Ken Russell’s Gothic

Ken Russell’s Gothic reminds me of one of those nights where you and a group of your friends all get hammered and take psychedelics together but accidentally forget to designate one amongst the group to stay sober and take care of the rest, so you all just kind of collectively lose it without a sane babysitter to steer you away from a bad trip. In this case the group of friends in question includes Lord Byron (Gabriel Byrne), his doe-eyed concubine (Myriam Cyr), Mary Shelley (Natasha Richardson), her poet husband (Julian Sands) and John Polidori (Timothy Spall), and if you’re even vaguely familiar with their real life literary works it wouldn’t even surprise me that the lot of them were out of their heads on all sorts of drugs. All metaphors aside this is a fantastic, warped, fever dream shock horror film that provides an abundance of perverse enjoyment, provided you have the strong stomach, deranged sensibilities and capacity for abstraction required to get perverse enjoyment out of what can only be described as really fucking weird shit. As the odd group engages in tantalizing swinger’s foreplay and picks each other’s brains, subtle supernatural things start to show up, then all hell breaks loose after they conduct an impromptu seance around a supposedly enchanted skull. This is my first Ken Russell film and I already love his work, the guy just likes to roll up his sleeves and get unapologetically bizarre for the sheer joy of it. Natasha Richardson’s Mary Shelley is the eventual main focal point of the group and both her wonderful, edgy performance and the night in question subtly suggests what past traumas and diabolical new inspirations led to the genesis idea for her iconic Frankenstein novel, while Byrne’s impossibly sleazy Byron hovers in the background, a hedonistic tornado of deviant sexual energy and debutant petulance that the actor, still early in his career, tears into with seething voracity. Russell himself is a wizard of hallucinatory panic, visual madness and disorienting, hair raising sound design, with a lot of help from a terrifically spine chilling score by the one and only Thomas Dolby. The experience is one of dementedly strange horror, with indescribable monsters lurking around every corner and edifice of Byron’s spooky mansion, a constant state of mental disarray, existential confusion and otherworldly anxiety inflicted both upon the characters and audience alike, a truly immersive realm of a film. It’s a shame this isn’t really more widely available, streaming, physical or otherwise because it’s essential for any horror fan. I watched it on YouTube with surprisingly decent picture and sound quality, I suppose that will have to do for now. Excellent film.

-Nate Hill

THE RUSS MEYER FILES: LORNA (1964)

Where Russ Meyer’s previous features had generally begun with soft, laconic shots of nature that were coupled with a booming bowl full of earnest, corn-filled narration, Lorna’s mobile, ghost train opening shot promises to transport us to a place we’ve never been before. And, for sure, we eventually roll up to a man clad in black (credited as “The Man of God”) who stands in the middle of the road and immediately breaks the fourth wall, warning us of sin and judgement. The nudie cuties, it seems, were just the soft preliminaries. For when we’re eventually waved on by our ominous stranger and begin moving further down the road of iniquity, we’ve fully graduated into the real world of Russ Meyer. Welcome to Lorna, a film in which the titular character was promised as being “TOO MUCH FOR ONE MAN!” on its promotional one-sheet.

Envisioned and quickly written by Meyer and James Griffith (who also plays the ominous Man in Black), Lorna was Meyer’s first attempt at a true narrative where he would be calling all the shots. Fanny Hill, Meyer’s debut outside the confines of the nudie cutie, was such a miserable experience that he traded in that film’s costume-laden period decor for the starkness of Nowheresville, America. And where Fanny Hill had a mid-size cast that mostly had little to do, Meyer strips Lorna down to a world populated by ten people.

Lorna was the first in a long string of tongue-in-cheek morality plays constructed by Meyer in order so soft-peddle his cantilevered beauties. However, Lorna really plays it smart with those moral angles. The film begins as a standard roughie in the row houses of the backwater California town of Locke where Luther (Hal Hopper) and Jonah (Doc Scortt) stalk a drunken women named Ruthie (Althea Currier) to her house. There, their twisted sexuality is put on full display as Ruthie is beaten and raped by Luther while Jonah leers through a window. Down the river apiece, Lorna (Lorna Maitland) is a deadpan saint to her well-meaning but weak sauce husband, Jim (James Rucker) who is studying to becomes a CPA while working down at the salt mines with Luther and Jonah, the former forever chiding Jim about Lorna and her supposed infidelities which barely conceal his lustful coveting of her.

In truth, Lorna and Jim are fundamentally decent folks who, for no greater sin than being normal, flawed humans, get more misery heaped upon them than they probably deserve. Jim might be a wet mop whose cocksmanship isn’t anything to write home about, but he really isn’t a bad guy and he truly loves and cares for Lorna. And Lorna isn’t a bad woman, either. Treated like a thing on a pedestal, which she doesn’t necessarily object to, Lorna argues that perhaps this attitude can be taken a bit too far and that there is a decent-size chasm between being respected and being handled like a porcelain doll. And being stuck in a fishing shack with absolutely nothing to do all day and nobody around for miles, it’s not hard to fault Lorna when, after another disappointing night in bed with Jim, she goes out to onto the dock and more or less wishes upon a star to be whisked away toward a more exciting life, shown in a dazzling montage of neon burlesque over a much happier, undulating Lorna Maitland.

When an escaped convict stumbles his way through the marshes and eventually happens upon Lorna, he sexually assaults her which leads to a kind of physical deliverance for her. This is sort of a narrative blunder where the arcane convention of the “struggling woman who gives in to the passion” is taken to the outer limits of taste and decorum. While a certain contingency of more seasoned generations recognizes this kind of coded filmic language when they see it and mostly give it a pass, it’s hard to fault the reactions to those for whom the origins of this convention have been buried under layers and layers of film history, especially to those who aren’t familiar with the context of the roughie. But in Lorna, however ill-advised it seems in retrospect, I’m not totally convinced that this device isn’t executed for the benefit of Lorna’s character as she both takes control over the situation (thereby drawing a contrast to the earlier character of Ruthie), and achieves a long-needed sense of sexual release with the convict.

Whatever complications are apparent in the tact of sexualizing rape, Lorna mostly gets away with it due to the uncommon skill of Meyer as a filmmaker and his knack for throwing his characters into a blender and upending any preconceived notions about them. For like in a very sly play, everything in Lorna gets turned upside down in its second half, proving the liquidity inherent in quick-shifting morality. While it’s loaded to make it look like the ones who are punished are the ones who upend their marriage vows, Lorna actually dies for everyone’s sins. Would her relationship with the convict been different if Jim would have shown her the kind of care for her and their one year anniversary as he should have? And what does one make of Luther’s tearful breakdown at the end of the film as he finds some sort of redemption (if not complete absolution) when, not 70 minutes earlier, we watched him beat a woman senseless? As articulated in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, “It’s a strange world.”

But above all, Lorna was a way for Meyer to strut his stuff as director, producer, co-writer, editor, and photographer. Forever innovative, Meyer finds a clever way to reduce the strip teases of Europe in the Raw down to the restless Lorna, hot and bothered while her husband toils away at his studies in the another room, writhing around in their bed while bathed by chiaroscuro lighting. And Lorna, if nothing else, is economical. Lorna’s flashbacks are presented by heat waves over static shots of a running brook and Dutch angles of the church in which they’re married. Meyer also gets a lot of story by employing nothing more than a POV camera as a prison break is pulled off on a Saturday afternoon by grabbing a few pickup shots here and there and throwing an alarm sound effect over them. And if this were mere sexploitation, the beauty in the carefully designed and thought-out match cuts wouldn’t roll over the audience like a pleasant breeze. Nor would the hotted up climax, replete with axes and hooks, work like absolute gangbusters if not for Meyer’s skill as an editor.

In terms of casting, Lorna Maitland creates quite the mold as the first of Meyer’s superstars, defining the Meyer female outside of the nudie cuties as strong, highly libidinous, and yearning for her own identity. Special mention, too, should go to Hal Hopper who is just terrific as Luther and also co-wrote the film’s catchy theme song. If I were to find out that Hopper was a slobbering, high-wire nut job in real life (he wasn’t), I would not hesitate to believe it to be true as he literally embodies the kind of ghastly creep one spends most of their life avoiding.

Lorna was definitely a page-turner and game-changer for Meyer and laid a foundation upon which he could begin to build his very singular cinematic universe populated by decent people doing the best they can while toiling about in a judgmental, hostile, and unforgiving world littered with violence, betrayal, and poisoned passions. It also gave the world a heroine in whom a salacious promise of being too much for one man was entirely conditional on the broke-dick dude in question.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

Netflix’s The Haunting Of Bly Manor

Stunning. Sensational. Complex. Deeply heartbreaking. Surprisingly romantic. The creators of The Haunting Of Hill House have done it agin with The Haunting Of Bly Manor, a lush, emotional, Victorian Gothic puzzle box of human drama, tragedy, memories that won’t die and yes, horror too although there’s less of it this time round. As one character remarks, “this is a love story, not a ghost story.” It’s true, and while Netflix hasn’t marketed it as such, if you go in expecting a romantic tragedy instead of full on horror like Hill House (think Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak) you’ll absorb the material with a clearer, fairer palette.

Our story starts as young American nanny Dani Clayton (Victoria Pedretti) journeys from London to Bly Manor in the countryside, hired by nervous, boozy Henry Wingrave (Henry Thomas, dutifully flaunting a posh dialect he’s clearly worked hard on) to look after his young niece Flora (Amelie Bea Smith) and nephew Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth). Henry keeps well clear of Bly and the two children, content to wallow in his fancy London office, always at the bottom of a bottle for painful reasons we later are privy too. There she meets various complicated and, well written and flawlessly acted characters including tomboy gardener Jamie (Amelia Eve), stoic housekeeper Mrs. Grose (T’Nia Miller), lovable cook Owen (Rahul Kohli) and the black sheep among them, Henry’s shady, maladjusted valet Peter Quint (Oliver Jackson Cohen). Bly Manor itself, referred to in baroquely quaint terms by several characters as “a great good place,” is a world away from the omnipresent shadows, oppressive blue hued austerity of Hill House. Bly is rich, ornate, painted in deep chestnut browns, opulent dollhouse purples (the 80’s setting is proudly reflected in colour here) and the grounds adorned in brilliant green topiary, verdant meadows and beautiful rose gardens.

Now, my favourite part: the story. As told by a mysterious, wistfully mournful narrator played by the always brilliant Carla Gugino, this is a very dense, layered arrangement of interweaving love stories and subsequent tragedies, several ghosts and a host of human beings who all feel real, full of life and vitality and whose pain is shared greatly by the audience because of how excellently character development is cultivated, performance is calibrated and episodes are spun together on a loom of effortlessly fluid storytelling. Pedretti is a wonder as Dani, luminous and charismatic but one can see in her wide, drawn eyes and flighty mannerisms she has a painful past. Past and memory are important themes here, and every character, even the one painted as a flagrant villain, has something in their past that haunts them, causes them pain and dictates the choices they make in our narrative. Thomas is achingly restrained as Uncle Henry, Kohli raw and potent especially in an affecting campfire monologue that encapsulates everything we know, feel and wonder about life and death in one pure utterance. The two children are superb in quite difficult roles that require them to change tone, pitch and mood quite frequently. This story reminded me of those staircases in Harry Potter that continually shift their angles and pitch people out into unfamiliar hallways without warning. This narrative does the same for its characters, trapping them in ‘tucked away’ memories that seem arbitrary at first until you realize it’s for them to come to some realization or epiphany. I love that sort of reality melding, spaced out storytelling that uses memory and the mind in a literal sense and setting, it’s used to fantastic effect here and the story, while structured similarly as Hill House, is its own nesting doll narrative full of complexity and shifting components. Is it scary? Well, aside from a few effectively chilly moments no, not really, and nothing comes close to some of the skin crawling sequences in Hill House. But like I said, it’s more of a human story with life in its veins, and the most disturbing, distressing elements are the emotional rigours these human beings must endure, the torment that memory can inflict, the potent pain of a deep heartbreak, the deep wounds that grief imprints on one’s soul and the ways in which some may find redemption and others… not so much. It’s a tough, emotionally devastating tale and especially so for those who feel deeply and get invested in story and character, it takes its toll. But it’s a gorgeous, challenging, complex, beautifully rewarding experience in the same token, and I’m grateful to Mike Flanagan & Co for doing something equally as spellbinding as Hill House, yet cut from a different sort of cloth altogether. If this were a nine hour film (which is how I recommend you view, it demands to be binged in rapturous immersion) it would be my number one of the year.

-Nate Hill