The Wild World of Ken Russell

Of all the directors whose names have become synonymous with their style of filmmaking (Hitchcock, Bergman, Spielberg), perhaps none is as polarizing as wildman Ken Russell. You either love him or hate him. I happen to love him.

Certainly, he’s not consistent. He followed up his master musical Tommy (1975) with the lame Lisztomania (also 1975). Years after his sleaze masterpiece Crimes of Passion (1984), he ripped himself off with the ridiculous Whore (1991), also released under the even more absurd title If You’re Afraid to Say It…Just See It.

But when he’s good, there’s nobody who can compare to him. Nobody heaps on the hallucinatory visuals, wild set decoration and stylized acting like Russell. One of his favorite shots is to start in on a tight closeup of a strange-looking person (often singing) and then speed-zoom out to reveal an entire tableau of oddities. But he’s also capable of producing extremely literate works. His biopics of classical composers (except Liszt) are amazing, and his adaptations of D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love (1969) and the 20-years-later sequel The Rainbow are memorable.

Women in Love was controversial upon its release due to the infamous nude wrestling scene between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates, and Glenda Jackson won the Best Actress Oscar for her performance as the cold-blooded Gudrun, who drives Gerald (Reed) to suicide. Not only does it contrast the stories of two couples, it adds an unrequited love between the two men. The dialogue is symbolic and over-the-top, but in Russell’s world, it works. Reed and Jackson were part of Russell’s informal troupe of regulars, and they would appear in many of his films.

Of the notoriously problematic Reed, Russell said that he would simply ask for “Mood One,” “Mood Two” or “Mood Three” from him. Certainly both Reed and Jackson’s work for Russell ranks among their best.

1970′s The Music Lovers tells the story of Tchaikovsky (Richard Chamberlain) and his troubled marriage to Nina (Jackson). As Russell himself said, “It’s the story of the marriage between a homosexual and a nymphomaniac.” Christopher Gable, another Russell regular, plays the object of the composer’s lust, and the most memorable scene involves Nina, who’s gone out of her mind, giving her body to the eagerly groping inmates of the asylum she’s been committed to. It’s also a sublime marriage of filmmaking and classical music.

The Devils (1971) is his most notorious film, Russell’s indictment of organized religion. Vanessa Redgrave stars as Sister Jeanne, the disfigured head of an order of severely repressed nuns. Reed is Grandier, the priest she secretly lusts after. Redgrave’s performance is really creepy; she does a wonderful job of showing the conflicting sensations that pass through the physically and emotionally crippled nun’s mind.

Butchered by censors for its “blasphemous” content, its most famous sequence featuring naked, hysterical nuns raping a life-size statue of Christ, is pretty shocking. It’s packed with other shocking scenes of torture and barbarism at the hands of pious hypocrites. Strong stuff, for sure, but it deserves much more recognition than it’s ever gotten. The U.S. Warner Home Video release is heavily edited, but there are more complete DVDs of varying quality available. I got a good import copy from Luminous Film and Video Wurks.

Probably his most successful film in terms of boxoffice was 1975′s Tommy, featuring a fearless performance by Ann-Margret and a surprisingly competent one from The Who’s frontman Roger Daltrey.

Russell and this work were a match made in Heaven. Packed with wild visuals to accompany the musical numbers, it’s still great entertainment after 35 years. And composer Pete Townshend made the smart choice to speed up the music and give it more punch for the film. When I heard the original version after I saw the film, I was shocked at how slow and dull it sounded. I took my Dad to see Tommy on its original release (in Quintaphonic sound!) and I wasn’t sure he really got it. But later he bought me the original recording as a birthday present, so who knows?

Who can forget the star-studded musical numbers? Eric Clapton’s “Eyesight to the Blind” with the Church of Marilyn Monroe, Tina Turner tearing it up as the Acid Queen (love that distorted mouth-twitching closeup!), the late Keith Moon as Wicked Uncle Ernie and Elton John as the Pinball Wizard. Jack Nicholson shows up as the doctor Tommy’s guilt-ridden parents take him to, and he’s awful—but it fits into the crazy framework.

1980′s Altered States did well at the boxoffice, but Russell’s behavior on-set and battle with the film’s screenwriter, Paddy Chayevsky, caused him to become a pariah in Hollywood. His last American film, Crimes of Passion (1984), showed that he could still do controversial with the best of them.

The story of an architect by day and prostitute by night (Kathleen Turner) being pursued by a kinky, insane, poppers-huffing street preacher (Anthony Perkins), it features some of the most explicit sexual content seen in a non-pornographic film, including a cop being sodomized by his own nightstick.

Turner is sexy and sleazy; she wouldn’t show her wild side quite this way again until her sensational turn as John Waters’ Serial Mom (1994). Perkins plays the preacher like Norman Bates had moved to the big city and fallen into a life of dissolution, which isn’t a bad choice. Russell stages it all in an obvious, exaggerated, studio-bound milieu. Crimes of Passion was one of the first films to be offered on home video in two versions: there was the R-rated cut (in the blue box) and the steamy unrated cut (in the red-hot box).

Happily, a home video company that had branched out into theatrical releases (the now-defunct Vestron) offered Russell a multiple-picture deal in the latter part of the 1980s, all made on his home turf, resulting in a couple of somewhat diverting peculiarities (Gothic and Salome’s Last Dance), another nice D.H. Lawrence adaptation (The Rainbow) and one bona fide cult classic (Lair of the White Worm).

Lair (1988) stars Sammi Davis, Catherine Oxenberg, Hugh Grant and the incomparable Amanda Donahoe as Lady Sylvia Marsh, the mysterious, sensuous, snake-worshipping aristocrat whose arrival in a small country village causes no end of trouble. This film also finds Russell in one of his most cheery moods. Though it contains numerous sexual and blasphemous scenes, both the director and his actors seem to be having a wonderful time. Much of the dialogue is extremely folksy (someone even asks, “Are we playing ‘happy families’?”) and the match-ups between the snobbish Lord D’Ampton (Grant at his most hilariously arch) and Lady Sylvia are a riot. A sample bit of dialogue:

Lord D’Ampton: Do you have any children?
Lady Sylvia: Only when there are no men around.

Lady Sylvia also has the ability to sprout gigantic fangs at will and can spit venom a good ten feet. Oh…and she is also “charmed” by music. And there’s a really great song about the legend of the D’Ampton Worm, a bit of which can be heard in this trailer:

Recently, Russell has made television movies, online videos and even written a column for The Times. He’s also an exhibited photographer and published author. In 2008, he returned to New York to direct an off-Broadway production of “Mindgame,” a thriller with Keith Carradine.

At age 83, he shows no signs of losing his taste for the outrageous. His 2007 online video A Kitten for Hitler proves that. This quote from the master himself really says it all:

“This is not the age of manners. This is the age of kicking people in the crotch and telling them something and getting a reaction. I want to shock people into awareness. I don’t believe there is any virtue in understatement.”

Some Classic Horrors

What makes a classic horror film? Craftsmanship, certainly, and especially repeatability—a film you want to watch again even though you’ve thoroughly memorized the moments of shock. Today I’d like to reflect on a few classics…horror films that have stood the test of time and are just as striking today as they were on their original release.

Les Yeux Sans Visage (Eyes Without A Face), from 1959, is French director Georges Franju’s masterpiece. A surgeon, Génessier, is obsessed with restoring the face of his daughter, Christine (Edith Scob), which had been horribly disfigured in a car accident. To achieve this, he recruits his devoted assistant, Louise (Alida Valli) to lure beautiful young women to his remote clinic where he experiments on them.

It’s a fairly straightforward plot, but what makes this film exceptional is Franju’s handling of the material. Hauntingly poetic and genuinely creepy, it really gets under your skin (pun intended). Christine wears a white porcelain mask to hide her disfigurement, and it makes her seem like a living statue. Dressed in stylish white gowns, she drifts through the house like a ghost.

Génessier is so smug and self-involved that he doesn’t realize his skin graft experiments are in fact torturing Christine—not to mention the fate that befalls the numerous victims who are unlucky enough to find themselves under his scalpel. Louise is slavishly devoted to this bastard—she knows full well the women she brings to the clinic are going to die—and yet she keeps procuring more, defending the doctor’s work when Christine dares to complain.

Scob is remarkable in her role. We only see her face for perhaps three minutes in the entire film, yet she manages to convey a full range of emotions with her body language. Valli, of course, is terrific, and her Louise is a study in contradictions. Brasseur plays the arrogant doctor to the hilt, not in mad scientist mode, but with the self-assurance that comes from believing he’s always right. Christine is the only one with a conscience, preferring to die rather than continue suffering—and causing the suffering of others.

The most famous scene—the removal of a victim’s face for the graft—is still shocking today, because it’s done so clinically. There’s no sound except for the doctor’s breathing as he methodically cuts into the skin, carefully pulls up the edges and lifts it off. Even though I knew it was coming and had seen it before, when I watched this film in its 2003 theatrical re-release, I thought I was going to pass out during this scene!

The fleeting glimpses we get of Christine’s face are equally shocking. She slips into the room of one of her “donors,” and the disfigurement is seen, briefly and blurrily, but it’s enough. When a graft seems to be successful, she is elated with her restored beauty, but when it begins to fail, we’re subjected to a series of clinical still photographs documenting the skin literally rotting off her face accompanied by the doctor’s passionless reportage of the failure.

There are fairly straightforward scenes of police procedurals, but the images of Scob seemingly floating down hallways, and the leonine Valli driving through the streets of Paris in search of prey are oddly beautiful, surreal and absolutely unforgettable. Future Academy Award-winner Maurice Jarre provides the excellent score.

Terrence Rafferty, writing in The New York Times, said it best: “Eyes Without a Face is among the few films in the genre—Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) is the only other one I can think of—that holds our attention without any recourse to narrative suspense. We barely care how the story will turn out: the suspense is in the images themselves, in the tension generated by our attempt to resolve the contradictory emotions they arouse.”

Hard-working horror hack Jess Franco did a remake of sorts in 1987, Faceless. Relentlessly sleazy, it amps up the gore and is actually one of his more watchable efforts…which isn’t saying much. It also boasts (for Franco) an all-star cast: Helmut Berger, Telly Savalas, Anton Diffring, Stephane Audran (who gets a needle in the eye) and Caroline Munro!

Curse of the Werewolf (1960) is one of my favorite Hammer films, along with Brides of Dracula, which I’ve discussed before. Featuring a star-making turn by a shockingly young Oliver Reed, it’s perverse, violent and has a lot more on its mind than just ripping throats.

A beggar (Richard Wordsworth) is thrown into a prison cell and left to rot by a sadistic Marques (Anthony Dawson). When his mute servant (Yvonne Romain) rebuffs his repulsive advances, she is put into the same cell and raped by the now-beastlike beggar. After escaping the cell and killing the Marques in revenge, she flees to the country and is taken in by the kindly Don Carledo (Clifford Evans) and Teresa (Hira Talfrey), his faithful servant.

When the girl dies in childbirth on Christmas Day, Don Carledo adopts the boy, naming him Leon, but superstitious Teresa fears that he is cursed. Sure enough, soon the little nipper is flashing his fangs and telling his father about his disturbing dreams of blood. Local farmers are up in arms about the “wolf” that is prowling the countryside and attacking their sheep.

Leon grows to adulthood, and he moves to another town to take a job in a winery. There, he meets and falls in love with his employer’s daughter, Cristina (Catherine Feller), but when he is taken to a brothel by a well-meaning co-worker, the beast inside him is awakened and he goes on the rampage. He goes to the police, but they don’t believe him, so he turns to his father for help. Don Carledo realizes he must summon the strength to put his son out of his misery with a silver bullet.

Curse brings a number of new twists to the werewolf story. Rather than suffering a bite from another wolf-creature, Leon’s lycanthropy is truly a “curse,” having been born the bastard child of an insane man on Christmas Day. And the film explicitly links lycanthropy with puberty, as the young Leon is seen howling at the moon as hair sprouts on his body.

This is the Hammer factory in its prime. Excellent color cinematography, beautiful sets and crackerjack direction by the great Terence Fisher make this a film to savor again and again. The details are great—when the Marques calls the servant girl to his room for unsavory purposes, he is seen studying himself in the mirror and picking scabs off of his face. Behind the opening title sequence is a long-held close-up of Reed’s eyes darting, animal-like, back and forth. One could argue that the contact lenses he’s wearing are causing his eyes to well up with tears, but it really adds an extra dimension to the shot—this is not a happy monster.

Reed is so good as the suffering Leon. I don’t think his screen time even adds up to half of the film, but he’s in turns eloquent, pitiful and scary—all the right attributes for such a role. His werewolf makeup by the ever-reliable Roy Ashton is perfect, taking advantage of Reed’s already wolfish appearance. The supporting cast, including Wordsworth, Evans and Talfrey, also add to the persuasiveness of the story. And the story—written by producer Anthony Hinds under his John Elder pseudonym—is based on Guy Endore’s “The Werewolf of Paris” (switched to Spain because Hammer had the standing sets) and it has enough religious, psychological and sociological underpinnings to keep Freud busy for weeks.

1960′s The Mask of Satan (aka Black Sunday) is the legendary Italian horror director Mario Bava’s finest film and the sensational Barbara Steele’s first venture into the genre. She plays a two roles she’d repeat several times with variations—Asa, a reincarnated, centuries-old witch and Katia, her innocent, virginal descendant.

When we first meet Asa she is being condemned to death for sorcery. Before she is burned at the stake, a spiked metal mask (the mask of Satan) is hammered into her flesh.

200 years later, Dr. Thomas Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and his assistant Dr. Andre Gorobec (John Richardson), are traveling through Moldavia to a medical conference when one of the wheels of their carriage breaks. While waiting for their coachman to fix it, they explore a nearby crypt and find Asa’s tomb. Kruvajan is curious about the mask he can see through a glass panel in the lid, and when he removes it from the corpse’s face, he accidentally cuts his hand. His blood drips on the exposed flesh, but they leave the crypt unaware that Asa is being restored to life. Outside, the doctors meet Katia. who lives with her father, Prince Vajda (Garrani), and brother Constantine (Enrico Oliveiri), in a nearby castle that the villagers all believe is haunted. Gorobec is smitten with her beauty.

Now revived, Asa telepathically contacts her henchman, Javuto (Arturo Dominici), who’d been executed along with her, and orders him to rise from his grave. She wants to drain the blood of her descendant, Katia, believing it will give her immortality. Javuto goes to the castle and vampirizes Kruvajan, kidnaps Katia and taking her to Asa. As the witch begins to drain away Katia’s life force, Gorobec arrives in time to save her and dispatch her malevolent ancestor.

The devil is in the details with this film. The simple plot is merely a device upon which to hang a series of startling—and startlingly beautiful—images. When we (and the doctors) first meet Katia, she is dressed in a black coat, accompanied by a pair of large black dogs, standing against a dramatically clouded sky. It’s quite an entrance. As the mask is hammered onto Asa’s face, blood jets out—it’s still a startling scene. Asa’s resurrection is striking, too. When Kruvajan first pries the mask off of her face, her empty eye sockets stare up at him and a spider crawls out of one of them. Later, when his blood begins to resurrect her, eyeballs “regrow” in the sockets.

Javuto’s resurrection is also atmospheric. Revived but still unable to move, Asa commands him to return from his grave. The ground splits open and an alarming-looking, undead creature gropes his way out of the soil and pulls off his mask. Later, when Gorobec discovers that Kruvajan has become a vampire, he goes to the coffin where his former colleague now rests, accompanied by a local priest, who drives a wooden spike into the fiend’s eye in a scene that certainly must have inspired Lucio Fulci’s trademark eye-mayhem.

For years we Americans had to live with American International Pictures’ version of the film, heavily edited and re-scored by house composer Les Baxter. The first time I saw it was on VHS videocassette with a faded pan-and-scan print that did criminal things to the splendid black and white cinematography. And although it was a British print, it still had the more explicit scenes of violence excised.

Image Entertainment’s 1999 DVD release was a revelation. Not only was it restored to its widescreen monochrome glory, the mayhem was back. I knew what to expect—the old videotape was clumsily cut, but you could sort of tell what had happened. Not that Black Sunday is a splatterfest—the scenes are swift and unexpected, which makes them all the more shocking.

What makes this film a perennial is a handsome production, rapturously atmospheric settings, truly creepy sequences and the insanely gorgeous Steele, who was dubbed by one critic “the only actress whose eyebrows can snarl.”

The Wolfman Report

Well, The Wolfman has been seen—at 1:05 this afternoon at the Arclight in Sherman Oaks. The comical digital sign in the picture to the left greeted me at the entrance to the auditorium, setting the stage for who-knows-what.

For those of you who don’t know, the Arclight Cinemas are upscale movie houses in Los Angeles with full-service cafés, gift shops and state-of-the-art projection and sound. Before each film begins, an employee walks in front of the screen, welcomes the audience and delivers a spiel designed to help us maximize our viewing experience. The poor young woman today got to Benicio Del Toro’s name and completely caved. We knew what she was trying to say, because she kept going: “B…B…B….”

Now to the film itself. Del Toro plays Lawrence Talbot, a noted stage actor in America, who is called away from a London run of “Hamlet” by his brother’s fiance, Gwen (Emily Blunt), because his brother, Ben, has mysteriously disappeared, and she wants him to join in the search. He arrives too late, though—Ben’s body has been found torn to pieces by an unknown but powerful creature.

Talbot is received at his rundown family estate estate by Gwen and Sir John, his distant, eccentric father (Anthony Hopkins), who seems oddly unmoved by his son’s death. Inspector Aberline (Hugo Weaving), a Scotland Yard detective, arrives to investigate, and the stage is set. We all know what happens next: Talbot is attacked by the creature and becomes a werewolf himself. Other things happen, too, but I’m not going to print any spoilers here.

The cast is excellent, but I expected it would be. Everyone brings real commitment to their performances. Del Toro, looking like a cross between the original Wolfman, Lon Chaney Jr., and Oliver Reed, the werewolf in Hammer’s Curse, plays the tormented Talbot with the requisite angst; Blunt brings British stiff-upper-lippedness to her performance (actually I think she has a stiff upper lip).

No one can do “dry” like Weaving, and his inspector character is a welcome addition to the story. Geraldine Chaplin could have gone more over the top, actually, as Maleva, the gypsy, and Hopkins shows everyone else how it’s done with his performance as Sir John. This character is an empty, emotionless shell but he remains compelling because Hopkins keeps giving us hints about the dark secrets that dwell within him.

The production design, art direction and special effects are great, too. Computer creations are seamlessly blended with real locations to vividly recreate London in the 1880s, a Hammer-esque country village and especially Talbot’s creepy family estate. Cobwebbed and neglected, it’s easy to imagine Miss Havisham occupying the rooms upstairs. Baker’s Wolfman is a magnificent beast. He looks just enough like the original Chaney creature to satisfy fans, but about a thousand times more ferocious. The transformation scenes are intense and painful-looking, and—best of all—he charges along on all fours when he’s on the hunt.

The killings are suitably splattery, and there are even some visual nods to the Universal classics. When he’s standing atop a gargoyle in London howling at the moon, it brings to mind nothing so clearly as the studio’s classic Phantom of the Opera, perched atop the statue of an angel, red cape blowing in the wind. When Talbot undergoes primitive electroshock procedures to cure him of his “delusions,” the instruments the doctors use look like they came straight from the set of Bride of Frankenstein. And of course scenes with torch-wielding villagers storming through foggy woods are a Universal requirement. Oddly, there’s also a battle sequence that recalls Alan Bates’ and Oliver Reed’s nude wrestling match in Ken Russell’s Women in Love!

Danny Elfman’s score certainly adds atmosphere to the proceedings, but I think he wrote too much of it. I don’t recall a single second of silence in the entire film. As I’d feared, the script is what’s the problem here. It’s pretty perfunctory, and it’s slow going for the first half-hour or so, but when the first transformation kicks in, it picks up pace. Some of the scenes between Del Toro and Blunt are borderline mawkish, through no fault of their own; it’s just that the writers seemed unable to get a handle on how these two characters would talk to each other. Hopkins’ Sir John gets some nice development, though, and Weaving’s inspector, whom I’d feared would be an afterthought, also contributes interest. Everyone knows the basic story; it could have used more kick.

So is it a worthy update of a classic character? I don’t think there’s any way to add to or update that legacy. It’s completely of its time and of its place, and any earnest attempt to recreate it would be laughable to today’s audiences. Having said that, it’s not bad. Everything about it looks great; it just really needed a better script. And if only they’d made it in 3D…