Fukasaku’s 1973 yakuza movie is imbued with a sense of the absurd stupidity of violence and anger at the mythology of the criminal clans.
Kinji Fukasaku’s influential 1973 yakuza movie Battles without Honour or Humanity opens with a freeze frame of the mushroom cloud. We are in a post-war Japan one step on from Ground Zero. Life is a confused and violent shambles, a shanty town existence – anticipating the opening of Brian De Palma’s Scarface – where a feral criminality lurks, with roaming GIs boozing and raping and yakuza families fighting and jockeying for territory. Shozo Hirono (Bunta Sugawara) is a demobbed soldier who agrees to confront a drunk yakuza as a favour for the local gang. The confrontation turns to murder. It is a hesitant, unglamorous and amateurish killing, but the symbolism is obvious. The traditionally dressed yakuza with the samurai sword represents the floundering figure of the failed old ways, his weapon an outmoded throwback. It is clear that these old ways are not necessarily more honourable – the man is a drunken psychopath and we’ve already seen the samurai sword used to lop off limbs as part of an extortion racket – but Hirono and his friends represent a new reality of instability and opportunism, created by the mushroom cloud that opens the film. In jail, Hirono will make friends, a blood brother indeed, and his loyalty will be rewarded with an entrance into a yakuza family.
The rest of the film follows outsider Hirono – although becoming a blood brother with one family, his loyalty remains with that of his old pals and their boss for whom he went to jail – as he negotiates his way into a gangster’s life. This picaresque hero is an amiable thug, an obstinately thick-headed lump, who barely understands the shifting feuds, the complicated double-crossing and the intricate interweave of loyalty and disloyalty that run throughout the film. His simplicity contrasts with the avarice and power plays around him as the families battle for territory and drug money. There is no dignified old guard here. The boss of Hirono’s family is a transparently venal and petty man provoking a war with his parsimony.
Fukasaku imbues the film with a sense of the absurd stupidity of violence. Each murder is met with a journalistic freeze frame with date and time title (the film is based on a series of newspaper articles written by Kôichi Iiboshi that were themselves adapted from the memoirs of real-life yakuza Kôzô Minô) as well as being punctuated by a blaring scream of American jazz trumpet. When a yakuza decides to cut off his finger in the most iconic of yakuza moments, the scene is played out as a ludicrous comedy with the severed finger flying off into the garden and the assembled gangsters crawling around on their hands and knees to find the missing digit.
It is precisely the mythology of the yakuza at which Fukasaku’s fury is aimed; the rituals and the lore of the criminal clans are literally shot to pieces by the film. The immediacy of his anger can be felt in the documentary style he adopts. His freeze frames are particularly well chosen, they suggest a dynamism most motion pictures lack. Even the yakuza themselves occasionally tire of their activities, one of them complaining that every night he has doubts, but in the morning, when he’s surrounded by his men, he gets back to it. The film was immensely popular and would spawn four sequels known collectively as The Yakuza Papers. Another cycle of films, New Battles without Honour or Humanity and Aftermath of Battles without Honour and Humanity, would also be launched. However, the law of diminishing returns applies and Fukasaku’s thesis had already been forcefully expressed in the first film.
This review was first published in 2002 in connection with the DVD release of Battles without Honour or Humanity by Eureka Entertainment.
Playful and colourful, the 1970 pinky violence series Stray Cat Rock stars the great Meiko Kaji as the leader of a badass girl gang. All five films in the series have been released in a beautiful collection by Arrow Video.
‘For the human mind, there is no never – only a not yet.’
Frau im Mond was made in 1928, it was a busy year for some. Logie Baird demonstrates the colour TV, the Chrysler factory is in full swing and plans for a 70-storey Chrysler skyscraper in NYC are afoot, Morkrum & Kleinschmidt’s Teletype company is founded (one could regard Teletype as an antecedent of contemporary networked communications). The behemoth-like Graf Zeppelin is set to be released from its hangar, Robert Goddard launches liquid-fueled prototype rockets in New England, and the Nazi party command less than 2.6% of the vote in Weimar Germany. Capitalism is beginning to identify new frontiers.
Speed is key – mass manufacture of cars, fledgling networked communications, and an embryonic form of television are all vying for public attention and corporate dollars. Humankind is moving into new spaces, both real and virtual, at new speeds, which are frankly alarming. Calamity is not far away either. By 1929 things are set to take an irrevocable turn for the worst with the Wall Street Crash. This is the context in which Fritz Lang directed Frau im Mond and, truth be told, the context of its creation and its subsequent historical resonance is far more interesting than the film itself.
Cylindrical projectiles were terrifyingly cool and big business in 1928, public imaginations had been thoroughly captured (this was what has become known as sci-fi’s Golden Age). It was inevitable that someone somewhere would want to make a movie that capitalised on the zeitgeist. German film production company UFA decided to gamble. A company not interested in doing things by half-measures UFA went the whole hog staking their entire advertising budget on the movie and going to ridiculous lengths to create a convincing mise-en-scène. The nub of Frau im Mond‘s existence, however, lies on the fringes of German scientific research.
Professor Hermann Oberth was a school master and amateur physicist. Inspired by Robert Goddard’s research, Oberth set about devising his own rockets but progress was hampered by a lack of hard cash. Fritz Lang had become aware of Oberth’s book – Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen (Rocket into Planetary Space, 1923) – a clarion call for advanced rocket research. Lang had the notion this might be perfect fodder for a movie and persuaded UFA to take an interest. They did. Oberth was hired as a technical advisor for the proposed movie with a deal sweetener that the studio would sponsor the development and launch of a rocket, which the execs at UFA presumably thought would make an excellent promotional stunt. And therein lies the central problem with Frau im Mond, it’s a movie centered around a gimmick and this saps the screenplay of any sustained magnetism.
A rather lengthy space opera, Frau im Mond doesn’t offer much in the way of directorial innovation beyond the prescient portrayal of a trip to the moon. To these eyes, Lang played his trump cards with the series of Dr Mabuse films, Spione, and for sheer, ‘Look we have lots of Deutschmarks and we’re spending them like wildfire’, cinematic spectacle, Metropolis. With Frau im Mond what critics tend to bang on about is the aforementioned scientific accuracy of the film, its 80% precise vision of a rocket launch and zero-G space travel. However, Lang’s clairvoyance seems to exist at the cost of the screenplay.
Based on a novel by Lang’s wife, Thea von Harbou (who also gets a credit as co-screenwriter), it is rather flaccid. A sub-Ryder Haggard, sub-Arthur Conan Doyle adventure yarn, Frau im Mond concerns the pursuit of lunar gold and the fate of those co-opted into acquiring it by a sinister Bilderberg-like sect from the military-industrial complex. The protagonists – a woman, Friede Velten,, four men, one mouse and a child – are led by Wolf Helius, a dynamic entrepreneur and space buff. They are inspired by the (of course) eccentric Professor Manfeldt’s prophecy that the moon contains gold. The Frau im Mond is not Freide, a feisty young woman in love with Helius but engaged to engineer Hans Windegger, it is in fact the name of the rocket ship.
The screenplay is porridge through and through, and by George it’s lumpy. Set design, photography and certain plot aspects are all from time to time stunningly modernist but the schnittsen is almost pre-modernist. Editorially the film has a certain density, reminiscent of Virginia Wolf or the syntax in a Victorian novel; sub-clause after sub-clause after sub-clause. That is not to say it is altogether uninteresting. Certainly the film is a fascinating historical artifact, a fine example of Weimar-era science fantasy, but as an entertainment it is rather fatiguing and dystrophic. The sluggish pace of the plot is especially ironic when one considers that the whole film is fundamentally concerned with the possibilities of rocket power and the acceleration of speed and, therefore, time.
Frau im Mond of course is not a talkie, yet strangely this silent film isn’t silent enough. ‘Authentic’ piano schmaltz has been chosen to accompany the movie, a sort of relentless Debussy-lite for the cloth-eared. This seems particularly anachronistic when one considers that at this time great modernist innovations were taking place in western classical music. The atonalism of Schoenberg, Webern or Berg – at once clinical and precise yet uncertain and oblique – would have made a perfect counterpoint to the concrete realities of earth and the lunar unheimlich depicted in Frau im Mond.
Ultimately, Frau im Mond has its charms but it is nowhere near as lunatic a prospect as one would like. Its legacy is frankly nuts, though. One of Hermann Oberth’s assistants, a seventeen-year-old male with a skull full of goofy teeth and space-age fantasies, was Wernher von Braun. During WW2 von Braun was responsible for the design of the V2 rocket. Curiously, each V2 would have a symbol depicting a cross-legged woman sitting on a sickle moon, a rocket between her legs. The symbol was known as ‘Frau im Mond’. Up to 20,000 slave labourers are alleged to have died at the Mittelwerk V2 rocket factory and in excess of 3,000 allied civilian and military personnel were killed by V2 weapons during the war. After 1945 von Braun escaped trial at Nuremberg due to the intervention of America’s science establishment. He was invited to contribute his expertise to the USA’s rocket science research and, of course, he is now known as the architect behind the Saturn and Apollo missions, the first man to get other humans onto the moon. Nasa’s immorality in engaging with a war criminal has been a perennial embarrassment for that organisation and it should not be forgotten but it should not be surprising. Watching Fritz Lang’s very expensive cinematic folly one is reminded of the futile crassness of putting humans into space. Thinking about the absurdity of what followed (the Cold War), two mad, venal Super Powers vying for the conquest of icy, dark nothingness and aiming for zero, Mutually Assured Destruction, Frau im Mond should have been a comedy not a thriller.
Cast: Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, Friedrich Fehér
Original title:Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari
The film begins as a tale. Two men talk in what looks like a park, and a vision of a woman walking past them in an apparently distracted state inspires one of them, Francis, to tell his interlocutor of the strange events that befell himself and the woman, his fiancée, Jane (Lil Dagover). Francis (Friedrich Fehér) and his friend Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) were indulging in a friendly rivalry for the hand of Jane. When they visited a carnival in a mountain village and particularly a stand promoted by the bizarre-looking Dr Caligari (Werner Krauss), the somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt), who can apparently tell the future, told Alan he would die in a matter of hours, a prediction that later came true when Alan was murdered. Francis tries to find out the true culprit behind the murder and the extent of the involvement of the diabolical Dr Caligari.
Everything about the tale is skewed. The sets are precarious zigzagging structures that seem ready to topple on the protagonists and which point our eyes and the characters on extremely narrow and precipitous paths. Created in part as a solution to the limited budget, the crazy sets are augmented by shadows painted directly onto the flats rather than created through the lighting: a trick borrowed by Francis Ford Coppola for his teenage art film Rumble Fish. The pointy jaggedness of the environment anticipates the dagger of the murderer when it appears, like a long fatal finger, suggesting that murder is in the weave of the story from the very beginning.
This film has madness running all the way through it, a madness that seeps from story into reality and back again. Made in a turbulent 1920, the film exists in the immediate aftermath of the First World War in a Germany being chopped up by the Versailles Peace Treaty and perched on a razor edge between the Spartacist revolutionary left and a poisonous resurgent reactionary movement that peaked in the Kapp coup – the first to use the swastika as an emblem. This febrile atmosphere and the nascent science of psychoanalysis directly informed a German expressionism of extraordinary power, which seemed to channel cinema into the fantastic generic spaces of horror and science fiction.
Directed by Robert Wiene, Caligari is drenched in anxiety and guilt. Nothing is to be trusted: the narrator is unreliable and damaged from the first frame; the actors’ non-realistic performances suggest they are all being directed by some meta-Caligari, and the sets suggest an insidiously psychic, rather than actual, landscape. Even the ‘happy ending’ is enigmatically creepy. The psychiatrist’s sudden revelation that he now knows how to treat the patient feels as much like a threat as a promise.
Some have seen in the film a stark warning of a Germany sleepwalking towards manipulation by a hypnotic demagogue. This is true insomuch as Hitler was a result of the history that came before, but the sleepwalking analogy can only go so far before it begins to let people off the hook. Caligari is blamed for everything, and figures of authority – from the comic floppy-mustached bureaucrats to the doctors – are suspect at best, but the film has a more deeply subversive lesson. Francis has his secret wish fulfilled in the elimination of a rival and Cesare’s actions show that sleepwalkers do what they want to do anyway. In other words, the madmen run the asylum.
Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari is released in a Limited Edition 2-disc Blu-ray SteelBook as part of Eureka’s Masters of Cinema Series on 16 January 2017.
‘All four of us don’t agree on anything ever, it’s really hard for us to say anything about ourselves.’ So says Tobi Vail, Bikini Kill’s drummer, in archive footage featured in The Punk Singer, a documentary by Sini Anderson about the band’s front woman, Kathleen Hanna. In the spirit of their politics, band members Hanna, Vail, Kathi Wilcox and Billy Karren did not toe the line. Angry about the condescending and sensationalist reporting of the band and the Riot Grrrl movement they spearheaded, they rarely gave interviews. It is therefore thrilling to hear them reflect on the period in Anderson’s affectionate, bordering on hagiographic, film.
As a young feminist performance poet, Hanna was advised by Kathy Acker to join a band instead. Bikini Kill were exciting, raw and radical, and in Hanna they had a front woman with a brilliant voice and flair for live performance. She kicked back against the aggressive male mosh pits of the punk scene by calling ‘girls to the front’, thus creating a safe space for women to enjoy themselves.
Sadly, the world outside their concerts was still not safe: abortion rights were being challenged and incidents of sexual harassment (as demonstrated by the Anita Hill case) were not being taken seriously. Riot Grrrl, a movement that embraced art, feminism and music, was born out of this unease. Hanna and Bikini Kill were among those who wrote a manifesto (‘We are not man-haters…’), started a fanzine of the same name, and declared it to be an open movement to women everywhere.
As Hanna recalls in the film, the outside world did not often grasp what the movement was about, and press reports about it often focused on Hanna’s past (she worked as a stripper to support herself through college, and comments she made about her father’s ‘inappropriate sexual behaviour’ were twisted into a lie that he had raped her). Interviewed by Anderson over several months, Hanna still appears weary of explaining herself on these matters, more than 20 years later.
But the real thrust of the film, and the question posed by Anderson at the beginning, is why did Hanna stop performing? After Bikini Kill disbanded in 1997, Hanna released a solo record under the name Julie Ruin, then in 1998 founded ‘feminist party band’ Le Tigre. They were successful, but in 2005 Hanna called it a day, telling everyone including her husband, Beastie Boys’ Adam Horovitz (she acknowledges the irony of her falling for someone who helped write the song ‘Girls’), that it was because she had nothing else to say.
This was not true. In the course of Anderson’s candid interviews with Hanna, the singer reveals it was because she was diagnosed with Lyme disease, a debilitating condition that one doctor describes as being like ‘if Superman meets Kryptonite’. It was undoubtedly a horrific period for Hanna and those around her and, perhaps because it remained undiagnosed for so long, one senses she still remains cowed by it today (in May she was forced to cancel a Julie Ruin tour because of the disease’s return, after a period of remission). A scene of her approaching a comeback gig hand-in-hand with her husband reveals a wide-eyed vulnerability that contrasts wildly with the early footage.
The film doesn’t tell of a triumphant or a tragic journey. It acknowledges Hanna’s huge achievements (not least in the superb soundtrack of back-to-back Hanna songs) but in the process of interviewing only committed admirers and close friends (Kim Gordon and Jennifer Baumgardner among them), and in providing no narration, balanced or otherwise, the film becomes a little over-referential. Perhaps Anderson did not feel it was the correct forum to challenge anything said by Hanna in her interviews, especially after Hanna points out how she feels people will always question a woman’s version of events. With its unprecedented access to Bikini Kill’s musical and artwork archive and pro-female approach (it is fanzine-like in style and very few men are interviewed, not even Karren), perhaps it isn’t. This is Kathleen Hanna: Herstory.
Based on the short story ‘Carmilla’ by: Sheridan Le Fanu
Cast: Tina Romero, Claudio Brook, Susana Kamini, David Silva, Tina French
Electric Sheep is proud to present a rare screening of Alucarda at the amazing Masonic Temple, Andaz Hotel Liverpool Street, London, on Saturday 14 June, as part of the Magic and the Macabre weekend at the East End Film Festival. Acclaimed festival programmer and writer Kier-La Janisse, author of House of Psychotic Women (FAB Press), will introduce the screening.
Having produced Alejandro Jodorowsky’s incendiary first feature Fando y Lis (1968) as well as El topo (1970), Juan López Moctezuma went behind the camera in 1971 to make The Mansion of Madness (released in 1973), which was loosely based on an Edgar Allan Poe story. He followed it up with two vampire stories, Mary, Mary, Bloody Mary, shot in the USA with John Carradine in 1975, and Alucarda in 1978. Like Fernando Méndez and Carlos Enrique Taboada, Moctezuma was one of a handful of well-read Mexican directors who were interested in making horror films infused with cultural references and artistic ambitions. In Mexico, the genre was dominated at the time by populist lucha libre movies such as the Santo series, which pitched heroic costumed wrestlers against monsters, vampires and mummies. However, Chano Urueta’s take on Frankenstein, El monstruo resucitado (1953), and Méndez’s influential El vampiro (1957) had opened the way for a richer vein of horror, and the 50s and 60s were marked by a wave of delirious visions of terror that are still lauded for their visual beauty and atmospheric qualities.
Moctezuma was part of the Panique Theatre, which Jodorowsky had founded in Paris in 1962 with the Spanish playwright Fernando Arrabal (on whose play Fando y Lis was based) and the French artist Roland Topor. The name was a reference to the god Pan, and the movement (or anti-movement, as Arrabal would have it) was defined by a combination of terror and humour. Influenced by Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, Panique embraced disorder, madness and excess, the grotesque and the irrational, to create an anarchic celebration of life. From Artaud they also inherited the interest in a magical and ritualistic kind of theatrical spectacle, which used violent sensory assault to open up new perspectives in the audience.
Moctezuma implemented these ideas in The Mansion of Madness, in which the patients of an insane asylum are allowed to run free as their doctor adopts an Aleister Crowley-influenced approach to their treatment. Set in the similarly confined environment of a convent, Alucarda took the director’s interest in strange cults and rituals further. Alucarda’s birth opens the film, her wretched mother, having been impregnated by the devil, delivering the baby in a crypt surrounded by diabolical, horned, half-goat statues. To protect the newborn from her terrible father, she asks a bizarre-looking gypsy to take her daughter to the convent. Fifteen years later, Justine, a young, orphaned ingénue, arrives at the convent to find herself sharing a room with the raven-haired, black-clad, wild-eyed Alucarda.
Alucarda is clearly out of place in the convent and her holy abode has not been able to suppress the devil in her blood. She draws Justine into her world, taking her to the derelict crypt of her birth where she proposes they take a blood oath, so they can be friends forever, ‘even after death’. The ritual is performed in their room at night, which, this being the 70s, involves both of them being naked as the gargoyle-like gypsy from the opening scene magically appears to make cuts on their breasts from which they drink each other’s blood. They find themselves in the forest, where a ritual performed by witches ends in an orgy. Intercut with this are images of Sister Angélica, who welcomed Justine into the convent, praying intensely until her face becomes bloodied and she levitates, apparently able to conjure up some sort of power that strikes down the gypsy witch leading the ceremony.
The clear lesbian undertones of the film come from Sheridan Le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla’, on which Alucarda is very loosely based (the other literary reference is obviously Bram Stoker’s Dracula), but Moctezuma and his team of writers have made the story their own. The friendship between Alucarda and Justine has the devouring intensity of first love, but in the enclosed, all-female convent/hothouse, the girls’ repressed desires translate into demonic possession. The figure of Sister Angélica adds an interesting twist, turning the story into a spiritual lesbian love triangle. Her attachment to Justine is as dubiously excessive as Alucarda’s and is sublimated into a frighteningly exalted religious practice. The love triangle is complicated by Alucarda’s satanic nature and Sister Angélica’s self-sacrificial (‘angelic’) Christian figure, meaning that there is a lot more at stake than Justine’s affection: demonic Alucarda and holy Sister Angélica are battling over nothing less than Justine’s soul (the character is named after Sade’s unfortunate heroine, whose virtue is repeatedly assaulted by one group of perverted tormentors after another).
Alucarda has been seen as anticlerical, yet the depiction of religion comes across as very ambivalent, confused even. For a start, the convent is a very unusual religious edifice, a womb-like cave carved inside the rock. The nuns are dressed in off-white, red-stained robes and tight-fitting bonnets that make them look like mummies. Initially, there are intimations that Alucarda may be an adept of a natural religion, a religion of life opposed to the Catholic worship of death. The witches’ orgy contrasts with a later display of self-flagellation among the half-naked nuns and priests. An early, sumptuously sinister, almost painterly sermon takes place against the backdrop of a multitude of crucified Christs, creating an oppressive, macabre atmosphere. This is echoed in a later scene where Alucarda and Justine, naked, are tied to crosses for an exorcism ceremony. The dark, rich colours, the high camera angle and the cruelty of the ritual again conjure a memorable vision of religious maleficence.
And yet, Dr Oszek, who interrupts the exorcism and calls the officiating priest barbaric, is soon confronted with a gruesome supernatural phenomenon that destroys his scientific certainties and validates the priest’s beliefs. In one of the film’s most striking scenes, an undead (and again naked) Justine comes out of a blood-filled coffin to attack the devoted Sister Angélica. Alucarda proves a worthy daughter to her father when she unleashes hell upon the convent, stopped only by the body of the Christic Sister Angélica carried cross-like by the other nuns. All in all, you could say the Christian characters come out of this looking fairly reasonable in the circumstances.
The truth is that Moctezuma seems much more interested in extreme rituals of all kinds than in putting across an anticlerical message. The devil here appears in the form of Pan, as seen in the statues in the crypt and later in the goat’s head that presides over the orgiastic celebration in the forest, which clearly ties in with the ideas underlying Panique Theatre. The same actor, Claudio Brook (a Buñuel regular), plays both Dr Oszek and the gypsy, so that reason’s representative is also our mischievous guide into the occult and spiritual world, further undermining the rational standpoint. The many rituals, whether Christian or satanic, the orgy and the flagellation, the blood oath and the exorcism, are all marked by excess and strangeness, violence and beauty. The contrast between the beliefs that inform them is not what matters here; rather, the overall effect of their juxtaposition as grotesque and startling spectacles may well be designed to shock the audience into a new mode of perception.
As part of our exploration of ground-breaking Polish director Walerian Borowczyk, we look at his career as a board game in our comic strip review.
As part of Kinoteka, ‘Walerian Borowczyk: The Listening Eye’, an exhibition of preliminary studies for his animated shorts Les Jeux des Anges (1964), Le dictionnaire de Joachim (1965) and The Theatre of Mr and Mrs Kabal (1967) as well as his unique wooden sound sculptures is on at the ICA’s Fox Reading Room from 20 May – 6 July 2014.
Walerian Borowczyk’s medieval tragedy fools audiences into expecting one of the erotic films for which the director later became infamous. In the opening sequence of Blanche, the title character is seen emerging, completely naked, from her bath. The camera’s lascivious eye sets the scene for a tale of forbidden desire, but Blanche herself is as pure as her name (French for ‘white’). For the rest of the film she always appears, nun-like, in long gowns and modest caps that hide all but her hands and face. Young, beautiful, and married to an elderly baron, Blanche must flee the attentions of other men, starting with Bartolomeo, the notorious young page of a visiting king.
With its elegant costumes and set design, Blanche could be described as a historical drama, but the film’s sophistication exceeds conventional models. Borowczyk’s background in fine arts allows him to bring an additional layer of authenticity to the film by drawing on the representational style of the Middle Ages. Shots, composition and framing pay homage to medieval landscape and religious painting. Windows, doors and alcoves dramatically divide interior shots. Exterior long shots emphasise the harmonious juxtaposition of hilltop, pasture and road, with grazing animals and passing cavalcades reduced to minute decorative detail. The film also employs an animal symbolism characteristic of the period. The king arrives with a monkey on his shoulder, a disquieting emblem of insinuating, irrepressible sexuality that has free run of the castle, hiding away only to pop up unexpectedly throughout the film. In contrast, Blanche’s gentle, vulnerable innocence is mirrored by the caged white dove in her bedroom. Tempering the film’s loyalty to a medieval aesthetic, Borowczyk introduces self-reflexive techniques, such as disorientating point-of-view shots, which situate the film within a current of modern cinematic experimentation.
Daniel Bird, who is responsible for the restoration of Borowczyk’s films, says that Blanche (1972) inspired Terry Gilliam’s vision of the Middle Ages in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). I would suggest that Blanche itself appears to have been inspired by Jacques Demy’s Peau d’â;ne (Donkey Skin, 1970), a camp fairy tale about a princess (Catherine Deneuve) who must run away from home when her father decides he wants to marry her. The baron in Blanche is played by Michel Simon, who made his name in 1930s French poetic realist films like Boudu sauvé; des eaux (Boudu Saved from Drowning), L’Atalante and Le quai des brumes (Port of Shadows). He was in his late seventies when he appeared in Blanche opposite Ligia Branice, Borowczyk’s wife; as the baron is old enough to be her father, an early shot of him kissing Blanche on the mouth appears incestuous, echoing the theme of Demy’s film. Jacques Perrin, the young actor who played Prince Charming in Peau d’â;ne, reappears in Blanche as Bartolomeo, another role in which he ultimately defends the heroine’s honour.
The baron justly describes his wife as ‘a saintly woman, above all suspicion’, but halfway through the film he suddenly loses his trust in her. As he becomes irrationally hostile towards Blanche, we may assume that the old man is suffering from dementia. His condition seems to infect the film’s narrative, which loses its grip on the thread of logical coherence. Still, Borowczyk has woven such a mesmerising tapestry that the audience can’t help but continue to watch as it slowly, senselessly unravels.
Writers: Anthony Greville-Bell, Stanley Mann, John Kohn
Cast: Vincent Price, Diana Rigg, Ian Hendry, Milo O’Shea
Theatre of Blood is almost the last horror film Vincent Price made in the 1970s. Price was famous for a rather broad style of acting, and his last few 70s horror roles reflect that – the Dr Phibes films are high camp, and Madhouse (1974) casts him as a hammy old horror star. Theatre of Blood, Price’s favourite of his horror roles, has him play a Shakespearean actor, Edward Lionheart, out for revenge on the critics who gave him bad reviews. He murders them using methods taken from the Shakespeare plays he performed in his final season (although it’s unclear who Lionheart would have played in Cymbeline, a play without a lead male role).
Price’s star turn walks the line between humour and pathos extremely well. Like most of Price’s best parts, Lionheart is all flawed nobility, and gives the actor plenty of scope for his well-practised head-tilting, eye-rolling mannerisms. It is the culmination of the onscreen persona he had cultivated since at least The House on Haunted Hill (1959). Price is backed by a peerless supporting cast of British character actors, which includes his future wife Coral Browne, with Arthur Lowe, Harry Andrews and Robert Coote particularly good. Diana Rigg plays Lionheart’s adoring daughter (a rather under-written part) and the reliably unlikable Ian Hendry is the leader of the critics.
Comedy horror is difficult to pull off, and Theatre of Blood plays the horror mostly straight. The early murders are authentically nasty, especially the first, in which Michael Hordern is stabbed by meths drinkers. The later killings become more elaborate and outlandish, most famously in the Titus Andronicus sequence, but the gory effects still pack a visceral punch that is absent from most Vincent Price films.
The comedy is rather underplayed, and is best when it isn’t obtrusive. The funniest moment comes when the stunt doubles for Price and Hendry indulge in some preposterously athletic fencing. There are also nice little character moments among the critics, played to perfection by comedy veterans like Robert Morley and Arthur Lowe. Price’s disguises are funny, especially the Olivier-baiting false nose he wears as Richard III. Other attempts at humour, such as the slightly jarring presence of Eric Sykes as a detective, are less successful.
The director, Douglas Hickox, had done comedy before (Entertaining Mr Sloane, 1970, a film that isn’t screamingly funny), but made Theatre of Blood just after the depressing crime thriller Sitting Target (1972). His next film was Brannigan (1975), a John Wayne action movie. Theatre of Blood certainly feels like a film made by a director happier with violence than comedy.
In spite of its advantages, though, the film doesn’t quite work. The unrealistic elements – comical names, plodding detectives – don’t fit with the brutality of the killings. While deaths plucked from Shakespeare’s plays are a worthy follow-up to Phibes’s Biblical killings, the derelict, grimy London of Theatre of Blood is light years away from Phibes’s art deco dreamland. The film also feels a bit too long – one or two of the critics could have been jettisoned. Shaving 15 minutes from the run time would have made this much stronger.
Still, it’s interestingly positioned at the end of an era. The film makes it clear that Lionheart isn’t a bad actor; he’s just an unfashionable one. At the Critics’ Circle awards, his old-school barnstorming is ignored in favour of a younger method actor (‘a twitching, mumbling boy’). 1973, the year of Theatre of Blood, saw the National Theatre move from the traditional Old Vic to Denys Lasdun’s modernist South Bank complex, just downriver from where the critics meet in the film. Director and businessman Peter Hall took over from actor-manager Laurence Olivier as its artistic director that same year, cementing a general shift in influence from star performers to directors. It’s hard to imagine Edward Lionheart taking too kindly to modern-dress Shakespeare or social realist readings of Hamlet.
And, of course, the same thing was happening in horror films at the same time. Star-vehicle horror of the kind that had kept Price in art and cookery books died out in the 1970s. We tend to think of 1960s horror in terms of its actors; 70s horror belongs to directors like George Romero and Wes Craven. 1973 saw the release of classic new-style horrors like Don’t Look Now and The Exorcist alongside some of the last Hammer Gothics and Amicus portmanteau films. The writing was on the wall.
It’s tempting to see Lionheart’s refusal to bow to changing times as reflecting Price’s own attitude. Better to go out howling defiance than to go on like Hammer and Amicus did, churning out the same old stuff and hoping the audiences would come back. But perhaps that’s reading too much into a film in which a man is forced to eat his own poodles.
Arrow’s Blu-ray release upgrades the film’s image in impressive fashion without losing its grimy ambience. The extras are a bit light compared to some of their releases. The best is a commentary by the League of Gentlemen, who know a thing or two about mixing horror and comedy (although Mark Gatiss should note that Tutte Lemkow was, in fact, a man). If it isn’t quite the classic it could have been, there are still pleasures enough to make Theatre of Blood well worth watching.
Cast: David Keith, Cathy Moriarty, Mike Desantos, Art Evans
Despite having made only four films, not all of them completed to his satisfaction, Donald Cammell has left a substantial legacy. Performance (1970), co-directed with Nicolas Roeg, has entered rock history, thanks to Mick Jagger, who was probably channelling the late Brian Jones, and definitely sleeping with co-star Anita Pallenberg, Keith Richards’s girlfriend. Cammell’s only other film that decade was Demon Seed (1977), an occasionally effective adaptation of a Dean Koontz sci-fi/horror novel that disappointed anyone looking for another Performance. His next film, the psycho-thriller White of the Eye, appeared in 1987. After seeing his final movie Wild Side (which starred Christopher Walken, Joan Chen and Anne Heche) heavily re-edited by the producers, Cammell committed suicide in 1995.
Of his four films, only Demon Seed and White of the Eye were released in Cammell’s intended form, and it’s probably no coincidence that they are his most traditional, accessible efforts. Cammell left behind a long list of abandoned projects; his only other commercial releases are a handful of short films and a little-seen music video for U2’s hit single ‘Pride (In the Name of Love)’.
Like most psycho-thrillers, White of the Eye begins with a murder, as a wealthy woman is followed back to her isolated home in the Tucson desert and slain by an unseen stranger. Unlike most similar films, Cammell shows us very little in the way of bloody violence, although there’s no doubt what’s happening. Instead he concentrates on the chaos caused by the assault: a wine bottle smashes, a glass leaks its contents across the work surface, fresh flowers fall to the floor, a cooking pot shatters (spilling the only blood shown in the scene). The two murders are bloodless but make a notable impact thanks to Cammell’s careful use of violence and a handful of memorably surreal images, like a goldfish splashing about in a cooking pot . In the light of later events, one moment in particular seems oddly prescient: a dying victim observes her own death throes in a hand mirror (according to some accounts, after shooting himself Cammell asked for a mirror to see the self-inflicted wounds).
From there White of the Eye moves into standard police procedural territory, as detectives match tyre tracks found at the scene of one of the murders to (among others) local resident Paul White, played by David Keith. White lives with his wife Joan (Cathy Moriarty) and daughter Danielle and makes a living as a sound engineer, fitting high-end amplifiers and sound systems for his wealthy neighbours. Keith and Moriarty are both excellent and contribute greatly to the overall impact of the movie. Unfortunately they can do little to remedy the film’s major defect: pacing. After the blitz attack of the first murder, White of the Eye settles into a slow-moving groove that robs the material of any real sense of urgency or danger, even when Paul is being questioned by the police. A subplot about Paul’s infidelity becomes essential to the narrative later on, but at the time those scenes drag heavily. It’s not until the second murder that Cammell begins to pick up the pace, having spent the first hour setting up the characters and situations in preparation for the film’s hectic final act.
Despite the pacing problems, White of the Eye has strong points, not least Keith and Moriarty’s credible, convincing performances. On a visual and audio level the film consistently impresses, whether it’s the choreographed chaos of the first murder or the way the camera glides over the abandoned quarries and pits that make up the distinctive Arizona wilderness. Although the Arizona landscape is largely man-made, the angular and bright white buildings look utterly out of place against that background. The same applies to Cammell’s characters. It’s a thoroughly incongruous setting for the trappings of 1980s culture, whether it’s the high-tech sound equipment Paul works with or the faintly ludicrous perms and high heels the residents wear. The image is reinforced by Nick Mason’s score, which mixes the atmospheric psychedelia of 1970s Pink Floyd with Rick Fenn’s restrained but evocative slide guitar, hovering on the boundary between blues and rock.
Casual viewers might find themselves frustrated by Cammell’s initial lack of interest in plot and suspense, but White of the Eye does reward patience, even if the end results don’t reach the same level as Michael Mann’s Manhunter, released less than 12 months previously.
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