Category Archives: 1970s

Morel’s Invention (1974)

*. The source novella, by Adolfo Bioy Casares, was apparently also the inspiration for Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad. Make of that what you will. I can’t do too much with it, aside from noting how Anna Karina, muse of Jean Luc-Godard, looks like a flapper (Morel’s “group portrait” is dated 1929), and that Louise Brooks was supposedly the model for Faustine and Delphine Seyrig’s “A” in Last Year at Marienbad. So these screen-muse figures all sort of blur into one.
*. This is significant because Morel’s Invention is a love story, or I think more properly an obsession story. The fugitive (Giulio Brogi) — and I think he is a fugitive, rather than a castaway, as credited — is yet another star-struck fan, falling in love with someone who is essentially a movie star, to the point where he wants to enter the film and be a part of it. It’s The Purple Rose of Malta.
*. Unfortunately, director Emidio Greco (directing his first feature) doesn’t capture this obsession. There’s really nothing going on between the fugitive and Faustine, which probably makes a lot of the movie hard to understand for anyone not familiar with the book. Unless we’re made to feel his obsession then nothing makes any sense.

*. This is too bad, as there are a lot of different avenues the movie could have explored. The question of whether it is all a dream (the fugitive is first awoken by the music of the newly-arrived visitors). The looping time scheme, which has the visitors constantly re-enacting the same week, and the different perspectives this gives the fugitive (and us) into their lives. The way the early visitors don’t know they’re dead (as actors don’t know they’re in a movie), which allows for incongruities like the dancing in the rain (reminiscent of the rain falling inside the house at the end of Tarkovsky’s Solaris).
*. There’s almost no speech, aside from Morel’s lecture on his experiment, and little by way of score aside from source or diegetic music. This might have been interesting too, as the visitors hail from the silent era. But again it’s a road we never go down.
*. I like the museum itself, and it’s dusty air of Art Deco luxury. Luxury always has a touch of the alien about it, and that’s something we do get to feel here.
*. Casares’s novel is no doubt hard to adapt, but it really deserves better. The ending here in particular struck me as limp and enigmatic, flubbing the idea of the fugitive dying into art and becoming the image he has come to adore. That’s a form of suicide our own age is very much in love with, as we imagine uploading consciousness to the cloud. Morel’s machine is now a server, and he wouldn’t need to go to all that trouble to build a museum. With CGI effects and all the rest, we’ve already taken reality out of our SF movies. Now all we have to do is take it out of our reality.

Crucible of Terror (1971)

*. There are a lot of horror cheapies and bottom-of-the-barrel exploitation flicks out there that are now deservedly forgotten. In our new digital dispensation, however, it appears that nothing will ever be truly lost, at least in the way that so much of the history of early cinema has gone missing. Instead, these movies will go on to enjoy a long afterlife somewhere in the clouds.
*. That’s where I found Crucible of Terror, a film that I came to with very low expectations. It’s not a great, or even a good movie. In fact, it’s pretty lousy all the way through. But for some reason I loved it. I’m so glad it hasn’t disappeared.
*. Explaining why I like it isn’t easy. It’s one of a bunch of Brit horror films from the early ’70s that Kim Newman summed up as “marginal cinema, where double-bill-fillers can be sold either for sex or violence and nothing else really matters. Too cheap for period settings [like the efforts of Hammer], these films, intentionally or not, manage to locate their horrors in a recognisable, seedy British setting unexplored in the movies. The plots are outmoded B melodrama, the girls are mostly pretty and disposable and — very rarely — extraordinary, almost-art films . . . slip out.”
*. I don’t think Crucible of Terror is extraordinary for almost slipping into art-film territory, but it does take the B-picture melodrama plot to new heights (or depths). There’s so much that’s unexpected going on. We start off thinking we’re going to get a House of Wax rip-off, but the shocking opening sequence isn’t really followed up on. Then we visit the London art scene, where we’re introduced to a hustling dealer and his dipso buddy, who also happens to be the son of a reclusive artist (the madman we met earlier). From there we’re whisked off to Cornwall and some coastal lovely scenery, where the mad artist lives with his batty wife. At this point things the plot swerves into murder-mystery territory as a killer in black gloves starts killing off the guests at the artist’s home.
*. Finally, the ending is perhaps the strangest thing of all, yanking us away from the whole mad-artist storyline into supernatural territory with the aid of a possessed kimono that has a hashtag symbol on the back. It’s madness, I tell you. Madness.

*. It’s not that all of this is weird, but rather the character of its weirdness that I enjoyed. It’s weird in a fun way.
*. The cast and characters are a delight. Mike Raven, who was a bit of an eccentric artist himself, does his best Christopher Lee, which is pretty good. James Bolam is suitably hapless as the dealer who has to put out in the back of a Rolls with a wealthy patroness (oh, the things we do for art!). Raven’s wife is a pathetic-comic figure who dresses up like a little girl while lugging around stuffed animals. The girls, I’ll agree with Newman, are mostly pretty and disposable. But then, that’s what they’re for.
*. While I don’t think anything about the film is particularly well done, for the most part it seems competently produced, and there’s such a lot of manic creativity on screen I wonder why writer-director Ted Hooker never went on to anything else. Was this a one off?
*. As I’ve said, there were a lot of not-very-good, low-budget horror films in the ’70s that have now disappeared and aren’t worth hunting down. I think this one is worth checking out though. In addition to the weirdness it has the Cornwall scenery, Raven’s off-beat performance, and some interesting kills. The casting of the model in bronze is amazing. Nothing else in the film matches up with it, but that’s OK. My expectations had already been surpassed.

The Beast Must Die (1974)

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*. I can’t help feeling that Amicus missed an easy trick by not putting an exclamation mark at the end of the title. On some posters I’ve seen they have added one, and it’s something they’d done before (And Now the Screaming Starts!). I think the title should really be The Beast Must Die!
*. But, believe it or not, I think they were aiming for class with this one. At least producer Max Rosenberg said he wanted something “monolithic.” Nobody knew quite what he meant.
*. And Then There Were None meets The Most Dangerous Game. And those were both good movies. Plus this one has a werewolf in it. So it couldn’t really miss, could it?
*. But wait, there’s more to like! There’s a swingin’ ’70s soundtrack (they wanted a “gothic-sounding Shaft sound,” construe that how you will), and a gimmicky “werewolf break” where the movie stops and you’re given 30 seconds to decide who’s the lycanthrope.
*. There’s also a black lead: Calvin Lockhart, apparently cast in a bid to cash in on the blaxploitation craze. There was even an alternate version released as Black Werewolf, a title which manages to be both sleazy and totally inaccurate (though this version does omit the “werewolf break,” which some may take as a blessing).

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*. Even some of the stuff you probably should hate isn’t all bad. The werewolf, for example, gets a lot of criticism because it’s just a German Shepherd wearing a ruff. But I like this kind of werewolf. Let’s face it, most werewolves look pretty stupid. Whereas a real wolf on its own can be pretty scary. I liked the real wolves in Wolfen for the same reason. And as director Paul Annett says, since they had no budget for this film, any werewolf makeup they did was going to look terrible anyway. So: good call.
*. At least most of the time it’s a good call. Annett does his best to sell us on the werewolf-dog with lots of quick cuts, but in the final stand-off between it and the Great Black Hunter, let’s face it, he just looks like a big goofy dog who wants to play. I mean, he isn’t even snarling like he’s angry. He’s just standing there with his tongue hanging out, looking silly.
*. All of this, plus a more than capable cast, and we should be in for a good time. Or, as Kim Newman calls it, “mindless, trashy fun of the first order.”
*. Unfortunately, it’s not as much fun as it sounds. And I’m not sure why.
*. Part of the problem might be the pacing, which lost me early. The opening chase goes on too long (13 minutes), and is slackly handled. Especially since we’ll probably twig to what’s really going on pretty quickly if we’ve ever seen the opening of a Bond movie (the beginning of From Russia with Love comes to mind). Then there’s another long, pointless car chase later in the movie as Jan tries to escape. This was another addition made at the producer’s insistence, and what they were trying to do was get more action into the movie. But it’s just filler (Annett: “extremely gratuitous”), and the time could have been spent on more interesting things.
*. Actually, I wonder if the Bond films were in mind in more ways than one. Tom Newcliffe’s estate sure looks like the lair of a Bond villain (I believe it’s the Little Park House at Shepperton Studios), and Lockhart has the right eccentric look and urbane, overconfident patter. By the way, did you know he played King Willie in Predator 2? I didn’t, and was surprised to find out.
*. The concept suggests a well-made plot full of red herrings and clever intricacies, but in fact it boils down to something hard to swallow just from the set-up. Why is Tom so sure that one — and only one — of his guests is a werewolf? His evidence is circumstantial at best.

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*. Then Tom alienates us further by the fact that he is both a lousy detective and a lousy hunter. In the case of the former, surely it wouldn’t be hard to figure out who among the guests is the werewolf. One can think of several certain, and safe, ways to do so. But at times he seems to be actually trying hard not to solve the mystery. As for the hunting, he’s good at blowing off lots of silver bullets on full auto, but he can’t hit anything unless it’s lying right on top of him. Unless it’s putting Old Yeller down, or blowing up his own helicopter.
*. Some of these script problems resulted from freestyling on a source story, “There Shall Be No Darkness” by James Blish, that the final script has almost nothing in common with aside from some of the characters’ names (on the commentary Annett admits he hadn’t read the story before making the movie, but wishes he had). Even the scientific explanation for lycanthropy given by Dr. Lundgard is different (its root is given in the story as the pineal gland, but here the mutation is located in the lymphatic system).
*. I love the story Annett tells on the commentary about how, when he told Peter Cushing and Charles Cray to get started playing a game of chess so they could be a few moves into it when filming, they told him that neither of them knew how to play. This surprised him, and it would have surprised me too. I’m no chess player, but I do know the rules and I guess I’ve always thought that most people do. But I wonder how many people actually do know how to play chess.
*. Annett thought the business of passing the silver bullet from mouth to mouth was “sexy.” I’m not sure modern audiences will agree. Cushing at least wipes his down. It’s not at all clear though whether they are each using different bullets or circling with the same one. There’s some discontinuity between the action and what people are saying.
*. The “werewolf break” is silly (and was added by the producers, much to Annett’s displeasure), but it still might have worked if this had been a true “fair play” whodunit. The model here isn’t William Castle but those detective stories (I believe by Ellery Queen) where there was a note in the text saying when you (the reader) now had all the evidence you needed to solve the crime. But the evidence here is pretty vague, and in any event is never gone over by Tom. Instead, he relies on another silver test.
*. I’ll back Newman up part way and call this mindless, trashy fun, if not of the first order. Still, in the annals of horror there’s nothing else quite like it. That alone makes it worth a look.

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Behind the Green Door (1972)

*. I hope it won’t offend anyone too much if I confess that I have some — not a lot, but some — respect for Gerard Damiano (director of Deep Throat and Devil in Miss Jones) and the Mitchell Brothers (Artie and Jim, the team behind Behind the Green Door).
*. The thing is, they didn’t have to try to make good movies. They could have made a lot of money with no effort at all just shooting stag films. But they didn’t take the easy route. Maybe they didn’t see themselves as creating great art, but they at least thought they were aiming in that general direction. Doesn’t that count for something?
*. Of the Big Three films that defined the era (or was it only a year?) of porno chic, Behind the Green Door may not be the best (I’d give the nod to Devil in Miss Jones), but it is, in my opinion, the most erotic. There are scenes here that are still sexy nearly fifty years later, and Marilyn Chambers looks stunning, even when wearing a toque.
*. Some people complain that they find the proceedings a little dull. Look, all porn films are dull. They aren’t trying to tell a story. They have very little in the way of narrative. And the sex scenes here do tend to go on too long, even when the pay-off is a fantastic slow-motion money shot painted in psychedelic gusts of abstract jizz. Nevertheless, some of it still works, and this despite the alienating air of artiness.
*. My favourite scene is Gloria’s induction, where, after a hypnotic-erotic massage to warm her up, she’s offered like a victim to the brides of Dracula. I think one reason this works so well is because the “female attendants” (as they’re credited) stay fully clothed throughout, making Gloria’s body a spotlight of attention. All things considered (lighting, composition, editing) this is the high point of the film.
*. Just with regard to this same scene, Danny Peary describes the attendants as being dressed as nuns. I don’t think they are, but it’s interesting that he saw them that way.
*. I mentioned the brides of Dracula feasting on Gloria, and if there’s a theme to the sex here it’s in that notion of eating. This is one of the most oral porn films ever, and the fact that it begins in a diner, with its neon EAT sign prominently featured, probably wasn’t an accident.
*. We also have what was possibly the first interracial sex scene in an American hardcore feature (with Chambers and Johnnie Keyes). That’s something else to appreciate, isn’t it? And the thing is, despite being seen as taboo at the time the movie doesn’t play it as anything particularly transgressive.
*. Again we have the emphasis on sex as performance: the porn movie as act of voyeurism. As I said in my notes on Night Trips, porn movies aren’t about people having sex, they’re about watching people having sex. So there’s Marilyn Chambers being “loved as never before” while the audience masturbates and then break into an orgy. Gloria is just there to start the fire. You get the point.
*. After the initiation rite things go downhill. The rest of the sex I do find dull, even with the trapeze, and outside of the sex it seems a very strange movie indeed. Of course the premise of a woman being abducted and then initiated into various public sex acts that she comes to enjoy would not be well received today. For all the talk there was at the time of Gloria being a willing participant in the proceedings, she is presented as largely without agency. Indeed, she seems at times to have been placed on a kind of sexual conveyor belt, and doesn’t even have a voice (Chambers has no lines in the film, even after she’s left the club).
*. Then there is the strange framing narrative. What’s up with that? I’m not sure I understand what is going on even on re-viewings. I imagine audiences seeing it for the first time were totally lost.
*. Jim Mitchell had studied film a bit at university, and at least at one point had ambitions of being a serious filmmaker. But I’m not sure even that explains the odd art-house flavour to the proceedings. Though, as I began by saying, neither does any commercial impulse.
*. I have a hunch that the artistic flourishes were just part of the spirit of the age. Even fringe, exploitation filmmakers wanted to be doing something different, something creative in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Not to make money, but just because they could. Even porn could be art for art’s sake. If they don’t make porn movies like this any more, well, I think we have to add that they no longer make many movies like this in any genre. In the Internet age sex may be more a performance than ever, but is it a cinema of personal expression or just a routine?

Prophecy (1979)

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*. Prophecy fills almost all the boxes on the checklist of what you want to see in a movie that’s so bad it’s good. It’s a shame it doesn’t manage to pull it off, pace Stephen King, who, in Danse Macabre, uses it as an example of the “really horrible movie” that is nevertheless irresistible.
*. There is only one irresistible moment. This is when the creature swats a little boy swaddled in a ridiculous yellow sleeping bag, sending him flying into a rock. Whereupon the sleeping bag explodes with a sound like popcorn popping, shooting downy feathers all over the campsite.
*. What makes this scene so remarkable is the way it seems clearly designed to be played for laughs (the boy attempts to bounce away from the creature while still wrapped up in his sleeping bag), and yet ends with such a shocking and emphatic way. You don’t often see children being killed, then or now, in horror movies. The result is a true WTF? moment, and I mean that in the best sense. But it’s not enough to save the rest of the film.
*. Things start off on a decent enough note. There’s a chase through some dark woods with a trio of hunters and a pair of hounds. They are attacked by something in the woods. There are roars and screams. So far, so conventional for the intro to a monster movie. But then there’s a nice transition to a tableau where we see the bodies of the hunters decoratively arranged at the foot of a cliff while some classical music plays, music we later see is being performed by Talia Shire.
*. That’s a good intro, but from here things go downhill quickly. We next mee our hero, a public health doctor who is clearly a crusader for whatever cause needs crusading for. He’s played by Robert Foxworth, who might almost be a double for Donald Sutherland in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978). Ladies and gentlemen, that’s what a leading man looked like in an SF-action/thriller in the late ’70s! Can you dig it?
*. Foxworth and Shire (who, I’m sorry to say, looks as hard done by as always), are sent to the woods of Maine to do some work for the Environmental Protection Agency. This introduces the movie’s main theme, which is eco-horror. There were a lot of movies like this in the 1970s. For some reason they fell out of favour. I’m not sure why. It’s not like the world’s environmental problems went away.

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*. I have nothing against eco-horror, but the Message here is so obvious and laid on so thick you just want them to drop it and move things along. The natives (or Original People) are in the right. The white man and his dirty industries are destroying the beautiful Maine wilderness (which is actually British Columbia). Mother Nature will be sure to bite back. So let’s get on with it!
*. The heavy Message is just one way the movie bogs down in self-importance. As Kim Newman puts it: “Prophecy is merely silly, but its throat-clearing, significant title and definitive ad line (‘The Monster Movie’) elevate it to the status of overambitious annoyance.” We’re talking about a mutant killer bear, people. No need to get all fancy about it.
*. Then, after half the movie has been spent setting up the ecological and mythological back stories, we finally get the monster. King thinks it looks “sort of like a skinned pig and sort of like a bear turned inside-out.” Most viewers found it disappointing. What bothered me most was that it walks around upright. That’s quite a bear (or boar) mutation. And it’s not scary because let’s face it: a bear walking on its hind legs just looks silly.
*. As an aside, I have to register a complaint against a horror cliché that I’ve always found particularly annoying. This is the idea that any man or animal poisoned with toxins or radioactivity doesn’t get sick but is instead blessed with supernatural size and strength. I mean, how did those pathetic mutant bear cubs, which look like the baby in Eraserhead, grow up into the fearsome Katahdin?
*. King: “George Romero’s film Dawn of the Dead came out at about the same time as Prophecy (June-July 1979) and I found it remarkable (and amusing) that Romero had made a horror film for about two million dollars that managed to look like six million, while Frankenheimer made a twelve-million-dollar movie that managed to look like about two.”
*. Why does this movie look so bad? One thing I’ll flag is the way the scenes of the great outdoors are only establishing shots for action sequences that in turn often seem to have been filmed on studio sets. At least that’s what a couple of the campfire scenes look like to me. And studio “forest” sets always look cheap.
*. The raccoon attack starts off with a good jump scare, but (as was inevitable, because raccoons) turns into something unintentionally hilarious. Plus Foxworth should know that tossing a dead coon into his fireplace is going to stink up his cottage for weeks.
*. I should add that the raccoon scene got the production into trouble as they were apparently mistreating it very badly. Which is kind of ironic, given the movie’s message about respecting the environment.
*. It’s hard to think of anything this movie does well. Frankenheimer blamed his heavy drinking at the time for the film not realizing its potential, but I think another big problem was that he just wasn’t a natural fit for the material. I hear the novelization is actually quite good, but the script is dreadful, with lines like “You were too busy playing God to be a human being!” and important plot points, such as Shire’s pregnancy, simply forgotten.
*. I’d like to say this one is a guilty pleasure, but the fact is that it’s mostly just stupid and dull. It takes too long to get going, then once it does it forgets all about what came before and just throws a cheesy monster on the screen and calls it a day. At the half-way point there is a little moment of magic, but it’s just a pop of popcorn in the woods.

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Death Line (1972)

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*. What makes this movie so interesting, and so good, can be boiled down to its time and place.
*. The time was 1972, which is two years before the release of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. This gives it pride of place when discussing a gritty film about a feral “family” of cannibals. The remarkable long camera pan around the meat cellar — seemingly drawn out even more by the drip-drip-drip and heart beat we hear on the soundtrack — reveals a design comparable to the furnishings of the grisly homestead in Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which was in turn one of that film’s most noteworthy elements. So let’s give this film some credit for being ahead of the curve. I mean, the British horror industry at this time still mainly consisted of the neo-gothic and anthology comic books of Hammer and Amicus. Death Line is clearly a very different beast.
*. The place was England. As noted, not a country whose film industry was known for horror. The director, Gary Sherman, was American though, and this was his first dramatic feature, which probably helped in some ways.
*. As we listen to the groovy score playing under the opening credits, which are themselves run over a series of out-of-focus blobs of coloured light that bulge psychedelically, it’s hard not to think of the hard times that “swinging London” had fallen on.
*. The fact that we’re in England is also important for the mythic shape the story takes. In America the cannibals live out on the frontier, off the main highway somewhere. They are rural figures, obviously lower class white trash, but they are mainly divided from the rest of civilization by geography.
*. In England the degenerate subway dwellers are an underclass in the rigid social hierarchy. They have proletarian roots, as the descendants of navvies who were buried alive when excavating the subway and then left to rot. Their undoing is in killing James Manfred, O.B.E. (that means he’s an Officer of the Order of the British Empire). The scruffy detectives will take a lot of pleasure insisting on that O.B.E., and in a final dig it’s still attached to his name in the credits.
*. The class hierarchy is something that informs the entire movie. Donald Pleasence is a rumpled figure who enjoys life’s simpler pleasures (tea during working hours, a pint at the pub later). When he goes to Mr. O.B.E.’s house with his assistant Rogers he tears a strip out of the décor before being humiliated by a toff from MI5: an ultra-posh Christopher Lee with the hyphenated ruling-class moniker of Stratton-Villiers. Pleasence protests that he is the master of his manor and will prosecute any villains (or villeins?), but this is empty bluster and they both know it.
*. Of course underlying all of this is Wells’s The Time Machine, with the underground workers literally feeding on the upper classes. That’s a staple of a lot of science fiction, but it doesn’t crop up quite as often in horror. The Descent is one counter example, but the dominant tradition in American horror anyway is, as I’ve said, to situate such baddies in an anti-Romantic rural ghetto or wilderness. I guess that might have something to do with a more egalitarian society and the myth of the frontier, but I won’t pursue this point here.
*. Another English vs. America divide can be seen in the different titles the movie was released under. Death Line is pretty good, being original and yoking together the idea of the Man representing the end of his family line with the subway stop being a dead end for various passengers. In America, however, it was released as Raw Meat. Just because.
*. It was also released with a poster that is one of the most egregious examples of false advertising you’ll ever see. It looks like it’s going to be about a whole “tribe” of super-sexy zombies. Which it isn’t.
*. As far as the movie itself is concerned, I think it’s very good but not because of anything Sherman does. It seems to me there are a lot of opportunities for suspense wasted. Sherman went on to direct Dead & Buried, another cult horror favourite, as well as other thrillers, but I never get the sense that this is what he wants to be doing.
*. I like watching Donald Pleasence in just about anything, and he seems very at home here. And Hugh Armstrong is excellent as the Man, giving him all the pathos of Karloff’s monster in Frankenstein. And I do think Sherman helps out, for example with the long shot of the Man’s mourning after his wife’s (mate’s?) death in childbirth, which really emphasizes a sense of isolation and loneliness.
*. It’s also a relief to see the Man get taken down so easily in the various fights he gets into. Yes, he’s very big and strong, but he’s also wracked with illness and seems to have a serious head injury. He’s not one of those killer supermen we see in so many, more conventional horror films. In this respect I compare him very favourably to the radiation-sickened powerhouses in The Hills Have Eyes remake.
*. The script also strikes me as very good, balancing the obvious comic elements with the horror. The ending in particular underlines this. What are we to make of Inspector Calhoun going through the Man’s underground home and muttering that it’s no way for someone to live? Understatement yes, but comic? And what about the Man’s chant of “Mind the doors!”? It’s absurd, but also pathetic.
*. There are parts that don’t work as well. The young leads, for example, strike me as uncomfortable and almost unnecessary. But despite any miscues it’s such a well-executed and original little film that it makes a lasting impression. More than enough, I think, to assure it a place in the underground horror hall of fame.

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Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)

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*. Valley of the Dolls was itself such a terrible piece of camp trash that another turn of the screw, or another roll downhill, hardly seemed necessary.
*. It’s also, at least to some extent, self-defeating. In my notes on Valley of the Dolls I talked a bit about camp, and how an essential requirement is that it doesn’t set out to be camp, that it takes itself seriously. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls doesn’t, so it’s not camp but a satire of camp, which is something that’s actually very difficult to pull off.
*. On the DVD commentary, screenwriter Roger Ebert says there were no specific satiric targets like the fashion or music biz. Instead, they were “dealing more in generic satire.” In other words, movie conventions. But they were really just sending up Valley of the Dolls, a movie that was itself self-satirizing.
*. This may sound like I’m spinning my wheels here, and I probably am, but there’s a point to be made. It’s made most directly by Danny Peary, where he says that “BVD is really a terrible movie” and that the satire is only used to conceal that fact. This is what I’ve sometimes called the “irony defence”: that when a movie is really bad, the director (or screenwriter) can say that that’s the way he intended it to be and that his critics are missing the joke. Which is fine, except for the fact that at the end of the day you’re still left with a bad movie.
*. I don’t think Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is all bad, but I agree with Peary that Meyer’s work from the 1960s is better, and that this movie is less original, daring, personal, and inventive. That Meyer thought this was his best work is troubling, undercutting his auteur status. It suggests that what he really wanted to do was make a commercial studio film but he just couldn’t.

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*. It has, however, achieved a cult status and people still enjoy it, which is saying a lot. So we have to ask ourselves why.
*. There are some genuinely interesting flourishes. I like how the opening credits play over what is in fact the end of the movie, a sort of prolepsis reminiscent of Sunset Boulevard. It’s something that we get again in the road montage, which provides flash-forwards to everything that’s going to happen. I’m not sure there’s any point to this, but it is different.
*. Another part that stands out are the two musical pieces where we have shots of Harris and Z-Man gazing at each other, their faces superimposed over the band performing. This is weird, but effective
*. Technically, what stands out for me is how jarring, and I mean that in a bad way, the editing is. According to Ebert this was deliberate, as Meyer couldn’t afford to shoot a lot of coverage and so adopted a disjunctive approach of juxtaposing different angle shots that didn’t match or that make no sense (for example, shooting a love scene through bed springs). But I’m not sure this explanation makes sense. At times it seems as though there’s too much coverage, with several cuts even in dialogue scenes where only one or two would do. I think Meyer might have just thought of editing as a way of keeping an audience on its toes.
*. I actually do like the music. At least more than I liked the music in Valley of the Dolls. Though none of it really stuck with me.

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*. Some of the dialogue is very funny in a camp way. One of the most famous lines, Z-Man’s “This is my happening, and it freaks me out!” was even cut and paste into one of the Austin Powers movies. That said, I didn’t think all of it worked. Ebert has said that he was laughing hysterically while writing the script, but I think he might have been enjoying it a bit more than the rest of us. He specifically mentions the sex scene in the car (“There’s nothing like a Rolls, unless it’s a Bentley”) as one of the funniest in the movie, but I can’t see anything funny in it at all.
*. Another odd point Ebert makes is that the scene where Harris is discovered in the rafters above where the band is performing on live TV was supposedly based on a scene from Citizen Kane. On the commentary he wonders how many people get this. Well, I sure didn’t. And even after he pointed it out, I still didn’t. They’re very different shots with different meanings.
*. It’s not as explicit a movie as some of Meyer’s earlier work, and not as sexy either. A lot of people roll around in bed (or in the hay, or in the bath), but the only coupling that’s erotic is the lesbian relationship between Casey and Roxanne (Erica Gavin). Meyer’s men, as has often been observed, just aren’t on the same level as his women.

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*. The characters are only types, and sometimes less than that. Of course you wouldn’t expect much from a slab of beefcake with a name like Lance Rocke, but even the lead character of Kelly makes no sense from scene to scene, and Ebert admits how she’s just “jerked around” to fulfill the requirements of the plot. I must say that I like how the Heavyweight Champ is allergic to wearing a shirt, however.
*. It seems fitting that we end up at a party with all the characters dressed like comic-book figures, because in a way that’s all they’ve ever been. Finally we see everything reduced to this level.
*. It’s a movie that doesn’t hold anything sacred, or take anything seriously (despite the portentous narrative voice, written by Meyer, pronouncing his moral judgments on everyone at the end). But given the kind of movie it is, there are limits to this kind of criticism. Then again, there are limits to satire too.
*. I wouldn’t call it, to borrow Peary’s judgment, a “really terrible movie,” but at the same time it’s not as special or even as odd as it’s often made out to be. I think Meyer was held back by having a studio behind him. Are we really going that far beyond anything here? The violence at the end is jarring, but aside from that I think we’re still stuck in the valley.

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Coma (1978)

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*. This movie was very successful when it was released (hard on the heels of a big bestseller), and I’m not sure why it isn’t better known today. It’s very smart and well turned out, and has some interesting credits.
*. Michael Crichton had Westworld under his belt, but was hardly a household name yet, even as a writer. Michael Douglas was still just a pup and largely unknown. Richard Widmark, Rip Torn, and Elizabeth Ashley are all well cast as the cold front of the establishment. They may be good at what they do, but we sure don’t want them taking care of us.
*. Geneviève Bujold . . . well, she could have been a star. As David Thomson puts it, she “is so remarkable in [Coma] that she makes one conscious of how a steady career has neglected her real virtues.” Or per Pauline Kael: “There’s no way to sanitize this actress. She’s like a soft furry animal and she’s irreducibly curious; she snuggles deep inside the shallow material.”
*. The premise is wildly improbable but still touches a nerve, as most medical horror does. The fact that it’s all delivered in such a flat, professional tone makes it all the more effective. The score is by Jerry Goldsmith, but where is it? One gets the feeling that Crichton found a score unhygienic.
*. It’s also a film in the great tradition of conspiracy thrillers. That totally silent, implacable killer recalls Bill McKinney’s assassin from The Parallax View. The Jefferson Institute is located somewhere out in the hinterlands of Cronenberg country, a brutalist fort like the University of Toronto campuses featured in Stereo. The ending, with Dr. Wheeler strapped down to a gurney and about to be sent to the rendering plant, must be quoting Seconds.

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*. A medical conspiracy works because most of us don’t know very much about medicine (hence all the seemingly authentic but alienating doctor-talk here), and the massive medical establishment is entirely beyond our ken. As Widmark’s Doctor George puts it, medicine has become our new religion. We are totally dependent on it, but don’t really understand it. This is the key to most conspiracy thinking.
*. I don’t much like Widmark’s big speech at the end though. This is a key moment in any conspiracy thriller, where the puppet master (kind of) reveals what’s really going on. Think of the old man at the end of Seconds, or Robert Redford confronting the CIA director at the end of Three Days of the Condor. So when Widmark opens up to Dr. Wheeler we expect something good. But he never addresses what it is he’s doing. Yes, doctors have to make tough decisions, but what does that have to do with killing healthy people and selling their organs on the black market? How is this taking “the long view”? How is it acting for society and not just pursuing the profit motive?
*. Of course we could just conclude, as Dr. Wheeler does, that Widmark is crazy. But that raises other problems. How is it that such a mad scheme has this kind of massive institutional infrastructure behind it? I mean, we’re talking about a whole Federal Department of Body Snatchers. Maybe the organ chop shop being operated in the South American jungle in Turistas was more realistic.
*. Another new wrinkle on old formulas (medical horror, conspiracy thriller) is the not just female but feminist heroine. She’s not going to fetch her romantic partner a beer, and will be sure to duck into the shower first after work. We’re also teased by looking up her skirt as she climbs the ladder out of the basement, only for her to shuck off her impractical pantyhose and drop them on our face. That’s one small step for women’s lib (which is what they called it in 1978).
*. The room of bodies hanging from wires were the iconic image from the film (taken from the cover of the novel), but they’re a good example of how effective art design can be totally impractical. I mean, apparently the way they were suspended was so painful for the extras playing the coma patients that they could only take short shots of them before having to wheel in support. Bodies naturally sag. It’s gravity.
*. This is a fine film and on this most recent re-watch I was surprised by how well it’s held up. Yes, the ending feels rushed and is improbable in the extreme, but that’s Hollywood. And better a movie that ends too quickly than one that takes too long to wrap up. If it never quite generates the requisite excitement for its genre, it still makes for good entertainment.

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The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

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*. This is another one of those movies that has had so much said about it and is so well known that commentary is almost pointless. And the fact that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre should be such a movie is itself remarkable. I mean, we’re not talking about Citizen Kane or Vertigo here.
*. The title is sometimes spelled “Chainsaw,” as it is in all of the other instalments and the 2003 remake, but this is not correct. Or rather, it is correct, but it’s not the way it’s spelled in the title here. Original working titles included Leatherface, Saturn in Retrograde, and Head Cheese. What they ended up with, however, was perfect.
*. Tobe Hooper improbably wanted a PG(!) rating. Instead he initially got an X, which he cut to an R (the cut material was later restored).
*. The titles appear against shots of solar flares. What do they mean? Hooper: “a lot of scholars get excited by this.” Well, OK, but is their excitement grounded in anything? I can only point to the matter of astrology that is raised later, and see it as implying that the stars are not in their proper alignment (recall that discarded title, Saturn in Retrograde). Though any connection between what the backwoods family of cannibals are up to and the movement of celestial bodies is hard to see except as an example of cosmic irony.
*. John Laroquette did the narration. Hooper wanted him to try and sound like Orson Welles. Make of that what you will.

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*. For what it’s worth, the opening scroll never says that this is a “true story,” but just an “account” of “one of the most bizarre crimes in the annals of American history.” That crime was the Ed Gein case, which was also the basis for Psycho (which tells you something about how loose an “account” this is). A movie that stuck closer to the Gein story was the cheap but effective Canadian production Deranged, which was released a few months earlier. It’s interesting to watch Deranged alongside Texas Chain Saw Massacre, as some of their most notable elements are very similar, without there being any question of influence, at least that I’m aware of.
*. Just to stick with that opening scroll for a second, here’s how it gets started: “The film which you are about to see is an account of the tragedy which befell a group of five youths, in particular Sally Hardesty and her invalid brother, Franklin.” Why Sally and Franklin “in particular”? Sally survived! Jerry, Kirk, and Pam all die tragic and pretty horrible deaths.

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*. No, it’s not as gory as you might think. But contrary to a lot of what is said today it is pretty explicit and they do show a fair bit of blood. That we just imagine all the blood and gore has become a cliché now, but it’s not entirely true. The meathook scene is as explicit as you’d expect, and Franklin’s demise sprays out lots of blood. I’d also add that despite the low budget most of the gore is very well handled. Leatherface carving into his own leg, for example, or the Hitchhiker being run over.
*. Tobe Hooper. What an odd, unfulfilled career. Showed real talent in this film, and I rather liked Lifeforce. Poltergeist was a silly mess, but I don’t know whose fault that was. Still, nothing that came after this movie lived up to its initial promise.
*. I say Hooper shows real talent here because I think it’s a movie that’s really quite well directed and not just a happy accident. Let’s take a couple of examples.

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*. (1) the short dolly shot of Pam getting up from the swing and walking toward the house. On the DVD commentary track this is referred to as “the best shot in the film,” so it’s worth analyzing. In the first place, there’s the sugar: this is an ass-cam shot, an echo of the earlier shot of the two girls standing in front of the Coke machine. We see a shot like this and it’s disarming in its frank vulgarity, typical of bargain-basement exploitation films of the ’60s. But it was a difficult shot technically, passing under the swing and keeping the proportions right, and it does a lot of work. Note the way it highlights Pam’s bare back, which foreshadows her imminent hanging on the meathook (the meathooks, I also think, are hinted at in the railway-tie swing). And finally there’s the way the house seems to swallow her up, swelling over top of her as she approaches it.
*. (2) The scene where Jerry enters the kitchen and discovers Pam in the freezer before being cut down by Leatherface. How many cuts are there in thirty seconds of film here? In all the excitement I kind of lost count. They’re so fast I even lost count on a re-watch. They also come at all different angles and perspectives, adding to the effect of making us feel Jerry’s confusion, as well as disorienting us completely so that we can’t be sure what direction a threat is going to come from. We can’t get settled in any one point of view.
*. I could give other examples, but I think this is enough to make the point that Hooper knew what he was doing. And given how much of a natural sense he had for such things it makes his subsequent career all the harder to understand.

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*. A family of men without women. But does this mean they are repressed? I don’t think so, and I have trouble with any Freudian reading of the film. The women are obvious sexual attractions: young, good-looking, bra-less, and (as noted above) shot from a low angle so we can leer at all the booty on display. But they aren’t promiscuous and (because of this) fated to die, as would later become a slasher staple. In addition, there’s little sense that the cannibal family want to eat them in any kind of a sexual way. The women are just meat, like the men. When Sally says at the end that she’ll “do anything” if they’ll let her go it gets her absolutely nowhere. They’re just not interested. None of the family members seems remotely sexual. The closest thing to sexual innuendo I can see is grampa sucking on Sally’s finger and the cook poking Sally with the broom handle.
*. If it isn’t a movie with a gender angle to play up, it also strikes me as pretty much apolitical. Is it a vegetarian manifesto? Please. Jason Zinoman’s excellent survey of modern horror, Shock Value, mentions some of the other ways it has been politicized, including Hooper’s own remark that it was inspired by Watergate. This strikes me as another non-starter. Yes, the family are the usual back-roads hillbillies, and we hear that at least one of them has been laid off from the slaughterhouse. As Zinoman puts it, “they are casualties of technological innovation. They are the country folk left behind in a modern world.” But really: so what? I think it’s just as significant that they’re a weirdly arts-and-crafts family, but I don’t think that has much of a political message.
*. Another possible political angle is that of the anti-hippie backlash. The van is a groovy set of wheels, and Pam is reading New Age astrology. The documentary included with the DVD begins by pointing out that this was a post-Manson movie, set after the end of the summer of love. And yet, as I just noted, the family are sort of like hippies themselves. They live on a kind of commune and are into the arts. They make their own food and design their own clothes and furniture. Perhaps you are what you eat.

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*. So I don’t buy the political readings. Just like I don’t see Dracula as a metaphor for the Depression. That some see a political message even in the fact that the gas station is out of gas (which was happening a lot at the time) strikes me as stretching for a meaning that is available, but mostly speculative and unnecessary.
*. It is a landmark work in modern American horror, with a place in that tradition only rivalled by a handful of other films (Psycho, Night of the Living Dead, and The Exorcist). What strikes me the most about it, even today, is how disturbing a movie it remains.

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*. When I say disturbing I’m mainly talking about its frank sadism. Not just the unaffected, matter-of-fact way the people are presented as meat (Danny Peary: “Too realistic for its own good”), but the unaffected, matter-of-fact way that the demented family enjoy inflicting pain and suffering. God knows we’ve gone further, much further, down the road of a cinema of cruelty since 1974, but I can think of few films that present such cruelty as something the perpetrators find fun.
*. Yes, Leatherface is a somewhat sympathetic case who only kills those he considers to be a threat to the house or the family, but the gas station owner is really creepy. I’ve always found the most disturbing scene in the film to be the one where he chuckles and grins as he pokes Sally with the broomstick in the cab of his truck. That’s even worse than the business where they try and get Gramps to kill her with the hammer.

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*. Getting back to Leatherface as a sympathetic figure, it’s interesting to note his cultural “cooling” over time. In this movie he’s alternatively feminine and comic, lumbering through the woods like a bear and acting like an old woman or “big baby” (Hooper) bustling about the house. He seems to be a retarded, pathetic figure, and we feel for him after he kills Jerry and when his brother beats him around the kitchen. There’s something pathetic about him. But in later versions of the story he would become a darker, more dangerous figure, more in keeping with his bad-ass nickname.
*. It’s interesting how often amazing results arise from the very restraints to production enforced by a low budget. Some directors seem to thrive under such circumstances (Mario Bava is a name I think of here). Robert Burns, the art director, said he didn’t want the movie to look like it was designed by an art director, and the movie is so much better for it. The crude, cheap quality of the clothes and the house make them seem more realistic, more threatening, less glossy. And things like the pale scalp of Jim Siedow (the Old Man, or Cook) is a nice grunge touch that you can’t really duplicate in a big budget production. Nor can you duplicate the very real discomfort of the actors in what was, by all accounts, a painful and grueling shoot. Hardship is its own horror.
*. Sound plays a role throughout, beginning with the irritating whine of the cameras in the opening graveyard montage. Some of the most memorable things about the movie are sounds: the steel door slamming shut, Leatherface squealing like a pig, the fat dripping into the fire, the humming of the house’s generator, Franklin blowing raspberries. Meanwhile, the score strikes me as just a sort of racket, but it fits in much the same way as the discordant editing. As Peary points out, this is a movie that isn’t trying to build suspense but to shock. The music has to have the same end.

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*. Poor Franklin. He’s so awful that negative criticism has engendered its own revisionism, with lots of people now saying he’s not so bad. To hell with that. It’s a treat to see him die. When before this had we seen such a dislikeable disabled or handicapped character in a movie? Aside from the stereotyped deformed villain or madman, that is.
*. I love the anger with which Leatherface slams the metal sliding door shut. It’s such am emphatic period on the scene. Was it being consciously echoed at the end of the first Saw movie? It’s too bad though that we lost the shot of the grate on the floor just inside the sliding door in that scene. It would have been nice to keep that, with all its implications.
*. This is a great horror movie, and like a lot of great horror movies it has its comic moments as well. I’m just not sure how intentional all of these were. The Old Man raging at what Leatherface did to the front door seems scripted, and it’s very funny. But the physical humour of Leatherface (jumping away from Sally when he’s chasing her in the house, or overrunning her outside) was accidental.

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*. I wonder what happened to the truck driver at the end. Maybe he’s still running. Leatherface should have gone after him right away. He seems to run even slower than Sally and looks like he has lots of good eating on him.
*. Leatherface’s dance is the perfect send off. It’s odd, but is prefigured by the zany dance of the hitchhiker as he is left behind by the van. Note that the hitchhiker also blows raspberries in that scene.
*. Stephen King: “There are films which skate right up to the border where ‘art’ ceases to exist in any form and exploitation begins, and these films are often the field’s most striking successes. The Texas Chainsaw [sic] Massacre is one of these.” I wonder if this is a judgment that lasts, or if it just means that Texas Chain Saw Massacre was a watershed film, marking a new border. I kind of think it’s more than that, and I think King does too. In part because it’s just as shocking and disturbing today as it was when it was released. Just compare it to the lame 2003 remake.
*. I’ve said that the success of this movie isn’t just a happy accident. There’s too much talent involved, and I would single out for praise the contributions of Hooper, Burns, and Siedow (really the only good actor in the cast). That said, it was, as all great movies are, an accident to some degree. Saturn was in retrograde. Demons were raised. They still haven’t been laid to rest.

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Devil in Miss Jones (1973)

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*. I don’t think Devil in Miss Jones (the title has no definite article) is a great movie, but it may be the greatest porn movie ever made. It really transcends the genre, with imagination, professional workmanship, and a riveting lead performance. But how unlikely was this?
*. Incredibly unlikely. Indeed, that Devil in Miss Jones turned out so well is one of the most unlikely things in the entire history of film. I’ll try to explain what I mean.
*. In the first place, it followed hard on the heels of the mainstream success of Deep Throat, the movie that really inaugurated “porno chic” or the Golden Age of Porn. But Deep Throat was a total piece of shit, no doubt about it. And since movies, and porn movies in particular, usually don’t want to mess with success, what incentive was there to do any better? None at all.
*. Second: Not only did it come after Deep Throat, but it was written and directed by the same auteur who wrote and directed that film, Gerard Damiano. So in addition to the aforementioned inertia (not wanting to mess with a successful formula) we also have the same creative mind at work. So why would anyone expect anything different?
*. Third: Most porn movies rise or fall on the strength of their stars. Those are the girls who are put on the poster or the box cover. But the woman who was going to be the star of this film backed out at the last minute, leaving Damiano to cast the crew’s cook, Georgina Spelvin, as Justine Jones. At the time Jones was 36 years old, which is old enough by Hollywood standards, and ancient for porn (at least before the increased prevalence of cosmetic surgery and the advent of MILF porn). Spelvin had been on stage as a chorus girl, and appeared uncredited in a handful of exploitation flicks, but she was hardly an “accomplished actress” (as she is described by the narrator of the BBC series Pornography: The Secret History of Civilisation). She’d never had a lead role or done hardcore. She was not conventionally beautiful and at one point the Teacher (Harry Reems) even evaluates her and finds her body merely “practical,” without the roundness most men desire.
*. Given all this one could be forgiven for betting that Devil in Miss Jones was going to be not just another piece of shit, but an even worse piece of shit than Deep Throat. But that’s not what happened at all.
*. Instead of being more of the same, and less, Devil in Miss Jones moves light years beyond Deep Throat into all new porn territory.
*. It’s a dark film with passages of black humour but none of the slapstick of Deep Throat. I can imagine the raincoaters wondering what the hell was going on as they sat through over ten minutes of prologue before Justine gets her chance to be consumed by lust. The suicide is totally asexual and downbeat. But once the spark is lit, look out.

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*. If the sexless suicide prologue wasn’t enough to tell you that things had changed, the editing and camera work would give the game away. We’re in a different world here. Someone has put some thought into all this. Note how, immediately after her suicide, we don’t see Justine’s face until we’re into her interview with Mr. Abaca. Since we haven’t heard her voice in the opening scene, we can’t be sure who it is we’re seeing walk into this room. We don’t expect it to be the same woman we just saw kill herself, and if we do we might think that this is a flashback. But the dead don’t know they’re dead (or so we’ve been told), so her fate, like her face, is only gradually revealed.
*. Which brings us to Georgina Spelvin. She’s on fire here, a knockout with striking feline features and a non-stop dirty mouth (Damiano just told her to keep talking until the scenes cut, so all of the dirty talk was improvised). She looks terrific, and dives right in to a surprising amount of transgressive sex (anal is the showcase in this movie, and at one point Justine even gives herself an enema in the bathtub). I mean, as for what she’s doing with that snake . . . well, all I can say it that it’s not my thing, and that I hope they were both all right after.

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*. If the raincoaters were mystified by the slow beginning I’m sure they left in a daze after the ending. But can one imagine a more fitting end to a porn film than a vision of hell as a state of eternal sexual frustration and unsatisfied desire? I hope Justine is into edging. It’s an unforgettable screen moment, brilliant in its originality and ambiguity. That’s Damiano himself (credited as Albert Gork) as the Man in the Cell — though is he a man, and is that a cell?
*. Maybe he’s the devil himself, just there to watch, like the Jigsaw Killer. I’m still not sure what he’s going on about and I think what he says probably means different things to different people. In any event, I love it that Justine isn’t paying any attention to him. This is closer to my own image of hell: two obsessed people talking at each other with neither of them listening to what the other is saying.
*. A lot of people don’t consider this to be a porn movie, instead insisting on its art-house status. I don’t think this is right. You can’t take the sex out of it. Rather, the sex is the element that this vision of hell is immersed in. “The way is to the destructive element submit yourself,” Conrad has one of his characters say. Devil in Miss Jones shows a woman who is engulfed in that element, using her hands and her feet, and her mouth and other orifices, to keep herself afloat. A woman who dies falls into a dream, like a woman who falls into the sea . . .

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