Monday, August 10, 2015

To the Devil... A Daughter (1976)

The Scent of Lamb Chops

directed by Peter Sykes
starring Richard Widmark, Christopher Lee,
Nastassja Kinski, Honor Blackman, Denholm Elliott

The first you see of nutbag Werner Herzog muse Klaus Kinski's daughter Nastassja here, in her first major screen appearance at the minx's age of fourteen — enigmatic enough in her mannequin-like ways to have caught the attention of Roman Polanski, who'd be banging her within a year and would go on to cast her in his adaptation of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles — is her in a nun's habit, staring off, comatose and a bit confused-looking; it's as if someone had waved a plate of French fries in front of a retarded kid.

It's an intriguing — for film historians and Nastassja fetishists — if not terribly auspicious performance. All that one associates with her from later films like Paul Schrader's hypnotic Cat People remake and James Toback's Exposed — the unplaceably-accented sultriness, the personification of the dark and mysterious Dorothy Vallens (from Blue Velvet) archetype, the sexual masochism shot through with the obliviousness of the natural beauty who can't help making a drooling obsessive out of every man she meets — it sits on the screen here, doughy and unshapen, her incipient conception of herself as an actress and as an international sex symbol. Kinski just sort of stakes out her space within the frame and stares at her co-stars as if she didn't understand English while intoning her lines with the dubbed-sounding hesitance of some vaguely Slavic sexpot who winds up naked with Laura Gemser in an Emanuelle flick — it's a vocal sound utterly unique to '70s Pan-Euro soft porn more so than post-Exorcist devil-possession movies. Its presence here softens things in a way you didn't expect — it conveys through the mouthpiece of an unseasoned teenage actress the innocence that needs to be at stake in the story of a heretical cult defying God and plotting to make her character the earthly representation of their dark lord on her eighteenth birthday. After all, our gape-eyed horror viewer's impulse demands our money's worth: a virginal white lamb that we can see defiled.

Director Peter Sykes, however, serves up sautéed lamb chops with Béarnaise butter that he yanks from under our noses just as we'd clutched our forks. We're cock-teased with hints of the genre vitiation of Nastassja's sweet young flesh that we came for — her Catherine is strapped down in an orgiastic cult ceremony as cult minions hold a giant inverted-crucifix statue of their lord Astaroth over her body and move it about in simulation of intercourse; during the tortuous labor of a woman bearing a child for the cult, Catherine writhes in agony while receiving telepathic signals of some sort, and her moans and thrashing (augmented by the peeks at her tighty-whities that she gives us between parted thighs) are identical to those of rabid carnal ecstasy. (Pain and ecstasy are, of course, intertwined for a girl losing her virginity; this interplay between opposing senses becomes, in a woman's lifelong attempts to recreate the dopamine hit of that first time ever, the cornerstone of the female arousal mechanism.)

With the exception of her brief strip-down at the film's climax, however, there's only a half-hearted utilizing of the fruits offered by Kinski the Lolita, actorly or otherwise; cock-teasing is all it remains. There's little hint of whatever might be going on in Catherine's head during the protracted battle for her soul; her purpose here is to be the football tossed back and forth between good and evil — Richard Widmark in grizzled-hero mode as John Verney, the occult novelist who's tasked with keeping Catherine from the cult's far-reaching tentacles, and Christopher Lee as the excommunicated priest who leads the cult, all brooding intensity and stentorian declarations like, "It is not heresy and I will not recant!" as he glowers at Christ on the cross as if our Lord owed him some gambling debts. We wonder: how is Catherine processing her destiny as the vessel for evil works by spirits unknown? How does her acceptance of this tie into her burgeoning sexuality and conception of herself as a young woman?

For that matter, how does she feel about her father (Denholm Elliott in sniveling-pansy mode), who buckled under intimidation from Lee's Father Michael Rayner and has, out of fear of repercussions, essentially handed his own daughter over to Satan? How does she feel about her mother who pledged her unborn child to the cult and offered up her own life in exchange for what one imagines was sold to her as eternal reward? Is Catherine's clear arousal under the spells cast by Rayner a function of demonic control or is it an unshackling of her inherent feminine attraction to debauchery, in keeping with Verney's assertion that the great majority of would-be Satanists are merely seeking a lofty, mystical-sounding reason to get naked and gratify their hedonistic urges? (I don't know much about the occult or Satanism — if it wasn't growled about over downtuned jackhammer riffs on an old Slayer or Morbid Angel CD that I listened to in high school, then I've got no clue. But then, I've never encountered any roadblocks to freely indulging my sadist's penchant for dominating and manhandling bad-girl Daddy-fetishists as young as Chris Hansen and the Feds will allow me, so I've no need for such mystical/mythical hocus-pocus.)

Sykes doesn't appear to know how to answer such questions, and if there was something in Dennis Wheatley's novel that elucidated these matters, then Sykes and his screenwriter didn't understand it or thought it irrelevant to the cinematic shocks they were crafting. Wheatley, in fact, viewed this take on his novel as nonsensical and obscene, and forbade Hammer from adapting any more of his works — was it perhaps a desire to please an unpleasable author whose name provided this film with much of its box-office draw that hobbled the filmmakers in their attempt to bring his thematic implications to their full, rancid blossoming? One salivates, imagining the blasphemous kink that strangers to the Christian tradition such as William Friedkin or that mind-fucking perv-daddy Polanski might have brought to the material — or, on the opposite end of the artistic spectrum, any number of American filmmakers then working the horror-exploitation grindhouse circuit, filmmakers whose carny-barker commitment to telling a tale in the most whiz-bang, prurient manner allowed by the ratings board could only have enhanced what was pretty sensationalistic stuff to begin with.

As any thinking man will acknowledge, there's no greater horror — with all of its onerous long-term implications — than the tarnishing of fertility and innocence, the corruption of female flesh; thus, in a horror film centered around a young girl, one expects to see this concept carried through. In this particular horror, there's a kind of lump-throated eroticism — we're made silent conspirators in our moviegoer's desire to see bad things done to sweet little darlings. We cheer on the killers and monsters and demons from beyond, even as we recoil from them, because their dirty deeds not only give us our money's worth but provide us with the peek into unrestrained madness — the cathartic play-acting of our own worst impulses — that draws us to the horror genre in the first place. Hitchcock understood this; thus, he gave us that titillating peek at Marion Crane through Norman Bates' private peephole. William Friedkin understood this and gave us cherub-cheeked Linda Blair stab-fucking her twelve year-old muffin with a crucifix — porny sacrilege that upped The Exorcist's outrage factor as properly expected, while making us sweat at the sight of a film going places where only the sickest imaginations had dared previously. This transgression — this mirror held up to the onanistic cravings of the little demon inside us, one and all — is the sacred mission of the horror film, and any horror filmmaker who balks at the execution of his duty does a disservice to the genre and to its fans.

To the Devil is nearly torpedoed in its first inning by muffled sound (someone slams a car door or a guy gets shot, and it sounds as if someone had forced air through a wet paper bag) and fuzzy pacing — it takes awhile for it to kick in just who's who and what their relations to each other are. That's not to say that the film is completely without merit, though. It is rather interesting for horror buffs and Hammer completists; along with solid performances from a rather excellent cast, its allusions to something much deeper and revelatory in regard to the workings of a young girl's emergent will to unrestrained sexual power keep one glued to the screen, parsing the skeletal goings-on for clues to things that the filmmakers might have felt they were unable to come outright and say.

Cinematographer David Watkin — the Munkácsy behind Tony Richardson's Mademoiselle and its claustrophobic panoramas of the Jeanne Moreau character's private hell — pulls off no dazzling displays of fireworks here, but rather he impresses quietly via the heightening of the everyday, exemplifying that dry, overcast look that seemed to personify Britain on celluloid in the Straw Dogs '70s. Christopher Lee, of course, is — as always — Christopher Lee: he fluctuates effortlessly between the outward appearance of the learned English gentleman that he was in real life and a controlled madman who'll let nothing — not tears for the deceased, and certainly no one's fruitless appeals to mercy and propriety — get in the way of his doing the Devil's work. (And that, by the way, is a ringing endorsement.) He brings to one's mind thoughts of a courtly Bela Lugosi when torturing Catherine's father over the phone with apparitions of a coiled snake; in a flashback that explains the father's involvement with the cult by having him stumble onto his dead wife's body after she's given birth to Catherine, Lee's Father Rayner explains to him in no uncertain terms that he must do nothing to interfere with Catherine's destiny, and his resolute lack of any shred of human sympathy or understanding — "I will not have this sacrament profaned by any drunken tears!" — is so anti-heroic under the circumstances that it becomes positively heroic; the twelve year-old boy inside your head, still clutching a box of Goobers in the dark and rooting for the bad guy to get it, needs a villain worthy of his hatred: an evil fire-breathing dragon who's so diabolical and arrogant in its seeming invincibility that its inevitable toppling makes the hero's triumph all the sweeter.

Kinski has, in the autumn of her siren's years, expressed regret for having done so much nudity in her earlier films, insisting that she never felt secure about herself when baring beaver for Paul Schrader or for Peter Sykes here. This comes across in those performances, to a degree. Kinski's always maintained a kind of schoolgirl shyness behind her onscreen sexual image — no matter how nude she was or how coquettish she appeared to be, there was always a question mark behind it all, as if she were never quite sure, deep down inside, that she was really the enchanting goddess of unknown pleasures that men like her father and Roman Polanski kept telling her she was. She projects an enthralling uncertainty, a yearning to be validated by the viewer's gaze which, in the right role, often reads as a kind of humility that's very appealing in sex symbols; the very reason she was so effective. (Marilyn Monroe had it, as well.) Beauty combined with haughtiness is off-putting to all but a select niche of men who get off on dominatrices and that sort of thing; what translates to, and transfixes, the widest possible audience is said beauty neutralized by a kind of implied nod to chastity; a womanly submission to the gaze of the viewer. It's an acknowledgment of her equal role in the symbiosis of watcher and watched — hunter and target — at the heart of the male-female dance, which is to say, at the heart of the human dance, of life itself. Arousing us here despite the fat-wife nagging of our implacable Catholic-school consciences, Kinski hardly appears fourteen, particularly when stripped down to muff 'n bits. Blame it on the Devil if you like or, more appropriately, the God who created her: she seems one of those girls who's looked nineteen since she was born, the kind of preternaturally adventure-seeking jailbait kitten who's been getting men in trouble since the beginning of time.

©2015 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic

Monday, August 3, 2015

The Fan (Der Fan, a.k.a. Trance) (1982)

Bird Hunting

directed by Eckhardt Schmidt
starring Désirée Nosbusch, Bodo Steiger
Simone Brahmann, Jonas Vischer

Désirée Nosbusch was a mere sweet sixteen when she bared all in Der Fan as the cutest little cannibal ever spat forth from the land of Wagner and lederhosen. Despite it being in service of director Eckhardt Schmidt's obsessed-teen-groupie-turns-murderous plot, her nudity here is a paean to unspoiled beauty; Schmidt immortalizes his young lead actress at the peak of her feminine allure as indelibly as Elia Kazan committed to our collective memory the feral young Brando, or as wondrously as the photographs of Jock Sturges and David Hamilton aestheticized pubescent girls on the cusp of their own blossoming. There's never a moment in Schmidt's film where her Simone isn't naked in some way — he opens the film on her in extreme close-up, the most striking pair of bluish-gray eyes anyone's ever trained a camera on pleading with you not to break her little heart (we hear it pounding on the audio track), as she waits outside the post office to see if pop sensation R has responded to her latest fan letter. The mailman shakes his head and her eyes, framed by the face of a high-school Sylvia Kristel, comprise the sexiest wounded-pup breakdown threat you've ever seen. It's teenage heartbreak as S&M chic, recurring throughout Der Fan like the sex in an Emanuelle film. The "horror actress" tag doesn't fit — Nosbusch conjures up images of some model you'd find in a Helmut Newton coffee-table book, all remote goth sadness and European sophistication staring off bored as she lies naked across a grand piano in the middle of an abattoir.

As much as Nosbusch's jailbait tits and decidedly pre-Brazilian wax-era bush served as titillation points for the exploitation-horror market, they're just as connected to her performance as those eyes of hers or the beads of sweat that roll off her lip as she licks R's blood from an electric carving knife. Simone consummates — in her warped mind — the union between herself and R by sawing him apart with the knife after having driven the outstretched arm of a statuette through his brain. Her engorged, erect nipples as she ensures, piece by bloody piece, that he'll always belong to her offer unambiguous testament to her arousal — to how much the romanticism she perceives in their now-eternal "togetherness" punches buttons inside her crossed-wire stalker's brain that she couldn't possibly register any other way. Schmidt uses nubile girl-flesh — natural signifier of erotic pleasures, symbol of the promise offered by a woman's fertility — as a way to neutralize the horror in her acts and foreground our uneasy fascination with her conflation of eroticism and violence. Simone remains in the buff throughout the dismemberment because it's the film's true sex scene — Schmidt details the methodical cutting of R's limbs in grim mockery of the editing patterns of your standard movie-fuck setup; it's penetration of skin and bone and ejaculatory blood spray in a release of the tension he'd created earlier by denying us the focus on raw physicality we'd expected during R's seduction of her. For Simone, the willingness to murder the object of your desire is a declaration of how deeply your passions run. As with Asami in Takashi Miike's Audition (who she clearly influenced) and Sada Abe in Nagisa Oshima's In the Realm of the Senses (who clearly influenced her), she sees a mad beauty in all-consuming obsession; spiraling into realms undreamt of by most couples is just a higher level of devotion in a world that treats love as better suited to song lyrics than to realistic expectations.

Martin Scorsese's seminal Dantean fever dream Taxi Driver seems to have been a template here, only Simone's head is so swaddled in feminine reverie, she doesn't realize she's in hell. She stalks around town, an island unto herself, in her uniform of jean jacket and '80s Walkman headphones transmitting R's latest tape straight to her brain on instant replay. She declares her love for a man she's yet to meet via voice-over entries from her diary. She sits comatose at her desk in class while thinking about R; she hounds, then physically assaults, the mailman over her lack of a response from R; she makes a daily nuisance of herself down at the local post office, convinced that each day is going to be the day that R realizes she's the one for him and responds to her letter with his own declaration of unyielding love. She even wrestles with her own father when they watch R on TV and her father deems it crap. She imagines herself to be better than the groupies that she knows R sleeps with and then discards because they don't mean anything to him.

Simone slips back and forth between this reality and fantasies which see R bestowing upon her the personal spotlight she feels is her due, by sheer dint of the strength of her obsession with him. I pedestalize, therefore I am seems to be her driving motivation; there's got to be some way, she figures, for the universe to repay her for all the love and adoration she sends his way telepathically. Surely, this can't all be for nothing — her diary entries, her bedroom shrine to R constructed out of magazine clippings, the lack of friends or interaction with any boys her own age because she expends so much energy wet-dreaming about an unattainable image she knows only through the media she's consumed. She's heard his message to her in his latest single: a lyric, lip-synched directly to her TV screen over a dinky New Romantic synth-beat, about "that female moment" he's been waiting for — surely, R will validate her existence by making both their dreams come true.

Schmidt, of course, uses his B-movie cannibal narrative to indulge in the Great Postwar German Obsession — atoning for Der Führer — with sledgehammer touches such as the stylized SS logo on Simone's school bag and with a rather threadbare commingling of adoring masses who show up to, say, David Bowie concerts with the Sieg heil-ing throngs of Germans who pledged their allegiance to Hitler. The aim, as it always is with self-flagellating Germans seeking to earn their good-goy stamp of approval for Jewish-run media viability, is to critique unthinking adoration, to suggest that perhaps there's some flaw in the human character — definitely in the German one — that seems to well up from the subconscious of the people and offer hearts and minds on a platter to charismatic charlatans. What was true in 1938 Nuremberg, Schmidt is saying, is true in the West Germany of Chancellor Helmut Schmidt: he superimposes R's pop-star publicity pout over a black-and-white sea of German arms in Nazi salute, then he gradually fades out the roar of a cheering Hitler crowd as one of R's songs swells on the audio track — the effect is that, for just a moment, it sounds as if they're cheering R. It's a connection that's been beaten into the ground fairly dependably ever since rock and pop seized control of the public imagination. (Even Bowie had infamously declared to Playboy, at the supposed height of his cocaine-paranoia period, that he'd have made "a bloody good Hitler" and that the dictator was "one of the first rock stars.") One can only take this to mean that Simone is intended as a nod to the brainwashed automatons who tacitly supported the Final Solution, and that the film's third-act veering into bodily disassembly and flesh-munching is merely, in director Schmidt's eyes, the D.A.F./Human League crowd's way of keeping up the traditions of their grandparents.

Schmidt precedes the shift of the film's final section with a brief stylistic interlude of Simone looking at us, moist in her childlike vulnerability, as she opens her mouth so that the camera — so that we — can move inside her. From this point, the film filters itself through her teen-girl delirium: Schmidt's focus directs itself to emphasize the details that a lovestruck girl would find important. R's seduction of her is exactly the swept-off-my-feet fantasy she daydreamed about in English class; rather than priapic "Stray Cat Blues" sketches of precocious underage pussy thunder-fucked into quiver-thighed submission, or sadistic acts of groupie abasement to make a girl show just how much of her self-respect she's willing to ditch for her favorite synth-popper, we get R gingerly unwrapping her and then handling her as if she were a precious vase he'd been bequeathed by his dear dead grandmother. We get him worshiping her supple teen flesh and that blessedly early-Eighties briar patch of muff, running his face ever so gently along her skin, intoxicated by its scent. We get R holding her body against his as if he wanted to pull her inside of him, a soft-porn folie à deux in celebration of the soul union they were destined for, despite fate's cruel campaign to Abelard-and-Heloise them into a lifetime of mutual loneliness and longing for what could have been.

Then, he gives her the polite but unmistakable post-coital groupie brush-off by making off to tend to some business and Simone literally screams like a child watching her father abandon her. R's committed the greatest sin conceivable in Simone's eyes: he's dared not to devote his life to reifying the dime-store romance novel in some teenage groupie's head; he's insisting upon his own needs, his own reality. The dream is shattered and, with it, what little of her sanity existed: she's just found out that she is, in fact, no different from any of the disposable R "band-aids" she'd set herself apart from. Mechanized gunshot sounds whooshed along to the minimalist beat that scored their consummation, as if to underline that R was signing his very death warrant by opening himself up to this crazed fan; a cheeky acknowledgment, post-John Lennon's murder, of the precarious balance between idolization and murderous envy — the need of the viciously ordinary to cut down a bird whose flight only reminds them of their own earthbound confinement — that all megastars walk with certain segments of their fan bases.

As Simone is a woman, there'll be no consequences for her, no late-night pangs of contrition; a junior-league slice of sugar-'n-spice is the last person anyone could picture sawing off a man's head and limbs, devouring him one mouth-wateringly sautéed body part at a time, and then grinding what's left of him — his bones — into a fine powder. (You watch her measured, wholly fastidious approach to disembowelment and you think, "Ah! There's that German precision at work.") Even as she returns home after God knows how long with a shaved head and neither explanation nor apology, her two lunacy enablers — parents-of-the-decade nominees, the both of them — are willing to shrug it off. She's gotten what she wanted: an eternal link to R via his seed growing inside of her and the furtherance of her delusion that he's forever hers. Simone claims that she'd have loved R even if he were poor and unknown but we know that could never be true — to female minds, it's fame and fame alone that marks a man as the worthiest possible mate due to the sex-god preselection and social proof on the widest possible scale that media enthronement affords him. Women, especially as we've untethered them from realistic appraisals of personal market value, grossly overestimate their own worth; to that cookie-cutter Facebook junkie ringing up cans of Vienna sausage at your local Walmart, there's no reason why a face on her television screen shouldn't pick her above all others, or why the universe shouldn't deliver to her lap a gift-wrapped realization of every rescued-from-reality Cinderella whimsy she's ever claimed as her princessly prerogative.

With Nosbusch as his model, Schmidt paints a mesmerizing tronie of adolescent not-quite-a-girl-but-not-yet-a-woman mystique. She appears a different age each time his camera fixes in on one of her pouty stares or dreamy-eyed glances or fits of pique. Schmidt gives us a scene where a businessman type gets into his car only to find that Simone is sleeping on the backseat. As she starts off, he wryly remarks that the least she could do is shut his door. She does so, brattily, but she actually seems playful for once — she seems to appreciate that this old guy isn't hounding her with questions, that he isn't threatening to tell someone about her or stop her from going her own merry way. For a beat or two, as she locks eyes with him, the invitatory spark of Nabokov's Lolita breaks across her face — it dies the second he grins back at her, as if she were abruptly reminded of her hypnotist's effect on men, a power she has yet to comprehend or grow comfortable with. She stands there, confused that she's come so close to letting someone in; she looks down in shame as if she'd cheated on R. In that instant, she regresses to a thirteen year-old who'd been scolded about her bad grades by a stepfather on whom she harbors a secret crush. Later, as she hovers over R, about to kiss him, she looks for all the world like a child ripping open a Christmas gift that she's hoping is the new doll she's been begging her parents for. It's a completely startling effect, one that comes naturally from both Nosbusch's tender age and her chameleon-like ability — the ability of all teenage girls, really — to intuit how young she should be in a given scenario and to project that flawlessly. She morphs before our eyes, makes us feel like dirty old men in sudden remembrance of just how budding and fawnlike Simone really is, and we're all the more aroused because of it.

©2015 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic

Creative Commons License
Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License .