At some point in the run-up towards Christmas I found myself watching a documentary on BBC4 by Catherine Bray that encouraged us not to feel ‘guilty’ about watching ‘bad’ films. It seemed to be right up my alley and for a good twenty minutes all seemed to be well. There was an admirably diverse set of clips (Post Tenebras Lux, Blackenstein) and a fairly coherent attempt at the impossible task of defining ‘bad films’.
But gradually I became disenchanted. Do people really think of Notting Hill as a ‘guilty pleasure’? Perhaps I would if I ever (a.) watched it and (b.) found myself enjoying it, but I don’t think of myself as representative. Surely most people, rightly or wrongly, just think of it as ‘a good film’.
And if there is any guilt attendant upon watching it, isn’t it just a frivolous kind of guilt like that you might feel when eating a cream cake? The kind of guilt that adds to your enjoyment rather than the reverse? Isn’t this enjoyment implicit in the very notion of a ‘guilty pleasure’?
The documentary, then, while pretending to be freeing us up to experience greater pleasure, is actually denying us pleasure. The sting comes towards the end when the film suggests that maybe we should be feeling guilty while watching films by Roman Polanski, because, after all, he really is guilty of something. The film floats the notion of banning his entire oeuvre, before dismissing it, although just the suggestion is a buzz-kill.
There is also a clip from one of the Connery Bonds, in which Bond is seen fondling, then dismissing, an entirely decorative girl in a bikini. Such outmoded attitudes are something that we might also usefully feel guilty about taking pleasure from, says Bray, along with, she suggests, any product of a male-dominated film industry.
At this point the argument seems to have turned back on itself. It seems that we should be feeling guilty about watching almost any film ever made. We have exchanged a frivolous sense of guilt for a deadly serious one that might even result in real punishment.
It’s noticeable that the documentary’s argument comes a particular cropper when it comes to horror. The notion of ‘elevated horror’ is dismissed, correctly, but in dismissing it Bray seems to imply that no horror film should be considered better than any other. So a nuanced analysis of the hypnotism scene in Get Out is followed up with a random chunk of Resident Evil 3 as if to demonstrate that all scares are basically the same (which is like saying that all jokes are basically the same as long as they make you laugh).
The problem with ‘guilt-free’ horror is that horror is about taking pleasure from what you aren’t meant to take pleasure from, and thus is to some extent predicated upon guilt. It’s notable that Bray doesn’t deal with films like Peeping Tom and Cannibal Holocaust, which make the viewer complicit in the unpleasantness taking place on the screen.
Then again, fair enough – they aren’t ‘bad films’ as such. But she also shies away from any questionable material. We don’t see clips from ‘video nasties’ like I Spit On Your Grave or SS Experiment Camp. It would spoil the fun – though the ‘fun’, one ultimately feels, is being carefully monitored.
THE NEW YORK RIPPER
Not technically a video nasty, The New York Ripper, a 1982 offering from Lucio Fulci is certainly nasty, and gets short shrift from most serious horror film critics, who call it sleazy and misogynistic or (in the case of the Aurum Horror Film Encyclopedia) ‘nauseatingly ultra-conservative’.
Fair enough, but it is worth pointing out that these critics are, metaphorically speaking, already up to their necks in tits and gore – being able to adopt a high-handed tone about one such parade of atrocities every now and again may be a useful way of making them feel better about themselves. No doubt I do it myself.
Buying the DVD of this (£3.00) in Fopp before Christmas I did feel a little seedy – I’d seen the film before and knew what I was getting into. Even the name of the DVD company – Shameless – suggested (perversely) that I ought to be ashamed of myself. I wasn’t aware at the time that this is film is still subject to BBFC cuts, or perhaps I would have saved my money for a (perfectly legal and orderable, as I understand it) import.
The cuts are most noticeable in the notorious scene where a prostitute is killed by a razor blade drawn ‘lovingly’ along her naked body by the killer. This is the scene I most clearly recall from watching the film on video in the 1980’s, presumably an uncut version. Easy to see why the BBFC objected, since they would have seen this as an example of sexualized violence.
In fact, the killer’s motivations aren’t sexual, and the viewer is invited to read sex into the situation by the presence of naked flesh, by the fact that the character is a prostitute, and by the way Fulci films the scene. It’s the fact that we are invited to provide a sexual response ourselves that makes it disturbing: one way of negating this feeling, if you are a censor, is to worry about the response of another, less high-minded, individual to the scene, and act accordingly, making your own cuts.
It’s a response that fits in neatly with the film’s psychology. Atmospherically evoking Times Square in its sleazy heyday, this is a film that, consciously or not, is about the troubling nature of desire.
One of the characters, Jane (Alexandra Delli Colli), is a woman who enjoys, or maybe endures, sordid sexual encounters with strangers for the benefit of her husband, who listens to them later on cassettes she has obligingly recorded for him. The film’s most striking sequence (aside from the razor killing) has her sitting in a cafe being pleasured by a low-life’s bare foot under the table. ‘Morales got silver toes’, says the guy’s companion, eagerly watching her ecstatic reaction to what is on one level a public humiliation, though everyone seems to be enjoying themselves.
We also see her getting off very publicly on a live sex show, with Fulci cutting from her orgasm to the couple on stage as if they were part of the same spectacle – which they are of course, to us. Along with the cassettes she’s making, Jane represents a notion of desire gone out of control, and naturally she becomes a victim of the Ripper – she had it coming, or so the investigating cop Fred Williams (Jack Hedley) suggests to her husband (‘Your wife was free to live, and free to die.’)
Williams is seen early on in the film demanding that the woman he has woken up with – Kitty – make him coffee. ‘I’m a prostitute, not your wife’, she snaps. It’s interesting to note that being a prostitute seems to give you more freedom from male demands than being a wife, and perhaps this is one reason why she must later succumb to the razor in that infamous scene.
The killer has also singled her out because of her association with Williams, though quite how deep their attachment goes is anybody’s guess, Hedley offering a performance of gruff pragmatism that doesn’t seem to have any room for sentiment.
As it turns out the killer, Peter (Andrea Occipinti), is motivated by the fact that his young daughter is dying in hospital and so will never get to be an adult – thus he revenges himself on grown women. His focus on sexually free (or in the case of one unfortunate cyclist, merely feisty) individuals suggests a hysterical over-insistence on an idea of a childhood innocence uncontaminated by desire.
This frenzy of childishness is perfectly captured by the film’s most bizarre detail. The killer, who is continually ringing Williams up to taunt him, speaks like a cartoon duck, something borrowed from a game he plays with his daughter over the phone – his fixation on ‘innocence’ has given rise to something absurd and inhuman.
Peter’s attitude to women has a distinct echo in Hedley’s distaste for Jane’s behaviour, and when a pathologist coolly remarks on the killer’s ‘good efficient butchery’ it strikes a note of professional complicity. One might conclude that cops and killer are essentially on the same side, along with the BBFC, whose own ‘butchery’ is a way of controlling desire and protecting a notion of ‘innocence’.
And yet this need to control and master is also a form of desire, and takes its place within the ‘libidinal economy’ Fulci is describing. Fulci has his cake and eats it, reveling in the seediness and also in the ‘moral backlash’ – but he is no hypocrite, because he doesn’t occupy a recognizable ‘moral’ position in the first place.
We may think that he is passing judgement on his female characters but it could also be said that he is merely depicting, however unfeelingly, a world in which it is women who invariably pay the price for sexual freedom.*
The razor scene is the ultimate depiction of that price. It could be the very definition of ‘gratuitous’, but its partial removal cuts the heart out of the film, or would do if it had one (in fact the howling void at the centre of this is suggested by the fact that Peter is a physics student studying ‘entropy and absolute zero’).
Either way, the censor’s ‘tasteful’ intervention is so out of keeping with the general ambience of TNYR that it seems almost Victorian – ‘Victorian values’ were much discussed at that time, as I remember.
In our own culturally turbulent time it is quite possible to imagine a wave of censorship similar to the old Video Nasties Act recurring, something which could as easily come from the right as from the left. Particularly in this country, we have a strange relationship with the past right now. Half of us seem to want to return to a (fictional) ‘glorious heyday’ and the other half want to police the past, having suddenly realised that it is full of ‘bad behaviour’ which might infect the present if we don’t post health warnings all over it.
Either way, it seems to be something we’d rather not look at too closely.
Obviously The New York Ripper is not a depiction of the past as it really was, it’s a grubby cultural artifact. But it still tells us something about the world and we shouldn’t be scared of looking at it. Or perhaps we should be scared, but we should still be able to look at it.
HITCH HIKE TO HELL
From a stylistic point of view, Irving Berwick’s Hitch Hike To Hell makes The New York Ripper look like a masterpiece, but in its perverse relationship with the idea of innocence it has a certain similarity to it.
In HHTH Howard, a delivery driver for a dry cleaning company, is so traumatized by his sister Judy’s running away from home that he can’t resist lecturing hitchhikers he picks up, should they be in a similar position, on the dangers of the big bad outside world. If they fail to respond, he illustrates the dangers himself by raping and killing them.
In this grotesque way he ‘preserves their innocence’, and he is also a kind of innocent himself, since his assaults are the work of a split-off part of his personality which he suppresses, so that it only makes itself felt in occasional tormenting flashbacks.
As played by Robert Gribbins, Howard, who enjoys a close relationship with his mother that falls just short of morbid, is more goofy than menacing. The moments where he ‘transitions’ into a murderer, set off whenever a hitchhiker proves less than appreciative of the comforts of home, are cartoonish: he goes all twitchy and bug-eyed, and you would hardly be surprised to see steam coming out of his ears.
At the same time, this is pretty grim stuff: his last victim is an eleven-year old girl, who was only running away to her grandma’s house, but instead winds up dead in a dumpster. (Another of Howard’s victims is male, an ‘obvious’ if not quite comically stereotypical gay man – credited only as ‘gay boy’. It is not clear, as with the eleven-year old, whether he was raped or not.)
The split in Howard is paralleled by a split in the film itself, which on one level seems to see itself as a cautionary tale about a social problem (the fact that the parents of one runaway, temporarily saved from Howard’s attentions by the police, show no interest in having her back, is the occasion for much hand-wringing.) At the same time it’s a sleazy exploitation film, not even Irving Berwick would dispute that.
These confusions are unresolved. Last we see of Howard he is in a padded cell wearing a straitjacket and complaining of being cold. He remains a blank, especially to himself. We might speculate that Judy had her reasons for running away from home, not unconnected with her brother’s ‘issues’, but we don’t even know if Judy is alive. Emotionally we are back in the realm of ‘absolute zero’.
Except… the Arrow DVD correctly devotes a lot of space to the film’s theme song, a country ballad called Lovin’ On My Mind repurposed with new lyrics as Hitch Hike To Hell (‘You can never tell/When you’ll hitchhike to Hell’).
The singer, Nancy Adams – who also performed an Academy Award-nominated number on Disney’s animated take on Robin Hood from 1973 – assures us that she was ‘mortified’ to see the film years later and realise that she had contributed to something so ‘gangbuster-rough’, though quite what she expected of a film called Hitch Hike To Hell is unclear: presumably not winsome cartoon foxes in Lincoln green at any rate.
Arrow allow us to experience the film’s opening credits set to the original ballad, which threatens by its very inappropriateness to make sense of the film’s contradictions – it might be soundtracking the inchoate romantic longings (possibly derived from pop music in the first place) which have encouraged the runaways to make their bids for freedom. In doing so, it suggests, quite poignantly, a real innocence, as opposed to the mad construct displayed in Howard’s pathology.
So much for innocence then, but what about guilt, and specifically the viewer’s guilt? There is a distinction to be made here between ‘real’ guilt and a feeling of guilt. I’m not convinced that watching a film produced by Harvey Weinstein makes you complicit in his crimes but see no reason why we shouldn’t feel guilty about watching – well, any film really. After all you could always be doing something useful – saving the world, or at least doing the household chores – so why are you sitting there watching Paul Blart: Mall Cop?
‘Guilt-free cinema’ sounds flavourless to me, enticing as a no-chicken Kiev. It sounds like a cinema that doesn’t really matter. Instead, we should be free to feel as much guilt as seems appropriate. We should be proud of our shame. And then ashamed of that pride in our shame. And then proud all over again.
And so on. That, as I understand it, is entertainment.
*Interestingly one scene has the police psychologist (Paolo Malco) buying gay porn at a newsstand, hiding the magazine inside a newspaper. In terms of the typical giallo scenario, this is a way of making him a possible suspect – if he’s gay he must hate women, right? And he must want to slice them open, right?
But in practice it merely reveals a hidden side to a perfectly affable, and in fact ‘innocent’, character. He may feel the need to conceal his desires but, in contrast to the women, he ‘gets away with it’ and it is oddly heartening to see what amounts to a positive representation of a gay character sneaking into this ‘ultra-conservative’ film.