A new video essay on John Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy, made for our 20th Century Flicks screening of In the Mouth of Madness (1994).
If one is to believe the received wisdom about the career of director Walerian Borowczyk, then it might seem fitting that he would have sought to adapt Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. After all, the typical critical narrative – that of a once-great animator and filmmaker who transformed himself into a purveyor of high-class sleaze, his early talent quickly disintegrating in favour of prurience and depravity – might suggest something of the Jekyll and Hyde about the man himself.
If one plots linearly from his early, award-winning animated films of the 1950s and ’60s through to softcore Euro-sleaze like Emmanuelle 5 (1986), the juxtaposition of these two sides of the Borowczykian coin might indeed seem difficult to reconcile as emerging from the same artistic vision. How did, say, the mischievous, imaginative whimsy of Les astronautes (1959) bear any relation to the wildly-ejaculating monster of La Bête (1975), or the sight in Contes immoraux (1974) of a naked young woman experiencing her first pangs of sexual pleasure from both religious paraphernalia and a cucumber?
On closer inspection Borowczyk’s transition from découpage to décolletage was, as one might expect, not as clear-cut as this, and there certainly bears in his early work distinct traces of what was to come. Take, for example, his début feature, the animated Théâtre de Monsieur & Madame Kabal (1967) and Madame Kabal’s disproportionately enlarged bosom, or her husband’s repeated peering through binoculars to cuts to live-action shots of a lecherous old man waylaying a succession of nubile women in varying degrees of undress. Even the relatively stately, chaste world of Blanche (1972) is one whose atmosphere is permeated with lecherousness and lust-driven violence.
It is worth noting that publicity materials for Boro’s debut live-action film Goto, Island of Love (1968) elected to place emphasis on the film’s brief nude bathing scene as a means of selling it to audiences, since his shift towards exploitation was in no small part down to the influence of others, as well as contextually part of wider shifts in the film industry in his adoptive homeland of France. A relaxation in censorship laws in the early 1970s, accelerated by the election in 1974 of President Giscard, had led to an explosion in the distribution, exhibition and dissemination of pornographic material in the country, the adult market eventually accounting for more than 10% of all box office takings nationwide.
Neither Borowczyk’s short films nor his features had been financially profitable, and it had been at the behest of producer Anatole Dauman, who in the 1960s had bankrolled the august likes of Alain Resnais, Robert Bresson and Jean-Luc Godard, that it was suggested to Borowczyk that he move into this newly lucrative market. From this emerged Contes immoraux, a portmanteau of erotically charged short films on the theme of sexual transgression which, though largely maligned by contemporary critics, found Boro his hitherto elusive favour at the box office. Jekyll had sipped the transformative serum, from which there would be no turning back.
While Borowczyk might more commonly be pegged alongside outré contemporaries such as Jesus Franco or Jean Rollin (the latter bears more of a comparison), it is instructive to consider him in the light of several other filmmakers of the period. By the time of Contes immoraux, Alain Robbe-Grillet had already carved his niche for Sadean provocations, Pier Paolo Pasolini was two films into his lascivious Trilogy of Life, Dušan Makavejev was adding sex and scatology to his trademark formal experimentalism with W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism (1971) and Sweet Movie (1974), and both Miklós Jancsó and Ōshima Nagisa were close to moving into graphic eroticism in Private Vices, Public Pleasures (1976) and In the Realm of the Senses (1976) respectively.
In this context, Borowczyk’s work in the 1970s might then seem less the product of an over-active libidinous imagination than reflective of a wider current in what one might loosely term ‘art cinema’. One might also note that much of the reputation of his work in this period owes its reputation to tactical rebranding as much as the content itself: La Marge (1976), for instance, found itself rechristened Emmanuelle ’77 on account of its star Sylvia Kristal, while Les héroïnes du mal (1979) was renamed Three Immoral Women to capitalise on the notoriety of Boro’s earlier film. Interno di un convento (1978), meanwhile, might be chided as ‘Nunsploitation‘, but it is as much part of the tradition of Black Narcissus (1947) or The Devils (1971) as much as outright exploitation as Jesús Franco’s Les Demons (1972) or Suzuki Norifumi’s School of the Holy Beast (1974).
Borowczyk’s post-La Bête work in the ’70s stemmed almost exclusively from literary sources (de Maupassant, Stendahl, Zeromski) rather than original scenarios, and following Lulu (1980) – his voluptuous take on Frank Wedekind’s Die Büchse der Pandora – he turned his attention to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The novella remains one of the most frequently-adapted works in cinema, its longevity attested to by the diversity of its transpositions, proving a platform for everything from straight horror, to comedy (Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953)) and outright pornography (The Adult Version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1972)).
Questions of fidelity to the original source are something of a moot point given that the Jekyll and Hyde of the popular imagination is more influenced by renditions of the novella than the work itself. Nevertheless, Borowczyk’s version is faithful to Stevenson in certain respects: the pronunciation ‘jee-kill’ is a corrective to decades of its more common intonation, while elsewhere, the use of two separate actors to perform the lead dual role (the elegant Udo Kier and rather more squalid Gérard Zalcberg respectively) is in keeping with the author’s oft-ignored delineation of them as being physically distinct from each other.
The film’s title, however, tells us that this is something different to what we’ve already seen. Though released in France as Docteur Jekyll et les Femmes (1981), Boro’s preferred The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (the character of Fanny Osbourne sharing the name of Stevenson’s wife) better elucidates its equal weighting to its protagonists. Indeed, when we finally witness Henry’s process of transformation in full, it is through the eyes of his onlooking fiancée, illustrating the film’s dual (or, at times, triple) spectatorial alignment.
The presence of women in any shape or form in screen adaptations of the novella is, in itself, a fabrication, since the world of the book is an exclusively male one. The lineage traces back to Thomas Russell Sullivan’s 1887 stage adaptation which introduced the saintly figure of Agnes Carew, Jekyll’s girlfriend, while the Jack the Ripper murders in London in the following year also contributed to the introduction of a tart-with-a-heart character, most vividly portrayed by Miriam Hopkins in Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 screen adaptation. Both archetypes traditionally serve a merely symbolic function, but the presence Borowczyk’s Fanny Osbourne provides the story with a feminine emancipatory narrative trajectory, perhaps rendering it closer in spirit to Harry Kümel’s Daughters of Darkness (1971).
Structurally, the film’s first act shares certain similarities with La Bête: an engagement prompts society’s supposed great and good to gather together in a stately mansion, whereupon intrigues are set in motion, and character tensions are revealed. Once the horror kicks in, there is an increasing resemblance to the contemporary home invasion slasher movie, with guests being picked off one-by-one by an unseen assailant (whose method of suspending his victims’ bodies slyly recalls The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)), yet the sexual charge of the assaults, coupled with the evidently socially satirical subtext, also prompt comparisons with Pasolini’s Teorema (1968).
As with Pasolini, Borowczyk’s aim is squarely at the complacency, hypocrisies and barely-repressed desires of bourgeois society, each of the assembled guests representing sacred cows to be shot down: per Stevenson, there is the arch rationalist Dr. Lanyon, but also the trigger-happy General (whose use of the phrase ‘dark continent’ evidently aligns him with manichean Victorian colonialist attitudes). The figure of Reverend Donald Regan reflects the long-running strain of anti-clericism in Boro’s work, placing him not only in the tradition of Buñuel but, as the opening epigram of La Bête made clear, Voltaire too.
The period setting of the story provides another opportunity for Borowczyk to revel in his famously decorous approach to mise-en-scène; his films are notable for their equal weighting of naked bodies and inanimate objects, the latter of which in his earlier stop-motion animation work were invested with both a symbolic significance and a kind of inner life of their own. In Jekyll, it is ornate Victoriana which catches the camera’s eye, such as the antique sewing machine upon which the General’s daughter rests while offering herself to Hyde, and Jekyll’s phonograph machine, a visual reference to Boro’s own Le phonographe (1969) as well as providing a link to Thomas Edison and, hence, the birth of cinema itself.
The presence of visual art in his films come loaded with meaning too, yet while the use of symbolist painter Władysław Podkowiński’s Frenzy of Exultations in La Bête comes as a portent of the zoophiliac activities which will follow, in Jekyll the use of Vermeer’s Woman Reading a Letter of comes as a thematic counterpoint: described as “the apotheosis of all humanity” by Reverend Regan, its illustration of a socially constructed feminine ideal of spousal loyalty loads its symbolic destruction come the film’s climax with iconoclastic weight.
Vermeer is one reference point in the film’s look (pointedly the scene in which Hyde mischievously signs the house’s guestbook), but overall its visual strategy is distinctly its own: cinematographer Noël Véry’s deployment of diffused lighting creates a ethereal atmosphere, finding an equivalent to the fog of Stevenson’s novella in what is a mostly interior-bound setting. If Borowczyk’s earlier films were characterised by their visual flatness and relatively static framing, then the expressionistic low and high angles deployed in Jekyll, combined with use of discontinuous montage and more labyrinthine compositions all combine to abet a sense of dizzying disorientation.
Borowczyk had been a filmmaker championed by several prominent surrealists, most notably André Breton’s celebration of his “imagination fulgurante”, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne serves as an ample illustration that, far from having become a mere smut-peddler, his later work retains the visual splendour and anarchic mischief which had seen him placed in this tradition earlier in his career. Just as Jekyll chides Lanyon for his narrow-minded materialism, the film comes as an artistic rebuff of the quotidian in favour of the fantastique, and if Boro had become, at this late stage in his career, more Hyde than Jekyll, then the former’s rebuff to Lanyon in a moment of lucidity perhaps serves both as a mea culpa and the voice of the filmmaker turning the mirror towards his audience: “I have committed crimes, true, but you commit worse atrocities in your dreams.”
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne screens as part of Scalarama 2015 at Bristol’s Cube Cinema on 17 September. Details:
My piece on this year’s FrightFest festival is over at the Bristol Film Critics Circle blog here:
Just before the screening of the final film of last year’s FrightFest there came from the festival’s organisers confirmation of the much-circulated rumour which had been doing the rounds that weekend – that the film, Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado’s Big Bad Wolves, would be the last film to be screened on the 1300-seat screen 1 of the Empire Cinema in Leicester Square, which had played home to the festival for the previous five years. The festival’s ever-increasing attendances from its humble beginnings 13 years earlier in the more bijou surroundings of the PCC had made the large auditorium of the Empire the logical choice of venue in more recent years, so the announcement that it would be no more inevitably came with a major concern – where would the following year’s event be held?
Fast-forward 12 months and FrightFest 2014 duly landed in Leicester Square’s Vue West End, a literal stone’s throw away from its prior abode. Not boasting a single auditorium capable of housing all of the festival’s attendees, the organisers alighted on a new arrangement: the main programme now played in three screens, with the films for each day rotated in order across them in groups of three – a particular film would play in one screen in the first slot of the day, the next screen in the following slot, and the third screen in the third slot, with the other two films in that particular grouping filling the other two screens.
Such an arrangement inevitably had the effect of detracting from the flow of the programme, most noticeably in the final 11pm slot, traditionally reserved for the wilder, more trashy or outré offerings suitable to keep the viewer entering the final phase of a 14-hour day of screenings suitably invigorated. These now would now, according to which screen one was in, potentially play in the earlier 6:30pm or 9pm slots – not such a problem for the viewing of those films themselves as much as the result that less-than-suitable films such as Home and The Samurai played last in their place.
There were, however, many pleasing benefits to the new set-up. The almighty stampede for the toilets and/or bar that had become a staple of the Empire experience at the close of a screening was alleviated by the staggering of start times, and the ticketing system for the two smaller Discovery Screens proved to be a happier affair that previously – with considerably larger screening rooms than those in the Empire there was no rush first thing in the morning to queue for even the most popular films, and allowed for greater scope to tailor the festival to one’s own whims. If then, as noted above, the midnight movie in the main screen looked unpromising, it was much easier to book into something going by the name of Wolfcop instead.
Despite the change in venue, the flavour of the festival was most certainly retained, thanks not only to the customary enthusiasm and energy of the organisers, but also the familiar melange of attendees; FrightFest remains the best place to watch horror films – in amongst a friendly, appreciative and knowledgable audience. The programme itself too continued to be an eclectic mix – variable, of course, in terms of quality, but so too continuing to push against the confines of genre definition. Eclecticism always runs the risk of dilution, but while I could have lived without the drainingly-aesthetised faux-noir of Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For in the schedule, it was compensated for by the inclusion of the likes of Faults – a deliciously Coens-flavoured Schadenfreudian character study of a down-at-heel cult deprogrammer (a magnificently hangdog Leland Orser) which evolved into a slow Bergman-esque battle of wills with Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s apparently brainwashed young victim.
Also delving into genre-bending territory was Stage Fright, an frothily entertaining horror-cum-musical which (unlike, say, the cinematic oeuvre of Trey Parker and Matt Stone) ultimately proved too song-light, front-loading its best songs before eventually settling into a disappointingly conventional slasher. Starry Eyes was an altogether more serious look at the compulsion to act: its early evocation of the mental and physical strain of casting call woe was well fleshed out thanks to a commited performance by lead actress Alex Essoe, but its eventual trajectory into Faustian territory felt like a metaphor too well-worn to feel fresh. Meanwhile, Life After Beth – essentially My Undead Ex-Girlfriend – was amiable & funny enough on its own absurdist terms, though never quite connected with genuine emotional resonances relating to the grieving process for it to rise above the level of sitcom-esque farce. Funniest of all was Housebound, which might have begun with a pat supernatural setup but unfurled in unpredictable directions, and was strongly bolstered by charming performances, a very witty script and an eye for New Zealand-bound small town hilarity.
The most eye-poppingly odd film of the festival was Matsumoto Hitoshi’s R100, a curiously improbable mix of Koreeda-like gendaigeki, David Fincher’s The Game and BDSM kink whose first half played as a sharp social subversion of the fastidious formality of the ‘official’ surface of Japanese life. That its latter stages turn decidedly towards outright, over-the-top absurdism proved something of a disappointment, though its flamboyance would have made it a perfect match for a midnight movie slot. Lucky McKee and Chris Sivertson’s All Cheerleaders Die played in the offbeat high school hijinks register of Joseph Kahn’s bafflingly popular Detention though ultimately floundered under its mixture of tonal hyperactivity and narrative overburdening.
Adam Wingard’s The Guest toyed with, but never fully subverted the tropes of the Western-like mysterious stranger cliché, but had the benefit of a charismatic performance by Dan Stevens as an enigmatic, quietly-cuckoo cuckoo who arrives to upset the equilibrium of small town America. John McNaughton’s The Harvest, meanwhile, took a disease-of-the-week melodrama pro-forma and plunged it into psycho-thriller territory, entertaining and chilling enough as hokum but domestic misery power couple Samantha Morton and Michael Shannon frankly deserved a little better than this. More emotionally effective was Adrián García Bogliano’s Late Phases, a serious-minded look at stubborn isolation of old age focused on a blind war veteran who finds his new retirement community is being routinely terrorised by a lupine monster: ‘Scent of a Wolfman’ if you will, but held together by Nick Damici’s emotive central performance.
In more familiarly conventional horror territory, Zombeavers was the definite Ronseal film of the weekend, though its Cormanesque high concept felt stretched even at a svelte running time. Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead fell into the Army of Darkness trap of broadening the original film’s canvas when concision and confinement were some of its predecessor’s chief virtues, while some trying-too-hard attempts comedy involving a group of zombie-obsessed Americans hit some very bum notes indeed. More successful was Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno, a characteristically misanthropic cannibal film doubling up as multi-pronged satire, which was most effective when skewering (both figuratively and literally) naïve preppy activism. Best of all was The Babadook, which alighted on the very understandable paranoia generated by a sinister children’s book apparently featuring a silhouette of Jerry Sadowitz. A classical haunted house tale composed of familiar elements yet assembled with considerable skill, writer/director Jennifer Kent pleasingly keeps a tight rein on the subjective ambiguity of its psychological horror setup, and Essie Davis’ utterly convincing performance as a widowed mother trying to care for her troubled young son hit the festival’s most moving notes.
Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo proved to be the long weekend’s most ubiquitous guest attendee, both in terms of his supremely affable presence in and around the festival and his work appearing on-screen. His most recent work, Open Windows, at times played like a preposterous tech thriller as spoof of the preposterous tech thriller, its device of all being made to unfold on a laptop screen proving both restricting and yet curiously liberating. The gimmick, however, wore thin, and this coupled with an overstuffed second half come to stall its otherwise rollercoaster-like acceleration in pace and tension. Also screening was his slight but entertaining 2011 comedy Extraterrestrial, which used an alien invasion conceit as a MacGuffin to enable a four-handed chamber farce of mistrust, sexual jealousy and deceit.
Vigalondo also contributed a chapter to V/H/S Viral, the third in the portmanteau series which, as with previous installments, was hamstrung by both a feeble link narrative and the variable quality of its segments from its four directors. Showing them how it ought to be done in the found footage stakes was Creep, directed by Patrick Brice and featuring a terrific turn from Mark Duplass as a charming yet unshakably sinister man who pays for a stranger to film him for a day, with increasingly disturbing results.
The Last Showing, centred on Robert Englund’s put-upon projectionist facing off against a supporting cast of what seemed like soap opera cast-offs (prompting the alternative title of Freddy Goes to Hollyoaks) proved to be the only entirely risible film of the festival, although the implication that DCP rollout will inevitably lead to violence, misery and death is perhaps one which certain cinephile circles might happily applaud. Nicholas McCarthy’s Home may have boasted potentially effective non-linear flashback structure and Psycho-like changes in spectatorial point-of-view, but these devices were not able to paper over thin, derivative material and flimsy characters, ill compensated for by cheap jump scares and seemingly aimless visual nods to Don’t Look Now. The presence of Serbian film Nymph fulfilled the role of the festival’s now-traditional ripe Eurotrash slot, though unlike previous winners Tulpa and Giallo its hokey EFL script wasn’t quite entertaining enough to send it into the realm of the good-bad.
Closing film, the much-hyped US sci-fi hit The Signal boasted a series of striking images and an initially intriguing setup, but ultimately preferred the arbitrary forward momentum of its narrative to developing the Cronenberg-esque body horror themes which it opened up, and its eventual emotional zeniths proved underwhelming, underlining the essential thinness of its characterisation. Germany’s The Samurai, a tale of small town homosexual awakening played as fairytale-nightmare, proved to be altogether more popular with festivalgoers, but despite its progressive intentions it felt compromised by the presence of its eponymous sword-wielding psycho-Trans, a step backwards into Dressed to Kill or Silence of the Lambs regressiveness. Elsewhere from the continent, Among the Living saw Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo doing their thing again: an lean, expertly-crafted slice of New French Extreme nastiness, though they are still yet to match the sheer visceral terror of their startling debut Inside.
All-in-all though, the highlight of the festival was Fabrice Du Welz’ Alleluia, a stunning retelling of the infamous The Honeymoon Killers true story which built from a murky Eurogrit aesthetic baseline to a feverish emotional pitch, thanks to a series of colourfully expressionist visual excursions; as a device, it worked perfectly to convey the film’s presentation of amour fou as a form of rapturous epiphany, and something which could serve as psychological justification for the possessiveness and violent destructiveness which ensued. Horror as a genre may well be serving us familiar stories, but its persistence comes from the telling of them in ever-more fresh and captivating ways.
Five to watch:
The third of my Recurring Nightmares series for Permanent Plastic Helmet is up, this time around looking at the dentally deficient and orthodontically unorthodox in genre cinema (and beyond):