Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Schizo (1976) dir. Pete Walker

Logline: Newlywed ice skater Samantha (Lynne Frederick) believes she's being maliciously terrorized by a man from her past, the lumbering William Haskin (Jack Watson), who was convicted of the murder of her mother decades before and has recently had his sentence pardoned. The trouble is no one believes Samantha: not her new husband, not her best friends, not her psychiatrist. They all think Samantha is losing it. But when the horribly mutilated bodies of Samantha's acquaintances begin cropping up, it becomes clear that someone lurking out on London's streets has snapped for good.

In addition to roughly conforming to the patented Pete Walker Sado-Thriller Formula (as described in an earlier post of mine concerning The Confessional (1976)), Schizo also splashes around in the conventions of the just-past-its-peak giallo subgenre, resulting in the film's easy classification as a post-Psycho, post-Italian, pre-teenage mayhem prim and proper English proto-slasher. The film is a mutt composed of the the Italian giallo's greatest hits, with a gloved killer, potential gaslighting, gory murder set pieces, past traumas, bizarre love triangles, upper-class victims, and surprise revelations all hard-wired into its cinematic DNA. This is all to say that Schizo-- while unquestionably creative in its implementation of its many common horror-thriller elements-- is far from groundbreaking in the larger context of European genre cinema, despite what Pete Walker might have you believe. In a video interview included on Redemption's blu-ray boxset of his films, Walker himself takes a lot of undue credit when he makes bold claims about Schizo's startling originality, which is a laugh for anyone familiar with even a cursory knowledge of continental horror cinema: the closing twist (given away, Walker aptly notes, in the film's title) dates back to at least 1926 and would go on to become a common occurrence in the gialli of the early '70s (see, most notably, Lucio Fulci's A Lizard in a Woman's Skin (1971; coincidentally re-titled Schizoid for its American release)). But a film that cherry-picks from a subgenre and winds up with a rather exemplary product is hardly something to frown at. Schizo is calculated for maximum enjoyment. In a delicious bit of thievery, the film blatantly pilfers from Argento's Deep Red (1975) when lead heroine/budding schizoid Samantha is invited to a spooky seance held by a group calling themselves the Psychic Brotherhood, which results in some bulged eyeballs and a few ecstatic chills. From its first reel to its last, Schizo skates by on the conscious implementation of successful ideas from the genre's past. In that way, it feels like Walker's most commercial film, one aimed (whether cynically or not) squarely at the checkbooks of 1976's theater-going audience.

But for all its stylistic charms, Schizo is abnormally weak on a thematic level. Walker forgoes the transgressive, making his murderess's motivation no more complicated than an unfortunate youthful association of sex (kinky or otherwise) with punishment and violence. This is, rather unfortunately, a standard slasher-killer motivation, and though the film may be prescient on this account of a future decade of body count films to come, it's not in a way that lends the film any thematic oomph. Luckily, Schizo is Walker at his visual prime. The film is beautiful and unsettling in equal measure, rife as it is with clever editing, exquisite murder set pieces, and a photographic menace that's difficult to describe. Allow me to try: mundane shots of the home occupied by Samantha and her new husband are converted into scenes of the utmost suspense by a camera that roves, almost lasciviously, around the hallways and rooms. Is this camera, prying and sneaking as it is, intended to alert us to the presence of an unseen intruder? Are we occupying the killer's point-of-view in these moments, or merely that of an errant prankster? (We're informed that one of their pals has been installing goofy rubber varmint pranks around their home as a honeymoon gift, so we can't be immediately certain). The film refuses to provide us a definitive answer, but a later offhand comment from Samantha about the home's contents' appearance of having moved by themselves out of order is enough to confirm our worst fears. While neither contemplative nor daring, Schizo is-- at the minimum-- enormously effective as the giallo-bellied thriller it makes no bones about being.

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