Thursday, October 08, 2009

The October Ordeal III 02: Daughters of Satan (1972)

While the title Daughters of Satan seems fit for a Jean Rollin or Jess Franco production, Daughters is an American film, notable for featuring Tom Selleck’s first lead performance, and also for being one of the only films directed by veteran Television director Hollingsworth Morse. Selleck plays Jim Robinson, a buyer for a New York art museum, hunting down paintings and other artifacts in the Philippines, where the film was actually shot. While this casting now would be labeled “off-type,” it’s not unusual for 1972, the year Daughters of Satan was first released. While Cassavetes, Ashby, the American Zoetrope crowd and others were changing the way American film-goers thought about leading men, genre cinema was still catching up, and Selleck, with his classical Hollywood image, is a typical lead man for this era of horror cinema.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with casting a handsome man as the lead, but there is something strange about the consistent casting of hunks as nerds, a confusing institution which creates its own particular archetype in horror and science fiction. Elsewhere on Dreamscape, this phenomenon is discussed in my review of Brian Yuzna’s Society. In the 70s, it wasn’t uncommon to throw a pair of glasses on Selleck or McQueen for a few scenes and hope that this would be enough to sell the character as an academic.

While Selleck gets the most screen time, and Jim Robinson is clearly marked as protagonist, the crucial character in the film is his wife Christina (or Chris, as she’s most often called), played as temperate and ethereal by Barra Grant. While Robinson’s life in the Philippines is all-business, Chris spends her time as if on a lazy, extended vacation. Perhaps apologetically, Jim buys her a painting of a witch burning, specifically because the central woman in the painting bears a striking resemblance to Chris herself. Thinking her reaction will be amusement, Selleck gives it to her—wrapped even—as a gift. Instead of being amused, she’s disturbed on a deep, spiritual level by the painting, feeling more than a bond of resemblance to the figure in the painting. Her reaction is so sympathetic that she believes she can recall specifics about the place and time of the burning.

While the basic plot of the film has something to do with destiny and reincarnation, the film is more about the relationship between Chris and Jim. Occult 70s relationship drama is an interesting horror sub-genre, which includes such moody films as Burnt Offerings (1976), The Mephisto Waltz (1971) and the later The House Where Evil Dwells (1982), which also deals with concepts of time and destiny. Unlike those films, however, the relationship here is underdeveloped. While she is beautiful, and an appropriate gothic presence, Grant’s performance is tranced-out and disinterested, in a fog of confusion and uncertainty. While Selleck is workmanlike, his performance at least adequately conveys that of the arrogant Western predatory academic—whether or not this is intentional.

As the mystery deepens, Nicodemus, a dog similar to one seen in the painting, appears at the Robinson home, heralding the arrival of a maid whom looks suspiciously like one of the Daughters in the painting (this is four years before the Satanic guard dog/nanny pairing found in The Omen, mind). As characters come into the film, and facts about the actual burning are revealed, the painting changes. Incremental changes keep the film from swinging too heavily in any direction, a move designed to build tension gradually. Daughters of Satan’s narrative plays out in the deliberate style of an Ace Gothic or Avon novel from the 70s (novels which also blend Occult intrigue with relationship drama).

While the genre of supernatural romance is often bloodless, Daughters of Satan is surprisingly gory and transgressive. The film opens with a mean-spirited scene of a nude Filipino woman being whipped at a Black Mass—a scene which will be replayed—and features gratuitous extras nudity and gleefully blasphemous lines such as “Deny Christ… Spit on him!” (A full year before The Exorcist).

Despite his consistent presence, Selleck as Robinson is a clueless bystander in the story. The character himself a weakness, because due to his imposed screen dominance, Chris is never properly characterized, thus her character’s esoteric stress and transformation lack weight and impact. With material so flimsy, the best Grant can do is play the part of the beautiful, wounded, confused and passive wife, which is a major misstep, not only because of obvious sexism, but because it’s Chris’ story, really, and a more active character would have improved the film. Because Selleck effectively steals her rightful screen-time, the film betrays both halves of the relationship. If this were a Giallo, Robinson would be a minor character, serving only as a reactive force, necessary to move certain scenes, while Chris would at the center, an active instigator of her occult dilemma.

While the film’s emotional core is anemic, Daughters of Satan is at least powerful visually. The film is beautifully shot, with diffuse lighting typical of the genre, psychedelic and eerie music, location sets, and creative shot compositions, with the usual amount of Dutch angles and impulsive camera movement in the ritual scenes. While Morse cut his teeth on economic television-making, this film doesn’t feel at all like TV. Its vibrant imagery, elaborate set-pieces and languid pacing hardly reflect Television convention.

The esoteric narrative kernel of the film is interesting at least: a second chance for some preordained demonic process to complete itself. The mystery of the film is neither rewarding nor engaging, nor is Robinson’s quest to solve the mystery of the magic painting. The detective scenes of Jim wandering about town are totally devoid of tension. There are incidental characters, including the shop keeper from whom Jim buys the witch-burning portrait, the Robinsons’ psychiatrist, and the third witch from the painting, Kitty (Tani Guthrie), who, in one scene, attempts to seduce Jim by casually disrobing in front of him, an act which neither party comment or act upon. The plot movies slowly, however there is neither a feeling of despair nor the impending danger that should accompany such an occult transformation or realization as presented. Instead, the film is merely dull; this is a middling, indecisive, if nicely shot and composed film.

The final scenes of Daughters of Satan feature Chris in the exact position as the woman from the beginning of the film, nude, being whipped by Satanists, dedicated to fulfilling the recreation of the Coven burnt at the stake years ago. Why exactly this must happen is unclear. Ultimately, it’s hard for the audience to sympathize with Chris, as her character is so slight.

This clumsiness also renders the final reveal impotent, as a twist ending can only shock through earned viewer investment. While visually the film is strong, it is only recommended for those whom are interested in horror that is both domestic and supernatural.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

The October Ordeal III 01: Pinocchio's Revenge (1996)

In the wasteland of straight-to-video and small-run 1990s genre cinema, “horror versions” of classic folk tales and fairy stories proliferated. In the 90s, shelves were crowded with titles like Leprechaun, Rumpelstiltskin, Snow White: a Tale of Terror, Jack Frost, and Grim Prairie Tales. These films either slot a folk creature into slasher frame-work, or play up strange and vicious elements of classic myths—an act, in this context, both transgressive and traditional. This reaction likely has to do with the last great era of hand-drawn Disney animation. While there is a point to be made that folk tales from around the world have been Christianized generally, and diluted even further by Disney, the films are often uninspired, supplying only gore and cheap laughs in place of what could have been cultural reclamation of the genuine creepiness of Grimm’s fairy tales or various Slavic myths. Interestingly enough, there were many live action iterations of classic tales during the decade as well, even a Jonathan Taylor Thomas/ Martin Landau vehicle simply titled Pinocchio, which remarkably came out the very same year as Pinocchio’s Revenge, in 1996.

Kevin S. Tenney’s Pinocchio’s Revenge appears, from box art, title and trailer, to fit the Leprechaun formula—with a Child’s Play twist—it’s wholly different film. This uniqueness is thanks to writer/director Tenney, creator of the underrated Witchboard series, and director of Night of the Demons and The Cellar.

Pinocchio’s Revenge opens with the caption, “Tampa, Florida, five years ago”. In an economical opening sequence, a Patrolman finds a car on the side of the road, with a child’s lifeless body inside, and a man in the forest, digging a grave. While examining the area later, Police discover that the man, Vincent Gatto, was burying a large wooden Pinocchio puppet. After this short intro tag, a generic news reporter explains that Gatto worked as a wood carver before his arrest, implying that he built the doll, and brings us into the present day, outside the court room where Gatto’s appeal is being heard.

While the sullen Gatto (Lewis Van Bergen) refuses to explain himself at all, his attorney Jennifer Garrick (Rosalind Allen) is convinced of his innocence. Her attempts are unsuccessful (partly due to Gatto’s uncooperative attitude), even though she believes he is lying, to protect a greater, perhaps stranger, truth. Before much can be discovered, Gatto is executed, although Jennifer is haunted by the case. She even takes the Pinocchio doll home to her daughter Zoe.

If this scenario brings to mind a generic episode of Law & Order, that’s not far off. While Pinocchio’s Revenge is an interesting film in many respects, visually it’s rather uninspired, looking and sounding like a TV-movie. While this is somewhat fitting, as the film features many such procedural scenes set in offices and court rooms, the difference between the visual integrity of Tenney’s Witchboard (photographed by Dream Warriors’ Roy H. Wagner) and this film is immense. Cinematography here is by Eric Anderson, an experienced TV DP, who delivers a simple, serviceable image, rather than the rich atmosphere of Tenney’s earlier films.

The relationship between Zoe and the wooden Pinocchio seems at first like a subplot, or a Child’s Play-inspired position for a killer doll to inhabit, it becomes much more. Zoe (Brittany Alyse Smith) is a disturbed child, dealing with not only the separation of her parents, but bullying at school. The crucial weakness of the film is Smith’s performance; however the TV-movie Mise en scène forgives this problem somewhat. Acting is generally poor, with Allen’s performance being the best, even if just above serviceable.

Zoe’s therapy scenes are important to the film, and serve as place-markers throughout, as Zoe becomes further unhinged. While her mother and psychiatrist initially see the Pinocchio marionette as a coping mechanism, it soon becomes clear that the presence of the doll is a negative force in Zoe’s recovery. If I’m being obscure about the doll, this is because the film is obscure about Pinocchio by design. His true nature is never really explained, and it makes as much sense here to assume Zoe is talking to a hunk of wood as it is to guess that Pinocchio is container of some sort of possessing demon. It is never suggested that this is Pinocchio the literary figure, as the character is only tangentially related to the film, and is never linked thematically. Whether he can actually talk and move, or we are privy to Zoe’s delusions, is mysterious. While he is silent for the first forty or so minutes of the film, when he does eventually speak, Pinocchio is voiced by veteran voice actor Dick Beals (best known as Davey from Davey & Goliath). In the few scenes where Pinocchio is seen to move, he is played by a young Verne Troyer in his first role.

While the mother-daughter relationship is the focus of the film, there are many peripheral characters, whom really only exist as victims or potential victims. Most important to the film's central mother-daughter-doll core is Sophia (Candace McKenzie), the Garrick’s Italian nanny. Also in the mix are Jennifer’s co-worker Barry (veteran television face Ron Canada)--who serves only to gift the doll to Zoe in the first place--and Jennifer’s boyfriend David (Todd Allen), whom is hardly developed at all. Sophia however, has many scenes, including the only real moment of humor in the film: after Sophia finds Zoe and Pinocchio waiting for her outside the shower, Zoe tells her mother, referring to Pinocchio: “He’s curious about ladies’ bodies.”

Two characters in the film serve to define the central ambiguity of the film. First is the aforementioned Psychiatrist, Dr. Edwards (Aaron Lustig, character actor whose resume is stuffed with similar roles), and an unnamed priest (Michael Connors) who outlines (by his very presence) one possible Pinocchio theory, whereas the counter is presented by the scientific authority of Dr. Edwards. Clearly this device serves to condone differing audience reactions. This becomes undeniable considering the film’s conclusion.

Whether or not Pinocchio is possessed or alive, it’s clear that Zoe needs him to deal with abandonment issues. From here the film makes a connection between Gatto’s son and Zoe, which leads Jennifer to think that Gatto may have been protecting his disturbed son, whom she thinks had committing murders of his own. She fears Zoe is enacting a sympathetic duplication of Gatto’s son’s ordeal. At this point three interpretations are possible, and the audience is invited to decide. A frustratingly ambiguous ending endorses this ambivalence.

There is no doubt that D.S. Tenney is saying something here; what this is however is somewhat mysterious. So much care is expended structuring the film that room for thematic resonance is small and specific. Regardless, the relationship between mother and daughter is believable and tragic, as is Zoe’s elementary school experience. This is in keeping with Tenney’s oeuvre, as Witchboard is essentially character-study and relationship-drama disguised as supernatural chiller.

While this central question mark works structurally, its impact is lessened by the confounding choice of Pinocchio as a character. There is no great reason for the doll to be anything more than an original character, as this is not a retelling of the Pinocchio story, and the Pinocchio of this film is not the classic Pinocchio. Also, the title is nonsensical. The working title is a little better, The Pinocchio Syndrome. Better still is the UK title, simply, Pinocchio. The low budget (and low profile) of the film leads to believe that Tenney is to blame for this, especially considering that he wrote the film. It is possible that Tenney saw a market, and used a gimmicky premise to tell a personal and uncommon story.

In the final third of Pinocchio’s Revenge, Jennifer asks her priest, “Do you believe in evil?” She asks because she thinks Gatto killed his son to save his soul. She wonders if demonic forces are speaking through Pinocchio, which in many ways is a more acceptable theory than simply believing her child is mentally unstable. The film’s final tag suggests some cyclical link to the “five years ago” intro, but this is never substantiated. Both the psychiatrist and priest survive the film, as if to preventing either theory from achieving dominance.

Eventually the film reaches the climax of its slow-burn escalation, and a final confrontation is put in place. There is no denouement to speak of, and questions are never satisfactorily answered. The conclusion, interpretive elements notwithstanding, is nonetheless tragic, earned by the care with witch Tenney builds the central relationships of the film.

Pinocchio’s Revenge is a unique, genre-mashing film, almost to fault. By keeping so much about itself obscure, the film risks locking viewers out rather than inviting their interpretation and debate. As an exercise, it narrowly fails in this respect. By making the conclusion of the film obliquely frustrating, critical tension is low, because any and all wild interpretations become valid. Despite this flaw in execution, Pinocchio’s Revenge is still strangely interesting, if dated and low-rent, with an emotional and spiritual core, allowing it to transcend the sub-genre in which it masquerades.