Tuesday, October 10, 2023

American Gothic Week: Help! I'm being disorientated!


Directed by Gordon Hessler
Written by Milton Subotsky and Christopher Wicking (based on the novel The Disorientated Man by Steven V. Francis and W. Howard Baker d/b/a "Peter Saxon")

Spoilers: moderate

In terms of housekeeping, it's good to admit that the rationale for bringing Scream and Scream Again into this is lacking; my primary basis is, of course, "it's my lousy weblog."  But if I had to come up with a "real" justification, I suppose I'd have no alternative besides trotting out some bad, unpersuasive precedent: Scream Again was one of the twelve films featured on the 1982 PBS series, The Vincent Price Gothic Horrors, and, well, "Gothic" or not (not), and "horror" or not (it's a thriller first, and sci-fi second, before it gets to "horror"), it does, undeniably, have Vincent Price.  Though if I went even slightly further to claim "it stars Vincent Price," I'd already be pushing it.  But there it is, right there on the list, and it's an AIP film, so we could still call it "American" even if it was co-produced by Britain's best horror house, Amicus, and it's also set in England, featuring, other than Price, not so much as one single otherhey, look behind you!

What it is, though, is interesting, and that trumps anything else.  It's a surprisingly sui generis blend of genres standing at the crossroads of the 60s and 70s and straddling bothit's remarkably forward-looking, particularly as regards the thrillers of the 70sthough what makes it unique, in ways that make it so that I'd have a little difficulty pointing to any single dominating influence, or even any successor that was clearly influenced by it, is the way it tells its mish-mashed story; all the contemporary reviews that complain that it makes no sense until its last ten minutes are, I think, exaggerating, but they're not exaggerating by that much, and I'm not entirely certain that sitting here in 2023 inevitably being more genre-savvy than Roger Ebert would have been back in 1970 isn't the bigger part of any smugness I have about that.  It's only 95 minutes long (though that is slightly long, by the standards of such things), but it has a faith in the patience of its audience that, considering that audience, frankly seems a little foolhardy; the good news is that, ultimately, it rewards that patience rather well.

It could be easy to get lost down what initially seems like an endless series of blind alleys, but I think I can offer some kind of accurate summary, even if we begin with the blindest-seeming alley of all, the completely offbeat way this horror movie begins, its opening titles accompanying footage of, well, just some guy out running; this does reach for horror before the sequence ends, however, when he has some sort of cardiac breakdown, and we find him hours or days later in a mysterious hospital room, attended by a mute and somewhat hostile nurse (Uta Levka), gradually realizing that one of his legs is gone.  This is more confusing than anything, and maybe it only clarifies into horror when we return to him later, more-or-less at random, to find that his other leg has been amputated for no apparent reason, too.

This doesn't appear to have anything to do with the main plotsto the extent the movie has "main" plots.  The first plot, anyway, involves Konratz (Marshall Jones), a low-level functionary in a state beyond some kind of curtain, adhering to a curious melange of several brands of European authoritarianism; but as Konratz is contented with neither his station nor the reformist impulses of superiors like Benedek (Peter Cushing), following Konratz is effectively following along as he brazenly commits one assassination after another, each time basically occupying the space in the hierarchy he's just emptied.  The second plot, and the one that occupies the most screentime by a pretty healthy margin, involves a homicide and rape investigation undertaken by Detective Superintendent Bellavar (Alfred Marks) and his associates in the Metropolitan Police, particularly a new medical examiner, Dr. Sorel (Christopher Matthews); the victim has some association, though not obviously much of one, with another doctor, Browning (that's Price), an American who does some nebulously-expressed bacteriological research.

The third plot, though it's more like Plot 2(b), because at least in this case there was enough police procedural media in 1970 that you could easily make the leap, involves another young woman, Sylvia (Judy Huxtable), who winds up falling into the charismatic trap of the puffy-shirted man that we undoubtedly have already figured out killed the first womanwe'll learn, a lot later, that he's named Keith (Michael Gothard)and he does, as expected, add another body to the pile.  In what we may properly describe as a third plot, though in this case the scarequotes go around "plot," because initially this seems really disconnected, a British intelligence man, Fremont (Christopher Lee), instructs his underlings about the correct ways to manufacture consent, while fretting about a captured spyplane pilot.  Back in Plot 2(a), Bellaver deploys a pretty female officer (Judy Bloom) to bait their serial killer out at the rock-n-roll club, and, because it ends up giving us the movie's best scene, we can forgive this turn for being incredibly fucking illogical, but Goddamn is it ever illogical, insofar as while the "lady cops in plainclothes" gambit, sure, might (or might not) work against your primitive 1970s-style ambush rapist, that's not what Keith is, so it's a remarkable bit of luck the first guy to attempt to pick her up in a bar is the killer, and I really don't know what the plan was if he turned out to be a fellow who merely wanted to buy her a drink.

I think, as a result of the fifty-plus years of conspiracy fiction and science fiction between there and here, both high and lowand Scream Again endeavors to be boththat one is likely to get a little bit ahead of it; basically by the time we've seen the adversarial foreign power, we can at least begin to apply a basic shape to the proceedings.  The explicitly vampiric M.O. of our killer starts complicating this already, but I really don't think it's spoiling things to say "this movie's seemingly unrelated plot threads are, in fact, related" and that the spy plot has something to do with the mad killer plot; indeed, you have probably already solved the broad strokes of the movie's mystery in your head and you're probably not wrong.

Where Scream Again excels, though, is in the way it presents its information, which retains the power to flummox even after all this time.  It's not an original insight to tentatively link this to the "portmanteaux" (read, "anthology films") that Amicus was currently tip-toeing around making the biggest part of their legacy, though I mention it mainly because it seems like it ought to be mentioned, rather than because it comes off even like an anthology that's been put into a blender; it's too impressionistic to really resemble, say, Tales From the Crypt's collection of conventional shock narratives.  What Scream Again is doing is almost radical, and I think at the very least calling it "experimental" wouldn't be too far, throwing you into scenes with the barest amount of expositional set-up, most of these scenes eventually proving themselves important in some way or another to the overarching plot (but, and this works for that flummoxing effect, not all), but without clarifying why they're important, or how they're important, or even who is important, particularly in the way a character who's seemingly crucial because he's played by Cushing gets offed the very next time we see him, or the way a character who'll be with us through the final frames of the movie isn't introduced, and not with any fanfare, until halfway through the runtime.  It's very possibly the truest "there is no protagonist" movie I've ever seen in my lifethe closest might be Sorel, yet he never feels like it; Bellaver feels more like a protagonist, in part simply because "jaded cop with a submerged sense of humor" is the kind of stock type we can latch ahold of, but he is assuredly notand it's a dizzying way in which to go about prosecuting a narrative that gets across the fundamental cynicism that increasingly becomes the point of the story, rendering a world that has plenty of good guys but all they're capable of is random collisions with the master conspirators at the center of things, causing all kinds of friction but not necessarily able to ever comprehend that there is a vast and shadowy force moving through them.  But it's almost a movie where there's no antagonist, either, just a binding power that, itself, is merely better capable of managing its own chaos.

In full honesty, I found this extremely aggravating for a good long while; it all coalesces afterward so that it's a little difficult to remember that initially I wasn't enjoying it, but for almost half the runtimewell more than a thirdit comes off like dealing with an unnecessarily oblique Silver Age comic book, an analogy that gets a little tottery when we recall that Lorenzo "Batman" Semple wrote The Parallax View, though it's still apt: director Gordon Hessler's goal was to honor the man originally slated to direct prior to his untimely death, Michael Reeves, and make it in the fashion of Reeves's favorite director, Don Siegel; and I guess he succeeds, as we do wind up with pretty much, "what if Dirty Harry were still Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and both of them were in a merged idiom of British schlock horror, shows about cops without guns, and cheap sub-Bond spy cinema?"

Invasion of the Body Snatchers
 is even too apt, maybe: the major adaptational change wrought by co-writer Christopher Wicking upon the pulp novel, The Disorientated Man, which reportedly this otherwise follows rather faithfully, was to dispense with that text's source of the conspiracy, which originally was outer space, in doing so managing a fair job of giving it a right proper "1970s" kind of resonance, albeit still with super-vampires and phony enemy countries straight out of a comic with its cover ripped off because it went unsold and it's supposed to be on its way back to the publisher for credit.  (Wicking reputedly even de-pulped it from Amicus honcho Milton Subotsky's original treatment, which I guess makes it "more" AIP than Amicus, if we wanted to pretendthough we may not have to pretendthat the two companies were locked in combat over this film.)  This isn't all a bad thing, and surely the pop 70s-ism of it is an unalloyed good (Keith's costumes, for example, or a band I've never heard of, Amen Corner, singing a song that hypothetically explains the generic horror flick title; but it's a stone cold groove, man, get off Amen Corner's back).  But Scream Again spends a significant stretch failing to really justify the evasiveness that makes it only resemble something like The Parallax View, appearing for a long time to be too arbitrary in its deliberate obfuscation on the one hand, and just kind of stupidly goofy on the other, while in all respects it keeps acting soperhaps the appropriate word is "pretentious," though it isn't exactly that, either, maybe just "irksome."

My two problems with the film that don't ever vanish are, in retrospect, very petty; I could offer the fanboy complaint, that Cushing never encounters Price or Lee at all, and that Price and Lee only meet once, and that all our three "stars" are secondary players at best.  I will not do this, particularly because Price absolutely kills it when his time comes, and while it's not even momentarily unclear that Scream Again's big guns' minimal participation here was secured on the extra-cheap so they could secure all three on a small AIP/Amicus budget, Price makes it exceedingly easy to pretend that his absence from most of the movie was a deliberate strategy of withholding, so that when he finally does arrive in earnest, to lay out the sinister reality of things in calm, freakishly optimistic tones, it really does feel like the world falling out from beneath your feet, particularly because Price's vivid acting stylings are on such a resolutely different wavelength from everyone else here.  (Even the form changes a bit: Price's final shots are almost anti-realist in comparison to the documentary naturalism that accrues almost everywhere else, and Hessler exploits Price's best physical feature as a sometimes-camp horror actorthe way he can make his eyes seem to melt out of his face from certain angles, and exceptionally so from this particular anglein a manner that I don't believe had been seen since Corman.  I'm extravagantly fond of this bit, which probably seemed to Lee like he was getting one over on Pricethey have, let's say, a confrontation, which is resolved almost entirely in aggressive axial reverse-shots by way of Lee Dracula-staring at a withering Pricebut Price undoubtedly wins on the memorability of his expressions.)

No, my petty little problems are, for starters, that the production and costume design on the unnamed enemy country are just completely unserious, to the point of undermining the cod-seriousness of everything else, every time we cut back to itthese Eastern Europeans twenty-five years after the fall of Berlin wear fake Nazi uniforms, with fake Saturday morning cartoon show Nazi insignia, which is the sort of thing that can work in something overtly theatrical, like The Wall, but this is certainly not The Wall, and even that might just be the superficial part of it, compared to the film's outright childish vision of Konradtz's ambitious rise up the Commie-Nazi Party ranksand it's readily the most egregious contributor to the "this is dolled-up idiocy for teenagers" impression that dominates for far too much of the film's first half.  The other little problem is maybe a bigger problem: that awesome poster is not, actually, lying to you, but it damn well feels like it's lying, because despite this being a movie that felt free to invent an entire stupid fictional country because it's too chickenshit to say "East Germany," and where no fewer than 4.25 people get dissolved in acid, which feels like a pretty high acid-related body count, there is not one gore effect associated with thatnot even a skeleton!  And that's the kind of debasement Scream Again inflicts upon a man.  I'm a grown-up, asking for a prop skeleton.

But as for that more serious problem, something just happens halfway through the film; it is not, of course, some invisible shift in tone.  It is a big, beefy, burly event, that somehow thrusts Scream Again into a fascinating space between the pure pulp nonsense underlying it and the gritty physicality that's somehow the form it's decided to take, oddly enough by ramping both up at precisely at the same time.  It is a shocking flex for a low-budget AIP/Amicus co-production, and like with anything else from AIP (less so from Amicus), while you can just point to contemporary popular cinema and say, "so it's knocking that off"this time it's Bullittin this case, as in so many others, it would be churlish to do so.  Especially in this case: it is a sixteen minute chase sequence, that only starts as a car chase (and it's a very good car chase, including a wonderful piece of second-unit camerawork and editing from Peter Elliott that flings a cop car at you with sufficient force that you might flinch); it becomes a foot chase that shade by shade gets increasingly strange, and you begin to feel that strangeness even before it shows its hand (so to speak), by dint of the sheer length of it and the unsettlingly inhuman stamina demonstrated, emphasized with a dynamite use of some clever effects and extraordinarily long shot scales in the first climax of the chase that give the action a legitimately greater-than-human scope.  (Beginning to prefigure Parallax View for reals, this setpiece is so long and replete with suspense that you could mount a reasonable argument that it's turned out Keith was our protagonist, at least of our first half.)

From the instant this sequence opens up, by some alchemy things just start clicking, and from here on in, there's something eerily gripping about the way its story tumbles out at you, despite that story never becoming even marginally less pulpy or dumb.  But there it goes: this dingy little police procedural, or sci-fi thriller, or horror movie about vampire spiesI'll just spoil this much for you, they're not vampiresdone up in the trendiest New Hollywood realism of Hessler's direction and John Coquillon's grungy, direct handheld cinematography (even indulging in some downright proto-70s paranoid zooms), suddenly opens out onto a deeper sensation of fantastic mystery than those techniques are "supposed" to permit, which makes that mystery all the more uncanny.  And that's not even all: it has a unique, hard-to-describe retroactive effect, that doesn't just justify the perceived sins of the first half, it even diminishes the real ones.  There's something special about the rumble-tumble mix-up of form and content offered by Scream and Scream Again; if there were just one prop skeleton, there's no telling how highly I would rate it.

Score: 7/10, and I'm hurting like hell to go 8

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