Monday, September 8, 2014


On the topic of the durability of certain horror films/suspense thrillers, a defining factor for me has always been whether or not the film in question continues to “work” long after its employment of the genre’s raisons dˈêtre (suspense, shocks, twists, surprises) have become well-known and anticipated.

For all its considerable merits, I don’t really regard The Omen as a classic horror film in the vein of say, Rosemary’s Baby (1968) or Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973) — it’s a tad too silly and market-calculated for that; however, I do consider it a classic “scary movie” in that it skillfully and stylishly makes good on its dominant purpose: to provide audiences with a rollicking good scare.
Gregory Peck as Ambassador Robert Thorn
Lee Remick as Katherine Thorn
David Warner as Keith Jennings
Billie Whitelaw as Mrs. Baylock
Harvey Stephens as Damien Thorn
A characteristic of a great many of my favorite horror films, certainly those I consider to be classics, is the sense that they emerge out of a larger social unease or cultural anxiety. That they are able to translate the vulnerability which lies at the core of fear into a narrative that serves as the cathartic expression of of vague, unarticulated unease. The  kind of unnamed dread that can lie just below the surface normalcy of calm. Rosemary’s Baby found its scares in the cultural instability of the 60s; Invasion of the Body Snatchers – the emphasis on postwar conformity and the threat of communism; The Stepford Wives – gender role reevaluation in the wake of feminism. These films understand that merely scaring an audience is to elicit a temporary reaction: a fleeting sensation akin to making them laugh at the unexpected. For a film to inspire real fear, it has to draw upon something infinitely more complex and deep-rooted. Films which understand this basic principle manage to enthrall and engage audiences years after the “spoilers” of their scare gimmicks have become common knowledge.
Patrick Troughton as Father Brennan
A lapsed Catholic about to get the point
Like that other favorite scary movie of mine, The Exorcist, The Omen is one of those rare horror films which rely heavily on shock effects, yet still manages to play fairly well the second and third time around. The over-the-top excesses of The Exorcist benefit significantly from the seriousness of intent and absolute conviction of its filmmakers (both director William Friedkin and author William Peter Blatty see the film as an earnest  treatise on the mystery of faith). The Omen, on the other hand, in spite of publicity-friendly lip-service paid by self-serious screenwriter David Seltzer and co-creator/religious technical advisor, Robert L. Munger, never convinces that it actually believes in its own pseudo-religious hokum. Rather, it feels like a scare-the-pants-off-America project dreamt up by a sophisticated William Castle (if one can imagine such a being).

Borrowing liberally from all that came before it while inventing a few tricks of its own along the way; The Omen is a skillful cut-and-paste of The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Bad Seeddesigned to cash-in on the post-Exorcist interest in the occult, the trend toward increasingly graphic depictions of violence in films, and the universal suspicion that all bratty children are likely the spawn of Satan.
Fans of religious supernatural horror will note that while there are no witches, tannis roots, or yellow cat eyes in attendance, The Omen, for all intents and purposes, narratively begins where Rosemary’s Baby ends: with the birth of the human antichrist into an unsuspecting world.

Through a suspiciously serendipitous coincidence of tragedies, American Ambassador Robert Thorn (Peck) is granted an orphaned infant born at the very second his emotionally fragile wife, Katherine (Remick), has given birth to a stillborn child. At 6am on the 6th of June, no less.
Displaying a curious lack of concern with paper trails for a politician, loving husband Robert decides to pull a Folgers Crystals switch on his wife and present the bouncing baby boy bundle as their own without telling her (she’s emotionally fragile, y’know), whom they christen Damien, a name even Minnie Castevet might find a tad Satan-y. 
Katherine's escalating belief that Damien wants to kill her might be traced to this haircut
As a still-photo montage illustrates, life is rosy for the Thorn family until Damien turns five, when, it must be assumed, all hell literally breaks loose. At this time I’d say violent death begins to follow little disaffected Damien around like a puppy, but he already has one of those. A rather king-sized, vicious-looking Rottweiler capable of devouring several puppies in one gulp, in fact, courtesy of one Mrs. Baylock (Whitelaw): mysterious replacement nanny and possessor of the least-huggable name in live-in childcare.
The previous nanny, about to give notice
That's Holly Palance, daughter of actor Jack Palance
It takes time, a little persuasion, and a rising body count, but Robert Thorn eventually comes to learn and  believe that his adopted son was indeed born of a jackal, bears the mark of the best (that dreaded 666 area code), and is the living antichrist. Will he be able to avert Armageddon and carry out the requisite ritual execution that will save mankind? Well, two sequels and a remake should give you a clue.

Being raised Catholic and coming from an extravagantly dysfunctional family has given me a leg-up in appreciating horror films which use specious religious scripture as the catalyst for familial turmoil. In fact, newcomers to The Omen, familiar only with its reputation, are often disappointed to discover that director Richard Donner (Superman: The Movie), following in the footsteps of Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and eventually paving the way for The Shining, has made The Omen just as much a psychological thriller about the emotional and mental disintegration of a family as it is a horror film about the unleashing of the Ultimate Evil. The questionable scenario of a father surreptitiously swapping his newborn child is made credible by the implication that Kathy is in some way emotionally and psychologically unprepared for the truth. The parental, almost caretaker attitude Thorn adapts toward his wife, plus the ease with which he's persuaded to take the orphan child, is an indicator of an underlying stress present within the marriage before the film even begins. 
Kathy: "We're the 'Beautiful People,' aren't we?"
A significant part of The Omen's drama concerns itself with the internal erosion of a family deemed to "have it all." Although contemporary audiences may be disappointed by the film's pace and relatively low body count, most appreciate that the film takes the time to establish an atmosphere of normalcy before the introduction of chaos
Although nowhere near as subtle as Rosemary's Baby in casting suspicious events in such a light as to leave open the possibility of their malevolence being merely a manifestation of the fragile mental state of its protagonist; The Omen does manage to wring considerable tension out of Kathy's can't-quite-put-her-finger-on-it unease around her child by effectively refraining from having Damien behave in any manner that can be deemed overtly sinister (not true of the heinous 2006 remake, which had its Damien affect a perpetual evil scowl, which, in a child, only looks like persistent tummy trouble).
For the Thorns, a wealthy political couple with their eye on the Presidency, a child represents the realization of an idealized "perfect" family. And indeed for a time, the three enjoy an idyllic, picture-perfect bonding period. But, rather provocatively, Damien's true nature doesn't manifest itself in the performance of devilish deeds, but in a devoted mother having to confront the disquieting notion that not only is she afraid of her child, but perhaps doesn't even like him. The cracks in the Thorn marriage begin to show, unspoken tensions arise, and the end of the world is harkened by a family being emotionally and mentally being torn apart at the seams
Little Devil
I've always felt that one of the main reasons The Omen doesn't play out as preposterously as it does in summary is because the supernatural horror is kept within human-scale (an early script draft had Remick’s character admitting that her burning desire to have a child was rooted in the politically-motivated desire to project an image of a perfect family). Few horror films today seem to understand that without the firm establishment of the value of something human being placed at risk - that without getting audiences to appreciate what is being put at stake for the characters - no amount of high-tech violence or CGI explicitness is going to make a film genuinely frightening. Gross, repugnant, or gory, perhaps, but not frightening.
I don't do windows
Legitimacy has always been the elusive, snobbish scourge of horror films. Regardless of the quality, attach Joan Collins or American-International Pictures to it and you’ve got yourself the cheapo half of a drive-in double bill; bump up the budget, sign Hitchcock or some arthouse favorite as director, and you’re looking at possible Oscar bait. In the wake of The Exorcist and Jaws, the horror film was riding a crest of mainstream legitimacy, making it possible for a film whose subject might otherwise have been considered best suited to Vincent Price and Beverly Garland, to attract the likes of Gregory Peck and Lee Remick.
Having to go from no-nonsense pragmatism to possible insanity as a man who slowly comes to believe he must kill his child in order to save mankind, Oscar-winner Gregory Peck (To Kill a Mockingbird) has, arguably, the role in The Omen with the broadest character arc. But as it capitalizes on the same qualities of stolid authority and compassionate strength which typified much of his film work since the 1940s, it's really not much of a stretch for the actor. Still, Peck's innate stability contrasts effectively with the regal fragility of Lee Remick, with whom he shares a tender and believable chemistry. 
The solid, rather old-fashioned performances of Peck and Remick are two of the main reasons why The Omen hasn’t been regulated to that slush pile I reserve for films I still adore but find impossible to take seriously anymore (Valley of the Dolls, The Poseidon Adventure, The Great Gatsby,Towering Inferno). Both bring maturity, intelligence, and a considerable amount of old-Hollywood gravitas to their largely reactionary, underwritten roles. A quality I'd not fully appreciated until I saw those blank slates Liev Schreiber and Julia Stiles in the remake and realized how ludicrous the whole enterprise feels without actors capable of conveying an appropriate emotional maturity.
Yanks Lee Remick and Gregory Peck get solid UK support from Royal Shakespeare Academy alumni David Warner and Billie Whitelaw. Understated and natural, Warner's photojournalist gets my vote as the film's best performance, but Whitelaw (who grappled with Elizabeth Taylor in 1973s chilling Night Watch) can't help but evoke a few unintentional camp laughs in a role that posits her nefarious nanny as the anti-Mary Poppins.

After the headline-making excesses of The Exorcist, audiences were no longer satisfied with run-of-the-mill violence and death in movies. Fanned by the 70s "disaster film" craze and the escalating depiction of violence on television (I remember 1975s The Legend of Lizzie Borden and 1972s The Night Stalker both being taken to task for their content) America ghoulishly attended certain films in the express hope of being treated to ingeniously gruesome and spectacular deaths.
The Omen became one of the Top 5 boxoffice releases of 1976 in large part due to word-of-mouth over its then-shocking violence and faint-inducing tension. While (mercifully) not on par with even the level of violence you can find in a PG film today, The Omen's talked-about setpieces still manage to pack a punch. In line with what I mentioned earlier, one fully misses the point if it's assumed public reaction was due exclusively to the technical skill and ingenuity of the action sequences themselves; the violence in The Omen (which is surprisingly bloodless) got under people's skin because, in the context of the film, the deaths had the emotional weight of real jeopardy and loss. And Jerry Goldsmith's magnificently ominous score didn't hurt either. 
I saw The Omen on opening night (June 25, 1976) and while I can't vouch for anyone passing out, I can certainly attest to the many screams; the patrons who chose to sit out much of the film in the theater's lobby; and the fact that my sister (who really should have learned her lesson after The Exorcist and The Day of the Locust), at the occurrence of a particularly startling, now-iconic moment, burst into tears and had to be taken to the restroom to compose herself.
Love how the newspaper obligingly supplies a gruesome photograph of the corpse on the front page.

Time, too many parodies, too many awful sequels, my own lapsed Catholicism, and the swiftness with which its plot points became camp pop cultural clichés has softened The Omen a bit for me over the years, but I’m forever grateful that I first to know of The Omen in the most ideal manner possible: through its ad campaign. 
1976 was an amazing year for film. So amazing that all of my attention was taken up with the more high-profile, hype-attendant releases of the day: Hitchcock’s Family Plot, the US/Russian collaboration on The Blue Bird, Streisand’s remake of A Star is Born, Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, the remake of King Kong, Dustin Hoffman teaming with Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man, and Michael York in the sci-fi adventure, Logan’s Run. This was also the year that saw the release of The Man Who Fell to Earth, nostalgia-based films about both Clark Gable and WC Fields, Fellini’s Casanova, Liv Ullman’s return to Ingmar Bergman with Face to Face after her inauspicious shot at Hollywood stardom, All The President’s Men, and Network. Horror was coming on strong with the release of Carrie, The Sentinel, and Burnt Offerings. And I haven't even brought up the heavily-anticipated features by Altman, Bertolucci, Polanski, and Vincente Minnelli that also came out that year. As I said, 1976 was a particularly amazing year for a film fan. 
My mind and imagination was so wrapped up in these films that (strange as it seems) I had absolutely no foreknowledge of The Omen. So one day I was taking the San Francisco BART train to college school and I was confronted by this massive billboard in the terminal…this completely stark, black sign with white lettering:  “Good Morning. You are one day closer to the end of the world.” That was it! Nothing else. It stopped me in my tracks. I had no idea it was an ad for anything at was just his creepy, eye-catching sign (T-shirts emblazoned with quotes and slogans were popular at this time). In the ensuing weeks, more and more posters began showing up all over San Francisco. Each just as cryptic, just as foreboding: “If something frightening happens to you today, think about it. It may be The Omen,” “You Have Been Warned,” and inevitably,“This is your Final Warning.”
It felt as if an entire month had passed before the signs began to include the 20th-Century-Fox logo in the corner, then eventually, written in blood red, the words, “The Omen,” with what I then thought were bowling ball finger-holes in the ‘”O” which of course I’d later discover were three sixes. 

By the time these teaser ads gave way to graphic art featuring a little boy casting the shadow of some kind of beast, ads divulging the cast (real, honest-to-god Hollywood movie stars!  Not straight-to-Drive-In nobodies!), I was like a fish on the hook. The movie I had known absolutely nothing about beforehand had become the film I HAD to see.
I was too young to remember the groundbreaking "Pray for Rosemary's Baby" ad campaign that launched the film that still remains my #1 favorite horror movie of all time, but I'm grateful that the creative minds behind the marketing of The Omen gave me my own personal 70s version of the experience. Happily, once it was released, The Omen more than lived up to the hype and was quite the goosebumpy thrill-ride I thereafter sought to re-experience time and time again that summer. Indeed, a good deal of the goodwill I currently harbor for this film is due in large part to the pleasant memories I have of being young enough to allow myself to get so thoroughly caught up in the whole groundswell of excitement that accompanied the release of The Omen in 1976.
"On this night, Mr. Thorn, God has given you a son."
Copyright © Ken Anderson

Friday, August 22, 2014


“You don’t understand. I mean, it’s not what you think. I’d never do that. It’s just…the boys are so nice to you. When we’re together…I never knew it was gonna be so nice. Did you ever have a boy hold you close and sing to you? This one boy, Eddie…he sang to me right in my ear. And he held me so sweetly. June, don’t you know how that feels? Just to be held like that?”

Laura Dern as Connie
Treat Williams as Arnold Friend
Mary Kay Place as Katherine
It’s summer vacation and 15-year-old Connie moves about the suburban California home she shares with her easygoing dad (Levon Helm), quarrelsome mom (Place), and “perfect” 24-year-old sister, June (Elizabeth Berridge), in a sleepwalker’s haze of idle distraction and adolescence-induced self-absorption. Able only to muster up enough energy for sunbathing, toenail-painting, music-listening, and practicing her “How to talk to boys” patter and smile in mirrors, Connie’s at that age where she feels as if she’s harboring at least four different people under her skin. First there’s Daddy’s little girl; then the lazy, can’t-do-anything-right, “career criminal” her mother thinks she needs to keep her eye on 24/7; and, of course, her sister sees her as a spoiled, entitled brat. Connie herself feels awkwardly suspended between wanting to remain a little girl like her naive friend, Jill (Sarah Inglis), or becoming one of those sexy, self-assured girls at the roadside hamburger stand who attract the boys that are just out of high school; an ambition her more with-it friend, Laura (Margaret Welsh) shares.

But if at home Connie and her mother continuously lock horns due to one being concerned she’s seeing the image of her former self while the other fears she’s looking at a vision of her future self; then its only during those long afternoons at the mall (it’s the 80s, the veryheight of mall culture) where, far from the gaze of those who think of her as a child, Connie has the opportunity to exuberantly, flirtatiously and (tragically) all-too innocently, explore the romantic possibilities of being an adult.
With sensitivity and a sometimes piercing insight into the peculiar pains and anxieties of verge-of-adulthood adolescence, Smooth Talk tells a melancholy coming-of-age story that’s also part Grimm fairy tale: a sexual awakening, yes, but an awakening to darkness.

“I look at you. I look right in your eyes…and all I see are a bunch of trashy daydreams.”

There’s a reason why a kind of neutered androgyny has always been standard equipment for male teen pop stars over the years. Why the over-effusive journalism of fan mags marketed to adolescent girls (Tiger Beat and 16 Magazine) trafficked in platonic, My Personal Dairy adjectives like, “huggable,” “cute,” “smoochable,” and “dreamy.” Why the casting of boy bands demands the representation of at least one of each prototypically “safe” male personality (the quiet one, the bad boy, the funny one, etc.). And why, in 1972, David Cassidy’s talk of drug use and his discreet display of pubic hair on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine in 1972 sent hoards of adolescent girls heading for the hills and sounded the death-knell for his teen-idol career. 
For a great many girls first becoming aware of their sexuality, sex isn’t really what it’s about at all. At least not in the clinical, literal sense. When you're young, vague adult urges collide with childish illusions. A burgeoning interest in sex during adolescence is, for most girls, a confused jumble of barely-understood, tantalizingly dangerous feelings centering on dreamy fantasies. Heady fantasies, romantic in nature, of idealized boy/men, more feminine than masculine in nature, who ask them out on dates and make them feel special, beautiful, and understood. Of safe, puppydog caresses and scary/exciting kisses which can be tender or torrid, but never go too far.
Does Your Mother Know?
Connie (Dern) and Laura (Margaret Welsh) are intrigued by an "older kids" roadside hangout. Less in a rush to reach adulthood, Jill (Sarah Inglis) lingers behind
If puberty in boys inflames an often difficult-to-understand surge in sexual desire and interest, these exact same feelings converge just as confusingly in adolescent girls, only with the added complication of the deceptively ego-gratifying awareness of the dubious female “power” to attract the male gaze. Of course, the tragic misunderstanding to be found in the pursuit of desirability through the self-objectifying manipulation of one’s appearance is that it only offers the illusion of control; the possessor of the gaze is the one with all the power. (It’s a sad fact of life that in our culture, girls learn the value of their bodies to boys and men long before they learn their own value to themselves.)
Rules of Attraction
Yearning to be noticed, Connie doesn't know she's already being watched
This tragic misunderstanding leads to girls longing to be cherished settling for being wanted (or worse, never learning to tell the difference); to confusing physical development with emotional maturity; and to using sexual activity as a means of coping with emotional emptiness.  
The music of James Taylor, specifically his smooth talk version of the R&B classic, "Handyman"
serves as a premonitory leitmotif for dangerous seduction, just as Dern's
perpetually bare legs suggest a vulnerable voluptuousness

Smooth Talk is adapted from Joyce Carol Oates’1966 allegorical short story, Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Set in that decade, Oates’ story — an early draft of which was originally titled Death and the Maiden— is dedicated to Bob Dylan (Oates was very into his music at the time, specifically the 1965 song, It’s All Over Now Baby Blue) and was inspired by a Life magazine article the author read about a real-life serial killer of teenage girls known as “The Pied Piper of Tucson.”  That such a gracefully delicate film could emerge from such an unsettling source is a testament to Oates’ poetic ability to emphasize the humanity behind the horrific, and filmmakers sensitive enough to know that what works in realistic allegory can be softened in the very literal language of film while still achieving the same effect.  
Musician Levon Helm as Harry, Connie's loving but somewhat unconnected father
Wife and husband team of director Joyce Chopra and screenwriter Tom Cole do an extraordinary job of expanding upon and fleshing-out Oates’ slender, shivery prose. As if taking its cue from the mercurial shifts in mood typical of adolescence, Smooth Talk weaves scenes of languid dreaminess and tense family conflict (Connie, who always appears to be lost in a world of her own when around her family: “I wish I could just travel somewhere.”) with moments of the kind of joyous, impulsive wing-spreading we’ve all experienced as a natural part of growing up and discovering who we are.

The dark tone of the narrative’s third act feels, soberingly enough, like the intrusion of adult consequence on the childhood luxury of poor judgement and making mistakes.
With an almost ten-year age gap between them, Connie and older sister June (Elizabeth Berridge) don't even share the same memories

Sometimes when I watch a film with a big star in the lead, the words of Valley of the Doll’s Helen Lawson come to mind: “The only hit to come out of a Helen Lawson show is Helen Lawson, and that’s ME baby, remember?” And by this I mean that some stars, whether intentionally or not; in order to keep the spotlight on themselves, seem to make it their business never to surround themselves with talents larger than their own. Smooth Talk, like a great many of my favorite independent films, features a cast so uniformly excellent, it has the feel of ensemble piece even in the face of the powerhouse performances of Dern and Williams.
The always wonderful Mary Kay Place is one of those fine character actresses
incapable of striking a false note 
On the topic of Laura Dern, I’m afraid I’m going to come off sounding like one of those 16 Magazine writers myself, for I find it difficult to rein in the hyperbole when referring to this gifted actress. I’ve always been a huge fan, but she is just off-the-chart terrific here. As the character at the center of the story and the catalyst for all the film’s events, Dern makes sympathetically real a girl whose vanity and self-absorption might otherwise come off as shallow. She gives a natural, heartbreakingly honest, close-to-the-skin performance that’s ultimately disarming and oh-so touching; chiefly because Dern, in her ability to expressively convey what a character is both thinking and feeling, clues us in that  Connie is having just as hard a time making sense of her feelings as her family. I've seen Laura Dern in many things, but her performance in Smooth Talk has always remained my favorite. Beautifully written, directed, and acted, how Smooth Talk failed to get Oscar nominations in all the major categories is a mystery right up there with 1997s Eve's Bayou.
You can keep your Mike Myers, your Freddy Krueger,  your Jason Vorhees...Treat Williams as A. Friend is hands-down the screen's creepiest and scariest psychopath

Because not a great many people have seen Smooth Talk, I don't want to give too much away about the film's unforgettable last half hour. It's a powerful scene remarkably well-played by Williams and Dern. Treat Williams in particular, gives one of those performances that sneaks up on you. It seems as first as if he's doing very little, then before you know it, you notice your heart has started beating faster and a subtle tension rising within you, making your pulse race. He's that scary...and that good. I was crazy about the film before, but this sequence, with its startling shifts in tone, just blew me away.
"I seen you that night and I said, 'Oh my God, that's the one...'"

As a gay man, I’ve never been able to fully identify with most coming-of-age-films. Ones told from a male perspective tend to be designed to flatter the egos of the male audience and mythologize the memories of the male writers. No matter what the title, these films were always populated with impossibly beautiful older women, dream girls, and willing prostitutes who craved nothing more than a sexual encounter with an awkward, gangly, pimply-faced premature ejaculate who couldn't find a clitoris with a GPS device.
Of course, there was the alternative of the John Hughes-type deification of youth movie. Films where, against evidence of logic and all common sense, adults are always corrupt and teens are all pure of spirit and mind. Where characters say things like, “When you grow up your heart dies” and aren't asked to immediately vacate the premises.
No, when I was going through puberty and struggling with adolescence, I didn’t go around punching out authority figures, drag racing, sleeping with lonely local widowers, or turning my house into a brothel while my parents were away. I was just an insecure kid struggling to find out what it meant to be a grown-up.
Male-focused coming-of-age films are encouraged to perpetuate the masculine myth: making puberty all about wearisome rites of passage (invariably centered around getting laid or channeling aggression), so one had to look to female-centered coming-of-age-films if one wanted a story that dealt with feelings.
I was well into adulthood when I saw Smooth Talk, but like no other film I've seen before or since, it captures, if not the particulars of adolescence as I remember it, most certainly the confused  feelings and anxieties. 
I recall my mood swings, my self-consciousness…my preoccupation with appearance, and need to be on my own. Like the character of Connie (and most teenagers), I'd go places and lie to my parents about where I'd been. I'd have one mode of dress when my parents saw me, but when out with my friends, I dressed more provocatively, hoping my clothes would speak in a sexual language I hadn't yet found the words for.

I grew up in San Francisco, so there were no malls to hang out in, but there the hangouts of Polk and Castro Streets. Too young to actually get in anywhere, we haunted the poster stores, record shops and moviehouses. Just being around so many out, gay men was exciting and empowering (although nobody used that word in the 70s) and made me feel unimaginably sophisticated and mature. Naturally, when I was actually approached by someone, my shyness and social ineptitude betrayed everything my precocious mode of dress sought to convey, and nothing would come of it. But the reality was, at age 15 and 16…just having someone show interest in you was more than enough.
These days it appears as if the stridently heteronormative strain that ran through the coming-of-age films of my era is at last starting to ease up. I certainly hope so. In this day of internet anonymity and sexual restlessness among adolescents, not much about what Smooth Talk addresses has changed over the years. Certainly not the threat of predatory attention. But with new stories to tell and a broader spectrum of human experience represented, films about adolescence and awakening sexuality are bound to reveal more of what we all collectively share and make obvious the fact that none of us ‒ male, female, gay, straight ‒ escapes the pain of growing up.

 Copyright © Ken Anderson

Friday, August 15, 2014


The controversial Italia-Franco-German production, Salon Kitty, was released in the United States in 1977 under the title, Madam Kitty (because we Yanks do need to have things spelled out for us), but I honestly, have no direct memory of its release and can’t recall ever reading anything about it at the time. Which is really weird given: a) It stars dreamboat  #1, Helmut Berger, going full-frontal (why hadn’t my friends told me about this?!!?); b) It’s an X-rated, European art-house flick, which, if you knew me in my film-school days, was practically catnip; c) It’s a semi-musical with Ingmar Bergman star, Ingrid Thulin, channeling Cabaret and doing her best Sally Bowles impersonation as the singing proprietress of a decadent, high-class Berlin bordello in 1939; e) It reunites the stars of Luchino Visconti’s 1969 opus, The Damned (Thulin & Berger) in an over-the-top, trash/camp vision of Nazi Germany that is worthy of Ken Russell in being a film of almost operatic poor taste and visual excess.

With so much about Salon Kitty so perfectly suited to my oddball tastes, I really am at a loss for understanding how this film failed to capture my attention back in 1977. Except to note that when I Googled the original US release poster researching this essay, what I found was a poster so tacky and cheap-looking, with "X-rated" plastered all over it, there's a pretty good chance that I mistook Madam Kitty (Salon Kitty) for a run-of-the-mill porn film back in 1977 and never even bothered to read the credits. In the end, perhaps it was all for the best because, as I understand, the US version was severely edited, and I'm happy that my first exposure to Salon Kitty (just last month!) was through the restored director's edit (Italian director Tinto Brass, of Caligula infamy) currently available on DVD.
Helmut Berger as Helmut Wallenberg
Ingrid Thulin as Madame Kitty Kellerman
Teresa Ann Savoy as Margherita
Bekim Fehmiu as Hans Reiter
John Ireland (!) as Cliff
Inspired by a true story (movie-speak for “outside of the basic premise, we essentially made everything up”) Salon Kitty is about an apolitical madam (Thulin) who runs the most popular whorehouse in Berlin during the early days of WW II. Salon Kitty is a luxurious bordello/nightclub democratically catering to an international clientele of foreign dignitaries and high-ranking members of the Nazi Party (“Himmler…Von Ribbentrop…they are all my clients!”).

Under the orders of icy SS General Biondo (John Steiner), ambitious secret security officer Helmut Wallenberg (Berger) closes down Kitty’s Berlin brothel and sets up her up in a new location in the more remote Grünewald district, only instead of keeping her multi-ethnic whores (who are deported, killed, or sent to prison camps), she is obliged to accept and train a specially-selected all-German cadre of prostitutes-in-training chosen for their devout National Socialist loyalty. Kitty thinks she is doing her part for the morale of the German army, but unbeknownst to her, each of the rooms of her new bordello has been outfitted with bugging devices intended to secure information leaked by German military officers during pillow-talk which might prove useful for blackmail purposes or the unearthing of treasonous behavior.

What happens when Kitty discovers she is being used as a pawn in Nazi espionage, or what revenge is plotted when an otherwise reprehensibly unsympathetic recruit (Teresa Ann Savoy) falls in love with a disillusioned Luftwaffe Lieutenant (Yugoslav heartthrob Bekim Fehmiu, whose US career sank without a trace after appearing in the flop Harold Robbins sudser The Adventurers in 1970), serve as mere backdrop for Salon Kitty's most pressing concerns: the wholesale depiction of sexual depravity, the display of naked male and female flesh as often as possible, and allowing for Helmut Berger to strut around like Norma Shearer in one outlandish fetish uniform after another.
Does this swastika make me look fat?
Although it all sounds positively loony in synopsis, as stated, Salon Kitty is based on actual events culled from a 1972 book by Peter Norden about a madam (Kitty Schmidt, name changed to Kellerman for the film) whose brothel was indeed used for the purpose of spying by SS agents. The chief difference being that in real-life, Kitty was aware of the wiretapping but was threatened with cooperating or being sent to a POW camp. But in a Tinto Brass film, the prurient always takes precedence over the political, so, much like one of Ken Russell’s fervently overheated biographies of famous composers (The Music Lovers, Lisztomania), Salon Kitty is less a look at civilian-coerced Nazi espionage than a full-tilt wallow in the kind of “divine decadence” that Cabaret could only hint at.
The controversial "recruitment" scene
Salon Kitty was recommended to me by Netflix on the strength of the 5-star rating I gave Visconti’s The Damned when I watched it for the first time last year. I’m not a big fan of films about Nazi Germany; in fact, I tend to go out of my way to avoid them. but Visconti’s film was like The Godfather to me: a nihilistic epic of evil couched in a cutthroat family saga. I liked its scope and visual opulence, and I particularly liked Visconti’s artful way of distilling an epoch of unspeakable inhumanity down to an emotional scale that didn’t give the watchful observer the easy-out of being able to say, “That could never happen here.”

Alas, while Salon Kitty feels and looks on the surface like a companion-piece to Visconti’s The Damned, in truth it’s more a well-heeled example of a (mercifully) short-lived cinematic sub-genre known as Il Sadiconazista (or Nazi exploitation film). These were films that, in the wake of controversial arthouse successes, The Night Porter (1974) and Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), sought to capitalize more on the sensationalistic depiction of the sexual/sadomasochistic side of Nazism with only superficial, contextual attention paid to the political.  
SS Commander Biondo leads Wallenberg through a gymnasium of bottomless fencing students
Salon Kitty attempts to dramatize the rise of National Socialism in Germany by equating the decadent conduct of aristocratic culture with the gradual erosion of individual morality that was at the center of the dehumanizing, sadomasochistic recruitment practices of the SS. It shows, rather effectively, that the only way to turn people into obedient drones is through the dismantling of self. And undeniably, much of what is on display is in accord with what we’ve come to learn about the controlling, brainwashing techniques of cults, religions, and extremist groups.

But in placing so much emphasis on all things sexual and in taking events so far over the top as to appear stylized, Italian director Brass not only weakens the seriousness of these themes, but makes it all too easy to focus exclusively on the downright bizarre set-pieces and often hilariously bad dialog (“A soldier also wants to shoot his bullets, not just those the army gives him!”  or, Wallenberg: “You have to close your nightclub.”  Kitty: “What a pain in the ass!”). What, for example, is the appropriate response to a scene in which a prostitute literally goes mad and starts foaming at the mouth after a German official, upon placing a loaf of bread shaped like an enormous phallus between her thighs, bites off its head?
One of Madam Kitty's girls with a client
In The Damned, a character attributed the following quote to Hitler: “Personal morals are dead. We are an elite society where everything is permissible.” I have no idea if Hitler actually said this, but if the wall-to-wall debauchery depicted in Salon Kitty could be said to exist in service of anything beyond cheap exploitation, I’d say it serves to decry the basic criminal degeneracy of the Nazi movement and the moral decay fueling their particular brand of fascism. Too bad you have to stop giggling long enough to get that point.

People (myself included) often use the phrase, “Only in the 70s” when referring to a certain unbridled, anything-goes lunacy characteristic of movies of that decade. In most instances it’s said in a pejorative way; but when I say it it’s with an almost proprietary, boastful pride. I’m happy to have discovered film in an era when filmmakers, giddy with the new-found freedom of relaxed censorship and permissiveness, took chances and were allowed to cater to adult tastes, not required to pander to adolescent fads.
John Steiner as Commander Biondo
Far from a work of art, a film of such questionable taste as Salon Kitty gets a major thumbs-up for me simply because, in light of the corporate, committee-sanctioned analgesics passing for movies today, I can’t help but admire a film that pushes boundaries. Wholly independent of whether or not I approve of the boundaries being pushed.
Fascism as Fetish
While I tend to be of a mind to say a bad performance is a bad performance in any language; European films with international casts pose a unique problem, what with the widespread practice of post-production dubbing. In Salon Kitty I can’t tell if the often disembodied-sounding voices are due to dubbing or poor sound recording (as I recognize several of the actor’s real voices), but let’s suffice it to say that, outside of the leads (and just what is Joan Crawford's Queen Bee and I Saw What You Did co-star, John Ireland [fully clothed, thankfully] doing here?), I think it’s fair to say that most of the cast was selected for their willingness to  appear in various states of undress first, for their acting ability second.

The beauteous Helmut Berger is certainly easy on the eyes, but I’ve always considered to be more a presence than an actor. He has a kind of brittle intensity that I like, but mostly I just regard him as a kind of male Garbo…just looking is enough. By far, the best and most entertaining performance in Salon Kitty is given by Kitty herself, Swedish actress Ingrid Thulin. (Thulin began her career as a star in several Ingmar Bergman films. The same year Salon Kitty was released in the US, Bergman's own Nazi-themed film, The Serpent's Egg was also released.)
Kitty & Wallenberg attempt to make beautiful Teutonic music together
 As the resilient, pragmatic whorehouse madam, Thulin is like a character out of Isherwood’s Berlin Stories. With her expressive, wry mouth, and that magnificent face that can look both masculine and feminine at the same time, Thulin plays her role to the hilt, cannily never really letting on whether she’s playing it straight or playing to the camp, melodramatic heights of the material. The earthy zeal with which she attacks the role breathes vibrant life into Salon Kitty's austere, unerotic eroticism.
Life is a cabaret at Salon Kitty

While Salon Kitty at times makes a pretty persuasive case against the perils of fascism and the abuse of power, I have to say, after sitting through the entire 133-minute director’s cut, the strongest images I come away with are those depicting decorous depravity, and those highlighting the visual splendor of the sumptuous art nouveau décor and the eye-catching costumes.
Not since the excesses of Lucille Ball's Mame (1974) has the drag queen aesthetic
been given such full rein in costume design. Credit Jost Jacob & Ugo Percoli
Always dressed for the occasion, Kitty attempts to enlist the aid of a client (Stefano Satta Flores)
 in a plot to turn the tables on Wallenberg
You know it's a high-class whorehouse when the girls wear gowns inspired by Hollywood designer, Adrian. In this instance, a black and white number worn by Joan Crawford in Letty Lynton (1932)

Salon Kitty features scenes of orgies, whippings, sadomasochism, lesbianism, homoeroticism, voyeurism, animal slaughter, and some things I could only look at through the bars of the fingers covering my eyes. Although unpleasant at times, none of it ever feels purposeless. Indeed, when Salon Kitty is at its best as a film to be taken seriously, the explicit barbarism depicted feels calculated to prevent us from ever slipping into “enjoying” the film’s eroticism independent of its monstrous context of impending death camps and genocide.
Humanity Reclaimed
"Man belongs to mankind...not to a country, or to a race or religion."
But for all the baroque displays of violence, degeneracy, and depravity, Salon Kitty’s most chilling moment and most powerful anti-Nazi indictment comes in a quiet sequence that takes place in an aquarium. A Jewish family encounters a group of Hitler Youth girls, and as the family attempts to avoid a confrontation, their small son accidentally drops a small wind-up toy at the feet of one of the girls. A tense moment transpires as the child stares innocently into the face of one of the sternest girls (later to become one of Wallenberg’s recruits) who proceeds to methodically crush the toy under her foot without once breaking her gaze from the child’s confused eyes.
This scene, played without dialog, packs a serious wallop and should clue those who would dismiss this film out of hand for its excesses, that there is perhaps a method to Tinto Brass' madness, and the whole of Salon Kitty is likely greater than the sum of its outrageous parts.
Salon Kitty bid you Willkommen
Copyright © Ken Anderson