Sunday, October 28, 2018

LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH 1971

I remember having had a snobbish, dismissive reaction to Let’s Scare Jessica to Death when, during the summer of 1971, ads for the film began appearing in the local newspaper. Not being much of a horror fan, and then only at the cusp of being the insufferable, self-styled, effete cinéaste I would develop into by my senior year at high-school year; I took in the film's title (didn’t appreciate the jocular tone), the ad graphic (potentially top violent or too silly), and ultimately the cast (unknowns!) before deciding that it wasn't for me. Beneath me, truth be told. All it lacked was that kiss-of-death banner of bargain-basement cinema: “An American-International Picture.”
My older sister, a horror enthusiast and the only one of us kids to make it through the broadcast TV premiere of Psycho in 1967, saw “Jessica” and raved about it, but I couldn’t be swayed. Jump ahead to the late-‘70s: films like Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976) and John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) had turned me into, if not exactly a bonafide horror hound, then certainly a person more appreciative of the genre and its power to do more than offer the odd shiver up the spine. In addition, I’d grown a little more familiar with the work of actress Zohra Lampert, a unique and talented two-time Tony Award nominee with an Actor’s Studio pedigree. It seemed to me as though I was in the ideal, most receptive frame of mind to finally check out Let’s Scare Jessica to Death the next time it showed up on TV; the odds of which were pretty good given that by this time it had become something of a late-night staple on local Creature Features-style TV programs.

Let's Scare Jessica to Death's status as a cult film grew out of these wee-small-hours-of-the-morning broadcasts, but as far as I was concerned, if there was ever a film one should not be introduced to via the accompaniment of frequent commercial interruptions; intrusive, mood-killing host segments; and the murky dimness of pre-HD TV, it’s Let’s Scare Jessica to Death. Already dealt a death blow with a grossly misleading setting the viewer up for a film that never materializes, the addition of commercials and comedy bumpers completely blows Let’s Scare Jessica to Death's deliberate pacing and low-simmer disquietude straight to hell. Feeling like the slowest, darkest, least-eventful horror film I’d ever seen, I never made it through my first encounter with “Jessica.” I turned it off after about 30-minutes. It would be nearly 30 years before we’d meet again.
Zohra Lampert as Jessica
Barton Heyman as Duncan
Mariclare Costello as Emily
Kevin O'Connor as Woody

Following the death of her father, Jessica suffers a nervous breakdown and is institutionalized for six months. Upon her release, and in the interest of starting a new life (with the help of family friend Woody), Jessica’s husband Duncan quits his job as cellist for the New York Philharmonic and sinks all of their savings into the purchase of a 19th Century farmhouse and apple orchard in a remote rural section of Connecticut. Although outwardly happy about uprooting their lives, Jessica (whom it’s alluded has had no say or hand in the selection of the house) devotes an inordinate amount of energy trying to convince Duncan and Woody that she is really “fine” in the face of ever-escalating internal doubts about the state of her own sanity.
Hearing voices and experiencing what she believes to be hallucinations, Jessica nevertheless keeps mum about her fears. Not an easy task given that their new home looks like it was once owned by The Munsters and is associated with a macabre vampire legend, or the weird phenomenon of the local town being populated exclusively by bandaged, oddly antagonistic, old men. 
Upon moving in, Jessica discovers their new home to be occupied by a beautiful hippie interloper named Emily ("squatter" is such an inelegant word, don’t you find?) whom she invites to stay, much to the barely-contained delight of both Duncan and Woody. Unfortunately, this act of hippie-era kindness sets into motion a series of events which (potentially) exposes the new tenants to a deadly, ages-old supernatural threat, and/or (dreadfully) stokes the fires of madness leading to Jessica’s mental and emotional disintegration.
Gretchen Corbett as The Girl in White

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
I think it was something like 2010 before I ever saw Let’s Scare Jessica to Death in its entirety. By which time what I felt to be the middling state of contemporary horror gave me an appreciation for the very things I didn’t like about this movie when I saw it in 1978. (Boy, I really wish I had seen this in 1971. The film so perfectly captures the feel of ‘70s-era Berkeley for me. By 1971 all those privileged hippies had tired of playing at being poor, and those who didn’t relocate to Mill Valley bought up and restored Victorian houses in Berkeley. Most of these post-'60s hippies seemed to look exactly like the cast of this movie.)
But I digress.  

Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is largely a mood piece vampire film, another in the 1970s female vampire movie trend (Daughters of Darkness, The Velvet Vampire) which cribbed liberally from the 1872 Gothic novel Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu that predated Bram Stoker’s Dracula by 26 years. Although it has a couple of scenes that made me start and got the hairs on my neck to stand up, it’s principally one of those horror movies I’d categorize as disturbing. It’s get-under-your-skin creepy rather than jump out of your seat scary. A genuinely unsettling horror movie that works on a number of levels, all playing to things like paranoia, the fluidity of reality, and the human capacity to make the ordinary look sinister if we try hard enough. 
Relatable Horror
Let's Scare Jessica to Death plays on everyday fears: shadowy hallways, whispered voices, and unexplained noises. In this instance, the dreaded "Something's grabbed my leg!!"  terror of every outdoor swimmer.

To its benefit, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death tries to do something different with the tropes of the vampire genre; giving a nod to tradition here and there (whether treated reverentially or casually death by the characters, death remains a constant presence) but deviating from the expected in interesting ways. For instance, I like how the vampire, a bride who drowned just before her wedding 100 years ago, doesn’t have fangs, wears white, and uses what appears to be the knife intended to cut her wedding cake as her preferred means of blood extraction.

Because the film is largely concerned with creating a haunting mood or menace and dread, not a lot of what happens actually adds up. But the central conceit of presenting the film from Jessica’s subjective, arguably splintered, point of view, allows for narrative murkiness to work in the film’s favor.
Flirting with Death
They drive around in a hearse, her husband's cello case looks like a coffin, and
Jessica's hobby is visiting graveyards to make tombstone rubbings

PERFORMANCES
The strength of Zohra Lampert’s performance is so persuasive that I tend to (mistakenly) regard Let’s Scare Jessica to Death as a character-based horror film. It’s not, its characters are sketchily written at best, and while uniformly good, few of the other actors register beyond par-for-the-course for the exploitation horror genre. Mariclare Costello brings an assured, assertive quality to a character meant to be enigmatic. The likable Kevin O’Connor (who portrayed Humphrey Bogart in the truly dreadful 1980 TV-movie, Bogie) falls victim to tonsorial trendiness: little in the way of a performance is allowed to emerge from behind those huge sideburns, enormous mane of styled ‘70s hair, and Ned Flanders moustache.
I quite like Barton Heyman (who some might remember as the physician subjecting poor Linda Blair to all those tests in The Exorcist), as the overconcerned husband, he has several moments where he conveys a protective fear and resigned sympathy for Jessica that makes you wish his role were better written.
But the film is unimaginable without the superb Zohra Lampert. Her Jessica is a Master Class in how an inventive, skilled actor can put ten times more onscreen than is found on the written page. With almost nothing to work with beyond “neurotic,” Lampert (Warren Beatty’s shy bride in 1961’s Splendor in the Grass) sidesteps the clichés of the a “woman in peril” and makes Jessica a complex, richly realized, wholly unique (and heartbreaking) character you can’t take your eyes off of. 


THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Beyond the compelling vulnerability Zohra Lampert brings to the character of Jessica, I find myself most drawn to Let’s Scare Jessica to Death’s sustained atmosphere of dreamlike creepiness. How that’s achieved is clearly deliberate in some instances: the unsettlingly calm shots of the misty cove and surrounding forest; the angled, shadowy claustrophobia of the farmhouse. In others, it’s just as obviously the result of happy accidents: the film’s low-rent production values lend the film a turbid, documentary quality that makes every shot look, to borrow a quote from MST3K, “Like someone’s last known photograph.” 

Another asset, one that’s proved instrumental to Let’s Scare Jessica to Death's cult reputation, is its one-size-fits-all ambiguity. Presented with the prospect that all events are filtered through Jessica's neurotic gaze, the film opens itself to myriad interpretations.
Lesbian Panic
One theory posits that the film is a hallucinatory delusion born of Jessica's
friendly/fearful attraction to the sensual Emily
 

In making his directorial debut, John D. Hancock (Bang the Drum Slowly - 1973) has cited Henry James' The Turn of the Screw as a direct influence, yet he also readily admits that several of the most tantalizingly obtuse elements in the film aren’t exactly pertinent pieces of an intricately thought-out puzzle. If the séance sequence and the appearance of the mysterious girl in white seem to make no sense and appear to have no connection to the plot, it’s for good reason: both were included at the suggestion of an exhibitor and the insistence of the producer, respectively.
Feminist Revenge
Another theory sees the film through the prism of Jessica's response to her father's death and 
repressed feelings of hostility/resentment toward her disloyal and infantilizing husband. 

Such is the interactive magic and power of movies, apropos of the horror genre, especially. If you succeed in engaging the audience on a visceral level, to reach them through means of visual theory and emotional engagement, then their imaginations will always work to fill in the plot holes and gaps of logic. For me, Let's Scare Jessica to Death isn't an effective horror film in spite of not making much sense, it works specifically because it doesn't make much sense. 

The Madwoman in the Attic
Let's Scare Jessica to Death share with other atmospheric Gothics like The Innocents, Rosemary's Baby, and The Haunting, a heroine who's questionable sanity brands her an unreliable narrator. Ironically, by fade-out, most of these films end on a note of "I Believe the Woman."

THE STUFF OF DREAMS 
Something occurred to me while watching (as much as I could stomach) the horrorshow that was the 2018 SCOTUS hearings. It occurred to me that one of the things which has come to most characterize the current American socio-political climate has been the emergent spectacle of the hysterical male. They’ve always been around, these bastions of toxic/fragile masculinity, but never before has there been such a public parade of wild-eyed, blubbering, irrational, excitable, over-emotional (largely white and heterosexual) men, frothing at the mouth over an incapability of aligning an antiquated, deluded self-image to an evolving reality.
Eve Was Weak
Jessica is about to pick an apple from their recently sprayed orchard
 before Duncan warns her that it's poison
When explored at all, the phenomenon of the hysterical male is featured most often in the context of the paranoid thriller: films where a disbelieved male (whom the audience knows is actually right) fights a corrupt system. But rarely is he featured in horror films. Even in the brilliant The Wicker Man the disbelieved hero operates from an inflexible sense of right and wrong, not a fragility or vulnerability.
Given that masculinity is a social construct only slightly less sturdy than the membrane lining an eggshell, it would seem a natural vulnerability topic for the horror genre; but Gothic tradition has long deemed the psychotic woman to be the defining trope of helplessness. In the horror genre, the e psychotic man is portrayed not as a victim, but as the agent of violence or figure of fear. 
"It's OK Jess, I saw it, too."
Encouraged by her mental illness not to trust her own perceptions, Jessica frequently looks to the men in her life to validate her reality. A fine dramatic conceit for a horror film, but one which also reflects a very real social mindset 

The theme of feminine fragility is a common one in horror films, and Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is no exception when it comes to Jessica’s tenuous grip on reality being both the focus of the film’s dramatic tension and the source of the audience’s emotional involvement. Jessica screams, shrieks, and wails while the men remain at a stoic, emotional remove. Even when she voices perfectly reasonable concerns regarding the strange behavior of the townsfolk or the appearance of the girl in white, the men’s uncurious and dismissive reactions reinforce the genre’s need to render unreliable a woman’s account of her own experience. In horror, women are emotional, the men are rational and sound.
Screams, whispers, and odd noises punctuate the sound design of Let's Scare Jessica to Death.
Another major asset is composer Orville Stoeber's bloodcurdling score.

Standing in contrast to Gothic traditionalism and the theme of "the disbelieved woman," is the gender-based disruption introduced by the character of Emily. In horror films, a female vampire is depicted in ways not dissimilar to that of the femme fatale in film noir. Her power lies in her awareness of men's vulnerability to her sexual allure. She has both agency and control over her fate because men are such easy prey. 
The horror film to explore the terrors of male fragility is perhaps yet to be made, but in having Jessica’s non-stop self-regulating offset by the consequences Duncan and Woody pay for their smug male self-assurance, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is spared from being just another Madwoman in the Attic horror Gothic.


BONUS MATERIAL
There's a good reason why the female performances in Let's Scare Jessica to Death register so strongly.  Zohra Lampert and Mariclare Costello were both members of the prestigious Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center. In 1964 they appeared together in the debut American production of Arthur Miller's After The Fall which also featured Jason Robards and Faye Dunaway.

In 1980 Mariclare Costello appeared as Mary Tyler Moore's 
sister-in-law Audrey in the film Ordinary People


I sit here and I can’t believe that it happened. And yet I have to believe it.
 Dreams or nightmares…madness or sanity. I don’t know which is which. 

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

YOU'LL LIKE MY MOTHER 1972

Spoiler alert: This is a critical essay, not a review. Pertinent 
details and plot points are referenced for the purpose of analysis.

The suspense thriller is one of my favorite movie genres, but some films age better than others. The Patty Duke starrer You’ll Like My Mother had already been branded a word-of-mouth “sleeper hit” when it opened in the San Francisco Bay Area in December of 1972, having already built a momentum of respectable reviews and favorable public response during its East Coast engagements in October. By the time this minimally-publicized release from Bing Crosby Productions made its way out West (BCP's 1970 feature Willard had enjoyed a similar surprise success), advance buzz about the film was considerable. Interest in the film received a significant leg-up when up-and-coming co-star Richard Thomas became an overnight household name as the star of TV’s The Waltons (which premiered that September). 
Further free publicity for the film was garnered by Patty Duke's real-life Mamma Mia! paternity scandal. The Oscar-winning actress had recently given birth to son Sean, whose father was potentially one of three men: May/December fling Desi Arnaz, Jr (Duke was 24, Arnaz 17); quickie 13-day ex-husband Michael Tell*; or current husband [4 months at the time] John Astin. The tabloids ate it up, and in spite of the potential public backlash, Universal Studios didn't seem to mind, given how often the word "mother" had to be used in each article. *In 1994 Sean Astin had a DNA test to determine Tell as his biological father. 
Patty Duke as Francesca Kinsolving
Rosemary Murphy as Mrs. Kinsolving
Richard Thomas as Kenneth Kinsolving
Sian Barbara Allen as Kathleen Kinsolving

Although my subscription to Rona Barrett’s Hollywood had kept me abreast of all the aforementioned Patty Duke daddy drama, I’d somehow avoided hearing a single thing about You’ll Like My Mother before catching sight of the poster for the film at Hollywood’s Cinerama Dome during a Christmas Season visit to Los Angeles. Looking at the poster now, it reveals a graphic heavy-handedness and lack of confidence in its audience I would later find to be characteristic of the film itself; but at the time, I was so intrigued by those scissors and all those exclamation points, couldn’t wait to see it. 
Lest someone get the wrong idea and mistake it for a musical, the film
was marketed with the words "a thriller" in large type and in such
close proximity, it appeared to be part of the complete title

Francesca is the enormously pregnant wife of an Army pilot recently killed in Vietnam. Having met and wed in a whirlwind, Francesca and Matthew hadn’t been married long or even knew that much about each other, but during that time he would frequently say to his bride, “You’ll like my mother.”
On the strength of that endorsement, Francesca, widowed and without family of her own, braves a 3-day winter bus journey from Los Angeles to Minnesota to visit her mother-in-law; a woman she’s never met, never spoken to, or knows anything about.  

A snowstorm greets Francesca’s arrival at her destination, a small, remote town far from anything but snow, snow, and more snow. But nothing’s as icy as the response she receives from townsfolk whenever she mentions the of her husband and his family: Kinsolving. Weather conditions preventing vehicle transportation to the Kinsolving home, Francesca, ill-dressed for the occasion and looking every day of her clearly-advanced state of pregnancy, trudges through Zhivago-levels of snow to make it to the Kinsolving home. It's a huge, imposing estate with all the warmth of The Overlook Hotel. 
In 1977, the Glensheen mansion in Duluth, Minnesota was
the site of the notorious Congdon heiress double murder

If at first glance the Jacobian-style architecture of the Kinsolving mansion appears lacking in the sort of eerie ornamentation one comes to expect from Gothics melodramas like this, fear not, for Francesca’s knock on the door summons forth a true flesh-and-blood gargoyle: Mrs. Kinsolving herself. Frostily disdainful of her uninvited guest from the get-go (“Why did you feel you had to come here?”), Mrs. Kinsolving’s internal Frigidaire setting hits glacier-level when the sight of her daughter-in-law’s filled-to-bursting state of pregnancy triggers she’s-trying-to-horn-in-on-the-inheritance apprehension instead of grandmotherly concern—"Since I didn’t acknowledge [you] the first time as Matthew’s wife, I saw no reason to applaud the progress [you’ve] made.”
Adding further to Francesca’s newfound family tree fun is the double-barreled discovery that Matthew has an  intellectually-disabled, virtually non-verbal sister he never told her about, plus a distant, clearly homicidal cousin named Kenny who just so happens to be on the loose and wanted for a brutal murder.
When Francesca makes the decision, there and then, to hightail it out of there as fast as her belly and boots will allow, she can hardly be blamed. But alas, her departure is waylaid by a stalled car, a disconnected phone (along with no TV, houses like this never have working phones), and an encroaching blizzard. When snow-clogged roads turn an awkward overnight stay into an acrimonious open-ended sojourn, Francesca's guest status begins to take on the appearance of prisoner.  
Mrs. Kinsolving allows Francesca to stay in Matthew's old room

Thus far, an irresistible (if a shade familiar) stage has been set in having unforeseeable circumstances (a storm) force Francesca to confront a suspicious situation rife with questions both she and the viewer are asking: Why do the townsfolk react like horses hearing the name Frau Blücher whenever Francesca mentions the Kinsolving family? Why is Matthew’s mother so blatantly hostile and why did she lie about receiving a telegram announcing her son’s marriage? Why had Matthew kept his sister a secret, yet told Francesca about weird cousin Kenny? Is there someone else in the house?
That we initially only know as much as Francesca intensifies our identification with her. Later, when more information is disclosed, our perspective of events becomes divided.

The element of time becomes a suspense factor as Mrs. Kinsolving needs to get Francesca out of the house before she has time to unearth the secrets she's so invested in keeping.  Meanwhile, tension mounts as Francesca’s any-minute-now delivery date makes escape on foot an impossibility , and leaves her vulnerable to Mrs. Kinsolving’s habit (she’s a registered nurse) of drugging her and giving her shots without permission.
You’ll Like My Mother is a nifty, PG-rated (thrills are on the effective-but-tepid side), woman-in-peril suspenser in the classic tradition of all those paperback Gothics with covers featuring a woman in a long flowing gown running away from a sinister-looking mansion looming in the distance. Well-acted, atmospheric, but populated with stock characters and rarely deviating from formula; it’s a film that plays well on first viewing but whose plot doesn’t withstand the scrutiny of repeat visits.
Dennis Rucker as Red Cooper

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
I enjoy You’ll Like My Mother a great deal, but the disparity in response to seeing it in 1972 and now is rather jarring. For the longest time I harbored memories of it being this incredibly intense moviegoing experience…a nail-biting, suspenseful thrill ride I treated myself to four times over that Christmas holiday. Part Rosemary’s Baby (1968), part captive-damsel-in-distress/hag-horror Gothic à la Tallulah Bankhead’s Die! Die! My Darling! (1965); I remember being thoroughly gripped by Patty Duke’s predicament and startled by each new plot twist and character revelation. Because virtually no one else at school had even heard of it, I sang the film’s praises to any and all as this undiscovered gem they simply HAD to see.
When I watch the film now—seeing it through a nostalgia prism which takes into consideration my having been a 15-year-old at the time and not very well-versed in the clichés of the women-in-peril genre—I’m still able to access certain things I responded to so favorably long ago. For instance, I continue to be impressed by Rosemary Murphy’s iron butterfly take on motherhood, the shivery Minnesota setting, and the overall plot retains its bizarre quirkiness. But by and large I find myself a little bemused when confronted with just how little it took for me to be scared by a movie in those days.

Sparsely populated, over-reliant on close ups, with nearly every plot device spelled out for even the slowest on the uptake, You’ll Like My Mother plays more like your better-than-average made-for-TV movie than a major feature film. This is no-doubt due to the film being helmed by veteran television director Lamont Johnson (That Certain Summer -1972) who directed Patty Duke to her only Emmy Award win in 1970s My Sweet Charlie
Though only 92-minutes long, You’ll Like My Mother is paced in that deliberate way characteristic of a great many ‘70s films, but in this instance the leisurely unfolding of the film's minimal action (once Duke is in that house, she's IN that house) calls attention to the many holes in the plot while inviting the viewer to remain always one step ahead of the familiar storyline.
Pray for Francesca's Baby
In the final analysis, nostalgia aside and divorced from any expectation for the film to live up to my teenage experience of it, You'll Like My Mother measures up as a fine, low-wattage suspense thriller that feels perfectly scaled for the small screen. Devoid of the clockwork shock cuts and audience-pandering excesses of so many of today's thrillers, I found myself appreciative of the film's direct, no-frills approach to the material. The performances still hold up--Sian Barbara Allen's Golden Globe nominated turn, a little less so for me, and there's no Neely O'Hara overplaying from Patty Duke---leaving me pleasantly surprised by how entertainingly offbeat it remains. It's still crazy after all these years.


THE STUFF OF FANTASY
In the language of the studio pitch meeting, You’ll Like My Mother really is Rosemary’s Baby meets Die! Die! My Darling!, with perhaps a little bit of Psycho on the side. Unfortunately, it’s not as narratively assured as Polanski’s film, nor as agreeably campy as Bankhead’s cinema swan song. 
Most obviously, You’ll Like My Mother evokes memories of Rosemary’s Baby in that a major thrust of the story is how Francesca’s pregnancy and baby are placed at risk. For not only is Francesca constantly lied to and given mysterious drugs in drinks, but her predicament and the potential fate of her child is metaphorically foreshadowed when she arrives at the Kinsolving home just as her mother-in-law has drowned a litter of kittens. Mrs. Kinsolving’s pointed explanation to her daughter-in-law is that her beloved and pedigreed feline “Forgot herself and mated with an alley cat. The kittens were no good of course.” 
A Boy's Best Friend Is His Mother
Mrs. Kinsolving's relationship with creepy Kenny has a Norman & Mrs. Bates quality to it

You’ll Like My Mother has considerably more in common with the less well-known Die! Die! My Darling!, both films featuring large, isolated estates without phones (although in ‘Mother’ that’s something of a dodge) lorded over by imperious, likely loony, matriarchs with unconventional surnames that signal wealth and nothing but trouble (Bankhead’s is Mrs. Trefoile). I’m not sure why developmentally disabled household help was such a staple of the genre, but Donald Sutherland assumes the duties in the Hammer film, while both movies find our heroine locked in a room and at the mercy of a rancorous old woman who indirectly blames her for the death of her son and the alienation of maternal affection.


PERFORMANCES
After the blissful debacle of Valley of the Dolls, Patty Duke worked almost exclusively in television, making only one other film before this one--1969s Me, Natalie for which she won a Golden Globe. Duke has said that it took years for her to appreciate Valley of the Dolls for the camp classic it eventually became, but by her superb work in Me, Natalie, and her muted, underplaying performance here, it appears it didn't take her very long to learn the lesson of less is more. Duke gives a persuasive, intelligent performance here, displaying a subdued naturalism that would keep her working continually in television and film until her untimely death in 2016 at age 69.
Although their in-law relationship is antagonistic in You'll Like My Mother, Rosemary Murphy
and Patty Duke went on to play mother and daughter in the 1979 TV movie Before and After 

Not being a fan of The Waltons, my only awareness of Richard Thomas at the time was as one of the sociopathic teenagers in the disturbing film Last Summer (1969), so his role here didn't strike me as being as big a departure in type as those who were shocked to see angel-faced John Boy cast as a possible serial killer. He, too, is very good in the film, his malevolent boyishness creating the impression of a grown-up Dennis the Menace as The Bad Seed.
Sian Barbara Allen gets an "introducing" credit in You'll Like My Mother, and her performance garnered near-unanimous praise along with the aforementioned Golden Globe nomination as Most Promising Newcomer. She's obviously very touching and sympathetic, though it's sometimes a distraction that she so reminds me of  Mia Farrow in Secret Ceremony (all downcast cow eyes and dark hair cascading over her features). At the time, Allen and Thomas were quite the romantic item.
However, it's character actress Rosemary Murphy who makes the film for me. She's a credible villainess, ruthless, but not heartless, and she never once goes over the top or turns her character into a characterization. Her cool bearing hides a steely tension that makes her motives unreadable and her behavior all the more frightening.


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Genre films are bound by the paradox that they both adhere to form and be original. Robert Altman’s That Cold Day in the Park (1969) or even the Julie Christie's sci-fi curiosity Demon Seed (1977) stand as good examples of creative variations/subversions of the "captivity" melodrama. You’ll Like My Mother, hewing more closely to classic Gothic tradition, may not offer much in the way of novelty, but in having a female screenwriter (Jo Heims, who wrote the story for 1971’s Play Misty for Me) adapting a novel written by a woman (Naomi A. Hintze’s 1969 novel had an overflowing river instead of a snow storm), is a thriller distinguished by the authenticity of its female perspective and harrowing take on the maternal instinct.  

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Monday, October 8, 2018

THE VELVET VAMPIRE 1971

“Susan, have you ever noticed how men envy us?”
“Envy us, how?”
“The pleasure we have that only we can have. We can’t help it. It’s just our nature, the way we are. And in their secret hearts they hate us for it because they can never know what it’s like.”


I was never much into vampire movies growing up. That I’ve managed to see so many of them…Dracula, his brides, sons, and daughters included…is due to my older sister; a dyed-in-the-wool horror fan who used her size and age advantage to make sure that every Saturday night the family TV was tuned to Channel 2’s Creature Features, a double-barreled parade of classic and (mostly) not-so-classic horror and sci-fi flicks hosted by the bespectacled Bob Wilkins. Since it was either vampires or go to bed early on one of the few nights I was allowed to stay up, the Gothic bloodsuckers invariably won out.

My feelings about vampire movies weren’t rooted in anything specific, merely that they failed to capture my imagination because I never found them to be very scary. Monsters being more to my taste back then, to my way of thinking vampire movies were essentially just Gothic romances where the “necking” was taken to its literal extreme. (I do recall having had this weird, neat-freak reaction to the way vampires in movies always allowed the blood to run down their faces after feeding. Here they were, these genteel, over-refined Counts turned out in fastidious Victorian finery, yet dribbling blood down the sides of their mouths like babies without bibs. What were all those lace handkerchiefs for? Weren’t there any anal-retentive, OCD vampires?)
But whatever the reason, it was clear my personal indifference to vampires was out of step with the timbre of the times. The most vivid example being the whole Dark Shadows craze that swept through my high school in 1971. For the unversed, Dark Shadows was a popular Gothic daytime TV soap opera about a lovesick vampire who couldn’t remember his lines. Each weekday, kids by the hundreds would race home from school to catch its 4pm broadcast, the following day devoting entire lunchtimes to recounting to one another the sundry supernatural exploits of Barnabas Collins and the rest of the blooper-prone denizens of Collinwood.

Dark Shadows and vampire mania hit my best friend Smedley particularly hard (I attended a Catholic boy’s school where, for some reason, we all addressed one another by our last names), he being so enamored of the show that he took to wearing a cape to school in our Sophomore year. Decades before the term cosplay even existed, Smedley could be seen striding around campus, cape billowing in the wind behind his blue jeans and Adidas sneakers.
The 1972 release of Blacula, the first African-American vampire, emboldened Smedley to add to his ensemble: a heavy wooden cane with a polished silver skull handle, a pentagram pinkie ring with a glass eye in its center, and a black, wide-brimmed hat. Alas, the school’s principal, who’d heretofore proved uncommonly tolerant of a kid wandering the halls of a Catholic school looking like the Prince of Darkness, ultimately intervened, putting a halt to Smedley’s sartorial shenanigans the minute he began taking on the appearance of a teenage Super Fly. Besides, there were no lockers big enough for that hat. 
The Lady in Red Stalks Her Prey

But the Dark Shadows phenomenon was just one aspect of the vampire renaissance of the 1970s. Following a decline in popularity during the sci-fi/atomic monster craze of the ‘50’s, vampire movies received a much-needed genre transfusion when relaxed censorship regulations in the late-1960s granted filmmakers broader latitude in the depiction of violence and the display of nudity. Free to render explicit all the sexual metaphor and eroticism heretofore only hinted at in previous vampire flicks; there appeared a rash of fang & coffin features virtually awash in technicolor blood and upholstered with acres of exposed flesh.
Along similar lines, shifts in the ‘70s cultural landscape (race relations, the sexual revolution, the women’s movement, gay rights) precipitated occasionally ingenious–but mostly silly–reimaginings of the traditional vampire myth.
Blacula’s William Marshal was cinema’s first African-American vampire, but there were also Kung Fu vampires (The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires – 1974), swashbuckling vampires (Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter – 1974), and hippie vampires (Let’s Scare Jessica to Death – 1971). But most popular of all…for reasons both subversive and prurient…was the female vampire.

Among the glut of horror films about female vampires that flooded the market at the time, films with heavy-breathing titles like Vampire Lovers (1970), Vampyros Lesbos (1970), Lust for a Vampire (1971), Daughters of Darkness (1971), and Twins of Evil (1971), only The Velvet Vampire had the distinction of being directed by a woman.
Celeste Yarnall as Diane Le Fanu
Michael Blodgett as Lee Ritter
Sherry Miles as Susan Ritter

Vapid young couple Lee and Susan Ritter (Michel Blodgett & Sherry Miles, both looking as though they’d just wandered in from a Sun-In© hair lightener commercial) meet vampy vampire Diane Le Fanu (Celeste Yarnall) at a Los Angeles art gallery (The [Bram] Stoker Gallery...wink, wink). Though they've been married but a scant two years, the reptilian Lee instant seems to forget his marital status and begins blatantly flirting with the raven-haired Diane, whom we’ve just seen overpower and kill an assailant on her way to the gallery (a girl’s gotta eat). Meanwhile, Susan struggles hard to process…well, everything.

When Diane invites the blank-eyed pair to spend the weekend at her villa in the Mojave Desert, Lee, ever the horndog, leaps at the offer, while worrywart Susan harbors serious, poorly-articulated misgivings. Their drive through the desert is plagued by blazing heat, a curious absence of other drivers on the road, car trouble, and weirdly hostile locals—all ominous harbingers and portents of danger signaling to our couple (imagine a debauched, significantly denser Brad and Janet from The Rocky Horror Picture Show) to turn back. Yet, our intrepid, dull-witted pair soldiers on until their stalled car finally has them all but ready to pack it in. But, lo and behold, out of nowhere appears Diane to the rescue in her canary yellow dune buggy!

Yes, although covered from head to toe in the kind of mod, midi-skirts-and-boots ensembles favored by Ann Marie during the final season of That Girl, Diane is clearly a vampire who doesn’t mind the sun. And since it’s already been revealed that she’s also a vampire who can cast a reflection in a mirror; we’ve been sufficiently alerted to the fact that the gender of our predatory protagonist is not to be the only deliberate genre subversion The Velvet Vampire has up its cape. 
Diamonds...Daisies...Snowflakes...That Ghoul
  
The trio’s arrival at Diane’s remote desert domicile sees more Gothic clichés upended, as the sun-drenched villa and barren surrounding landscape stand as the living (if one can use that word when speaking of the undead) antithesis to the gloomy castles and foggy moors of Transylvanian legend. Yet the occasional nod to convention can still be found. The nearby grounds feature a well-populated cemetery which harbors a dark, heavily-guarded secret, and the film allows for Diane to have a devoted, passive, Renfield-like manservant named Juan (Jerry Daniels) who supplies his mistress with victims, but gives no evidence of personally having a taste for insects.

Having lured the prey to her lair, Diane embarks on an aggressive but vague course of action involving dual seduction, voyeuristic stalking, and mutual dream invasion (Lee and Susan share the same surreal nightmare in which Diane is seen as a dissevering entity…but to what purpose?). The latter point is what fuel’s The Velvet Vampire’s only suspense, for we’re as in the dark about Diane’s intentions for the couple as they are. Because her ambiguous objectives have to be carried out before the weekend is over (or before our slow-on-the-pickup newlyweds catch on), the element of time factors in as a source of narrative tension. 
Juan (Jerry Daniels), the vigilant vampire valet, catches Susan snooping around
The plot of The Velvet Vampire share similarities with the far superior Belgian erotic vampire film Daughters of Darkness, in that both involve sexually-fluid female vampires who become obsessed with couples in less-than-satisfying relationships. Indeed, remove the vampire element, and The Velvet Vampire even foreshadows the aforementioned The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) in its often-humorous depiction (both intentional and un) of the ease with which bland innocence can be corrupted by sophisticated evil.
A likely contributing factor to The Velvet Vampire's poor boxoffice performance and rapid retreat from theaters in 1971 is the fact that both films were October releases that overlapped. In the SF Bay area, Daughters of Darkness (marketed to the arthouse crowd) came out two weeks earlier, which must have made The Velvet Vampire look like a bargain-basement, Drive-In imitation by comparison.
top: The Velvet Vampire / bottom: Daughters of Darkness
In both films a beautiful female vampire insinuates herself into the lives of a handsome couple. 


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Produced by the legendary Roger Corman and one of the earliest releases from his newly-formed company New World Pictures, The Velvet Vampire lives up (or down) to just what you’d expect from the prolific exploitation producer/director known as the “King of the Bs.” There’s stilted dialog, low-production values, clumsy staging, unconvincing special effects, erratic pacing, and some really monumentally bad acting. All of which go toward making the film both rousingly entertaining and something of a must-see howler for fans of unintentional humor.
"Diane doesn't turn me on. She's a desert freak!"
That being said, The Velvet Vampire is also a film--against all odds and wholly within the restricted confines of exploitation and its own prohibitively modest budget--nevertheless works. And rather spectacularly.
What gives it distinction and spares it from being just another one of those exploitation horror movies driven by the stale grindhouse axiom: “The men are killed, the women are raped,” is that this horror film bears the rare, indelible stamp of having been directed and co-written by a woman: Stephanie Rothman.

Director of one of my favorite off-brand beach party movies It’s a Bikini World (1967), Corman protégé Stephanie Rothman clearly hasn’t a lot to work with in The Velvet Vampire in terms of either money or onscreen talent; but evident in nearly every frame of the movie is her humor, artistic vision, creative ingenuity, and feminist commitment to subverting as many of the overused tropes and sexist clichés associated with horror movies as possible. All while satisfying the requirements of the exploitation genre itself: to supply a higher degree of sensationalized violence and nudity than available in most mainstream films of the time. 
Rothman in a 1973 interview: "I'm very tired of the whole tradition in western art
 in which women are always presented nude and men aren't."

PERFORMANCES
There’s a slick professionalism to the look of The Velvet Vampire that’s hard to deny (cinematography is by onetime Claude Lelouch cameraman Daniel LaCambre), and Rothman’s approach to the material suggests a psychological thoughtfulness and attentiveness to theme that’s rare in the realm of exploitation. But these pluses are at serious odds with the faint, but nevertheless pervasive, air of amateurism attendant in the production overall. Nowhere is this more obvious than with the film’s cast. Nearly everyone comes across as being the best that could be acquired for the price.
In this priceless exchange, Diane tells Lee that if he's willing to take the time to warm up
 her dune buggy properly, he can ride it as long and as hard as he likes

Third-billed Celeste Yarnall is really the film’s chief asset as the sensuous vampire who may or may not be simply a delusional woman suffering from a rare blood disease. She doesn't have a lot of range, and the role doesn't call for it, but she can act, knows her way around a funny line, and gives the film's most assured performance. Something that can't be said for the rest of the cast. Heavy-lidded Michael Blodgett might be the most high-profile member of the cast, having achieved an immortality of sorts as the leopard-skinned-bikini-wearing gigolo Lance Rocke in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970), but he’s an inert presence and practically sleepwalks though his role (which kinda suits the film’s subtext pertaining to passive men and resourceful women.)
However, the worst offender (thus, my personal favorite) is Sherry Miles, an attractive actress who, when other characters are speaking, always manages to look like she’s translating their words from English into Mandarin Chinese, then back again to English in her head. Possessed of vacant eyes and Dallesandro-flat line delivery, she gives an astonishingly awful performance of the sort that sends MST3K fans into wild ecstatics. I've never seen Miles in anything else, so I can't tell if her flawless depiction of a whiny California bubblehead is comic brilliance or simply doin’ what comes natur’lly. But either way, I treasure every moment she's onscreen.
Interviews with the director and DVD commentary by Celeste Yarnall affirm that Miles, a former teen model who'd achieved a level of success on TV, was "difficult" during the filming. The most startling news of all was that she had her acting coach (!?) on set and consulted with them frequently

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Movies being what they were, Hollywood being what it is, and heterosexual men being what they are, the whole Lesbian Vampire Craze was but a ‘70s pop-culture mashup of age-old sex and violence tropes customized for the Sexual Revolution and the Women’s Movement. Facing criticism for their violent victimization of women and routine depiction of them as passive targets of male aggression, horror films hoped to make amends by turning the tables and reassigning the strong-but-sexy femme fatale paradigm of film noir to the vampire genre. In this context the woman is allowed to propel plot and be an agent of violent action while still pandering to the conventional male perception that women possessing such qualities (strength, aggression, self-preservation) are essentially dangerous, to be feared, and not actually "real" women.  
The lesbian vampires in these films were seldom (if ever) really lesbian, rather, they were the usual projected male fantasy: women of such voracious sexual appetite that they are drawn to both sexes equally. If a female preference was shown be the vampire, it was invariably conveyed in ways which reinforced butch/fem - dominant/passive stereotypes.

But during the era of the buddy-picture, the anti-hero, and all the many male-centric movie trends of the time; the image of woman as self-directed predator was not only a refreshing change of pace, but this female-centric angle brought about the welcome introduction of the heroine who is capable of saving herself, or, better still, rescuing the hero.
The Velvet Vampire largely plays by the genre rules, but from its haunting and surreal dream sequences to its subtle feminist self-awareness, it remains a very watchable film that uses the feminine gaze to play fast and loose with what we've come to expect from a horror movie.


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
It wasn’t until I was in film school and saw F. W. Murnau’s brilliant Nosferatu (1922) that my antipathy towards vampire movies underwent a change. That was about 1976. I became a full-fledged convert when I saw Werner Herzog’s mesmerizing remake of Nosferatu in 1979. Since then I’ve come to appreciate a side of vampire lore unconnected to my childhood desire to find the “scare” in those Creature Feature movies I saw as a kid.
What Murnau and Herzog inspired me to better appreciate was the nightmarish, melancholy side of what a vampire curse suggested. To be doomed to an eternity of unappeasable longing (for blood and for love, as vampires are usually linked to some kind of romantic loss) is to forever be forced to confront and live with the loss of hope. It’s a dreadful fate to contemplate, but one so humanly compelling that vampire films which even tangentially address this issue (The Hunger- 1983 and The Addiction -1995, come to mind) tend to become favorites.
In order to meet the more sensational requirements of the exploitation genre, Rothman's screenplay (co-written with Maurice Charles and her husband Charles S. Swartz) had minimal opportunity to address the side of the story relating to Diane's loneliness and bereaved longing for her (very, very) late husband

The Velvet Vampire is not on par with either of the above-mentioned films by any reasonable aesthetic comparison, but in terms of the capturing a feminine perspective and breathing new life (there’s that word again) into the vampire mythos, I’d say Stephanie Rothman’s film is a more than worthy member of the genre sisterhood.


Copyright © Ken Anderson