Monday, May 13, 2013

The Flesh and Blood Show (1972) dir. Pete Walker

Logline: A tale of sex, madness, and murder in London's theatrical scene. A ragtag group of swinging actors are beckoned to an old, abandoned pier-side theater by a mysterious producer to begin rehearsals for a new show. Between all the squabbling and fornicating, is it any wonder that these hot singles start popping up with their heads lopped off? These murders set off an investigation that reveals the theater's bloody, histrionic history alongside the "pleasures of the third dimension." It's all enough to make you exclaim, as one of the film's victims does, "this bloody theater's got a feeling of doom and death!"

Well, it's certainly a Flesh Show. Pete Walker's second (and first genuine) horror film, The Flesh and Blood Show, is more beholden to his early days in cheeky skin flicks than you might figure. Once our assorted young and randy actors assemble at the creepy theater and realize there's no other adequate lodging in town, we are witness to much leering, stripping, undressing, heavy petting, caressing, fondling, and other sundry sexy stuff. In retrospect, perhaps my most perceptive note was "This is a film about the unclasping of bras." This isn't exactly a gripe, because the film is fun in the same way most of the tamer '70s sexploitation films are: it's a jovial celebration of nubile human bodies at rest, at play, and perpetually shirking bad clothing decisions. The horror elements, when they kick in quite a ways into the film, are far less developed and assured than in Walker's later attempts. All of the murders (and there aren't many) occur off-screen, and the aftermaths we witness are pretty far from gruesome. Again, it feels like Walker is testing the horrific waters, making an earnest go of the genre but not yet having a feel for its extravagant nuances. Nonetheless, the film makes up for this lack in sheer dopey '70s sleaze appeal. The film's best moments are the fleeting glimpses we receive of the gang's avant garde theatrical improv sessions in preparation for their big London opening, one of which is best described as "a caveman dance party" and another as "an erotic yoga workout." One honestly can't find this sort of trash anywhere else.

As a mystery it's bunk, considering that the killer-- a local Shakespearean actor who has spent decades under the assumed identity of a solitary and overly friendly man named Major Bell (Patrick Barr)-- telegraphs his guiltiness early on by being the only possible suspect outside of the core group of actors and spouting out Obvious Psychopath give-aways like his comment that the town sure has been "cheered up by having young people" around. Yet, the film still manages to find some amusement in this clunker of a reveal by coating it with a thick layer of recursive winking-at-one's-self-in-the-mirror shenanigans. Once the reveal happens we're treated to a black and white flashback (in 3-D, no less!) in which Bell-- then a famed actor named Sir Arnold Gates-- takes his coal-faced, full-garbed rendition of Othello backstage by attacking (and eventually "Cask of Amontillado"-ing) his adulterous wife and her lover after a performance in which they all starred (they having literally stepped out of their costumes as Desdemona and Cassio for a post-curtain call tumble in the old dressing room). So, that's a cute little nugget of self-aware, metatextual goofiness, as are the repeated fake-out death gags in the first half and this beauty of a line uttered by one of the survivors during the exposition overload that serves as the film's resolution: "if it wasn't so bloody tragic and horrible it could almost make a movie script (wink)!"

In another bit of metafictional self-evaluation, our killer's motivation and the film's tacit refusal to affirm that motivation help illuminate the uniquely supportive appraisal of sexual freedom that's being presented here in re: the film and stage productions of a sexier, more loosely censored 1970s England. Major Bell has orchestrated the events of the film in order to take revenge against a group that he sees as a wealth of cultural "scum," "excrement," and "sex-crazed jackanapes": namely, actors. His actress wife's infidelity has led him to extrapolate her actions and come to the conclusion that "all actors are lecherous harlots" who can be found "flaunting their thighs and breasts" without moral qualms. To be sure, there is much flaunting of thighs and breasts to be found perpetrated by the actors of The Flesh and Blood Show (both from a fictional standpoint and from our voyeuristic perspective as viewers), but does the film's sexually liberated La Ronde-style liaisons have an honest-to-goodness detrimental effect on the world, either within the film or outside of it in reality?

The characters seem to have a jolly good time sleeping around with one another and we (the audience) enjoy the harmless ogling. Things only get prickly when a stodgy old man from a previous generation catches wind of the "the temptations of the flesh" being presented on stage and, failing to recognize that the cultural values surrounding sex have changed, starts up some murderin'. But he's not a hero for this: he's a lost and befuddled geezer, stuck in the long-gone past and easily bested by his own faultless victims. The film aligns itself with the actors, who are not the transgressive teens deserving punishment of countless future moral slasher flicks, but consenting young adults living their considerably more liberated lives for our vicarious enjoyment. Considering the film's penchant for internal metacommentary, it would be easy enough to read its events as symbolic of the BBFC's cultural war against nudity and sex in the cinemas. It's a hysterical dramatization of everything the censors feared: seeing flesh will make us crave flesh, and possibly cause violence in order to acquire it! Making the flesh-affected person in question not a participant or audience member (Bell never sees their production) but a person equivalent to a moral censor deflates any such claims by demonstrating that the only people harmed by all that sex on screen are those people fretting over it to begin with. Although flesh and blood were to be increasingly aligned over the next two decades in film (particularly in Pete Walker's own work), it remains true that Flesh need not beget Blood. The Flesh and Blood Show's structural overemphasis on the first component might be one bit of evidence that Walker and his film believe that being audience to a little more erotic yoga than gruesome decapitation is basically good for the soul.

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