Thursday, January 22, 2015

A Reflection of Fear

A Reflection of Fear (1972)
Dir. William A. Fraker
Written by Edward Hume, Lewis John Carlino, from a novel by Stanton Forbes
Starring Sondra Locke, Robert Shaw, Sally Kellerman, Mary Ure

Oooh, boy. This is a tough one to review. I gotta be straight up with you guys, I watched this very, very late at night several months ago, with about a bottle of wine and five or six robust glasses of whiskey in me. I wrote up a few notes about it the next day, but not as extensively as I did for the other Chainsawnukah reviews. Here are what my notes consist of, in total:

“Creepy Doll! killer doll?”

“Sandra Locke looks about 12. She married Clint Eastwood two years later? What the fuck, Clint.”*

“Weird incest angle?”

“Someone has sex on a boat?”

“Oh man, they [Super secret spoiler]’d it!”

That’s all I had to go on. I didn’t remember the movie too well, wasn’t really sure what the plot was. So I took another pass at it last night, and, nope, turns out I was right the first time. That’s still pretty much all I got from it. This is a weird, hazy, uncomfortable little bad dream of a film, I really don’t know what the fuck the deal is with it and judging from a quick overview of other reviews, it looks like I’m not the only one. I can’t say I liked it, exactly, but at least it’s doing its own weird thing. Gotta respect that.

At its outset, the story is simple enough: cloistered, immature 15-year-old Marguerite (Sondra Locke, ANY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE, THE OUTLAW JOSEY WHALES, noted wife of Clint Eastwood 1975-1989) lives with her bitchy, controlling mother (Mary Ure, WHERE EAGLES DARE, in her last film before her 1975 death) and her icy grandma (Signe Hasso, HEAVEN CAN WAIT) in a palatial country estate isolated from the outside world and everyone else in it.  Marguerite resents her guardians’ suffocating controls, and is prone to hysterical outbursts which uncomfortably blend childish tantrums with the ferocity of adolescence. Things get worse when her long-estranged father (Robert Shaw, JAWS, also the husband of an increasingly alcoholic Ure) shows up with his sexy braless girlfriend Anne (Sally Kellerman, ‘Hot Lips’ from M.A.S.H.) asking Marguerite’s mom for a divorce. He hasn’t seen his daughter since she was a baby, but may harbor some mild feelings of guilt over his absenteeism. Which are worsened somewhat when mom and grandma are mysteriously murdered by a masked assailant and he is faced with the possible prospect of having to raise this weirdo.

All that makes some sort of sense, but the movie itself is full of mysterious dream logic and inexplicable weirdness. Marguerite has been obsessing over her absentee father for years now, but his appearance predicates a fixation that borders (and maybe crosses the border to) fetishistic. She aggressively courts his attention in ways which are uncomfortably sexual, alienating his fiance but inexplicably not seeming to alarm the man himself. And what’s with this weird kid Hector who mysteriously always seems to be around? And what is the never-explained “medicine” shot Marguerite is forced to receive every day? And, more to the point, what’s the deal with Marguerite’s life-sized male doll “Aaron” who is constantly talking to her, taunting and playing on her insecurities? Is he the one running around murdering everyone? Or is the truth even stranger?

I ask some of these questions legitimately, because I genuinely do not know the answers, even having watched the thing twice. Apparently the film was subject to a rather brutal postproduction editing hatchet job, which presumably reduced large parts to near-incoherence. Or, alternately, tried to inject some semblance of logic to something which should never have had any to begin with. As it is, the movie almost seems to think it’s making some kind of sense, without ever quite coming together into anything that means anything.

It might have been better off just totally abandoning the logic altogether, because the story itself doesn’t seem super interesting, but I gotta admit there’s some kind of weird atmospherical alchemical combination here that does work. Director William Fraker is much better known as a cinematographer (he shot about a million well-known movies, from ROSEMARY’S BABY and BULLITT to MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN and EXORCIST II) and here employs another veteran cinematographer (László Kovács, EASY RIDER, GHOSTBUSTERS) to create a hazy, gauzy look (sometimes so excessive that it appears a dense fog has rolled in) that perfectly captures the oppressive isolation and emotional disorientation which lies heavy on the film, even in its mostly opulent locations and golden sunlight. I mean, you’ve seldom seen sprawling gardens, picturesque beaches and cheery sunlight feel so seedy. Appropriately so, for a film which seems so perversely intent on turning the joys of wealth, familial bonding, and sex into a queasy muddle of inexplicable corruption.

Actually, with its masked killer, eyebrow-raising sexuality, opulent setting, lurid voyeurism, dreamy style and impenetrable narrative, this has all the ingredients of a classic giallo. But somehow it never quite feels like one; the script (co-written by Academy-award-nominated Lewis John Carlino** and Edward Hume*** [THE DAY AFTER]) puts the emphasis on the psychological drama more than the slashing. Although there are a handful of suitably bloody kills here, it feels more FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC than EYEBALL, even though all the pieces of a archetypical giallo are all demonstrably present. It’s more about mood and atmosphere than splatter, but not in the flamboyantly stylish way you’d expect from a giallo, or in the tense, skin-crawling way you’d expect from an atmospheric horror movie, either. There’s a low-key simmer of unease that percolates through the whole thing, but not a lot that is out-and-out trying to scare. The very end, though…well, that’s a different story. There’s a twist that’s pure horror flick, shocking and ridiculous and completely out-of-the-blue. In fact, it’s such a perfect slasher twist that it was used, almost verbatim, in another semi-obscure but slightly better known slasher a decade later. I won’t spoil it for you by telling you the exact movie, but you’ll know it when you see it. Probably worked better in a schlocky 80’s slasher than something like this, which generally seems to be shooting for a more classy vibe. But then again, it’s even more unexpected this go ‘round, especially since this is probably pushing the realm of acceptable taste even for the 70’s, when audiences were briefly a tad more adventurous.

The net result is a profoundly odd filmgoing experience. It’s not exactly a movie I could recommend, but it’s also a little too sharply made and unique to completely dismiss, either. Even after what must have been a pretty rough editing job, I still get the sense that this is more or less the movie the filmmakers were trying to make, and it has an exactness to its execution and a strength of purpose that gives it an unusual focus for such a dreamy, seemingly directionless narrative. It sets it apart from a million other compromised 70’s psycho-thrillers, gives it a very discreet and seductive vibe too potent to write off just because the whole thing doesn’t quite hang together. For better or worse, this is a film made by discerning filmmakers who carefully and intentionally cultivated this strange and unpleasant experience for you to wander through. I’m just not sure it’s an experience that very many people will enjoy.

*Actually Locke was around 30 at the time (there appears to be some dispute about her official birth date) and Eastwood was only somewhere between 12-15 years older. But man, she makes a disturbingly convincing 15 year old.

**Best known for THE GREAT SANTINI, I NEVER PROMISED YOU A ROSE GARDEN and THE MECHANIC, but best known to me for having improbably written the other movie about that time that Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, her cousin Claire Clairmont, and perennial also-ran John Pilidori got together, fucked absolutely every last living thing in sight, and sowed the fictional seeds that would become Frankenstein and The Vampyre. I only know about that one because I wrote about GOTHIC a year ago, but it sounds nearly equally crazy and has an even more bizarre cast: Philip Anglim as Byron, Eric Stoltz as Percy, Alice Krige as Mary, Laura Dern as Claire, and Alex "Bill" Winter as Pilidori.

***Hume didn’t write much of interest, but is most intriguing to me because of his curious 1992 credit for a movie called DECEPTIONS, starring Jason Robards, Brian Cox, and Fred Williamson. The movie is listed on IMDB and wikipedia, but other than those listings I can find exactly zero evidence that it ever existed. I mean, absolutely nothing. Was it filmed and never released? Is this some sort of weird conspiracy? What’s the deal?

The Hunt For Dread October

  • LITERARY ADAPTATION: Yes, from the 1969 novel Go to Thy Deathbed by (Doris) Stanton Forbes. I can't find much about the original novel, although the dust jacket at least claims two people will be killed in a fancy Victorian house, so that much at least is faithfully preserved in the movie. Also, "Go to Thy Deathbed" is a quote from Hamlet, so the book must have been pretty classy.
  • SEQUEL: None.
  • REMAKE: No
  • FOREIGNER: American, as far as I can tell.
  • SLUMMING A-LISTER: Robert Shaw, and Academy-award nominated Mary Ure and Sondra Locke.
  • BOOBIES: Rated PG.
  • SEXUAL ASSAULT: It's a little vague because it's rated PG, but I believe the killer sexually assaults one victim.
  • DISMEMBERMENT PLAN: Slashings, but no dismembering
  • SLASHER/GIALLO: I think this fits the bill, even if it doesn't really feel like one.
  • PSYCHO KILLERS (Non-slasher variety): See above.
  • EVIL CULT: None
  • (UNCANNY) VALLEY OF THE DOLLS: Yes, there's a creepy life-sized doll named Aaron.
  • TRANSMOGRIFICATION: Without getting too specific, there's definitely some issues here.
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: Extremely high. Fobbed off as a double feature with THE CREEPING FLESH and seldom heard from since.
  • MORAL OF THE STORY: If you abandon your kid as a baby NEVER GO BACK, WHATEVER YOU DO.
  • TITLE ACCURACY: I have absolutely no idea what it means, so I couldn't really say if it's accurate or not. For that matter, the novel's original title Go to Thy Deathbed doesn't really make a whole lot more sense either, and it sounds classier, should have stuck with it. Although maybe they thought people would confuse this for a sequel to DEATHBED: THE BED THAT EATS PEOPLE.
Pretty weak 4-thumb effort, more like 3-and-a-pinky. But it's slightly too artful to give a plain 3 thumbs.
Aside from Shaw, almost the whole cast is female.

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