We Are the Martians: The Legacy of Nigel Kneale
Edited by Neil Snowdon PS Publishing 491pp.
Publishing date: June 2017
The Gremlins director talks about the ground-breaking British screenwriter best known for the Quatermass serials and films. This is an edited version of Neil Snowdon’s interview with Joe Dante on Nigel Kneale, which is published in the newly released book We Are the Martians: The Legacy of Nigel Kneale.
Joe Dante is one of the great heroes of American cinema. His highly subversive, wildly entertaining movies are unique in the landscape of Hollywood cinema. Cine-literate, politically aware and scathingly satirical, his extraordinary filmography from The Howling and Gremlins to The Burbs and The Hole will make you laugh, feel and think. Dante is also one of Hollywood’s great advocates for cinema history. His encyclopaedic knowledge is on display in all his movies, and at his website, trailersfromhell.com.
Format: DVD + Blu-ray Release date: 5 June 2017 Distributor: Kaleidoscope Entertainment Director: Alice Lowe Writer: Alice Lowe Cast: Alice Lowe, Gemma Whelan, Kate Dickie, Tom Davis
The multi-talented British writer-director-performer talks about exploring disturbing territory, filming while pregnant and catching the magic of the moment.
Known for her work in Sightseers and Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, Alice Lowe made her widely acclaimed directorial debut with the warped, hilarious and bloody black comedy Prevenge, which she also wrote and starred in while heavily pregnant. Filmed in 11 days, the story focuses on an expecting mother who goes on a vengeful killing spree, spurred on by her unborn baby. Although it is a dark, uncomfortable and surreal tale, Lowe has managed to create a character that audiences find themselves rooting for. A film that confuses the moral compass, it stays on the mind long after it ends.
One of the Montreal festival’s favourite directors talks about manga adaptations, teen films and not making a science fiction movie.
It was with a standing ovation that Takashi Miike was greeted by a very enthusiastic Montreal crowd as he introduced As the Gods Will, one of the two films he had playing at this year’s Fantasia festival, the second being science-fiction action epic Terraformars. A violent death-game fantasy, As the Gods Will sees high school children confronted with a series of traditional toys with lethal powers; if the children lose the game, their heads explode into thousands of little red balls. The survivors are then taken to a mysterious white cube that floats above the city, where another set of challenges awaits them, the aim of that cruel testing unclear. Adapted from a manga, it is another hyper-kinetic, over-active, playfully delirious film from the prolific Miike, quirkier than Battle Royale and deadlier than Alice in Wonderland.
Virginie Sélavy talked to Takashi Miike at Fantasia about manga adaptations, teen films and not making a science fiction movie.
Virginie Sélavy: Both Terraformars and As the Gods Will are adapted from manga, which is also the case with a number of your previous films. What do you particularly like about turning manga into live action films?
Takashi Miike: If I told my producer, ‘imagine that on Mars there are a lot of cockroaches and I want to make a film where people fight with cockroaches on Mars’, the producer would ask me if I’m alright in the head. Or if I said I wanted to make a film with a daruma doll playing games with children and making their heads explode, people would be asking if I’m insane. Now producers avoid all risks in film, but in the world of manga they can take more liberties with those things. There are a lot of young people competing and the editors take more risks. That’s what people making films want to do, but they can’t right now. So adapting a manga is good because we can prove that we can have a hit with it, and afterwards I can make other kinds of films, so there’s a natural continuity.
A few of your recent films are also violent stories set in high school, Crows Zero, Lesson of Evil, For Love’s Sake. Do you particularly like school settings and teenage stories?
When you make a teenage film you have to have a whole class, so you need a lot of actors aged from 15 to 20, and actually there are a lot of different kinds of actors who fit the bill. There are actors who have played since they were children, and there are also models, but we cannot have a class made up just of beautiful-looking people. So there are a lot of different types of actors that we can use and it gives us a lot of possibilities because there are many imperfections. Even if they don’t play like professional actors there’s something that can be created. Those imperfections are very interesting because it’s like making a documentary film about being young. That’s my interest in those types of films and I enjoy doing this.
The contrast between the cuteness of the toys and their deadliness is startling and very effective. Was that an aspect that attracted you to this particular story?
As a writer or a producer it is a world that you cannot make with adults. It’s not adults fighting, it’s basically children. If they were at university they would not fight like this. There is something that is very childish, that is not balanced yet, about the way they fight, and those children fight with very old traditional Japanese games that are actually quite cruel. So this is something that can be connected, and that’s why I was attracted by this.
You’ve worked in many different genres, in fact you’ve even created your own hybrids (yakuza vampire film in Yakuza Apocalypse for instance) but science fiction is not really a genre that you’ve done much work in, especially on this grand scale. What interested you in the Terraformars story?
For me, Terraformars is not a science fiction movie. For me, in a science fiction movie there is something that is logical and scientific, and the science is the key to the problem, it is what you use to solve the problem. But Terraformars is more like fantasy. And also we can imagine that it is a fight between two schools, and it’s about which school is more powerful than the other. It’s like being inside the imagination of children, and while they’re creating this fantasy we try to find out how people can survive, and what will come after. So it’s a world that is strange and mysterious, but it’s not science fiction.
Cast: Noomi Rapace, Peter Stormare, Michael Chiklis, Kerry Bishé
USA, Canada 2016
Secretary director Steven Shainberg talks about female leads, arachnophobia and Peter Dinklage on the occasion of his latest film, which marks his first foray into genre.
It has been 14 years since Steven Shainberg’s brilliant indie breakout hit Secretary and 10 since his last directorial effort, Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus. Always following his own individual path, Shainberg returns with a horror/SF tale that feels like a cross between X-Files and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, starring Noomi Rapace as Renee, an arachnophobic single mum kidnapped by a group of sinister strangers with mysterious aims.
Rupture premiered at Fantasia in Montreal in July 2016 where Virginie Sélavy met Steven Shainberg to talk about his interest in female leads, his adoration for Peter Dinklage, and the spider metaphor.
Virginie Sélavy: It’s been 10 years since Fur, why has it taken so long for you to make another film?
Steven Shainberg: It’s all about money. I had my children, whom I adore and try and spend as much time with as I can possibly can, but the answer is, it has been impossible to get my other movies made. In the time that it took me to get Rupture made I’ve had seven other movies projects. Some of them are cast partially, two of them got very close to getting made, and every single time the money was not there. That’s the reason it’s been that long.
This is your first foray into horror and SF. What led you to make a genre film?
It is a genre film in certain ways, but in other ways it’s exactly the same movie as the other seven movies that I haven’t made and the movies that I have made, in that it’s the story of a person who is confronted with an unusual situation and has to discover who they are. For whatever reason, all the things I’m interested in are always about that kind of personal discovery within yourself, about who you really are and identity. When I started, I had this idea for this movie and I started talking to this producer about it. Originally it wasn’t a movie I thought I’d be interested to make, and then as I started working on the story and as we developed the screenplay I realised, ‘this is that movie, I’m making that movie again’. And I thought it would be interesting to see if that kind of story could be told in a different context. It is a movie about somebody who has to confront their fear in order to transform into who they really are. That’s the story of Secretary and that’s the story of Fur. And that’s the story of the other movies as well. So in that sense it is really no different.
In the films you’ve made, self-discovery also comes through pain, is that fair to say?
There’s pain, which is also part of self-discovery and change, and there’s confusion, and fear. Those I think are the doors through which we have to pass in order to get anywhere and in order to have any kind of truth about ourselves. And girls are more fun to look at than boys.
Yes, you clearly like female characters.
When Kieslowski made Red, White and Blue, he was asked why all his heroes are women, and I think his answer was something along the line of ‘they’re great to look at’. And you do have to look through the lens at them for a long time, and then you have to be in the cutting room with them for a long time, and then you have to go out into the world with them for a long time, and I think I’m inclined to love them, and adore them, so that’s what leads me in that direction. But then, most of the movies I’m trying to get made have very strong male characters and I think to some extent that’s a desire to change that. But that’s pretty much been my inclination.
Do you have to be in love with your main character?
You have to be in love with all your characters for sure, even the ones that are horrible, at least understand them and want to connect with them in some way. But the protagonist of the movie, yes, you got to love that person. That’s what’s hard about making a movie. I’ll just give you an example. I have a movie that the rather fabulous Peter Dinklage is going to play the lead in and I totally adore him. So because of that feeling that I have for him it’s exciting to think that we can make that movie. He’s a guy.
Despite the similarities between Secretary and Rupture the big difference is that in Secretary there is some kind of resolution, whereas Rupture is open-ended – it seems made for a sequel.
From your mouth to God’s ears. There were various endings for this movie, the intention and the hope were that the movie would make a shitload of money and that we would get to make another one. That’s why the ending is open-ended. Because this tells a very simple first-beat story of Renee becoming part of them. And the thing that happens between her and them, and then between her, them and her kid and then the world, is not part of this movie. It’s supposed to be part of other movies. So that’s the reason.
Why did you decide to focus on a single mum? Did that have special significance for you?
This is the reason why they take her when they take her. She’s primed for the ‘rupture’. This means that there are periods in your life when you are vulnerable and when you’re more fragile and you’re not as strong as you might have been a couple of years ago or you will be in the future. But at that moment some real change can occur for you. And that’s why she’s a person who is saying to her friend on the phone and to her kid, ‘I’m going sky-diving’. Who goes sky-diving for the first time? It’s a person who is looking for a new feeling, they are looking for something in themselves that they can release, for a kind of transformation. So she has this fragile relationship with her ex-husband who is insensitive to her, and she’s vulnerable and she’s tender and she’s looking for a change and that’s the moment when things can happen for you.
You always seem interested in marginalised characters, people who are different for one reason or another.
Yeah. The thing is, problems are what’s interesting. The movie has to have somebody in a problem, and I’m not drawn to the ordinary guy who is angst-ridden about his suburban life unless he’s nuts and really on the edge. I guess I grew up as an unusual person in various ways and so I feel connected. My wife says, ‘you’re much more Peter Dinklage than Bradley Cooper’, [laughs] and it’s true! I would rather cast Peter Dinklage than Bradley Cooper!
The actors are all terrific. How did you cast the film?
It’s one of the ironies of low-budget filmmaking that for most supporting parts you can’t afford another big name. And my translation of that is, ‘oh, we get to cast people who are great and right for the movie’. If Renee goes to that facility and all those people are faces that you know, people you recognize, you will not be scared because you know who they are. But if you don’t know who they are it’s much more unnerving. So we had to cast certain people out of Toronto because of our Toronto deal, but we could also bring some people. So for instance we brought Lesley Manville, who from my point of view is one of the greatest actresses of the world. I never thought she would do it, but she was free, in between two movies, so it was amazing to have her, I love her. And the same thing was true with Michael Chiklis and Kerry Bishé and everybody else, and certainly with Peter Stormare. It needed to be a group that had a certain coherent internal vibe. And the criterion was, is this a person who feels like they’ve ‘ruptured’ in their own lives? That’s what Andrew Lazar the producer and I would assess during casting. ‘That guy is awesome but he’s wrong for the movie. He hasn’t ruptured yet.’ [laughs] I’ve ruptured many times… [laughs]
What inspired that idea of transformation coming out of terror?
It’s something I understand, what you have to move through and be capable of working with in your life in order to arrive at something new for yourself. The spiders in the film are merely a metaphor, and we all have those things crawling all over us all of the time. Most of the time most people can’t transcend that. One of the things that I like about the movie is that everyone else is saying, ‘what do you want from me?’, all the people who are in the facility, and they never answer the question, except to say, ‘it’s entirely up to you’. And that’s the truth, it’s entirely up to you.
What’s great is that you never know if they’re good or bad guys, their ultimate aim is never made clear.
That’s absolutely true. That’s the experience we have in our own lives with people who are working on us. Whoever is saying to you or to me, ‘this is where you’re failing’, or ‘this is your problem’, or ‘you need to…’, or ‘how come you can’t ?’, ‘what’s stopping you?’, we’re suspicious of them. We don’t know if they’re good or bad. They might be loving and gentle but they might be insisting that we do something hard. Or they might be threatening and suggesting that we might be doing something easy and good for us. So we are confused about it. Our experience of it is confusion.
And this goes with the fact that in the movie you show two people transform, the two most beautiful women in the cast, and the transformation looks disturbingly ugly, so you have this contrast between beauty and monstrosity.
Yes, but that’s also about one of the things that we are terrified of: if we make that transformation we will become something horrible to ourselves and to others. Or not necessarily something horrible, but something unknown, and unknown and horrible are right next to each other. You can’t have them transform into something beautiful and lovely because that’s not how we experience the fear of transformation, that’s not how we experience the challenge of all these things. We’re afraid that there’s something ugly in us. Otherwise we wouldn’t be afraid of it. If it was just something beautiful that was going to be revealed it’d be very easy. We’re ashamed and terrified and disinclined. This is precisely the metaphor of the movie and how it operates throughout the whole film. And that’s what made me want to make it. Yes, it’s a genre movie, but it’s really a movie about spiritual existence.
The soundtrack to John Landis’s much-loved horror comedy inventively subverts the clichés of the genre.
John Landis’s 1981 classic horror film An American Werewolf in London was something of a pet project: the script was written by the director many years before but the studio thought it either too funny or too scary to green light. Following the success of National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) and The Blues Brothers (1980), Landis found himself with a carte blanche for his next project. Despite its odd comedy/horror mix An American Werewolf in London became yet another box-office smash. In 1981 it was a film everyone was talking about – particularly horror makeup man Rick Baker’s first-rate gore and the great man-to-wolf transformation scene. Landis and Baker would team up again in 1983 to zombify Michael Jackson in Thriller.
After all these years the inventiveness of the film remains striking. It is clearly in the horror genre and yet sidesteps cliché at every turn, and nowhere more memorably than with the soundtrack. There’s no scary music; instead we get mood music so subtle it is hardly noticeable and handful of pop songs with the word ‘moon’ in the title. All great songs and used with irony and humour.
The film opens with a shot of the moors, but not the foggy storm-battered moors of horror classics. These hills are pleasant and green and lit by a slowly setting sun. These shots are accompanied by the first of the film’s three moon songs, Bobby Vinton’s classy 1963 version of ‘Blue Moon’. It was recorded for his ‘blue’ concept album along with his hit records ‘Blue on Blue’ and of course ‘Blue Velvet’. This smooth, sweet, almost sugary confection stands as a paradigm of American pop music between rock’n’roll and the British invasion. With its lush production complete with subtle tasteful instrumentation and backing vocals whispering ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’, this is perhaps the piece of music with the least tension ever to open a horror film.
There is a gap of an hour featuring a visit to a pub, a wolf attack and a few dream sequences before the next song accompanies the young lovers: the werewolf attack survivor and his nurse take a shower to Van Morrison’s 1970 ‘Moondance’. Although less obviously ironic than the other songs its light jazzy swing is certainly at odds with the typical wailing saxophone that usually enhanced such scenes in 1981. The third moon song follows shortly after. Creedence Clearwater Revival’s apocalyptic stomp ‘Bad Moon Rising’ (1969) accompanies our lycanthrope as he spends a weekday afternoon battling boredom (he even tries British daytime television), a strange restlessness and lack of appetite. It is a truly great song and a great stripped-down production with one of the best drum sounds ever recorded, and it is completely at odds with the scene. Boredom never seemed so much fun.
Two more versions of ‘Blue Moon’ follow. Sam Cooke’s unique soulful phrasing plays over the painful transformation scene. And after the heartbreaking ending, the end titles are accompanied by the famous ‘bom-di-di-bom’ of The Marcels’ upbeat doo-wop version. It is now the most famous version of the song written in the mid-30s by show-tune specialists Rodgers and Hart. The joyful ending seems so perfect for a film imbued with the love of making movies. Landis’s career went from strength to strength and many more box-office successes followed. Those subsequent films were tight and entertaining but his love of cinema was never again so obvious.
A new special edition release, includes the director’s short films and music videos, and a director approved High Definition transfer
Distributor: Arrow Video
Director: Jörg Buttgereit
Writers: Jörg Buttgereit, Franz Rodenkirchen
Cast: Monika M., Mark Reeder, Lena Braun
The German filmmaker talks about women aggressor characters, the banning of his film in Germany, realism and truth.
After last year’s groundbreaking DVD release of Jörg Buttgereit’s punk-art bombshell Nekromantik, Arrow Video is making its 1991 sequel, Nekromantik 2, available on home video for the first time in the UK. Banned in Germany at the time, Nekromantik 2 is the female pendant to the original film, starring the disarmingly sweet Monika M. as a necrophile torn between a dead and a living lover. Slicker and more melancholy, although still punctuated by moments of hilariously incongruous humour, the second instalment of corpse love mixes pop art and gore to probe the limits of the normal and the abnormal.
Virginie Sélavy talks to Jörg Buttgereit about women aggressor characters, the banning of the film in Germany, realism and truth.
Virginie Sélavy: After Nekromantik, you initially refused to make the sequel people were demanding. What prompted you to make a Nekromantik sequel after making Der Todesking in 1990?
Jörg Buttgereit: I was always playing with the expectations of the audience, so when I made Der Todesking after Nekromantik people were surprised. I was trying to get more freedom to do what I wanted to do. After I had that freedom with Der Todesking I wasn’t afraid to do a sequel anymore because I knew I could do something different, I didn’t have to do the same thing all over again. The fact that the Wall came down in between the first and the second Nekromantik was a good way of having a different point of view on the topic. And of course this time the film was made from a woman’s point of view, which is something I felt was necessary, because all the movies I made before had a male audience.
Did you always want to make the film from a female perspective?
Yes, I think so. The idea might have come to our minds when we did one of the episodes for Der Todesking, the ‘ego-shooter’ woman. That was also a female take on the male character from Taxi Driver. That was something we explored more accurately in Nekromantik 2. And in the first Nekromantik we had Beatriz, who was also a very strong woman, so it was just taking it a step further.
So you were interested in depicting a woman aggressor rather than a woman victim.
Yeah, which is something that from today’s point of view may not look too exciting, but 25 years ago it was still necessary. And it worked out in a way, because one of the first festivals the film was invited to was a feminist film festival in Vienna. It was a film festival that only showed films with women aggressors. But I wasn’t allowed to go because I was a man. That was a little depressing! They screened films like Empire of the Senses and Ms 45. They made a hardcover catalogue for the festival. I think it was the first film book that Nekromantik 2 was in. They told me that afterwards they had a shooting lesson for women. The festival was called Mörderinnen.
You have said that the film was liked more by women than by men. Do you think that’s still the case?
Maybe that was the case when the film came out. But the fact that the film got banned in Germany made it very attractive to people who didn’t like it in the first place, which didn’t do any good for me because I wasn’t allowed to distribute the film for two years. But for me it was very satisfying that there was a female audience at all for a horror film. That wasn’t very normal in those days. We’ve just been to some festivals with German Angst in Austria and with Nekromantik 2 in Finland, and I was surprised to see how many female audience members we had – really young female audience members. After a screening of German Angst I was so curious that I approached the young girls and asked why they watched a film like that. My episode [in the three-part anthology] is very close to Nekromantik 2 I think. To them it felt very normal to watch these films, they couldn’t really explain. So it was a very satisfying experience to see so many young women attending screenings of horror films.
Do you think that the fact that the film is about a woman also played a part in the reaction of the authorities in banning it?
That’s very hard to say. If I think about it today, maybe. But the Werkstattkino cinema in Munich, where the raid happened in 1992, was raided on a regular basis. The same thing happened for Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. So I think that for the authorities it was just another one of those films, and they didn’t even know it was a German film. When they banned a movie like Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 or an American horror movie nobody complained because in the case of TCM 2 there wasn’t even a German distributor, so it was very easy to get rid of those films. But when they took my film I had to fight back because they were trying to destroy the negative, something that was really frightening, and that resulted in raids on our homes as well. So what they did was more like a political attack. And maybe it was also due to the fact that it was my third movie. When I made Nekromantik it played in exactly the same cinema in Munich but nothing happened because the authorities didn’t know me. After the third movie it was ‘OK, this guy is not going to stop if we don’t do something’.
It’s interesting that you made the first Nekromantik as a reaction to German censorship but nothing happened and it was only with the sequel…
Because Nekromantik was so small. It was me driving around with the film prints to all the different cities. Nobody had seen the film. If you wanted to see it you had to go to a midnight screening and district attorneys don’t go to midnight screenings. Sometimes it’s easy to get away from censorship by just making it exclusive. We hadn’t put it out on VHS, that came a year later, so it was a really underground independent film. Everybody heard about the movie. I think the first screening in Berlin of Nekromantik was in a three-seat cinema and 500 people came. After that screening it was just word of mouth. But with Nekromantik 2 it was different, it was reviewed like a normal movie.
Did you still feel you were making a film in reaction to German censorship when you made Nekromantik 2?
I was feeling quite secure, quite free to do what I wanted. So when I heard that the movie was confiscated in Munich, I wasn’t there, I was in Paris, promoting the release of Der Todesking I think, and Nekromantik on VHS. Someone phoned me in Paris and told me the cinema had been raided and I would be charged with ‘glorifying violence’. I didn’t take it very seriously in the first place, but when I got back home and they had raided the place of the producer it got quite serious.
What do you think of that accusation of ‘glorifying violence’?
That was the usual way of getting rid of movies like this, it’s a paragraph of the law where you can skip artistic freedom. It’s aimed at Nazi propaganda. If you glorify violence against foreigners you’re doing something against the law and you should be treated like a criminal and not like an artist. That’s the concept behind it. So I didn’t take that accusation very seriously because I knew that it was not true. That’s why the film was unharmed in the end, because it was not true. The judge watched the movie and an art historian came up with a thesis about it being a metaphor for East Germany and then the film was cleared. If you watch it it’s very obvious that it doesn’t promote violence against other people. It was stupid to take this kind of bullet-proof paragraph of the law to get rid of it, they were just too lazy to think about it.
There is a direct reference to real-life necrophile Karen Greenlee in Nekromantik 2 through one of her drawings, which appears on Monika’s wall. This grounding in reality always seems essential to you.
Yes, of course, because that’s something normal horror movies do as well – ‘what you’re about to see is based on actual fact’ – all this stuff gives films a more realistic and threatening kick. But my films are about real horror, not about walking dead and ghosts from another world. I wouldn’t dare to touch stuff Hollywood could do better. If you work with friends, there’s no money, it’d be ridiculous to do something like Lifeforce [laughs]. You have to stick to your abilities, throw everything away that could be ridiculous if you tried it. I think that’s why so many independent or low-budget horror movies suck, because they want to do the same things as Hollywood, which is pointless in the first place because those movies already exist, so why bother doing it again?
The film pragmatically looks at the reality of being a necrophile, for instance in the first scene, when Monika can’t have sex with Rob’s corpse because it makes her physically sick.
That’s something Dennis Nilsen describes in his book, Killing for Company, which I’d read before doing Nekromantik. There are pictures in Killing for Company where he drew how he put the corpses and the heads in plastic bags, and where he put air freshener in, which I was trying to copy exactly. If they could choose I think they would prefer a living person, but that’s so complicated sometimes [laughs]. Dennis Nilsen had living people in his flat but he was afraid that they would go away, and so he got them drunk to make sure that they would stay. It’s a very innocent and childish concept but he, and Monika too, would have preferred to have a living partner, and that’s what the movie is about. That’s why she’s trying to make the straight relationship work with Mark Reeder.
There’s something funny, but also quite poignant, about the scene when Monika is taking pictures with Rob’s corpse on the sofa.
Again it was a way of trying to picture what I read in books like Killing for Company, having a relationship with this person that you killed last night [laughs]. That was something that fascinated me. When Dennis Nilsen killed someone, he took a necktie from them and went to work the next day with these clothes. He was pretending that this was normal, and for him it was normal. I’m trying to show something normal, which is of course funny and creepy.
The idea of what is normal and what is not normal runs through the film. There’s a really interesting contrast in the film between Monika and her very unconventional desires, and Mark, who works in porn, but is very conventional in terms of his romantic relationships.
That was something I had in mind all the time. It’s still true because if I tell people today that I’ve just done a horror movie called German Angst, they don’t say, ‘That’s great, tell me more about it’, they say, ‘Why? Why do you do this? What’s wrong with you?’ In Germany you have to justify what you do, and people treat you like you’re not normal, but I always felt normal, and I felt more honest in doing these kinds of movies. So that’s maybe the main theme behind it, the need for all German horror film fans and horror filmmakers to justify themselves all the time.
Why did you decide to repeat the climax of the first film in the credits of the sequel?
I think it was mainly because of the fact that Nekromantik 2 starts very slowly and I wanted to have something at the beginning that makes you aware of the fact that there will be something terrible happening after a long wait. Many horror fans were waiting for a film like Nekromantik 2 and I was not giving them what they wanted, I was playing with expectations again. So with the credit scene at the beginning I was making them feel safe so they wouldn’t walk out after five minutes [laughs].
You also include a parody of Louis Malle’s My Dinner with André. Why that particular film?
At the time the film was made I had a subscription to Fangoria and I learned English from reading all the letters in that section of the magazine. There was often hate mail that would say, ‘If you don’t like this horror movie, then go and watch My Dinner with André, so My Dinner with André was like the antithesis of a horror movie. When I thought of the concept for a film-in-a-film, I hadn’t even seen My Dinner with André [laughs]! So it’s mainly a spoof on this very dumb approach horror fans have to art movies, where they just won’t watch them, and that was me playing with the expectations of the audience, giving them an art movie. That’s why the characters in that film-in-the-film are played by famous underground artists Wolfgang Müller and Käthe Kruse from the group Die Tödliche Doris. I said they should be naked and I asked them to find out what they could talk about, and so this is like a spoof on the narrow-minded horror fans [laughs], and I’m having a laugh in the back of the cinema about the horror fans who have to sit through this art stuff.
How important was it that you found Monika at a screening of Lucio Fulci’s House by the Cemetery?
The fact that she was there on her own was something that was not ‘normal’ at the time, and it meant that you could at least hope that she would be open-minded to be in an art movie about necrophilia. I don’t know how aware she was of what she was doing. She was very flattered that everybody was giving her so much attention and that we liked every move she made in front of the camera. We never talked much about it. I can’t really remember directing her like, ‘This is your motive’, and stuff like that. It was more like, ‘OK, the camera is here, you walk from here to there to put this on that’. It was a very pragmatic way of directing. That’s always the way it is with me. She had seen Der Todesking and she watched Nekromantik, and that was more than I could have explained.
Did she have a problem with any of the things that she had to do?
No. That was something I was very curious about too. That was maybe one of the main concerns. I told her what we were showing on screen to make sure that we didn’t exploit her. That was something we talked about a lot and I gave her the chance to be in the editing room in case something wasn’t kosher with her.
What do you think she brought to the character?
The most important thing, innocence. Because she didn’t know anything about acting, or about necrophilia [laughs]. And beauty, of course. The perfect contrast to the idea of necrophilia. When we were doing these films we didn’t know what we were doing. But that’s still the idea now. When I work for the stage I make sure I don’t know exactly what I’m doing. For German Angst it was necessary for me to put something dangerous in the movie. So I took this young girl who was not experienced in acting, and that was my dangerous item for the film. That’s what I look for. I’m not trying to make normal pictures like Hollywood, I look for some kind of truth or authenticity.
Interview by Virginie Sélavy
The interview was first published in December 2015 for the release of Arrow Video’s limited 3-disc digipak (Blu-ray, DVD and CD soundtrack).
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.
Following their well-received 2012 debut Resolution, co-directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead have crafted a romantic monster tale in Spring, mixing elements of horror and science fiction to explore love and relationships. The story centres on Evan, a young American who runs away to Italy after a bereavement. In a beautiful seaside town, he meets the seductive, free-spirited Louise and falls helplessly in love. But he will soon come to realise that Louise is hiding a dark secret.
Virginie Sélavy talked to Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead at the London Film Festival in October 2014 where they discussed stem cells, new monsters and romantic inexperience.
Virginie Sélavy: Spring is part romance, part horror, part science fiction, and it’s very obvious that you made an effort to avoid genre clichés. Why was it important for you to have horror and science fiction elements in a romantic love story?
Justin Benson: I know this is going to sound like a cop-out answer but in the writing process we never discussed the genre it came in. At the very basic level there was the desire to make a monster movie but there’s something fun and rebellious in making a new monster. It’s so ingrained in writers and storytellers to use the same half-dozen or so monsters and mythologies that no one even attempts it. And as far as her mythology and the system by which her body works, the whole thing was trying to create a monster that has an emotional resonance like Bram Stoker’s Dracula is an exploration of sexual repression in Victorian society, or Frankenstein is about fear of science. And if you really think about it you can’t separate the monster component of our movie from the emotional component.
What is your monster about for you?
JB: It’s a little more surface level than metaphorical. She quite literally uses men to regenerate herself. She’s survived for 2,000 years by just sleeping with men and you don’t see that in cinema very often. She’s still a normal girl, but for self-preservation she’s willing to continuously sleep with people without emotional attachment. Thematically the movie is about the idea of rebirth, and that’s something we tried to photograph as well with all the insects and nature shots.
Aaron Moorhead: I think also every time she does that is a rejection of eternal love. And the stopping of the monster is the acceptance of eternal love, so accepting the complications and making sacrifices is what that represents, and the monster going away represents love as something more than just chemical.
Louise is an inexplicable, random, sometimes frightening creature governed by irrational forces. Was this also about women and their unpredictable nature with their strange bodily transformations?
JB: It was but that’s actually a low-hanging fruit in terms of representations or metaphors because every monster story is about that. The hope is that, as audience members who are not monsters, you highly identify with the situation because we’ve all been with someone where you wonder, ‘who is this person actually?’ and you also see yourself as a monster sometimes in relationships. And that’s something that’s been explored through countless films. I hope we did it as effectively as we can do it. However that’s a pretty well-tread path of symbolism.
You make great effort to anchor your story in the natural world and to give a scientific, rather than supernatural, explanation to your monster. Why was that important for you?
JB: For me it’s just that anything that is pure supernatural is less scary. Because there’s the idea that maybe something like Louise could actually exist in the world, without it being beyond the five senses, and that’s a terrifying idea. Our first movie plays with that a little, it’s a bit more metaphysical. In a lot of horror movies, there’s a point at which somebody set up the five rules of the monster, you can look at it, when you run it runs, things like that, and it’s completely arbitrary. In this case there’s just one singular idea and all the rules expand from that because it follows scientifically.
AM: The other interesting thing about it is that at any given time when a monster mythology is invented it’s over time that we start to accept it even though it doesn’t entirely make sense. For example at the time Frankenstein was written sewing a bunch of dead people’s body parts together and reviving it with electricity was almost plausible, today we don’t believe it. But now we know that stem cells basically provide you with immortality, so if one could metabolise stem cells it would follow that they would provide immortality. So if you’re going to develop a new monster it does make sense that you’re going to use something that makes sense from a modern perspective, whether it’s spiritual or scientific.
Justin, you said in the Q&A that you went to medical school.
JB: We made this a year before I went to medical school. I wouldn’t say it has a direct influence on my storytelling outside the fact that I was raised by parents who think very scientifically and I had scientific training. My mind works like that, I always want empirical evidence for things. But as far as my formal medical training goes, I read this article in Time magazine.
There is a strong connection between Louise and nature through all the insert shots of bugs. What was the thinking behind that?
JB: I think in many ways because she’s a freak of nature, she’s very singular, she’s got such a strange and powerful body, it would follow that she’s skipped a few steps of evolution. And so you might also see that if someone can control things outside of themselves like pheromones, or affect them in some way and connect with the world, that would follow from further evolution. It’s not quite so nailed down as that, it’s more like a mutation of some sort, but it seems to make sense that someone who has that kind of ability may also have the ability in very light ways to influence what else is happening around her.
There are a lot of aerial shots of the town and coast as well as close-ups on bugs and the monster’s animal body parts. It seems that you wanted to inscribe your story both in the large scale and the small scale of the world. Is that fair to say?
AM: We decided very early on when we were shooting this movie that, in addition to the small, personal cinema vérité stuff, there would always be these highly subjective shots, whether that be a camera panning off of them to something else the camera might find interesting, suggesting something like a presence or force, literally God’s eye view shots, anything we could do to visually communicate something bigger than them that’s possibly even outside their own belief systems. But not having them talk about it, always suggesting it photographically.
JB: One of the biggest ideas and biggest images of the movie is the comparison between the beautiful and the grotesque. And that’s constantly happening, with the bugs and all of that in beautiful Italy. But the idea is, if you’re making a horror movie that is set in an incredibly beautiful location – most of them take place in creaky old houses or a forest, places that are inherently scary – so if your location isn’t inherently scary how do you get that mood, how do you get the mood of something wrong? And so if we didn’t do that we just have a beautiful location with this other little thing happening, but nothing really feels wrong around it, and there is a sense of wrongness about the story. And that’s able to give us our more unsettling landscape without having to go down a familiar horror movie trail.
Why did you choose to film in Pompeii?
JB: We actually shot at a volcanic excavation site that was very similar to Pompeii but not exactly Pompeii because logistically we couldn’t do it. But the reason why it’s there in the story was that we wanted her to be at least 2,000 years old so she would have seen the transition between gods, which is something I’ve never quite seen in a character. Even in Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles they tend to be about 500 years old, and when they speak of things like God and their place in the universe they speak about a very Judeo-Christian God. And what I find so interesting about Louise is that she’s literally seen gods change, and how she would view spirituality given that. As far as it being Pompeii, it was a historical reference point for that region that most audiences would just know and it wouldn’t need much explanation. On top of that, in her own mythology, because of the casts at Pompeii, the moment she would see the cast of her love has a lot of emotional impact. She can go there and stare at the exact moment of death of her parents. And that’s something not only creepy but with a lot of emotional impact. And also she’s had to live through lava, which would be a horrifying painful event that would probably, none of us want to die, but she would probably have an even greater aversion to it given her experiences.
The film is an exploration of love and romance, and it seems almost as if you were working things out for yourself in the characters’ dialogue. When you were asked about love and relationships in the Q&A you said that you didn’t know much about romance. Isn’t that a little disingenuous?
JB: No, it’s true. I would be worried if someone watched that movie and was like, oh I’m going to learn about love or romance from this. The only things I know about romance and love are literally from my friends. I don’t have any personal experience of being in love but I have lots of friends who are in relationships and I speak to them about relationships. Aaron has real relationships, I can talk to him about that. And that’s really where a lot of stuff in this story comes from. And on top of that, as far as women go, I know my mum well, I have some amazing female friends. So far they’ve expressed they like her character and that means a lot. No one has said ‘you’re such a sexist’ yet.
It feels like she’s a fantasy, not a real person. Do you feel you’re still working out what you think relationships are?
JB: I guess so. And in that way it is entirely fictional. I’m inventing an idea of something I don’t know anything about. But it’s cool that people identify with it and like it.
I believe you are now working on an Aleister Crowley film. What angle are you going to take on this?
JB: When you look at everything we’ve done, if you want to put some adjectives on it, it’s weird and mythic, quietly mythic. That is Aleister Crowley. He’s someone that people will immediately identify as being that guy who’s into the supernatural and the occult, but his idea of the supernatural and the occult is something so esoteric that there is no normal path to telling the Aleister Crowley story. You have to break a lot of rules to tell a story, and so you have to take new paths of storytelling and it has to be weird and it has to be mythic.
AM: And that honours the good parts of his memory. There’s plenty of bad parts so we don’t worship this guy in any way, we find him to be a very complicated and flawed and fascinating human being.
JB: And if someone were trying to simplify it into being about a demon they’d be incorrect. If you look at Aleister Crowley and you call him a Satanist, you’re incorrect. He’s not. He doesn’t believe in Satan. What he believes is very complicated. He’s not a great person but it connects with everything we’ve done very nicely.
AM: Right now we don’t have the desire to expand our scope into a full-on biopic, we will eventually, but right now we just want to keep telling a very small personal story about relationships, and this one is more about his relationship with his own ego. But there’s also a lot of people around him that he destroys, builds up and destroys again. So our story takes place in the pressure cooker of one week really early on in his life where he’s performing a ritual to purify himself. That’s the framework of it. What’s really happening is that he’s a man with a bunch of really good ideas but with absolutely no sense of moderation, and he makes these choices that lead him to become what history remembers as ‘the wickedest man in the world’. That’s our take on it, it’s a very small film with a really big idea and a gigantic character.
JB: If you want to simplify it he’s like Tyler Durden from Fight Club meets Captain Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean.
Writers: Fabrice du Welz, Romain Protat, Vincent Tavier
Cast: Lola Dueñas, Laurent Lucas, Héléna Noguerra
Belgium, France 2014
Fabrice du Welz made his directorial debut with the stunningly uncompromising Calvaire in 2004. With Alleluia, he returns to the location and the star of his first feature film, as well as its emotional intensity, this time revisiting the story of the Lonely Hearts Killers, which was also the subject of Leonard Kastle’s The Honeymoon Killers (1969), Andrew Lane’s Lonely Hearts (1991) and Arturo Ripstein’s Deep Crimson (1996). Gloria (Lola Dueñas) meets Michel (Laurent Lucas) through a dating site. Michel is a small-time conman who preys on lonely women, but Gloria is different from his previous marks. Madly in love with Michel, Gloria passes herself off as his sister so that she never has to leave him, but soon her uncontrollable jealousy takes them down a murderous path. Exploring the extremes love can lead to, du Welz’s take on the story is carnal and visceral, set against the background of a bleak, desolate Belgian landscape.
Virginie Sélavy met Fabrice du Welz at Film4 FrightFest in August where the director talked about mad love, his abhorrence of realism, and Bogart and the hippopotamus.
Virginie Sélavy: Alleluia is the second film in your Ardennes trilogy.
Fabrice du Welz: Yes, the idea is to do a trilogy about the theme of ‘mad love’ around Laurent Lucas in the Belgian Ardennes. Calvaire was the first one, now there’s Alleluia, and there’ll be a third part.
Why did you choose the Ardennes as a location?
I spent part of my youth in the Ardennes, it’s a place that is very singular and has always terrified me. I spent a little while in a boarding school there and I was quite troubled by the hostile nature, the perplexing people and the baffling weather. With Calvaire, the idea was to make a film that would play with horror film conventions, but located in Europe, which produced this slightly surprising melange of genres. I didn’t want to make a would-be American horror film. It was the same thing with Alleluia. I play with some thriller and film noir conventions of American cinema, but at the same time I’m very attached to my Francophone culture. And the third film will do a similar thing.
Why is the trilogy based around Laurent Lucas?
Because I think that he’s an under-used actor. He has an incredible range, a terrible ambiguity, he can be very beautiful and very ugly, he can be troubling, unfathomable, difficult to capture. There’s a mystery in Laurent that really fascinates me.
What do you think the effect is of placing an American story in a French context?
The original story of the Honeymoon Killers took place in the United States, even if Raymond Fernandez was of Spanish origin, but I don’t want to justify the context. The French have this terrible disease, which is, justifying violence through social context. Since the nouvelle vague, French cinema has consecrated realism above all. But before the nouvelle vague there were great filmmakers like Cocteau and Franju, who made films that were on the frontier of dreams, or at least that developed a fantastical universe – not horror, fantastical. The inventor of fantastical cinema was Méliès, he was French. In American cinema, in Japanese cinema, in Almodóvar’s films, you can talk about violence without justifying everything through the mother, the alcoholic father, etc. I’m exaggerating but it is something that is deeply troubling. The CNC [National Centre of Cinematography and the Moving Image, the public body responsible for the production and the promotion of French films] is dominated by this. With the CNC you always have to justify violence through the context. Some people do this divinely well – Jacques Audiard – others not so well. I absolutely don’t want to be part of this, I want to make a kind of cinema that is transgressive and poetic. And that’s what I’m looking for in the context too. Context is as important as actors to me. I look for a fascinating context that I can play with as I would with an actor, and through that try to achieve – modestly; I’m not saying I succeed – some kind of macabre poetry.
Were you inspired more by the real-life story or by the films that have been made about it?
I was inspired by Yolande Moreau. I met her at a festival and I’ve been fascinated by her for a long time. She’s a very impressive actress. I said, ‘I’d like to make a film with you in which you’d play a total bitch’. She said, ‘yes, great, go ahead’. That same week I re-watched Arturo Ripstein’s Deep Crimson, the story of the Honeymoon Killers adapted in Ripstein’s country, Mexico. And I thought that was the perfect role for Yolande, she’d make a hell of a Martha Beck. I started working on the script, but it was very violent and very sexual, and Yolande said she couldn’t do it. So I was hired to make Colt 45, which was hell, it was the worst experience of my life. After that, I returned to Alleluia because the film had funding, and it was really vital to me on a personal level. It was almost an existential thing because the experience of Colt 45 had been so harrowing. But I had no actress. I was ready to abandon the film if I couldn’t find an actress. The producers asked me to pick a reasonably well-known French actress, but French cinema is so bourgeois these days that it’s difficult with French actors. I’d seen Lola [Dueñas] in Yo, también and I thought it could work. When I met her she said, ‘I’m the one you’re looking for, you can stop looking, I’ll do it 100%.’ But then I had to sell Lola to my producers and that was hard. They were saying, the script is difficult, and now you’ve picked a Spanish actress that no one knows. I fought for it and now everyone’s very happy.
It’s also an interesting choice because it plays with the fact that Raymond Fernandez was of Spanish origin. And it adds something to her character, she’s an outsider in a foreign society.
I saw that after. It was the life and death urges that deeply fascinated me in the story, the attraction between them, like magnets, and the character arcs. At first, Michel is presented as the predator and Gloria as the victim, you’re scared for her. And in the end it’s completely the opposite, she’s become an ogress and he’s a scared little boy. The whole journey, with the fetishism of one and the jealousy of the other, was a very joyous and fun thing to build.
Watch the trailer:
Gloria is a great character, both monstrous and very human, but in the end you get the impression that she’s very simply a force of nature, beyond any moral codes.
Yes, that’s right. My films have always been a little at odds with the audience, I’ve often been criticised for my lack of empathy with the characters. Vinyan was particularly badly received for that reason. And it was my fault because I really wanted to keep the characters at a distance, at least in the first part. So with Alleluia I was wondering how to make it resonate with the viewers. And I thought it had to be through mad love, because that’s something in which we can all recognize ourselves, even if Michel and Gloria are serial killers, lunatics with no morals, children who never think of good and evil. After the first murder, you understand that they’ve really found each other. They are polymorphous perverts. They have freed themselves from moral rules. And at the same time they reflect something of ourselves, in particular the dichotomy between that unquenchable thirst for this ideal passionate love, which we all want, and the basic urge for the destruction, the annihilation, the crushing of the other. The couple can be the nest of fascism, there is always one who will enslave the other.
Michel tells Gloria about his past, which may or may not be true, but we never get any explanation as to what happened to Gloria with her husband. Why did you treat the characters differently in that respect?
Because Gloria was also a response to Gloria in Calvaire. In Calvaire, Gloria is a character who doesn’t exist, or rather that you never see but that people talk about all the time. Calvaire is the story of a lonely, desperate innkeeper and a travelling singer, played by Laurent, who arrives at the inn. The innkeeper tells him that he’s lost his wife, she was called Gloria and she was a singer. And he transfers his affection onto Laurent, turns him into his wife and starts calling him Gloria. This is something that will be in the whole trilogy. The films can be seen separately but there will be a Gloria in the third part too. I like creating connections between the characters. And I thought that in Alleluia Gloria didn’t need a story.
Was the witchcraft element in the real-life story or did you add it?
It was in the real-life story but it was never used in Kastle’s film, or Ripstein’s, or the one by Lane. Raymond Fernandez practised black magic, it was a way for him to condition his libido. He was convinced that it helped his sexuality, he thought it made him an amazing lover. I found that very funny.
Why did you choose to film in 16mm?
It seemed to me the most appropriate format for the story. There’s an old-school aspect to it with the smoke, the grain, it had what I was looking for, something olfactory, sensual, because digital is very cold and clinical. It’s like porn today, it’s horrible, it’s surgical. The porn I used to watch as a teenager was sensual, curvy, warm, grainy. And film allows that. I was looking for a sensual experience. I love cinema and I regret that it’s so sanitised today. So, very modestly, I wanted to go back to something where you have smells, bodies, skin, breaths.
That love of cinema appears in the reference to Humphrey Bogart in African Queen. Why that film specifically?
I’m a big fan of Humphrey Bogart and I’ve always thought it was insane to see this big star imitate a hippopotamus in African Queen, especially as he was ill. The story of the film’s making is mythical. John Huston, a great man of a type that doesn’t exist anymore, didn’t give a damn about the film, all he wanted was to go hunting with the Maasai. And I was looking for something that would be funny but would also function as a sort of symbol for their love. The hippopotamus scene, replayed by Laurent at the cinema, makes Gloria laugh the first time, it’s the most sumptuous moment, the peak of their love. Then there’s the scene in the bedroom where he does it and eventually she laughs. And then there’s the moment when she doesn’t laugh anymore. I was looking for something that would indicate the state of their love throughout the film, and to use Bogart imitating a hippopotamus as a referent really amused me.
And you end with a dreamlike scene in a cinema.
It seemed coherent to me in the sense that cinema is the place where they fantasized about their love. Many people live their lives vicariously through film and I think that there is a dichotomy between aspirations that are typically feminine and masculine – without making stupid generalisations. Some women tend to idealise things while men often accept reality more readily. There’s something like that going on with Michel and Gloria. I chose to end the story in a cinema because cinema is heaven – or hell, I don’t know.
Why call the film Alleluia?
I really liked this title, it sounds like a prayer. People have said to me that it’s a very cynical title. But there is no cynicism involved. It really is a prayer, a prayer to love, to God, and then the story goes another way. We all want love so desperately in our lives, but are we capable of it? What are we capable of? As Celine says, ‘it’s within the reach of poodles’, and yet… That’s what accompanied me throughout the film and I pass no judgement on anything. So the title, this sort of call to something, I see no cynicism in it.
In Take the Money and Run (1969), Woody Allen’s small-time thief Virgil Starkwell is asked by his psychiatrist if he thinks sex is dirty. ‘Yes, if you’re doing it right,’ he replies.
Sex has never been dirtier. With the internet taking porn into the mainstream, such delicacies as facials and cream pies have become, if not exactly household words, certainly much more broadly recognised than when filthy magazines were top shelf or delivered to your home in discrete brown paper bags. Seen as the most degrading act of humiliation by anti-porn campaigners such as Gail Dines, bukkake scenes – in which multiple men ejaculate on a woman – have spread. The Japanese word means spillage and the history of the scene itself is a spillage, an unintended consequence of Japanese censorship which pixelates genitalia but not jizz. The spillage has continued into gay porn and some even argue that even in heterosexual porn, the focus on male genitalia is such that it becomes, well, gay. On one thing porn consumers and anti-porn campaigners can agree: it is one of the dirtiest niches in Pornland.
Custard pie fights are dirty as well. You don’t see them as much anymore. There was a time at the beginning of cinema, in fact, where it seemed difficult to walk past an open window or through a restaurant without getting hit in the kisser by a flan. You could be sitting in a dentist’s chair or talking on the phone. No one was safe. It was an essential part of slapstick comedy, coming from vaudeville routines by the likes of Weber and Fields. Fatty Arbuckle hits Nick Cogley in the kisser in Mack Sennett’s A Noise from the Deep in 1913. They became a patented part of the Keystone comedy armoury. Laurel and Hardy threw hundreds of pies in the Battle of the Century (1927).
Watch the pie fight in Battle of the Century:
Later the custard pie fight would be revived. It featured in the 60s films that harked back nostalgically to the beginning of cinema such as the Tony Curtis movies The Great Race (1965) and Beach Party (1963). Alan Parker’s Bugsy Malone (1976) was the last great cinematic custard splurge. The nostalgia was all too obvious in a children’s movie that hailed back to the old-style gangster movies of James Cagney and George Raft. Even as a kid I felt queasy about it. It was basically an adult film with the violence and sex replaced with gunk (though Scott Baio and Jodie Foster have a precocious chemistry).
On British television the joy of getting messy continued with Tiswas and the Phantom Flan Flinger who would attack teachers and parents. The sliming of celebrities during the Kid’s Choice Awards on Nickelodeon continues the Lord of Misrule carnival. Kids have their revenge on parents, idols to whom they are usually beholden and adults generally. These anarchic principles have been channelled into the kidulthood world with the more recent political flannings of such luminaries as Rupert Murdoch and Bill Gates.
The messiness of the custard pie fight has morphed in mainstream cinema into gross-out comedy, and the clean-to-messy trajectory can be traced in the worlds of porn and horror. Let’s be clear here: I’m suggesting they are analogous rather than identical. We begin fully clothed, intact, civilized, social identities secure, hierarchies in place, in a word, ‘clean’. Then progressively the people on screen, the combatants in the pie shop, the teenagers at the slasher-infested summer camp, the guests at the orgy, become dishevelled. Anarchy ensues, hierarchies are dissolved or reversed, confused, inhibitions lost and in another word everybody gets ‘dirty’.
Custard pie fights, splatter and porn movies have a sense of inevitability written into them. What is under the clothes, or under the skin, or under the surface of social order, is lurking there right from the beginning. Rugby matches are like this too. Watch the players in their bright clean shirts and slicked coiffures transform into muddy, bloody Mugwumps.
And this isn’t purely sadism, or ritual humiliation, although there is undoubtedly some of that. Watching others degraded and getting the same kicks as the kids get seeing their elders being deluged in slime is certainly part of it. But there is a liberating joy in getting messy as well, eating with our hands so to speak, throwing stuff about. Food Fight. Torture porn allows us to voyeuristically engage in other people’s suffering, but we also imagine what it would be like to be the victim. How liberating it would be to be tortured, to endure that kind of total and extreme physical experience. Look at how celebrities jump at the chance to perform the Ice Bucket Challenge – even though they’ve donated money, which means they can forgo the dousing. Likewise, top Hollywood stars like Will Smith and Harrison Ford seem to take an indecent joy in being slimed in front of children.
As a kid, I hated custard pie fights in films. Like many children, I was essentially conservative. I fundamentally distrusted custard pie fights. Something else was at play. They frightened me. I found Bugsy Malone almost unwatchable and despised Tiswas. At the same time, I could watch Nightmare on Elm Street, or Evil Dead with relative ease. Perhaps this was because what was hidden and revealed by custard pie fights seemed sneaky. It was the aggression and sex mixed up in all those flying desserts that set my adolescent nerves a-jangling. This wasn’t just a bit of fun. Porn, or the splatter and slasher films told you straight out what they were. Nowadays, I’ve gone full circle, and when I watch horror films, or accidentally glance at porn (obviously I would never purposefully besmirch myself with filth), I detect the custard pie fight that is hidden in them somewhere down there. At least, if you’re doing it right.