Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Deranged - Notes on the German DVD

This weekend I revisited Deranged, Jeff Gillen and Alan Ormsby's film about one of Wisconsin's most famous sons, Ed Gein. This is a film I waited years to see, I had only a tantalizing review of the film in the pages of Shock Xpress to tide me over. In 2002 I finally saw the film courtesy of the MGM Midnite Movies DVD, and it didn't disappoint. Deranged is quite simply one of the finest Horror films of the Seventies. The US MGM disc which is still in print over a decade later isn't a bad edition of the film - the film looks vibrant and sharp but ignominiously is double-billed with the 1980 cannibal comedy Motel Hell. More significantly, the MGM edition features the R-rated cut of the film, missing a short sequence excised from early unrated theatrical prints. Fortunately, in 2007 German label Universum Film/Legend put out their own edition of Deranged, similar to the MGM disc transfer-wise but crucially re-instates the missing sequence where Ezra Cobb plucks the eye out of a severed head, saws off the top of the skull and scoops the brain into a coffee cup. In addition the German DVD includes 80mins worth of extras among the must-see Deranged Chronicles: The Making of Deranged. Before we go any further I can confirm that this German DVD is English-friendly, containing the original English-language audio track and removable German subtitles (across the entire disc - film plus extras).

Deranged fans owe much thanks to producer/editor Michael D. Moore who was responsible for making the full uncut version of the film available. Moore, a huge fan of the film managed to track down the last surviving uncut print and after purchasing the worldwide rights to the film restored the film to its former glory. Or perhaps it should be ragged glory. The rescued footage is of very poor quality, dark and splicy but one should know that this is as good as it gets. The brain-scooping sequence itself is brief, less than a minute of screen time, but Tom Savini's effects are spectacularly visceral:

Moving on to the extras... Deranged Chronicles: The Making of Deranged is a 36min documentary directed by Michael D. Moore in 1993. The film features talking head interviews with Deranged's producer Tom Karr and co-director Jeff Gillen reminiscing about the film, how the project came together (originally called Necromaniac), their memories of the production, and Karr showcasing some of Savini's ghoulish props. The bulk of the documentary features Karr's remarkable 16mm footage filmed on set - we see Roberts Blossom quietly preparing for his scenes, the special effects team rigging gags and props, plus the cast and crew generally enjoying themselves amongst the body parts and putrefying sets. The footage itself includes a cheerful running commentary by Savini pointing out some of the faces on screen (including glimpses of Alan Ormsby) and confessing he had the hots for the actress who plays Ezra Cobb's barmaid victim. The 16mm footage itself is of variable quality, the colors have soured some what, and evidently the entire documentary has been culled from a dupey looking VHS tape. It's all very watchable, and the brain-scooping sequence actually looks a shade better than the same footage put back into the film.

Co-director Jeff Gillen mucking around on set with unnamed extra

Actor Roberts Blossom posing for a wardrobe test with wig and dead skin mask

The next set of extras concern Ed Gein. Tom Karr returns for the 20min Ed Gein Story, Producer Tom Karr On Location in which Karr recounts from a graveyard no less, the strange story of grave robber and murderer Ed Gein. Karr is also seen wandering around what is apparently the old Gein farm which was burned to the ground in the late Fifties by the locals of Plainfield, Wisconsin. It's a good piece overall, even if it does remind one of Robert Downey Jr's American Maniacs program from Natural Born Killers. This short film was made in 1993 and shot on video. Quality is decent enough. The next extra is preceded by a disclaimer about the picture quality, and is most likely included for historical value. Produced in 1981 (while Gein was still alive) by Michael D. Moore, Ed Gein American Maniac covers much of the same ground as the previous extra, supplemented with audio interviews with police officers involved in the Gein case, and narrated by Moore himself in the style of a hardboiled private eye, ("Ed Gein was a real piece of work"). This curious 24min featurette also appeared on an earlier US tape.

Tom Karr standing in what's left of the Gein farm in 1993

The remaining extras on the DVD are trailers. First up is a 3min promo-trailer for a 1995 shot-on-video atrocity Creep, it's inclusion here is I suspect that Tom Karr and Michael D. Moore are named on the credits as associate producers (and one of the actors in the film is wearing a Deranged t-shirt). The final extra on the disc are three different trailers for Deranged ("The nightmare of insane murder and lingering death"), one of which contains a few frames of the eyeball-plucking scene. Finally, worth mentioning that the German DVD comes with an excellent quality 23 page booklet about the film, sadly the text is in German only but the booklet features some very nice b/w production stills from the film. The German DVD is available from Amazon UK and Amazon Germany

Friday, 15 March 2013

Clive Barker's Salomé and The Forbidden

My previous post opened with a bit of a boner when I mentioned that Clive Barker made his directorial debut with Hellraiser in 1987. In fact Barker had experimented with film in the previous decade with a series of short, amateur Super 8 films ("pocket money cinema" as Hellbound writer Peter Atkins fondly recalled). The Dark Tower, a sword and sorcery fantasy from 1972 featured crude stop-animation and owed a large debt to Ray Harryhausen, while Jack O Lant, also from 1972 has been described as something akin to a Hammer sketch as a semi-naked bride frolicked around a graveyard. Both these films are most likely lost forever, but two very accomplished Barker films have survived and are well worth investigating.

Made in 1973, Salomé emerged out of Barker's fringe-theatre days when he and his friends staged a production of Oscar Wilde's Salomé, which included an eyeless Doug Bradley, and the bloody severed head of John The Baptist. For the film version Barker marshaled the minimal resources at hand - a super 8mm camera, a single light source and the cold, damp basement of a florist's shop to shoot in and fashioned an eerie, erotic, and strikingly visual adaptation of Wilde's single act play. Made entirely without dialogue the film has a narrative of sorts but a knowledge of the story might help going in: Salomé stepdaughter of King Herod is enraged by the imprisoned John the Baptist’s resistance to her charms. Later Salomé performs the dance of the seven veils for her lustful stepfather in return for the prize of John the Baptist’s severed head. Herod fulfills her request but is so disgusted by Salomé that he has his soldiers crush her with their shields…

Speaking warmly about the film in the early 90's Barker offered the early Warhol films as influence, but the film is best placed among the magickal films of Kenneth Anger and contemporary Underground films like Pink Narcissus and the Super 8 experiments of Derek Jarman. Watching the film it's quite obvious Barker was even at that young stage a precocious talent. His expressionist use of light and darkness quite ingeniously creates the illusion of space in an otherwise cramped one room set and the film is brimming over with strange visuals - in the absence of props and art direction (except for some cabalistic drawings smeared on walls), Barker focuses his camera on the interaction of his actors among the inky shadows. Faces emerge out of the gloom and appear obscured behind plumes of smoke while other cast members are heavily made up (like a sinister gypsy-like Doug Bradley appearing as Herod) or seen wearing unnerving kabuki style masks. It's a hugely impressive work and manages to pack more nightmarish atmosphere into its brief 8 minutes than most feature length Horror films can dream of.

In 1975 Clive Barker acquired a 16mm camera and began his next film project which he worked on and off for 3 years before the film was ultimately abandoned. The Forbidden is a far more esoteric work than Salomé. Barker admitted the film was loaded with codes and symbolism that had little or no meaning to anyone other than its author but described the film as a riff on the Faustian myth. The Forbidden defies interpretation but in the film a man (played by Peter Atkins) is seen indulging in various erotic and sometimes violent pleasures which are later punished by various hands who flay him alive. The skinned man then wanders through a landscape which resembles an etching from a book... It's a tenuous unreliable description at best, made even more difficult that the film was shot in negative which results in an extremely odd visual style - images appear like Rorschach tests and actors swap their humanness for something far more alien.

In comparison with Salomé which merely hinted at the dark eroticism of Wilde’s play, The Forbidden is a far more transgressive work with moments of unsettling violence and sadism. A man is violently strangled and the long flaying sequence is surprisingly visceral (how this effect was achieved is best left unrevealed). Perhaps the most provocative aspect of the film is its sexual content. There’s some heterosexual lovemaking as well as a homo-erotic sequence where a naked man dances in a frenzy brandishing an fully erect cock (apparently Clive Barker himself). More fascinating still is how the film precedes Barker’s later work especially The Hellbound Heart novella and Hellraiser. The frustrated protagonist of the film feels like an embryonic form of the Frank Cotton character from The Hellbound Heart, while the unseen surgeons who perform the flaying are like place-holders for the Cenobites. Throughout the film there are images and ideas that are strangely familiar – the visual motif of light reflecting of upright nails, the protagonist occupied with a jigsaw puzzle, a living skinless man, and animated shots of black birds flapping, an image that reappears in The Hellbound Heart. Barker also reused the title of The Forbidden for a Books of Blood short story, later filmed as Candyman.

In 1994 the existing footage of The Forbidden was assembled and edited into a 36 minute film and along with Salomé was given its first public screening as part of a wide retrospective of Clive Barker’s work. The following year both films were released on VHS by Redemption as part of a program entitled Clive Barker’s Salomé & The Forbidden which featured interviews with Clive Barker, Doug Bradley and Peter Atkins. In addition both films were given excellent avant-garde electronic scores by soundtrack composer Adrian Carson. Redemption’s tape was later upgraded to DVD, as a stand-alone US release, and in the UK as the bonus disc of Anchor Bay’s 2004 Hellraiser box set. I suspect these films will leave the average Pinhead disciple bemused but fans of Clive Barker's work should seek these films out.

Friday, 8 March 2013

The Hellbound Heart

In the next few days I’m hoping to catch a screening of Hellraiser, a film I have fallen out of love with it over the years. This sudden and unexpected interest in the film was prompted by my reading of The Hellbound Heart, Clive Barker’s 1986 novella which the author himself would adapt for his directorial debut. I first read The Hellbound Heart some 25 years ago and whatever memories I had of the story had long since been absorbed into Hellraiser. The novella which first appeared in the horror anthology Night Visions 3 is little more than a short story (it can be easily read in one sitting), but despite its brevity makes for a fascinating comparison with Hellraiser. Hardly surprising that the majority of the short story was retained for the film, even down to specific dialogue, but Barker managed to improve upon certain aspects of the story. In the novella, Rory Cotton (renamed Larry in the film) and Kirsty are simply good friends but in the film the ties are closer still, their relationship recast as father-daughter, later accentuating the film’s dark sexuality with Frank Cotton's incestuous desires for Kirsty, his niece. In the novella Frank and Julia's brief affair adds up to little more than some rough sex, which hardly seems motivation enough for Julia to commit murder to supply Frank with sustenance, but in the film their encounter is given much more weight in a brilliant sequence where Julia and Frank consummate the affair intercut with Larry skewering his hand on a nail, a subtle commentary on the sado-masochistic nature of Julia and Frank’s relationship, and crucially makes Julia's obsession to restore Frank more plausible. At times the film also surpasses the novella in purely visual terms, like the sequence where Frank is resurrected from the pool of Larry’s blood. In the novella this moment is not especially memorable but in the film Barker and his special effects team conjure up an astonishing tour-de-force of surreal, gloopy splatter.

The sweet suffering... a moment of exquisite pain from Hellraiser

The film doesn’t always have its own way, at times the novella wins out with sophisticated and evocative writing. The brilliant opening sequence of the novella where Frank invokes the Cenobites is heavy with ritualism, the Cenobites described in quasi-religious terms as  "theologians of the Order of the Gash", with Frank preparing for their arrival with a display of various offerings – urine, severed dove heads, sweets and flowers (the only one of the items the Cenobites accept). Barker writes:
He had worked ceaselessly in the preceding week to prepare the room for them. The bare boards had been meticulously scrubbed and strewn with petals. Upon the west wall he had set up a kind of altar to them, decorated with the kind of placatory offerings Kircher had assured him would nurture their good offices: bones, bonbons, needles. A jug of his urine-the product of seven days' collection-stood on the left of the altar, should they require some spontaneous gesture of self-defilement. On the right, a plate of doves' heads, which Kircher had also advised him to have on hand. He had left no part of the invocation ritual unobserved. No cardinal, eager for the fisherman's shoes, could have been more diligent
The Cenobites are more mysterious, less stylized, perhaps less ridiculous than their filmic counterparts (although the idea for Pinhead was more or less formed even at this early stage - "Every inch of its head had been tattooed with an intricate grid, and at every intersection of horizontal and vertical axes a jeweled pin driven through to the bone"). In the second appearance by the Cenobites in the novella and film, Kirsty strikes up a bargain to lead them to Frank, ("Oh yes. We know Frank") but the film unwisely diverges from the original story by adding a scene where Kirsty slips into another dimension and is pursued by a grotesque wall-hugging creature. It’s a moment that does much damage to the serious adult tone of the film, due in some part to some unconvincing animatronic effects. The climax of the film suffers a similar fate when the character of the sinister derelict (a character created for the film) reveals his true self as a winged monster – another ludicrous moment undone by some mediocre effects work. The novella’s climax by comparison is far more restrained and interestingly, the idea for the derelict can be traced back to a very peripheral character in the novella, the enigmatically titled Engineer. In the final scene of the novella the puzzle box is placed back in Kirsty’s hands:
As she turned away somebody collided with her. She yelped with surprise, but the huddled pedestrian was already hurrying away into the anxious murk that preceded morning. As the figure hovered on the outskirts of solidity, it glanced back, and its head flared in the gloom, a cone of white fire. It was the Engineer… Only then did she realize the purpose of the collision. Lemarchand's box had been passed back to her, and sat in her hand.
The Hellbound Heart is a grey area in the Clive Barker cannon. It's an important piece of writing - one of the author's purest works of Horror fiction, but still the novella remains one of Barker's most obscure books (it's currently out of print in the UK), paradoxically so considering the novella was the starting point for Hellraiser, Barker's signature work and a film that spawned no less than 8 sequels, inspired numerous comics, graphic novels and toy spin-offs, and introduced the world to an iconic movie monster. Whether you care or not for Hellraiser, The Hellbound Heart is highly recommended for all you seekers, sensualists and explorers in the further regions of experience.

"What's your pleasure sir?" A keeper of the puzzle box. Artwork from Clive Barker's Book of the Damned: A Hellraiser Companion (Vol. 1 1991)