Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Shepperton Screams (Part IX): What Became of Jack & Jill? (1972) dir. Bill Bain

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 WHAT BECAME OF JACK & JILL? (1972). Check back every week for more dialogues and (naturally) more nightmares.

NT: And now for something (almost) completely different. In the same year that they spent some time convalescing in the ASYLUM (1972), the producers at Amicus Productions decided to knock out another one of their varied standalone horror films. In doing so, they opted for a fresh take by allotting the principal roles in the cast and crew largely to Amicus newcomers, who were unencumbered by the company’s established history, expectations, and in-house style. The resulting picture, WHAT BECAME OF JACK & JILL? (1972), speeds us from the period-specific Victorian cityscapes of Amicus’s prior standalone, I, MONSTER (1971), to a very contemporary urban English setting. So contemporary, in fact, that with the arrival of JACK & JILL we bear witness to an Amicus first: a film about young people. Though Amicus’s films had been skewed towards a younger audience from the beginning, this film marks the company’s first blatant foray into capturing the pocket change of the youth market. They accomplish this grab for a younger audience’s piggy banks by casting the titular leads as two of that younger generation’s ilk. But there’s a problem here. See, Jack (Paul Nicholas) and Jill (Vanessa Howard) are two vile, shallow, and annoyingly childish cretins.

WHAT BECAME OF JACK & JILL? is a wolf of a conservative social critique in a youth picture’s sheep clothing. The film’s title (a riff on the “Whatever Happened to…?” trend launched by similarly named horror-melodramas by the likes of Robert Aldrich and Curtis Harrington) signals its intent to demonstrate to us what might have become of those archetypal, innocent, hill-climbing water-fetchers if they had grown up to be groovy, countercultural young adults in the tumultuous early 1970s. Yet, director Bill Bain and screenwriter Roger Marshall, both in their middle-age at the time of production, tap into the countercultural youth movement in their film only to attempt to expose how selfish, misguided, and without firm conviction the so-called “social revolution” is. With its emphasis on the argument that the younger generation’s rebellion against the status quo will result only in needless death and ironic retribution, JACK & JILL becomes essentially a morality tale, trumpeting the message “wait your turn, kids.” Our titular youths are lazy and unmotivated sociopaths who simply want to inherit all of Jack’s granny's money rather than work for their own, and their use of countercultural rhetoric to justify their covetousness is intended as a critique of the rabble-rousing younger generation as a whole. The film acts as a reaffirmation of the order of a social hierarchy based upon seniority: the youth are simply too stupid and jealous and selfish to run things, and, moreover, they don’t even want to run things, they just want the keys to the car without asking permission first. 

Contrast the message of this English production to that of roughly contemporaneous U.S. films like WILD IN THE STREETS (1968) or EASY RIDER (1969), and it's pretty obvious that JACK & JILL is the product of a reactionary studio system. Those in power in England-- always a group to cower in a puffed-up moral panic over the threat of any drastic social change-- were obviously unnerved by the youth movement on the rise in the U.S. and on their own shores. Thus, a popular cultural production like JACK & JILL served as a sort of psychological sedative, telling its true audience of worried middle-class parents and their right-wing children that all would be okay in the end, that those frighteningly boarish hippies would do away with themselves eventually, so true citizens needn’t fret for much longer. Bizarrely, JACK & JILL was co-produced and funded by the U.S. production company Palomar Pictures International and first released by 20th Century Fox in New York City in 1972, which signals that those involved thought the film might strike a chord with hippie-fatigued American audiences as well. The film’s financial failure, subsequent wide unavailability on home video, and the resultant near total obscurity it now possesses should give one a clue as to how it was received by both countries’ moviegoing audiences.

However, perhaps some of JACK & JILL’s failure can be chalked up to issues of genre rather than issues of being culturally out-of-step. The trailer for the film paints it as a rollicking thriller in which a pair of sexy young radicals conspire to scare their square old granny to death. This is more or less the plot of the film, but the trailer’s joyous, rock-music punctuated presentation of these basic facts was certain to alienate a large contingent of the film’s intended audience of cultural squares. Furthermore, those genuinely sexy young radicals who might have been tricked into the theater by such advertising were sure to be miffed by their philosophy and lifestyle being lambasted by the filmmakers. What results from this confusion of intention and presentation is a quaint quasi-horror film that appeals intrinsically to no one (perhaps excepting genre nerds like us, of course). JACK & JILL is a succulent gaslight thriller, with those harebrained social and political undertones stuffed inside like dried-up imitation crabmeat. My adoration for gaslight flicks has yet to meet its bounds, and this gaslight scenario is particularly wicked and inventive, playing on the precise unease of the older generations while making an ironic joke out of it. Progressive in its beliefs? Certainly not. Fun to watch regardless? Certainly for a little while.

I’d like to dig a little deeper into all of the above topics and the particulars of the film itself, but first we’ll flip this radical rock-n-roll LP to hear your recorded rendition.

GR: Nothing is quite as surreal as taking in the all the spooky and kooky fare that we’ve been watching so far and then coming to WHAT BECAME OF JACK & JILL?, which features the credits “An Amicus Production” set to the blare of a wailing guitar and angsty vocals as a hip teenager combs his long hair in his grungy bedroom. I think we were listening too intently to Dr. Schreck’s predictions and missed our stop. Clearly we’re outside the boundaries of the charming horrors from Shepperton Studios and have arrived in a land full of loud music and car posters. I want to go home! What we have here is certainly the stuff of eyebrow-raising. Adolescents cavorting about in jeans and getting high on Granny’s pills in the cemetery. Footage of police riots and social unrest playing in the periphery like a Romero flick. Sexual promiscuousness in dark attics. And the narrative glue that holds all this together and that’s sniffed by the two leads is perhaps one of the hoariest generators of thrills and suspense, the gaslight tale. 

But what strange clothes it wears! As you said, this was clearly Amicus’ more conscious way of tapping the vibrant vein of youth (and their wallets) by making an entertainment that, while lacking some of the “kiddie stuff” like vampires and werewolves that we’ve seen before, concerned them and their pimply little lives more directly. Or at least on the surface. If we have learned anything from our venture, it’s that Amicus was a studio that produced stories that more often than not strove for a balanced morality, one that put all the agitators and general sinners in their place, whether it was the callous-hearted guests of Dr. Diablo’s torture garden or the greedy antiquarians who sought to possess the Marquis de Sade’s skull. 

The films have made it clear that anyone who seeks to harm others in their pursuit for personal glory or riches is certain to fail and be punished by supernatural and/or human agents. In this sense I wonder if director Bill Bain and scripter Roger Marshall (adapting from the novel by Laurence Moody) consciously set out to apply a stern slap on the universal keester of the rebellious youth with their depiction of Jack and Jill’s tumble down the moral hill or if they were solely adhering to the hallmarks of the gaslight tale in seeing that the villains received their just desserts in full by the final reel’s end. Did the creative team really mean to examine the meaninglessness and emptiness of the youth revolt by showing us the plight of these two avaricious, doomed fools or was it simply a case of the bad guys paying for their crimes just like in any other melodrama? Of course one can view the proceedings through either (or countless other) of these lenses; I tend to be of the mind that it’s more of the latter than the former, but the implications of this being a dramatic statement on the futility and vacuity of the movement are undeniably strong.

No matter the interpretation, it’s easy to see how WHAT BECAME OF JACK & JILL? ultimately flopped in its attempt to hitch itself to the closest and most successful bandwagons that it could find in the cinematic prairie. Amicus tries to appeal to the young adult market by giving us a thriller that paints its two representative characters as selfish and petty children devoid of any sense of reality who die in the end? The couples’ constant cries of “Youth power!” can’t help but taste a little more bitter each time they’re stated, almost becoming a mimicking playground taunt from the filmmakers to all of the young people in the audience because, as we are soon to find out, the youth have no power at all. The film slyly shows us how Jack and Jill are two babes utterly lost in the wilderness; even a seemingly mundane exchange between the two after Gran’s funeral  (Jill: Did you tip the vicar? Jack: No. Was I supposed to? Jill: I don’t know.) is given emphasis to show us that the couple is much too caught up in their dream-world to even know how to function on a day-to-day basis, their idle hours spent with visions of sleek automobiles and silky nightwear dancing in their heads like visions from a music video. The graffiti that Jill sees with her last, dying glance, “Out with the Oldies,” might as well be Gran returning from the grave to stick her worm-chewed tongue out at the conniving little wench. Had this been a different Amicus movie that probably would have been the case. JACK & JILL ultimately tells us that all of the fighting and plotting and outraging that the kids in the street can muster will only land their silly dreams right where Jill’s blood pools all around her at the film’s climax: in the gutter.

For all of its subtext and ill-fitting political clothes, there is an effective story of suspense and sweaty tension lying at the heart of the film, and it’s this I’d like to turn the discussion over to to find out just what Bain was able to do with the material that succeeded now that we’ve covered JACK & JILL’s broken crowns fairly well. It’s your turn to take the bucket.  

NT: It’s true that most Amicus horrors place karmic retribution against sinners at the center of their narratives. These films strive to demonstrate a restoration of morality, in which wrongdoing and injustice is set right by supernatural means. This presence of a moral supernatural force in the bulk of the Amicus universe evacuates any specific real world politics from the tales’ teachings, rendering them into general platitudes rather than pointed barbs of critique. Don’t be a heel, we learn, or the spookier elements of existence will get you. But, as you note, there are no ghosts, vampires, or possessed pianos in WHAT BECAME OF JACK AND JILL? The comeuppance our loathsome heroes receive is wrought solely from their own loathsome doings. The film sees Jack and Jill’s thinking as so diseased, so puerile, and so reckless in its dumb and blind destructiveness that the supernatural universe need not intervene in their fates by sending Gran back as a flesh-chewing fiend; it knows they’ll take care of themselves. Because of this supernatural absence and the fact that the particular politics of the decade fuel the action on screen, it feels wrong to ignore the wider implications of the film’s message. JACK & JILL refuses to present us with a positive example of a young radical (the protesters seen on television look as barbaric as our heroes), and so we’re stuck with the eponymous hill-tumblers as our emissaries for the whole of the youth movement. This deliberately limited perspective alone ensures that we’ll read the film as condemning the entire generation. If that’s not convincing enough, recall the uproarious scene that visualizes Jack’s fantasy of leading a Nazi youth firing squad against a group of assembled octogenarians. The filmmakers aren’t exactly being subtle here.

Of course, the film’s chiding of the young is incredibly reductive. As you note, it views our protagonists (and so by extension, all young adults) as no more than helpless children with the unfortunate addition of raging sex drives. As clever as they might be in their efforts to obtain power, once they possess it they immediately squander it and can do little but stand around and wait for adults to wipe up the mess. Jack’s whimpering, childish cries for his deceased Gran’s assistance in the film’s final moments is a little on the nose in this regard. The film also presents an entirely shallow reading of the youth movement’s aims, summarized succinctly by Jack in his conversation with Gran about the elder generations in power being like those who have sat at a table in a restaurant too long and are unwilling to give up their seats for the starving youth out in the cold. The film assumes the youth movement exists as a premature grab for power from those who are underserving. It believes the youth aim to replace the current power structure with an identical (albeit younger and hipper) version of their own, rather than eliminate that oppressive power structure altogether. It’s as if the filmmakers based their interpretation of the youth movement solely off newspaper headlines.

Ironically, the use of phony newspaper headline hysteria is precisely how Jack & Jill go about their gaslighting business, and this is where lies most of the film’s joys. Gran (Mona Washbourne) is an elderly shut-in, so her understanding of the world outside her front door is colored exclusively by distorted media images on television and her grandchild’s even more distorted (and often untrue) yarns about a violent, militant youth movement. She’s told by Jack, and believes without question or tangible evidence, that the youth have mobilized and begun stripping the elderly of their homes. Her gaslighting progresses slowly over the film’s first half (sometimes bizarrely: this may be the first and only time an overheated electric blanket and blown bubbles have been used to gaslight someone), but it climaxes with Jack’s assertion that the youth are now coming for Gran, too. Jack and Jill stage a wonderfully thrilling ruse, banging on the walls of Gran’s house to the pre-recorded sounds of a riot until she dies of a heart attack. It’s both the film’s most suspenseful scene and the lynchpin of its critique: the youth movement is nothing but smoke and mirrors. And a lot of noise.

There isn’t much in JACK & JILL for the standard issue horror fan to glom onto, but those with more eccentric sensibilities will find moments of it irresistible. For instance, the Nazi firing squad fantasy, which transitions, incredibly, to another fake-out dream fantasy in which Jack machine-gun’s Gran in her bed. There’s also cemetery lipstick defacement, Juicy Fruit kisses, demented piggybacking, and the aforementioned snorting of Gran’s heart pills to keep us weirdoes entertained. The film, like its nursery rhyme source material, tumbles down in the last third, post Gran’s coronary, but this is an undeniably fascinating curio that we’ve dredged up from the bottom of the Amicus well.

GR: I share the same amount of enthusiasm as you for JACK AND JILL’s spirited attempts at Grand Guignolery and suspense and your view that the filmmakers offered an incredibly unfair depiction of the youth movement. Whether it was their goal to bitingly critique the opinions of contemporaneous young people or simply ignore the greater implications of the so-called “revolt” through sheer negligence, the end product carries a social message that is completely one-sided and that seems ignorant in its sheer earnestness. 

But enough of all that political yammering. How does WHAT BECAME OF JACK & JILL? stand up as an entertainment? You’ve already detailed some of the juiciest moments, the pinnacle of course being the final offing of Gran through the use of the staged riot. It’s an ingeniously new and clever variation on the typical gaslighting process that we’ve seen before. The gaslighting of an unfortunate soul is usually a more intimate matter between two parties, and the bits of stage magic that the perpetrator uses are of a more quiet variety, at least at first, like dribbles of blood, disappearing/reappearing objects, or maybe even some makeup and a fright wig if they’re feeling adventurous (refer back to “Method for Murder”). JACK & JILL is the first time to my recollection that the perpetrator(s) have used a kind of global scare to torment their victim into cardiac arrest. Gran can only clutch at her heart and beat upon the walls as the sound of the fabricated extermination squad’s marching boots advance ever closer, terrified that they have come to snatch her away and put a bullet through her wrinkled head. Jack and Jill go all out in their charade, and the constant uproar of shouting and clattering builds to a wonderful crescendo where Gran, finally overwhelmed with utter terror, collapses to the floor. It’s the movie’s best, grandest set piece and, had I been in Gran’s slippers, I would’ve been just as overcome. 

Those visions of the slaughter by Nazis are rather surprising and colorful given the film’s overall gritty and glum aesthetic, like a fantasy sequence from an entirely different movie. Interestingly enough, I was immediately put in mind of AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981) after seeing the maniacal S.S. troops and their blasting machine guns. In that film, David Naughton has a dream where he sees his entire family slaughtered by a fleet of demonic soldiers. He “awakens” from this vision in his hospital room only to discover he’s in another dream when one of the troops jumps out and knifes a nurse to death. The similarities between these scenes are amazing and one can’t help but wonder if Landis caught a showing of JACK & JILL and this particular sequence sat stewing in his brain during the production of his own film. 

There’s also a small but effective dose of droll humor fueling some of the picture’s other moments, such as the duo’s scoping of a seedy rock and roll club for a potential lady meant for Jack to woo and wed in order to sidestep a stipulation in Gran’s will; Jack’s general enthusiasm for picking a girl is met with deadpan disapprovals from Jill who merely shakes her head at her partner’s selections. She also gets to speak some of the film’s most colorful dialogue when she flashes with anger and jealousy at Jack’s willingness to go through with this particular phase of their plan: “Smoke pouring out of your pants. Horn on you like a rhino!” She gets another chance to show her flippant attitude when, in an outburst fitting of Mr. Torrance, Jack lays siege to the dining room with a fireplace poker, smashing wood and china with reckless abandon to which his lady offers: “Feeling better?” Not only that, but Jill proves that she can give as good as she gets when she returns a slap to Jack that is just as vigorous as the one he delivered to her pretty little face. 

Along with this humor is a stinging cruelty that’s doled out by our two naughty kiddies. It ranges from the heartless (Jack stops to pop a zit in the bathroom while Gran suffers an attack and begs for medication) to the heartbreaking (Jack constantly interrogates Gran about a phone call she received from Jill posing as a type of census taker until the woman finally breaks down and cries “You would think it’s a crime being old!”). There’s no doubt that out of the cast of ne’er-do-wells that we’ve seen thus far in the Amicus films, Jack and Jill fully deserve the fate that finally comes to claim them for so brutally hounding the gentle grandmother right into her grave. But, as you say, it’s no otherly, monstrous force that does the duo in but rather their own devilish natures. Like the scheming couple from many a film noir, Jack and Jill find out the hard way that when push comes to shove they’ll eagerly send one another crashing down the hill. They don’t deserve any better. 

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