenes, and perhaps an alternative ending. And though I don’t want to wax whimsical about the good old days, I do want to emphasize the amount of air that could exist around a film. In this space, there was plenty of room for rumour and speculation, and the legendary director’s cut, the first six-hour version of a film, was a commonly repeated theme: the cut would be butchered and hacked back by an unsympathetic studio and what we saw was only a remnant of the artist’s vision.
An example of this was a film that had been planned as a follow up to Star Wars, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, which had been released in the UK in the autumn of 1982. The rumours of a five-hour version were encouraged by the film’s narrative ambiguity, some apparent inconsistencies (how many replicants?), and later by the occasional surfacing on late-night TV of versions that included bits no one remembered. The rumours were also encouraged once more by the space such thinking had to play in. The lack of internet sites – from encyclopaedic collections such as IMDB to the plethora of geek blogs – meant that such speculation took place in the letters pages of fanzines and on the bus to school, with very little ground for confirmation or decisive rebuttal. It also helped that Blade Runner evoked a world that seemed to stretch far outside the frame of the cinema screen or the VHS pan-and-scan TV screen, the first way I got to see it. The idea of an epic five-hour film was sustained by the idea that Los Angeles in 2019 looked such a big and detailed world. There was room to explore.
Such hopes and illusions came crashing down with the release of Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut in 1992. Although it gave us the opportunity of seeing this film – most of us for the first time – on the big screen, it decidedly was not the five-hour epic of the director’s vision. In fact, it was shorter than the original release. The changes were at once momentous and weirdly inconsequential. The theories about Deckard being a replicant – encouraged by a close reading of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – were rendered explicit: out went the off-cut from The Shining, in went the off-cut from Legend, and banished was the sleepy noir-ish narration (which I guiltily still love: ‘no one advertises for a killer in a newspaper’). With the further release of Blade Runner: The Final Cut, complete with a five-disc edition containing deleted scenes, all the major alternative versions and a documentary about the alternative version, the legend was now the province of purists, pedants and the bird-spotters of cinema, a frame here, a rerecorded line there. Clarity was given not only in the re-mastering of the image but in the elimination of those beguiling inconsistencies (how many replicants?) and, more damagingly, ambiguities: ‘I want more life, FATHER.’
Nowadays, the director’s cut is no longer a mysterious legend but a marketing tool, a way of boosting ancillary sales and a counter in getting directors to compromise on the theatrical release. Watching a Ridley Scott film at the cinema seems almost a waste of time, as we do so knowing full well that the director’s cut will be on the way, with an introduction by Scott at the beginning, grumpily disavowing any compromises made. Robin Hood, Black Hawk Down, American Gangster and most dramatically Kingdom of Heaven all had big director’s cut releases, often with a cynical delay to allow the dedicated the joy of effectively buying the same movie twice. The latter is often cited as a director’s cut that vastly improves on the original, but 1) the increased amount of Orlando Bloom offsets any subplot; and 2) given it is a better version, why didn’t Scott fight for it tooth and nail? I can only watch a film for the first time once, so that experience should be optimal. Directors’ cuts encourage carelessness and compromise even as they pretend to authenticity and definitiveness, sometimes providing opportunities for endless noodling with flawed material. See Francis Ford Coppola’s appalling Apocalypse Now: Redux or Oliver Stone’s Alexander, Alexander: The Director’s Cut and Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut, or better still, don’t.
Then there are the restored classics. Sergio Leone’s Once upon a Time in America was famously butchered by the editor of Police Academy at the behest of the studios. Even though there has been a longer European cut available for some time, a new version was recently released, which restored many missing scenes. But what the film gains in coherence it loses as a watching experience. The film stock has obviously degraded and there is a glaring difference in footage quality with the lost scenes. For a restored version of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the original cast now in their sixties and seventies overdubbed additional scenes to a similarly jarringly effect. A restored scene in Spartacus between Tony Curtis and Laurence Olivier had Anthony Hopkins doing an impersonation of Olivier in the overdub.
The dream is always that hidden treasure will be found, a lost version restored, the director’s vision finally realised, but time and again films are significantly damaged by these interpolations. Of course these aren’t necessarily directors’ cuts. They are alternate versions and, as with the recent rerelease of The Shining, there is evidence to suggest the directors might well not have wanted their films released in these versions. Sometimes less is more.
Directors’ cuts exist also in the context of ‘Unrated Versions’ of comedies (more tits, less funny), and horror movies (more gore, less scary). Having given you everything so quickly and so completely, there is still the need to shove the idea that you are somehow getting more, quantity though and not necessarily quality. ‘Including 23 minutes of previously unseen footage’ doesn’t promise much except perhaps the studio wanted an R, and the director gave them an NP-17. As a film writer, I can’t bemoan the availability of all these versions (although that is what I’m doing). I just feel disappointed; disappointed that the universe is shrinking. Now we can see the director’s second thoughts and they are rarely as good as their first. Films become flabby with additional scenes, and that sense of unseen possibility is stymied and ultimately destroyed.
The experience I had between 1977 and 1982 of nurturing the memory of a film and reliving it in so many ways can’t ever be regained, but with all our wealth of cinematic accessibility it is worth remembering some of the positives that came in the austere time, when Han Solo shot first and Jabba wasn’t CGI.