Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Comeback (1978) dir. Pete Walker

Logline: An aging crooner attempts to launch a career comeback by recording a new album while staying in a creaky palatial mansion in the country. But what’s making those noises he keeps hearing in the night? And why is everyone he knows disappearing? And what does any of this have to do with a crazed lunatic in an old woman’s getup?

Pete Walker is fast becoming one of my favorite English horror directors of the 1970s, which is impressive considering I’ve only seen two of the many he produced over the decade (the first being the terrific Frightmare, the most wholesome of cannibal family pictures). But while Frightmare coasts by on its grisly dedication to the domestic grand guignol, it was pleasant to see that The Comeback has subtler charms—the film seems to me predominantly about the ghostly persistence of the memory of lost love (be it romantic or familial).

Because although it is by parts a slasher, a murder mystery, and a Gaslight-plot to drive our protagonist mad, it emerges at its end as a film about ghosts—not those be-sheeted ones that haunt our attics, but those we create for ourselves in the depths of our psyches. Perhaps the central image of this mental state comes near the end of the film. We discover that the kindly housekeepers Mr. and Mrs. B have walled their daughter’s body up in her bedroom after she committed suicide many years before the events of the film. This act creates a sort of mausoleum of memory—Mr. and Mrs. B are driven quite literally mad by the ghost haunting their consciousnesses and so physically recreate it as a tangible haunting inside the house: apparitions, prerecorded sobbing, and all the rest. Similarly, pop heartthrob Nick (a jazzier Bobby Vinton) is haunted by the presence of the wife who he has recently split with. Her actual death at the beginning of the film (unknown to Nick until the conclusion), seems like a logical extension of his mental state concerning her. He can’t bear to return to the penthouse they used to share, and he’s tormented by visions of her decayed corpse in the mansion he’s occupying. When in the final act it is revealed that those apparitions of her corpse were in fact real and staged by the film’s antagonists, it hardly makes a difference: as the startling and masterfully-conceived final shots illuminate, Nick has been a haunted man from the start, regardless of any external assistance. In this light, the film’s title may have dual meanings: not simply Nick’s career revival, but those spirits of memory that he cannot prevent from staging a maddening “comeback” into his consciousness.

This is also an exceedingly well-made film. Look, for instance, at the initial murder of Nick’s wife, Gail—it is fast and furious, with rapid-fire cuts re-presenting the visual information from diverse angles (reminiscent of that little scene in Psycho), preventing us from taking it all in while never losing the sense of the high-velocity brutality taking place. Then watch as the fury dies out and we’re given a static shot of the killer’s feet dejectedly and oh-so-slowly ambling out of frame. It’s something to behold. Also of note is a wonderful long-shot of the mansion's exterior late at night, as Nick runs frantically down a flight of stairs, flicking on lights as he goes and illuminating the windows facing the camera one at a time. The most unsettling and effective stylistic technique occurs throughout the film’s first half, as intermittently we cut from the major action to shots of Gail’s murdered body (each time in an increasing state of decomposition), as if the film is unwilling to let us forget that inciting act of violence through the comfy confines of plot progression—the film literally haunts us through its discursive assembly.

There are some issues and inconsistencies, mostly due to the film’s interest in preserving its murder mystery angle. The red herrings are copious and some of those threads remain unresolved (Nick’s manager Webster is revealed in one scene to be a depressive transvestite, and there seems to be a curious relationship between Nick and his intimidating, perverted, more-than-likely drugged-up old friend Harry), but these are only quibbles. The Comeback is an excellent late-career film from a director who I very much desire to see more from.

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