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.

1 comment:

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