Cleansing the Doors of Cinematic Perception, for a better worse

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Satanic Blondes of '66: INCUBUS, EYE OF THE DEVIL

Ah 1966, what an excellent year for human sacrifice. Still two years off from ROSEMARY'S BABY and the sudden hipster clout it engendered, '66's INCUBUS and EYE OF THE DEVIL are twin heralds to Polanski's masterpiece: one co-stars Polanski's wife and mirrors Rosemary's feeling of being shut out of some grand conspiracy; the other is like her crazy Esperanto dream. I can only imagine how much better each would be had they been made in 1969 instead, when the fangs were properly installed in the balls of horror cinema. Of course by then the ingenue of EYE couldn't have been in it--she was pregnant--and then... There are those who say it was Roman's getting wife Sharon Tate the EYE role that caused the devil to stir from his liquid slumber and languorously stretch through time to snatch her at the prime two-souls-in-one moment via his extra-dimensional Manson hook. But they're crazy, right?

There's a rumor that the rash of strange accidents and Satanic coincidences during ROSEMARY's production originate in producer William Castle's imagination. Some say he took his gimmickry to a whole new level, way way past chair buzzers and skeletons on strings. Too far, perhaps, because when the subject is Satan, our mostly Christian nation's water cooler gossip heats to boiling and Rube Goldberg butterfly tsunamis swirl into existence. As Sutter Kane would say, when everyone believes the legend, the truth warps to fit. It's relatively unlikely a real skeleton is going to come flying through the screen during a revival showing of HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, but the devil doesn't need skeletons - just belief. Thinking about the curse can be like invoking it.  maybe not walking under a ladder prevents paint can concussion; maybe salt thrown over the shoulder absorbs negative ions; maybe Castle didn't create a real curse by starting the rumor going, but rumors do tend to zero back in like a curved karmic arrow on the one who started them, even if he himself didn't believe it.. at first (he got kidney stones).

Cinema's pagan devil culture can't quite capture the ephemeral chain of cause-and-effect karma ouroboros-boomeranging to the point just watching a film creates bad luck, but it can generate a feeling of unease through depiction of the most sophisticated or banal of circumstances if it but tweaks them with little uncanny ripples of fatalistic coincidence that benefit or harm as befits 'the bargain.' With Satan there's usually a gruesome payoff after the subject sells his soul for a drink, where he learns he's "always been the caretaker," and so forth. Ask not whom is sacrificed on the ancient altar, because if no one told you else it's going to be, then it's you. You're doing both the killing and the being killed. Two ends of a scroll slowly rolling towards each other, when they meet, your text has disappeared.

So is there free will in a Satanic model of reality? Maybe the one who has 'always been the caretaker' can play Christian the way a closeted gay guy can play straight i.e. stunting his own potential and becoming far less than he was meant to be, or he can let go of the handrails and let Satan's vacuum suction pull him towards the full realization of his unholy destiny. If your Christian family would rather have you as a stunted straight than a fully blossomed gay person then they are the cursed, not you. Thus the devil exists only in advocate position --where there is hypocrisy he brings truth; where there is repression he brings exultation.

If we apply that logic to the actual making of these films, wife Sharon Tate is doomed the moment husband Roman Polanski helps her get the part in EYE; Polanski is doomed to exile the moment he shoots a scene wherein a woman is drugged and date raped by Satan. It all connects, from the devil's murky fatalistic machinations within the story--recreating itself through helping Guy get the part in that play (as, fittingly enough, a cripple)--to the reality of its makers (Castle's kidney stones, etc). The devil's happy to crib off your paper, so to speak, to make reality out of the image you made of him. It's as if film was little more than a halfway point, the equivalent of a pie cooling on the windowsill before its opened up and devoured, except the windowsill is a mirror, and the pie sliced open is a young and lovely actress.

On the other hand, even if for the moment we believe all this fateful 'nonsense,' it's mighty fuzzy logic. Impossible to confirm by any one set of truths, its also impossible to deny--and thus like all fiction that explores this realm, dangerous. The best way to approach it is as a true skeptic, which means you don't scoff at either side, because unlike the pragmatist, you know your own eyes and ears are easily fooled, and unlike the believer, you're not a chump. Thus, a Satanist who believes in an actual physical devil is as dogmatic and rigid as the rationalist who denies the devil's existence, even as a metaphysical concept. Both are doomed by the rigidity of their thinking. When corporeal reality tries to limit itself to expression within such dogmatically narrow parameters, there's always nightmare overflow. Satan never singles out the open-minded for his mischief. It's always the sure and pious ones who draw him, their unsullied souls sticking out like bleached whites in a soiled soul sea, and the ones who are so sure he's a living being succeed in--as far as their own direct experience is concerned--making him one

I mention all this because when Sharon Tate's not onscreen, EYE OF THE DEVIL is a grand bore. And she's not on an awful lot. The tale of some grand ancient sacrificial rite that ensures good grape harvest at a sprawling South of France winery, it draws us in as outsiders through the eyes of a prim and overbearing wife played by Deborah Kerr. She spends the whole movie trying to get her half-asleep nonentity husband (David Niven) to come back to London so she can resume boring him to death with dreary classical music salons. Here in France he's being prepared for some even worse fate (she thinks), some kind of diabolical ceremony, but prepared to do what? She must know, so she can stop it, like a nanny no one invited, still chasing after old charges trying to make them go to bed at nine and drink their milk long after they've grown up and filed restraining orders.

Tate and David Hemming are sublime, meanwhile, as a pair of magical blonde twins, but they're barely in the film at all. Niven's angry flogging of an black turtlenecked Tate makes the poster and opens new chamber doors in our telltale hearts but it's just another joyless punitive measure. The film would rather focus in on Kerr's prim outrage over David Hemmings shooting down a white dove with his little bow and arrow. After she spies on him and his equally strange blonde sister, Odille (Sharon Tate) as they bring said dove on a pillow into a weird looking Satanic ceremony, Kerr orders them off the property. Intentional or not, Kerr is as despicable a nosy parker as Dustin Hoffman in STRAW DOGS or Jessica Biel in the 2003 remake of TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (see my op here), inviting herself into the thick of things she doesn't understand, a mutton-headed missionary enforcing a hypocritically "Christian" concept of law and order wherever she goes, never thinking to examine her own mess. A colonialist animus-dominated sense of superiority clouds her awareness of what's actually going on. Every husband in the world stuck with a wife this much of a buzzkill would gladly cut off his own arm to escape her. So we're rooting for Niven to pursue the one avenue of escape she leaves open... where even she dares not go.

I don't mean to slight Kerr - or this kind of weird set-up. As a kind of unwittingly dosed quasi-pedophile Mary Poppins in THE INNOCENTS (right), Kerr was amazing in a similar role. Destroying the lives of two children through wicked hallucinations of a groundskeeper animus, or else trying to save them from incestuous possession --either way she was invited, hired for the job; she was assigned the position and expected to take full charge. DEVIL is different; if those two weird kids in INNOCENTS grew up to be blonde Satanists, stalking their ample mansion grounds like Warhol superstars able to turn doves into lizards, then Kerr's meddling would just seem petty and aggravating but nowhere near as depressingy mundane as in EYE. In INNOCENTS, the three of them--or four with the maid--are so cut off from the rest of the world, we sympathize with how lack of connection to the social order can allow things to spin way way out of control. The animus-incubus-like Peter Quint was the corrupting voluptuary shadow to Kerr's 'proud, white governess in THE INNOCENTS, driving her like a flaming hearse into the heart of their young charge's budding darkness. In EYE there can be no psychosexual kinks because all she wants to do is rescue her full-grown husband and bring him back to her tedious London social orbit. We just want to ride with the twins on their weird evil errands, but instead our camera follows Kerr everywhere, like a priest trying to score a fat donation: she lopes after Niven as he lurches around hypnotized by his impending doom like a post-bones-tossed Queequeg; she judges and condemns the wicked, wicked twins as they loiter in black turtlenecks; they drive poor Flora Robson to tears because... oh no, the nightmare--it's all happening again... Either Flora or the twins would be great to stay with, but we're stuck with the most boring character in the whole place and meanwhile all this cool stuff is going on. She's like my mom forcing me to hide all my insidious soul-killing vices from her over the holidays because she doesn't understand why anyone would do anything bad for their health. And then wondering why I need to just sleep the day away and then stay up all night.. where she can't get me. 

Luckily, the weird devil 'becoming'-ness I mentioned earlier is all over EYE: the music played during the local festival sounds eerily similar to Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells" --we'd think it a homage or even rip-off had it not come first--and after that just imagine the film as a vision of what ROSEMARY'S BABY 2 might be like if Rosemary had twins and 18 years later she's still in denial about who their father was, chasing after them with mittens and rubbers while they burn churches and slaughter priests.

All that said, if not for Tate's real life fate lending EYE the same eerie black magic ballyhoo synchronicity of ROSEMARY and THE EXORCIST, it would be worthless. But in its eerie prescience it's Tate's equivalent to that James Dean's Highway Safety promo film. She's the bizarro super sexy Satanic Virgin Mary that would beget Rosemary Woodhouse and Regan MacNeil, as they in turn would beget a period of widespread Ouija abuse. And that black outfit with the hypnotic pendant or whatever is damn sexy especially with her bright blonde hair as contrast. It shows us just how far ahead of us England was at celebrating the eerie self-confidence of badass babes in black (Mrs. Peel, we're needed) rather than ever trying to shoehorn them into pretty dresses and tie their hair back in a cruel mirthless bun.

Working our way back pout of the EYE, it should be clear now that the devil is alive and well in any representation of his evil influence. His name is a kind of interactive Tarot deck wherein having the cards read is what kills you. Believing precedes seeing; the moment your focus settles on a shadow, that shadow begins to spring to life, the way William Castle's rumor mill ballyhoo about mysterious accidents on set could be said to have indirectly led to the Manson murders. Even then, is there any more boring sacrificial murder weapon than a bow and arrow? Do British schoolchildren stay up at night listening to tales of the haunted archer? Nein! It's too impersonal. It lacks the fears we harbor for the knife. And another thing if there's anything a drunk like me hates, it's a buzzkiller. Everyone else wants whatever is going to happen to Niven to happen, including us. We didn't start watching a movie called EYE OF THE DEVIL so we could see Deborah Kerr scold us for our curiosity about such things. We're going to root for Sharon Tate, no matter what, evil or not, because she's gorgeous, young, and confident. And it doesn't take long before we're fully invested in whatever evil is going on, hoping the devil gets the job done before Kerr comes barging in like mom tromping down to the basement to complain about the noise you kids are making and what's that smell? Smoke? Let me see your eyes!

Mom, go back to bed!

If the devil's eye offends thee, Kerr, pluck it from its hottie roost!
It's hard to believe that EYE, this weird little Satan's Little Helper edition of BONJOUR TRISTESSE came out two years before the relatively old school DEVIL RIDE'S OUT (AKA BRIDE OF THE DEVIL), a rousing, full-blooded Hammer film that seems decades younger in spirit if not in form than the new wave-y EYE. There's no occult real life ballyhoo associated with RIDES, and it doesn't needy any, because it has at least two characters with ample wit and sparkle: Charles Gray as Mataxa and Christopher Lee as the Van Helsing / Quatermass / Sherlock Holmes- type Devil hunter (Dennis Wheatley's original novel was set in the South of France, too, I think -- another connection and proof the are's rife with devilish possibility! Is it some secret code that the south of France is devil cult country?).

RIDE understands--the way few devil movies do--that the trick to defeating pure evil is not to confront it with pure good, but with balance, and a sense of humor to help your roll with the absurdity of it all, but not to the point you kill the atmosphere. That would be truly uncharitable.

Onwards then to the other Satanic offering of 1966 -- INCUBUS.

INCUBUS.... the only film ever shot in Esperanto.... the language of the Satanic mass! Invented by the UN coven to bedevil the globe!

Wondrously pretentious, like a beatnik open mike jazz dance performance if it was shot by Dennis Hopper as an ONIBABA-style timeless psychosexual folk tale for Roger Corman over a single weekend out at Big Sur, INCBUS would make a good double bill with Curtis Harrington's NIGHT TIDE in all respects. The Esperanto angle adds just the right dash of weirdness to the already weird story of a succubus hanging around a healing spring, driving infirm male travelers to their deaths so big daddy Satan can devour their souls. She longs to corrupt a good pure soul instead of just offing the perverse and already corrupted, but her older sister advises against it. Sis is right; Shatner shows up pure as snow, and he's not there for the waters, baby, but to play a variation of Jack Nicholson's lost Napoleonic solider in THE TERROR: sick of war and wandering the Big Sur coast, so noble he can't be beat. Luckily they have a back-up plan when things go south: unleash the Incubus (their brother) on the good soul's equally good (i.e. virginal) sister!

More than with EYE, this would actually make a good double bill with the 1961 Liz-and-Dick semi-camp classic, THE SANDPIPER. Both concern a mythic 'impossible love' story between a paragon of virtue and a slutty mankiller who loves lolling in the Big Sur surf and spouting beatnik profundities. One is a studio-backed Vincente Minnelli opus, the other a low-budget concoction from Leslie "Ed Wood on a dime bag of Bergman" Stevens. Sure even more than the PIPER, INCUBUS sounds overbaked... but a succubus feeling sexually violated because Kirk brought her into a church while she was asleep? Senpreza!

In the end, INCUBUS and EYE OF THE DEVIL have a lot in common, fault-wise. EYE is way too dry and disdainful of its subject; INCUBUS is way too singleminded and didactic, but they share a strength, too: a unique ambiguity about which 'side' they're on. There's an association of good with boring and safe in both. In ROSEMARY'S BABY and THE EXORCIST, the heroines--Chris (Ellen Burstyn) and Rosemary (Mia Farrow) are hip enough, and the evil spirits--Pazuzu, Guy--vile enough that we're rooting for the right team. But we're rooting for Tate and Hemmings in EYE, as their plan seems in jeopardy because of Kerr's imperialist meddling, and in INCUBUS, do we really need to see some old church / patriarchy win out for 665th time against the feminine darkness? No one goes to a devil movie to root for the very thing they went to the movies to escape from, mom! Jesu, set my hot blonde people iri.... 

1 comment:

  1. I just watched Bride of Satan, recorded from TCM a few nights ago, and at the end there was a short promo film of The Making Of Sharon Tate, Movie Star, that I could barely make it through. She is seen in a London discotheque dancing with David Hemming, doing screen tests, costuming, lots of photo shoots, with an English Newsreel narration. It's a promo for the movie, sure, but Wow. Just, Wow. It took me forever to watch Rosemary's Baby because of the various tinctured pains of the Dakota Building and Sharon Tate and the like. I finally watched it this Summer, after having sat on the Criterion blu ray for a couple of months. What a great movie it is! I like that if you went into it in 2013 with no knowledge at all being suspicious of John Cassavetes being a a rent boy at a lemon party behind his innocent bride's back. So I thought I was over my gut punches (my mother raised me thinking all movie stars were distant friends, so when Valley of the Dolls came on TV and she explained the LA Horrors it left me a bit shaken, even before the Mansons became common knowledge among teens). Seeing the short on Sharon Tate's Big Break Grooming Origin, just reconnected everything again. Everything is connected, and yes, God speaks to me through movies as well.


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