Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Shepperton Screams (Part III): The Psychopath (1966) dir. Freddie Francis

For sixteen weeks, Jose Cruz of The Grim Reader and I will be delving into the complete horror filmography of Amicus Productions and regaling you with our spirited discussions. Below is our mutual consideration of Amicus's THE PSYCHOPATH (1966). Check back every week for more dialogues and (naturally) more nightmares.

NT: Before beginning this journey into Amicus Production's haunted gallery of horrors, I was most looking forward to admiring the blood-hued canvas of THE PSYCHOPATH (1966). Amicus's third horror feature (and second standalone) shot to the top of my gawking list not merely because of the various laudatory rumblings I've heard bestowed upon it (most recently from Total Film Magazine, who ranked it #19 on their more-interesting-than-you'd-think list of 50 Amazing Films You've Probably Never Seen) but because the film is written by author and screenwriter Robert Bloch six years after another work of his-- bearing a decidedly similar title-- defined future decades of horror cinema after being adapted for the screen by a man most recognizable in profile silhouette. Discovering the degree to which Bloch's THE PSYCHOPATH would be related to or derived from the earlier PSYCHO (1960)-- either creatively or opportunistically-- was a major point of interest for me: would THE PSYCHOPATH resemble a sad second bottle waiting empty next to one stuffed with lightning, or would it be akin to another successful stab in the same harried torso? The answer, I discovered, was that is was neither. The similarity of title to Bloch's other '60s psycho-slasher proves to be a red herring in a film brimming with them: what we've got here is a whodunit. 

Specifically, THE PSYCHOPATH presents to us an Agatha Christie/Edgar Wallace-influenced yarn of murder, madness, and mystery wrapped in luridly violent cinematic trappings. With a black gloved killer. And inheritance schemes, And extravagant murder set pieces. And creepy doll murder mementos. And an opening credits sequence that's the one Saul Bass made for ANATOMY OF A MURDER (1959) by way of Argento's DEEP RED (1975). The clues add up, and what we realize early in the running time is that Bloch has written a British giallo, only a few years after Mario Bava's THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1963) and BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (1964) kickstarted the subgenre with style. And style is an important thing to note here, for while it's tempting to lump THE PSYCHOPATH in with the suspense films being released throughout the 1960s in England, like those from Hammer (SCREAM OF FEAR [1961], PARANOIAC [1963], NIGHTMARE [1964], etc.), it's difficult to deny that the film's macabre, sensational palette stands out in garish contrast. Again the word to drum up is "pulpy": THE PSYCHOPATH feels vivid and hastily sketched in a way that the Italian gialli of the '60s-'70s always do and that the polished British psychological thrillers never do. In many ways, I see THE PSYCHOPATH anticipating in 1966 the tonal and stylistic path along which the giallo would develop in a few brief years when filmmakers like Lenzi, Argento, and Martino began solidifying the formula.

THE SKULL's core team of director Freddie Francis and cinematographer John Wilcox return here, and their collaboration again bears fine putrid fruit. The style they develop for the film is confident enough to cut loose and slightly silly with its performances and visuals when necessary, resulting in the manic cackling and moaning of certain characters at the climax and the audaciousness of some of the murder scenes (blowtorches and floating nooses is all that need be said). Yet their style also demonstrates a sickening psychoanalytical clarity: At many points in the film, the frame finds its characters stranded in a sea of plastic and porcelain dolls, visually equating them-- as they are in the killer's mind-- as objects of vengeful play. Curiously, Francis directed many of those more reserved thrillers that Hammer released around the same time, yet none of those fine efforts even faintly possess the grisly patina of psychosexual madness covering over THE PSYCHOPATH. The well-wrought visuals are aided by an effective score from composer Elisabeth Lutyens (who has scored all three of the films we've covered thus far), which largely sounds like that of a pulsating music box cranking out eerie, slightly warped melodies, again anticipating much of the childish sing-song dread found in many of Ennio Morricone's giallo scores. Also for this venture, Hammer producer Milton Subotsky relinquished screenwriting duties to Bloch, whose story he had previously adapted for THE SKULL. Consequently, the writing is sharper and packs in more convoluted twists and turns than one would expect Subotsky to be capable of.

With this doll possessing so many of the correct parts, I'm having a difficult time understanding my vague disappointment with it. It's an entertaining film, surely, and in certain sequences shows a ghastly sense of style that is not only ahead of its time but also conjures up genuinely chilling moments of cinematic horror. But it's never quite as outlandishly fun as the gialli it resembles, nor does it seem a fifth as psychologically complex as other thrillers of its ilk (particularly when compared to that film its title inevitably evokes). I want to write more about the film's themes (and that tricky title), but for the moment I'll pass the discussion over to you. I'm hoping you can help me understand this dissatisfaction a little better.

GR: Well, you've actually summed up a lot of my feelings about THE PSYCHOPATH so, uh, good night, folks! Just kidding. The rumblings of the giallo running underneath the surface of Bloch's story only revealed themselves to me gradually during my viewing of the film. At first it all seemed to be standard in that pulpy, flying-by-the-seat-of-our-pants way that the best scratched-together low budgeters feel, but it wasn't until one particular sequence that the Italian influence really screamed at me. I'm talking about the late moment when a young beauty (do we even get to hear her name?) meets her maker along a dark street at the hands of the gloved killer. Not only do we have those sweet little black leather numbers (a personal favorite of mine) and the tinkling of that eerie lullaby-esque tune going on during this scene, but the woman is actually wearing a red raincoat to boot, a hallmark that made notable appearances in Bava's BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (1964) on the lovely form of that film's first victim and of course in Nicolas Roeg's DON'T LOOK NOW (1973).

One can't help but wonder if Bloch was aware of the shared palette that he was dipping into when writing his script. I can't recall any of his other cinematic efforts quite feeling as close to a giallo as this one. Obviously the other creative forces at work would have had a hand in generating some of the continental influences, but Bloch's story does contain some wildly outlandish moments that seem like they would be right at home in a spaghetti slasher, especially that crazy blowtorch death that we do *not* see enough of and the automobile explosion that our intrepid detective hero Patrick Wymark (previously the slimy Marco from THE SKULL) is clued in to by the sudden appearance of a doll in his front seat. However, one should also consider that Bloch was, from the start, a writer of pulp entertainments and that the cinematic gialli themselves were adaptations of sorts of the yellow-spined paperback thrillers that were proliferated in Italy, so it's very probable that Bloch and the respective writers of those seedy volumes were working from the same toolbox despite their global distance all along.

The death scenes in THE PSYCHOPATH are obviously nowhere near as gory as anything that Argento or Fulci would offer us though, perhaps due to the ever-stringent demands of the British censors. The most we see is a lone trickle of blood here and there, but Bloch cleverly utilizes his concept of the dolls made in the likeness of the victims to sharp effect. Take for instance our poor singed friend. His crispy remains are nowhere to be seen, but when someone happens upon his representative doll that's in a similar state, they reach out to grab it... and it crumbles into an ashy heap. Our minds are then given free reign to imagine the victim in a similar condition, and it works incredibly well. The same occurs in the opening when the first mark is run down repeatedly by a car, his violin case left crushed and mangled. It's not hard for one to picture the man's innards being spread across the cobblestones like the splinters that his case has been reduced to.

You don't have to squint too hard to see why THE PSYCHOPATH might be considered a hidden gem by some. It operates on a level of quirk and innovation that might make its contemporaries, as you said, seem a tad stale in comparison. Some of the themes that were analyzed at a distance in PSYCHO (1960) are shown to us in a more lurid light here. The relationship between Mrs. Von Sturm (Margaret Johnson) and her son Mark (John Standing) never feels appropriate from the start; she is practically forbidding him from leaving her shop, a place haunted by the lifeless eyes of countless dolls, so we can't possibly expect a healthy bond to be growing there. Interesting enough too, Bloch introduces the corresponding Freudian concept of the Electra complex briefly when our heroine Judy Huxtable constantly voices her concerns for her ailing father only for her white-bread American fiancee Don Borisenko to snap "He's your father, not your lover!" What's surprising and pleasing about THE PSYCHOPATH is that just when you have it pegged as being a retread back to the Bates house, it does something that pushes it a little further into the "Well what the hell was that?" field... for better and worse. I'll get to those in just a bit, but for now I'll turn it back to you to see if you're on a similar wavelength here.

NT: Stage-blood-red raincoats do indeed frequently crop up in gialli: my favorite iteration of this motif is in Umberto Lenzi’s EYEBALL (1975), the original title of which is GATTI ROSSI IN UN LABIRINTO DI VENTRO, or, as translated, RED CATS IN A GLASS MAZE, in reference to the fact that the victims and killer alike spend the majority of the film prancing and stabbing around rainy Barcelona in red raincoats. I have to imagine the red raincoat in the gialli is akin to the red Starfleet uniform worn by all of those poor U.S.S. Enterprise chaps who croaked on missions in the original STAR TREK. The color red visually marks a character as doomed, and that’s the sort of simplistic but vibrant level of visual storytelling that THE PSYCHOPATH is operating on. The transmuted doll deaths that you highlight (standing in for the far-too-gory-to-depict murders of the actual characters) are the perfect symbol of this approach: the film’s frenzied juggling of its characters and their fragile lives feels like a complexly plotted but thematically childish form of adolescent play, in which these (barely) living dolls are moved about and dismembered with the same indifference as displayed by a child ripping apart her stubborn toys. (Worth noting: I don’t see this as a detriment to the film.)

I think this pulpy, juvenile storytelling approach informs the film’s thematic thrust as well. Isn't it peculiar that this diegetic world seems populated solely by doll owners? Nearly everyone that Wymark’s Inspector Holloway encounters either collects dolls, sells dolls, modifies dolls, or purchases dolls for nefarious purposes. The fact that doll doppelgangers can so easily replace the original human forms in our eyes as the audience speaks to the degree to which the characters within the story view others around them as objects, playthings that can be manipulated, kept, or broken. As you’d begun to note, we see this most significantly in the two prominent parent-child relationships in the film, those of Mrs. Von Sturm and her son Mark and Frank Saville (Alexander Knox) and his daughter Louise (Judy Huxtable). An obvious Freudian interpretation would be to read these possessive relationships as sexual (and incestual) in nature (as Louise’s fiancée whines), but I think they can be read more productively through this lens of objectifying ownership, in which adult children jealously cling to their beloved toys when they’re threatened with the concept of “sharing.” Mrs. Von Sturm’s modification of Mark into a (again, barely) living doll at the film’s conclusion is the clearest and most horrific demonstration of this, but the notion that she’s surrounded herself with a forest of dolls for the bulk of her adult life is another obvious indicator. In the case of Mrs. Von Sturm, the film blatantly aligns her with this destructive psychological complex through its aforementioned jackhammer-subtle visual storytelling, but I think there’s an implicit implication that this avaricious, objectifying affliction affects many of the film’s other characters, too (Mark, Mr. Saville, and Louise’s fiancée, at least). Unlike those others, Mrs. Von Sturm simply doesn't bother to obscure her intentions.

On a related note, I wanted to query you about this film’s troubling title. Is there a psychopath in THE PSYCHOPATH? If so, who is it? Mark seems sane enough, and Mrs. Von Sturm might be crazy but she’s far from the deranged murderer that such a title implies. (Well, okay, maybe she’s an attempted murderer.) I can’t shake the feeling that the title was solely bestowed upon the film as part of a marketing gimmick (“From the man who brought you PSYCHO, feast yourselves on THE PSYCHO... PATH!”), and that’s unfortunate. Do you buy the title as a fitting one, or would you have gone with something more distinctive? You brought my attention to the film’s French theatrical one-sheet, bearing the title POUPEES DE CENDRES, or DOLLS OF ASHES, which is—in my doll-addled brain—the most appropriate moniker possible. The Brits blew it.

GR: Yes, it is quite odd how everybody seems to have a doll on their person for one reason or another. Such a trait is usually seen as an eccentricity of sorts, the collecting of these painted figurines of porcelain and china, but in the world of THE PSYCHOPATH you can't even go to a restaurant without being offered a little doll as a dining favor. I was somewhat surprised to find that Bloch never incorporated marionettes into the storyline at any point. If the overall theme is indeed the inherent wish we all have to excise control over the lives of others, then what better, blunt visual could there be within the realm of toys and terror than a gleaming-eyed maniac "pulling the strings" on his victims only to grab a pair of scissors to cut the thread of life that they dangle from on his stage of death? That might have been a little bit too much, but in a film like this can there ever be too much of anything? One might say that the prominence of dolls in the story is Bloch's way of viably perpetuating the suspicion of the characters' involvement with the murders and keep us guessing, but it turns out in the end that the "killers" are the weird people who own the doll shop. So, so much for all that!

Notice too how prominent the color red is in the von Sturms' shop. The walls are bedewed in scarlet, making that duo's connection with death all the more apparent. It can also be seen as a visual signifier that within Mark's and Ilsa's battered family unit life cannot truly exist. Ilsa constantly questions Mark for his attempts to go out, to break free of the tomb where the frozen dolls stare with lifeless, black eyes, in a way cutting off any chance of him having an independent, healthy existence. And, as Hjalmar Poelzig might say in relation to Mrs. von Sturm, even her legs are dead. It's a terrible irony that's wrought upon Mark that he becomes one of the very dolls that he's been trying to break away from, put on the shelf just like another one of his mother's antiquities to be admired from afar. That final tag where Mark is sitting in the rocking chair, paralyzed now himself and with his face made up like some clown from a tragic opera, whimpering "Mama... mama..." felt incredibly sad to me. For all the horrendous crimes that Mark committed, that comeuppance feels particularly nasty. The way the film ends almost makes you think that Inspector Holloway is fine with leaving him to weep over the twisted corpse of his mother until they're both nothing but doll ash. I mean, damn.

The question of whether there truly is a psychopath present in the film is a valid one to posit. There's no doubt that there are criminals aplenty amongst this shifty-eyed bunch, but are any of them actually insane? Mark, despite his shuttered existence and oppressive mother, doesn't seem like the obsessed, neurotic Norman Bates. In fact, a revelation that Louise makes to Mrs. von Sturm at the climax reveals that Mark's crimes were essentially an ends to a mean to finally free himself from her palsied grip. Not exactly the machinations of a diseased mind; more like the focused calculations of a desperate man. Ilsa doesn't quite fit the bill either. We see her get a little razzled at the end there, and she certainly grips a knife like an old pro, but there's still nothing that happens before this that would suggest she's not in control of her senses. Calling her a psychopath would be the same as calling any other witchy sayer of doom in a horror film the same. You're probably right in suggesting that the title was tacked-on in order to market Bloch's involvement (his name would forever be subtitled with "The Man Who Wrote PSYCHO" on nearly all of his paperback releases). 

In addition to fudging on the title, I have to admit that the confrontation between Holloway and Mark in his boat house almost lost me, as in confusing me as to what happened. It was all building up pretty solidly; I liked how Mark's hand in the killings was just kind of revealed, without any kind of "Dun-dun-dun!" built into it. The attitude seemed to be "Well, yeah, of course he is. Have you *seen* where he lives?" Another element that was interesting was the record playing classical music in the background as Mark and Holloway play cat and mouse. Now, I can't say with any certainty, but I wonder if this was one of the first times that had been done in a movie. Having pretty orchestral pieces serve as the aural backdrop to scenes of violence and horror has pretty much become part of the cinematic grab-bag (I can think of two other contemporary examples--David Fincher's THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO and Guy Ritchie's SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS, both 2011). But I started scratching my head the moment that Holloway gets the upper hand and Mark ends up being buried under those massive chain links. It all happens very fast. You see Mark's head wriggling from underneath the iron coils like a worm poking his head out of the earth and then there's a harsh cut to a policeman twirling his fork with spaghetti as a "clever" bit of visual duality (it reminded me of the moment from DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW [1981] where a villain's fall into a whirring thresher is cut to another character spooning strawberry preserve onto his plate!). It's very sudden and bizarre, as I thought that Mark had been crushed to death, but we eventually find out his back was broken, an injury which he survives. With the great shadowy duel ending like that, it was like listening to a joke that suddenly skipped out on the punchline. Thankfully, the film recovers from that slight blow with the scene of Mama von Sturm revealing her true colors, but man did that trip me up the first time around!

NT: Counter-point: I loved how the confrontation between Mark and Holloway plays out. While (as you note) the scene begins effectively enough, I can't shake the feeling that it's the wrong scene. It's the suspenseful crime thriller climax, and I sense that the filmmakers understood that that sort of climax wasn't what was needed at the moment (despite plot necessity) and thus dispatched with it rather flippantly, making way for the macabre horror movie ending the film had long been hinting at. The unveiled horror in the film is not that a guy would kill a bunch of people and frame his mother to claim an inheritance. No, the horror is one of close family bonds, those sickly and ghoulish attachments entombed in attics and basements and never let out for fresh air. You're right that the closing shots are drenched in sadness. Mark wailing on the soundtrack as the credits begin to roll is the only Amicus Moment we've seen thus far that haunts my memory: even the film itself is content with stranding the poor boy in cinematic purgatory, despite his pleas, rather than confronting the unseemliness of his situation for a moment longer. The film's two endings work perfect as a pair for me, with one soft step kicking aside those thriller trappings and the other diving us headlong into the psychological deep end.

I think this has been a productive conversation: I like THE PSYCHOPATH even more now than when we began. Certainly the film is not without its demerits, but there's too much sweet ash packed inside the film's grotesque porcelain doll casing to deny. We've seen over only a few years that the core Amicus team evolved and improved their productions through formal experimentation and a willingness to get a little weird, resulting in a trio of films that stand apart from the bulk of their contemporaries for their ambition. At this point in our flight through the hive of Amicus horror, it would take a truly distressing film to ruin the sweet honey buzz we've got going...

No comments:

Post a Comment