Thursday, May 9, 2013

Die Screaming, Marianne (1971) dir. Pete Walker

Logline: Marianne (Susan George), a psychedelic suntanned bikini dancer, has spent the last six years fleeing across Europe in order to evade her father, mysteriously known only as The Judge (Leo Genn), and whatever nefarious plans he has for her and her approaching inheritance. When she shacks up with her new accidental husband, Eli (Barry Evans), and finds that her association with him is putting his life in danger, Marianne resolves to confront The Judge and her estranged sister, Hildegarde (Judy Huxtable), at the family estate in Portugal. But Marianne must take care, for someone there wishes to see her die screaming...

English director Pete Walker's first hesitant toe into the pool of horror cinema, Die Screaming, Marianne has the lousiest reputation of any of his major films. Scouring the web for reviews leaves one with the general consensus  that it's a bore, a thriller minus the thrills, and a creaky bit of mod sexploitation. Honestly, the film fits that consensus, but not necessarily to its detriment: sometimes gazing at a weird, snail-paced moddish thriller is precisely how one wishes to spend one's lazy afternoon. And it's not as if the film is a chore to sit through, coming equipped as it does with whiffs of style (split screens! those opening credits!), scenic location shooting (beaches! canyons!), and some competent and appealing acting (particularly from a young and ever-feisty Susan George, though Judy Huxtable-- as Marianne's smirkingly deranged half-sister-- is no slouch either). Moreover, to focus too much attention on those perceived flaws of Die Screaming, Marianne is to ignore its intriguing code-switching between genres and its atypical construction of its female heroine.

The abrupt, muddy transitions between genres throughout are the film's defining characteristic. Marianne neither sits still nor focuses on any one genre in particular over the others; it seems as if it would rather have them all in equal measure. A woman-on-the-run thriller cuts to a swinging '70s sex comedy which then bleeds back over into a thriller (with assassins!) before becoming a romance and then an incestual family inheritance drama and then eventually settling in as a sort of coastal Gothic suspense film. The film shifts between these different genres (and their attendant tones and styles) as if it wasn't asking much of the audience to follow along. It's a wonder that the film feels as unified as it does; usually, these sort of shifts leave the audience feeling disconnected and adrift from the main narrative. The presence of some strongly realized characters helps anchor us, of course, but probably a bigger factor in our continued engagement in the film is Walker's clear skill in employing each of these genres. Though you'd imagine them being weird thrust up together (and they are weird, sort of), disparate scenes coexist peacefully because Walker directs and edits with the confidence that they will. Some small moments, like Marianne's not-quite-bashful flirtation with her new husband and Eli's slow realization that the men in his apartment are there to kill him, are fantastically crafted and hint that Walker would have been equally adept in genres outside of horror. (Early in his career, Walker did in fact experiment with other genres like sexploitation and crime, in films such as School for Sex (1969) and Man Of Violence (1971), before dedicating himself wholly to horror. Having not seen any of these early oddities, I can't comment upon whether or not he pulled off their respective genres with grace, but Marianne certainly suggests the possibility.)

But more so than its unlikely coherence, Marianne is the film's main appeal. She's not the usual sort of heroine that you find in ostensible thrillers like these, which generally feature multiple parties conspiring to kill or drive crazy a helpless innocent female who is severely limited in both the available thought and action open to her. Take for example, the young heiress of two film versions of The Cat and the Canary (1939; 1978) that I watched recently: in both, the heroine sat by, meekly, as all the film's men either tried to kill her or save her. The same cannot be said for Marianne. Upon her first recognition that her father and sister were up to no good with regard to her future and inheritance, Marianne split and spent the next six years on the lam, providing for herself while depending upon no one else (especially men) for anything other than small favors. Marianne displays a fierce independence throughout the proceedings, like when she refuses to be tied down in marriage to the weaselly Sebastian (Christopher Sandford) when he insists by intentionally screwing up the marriage license and quickly moving out when he gets angry, offering him some choice words in return: "Look, mate, I've looked after myself for the last six years, and believe me yours was the most amateur attempt yet." She chooses her own lovers, feels empowered dancing around in a bikini, and literally evades patriarchal authority personified in the character of her father, The Judge, a figure whose symbolic significance couldn't be more obvious if he'd been named, say, "The Man" instead.

Besides these welcome signs of a developed and complex female character, Marianne also fulfills the traditionally male role of rescuer at the film's climax: when locked in a deadly hot steam room by her wicked sister, Marianne is forced to rescue herself and gather enough strength in order to mount a final face off against the conspirators out to kill her (which she does, aptly, with a little help from a menacing butler). During her predicament, Eli-- her knight in shining polyester-- was off somewhere being a corpse and providing no help at all. Gender roles successfully inverted. However, the film isn't content to proclaim that Marianne's status as an empowered woman is unambiguously good for her: the film's bleak final message for Marianne (surrounded as she is by the dead bodies of everyone she knows) is that her independent lifestyle, though perhaps the only way to shield herself physically and psychologically from the sleazeballs and would-be murderers of the world, dooms her to loneliness. As the theme song says, "Love's not for you, Marianne," and that's unfortunate. 

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