A teenage drag race goes dreadfully wrong with one car being forced off a bridge and into a river. From the car a woman, Mary manages to escape and clamber ashore.
However, Mary’s life after that isn’t the same. She seems to see ghostly figures when she seemingly disassociates herself with everyday life that is going on around her. One example takes place on a bus when she sees seemingly dead people coming for her. The film very creepily plays with space and time and does so without warning. The film is just as disconcerting and disorientating for the audience as it is for Mary.
The ghostly figures she sees seem to be led by a man (in reality, the film’s director Herk Harvey) who seems intent on somehow coming for Mary to take her somewhere as yet unknown.
Mary is a church organist by occupation but even this is affected now with her only playing the kind of funereal pieces that in the future The Cure would be playing in 1981. Yes, they’re that bleak! One priest who hears her playing stops her and deems her playing as ‘Profane! Sacrilege!’
Add to this a very sleazy and creepy housemate who gets off on perving on her as she gets out of the bath and won’t let up.
The action builds up to an ending that actually takes place in an abandoned fairground. This all adds up to a truly great cinematic experience. There are sequences of this film that are far removed from anything I’ve ever seen in a motion picture before or since. The haunting photography, the use of some sequences such as a dancing scene in the carnival being sped up, the way the film takes the audience with Mary as she enters her limbo world where the dead walk and stalk her.
The idea of a limbo world between life and death was also brilliantly explored later on in the classic movie Don’t Look Now. Carnival of Souls went on to influence George A Romero who said that it was a huge influence on Night of the Living Dead as did David Lynch on Blue Velvet. The influence of the film can also be seen within the better parts of the Goth movement. The sequence where the undead run after Mary on the beach feels like a fantastic Goth version of something from a Fellini film.
Carnival of Souls is an anomaly in cinematic terms, a one-off which is like no other. It’s also a masterpiece. I’m so glad it wasn’t forgotten. It was restored and released cinematically in 1989 after it’s original 1962 release and is now on the Criterion collection on Blu ray alongside the best of cinema. And rightly so!
A young cartoonist Josh chats up a young woman named Cheryl in the street (the board at Gillette must be despairing at this) but when she collapses she is then taken to a nearby hospital in an ambulance which has been called for her. When Josh tries to track her down there appears to be no trace of her being taken to any hospital in an ambulance. Josh then learns that the same fate happened to Cheryl’s roommate. Something fishy is going on. Does it have anything to do with that specific ambulance?
With such a great premise I was expecting a cross between Coma and Maniac Cop. But, alas instead this is more like a TV movie that feels very slight and somewhat hollow.
I was also expecting more as this was directed by the great Larry Cohen and whilst there are some great directorial flourishes and some great dialogue which Cohen also wrote (all of the supporting characters in Cohen’s films have the best in quirky left-field comebacks), they don’t save this movie.
Fat nurse Martha Beck is joined into a lonely hearts club by her best friend Bunny. Almost instantly she starts to correspond with a man called Raymond Fernandez. Their correspondence grows more intense with the bond between them being so strong that Martha invites him to her home in Mobile, Alabama. After a night of wild passion he leaves her to go back home but not before he has secured a loan from her.
She then receives a letter from Ray breaking up with her which causes Bunny to ring him to say that Martha is suicidal because of this. When Ray is relieved to find out that neither of them have involved the police, he invites Martha to New York to visit him. When she gets there he lets the cat out of the bag- he is a professional hustler who cons lonely women out of their money and moves onto his next target. Martha is so in love with Ray that she stays by his side and even becomes his accomplice as he commits his next crimes.
This movie is based on the true life crimes of a couple dubbed The Lonely Hearts Killers with the film using their real names. The film was also originally to be directed by a young director named Martin Scorsese (wonder what happened to him) but he was fired several days into the shoot as he was just taking so much time getting master shots set up whilst not shooting any coverage shots (according to himself. He even went on to say that it wasn’t probably for the best for the film that he was fired as the film was made on a low budget and needed to be shot quite quickly). Leonard Kastle stepped into the breach instead and does a phenomenal job. The film looks gorgeous and is framed to perfection. It’s almost like any frame from the film could be hung in an art gallery and admired. The monochrome look of the film is also astounding and reminds me (as does the film as a whole) of Brian De Palma’s masterpiece Sisters.
The cast are exceptional also with Shirley Stoler utterly iconic in her role as Martha and Tony Lo Bianco also iconic and perfect casting as the money-hungry lothario Ray.
This movie is on The Criterion Collection as it deserves to be. In fact, when I rewatched the film for this review I was getting strong John Waters’ vibes from it. It was almost like a lost Waters film from around the time of Multiple Maniacs (also deservedly on Criterion) and I could imagine either Divine or Edith Massey playing Martha and Tab Hunter playing Ray. Maybe in a parallel universe this movie was made.
Apparently Francois Truffaut named this movie was his favourite American film. And if that doesn’t act as a high enough recommendation for you to see the film then I don’t know what will.
Mommie Dearest has the wrong kind of reputation. It was conceived as a movie version of Joan Crawford’s adopted daughter Christina’s tell-all book regarding her upbringing and the years of abuse she endured at the hands of her mother. Instead, it’s now synonymous with being campy, ‘so bad it’s good’ and as being one of the worst films ever made. This article will show that all of these tags are wrong, the result of lazy journalism and hack film criticism and that Mommie Dearest is far more complex and ahead of it’s time than most film critics, journalists and viewers give it credit for. There is more to Faye Dunaway’s central performance than meets the eye.
But first, a little background as to how the film came to be made.
The book of Mommie Dearest was published in 1978, a year after the death of Joan Crawford. It was a huge sensation and topped booksellers lists, eventually selling 4 million copies and that was only in hardback form!
It’s transition to film was always going to problematic. Joan was beloved by both industry insiders and moviegoers alike and so there would instantly be a lot of opposition at such a hatchet piece making it’s way onto the screen before it had even been made.
Another group that would be waiting in the wings to give their verdict on the movie was the gay community. Crawford was and quite possibly still is the biggest gay icon to have ever graced the silver screen. In fact the only other actress to rival her in the eyes of gay viewers was her real life nemesis Bette Davis who would later star with Joan in the horror movie Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
Crawford was such a gay icon that her image and the very iconography surrounding her was a telling indication of all things ‘gay’ and used to great effect to imply this in other films. During the explosive revelations that unfurl in The Boys in the Band, a character feigns boredom and grabs a coffee table book on Crawford to peruse instead. Ms Crawford’s presence isn’t out of place in this landmark movie which deals with gay men and their lives.
Within the movie Heathers, Christian Slater and Winona Ryder’s characters have just bumped off a duo of school jocks but are trying to frame it as a double suicide of two men in a homosexual relationship. The artefacts they leave behind to confirm this are mineral water, mascara and a Joan Crawford postcard as well as a fake suicide note. Joan’s inclusion leaves no doubt that the pair must have been nelly.
Joan Crawford once stated in an interview that of the then current crop of Hollywood actresses, Faye Dunaway was the only one who she’d like to portray her in a film. In her book published in 1971 entitled My Way Of Life, Crawford stated that, ‘Of all the actresses, to me, only Faye Dunaway has the talent and the class and the courage it takes to make a real star.’
And she was right. Dunaway was the last of a dying breed- an exceptional actress with an incredible acting range, a palpable strength and was a real star reminiscent of the kind that Hollywood used to foster the talents of decades before.
The director chosen to helm Mommie Dearest was acclaimed director, Frank Perry. His previous works included such lauded works as The Swimmer and Diary of a Mad Housewife.
With everything in place to make an esteemed biopic of Ms Crawford and her adopted daughter that might bag Dunaway a clutch of awards and even an Oscar for her portrayal, why is the film today seen as such a cult classic rather than as a universally celebrated mainstream landmark? What was it within the finished film that appealed to lovers of more marginal cinematic pleasures that resonated so powerfully? Is there any kind of explanation for the extremities of the film? I believe there are plenty of signifiers regarding this in almost every scene within the film.
Mommie Dearest had the tagline of ‘Faye Dunaway IS Joan Crawford’. A huge part of the movie’s success and if it would be believable and actually work was to be if Dunaway could convincingly look like Crawford and behave like her. Crawford was an actress who was beloved by the movie-going public who thought of her as a friend as well as a star and actress. People had seen her in so many movies that she felt almost like someone they knew. This meant that Dunaway had her work cut out for her. If her depiction of Crawford didn’t look, feel or sound right then the movie’s plausibility was impaired right from the start.
This reminds me of the movie Superman in 1978. Whilst big names (including the acting Holy Grail, Mr Marlon Brando) were secured and in place to star in the film, the tagline and the conceit it hinged on was as the tagline stated ‘You’ll believe a man can fly.’ Thus, if there was one whiff of wires, dodgy visuals as were used in other previous screen incarnations of The Man of Steel or any cheap techniques used to show Superman airborne then this would turn this huge budgeted movie into a Superflop. Of course, by the time we see Superman fly (and the filmmakers cheekily don’t show this until well into the running time of the movie after Clark had travelled into the cocoon of The Fortress of Solitude and gestated into Superman) we do see that the wait was worth it.
The same happens with Mommie Dearest. Yes, we get a picture of Faye as Joan on the film’s poster but any kind of picture editing trickery could have been applied to make the likeness plausible. The audience need to see Faye as Joan moving before their eyes on the movie screen.
We don’t have to wait as long as we did with Superman but director Perry still tantalisingly keeps us on the edge of our seats for the ‘big reveal’. But this first faceless scene isn’t some filler introduction that feels unnecessary or is only played out to build to the first glimpse of Crawford. We get to see how a typical day in the life of a Hollywood heavyweight would begin and how dedicated Joan was at what she did.
This is also a very important scene for fans of Crawford who saw her as Hollywood Royalty. Crawford wasn’t just a great actress but also, and more importantly for some, a star. Everything was done for her fans and we get a glimpse of how all-consuming this was with the 4am wake-up call, the straps applied under her chin being taken off and discarded, the ice facial (Ms Crawford has finished washing her face with boiling hot water and grabs a couple of handfuls of ice which we saw her prepare earlier and presses them into her face. ‘Ah! Youth!’ John Waters exclaims on his audio commentary for the movie when this sequence is onscreen).
The scrubbing of the arms, hands and nails is very telling in this scene as we will see later in the film. Ms Crawford seems to have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and a severe, irrational hatred of germs and dirt.
This film was possibly the first to depict this and is one reason why there is more to Mommie Dearest than others would have you believe. This condition and it’s depiction in the film will be examined in more depth later on. Back to the ‘big reveal’.
We then get to see her being taken to the studio. Even in the car we see that she’s hard at work- inspecting the script, making amendments and recommendations, signing 8x10s for fans.
Whilst she is in the studio we are teased with specific facial features being made up but still not the whole face. We see an eye and her lips at the start of their cosmetic transformation and then when they fully made up.
This is a great scene as it shows how Joan had a trademark look and how her appeal was reliant on image, make up and how this image was intertwined into every role she played. This could also show Joan’s false self, the mask she wears for fans which is VERY different to her real self underneath this artifice.
We next get to see her being dressed for her role and the care and precision taken in this process.
And then we get a studio lackey pop his head round the door of La Crawford’s dressing room asking if shes ready. And BOOM! We get to see Faye Dunaway spin around in a swivel chair she is sat in to face the moviegoing public as Joan Crawford for the first time. Eyebrows and all! And it was worth the wait!
The next scene hints at the insanity at the dark heart of the movie. Joan, her faithful housekeeper and personal assistant Carol Anne and Helga, Joan’s housekeeper are cleaning the house. Joan inspects her worker’s cleaning efforts and on seeing a large pot plant, asks to move it. On doing so there is found to be dirt under it which enrages Joan who insists on cleaning it herself. She then says to Helga after first shouting at her that, ‘I’m not mad at you, I’m mad at the dirt!’, the first of many lines from the film that transcends the movie and it’s script and took on a life of it’s own. Joan’s OCD has reared it’s ugly head.
On the arrival of Joan’s boyfriend Greg Savitt, they head upstairs for some ‘afternoon delight’. It’s with this that we get the tremendous scene in which Joan is in the shower, letting the water seemingly melt her perfectly coiffured hair and wash away her mask of make-up. She is in an OCD sufferers nirvana- a shower!
It’s the next scene that we see Joan get broody as the topic of children and the whole premise of the film (and book) comes to the fore. Does she sincerely want children or does she just sees the opportunity for the extra publicity she will garner from having them? The occasion is a photo op that involves Joan giving Christmas presents to orphans at a Catholic orphanage. This shows the sheer perversity of Hollywood, the false ‘too good to be true’ way that stars were depicted in those days (the photos taken at such an event would have been so syrupy that they could have given the magazine readers diabetes by just looking at them) and how surreal such a set up was. There are nuns, orphans, Joan but most importantly for her, photographers! It’s here that a small blonde haired girl catches Joan’s eye as we see her get broody- for more column inches!
A walk on the beach with Greg provides Joan the chance to provide backstory by telling him that she can’t have kids, having had numerous miscarriages with her previous beau, Francois Tome. Greg warns Joan that it will be nay impossible for her to adopt a child as she isn’t married and so the child wouldn’t have a father figure in it’s life and shes been divorced not just once but twice.
This leads to the scene in the adoption office in which Joan is informed that indeed her application for adoption has been rejected. Joan sees red (the first real glimpse of Joan changing into Godzilla in an instant), grabs the adoption application folder out of the agency woman’s hands and curses her (as a funny aside, John Waters on his commentary for the film yells ‘Hit her!’ when this happens. And I’m surprised Joan didn’t!).
Yet the next scene shows that rules can be bent as Joan prepares for the arrival of her first child from sources unknown (‘You cost me a lot of favours’, Greg says to the baby. Joan describes him as nothing but a ‘crooked lawyer’ in a later scene which might explain how he acquired a child for Joan) when she is finally brought to Casa Crawford. There’s a hilarious moment where Joan takes her new baby in her hands for the first time. This exquisite and innocent baby comes face to face with the overly made-up, utterly artificial face of Joan/Godzilla and is quite something to witness.
In fact, the first time I saw Mommie Dearest this scene reminded me of when the xenomorph comes face to face with Jones the cat in Alien.
Tellingly Joan says to the child ‘I’m going to give you all the things I never had!’ Joan was born Lucille Fay LeSueur in San Antonio, Texas to Thomas E. LeSueur who worked in construction and Anna Bell Johnson. It’s clear within Mommie Dearest that Joan thought she should have been born into a family that had a higher social standing. The fact that she was born into such blue collar and ordinary circumstances shows how entitled she felt with entitlement being a massive indicator of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (more about this later).
The next scene depicts Joan’s daughter named Christina as a young girl at a lavish birthday party thrown by her mother in her honour. On first glance this scene is strangely reminiscent of the birthday scene from The Omen but obviously minus the nanny hanging herself. Instead we get Joan dressed in a similar costume to her daughter and looking utterly bizarre and sinister because of it. There are echoes of Baby Jane wearing one of her child star costumes even though she is a grown woman. Her attire may be cute on a child star but is utterly creepy on a grown adult. In fact, in her book Christina said that on some occasions such as when her friends came over her mother wanted to be just like her daughter and to be seen as an equal to her. One occasion was when Christina had her friends over for a sleepover. Joan was keen to be just ‘one of the gals’ and even insisted that her and her friends referred to her as ‘Stinky’!
Yes, the occasion is a birthday party for her child, but the reason why everyone is there is because Joan is. We see other children at the party, soldiers (!) but again, more importantly, photographers. We also see that Joan has adopted another child, a boy named Christopher. Whilst Joan coos over Christopher whilst being shot by the paparazzi as the soldiers look on, she exclaims to her spectators ‘I’d like to adopt every unwanted child in the world. No-one should be unwanted. Life is tough enough when you are wanted!’ She’s presenting an image to the world of being the perfect mother, a sickening and unrealistic ideal that, as the course of the film shows, is completely false and couldn’t be further from the truth.
In fact, later in this scene Joan’s mask almost slips. She calls over Christina whilst she is still being photographed by the bank of paparazzi attendant. When Joan suggests to Christina that it’s time to open her presents, her daughter notices that she has a huge grass stain on her frock. Whilst Joan says it doesn’t matter, Christina insists that one of their staff can clean it off and that it won’t take long. Joan is adamant until a photographer says that, in fact, the grass stain might show in the photographs. Joan is forced to back down and allows Christina to have the stain removed. We see Joan angered by this. She has been shown to be wrong and sees this as her own daughter, who is just supposed to be a mere accessory for her own image, seemingly getting the better of her.
Also, when Christina returns to open her presents and to be photographed doing so, the gathered press frame the pics so that Christina is centre-stage with Joan being relegated to the sidelines- Christina the subject, Joan the accessory. This upsets Crawford massively. This scene also shows the start of the power struggles that occur between Joan and Christina. Throughout the film we’ll see that when Christina (or anyone else for that matter) causes some kind of narcissistic injury to Joan, she gets her own back and with more severity if she can.
It’s worth introducing Narcissistic Personality Disorder here. Joan exhibits many facets of this condition and explains why the film and it’s lead character are so extreme. NPD is a personality disorder that involves someone who has an irredeemably low sense of self-esteem and self worth and will do anything and everything to remedy this situation and inflate their low, empty self, (apart from self-reflection and self-development which the narcissist is incapable of) however dark these actions might be. The feeling gained from elevating their fragile low self is known as narcissistic supply and is like a drug to a narcissist.
NPD is classified as a Cluster B Personality Disorder. Other examples of personality disorders in this group are psychopaths and sociopaths which should show how dark and dangerous NPD really is. Narcissists, psychopaths and sociopaths all share the trait of a complete lack of empathy and an inability to possess it which is also a telling sign of how malevolent these personality disorders are. In Dr Grande’s excellent video What is Narcissistic Personality Disorder, he categorises the criteria for NPD as set out in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as being a grandiose sense of self-importance (the narcissist needs to be recognised as being ‘superior’. Woe betide anyone who doesn’t comply), a preoccupation with unlimited success (this could manifest itself in terms of success, money and power), a need for excessive admiration (this is to prop up their very low self-esteem. They constantly want to be complimented) and a massive sense of entitlement (they expect everyone to look at them favourably. As everyone has some sense of entitlement, the narcissist’s is hugely disproportionate when compared to non-narcissist’s. The narcissist wants EVERYTHING and NOW!), exploiting relationships for their own gains and, as previously mentioned, a lack of empathy (this makes the task of exploiting relationships with others very easy for narcissists. Narcissists can’t connect with the verbal and non-verbal cues that indicate what type of feelings someone is experiencing or possesses). Narcissists also exhibit chronic envy (this can manifest itself as them being envious of others and delusions of others being massively envious of them) and huge levels of arrogance (they will be condescending towards other people they view as ‘inferior’ and beneath them).
Someone with NPD doesn’t deal well with criticism. They perceive it as humiliating which leads to a sense of shame and even depression. Narcissistic injury is a term which refers to what a narcissist experiences when they sense perceived or actual criticism, when others attempt to control them (they only like to control others), or if others call them out on their terrible and degrading behaviour of others. This ‘injury’ sets into motion a series of techniques that the narcissist will use to redress the balance and humiliate, degrade and possibly destroy the perpetrator whilst giving the narcissist huge amounts of supply.
Even worse, if the narcissistic injury is bad enough for the narcissist, this might make them very quickly change for the worse and fly into a fit of what is called ‘narcissistic rage’ in which their mask of false self comes off completely and we see the true horror of what is beneath and how evil this person’s actions can be (we will see this in a handful of scenes within Mommie Dearest which mark the film out as so extreme and why lovers of cult cinema almost levitate towards the film like it’s so kind of exploitation film fan magnet, if you will).
Another important facet of narcissism to note is that many speak of the ‘mask’ narcissists wear and the image they try to project onto the world. The narcissist seeks all of their validation from external sources as they don’t seek to address their low self-esteem themselves through self development to ultimately seek self- validation which is so much healthier. The image they project is crafted to try to satisfy their need for this external validation and admiration to the maximum. This mask or ‘false self’ is a massive lie and fabrication which hides their true dark and damaged self. When the mask slips the narcissist’s true self and what lies beneath this mask is apparent for the whole world (or just a select few) to see. And it’s never pretty.
A great example of the type of person who would seek validation solely from external sources (from fans and the public in general) who also has a professionally crafted, honed and polished manufactured image or mask would be a huge Hollywood star. Which is why we’re here!
The kind of madness and crazy-making behaviour that the narcissist creates is so extreme that it would appeal instantly to the fans of exploitation, ‘cult’ cinema with events being so over the top, accentuated and completely nuts that fans of this broad genre would be more than just satisfied but leaping to their feet to applaud, as we’ll see as events unfurl within Mommie Dearest.
Far from being the over the top movie depiction of child abuse which seems exaggerated complete with events and emotions turned up to 11 for the cinema screen, Mommie Dearest is the most complete and uncensored depiction of Narcissistic Personality Disorder presented on celluloid so far. It makes later depictions of the disorder (The Devil Wears Prada instantly springs to mind) somewhat mannered and conservative by comparison. The fact that NPD was only classified in the DCM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the text used to diagnose psychiatric conditions and used by psychologists, psychiatrists and clinicians professionally) in 1980 and Mommie Dearest was released the following year, shows how far ahead of it’s time the film really was.
Of course, Joan in real life or the persona depicted in the movie was never professionally diagnosed. Another facet of narcissists is that they have an inability to self reflect on their condition and would deny possessing it if they were accused of having NPD. They would probably try to turn the diagnosis around to try to imply that in fact it’s the accuser who has the condition rather than themselves (another narcissist trait is employing this technique which is referred to as D.A.R.V.O. which stands for Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender). It might be pointed out that this essay isn’t a definitive diagnosis as Joan isn’t alive to be assessed professionally and so I can only go on the behaviours laid out in the movie which is based on Christina Crawford’s version of events from her upbringing i.e. a subjective second hand chronicle of events.
And so the earlier event at the birthday party sets into action a chain of events that we will see replayed throughout the movie- Joan besmirched, sometimes by something that actually happened, sometimes not but rather something that has somehow triggered a narcissistic injury which makes her try to get revenge and engage in oneupmanship to make herself more powerful than her opponent and gain narcissistic supply to inflate her perpetually low self esteem and self-worth. After the party, Christina is marvelling at all of the presents she has received. She loves one doll especially. Joan asks if this is her favourite present. When Christina says,’Yes’, Joan responds with,’Good! Then that’s the present you’ll get to keep!’ whilst saying that the other presents will be donated to the orphans who have nothing. We see Christina deflated and upset by this. Joan has restored the power dynamic in their relationship that had been reversed momentarily at the party and in front of onlookers.
Greg enters with a bracelet for Christina but on hearing about Joan’s ‘one gift rule’ persuades her to let Christina keep both his gift and the doll.
But this scene also shows something else and that is that Christina can be somewhat stubborn and possesses a rebellious streak. When asked about the present to Christopher that Joan has made Christina give him so that he doesn’t feel left out, she screws up her face, picks up his present and then casually chucks it to one side out of resentment. It would appear that Joan isn’t the only diva in the Crawford household. There are more examples of Christina’s brattishness that maybe explains why audiences side with Joan within the film, even when she is inflicting on her daughter the most brutal child abuse and neglect. The match between a beloved and iconic member of Hollywood Royalty (not to mention a huge gay icon) and a brattish, privileged adopted child living in the lap of luxury was never going to be a fair fight in the eyes of the audience, especially cult film audiences. Viewers were always going to cheer for Joan.
The following scene shows Christina swimming in the huge swimming pool that is part of Casa Crawford. This scene also further plays out the power struggle between Joan and her adopted offspring. Joan says to Greg poolside that she doesn’t want Christina to grow up to be a ‘spoiled Hollywood brat’ and pushes her daughter to practice and swim more even though the child is at the point of exhaustion.
Just as Greg is leaving he turns to see a race in the water between Joan and Christina. Even with a headstart Joan wins easily and doesn’t concede defeat to her child. We even get to see Joan exit the pool with perfect poise and a movie star walk almost as if the press are present. Joan is always ‘on’.
On leaving the pool Joan the narcissist can’t help but taunt her daughter with ‘You lost again!’
Rather than letting her daughter win on purpose Joan sees her victory as a life lesson for Christina by telling her that her win was down to her being ‘stronger and faster’ than her and overrides Christina’s protestations about size and age. This was an easy win for Joan in terms of the race and the acquisition of power and narcissistic supply. The narcissist will always win when it’s possible to do so and certainly not concede or feign defeat even for a small child who just so happens to be their offspring.
With this Christina says that if thats her attitude she’s not going to play with her anymore. Joan smacks her behind for this and locks her in a poolside building.
There was something very masculine and somewhat otherworldly about Joan Crawford, in real life and not just in this movie. Her shoulders and use of shoulder pads accentuated this further. It brings to mind the quote by Alan Bennett regarding the similarly masculine character of Beverley Moss in Abigail’s Party when he described her as having ‘shoulders like a lifeguard and a walk to match’. These masculine shoulders have also provided another reason for various drag queen’s love of Crawford and Dunaway’s portrayal of her.
Mommie Dearest perceptively portrayed this facet of her with Dunaway’s wardrobe. The swimming scene perfectly shows this. Look at the shoulderpads of Joan’s robe. These aren’t natural looking shoulder embellishments but a quarterback’s shoulder guards. These give Joan an air of being all powerful, unconquerable and invincible. There are similar wardrobe embellishments that emphasise Joan’s body shape that are perfect for certain extreme scenes throughout the film that we will examine in due course.
After this we see Joan have a run next to Carol Ann who is driving one of Joan’s gorgeous vintage cars. This short scene gives a glimpse not just of Joan’s commitment to being a huge Hollywood star but also of her internal battles and worries that she is obviously wrestling with and vicariously getting out of her system through her arduous exercise session. ‘Fans should know the price you pay’ Carol Ann says to which Joan replies, ‘Mayer should know the price I pay. The biggest female he’s got. Ever had. And he’s burying me alive.’ Joan then follows this with much muttering and a brief sequence of truly manic running that is very disturbing. The mask has slipped and the demon beneath is briefly viewed.
She arrives back home to hear from Gregg on the phone that he has secured a dream role that she had desperately wanted. She is over the moon with this. She tells Carol Ann with Helga looking on. Notice how everyone present is happy with this news or rather everyone present is permitted to be happy. Contrast this with the earlier scene that also features both Carol Ann and Helga whereby they were both on tenderhooks as Joan inspected their cleaning efforts. This is very telling. The narcissist likes control and that includes the control of other’s emotions. It’s almost as if Joan is dictating which emotions it’s acceptable to feel as she is letting her staff know when it’s OK for them to be happy (when she is) and when they aren’t allowed to be (when she has discovered dirt under a potted plant which means Joan has the right to be angry. Her staff, accordingly, have to be apologetic and meek). The narcissist really is the centre of their universe and the most important person present with other lesser (in the mind of the narcissist) people orbiting around them whilst knowing their inferior status and standing.
However, this jubilant scene suddenly becomes the opposite as Joan goes to look for Christina to tell her the good news. On looking in her bedroom and not finding her there she instead finds her daughter in Joan’s bedroom, in front of the many mirrors that the ever-vain Joan has. Christina is unaware that her mother is watching her as she pretends to be her mother whilst accepting an imaginary award, thanking her fans and luxuriating in the imaginary attention of the collected fans and press.
On seeing this a more emotionally stable person would think this scene was adorable and the ultimate compliment with Christina pretending to be her massively famous mother as she obviously looks up to her as some kind of hero and role model, a person to try to aspire to be. But this is Joan Crawford! She accuses Christina of trying to humiliate and mock her. There is also an air of Joan feeling that Christina is trying to step into her shoes. Joan had worked hard to get to where she is and she wasn’t going to vacate her throne, even for her daughter. Joan’s insecurity is bubbling to the surface.
The ‘imitation’ first half of this scene reminds me of the scene from the trash masterpiece Pink Flaminogos with Raymond and Connie Marble’s ‘rather furtile’ manservant Channing being caught pretending to be them whilst they are supposedly out of the house. ‘I was just playing!’ Channing protests as the pair expose him mid-act and humiliate him accordingly.
However, the second half of this scene in Mommie Dearest turns unexpectedly chaotic, feels out of control and is yet another reason why the movie is so beloved of the cult cinema fraternity. On snatching away a scarf of hers that Christina is wearing, Joan tries to brush out the setting lotion that her daughter has put in her hair to try to imitate her mother. When it won’t brush out, Joan grabs some scissors out of a drawer and proceeds to frantically, hysterically and manically cut Christina’s hair whilst hollering ‘I’d rather you were bald than looking like a tramp!’ As Christina is imitating her mother, does this mean that Joan thinks of herself as a tramp?! Narcissists also use projection and project their feelings about themselves onto their prey. This film is a therapist’s wet dream.
In Dr Ramani’s excellent video ‘Are Narcissists Happy?’ she explains that narcissists possess very superficial emotions and because of this can switch emotions very quickly. With these emotions being surface level rather than deep, a narcissist can go from happiness (Joan rejoicing that she has just received the role she wants) to disbelief and/or rage in an instant (Joan seeing her daughter imitating her and perceiving this as Christina trying to either share or take over completely her spotlight and what makes her feel ‘special’).
This scene is so frenzied, so insane that it’s easy to see why the film has a fond place in the hearts of cult cinema fans the world over. For a second the audience gets the impression that rather than just cutting her daughter’s hair, Joan will start to actually physically maim her, which is also seemingly felt by Joan as after cutting massive sections of Christina’s hair off she looks at the scissors in her hand as if the thought of maiming her with them would be a fitting conclusion, comes to her senses and throws them across the floor.
This scene shows the emotional instability, fragility and extremities of Joan’s emotions, how she can turn from jubilation to destructiveness and all consuming anger in a heartbeat. If film fans and critics thought that this adaptation of Christina Crawford’s book was going to be lily-livered and wouldn’t depict the true horror of what she lived through then this scene (along with other notable stand out scenes to be explored later) proves the opposite. The film doesn’t go the extra mile in depicting these extreme events, it goes a lot further.
The next scene provides the impetus for another chain of events in Joan’s world. Joan arrives at a restaurant with Greg but is forced to dine with studio head L B Mayer even though she states that she has a separate table booked for just her and Gregg. ‘I insist!’ Mayer says with a hard glare as Joan tries to escape to her own table whilst he has financial backers dining at his. Joan being there would lend the meal some glamour and proof of the kind of star that Mayer’s studio cultivates and who bring in money for them. Joan is an accessory, a cash-cow, akin to a rented escort for the evening.
‘You’re aces!’ Mayer says to Joan to which she quips back ‘Thats good because aces beat kings!’ (first pic below) ‘Not in Hollywood, dear!’ is how Mayer responds (second pic below). Joan has lost that battle and publicly (her face in the third pic below says it all!). This scene is also very telling as Joan now knows how Christina must have felt because of how her mother has viewed her all along- as an accessory and dehumanised because of it.
And we don’t have to wait long before we see these repercussions. We witness Joan and Greg in her bedroom back at her mansion. She is livid with what happened at the restaurant which she solely blames on Greg. If only he had walked into the restaurant together they would have had dinner at their table rather than Greg entering first and gravitating to Mayer’s table. ‘Hauling me over like some kind of picked up floozy!’ Joan remarks.
As she pours her umpteenth drink Greg remarks that ‘When you were a kid that made you look sexy. Now it just makes you look drunk!’ This dig at her age causes another narcissistic injury for Joan which results in her throwing a drink over him.
When Greg states that he didn’t walk into the restaurant because Joan was beseiged with fans she states ‘You expect me to ignore my fans? They are life and death to me, baby! They’re the ones who really made me.’ This is very telling and is also narcissistic behaviour- her self esteem and self worth are so low that she needs the love of others to feel good about herself and seeks external validation rather than being able to obtain it from within. The blind adoration of her fanbase would do this for her. Anyone who doesn’t unconditionally love Joan or sees behind her mask will be dealt with accordingly- as we see now. Greg then states ‘You were the shop girl who fought her way to the top. Made a great success.’ He then stipulates it more plainly. ‘The truth is you’re getting old!’ to which she replies ‘You’re nothing but a rotten crooked lawyer!’ When Greg gets up to leave, even at one point grabbing her shoulders and shaking her with rage, she backs down, breaks down into tears and begs him not to leave. He also astutely accuses her of acting which is another way of him saying that he sees through her and her false self. Her tears, if they are genuine, might be yet another sign that Joan suffers from Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Narcissists hate being abandoned.
Greg does leave and because of this is excised from Joan’s life on every imaginable level. The next day Joan and Carol-Ann are found cutting out Greg’s image from every photograph that he is in.
The control freak Joan is clearly attempting to erase her past. Christina notes that it appears that if her mother doesn’t like you, she can just make you disappear. In her book this was actually pertaining to another older adopted child that Joan took in. Something had happened to make Joan hate the child, their possessions and any trace of them removed from her household and her life, never to be mentioned again, as if they had never existed or been part of her and Christina’s life in the first place. The child’s name was Christopher. Tellingly, he was replaced with another son who Joan also called Christopher as if the older one was merely replaceable, same name and all.
We then see a team of staff putting photographs of Joan into envelopes for her adoring fans. The fans made her after all! And they give her the adoration and validation her fragile ego demands to elevate itself. The sending of a signed image of herself to her fans ensures that their love and adoration for her will always still be there.
There’s another overlap with John Waters’ oeuvre with the next scene in which Christina and Christopher’s loud playing wakes Joan up. Joan shouting at them from an upstairs window in reminiscent of Peggy Gravel shouting at similarly noisy children after her window is smashed by a baseball.
Christina is seen bringing her mother her coffee on a tray after this and saying, ‘Sorry, Mommie’ whilst being completely compliant and meek after this incident even though she was just being a child and playing boisterously with her brother. This is also a trait of people who have a narcissist in their lives. In Dr Ramani’s excellent video ‘The Narcissist and the Handmaid’ she explains how victims of narcissists will act as ‘handmaids’to the narcissist to minimise any toxic behaviour or catastrophic fallout that may come from the narcissist. This is very common when the narcissist is a parent, especially one with an addiction problem. The victim is desperately trying to make their life as stress free as possible by making the narcissist’s life as smooth as possible even if it puts themselves or others at a disadvantage. In this instance Christina bringing her mother her coffee, apologising and addressing her mother in the way her mother prefers is an example of this. In some instances if the handmaid also enables the narcissist’s toxic actions towards others then so be it, if it makes their life a little easier and less toxic.
Joan being an all-powerful presence who can make people and things disappear is also evident in the next scene. Joan spies on Christina telling her dolls off (and tellingly validating one of Joan’s narcissist episodes) for waking her mother up who has a very important meeting with studio head L B Mayer and needs some peace and quiet before that! When Christina returns to her bedroom later she finds that all of her dolls have been removed. On asking her mother about it Joan remarks that maybe the same could happen to Christina if she misbehaves! This scene is especially notable because Joan is reclining on a chaste-longe wearing a turban, matching white bath robe and applying skin cream to her elbows! The film just continues to give and give.
Joan’s meeting with head of MGM Studios L B Mayer doesn’t go well. Out of nowhere, Mayer says that Crawford will leave MGM as cinema owners have voted her ‘box-office poison’. This visibly rocks Crawford so that she starts to weep. She requests for Mayer to do her the courtesy of escorting her to her car. But he doesn’t and Joan has to endure the Walk of Shame in all it’s terrible glory.
This leads to such a deep narcissistic wound that it initiates one of Mommie Dearest’s most infamous scenes and quoted lines. Joan has gone berserk in her rose garden (and changed into a ballgown to do it!) with a pair of garden shears (!)
Carol Ann wakes Christina and Christopher up so that they can help to clear up the roses that Joan has hacked away. It’s here that we see something within the film that isn’t explained but is within Christina’s book. We see Christopher is fastened into his bed by some kind of harness type contraption. This was known as the ‘Sleep Safe’ according to Christina. It was used to fasten small toddlers into their beds only Joan had had it modified for Christopher so that even though he was older than the age it was originally intended for, it could be used to stop him from getting up in the middle of the night for committing some terrible deed such as using the bathroom! This act of power and control is also indicative of Joan’s narcissism. How dare he get up to empty his bladder when it might wake her up?!
As Joan undertakes some frantic midnight horticulture she repeats Mayer’s damning, ego-bruising words (‘box office poison!’) as they violently swirl around her head. She is also shown to have cuts to her face and shows that her rage is stronger than any kind of superficial self injuries. Her face is just one step away from Regan MacNeil’s in The Exorcist.
Just when this display of narcissistic rage couldn’t get any more extreme Joan hollers, ‘TINA! BRING ME THE AX!’
With that she starts to manically chop down a tree in her garden until it is triumphantly felled. This is one the most demented, surreal, nightmarish and brilliant sequences ever filmed in the history of cinema. It also demonstrates the extra mile the film and Faye Dunaway went to fully portray just how bizarre the circumstances were. Joan focussed the rage that she couldn’t aim at Mayer against an object that couldn’t answer back and could be successfully destroyed. Why she chose her garden is anyone’s guess.
Maybe Joan was tapping into this side of herself when she chose/was driven to star in films later in her career that were aimed more at the exploitation/cult film crowd out of necessity. She was certainly no stranger to wielding an axe either onscreen or during promotion for these types of films and whoever cast her must have recognised the manic and extreme side to her on-screen persona.
After this mindfuck of a scene we see (relative) stability restored and a new day with fresh drama (but minor compared to Joan’s attempts at horticulture). Carol-Ann has been chosen to read lines from Mildred Pierce with Joan so that Crawford can learn the script. Tellingly, one section of the screenplay resonates with Joan a little bit too much. It’s suggested by Mildred’s daughter (voiced by Carol-Anne) that her mother is from the wrong side of the tracks and maybe thats why her father left. With this Joan full on slaps Carol-Anne across the face which understandably halts rehearsals.
This is very perceptive of the film. With Joan being the ‘shop-girl who made good’ (in the book of Mommie Dearest, Christina mentions the rumours of Joan becoming a prostitute at one point to claw her way to the top) she is only well aware of the circumstances she was born into and is deeply ashamed of them. In fact, her other issues (NPD, OCD) could maybe be explained as being the result of her childhood and this sense of shame of not being born into money. Her sense of grandiosity and entitlement suggests that she should have been. These are also key facets of Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
After the slap Joan replies with her next line from the script that seems just as apt to what has happened in real life (‘I’m sorry I did that. I’d’ve rather cut off my hand’). But this scene also has an extra layer of meaning- Joan is rehearsing because this is the first time in years that she is being made to take a screen test for a role. This is understandably a huge step backwards for Joan and reminiscent of when she first started and all of that time’s associated fears and uncertainties for her. This also must have bruised her already oh so fragile ego.
Another scene that highlights Joan and her need for control is the lunch scene. Herself, Christina and Carol-Anne are eating rare steak but Christina complains because she doesn’t like it as there’s blood oozing out of it.
There then ensues a battle of wills. Christina is adamant that she won’t eat the steak. Joan tells her she can’t leave the table until it’s finished.
Joan goes back to her later on and says she can leave the table but not until shes taken the still uneaten steak to the fridge. The steak is then produced again for her evening meal which Joan insists on her eating on her own in her room. The steak is then seen untouched beside Christina’s bed as she sleeps when Joan checks on her late at night. When Christina comes down for breakfast the next morning she finds the steak again waiting for her to be finished. When she still doesn’t finish it she is made by Joan to put it in the bin.
Whilst this scene emphasises Joan’s need for control and the extraordinary lengths she will go to to make Christina bend to her rule, it’s shows the reality that Joan had to face. Far from being the ready made fan club that she envisaged when she thought of adoption and the press columns this would afford her, Christina was a stubborn child as some children are and so what manifested itself was a battle of wills between Godzilla and a small child who was asserting herself.
It’s very telling when Joan wins the Oscar for Mildred Pierce and leaves her home to address her adoring fans and the press outside her mansion.
Check out Christina’s expression when she is closing the door on her Mother’s throng. She is in awe when she is shown just how alluring and appealing her mother’s kind of celebrity is.
Now comes the scene that is the most extreme in Mommie Dearest, the scene that would secure the film it’s place in film history (whether the boring film purists like it or not) and which the studio would use to promote the film as a cult classic when they saw that audiences were going to the film and laughing and quoting lines as they would with any prime slice of cult goodness.
In Christina Crawford’s book she would describe what happens next as one of Joan’s many ‘night raids’. Apparently out of nowhere, her mother would become enraged in the middle of the night, waking Christina and Christopher abruptly out of their slumber for some kind of misdemeanour (which she’s intentionally looked for to enact punishment) one or both of them have committed, whether it made sense to them or not.
We see Joan (slavered in cold cream on her face and wearing an Alice band and nightrobe) going through her daughter’s closet whilst her little ones are sound asleep. She makes sure each of her daughter’s dresses are equally spaced apart from each other in her closet, another indicator of her need for control and order (her control, her order). She suddenly notices, horror of horrors, one of Christina’s dresses on a wire hanger.
The beginning of this scene is extremely telling and fully illustrates the kind of hair-line trigger emotions the narcissist possesses. Anger can rear it’s volcanic head at any moment whether the reason for this can be perceived by others or not.
With this Joan swipes the hangers and dresses on them with manic gusto and singles out the offending article that the frock is hung on.
Christina and Christopher are woken abruptly by their mother shrieking ‘No wire hangers! What’s wire hangers doing in this closet when I told you no wire hangers EVER?!’
But as Joan explodes and wreaks havoc on her daughter it’s clear that the dress and the hanger it’s on isn’t the real reason behind her volcanic outburst. ”I work and work till I’m half-dead and I hear people saying ‘She’s getting old!” she hollers. She also shrieks that Christina treats her dresses like dish-rags and shows her disregard for the expensive garments bought for her by putting them on wire hangers. The true motivation for this burst of narcissistic rage is also extolled by Joan when she yells ‘You live in the most beautiful house in Brentwood!’ as she later beats Christina with another wire hanger she unfortunately found in the closet. This is the reappearance of the shop-girl past of Joan as she admonishes her daughter for having all of the luxuries she felt she was entitled to but didn’t receive. She is punishing her daughter because of her own past.
Within the documentary ‘The Estate of Joan Crawford’ it’s stated by Christina that this incident may have been sparked as when Joan was growing up she helped her mother in one of her jobs by working with her in a laundry. When clothes were returned to their owners cleaned and pressed they were placed on wire hangers. The sudden sight of this offending object may have reminded Joan of her impoverished past.
This is an uncomfortable scene to watch on many different levels. The first is because this is child abuse being betrayed in a no holds barred fashion the likes of which hadn’t been seen in a mainstream Hollywood film before. It is obviously very disturbing. But there’s more to this scene that makes it surreal and bizarre. This isn’t just anyone beating their offspring. This is Queen of Hollywood, Joan Crawford. And she looks and acts like someone possessed.
Her face is so bizarre, demonic and Medusa-like throughout this scene that at times we were treated to seeing Dunaway’s eyes almost pop out of her skull. During her rant, her bug eyes remind me of the eponymous villain of the old horror movie The Reptile.
Whilst this scene is one of the most talked about and loved amongst fans of the film and cult movie lovers, it’s enjoyed not as out and out camp or because it’s ‘so bad it’s good’. It’s because it’s so extreme and perfectly depicts Joan’s mood swings and fits of all-consuming narcissistic rage. This film possibly showed the first ever depiction of this type of rage on celluloid. Anyone who has been unfortunate enough to have someone with NPD in their lives can vouch for the accuracy of this sudden and very extreme outburst.
Dunaway’s performance here is extraordinary. Her face gurns and seemingly mutates. She truly was ‘in the zone’ and very brave to forego dignity or beauty to give an exceptional performance. NPD isn’t pretty in it’s ‘warts and all’ horror when the ‘false mask’ slips and she fully conveys this.
Joan starts manically and frantically throwing all of Christina’s dresses out of her closet and onto the floor. Christina pleads with her mother to stop. Joan then looks for another wire hanger and on finding one wields it in her hand whilst demanding that her daughter get out of bed.
She tells Christina to clean up the mess that ironically she has created (we’ll see this happen again within the second part of this scene). Christina, visibly shaken and scared stiff, complies and starts to put the dresses back on their hangers. This is again typical behaviour of those unlucky to have been subjected to narcissistic rage and the threat of it- acting as a ‘handmaid’ (as discussed earlier) to try to placate the narcissist so that their narcissistic rage simmers down and dissipates. Christina would also have been acting out of sheer terror when she started putting her dresses back on their hangers.
As Joan’s rage seemingly reaches fever pitch she starts to beat her daughter with the wire hanger in her hand.
It’s worth noting that after she has beaten Christina with the hanger, she then goes to the adjoining bathroom to crouch down to seemingly have a think. It’s almost as if she is mentally digesting the massive episode of violence that she has just inflicted and the chaos she is at the centre of.
This is reminiscent of the scene at the climax of Taxi Driver in which Travis Bickle shoots the pimp Sport. He then goes and sits down on a stoop nearby. This is an odd moment of calm within a tumultuous and violent scene.
But this brief moment of calm proves to be fleeting as Godzilla is back for Round Two.
It’s noteworthy in this part of the scene that with her twisted appearance and face cream that is now almost like a cracking panstick applied to her face, Joan bears an uncanny resemblance to Heath Ledger’s take on The Joker.
Also, when Joan prompts Christina to thank her for her beating with her preferred ‘Mommie Dearest’ after it, she opines ‘When I asked you to call me that I wanted you to mean it’ which is then followed with an otherworldly and utterly disturbing hiss from Joan as she drags Christina into the bathroom for more madness.
In this scene Joan seems almost like a supernatural being or malevolent force of nature. People have spoken about narcissistic rage as being like demonic possession. This is depicted eerily well here. In her review of the movie in The New Yorker on Oct 12th 1981 (and collected in the book ‘Taking It All In’) Pauline Kael wrote ‘these scenes transcend camp’ and she is right on the money as was the rest of her positive and very astute review. This scene is the epitome of the film going well and truly beyond camp and steering into darker and more troubling waters. This is Exorcist territory. Also, notice the way that it’s almost like Joan invades the personal space of the audience as her hissing possessed face comes right towards the camera. Who needs 3D with such a scene like this?
This really is an extraordinary performance by any standards with Dunaway’s facial gymnastics and seething Medusa as another facet of her depiction of one woman’s personality disorders and dark metamorphoses.
It’s in the bathroom that Joan’s OCD kicks in with her shrieking that the bathroom isn’t clean and that they must clean it together. She even points at imaginary dirt, wipes the surface of an immaculately clean sink and shows the dirt (that isn’t there) to Christina as ‘proof’.
Joan pulls out a canister of cleaning powder, putting a small portion of it on the floor and hysterically telling Christina that they will scrub together.
Notice the vulnerability, irrationality and fear in Joan’s voice as she says to Christina that they will clean the floor together and sets this in motion by saying ‘Go! Scrub hard!’ She sounds so child-like as this seemingly echoes the upset child inside and whatever trauma it was from her own childhood that has now manifested itself as her current OCD.
But this cleaning soon becomes more frenzied with Joan wildly flailing the powder around the room by waving the canister like some kind of possessed being and even beating Christina a couple of times with said container.
Joan’s cleaning and scrubbing becomes dangerously out of control and manic as it’s clear that her irrational OCD has kicked in and is now running the show. We are seeing pure NPD and OCD, a very dangerous combination.
This wild episode then cumulates in both Joan and Christina dissolving into tears in the middle of a bathroom completely covered in cleaning powder.
This could be seen as some kind of wish fulfilment on Joan’s part just like the earlier incident involving Joan throwing all of Christina’s dresses onto her floor. Here she complains to Christina that the bathroom was dirty when it wasn’t and so she makes sure that by the end of her shit-fit it is dirty and needs to be cleared up.
Joan’s OCD in this scene could also be seen to be triggered by her start in life. She never had the advantages that Christina has been afforded and no matter how hard she scrubs, she can’t change the past and the dirty smear that forever stains her psyche because of it . This also shows a massive amount of entitlement (again, this is also a narcissistic trait) on the part of Joan. She should have been born into different circumstances, better circumstances but wasn’t. She deserved better but didn’t get it.
After Joan has gotten up to leave she turns around to her daughter and demands that she cleans up the mess. She is then asked how.
The supernatural being shows it’s face again as Joan says, ‘You figure it out’ and then her face contorts to such a degree that she goes slightly cross-eyed as she surreally leaves the room.
One of the most unexpected aspects of this scene is that Christopher was actually present in the same bedroom as the abuse was going on. We see that he has escaped the constraints of his Sleep Safe to come and console his sister and say that he will help her clean up the mess.
Christina urgently tells him to get back into bed as he will be in massive trouble too if Godzilla sees that he has escaped his bed and is trying to help her. Christopher reluctantly goes back to bed.
‘Jesus Christ!’ is how Christina responds when her mother has left and is surveying the carnage of Godzilla’s havoc. Her use of this phrase feels like an obscenity from the mouth of a being too young to use it but far too advanced in what she’s been through already.
The next scene couldn’t be more different from the madness we’ve just witnessed. It shows the facade and false image Crawford and the Hollywood machine have crafted. Joan, Christina and Christopher are participating in a Christmas radio special regarding how La Crawford and her children will spend the festive season. It’s such a deceptive depiction of family love, harmony and perfection that it is almost vomit-inducing in it’s falsity and artificiality, especially the end in which Crawford and her offspring recite the last lines of Twas The Night Before Christmas for the audience. But this scene is also very perceptive as Joan extols the virtues of motherhood and not spoiling her children. ‘Discipline mixed with love is such a good recipe!’ Quite! But in what proportions?
The fact that this farcical and completely dishonest scene is straight after the infamous ‘wire hangers’ scene shows the sharp contrast between real life as suffered by Christina and the fake life scripted by Hollywood and Joan for radio listeners and film fans worldwide. If this scene is the equivalent of Joan’s false self then the savage scene before this is her true self, the mask slipping off completely.
Another scene after this that is also very telling is when one of Joan’s suitors/meal tickets arrives at her house to be met by Christina who seems to take on the role of bartender for such occasions (‘Easy on the Scotch, Christina!’) as we note that she seems to have done this before (‘I make all my Uncle’s drinks this way!’) This is also an example of someone with a narcissistic parent who acts as a handmaid to the narcissist to make their own life as free from toxic fallout from the narcissist as possible.
This scene is also noteworthy as when we see Joan (in a thoroughly bizarre start to the scene) as she is admiring her legs in a way that suggests admiration but maybe also one of ‘Have I still got it?!’ This question may still be resounding around her head just as the taunts of her being ‘box-office poison’ do. Oh, the transitory, fickle world of Hollywood. This wonderfully surreal scene (within a wonderfully surreal movie) is yet another example of the sense the viewer gets that literally anything could happen within Mommie Dearest. Like so many scenes within the film, this also gave birth to a whole new generation of drag queens.
Christina brings her suitor (a producer named Ted Gilbert) to Joan who bemoans that the script that he brought her is no good. When he leans in to Joan for intimacy her face changes to one of neutrality. It’s apparent why Joan is with him which is what she may be able to get from him. When she has obtained as much as she can from him she will then ditch him (known as ‘the discard’ and also a trait of narcissism) for other fare. This idea of seeing others as merely objects and/or commodities that are useable in some way that is advantageous is also symptomatic of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Others are seen by what they can do for the narcissist or what they can bring. This scene also hints at something that Christina explicitly states in her book and that is there were rumours of her mother becoming a prostitute to claw her way to the top. This clearly hasn’t changed with Joan prostituting her affections in exchange for a film role/star vehicle that might make it possible to clamber onto her throne again.
Christina rearrives with a fresh drink for her mother even though one hasn’t been requested which alarms Joan. Her daughter also seems to be in no hurry to leave and is even dismissed to leave by her mother. She leaves slowly with lots of knowing and suggestive backwards glances that further enrages Joan. ‘That’s quite an extraordinary young lady!’ remarks Gilbert.
Another narcissistic injury brings another act of retribution from Joan as we next see her driving Christina (despite tearful pleas of protest and remorse from her) to Chadwick’s Country Boarding School. We see the full cycle that we have seen many times in Mommie Dearest- the stubborn child who Joan the narcissist wants to be labile and subservient instead being bolshy, this causing a narcissistic wound with Joan who must be all powerful which causes narcissistic rage from her as she takes revenge.
She is met by Mrs Chadwick (the ever brilliant Priscilla Pointer) who surprisingly soothes her by saying, ‘I understand just how you feel. I understand!’ This environment could be just what Christina needs in that it will be a peaceful and more emotionally calm respite from the psychotic high drama of life with Joan.
The film then flashes forward several years as we see Christina now as a teenager and capturing the attentions of a young male classmate. This storyline will be picked up later by the film.
We then see Joan and Christina in a very upmarket restaurant as a waiter flirts with Christina who duly flirts back. Her mother sees all of this and reprimands her. ‘Flirting can be taken the wrong way!’ she opines maybe because it wasn’t her who was being complimented by the waiter. We see that Joan’s narcissistic ways haven’t abated in the time away from her daughter with her ordering for them both of them without any hint of consultation with Christina (she orders the New York steak and rare to boot which takes us back to the earlier incident). Another display of her need to wield total control and power even when it comes to what her daughter will eat.
When Christina proudly tells her mother about her great grades at school she is met with her mother chastising her about whether she has completed her Christmas card list even though the Yuletide season is months away. Joan will get the upper hand, even if her means of achieving this are irrational and completely insane.
But whilst all of this can be seen to be yet another feast of Cluster B traits from Joan, the scene then sails onto more sensitive and heartfelt waters (well for Mommie Dearest anyway). Joan explains to Christina that she has had to let go of their home-help Helga and that she will need her help around the house. We get to see Joan’s hands during this shot with another aside that is as strange and unexpected as the one of Joan inspecting her legs that we were blessed with earlier. Is there a reason for this? Does it correlate to a later scene in which Joan is drunk and surrounded by gifts she has bought for herself? Maybe it hints at the possibility that Joan isn’t as broke as she makes out. Helga is let go but her jewellery stays?
This leads to a scene that almost shows Joan as human. Almost. She goes down to join her daughter in the laundry.
Joan explains to her that she is having financial difficulties. She also explains that because of this Mrs Chadwick has decided to let Christina stay on at her school but on the work scholarship programme. Joan looks genuinely downbeaten as she reminisces and says that she did the same thing when she was young, scrubbing floors to get through school. And then the unthinkable happens. Joan starts to show genuine (or is it) vulnerability and breaks down in tears as she says that she has lost her contract at Warner’s and states that she has ‘no money, no contract, no studio’. ‘I’m scared’ she cries to Christina as we see her tearful confession. The mask has slipped but rather than exposing the all too common gargoyle beneath we see her softer, all too human side.
After this we see Christina go to find her mother but after seeing her comatose on a couch shouts to Carol-Ann as she fears the worst and that her mother has actually topped herself.
Carol-Ann then duly tells her that in fact shes just passed out drunk.
Whats more she is surrounded by lots of newly bought items such as shoes even though she had told Christina that they were broke. Was this a lie (narcissists love to lie)? Was this Joan claiming victimhood (narcissists love to play the victim)? Or was this Joan telling the truth but going out and spending money she didn’t have to prop up her fragile ego and try to prove that her status as a once huge member of Hollywood Royalty was still valid even though she has been told her star is on the wane?
They help Joan up and get her to bed. Joan says to Carol Ann that she is a ”Lousy substitute for someone who really cares” on seeing her!Joan being drunk in this scene and being seen part-taking heavily within other scenes within the film is also indicative of narcissistic behaviour. Some narcissists can’t take the truth of who they are and so rush to find solace in many different addictions whether it be drink, drugs or serial promiscuity. This is done as a means of escape from who they are and as a distraction from their real dark self.
Back at school, Christina goes to the school’s stables to get with jiggy with the boy who she’s caught the attention of but is then caught and reported by a student who thought she was in a relationship with the boy caught rolling in the hay (literally) with Christina. This wouldn’t be the last time we see Christina’s shocking choice of underwear in this film (more of that later).
When Joan is notified of this she storms in like the force of nature that she is and accuses Mrs Chadwick of running something akin to a brothel rather than a school despite the school owner’s protestations that what Christina was caught doing was completely natural. This black and white thinking of Joan’s is again a key trait of narcissism. Why see shades of grey when you can think the very worst scenario has occurred? There’s more drama to be had with pretending the worst has happened. What’s more Mrs Chadwick states that Christina and the boy have just been placed on probation for what has happened but it’s Joan who grandly states that Christina must leave this wicked school which is seemingly (but only in Joan’s head) teaching her such wicked ways. It’s worth noting that during this exchange Mrs Chadwick accuses Joan of overreacting whilst Joan counters with the opinion that Mrs Chadwick is, in fact, underreacting. If any one line of dialogue could epitomise the whole of Mommie Dearest it’s surely this!
On the drive home Joan is apoplectic with rage. On seeing that her hip-flask which is conveniently stashed in the glove compartment of her car is empty, Christina drolly remarks ‘There’s a liquor store to the right.’ But whilst she thinks this is a stinging put down to her mother she is aced with the following comeback from The Queen of Venom- ‘I might have known you’d know where to find the boys and the booze!’ And another catchphrase associated with the film is born.
But Christina’s line about the liquor store isn’t just a catty putdown for her boozy mom. It’s also indicative of a child with a narcissistic parent (with addiction problems natch) acting as a ‘handmaid’ to her narc parent as we’ve seen before within the movie.
What happens next goes down as one of the most extreme scenes in film history just as the ‘wire hangers’ scene does. This scene is loved by fans of Mommie Dearest and cult cinema and just goes to show how edgy even mainstream Hollywood cinema could be at one time.
Joan and Christina arrive home to find journalist Barbara Bennett in their house writing a piece on Joan. La Crawford has sternly pre-warned her daughter of Barbara being there and that she should be on her best behaviour, even though as the scene plays out it should have been her who paid heed to her own words of advice.
It’s also worth noting that again this is an extreme scene resplendent with an extreme outfit Joan is wearing with, yet again, shoulder pads that would make a quarterback jealous.
On entering the house Joan is regaled with the carefully crafted fan magazine bullshit that Bennett has concocted so far (‘Movie star manages to have it all. Career, home and family!’) After a brief exchange with Christina, Bennett remarks how Chadwick has taught her some very good manners to which Joan counters that she has just been expelled, as big a lie as the tommyrot that Barbara has been writing. But just as Barbara’s lies are sickly sweet, Joan’s lie is blackly venomous and meant to injure, besmirch and ruin Christina’s reputation to Bennett. Her lie shows Joan doing what comes naturally to the narcissist. Paradoxically this could, ironically for someone like Joan, very well find it’s way into print. For someone like Joan to whom image is everything, this could prove fatal. She only has herself to blame but hence, would never admit this to herself. She seems not be able to tell the difference between truth and lies as we will see as this scene develops.
Christina is quick to counter to Joan’s untruth with ‘That’s a lie!’ Joan and Christina then carry on their discussion/slanging match in another room and away from Barbara. Joan is still under the impression that Christina got expelled and seems to believe the lie herself even when it was her who unnecessarily took her daughter out of the prestigious school. When Christina states again that it is a lie she is slapped by her mother but defiantly turns her head back to face her mother again after each slap.
The narcissist in Joan then angrily responses ‘You love it don’t you?! You love to make me hit you!’ as if she is substantiating and validating why she has struck Christina and as if to show that Christina is the guilty party. This is, tellingly, a tactic used by those with Narcissistic Personality Disorder and is known as DARVO (as stated earlier) which stands for ‘Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender’ whereby the narcissist projects their own toxic behaviour onto the victim of their actions and then blames them for it. It’s a classic example of victim blaming that a narcissist will employ. Joan is stating that Christina is the guilty party in this scenario as she made Joan hit her.
Joan’s statement is also an example of the tactic used by narcissists which is known as ‘gaslighting‘ whereby the narc will try to distort reality to sow a seed of doubt in the mind of their victim. Christina was meant to start to think, ‘Maybe I am to blame here’ and back down accordingly. This fails in this instance however as it appears that her daughter is well aware of what the truth is and thus sees through the lies and distortions.
After being joined by Barbara, Joan redirects her to find Carol-Ann if she needs anything. With Ms Bennett out of the way Joan just gets worse.
She has experienced enough of a narcissistic injury already but this is compounded by the spat being witnessed by Bennett which surely acts as a direct attack on what she holds most dearly- her false persona, the Hollywood Royalty mask and her reason d’etre as Bennett could very well report to the outside world what she has witnessed. ‘You deliberately embarrass me in front of a reporter. A reporter! I told you how important this is to me. I told you!’ she screams. Her body language and gesticulations are key here and show what a genuinely great and nuanced performance Dunaway gives. As she says, ‘a reporter’ for the second time she stretches out her forearms and fingers in Christina’s direction. We then see her bring her hands to herself as she shows that she is the target of this perceived incoming attack from her daughter. She brings her hands close and onto her body and then brings her hands up to her chest to show how fatal this will be and that her whole being, her soul and her very core are under threat and will be adversely affected. This is an extraordinary piece of acting.
Joan is under threat now on every level. Joan’s public image and ‘false self’ is everything to her. If this public image is reported to be a lie by a reporter along with the truth that her private life isn’t as rosy as Joan’s PR spin would have you believe then the adoration and validation she receives from the general public is threatened and as a result of this her very being will be destroyed. This situation of not being able to obtain supply would be disastrous for any narcissist. They have no means to self-validate hence the false self. This could lead to what is known as narcissistic collapse.
This is then abruptly interrupted by Christina who demands to know ‘Why did you adopt me?’ If there was every any exchange in the whole film that gets to the core of matters being played out in front of our eyes, it’s this. Joan is genuinely shocked and taken aback. She even looks as if she has been slapped herself. The elephant in the room has been identified, brought out into the open and forced to be discussed. To this Joan replies with ‘What?!’ whilst looking mortally wounded. When her daughter repeats the question Joan feigns compassion and says, ‘Because I wanted a child! I wanted someone to love’ to which Christina responds with ‘Don’t you act for me! I wanna know! Why did you adopt me?’ Note that this was the second time in the film that Joan has been told to stop acting with ‘acting’ being another term for her narcissistic false self as Greg said the same in the scene where he leaves her life for good. This forceful demand for the truth makes Joan’s mask slip for her to *shock horror* tell the truth. ‘Maybe I did it for a little extra publicity’. The mask has momentarily slipped to which she then slips it back on and tells Tina, ‘That’s not true! You know that’s not true’. ‘Maybe just a little true’ Christina responds as if what she has known all along has been brought out into the open at long last.
With this Joan makes sure that the point or target of the hostility within the argument is directed back at her daughter as she says that she doesn’t know what to do with her to which Christina screams ‘Why not?’ Notice Dunaway’s amazing performance here again as she trips down the first step she has to walk down to get closer to her daughter. Joan would never have normally done that as her movie star persona demanded perfection and poise at all times. She has been damaged by this toxic conversation/argument with Christina. Her narcissism then comes to the fore again with her entitlement making her say, ‘I don’t ask much from you girly! Why can’t you give me the respect that I’m entitled to? Why can’t you treat me in the way I would be treated by any stranger on the street?’
Christina then responds by bellowing ‘Because I am not one of your fans!’ This scene could have easily been a ‘the worm has turned’ type scenario with the downtrodden finding their power, using that power and sticking it to their oppressor. Instead Mommie Dearest goes the opposite way which is why it’s now regarded as one of the most infamous, uncompromising and extreme films ever made. When Narcissistic Personality Disorder is at play this kind of extreme behaviour is completely plausible.
There couldn’t have been a bigger insult made to Joan. A narcissist seeks validation and approval externally akin to the kind she receives from her fans. It’s obvious she wanted an instant fawning, sycophantic fan club to be at her side at all times in the form of her adopted children. She also wanted the extra press that her brood could garner her. Instead she had a rebellious, assertive daughter who stood up for herself and reflected back to Joan other more complex emotions rather than just pure unquestioning adoration.
Such a scene in a more conventional biopic would have concluded with Joan backing down and learning the error of her ways. As this is Mommie Dearest and a prime slice of cult filmmaking, the following happens.
Joan rugby tackles Christina down to the floor by her neck, takes out a very expensive side table and lamp in the process…
…and proceeds to strangle the very life out of her adopted daughter/fashion accessory whilst shrieking lines such as ‘You never loved me!’, ‘You’ve always taken and taken’ and ‘You never wanted to be my child!’
Notice Dunaway’s performance here and how she eerily and expertly conveys the narcissistic mask of false self slipping to show the demon underneath it. Again, as Pauline Kael stated Mommie Dearest ‘transcends camp’.
There’s even a backwards shot of the proceedings that shows Christina’s very unattractive knickers for a second time as if once wasn’t vomit-inducing enough as she flails her legs around wildly as she’s being throttled by her mother.
Carol-Ann and Barbara both rush in and attempt to wrestle Joan off her daughter. Joan then suddenly flings back her arms to get them off her and roars like some kind of beast as Godzilla makes another appearance during the film. Joan’s narcissist rage is there for all to be horrified by.
This scene of utter insanity ends with Joan screaming that Christina ‘Get out!’ as she lies on the floor clutching her throat and making choking noises.
The next scene depicts Christina being induced into a convent school and is eerily calm and serene. This transition is at complete odds with the previous scene of complete and utter madness. It feels like, in fact, Frank Perry knew very well that he was making a cult film and that the movie should have a knowing black humour intertwined within it. It’s also one of the most jarring and blackly funny scene contrasts I’ve ever seen. We see Christina’s induction into the convent school as retribution from Joan because of her colossal tussle with her mother, the effect coming after the cause. She is told that her mother has requested ‘the strictest discipline for you. There will be no privileges. You’re not to leave the school. There will be no telephone calls, in or out, no visitors, no mail.’
In fact another great aspect of the film as a whole is the way the edits and gaps between scenes is so dizzying and kamikaze. An edit can mean either later that day or several years into the future. It disorientates in much the same way as someone hitting you in the face repeatedly with a metal tray would. These edits and sensations all add to the extreme nature of Mommie Dearest. Again, you feel like anything can happen.
The film flashes forward as we see Joan getting married to Pepsi Cola CEO Mr Alfred Steele. Was it for love? Now that we know Joan’s narcissistic traits, we can presume that the answer is ‘No’. Narcissists see others as objects and as what they can bring for their own nefarious gains. The head honcho at a huge corporation like Pepsi Cola could bring a hell of a lot to the life of the Hollywood actress with a career well past it’s prime.
We see Christina leave the convent school and arrive home to Joan who asks her to introduce herself to her new father. There’s a marvellously awkward scene where Christina goes up to Steele who is swimming lengths in their pool and says, ‘Hi Daddy. I’m Christina!’ before they cordially shake hands.
It’s at the building renovation of their new apartment cum Pepsi showhome that we see Joan and Christina discussing Tina going into acting. She explains that she is working nights so she can go to auditions during the day. She also asks her mother for a little financial help but, of course, Mommie Dearest says no and that ‘doing things on your own is best’. But we then see Alfred give her some cash in private and out of sight of Joan. We also see Alfred asking Joan to cut back on her spending and the plans she has for their new building. When she objects to this he says ‘This isn’t Hollywood. This is the real world!’ This is reality vs Hollywood make-believe again just like this is the true self vs the false self that Joan has concocted to hide her dark heart.
Within this scene we get another prime slice of Joan being all powerful and the stroppy diva that audiences of the film all know and love. There are discussions being had about the layout of the apartment and specifically about a bearing wall that is blocking the view. Joan responds with her own solution for the problem- ‘I’ll tell you what to do. Tear down that bitch of a bearing wall and put a window where it ought to be’. Joan has delivered this line as if it’s a speech from one of her own movies to demonstrate that the leading lady can be strong, assertive and have better ideas than those around her. But this isn’t a film, it’s real life and so her bizarre and out of context Oscar winning speech results in exchanged glances and aghast expressions of all those around her. This is another example of the distance between Joan’s reality and actual reality not to mention that a bearing wall actually holds up part of a property as opposed to a partition wall. But as we’ve seen from previous scenes in the film, Godzilla loves to destroy so maybe this was her intention all along.
Another jarring cut takes us to a board meeting of Pepsi Co which Joan is a member of as we now learn that her husband has passed away.
The other members explain that Al was in debt when he died and that they will give her plenty of time to repay that debt. They also stipulate that they will have to take back the Fifth Avenue apartment. When others voice their opinion that they thought because of this Joan would want to leave her position on the board this gives Joan ample opportunity to flex her muscles. When she says she wants to stay on the board they say that they have already retired her. She voices that she has fought bigger monsters in Hollywood than in Pepsi Co and that she will publicly come out against their product. This makes the other board members quake as they understand the power of a huge star and how important celebrity as a concept is for the advertising and revenue of a product. Joan holds the aces here and it also gives us another of the film’s most infamous lines. ‘Don’t fuck with me fellas! This ain’t my first time at the rodeo!’
Joan recognises that her star power can be used against Pepsi Co just as it can be used for it and so ‘It’s a sword, cuts both ways!’
The board en masse backs down (the subtitles on the movie’s DVD says that the head of the board ‘Clears his throat’!) from La Crawford’s threat and continues on with her as a senior member. Another win for Joan, another massive source of narcissistic supply.
Just as Christina and Joan together at the apartment renovation (the previous scene) appeared to be cordial towards each other, we see Joan unexpectedly turning up at Christina’s NYC pad and even bearing gifts- a set of pearls that were the first present that Al gave to her. She gives them to Christina in what might be seen as a period of their relationship that seems to be quite peaceful and drama-free. In reality this is probably the narcissistic trait of breadcrumbing in which a narcissist will every now and then throw their source of narcissistic supply a few crumbs of kindness, admiration or even (fake) love. This is done as a play of power for the narcissist and also to keep their source of supply in place. Christina will think that things between herself and her mother are finally OK and that maybe her mother has turned over a new leaf. But leopards (and narcissists) never change their spots.
This is proved in the next scene as we see that Joan has more tricks up her sleeve. After Christina is rushed to hospital with an ovarian tumour, the producer of the daytime soap she is starring in goes to the hospital and meets Joan instead who just so happens to mention that Christina will be incapacitated for quite some time because of the tumour and the surgery to remove it. Joan asks to speak to the producer again. It’s here that we see why. It appears she had an idea regarding her daughter’s absence from the TV series.
Christina is woken up in her hospital bed by a nurse who is turning on the television so that she can watch the soap she normally appears in. She is shocked to see that her mother is appearing as her character even though Joan was 60 years of age at the time and playing a 24 year old. This decision to include Joan as her daughter’s character wasn’t just farcical but also bizarre. It was also symbolic of Joan’s narcissism to usurp her daughter and kick her off her pedestal. It must have irked Joan that her daughter had dared to enter the same profession that Joan was (once) a part of and was (at one point) very well renowned and revered within. Joan clearly has no qualms about stealing her daughter’s limelight even whilst she’s in the hospital.
Another disorientating cut happens as we seemingly venture forward by several years. We see Christina getting ready after Carol Ann (visibly much older) has brought a gown for Christina to wear to accept a lifetime career award on behalf of Joan as her mother is now too old to accept it herself. We see that Joan is now is incapacitated due to old age. She watches the award ceremony in bed.
But when Christina looks into the camera and tearfully says ‘I love you, Mommie Dearest’ there is more pain than love in her proclamation and the audience now knows why. In fact, when she says it the movie’s audience instantly thinks of the wire hangers scene where she was forced to use the same term of endearment to her mother.
We see Joan start to cry on seeing this.
We then jump forward to Joan’s funeral and Christina going to see her embalmed mother’s body.
There’s a very poignant scene in which she starts to cry on seeing her dead mother and says the words ‘No more pain’. How apt. Who would want to live the life of a narcissist?
But even at Joan’s funeral and the reading of her will we see that Joan has one last ace up her sleeve to serve from beyond the grave. Even mortality can’t diminish Joan’s desire for power, control and narcissistic supply. It’s explained that Joan has cut both her and Christopher from her will ‘for reasons that are well known to them.’ ‘As usual she has the last word’ Christopher remarks to which Christina knowingly replies ‘Does she?!’
But what the film cunningly leaves out is the fact that before her death Joan had found out that Christina was planning to write a book about her upbringing and that it would be far from complimentary. Joan spoke about this with Charlotte Chandler in her Vanity Fair article.
Christina’s book came out and repainted Joan as a child abuser but wasn’t the all powerful trump card that she hoped it would be. Plenty of people came forward to voice the opinion that Joan was far from the monster Christina tried to paint her as. Two notable examples were the two other daughters adopted by Joan, Cathy and Cindy who said that Joan was never abusive to them with Cathy confirming this to Charlotte Chandler in the same Vanity Fair article.
Myrna Loy, in addition to being a family friend, had occasion to work with both Joan and Christina Crawford, and wrote about Christina in her autobiography, “I’ve never known anyone like her – ever. Her stubbornness was really unbelievable. She would not do a single thing anyone asked her to do. Christina wanted to be Joan Crawford, I think that’s the basis of the book she wrote afterward, and of everything else. I saw what her mind created, the fantasy world she lived in. She envied her mother, grew to hate her, and finally wanted to destroy her.”Others stepped forward to defend Joan including her first husband Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Bob Hope, Cesar Romero and Barbara Stanwyck.
Whilst the book didn’t manage to tarnish everyone’s opinions of Joan ‘Hollywood Royalty’ Crawford, the movie and it’s legacy arguably won Joan a new generation of fans. Christina wasn’t to know that the movie would become a cult classic and that cult audiences would cheer on Joan as the protagonist and see the scenes of child abuse as surreal Grande Guignol resplendent with immaculately decorated interiors.
When the movie was released it received mixed notices with some being massively scathing like the review that appeared in Variety (‘Dunaway does not chew scenery. Dunaway starts neatly at each corner of the set in every scene and swallows it whole, costars and all’) and the review from noted film critic Roger Ebert (‘I can’t imagine who would want to subject themselves to this movie…It is unremittingly depressing, not to any purpose of drama or entertainment’).
Whilst Vincent Canby’s review in The New York Times was negative it did mention the perceptive assertion that ‘It achieves that state of wild, out of control melodrama that is both comic and horrifying’. It also talked about ‘the ferocious intensity of Faye Dunaway’s impersonation’ (of Joan) and that ‘the woman in this film is much more interesting and comprehensible than the fabled character depicted in the movie magazines and reminiscences on the same literary level’. Back handed praise wrapped up in a generally derogatory review.
Gene Siskel’s review in The Chicago Tribune was similarly not altogether negative and he even gave the film 2 and a half stars as opposed to his Sneak Previews partner in crime’s rating of 1 star.
The film did receive enough positive reviews (or at least enough positive parts of reviews) that an ad could be cobbled together by Paramount which brought all of these together and showed that the film was of considerable merit.
But special notice has to be paid to the review by Pauline Kael (mentioned previously and which can be seen in her excellent collection of reviews ‘Taking It All In’) that marvels at Dunaway’s performance and doesn’t see the extreme scenes as mere melodrama on steroids but rather as channeling Joan’s damaged psychological states. She mentions that maybe Dunaway and Crawford were both suffering from a ‘folie a deux’ which literally translates as ‘madness for two’. Kael wonderfully and astutely sums up the whole movie.
Even with these largely disparaging reviews Paramount noticed that the film was still drawing crowds but the kind of crowds who went to see cult films and midnight movies. Paramount quickly tried to capitalise on this and issued a new poster emphasising the ‘wire hangers’ scene (see earlier in this article for said poster) which Frank Yablans the film’s producer and co-writer tried to sue Paramount over. The studio even employed drag queens clutching wire hangers to stand in the lobby for screenings according to John Waters on his commentary for the film on the ‘Hollywood Royalty’ edition of the DVD. The fact that Waters of all people should be asked to provide a commentary for the film decades later is testament to the film’s ‘cult’ status.
Mommie Dearest featured heavily in the nominations for a new set of awards, The Golden Raspberry Awards known less formally as The Razzies. These awards were designed as a celebration of the worst films made in that year, an anti-Oscars if you will. Mommie Dearest was nominated in the 2nd year of the awards in a number of different categories with the film clinching the Razzies for Worst Picture, Worst Actress (this was a joint win with Bo Derek in Tarzan The Ape Man), Worst Supporting Actor and Worst Supporting Actress.
Whilst this may have sealed the film’s reputation as ‘terrible’ or ‘so bad it’s good’ with more conservative film fans (those behind the scenes at The Razzies who chose the nominations are invariably just as conservative and dull in their tastes in cinema), the Razzies quickly earned a reputation as a set of awards that in fact had an uncanny knack of highlighting films that were actually brilliant examples of cult cinema. In some cases these films were merely ahead of their time on first release and would receive the plaudits they deserved years later. Need proof? The previous year’s Razzies would nominate such gems as The Shining, Cruising, Dressed To Kill and Friday the 13th in different categories as examples of the worst the film industry had to offer in 1980! All of these films are now regarded as either cult classics or bona fide masterpieces. When Mommie Dearest was nominated so was Tangerine Dream’s groundbreaking score for Michael Mann’s Thief for Worst Musical Score and Heaven’s Gate for Worst Picture. I’d love to see what those at The Razzies though of as good cinema.
The reputation of Mommie Dearest continued to grow and grow with cinemas booking the film even though it had long finished it’s general release run. The film’s status as a cult classic was sealed with the kind of people who obsessively watched John Waters’ and Russ Meyer’s films paying particular attention. It was almost as if naming Mommie Dearest as a film you loved was like giving a knowing wink to other lovers of edgier and darker cult cinema that knew no limits. It meant you knew your stuff when it came to all things ‘cult’.
With all of this going on it must have appeared to Christina that rather than her having the last laugh as was intimated by the film’s final scene, Joan was enjoying it instead. Christina would publicly denounce the film as being more about her mother than her and the fact that she wasn’t paid as she was quick to state when interviewed by Larry King.
But then the funniest thing started to happen. She started to appear at midnight screenings of the film. There was even a tour organised in which Christina would introduce the film with a Q&A after it with proceeds going to charity and giving her the opportunity to promote the new edition of her book. It was almost as if the cult juggernaut of Mommie Dearest couldn’t be stopped under any circumstance so why not join in and milk it for all it’s worth. If you can’t beat em, join em, right?!
With all of this analysis regarding the film and the narcissistic abuse it depicts, am I somehow stating that Mommie Dearest can’t be enjoyed as a cult film anymore, that audiences shouldn’t enjoy the film in the same way that they enjoyed it before because of the horror of some of the events depicted within now that we know more about narcissistic abuse? My answer is NO! Mommie Dearest is a headfuck of a movie. It’s surrealist Grand Guignol and the most extreme scenes are shot to accentuate this quality. Yes, there’s abuse depicted which gives the film an underbelly of darkness and grit that almost makes the audience want to avert their gaze especially during the wire hangers scene and the other extreme sequences.
The events depicted are based on someone’s life and show that abuse can occur in even the most privileged of settings. And that’s where the brilliance and cult cinema goodness of Mommie Dearest lies. The abuse depicted in the film isn’t being inflicted by a white trash Mom in a trailer park. Rather, it’s in opulent settings. It’s reality versus the image that has been carefully crafted by Hollywood and the many press agencies and fan magazines. It’s the fact that the abuse is being inflicted by one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. It’s so unexpected with the surface being scratched away to reveal the dark underbelly of Christina and Joan’s private lives. Any film that contains a sequence involving a member of the Hollywood A-list (and not to mention that she’s dressed in a bathrobe and Alice band whilst slathered in face cream) beating her adopted child with a wire hanger will always be brutal but will always cause the audience to open their eyes wide and outwardly exclaim ‘What the fuck!’ This is nearer to The Exorcist than the ‘campathon’ others would have you believe.
And with such bizarre situations there is a level of dark humour present which is closer to gallows humour than out and out ‘laugh out loud’ comedy. This is in the same way that certain sequences are funny within The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (‘Look what your brother did to the door!’) or Taxi Driver (during the Dantes Inferno-esque climax to the film Iris screams that Travis not shoot a client she is with with Travis completely ignoring her and shooting him anyway. This sequence wouldn’t be funny if it wasn’t within a truly gruesome sequence at the climax of a very dark movie).
The way the more extreme sequences within the film are filmed also lends to the unreal nature of the film as a whole and cements it’s cult status. Whether it’s the flailing knickers shot or the sequence of Joan armed with an ax felling a pesky tree in her rose garden whilst dressed in a very expensive ballgown, these sequences are one part dark, three parts ‘WTF!’
And whats more, it contains one of the most brilliant performances I’ve ever seen let alone the best rounded depiction of the full madness of Narcissistic Personality Disorder ever captured on celluloid. I hope the film starts to get the kudos and acclaim it so richly deserves. And if it educates people as to the full horror of NPD then all the better.
If this essay was a TV programme at this point a voice-over would chime in proclaiming ‘If you were affected by any of the issues featured you can contact…’ and this is what I want to write here. Narcissistic Personality Disorder and narcissism in general still aren’t known about by the majority of people but needs to be. Apparently 1 in 10 people are narcissists which means that potentially 10% of the population are seriously dysfunctional people wreaking havoc on those who are unfortunate enough to be in their orbit. Your education starts here. Do your research, learn how to work on yourself to repel these seriously fucked up people and how to get these monsters out of your life. Also, learn how to heal after narcissistic abuse.
Here are some great YouTube channels to start your journey-
If Mommie Dearest resonated a bit too much with you and brought back unpleasant memories from your past, maybe a good place to start when visiting the YouTube channels above would be by looking up about Narcissistic Mothers. Believe me, there’s plenty of material!
A group of relatives meet to celebrate their elderly relations birthday (but have disclosed that they are only there so that they may be left something in the old duck’s inheritances when they pop their clogs). A black-sheep nephew of the octogenarians who practices the black arts has been excluded from proceedings but sends a supernatural gift that turns the lovable grandmas into evil, homicidal maniacs. Fun ensues.
This film is from Troma (of course). Within this Belgian horror film, the gore and blood flow and there is also a delectable sick strain of humour at play that make the film feel like no other movie I think I’ve ever seen.
Demented, wickedly funny and one of a kind.
9. The Blob
A remake of the Steve McQueen classic. A meteorite emits a strange pink goo type substance that is in fact alive, harmful to humans and intent on wreaking havoc. It seems to be completely sentient. This 80’s version determines the slime as in fact, a biological weapon that was sent into space after being concocted by scientists on Earth rather than being an alien entity.
By 1988 when this remake was made, special effects had progressed at such a dizzying pace that it was felt that anything was possible. Director Chuck Russell takes full advantage of this with not only The Blob doing things onscreen that could only have been dreamt of in the original film. Also, the blob itself looks aesthetically beautiful, akin to a huge oozing mass of pink bubble gum.
Kevin Dillon is certainly no Steve McQueen (but, to be fair, no one is) and this remake doesn’t have the amazing theme song that the original had, but as a special effects laden 1980’s remake this film more than accomplishes (and with real panache) what it aims to do.
8. Friday the 13th Part 7: The New Blood
This film is basically Jason vs Carrie as one of the latest crop of teens has telekinesis. Whats more she’s accidentally awakened Jason who was chained beneath Crystal Lake thanks to Tommy Jarvis in the previous film.
This was the first film with Kane Hodder as Jason. He seems completely at home right off the bat with his first inhabitation of the role displaying a real flare and strutting confidence.
We get some great kills, some great moments of sly humour (but not the amount of meta-humour synonymous with Part 6) and a fantastic final confrontation. We also get some of the finest helmet hair ever captured on film, with ‘do’s’ so severe that they very possibly could be just as bad (if not worse) than any of the atrocities committed by Jason.
There are also some great character archetypes that the film hams up to- the bitch, the evil doctor, the ugly duckling. There’s a shrewdness to proceedings that is really enjoyable and helps pull this entry out of being just a generic late 80’s slasher movie.
But there were also other, more radical ideas being pushed forward when this movie was being mooted. Barbara Sachs, a Paramount producer wanted this movie to be the one Friday that was seen as being ‘arty’ and wanted it to even be in the running when the Academy Awards came around. Seriously! At one point there were even mutterings of trying to attach a director of (previous) high standing to the film with one possible nominee being Fellini. Yes, seriously!!!
This all came to nothing though as John Carl Buechler who had directed Troll was employed instead. He does a great job but the mind still boggles at the idea of Fellini directing proceedings and Jason going up to collect the Palme D’Or.
7. Child’s Play
Another movie that kickstarted a brand new and very profitable horror franchise was Child’s Play.
Catherine Hicks plays a single mother who gives her young son Andy a new toy (named Chucky) akin to the old ‘My Buddy’, the awkwardly large doll for boys (!) from the 80’s.
Very early on this movie steers into dark waters. When Chucky starts killing people beginning with Maggie, Andy’s babysitter, the police make Andy the key suspect. The issue of killer kids is still a taboo and ironically one of the entries in this franchise would be linked to the real life case of the two killer kids who murdered James Bulger in 1993.
The doll scampering around to kill people looks and feels very sinister and uncomfortable as it looks like a child is actually committing all of these atrocities (a child was actually used to act as the killer doll). Brad Dourif as the voice of Chucky is amazing as he shows that even when he isn’t on screen he can still light up a role.
A very good start to an inventive, funny and intelligent franchise.
6. Killer Klowns From Outer Space
A film for everyone who finds clowns really sinister and scary (or sexy because of that).
A young couple are busy making out at Make Out Point when they see what looks likes like a falling star and so go to investigate. It’s there that they find, of all things, a circus tent. The alien beings in said tent all look like clowns but they aren’t here to fall over and entertain us. They hate humans and want to harvest us in bright pink cocoons. They also kill humans as witnessed by Deputy Sheriff Mooney who arrests one of them. It slaughters everyone else in the cell along with the deputy.
Fortunately the Sheriff proper realises that the Klowns are a serious threat to the entire town and sets out to stop them. Will he succeed or will they?
This film is by the Chiodo Brothers and is like a really brightly coloured acid trip with this startling vision having darker undertones beneath the surface. This is also one of those movies that has it’s own reality and an amazing vision that is fully and brilliantly conceived and realised by the filmmakers.
This film is now seen as a cult classic and I can fully see why. A sequel has been mooted for years. I hope it comes to fruition.
5. Maniac Cop
A cop has supposedly gone psycho on the streets of New York which causes citywide panic and retribution with cops being shot or steered clear of by scared civilians. The main suspect is a policeman called Jack with another cop called McCrae diving deep into the case and trying to stop the killer as he doesn’t think Jack is responsible.
This is another film by William Lustig who made Maniac and Vigilante. With this movie he again comes up with the goods. Not only is this a cult film fan’s dream cast with Bruce Campbell, Tom Atkins and Richard Roundtree (not to mention cameos by Sam Raimi and Jake LaMotta who is Lustig’s uncle) but this is a great concept for a movie. It has plenty of tense night-time scenes on grimy, terrifying New York streets (a Lustig speciality). There’s also the genuine shock scene when Maniac Cop is revealed with the legend Robert Z’Dar and his awesome jaw coming to the fore.
Maniac Cop was cut by 5 secs by the BBFC when it was first released in the UK. This involved the shower scene that involved a stabbing and facial mutilation.
This film was followed by two more Maniac Cop movies.
4. Phantasm 2
It was because of Phantasm 2 that I learnt of the first film. Barry Norman on his regular film review programme reviewed the movie and voiced the opinion that he didn’t even know there was a first Phantasm film. At that point I had to agree.
I rented Phantasm 2 before I got to see the first film and loved it. It was (like the first movie) unlike any other film I had ever seen, with bags of imagination and nothing over-explained. The film had a mysterious aura about it.
This film continued it’s exploration of the sinister and malevolent Tall Man with Mike from the original film (but played by a different actor) leaving the mental institution he was resident in after the events of the first film and returning to Morningside Cemetery where he starts exhuming graves. Just as he suspected, they are empty. This convinces Reggie (also from the original) to help Mike investigate further and try to stop The Tall Man.
A bigger budget, more ambitious visuals and more complex plotlines (there seems to be more of an emphasis on the psychic element that was just hinted at in the original film with the seer and her granddaughter) permeate this sequel. There are also more guns, action and gore with the spheres being given a redux and more murderous implements to kill with.
But theres still mystery, intelligence and innovation. And whats more, it’s still ingrained in this second film as it was in the first. The viewer is free to interpret events in this film and try to decide if they are actual or imagined.
Phantasm 2 is a very worthy sequel to a masterpiece.
Ever since I read about Scarecrows in an old issue of Gorezone I knew I had to see it. When I did finally see it, of course, it was cut by the BBFC. But even in this cut form it still made for a great film.
A plane full of mercenaries have stolen millions of dollars and are flying away to Mexico with their bounty. However, one of them swipes the loot and parachutes from the plane into a cornfield. Two others parachute after him to be joined by the others upon landing the plane. They all meet in a house adjoined to the field. They spot the loot which is in the field but what they don’t know is that they will have major problems retrieving it as the cornfield is home to three paranormal scarecrows who are actually alive and hate those who trespass onto their terrain.
This is a brooding, dark hued film which is perfect for such a dark and gory movie. The horror of the scarecrows is intensified by the way they have been lit with all of the action taking place at night. This lends a very sinister air to proceedings especially with the haunting locale of the nocturnal cornfield.
There’s also great characterisation with the backstory warranting it’s own prequel. The sense of mistrust and paranoia permeates the action and prepares the audience to expect the unexpected. This is no generic 80’s horror movie.
I finally saw the uncut version and it was well worth the wait. As was seeing the film on Blu ray after I first saw it on VHS all those years ago.
2. Dead Ringers
More double crossing now with twins being perfectly suited for this.
This David Cronenberg movie stars Jeremy Irons as twin gynaecologists with one twin, the narcissistic Elliot, seducing and then discarding some of the women who come to their practice with his more submissive and introverted twin Beverly taking over from Elliot in the relationship but without the woman being aware of the substitution.
The twins carry out this abusive practice with actress Claire (Genevieve Bujold). But Beverly seriously falls for her and after beginning a relationship together, refuses to ‘share’ her with Elliot (which causes a serious rift in their relationship) and starts to share her addiction of prescription medication.
After she has lunch with one of her friends she learns that Beverly has a twin brother. This triggers earlier doubts she had had regarding Beverly and how differently he acted after their first dalliance together. She confronts Beverly about this and tells him that she knows what him and his twin have done.
After a reconciliation between Beverly and Claire, there is more drug use between the two before she leaves town to work on another film. With her gone, Beverly becomes depressed, starts taking more drugs and becomes obsessed with mutant women with abnormal genitalia.
Yes, there’s lots going on here! This couldn’t be more different from the plot to Friday the 13th Part 7 if it tried. This film was another example of Cronenberg going from strength to strength. Just as The Fly had been a huge hit without any sign of selling out or compromise (in other words it was just as gross as his earlier films!), Dead Ringers was Cronenberg’s most accomplished film to date. The plot had plenty of scope for his breed of body horror (check out the horrific women’s examination implements that are made for Beverly as he becomes more deranged and drug-addled), but this time it was his most polished film with a stellar and VERY well respected cast. Cronenberg aimed high with this project and asked Robert De Niro to play the twins but was turned down. He also asked William Hurt but he wasn’t comfortable playing twins. Jeremy Irons has a formidable reputation, rises to this challenge and does an amazing job. His mix of equal parts refinement and derangement was perfect for this role. Genevieve Bujold was another actor of undeniable class who was perfectly cast as Claire.
The critics almost universally threw bouquets at Cronenberg’s feet with this film. It was intelligent, perfectly realised and gorgeous to boot with the subject matter being pure Cronenberg. Many critics and fans think this is his best film. They may be right.
1 Monkey Shines
When an athlete (Allan) is hit by a truck and left a quadriplegic, a scientist friend recruits a monkey that has been trained to help assist disabled people to fully carry out their lives. Ella the monkey starts to bond well with Allan but soon this bond becomes a lot darker as he thinks that there might be some kind of telepathic bond with his new companion which then transforms into Ella enacting revenge on anyone who Allen displays anger towards. This escalates quickly.
This was Romero’s first film since the amazing Day of the Dead three years before and was further proof, if it were needed, that Romero continued to make intelligent horror films and that, just like Cronenberg, his directing career continued to flourish and evolve into unexpected avenues.
A film about a psychotic, telepathic monkey reeking havoc in a disabled man’s life was new territory for Romero and (yet again) he knocks it out of the park with deft direction, all round amazing performances and a tension that becomes palpable with every passing scene.
The film still has the ability to shock. I could say more but I’m not going to ruin this film for anyone. This is a noteworthy entry in Romero’s stellar body of work and one of his best films.
Family horror here! Teenager Ed accidentally kills his mother whilst cleaning a rifle for his father (imagine what a headfuck that would be). After his father (Big Ed) discovers his dead wife’s body, he has a breakdown.
Fast forward a few years and Big Ed asks his son to close up their second home which is situated at a beach side location. Ed takes some friends with them so they can spend some time there first during their Fall Break (the original name of the movie). But, Big Ed is already in the property but keeps his presence a secret as he plans to do away with his son as revenge for what he did to his wife.
So begins a killing spree as Big Ed dispatches of the teens one by one and by using different implements for each murder (this inspired the great tagline for the movie ‘By sword, by pick, by axe, bye bye!’). The kills are brutal, the family angle is interesting and theres one murder involving a huge fishing hook being used on a female victim that is extremely unsavoury and really great for a slasher movie.
Nasty and mean spirited- perfect for it’s genre.
9. Fright Night
Part horror film, part boy’s own adventure.
Could Charley Brewster’s very good looking next door neighbour really be a vampire as he suspects? Several women have gone missing and this makes Charley suspect Jerry Dandridge as the culprit. Charley goes to Peter Vincent who was renowned for playing a vampire hunter in a series of films to help him in his quest to put an end to Jerry’s bloodlust after the police don’t believe him.
This is a great movie featuring a genuinely original plot that leaves you guessing until the very end and without it ever feeling stale, tired or stooping to cliche.
On top of this theres a very interesting subplot, that is, if you can detect the signifiers. Jerry doesn’t live alone, he has a ‘housemate’. They curate antiques. When they’re seen together in the film they act protectively towards each other and obviously care deeply about one another. Theres also the scene where Billy cleans Jerry’s wounded hand but does it whilst hes on his knees. In silhouette through the window shade, it looks like something very different.
It’s obvious that they are being portrayed as being a gay couple but without the film explicitly saying it. What would be the perfect alibi for a vampire who is making his way through the local (female) prostitute population to satisfy his bloodlust than to appear to in fact be gay and for your other half to provide alibis for your actions?
And so this was very daring of a mainstream horror film to contain such a subtext. It also raises interesting ideas regarding double lives- the homosexual who isn’t out yet, the vampire who isn’t out yet.
A great vampire movie that is daring, gory and just as charming as Jerry is. It’s also a great love letter to older horror traditions of vampire hunters and conventions also.
8. Silver Bullet
A low-key adaptation of Stephen King novella Cycle of the Werewolf.
A serial killer in a local town is actually found to be a werewolf by wheelchair-bound Marty (Corey Haim) who defends himself against attack with a well aimed firework that is fired into the creatures eye. With this visible wound it is now easy to ascertain who the culprit is when the werewolf has transformed back to being human as the eye injury will be easily noticeable. And then battle commences to stop the creature.
This is another King adaptation that wasn’t a huge production but found it’s audience on home video. Small town America is captured really well, Haim is on top form but it is his tipsy Uncle Red who steals the show. It’s my favourite Gary Busey performance in any of his films.
The kills are effective, the tension is brilliantly generated and the werewolf is genuinely scary. I love the fact that he looks more like a bear than the result of some multi-million dollar special effects whiz.
Don Coscarelli of Phantasm started directing this but then quit the production half way through.
A made for TV movie directed by Wes Craven that was issued on video in the UK.
A wealthy businessman, Miles Creighton has himself cryogenically frozen after his death. But then the container holding his frozen body starts to make him thaw. His mother asks surgeons to operate on him to resusitate him as this can now be performed because of recent advances in medical science.
But it soon becomes apparent that he has changed and now doesn’t seem to have a soul or conscience. There are suddenly unexplained deaths with all roads leading to Miles. It’s only after the local priest Father Penny (Paul Sorvino) is taken to the hospital in critical condition that Miles’ mother is forced to face up to the fact that Miles is responsible as the priest tells her as much. It’s now up to her to stop her son from killing again.
This is a strange film that I loved as a kid, watched a few years ago, found to be boring and then watched again the other day and really liked. It depends on your mood. If you’re in the mood for something that is suitably restrained, non-flashy and remember that this was made for television then you’ll get the most out of this.
The cast are really good with Michael ‘Swan from The Warriors’ Beck as Miles and Paul Sorvino as Father Penny. It’s an interesting conceit and I’m glad I enjoyed it again when I recently watched it. Some movies are like that. They are dependent on mood and can’t be enjoyed at just any time. Another film like that for me is Driller Killer. Sometimes I think it’s an amazing examination of madness in rundown New York. Other times I find it to be the most tedious and slow movie ever made.
6. Cat’s Eye
Yet another low-key Stephen King adaptation.
This one is an anthology of three vignettes linked by the same cat strolling through. The first story involves the extreme measures employed by a company that smokers can sign up to to quit. The second is about a mob boss finding out that his wife is having an affair, having her lover kidnapped and then forcing him to walk around the outside ledge of his apartment. If he succeeds he will grant his philandering wife a divorce. If not, well, hes dies as he will have fallen to his death. The third story is about a little girl who has to contend with a troll that is trying to kill her with the cat coming to her rescue.
This film is basically Stephen King’s Tales of the Unexpected. Each segment is expertly directed, well acted and full of great twists and turns. It was a nice touch to have the cat as something that links all of the stories together and I love the idea of a cat getting to see and experience some of the most bizarre scenarios imaginable whilst it’s owners are oblivious.
A very young Drew Barrymore, James Woods and Candy Clark from Larry Clark’s brilliant Q are some of the actors that are great in this.
5. A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge
I saw this when it was first released on video in 1986 after being obsessed with the original. It was…unexpected. It wasn’t the sequel I had wanted but it was still interesting and my Gaydar was going off like crazy!
It was probably the scenes that took place in the S&M bar that made me pick up on the gay subtext the most especially the death of the sadistic gym teacher- naked, from behind and having balls fired at him. What could it all mean?!
The story of effeminate outcast Jesse (perfect name haha) becoming a body for Freddy to be reborn was intriguing but didn’t really make sense. He was shown to be still at work at the dreadful conclusion of the previous film. There was also the scene at the pool party that defied the rules of the first film. Freddy has just appeared to loads of teens. Were they all asleep at the same time then?!
But other than that the film is an interesting experiment, with a look and feel that the first film had even if the events it was portraying were very different.
A sequel that took risks rather than seeking to establish a formula.
Strangers on the streets of Berlin are invited to a mysterious cinema for a free screening. They take their seats, the film starts but then one by one they become froth-mouthed demons. At one point those who haven’t succumbed to a similar fate make it to the exits to find they’ve all been bricked up.
I love the fact that some of the humans start to use promotional props used to advertise other films to fight off the demons. Although I’ve never seen a motorbike used in a cinema foyer to advertise a film before.
This Lamberto Bava shocker is all visual thrills that was originally to be part of an intended anthology film. But Bava took to this story more than the other two being proposed and so decided to develop just this story and make it into a feature length film.
Yes, this isn’t a film that you’d seek out if you wanted nuance and detail. This is a visceral, gory and bloody ride that full of interesting visuals and thrills. One of the women who becomes a demon is wearing spandex. If this doesn’t cause you to investigate this film then nothing will. It’s gory, extreme but also very, very camp which is part of it’s brilliance. Just let this film wash over you and you’ll love it.
3. Day of the Dead
Another film that my opinion flip-flopped over significantly over the years.
The zombie epidemic has now spread to such an extent that zombies are now everywhere and humans are few and far between. The few human survivors live in underground bunkers like the one in which we find the film’s characters. Theres a distinct tension between the head scientist in the group, Dr Logan and Captain Rhodes, the head of the soldiers assigned to protect them.
Logan and his team are desperately trying to find an end to the zombie pandemic but Rhodes seems opposed to him, his team of scientists and the fact that zombies are kept in the bunker with them, harnessed and restrained so that experiments can be carried out to try to find answers. It’s this mistrust between the scientists and the military that is the basis for a lot of Day’s events.
When Rhodes takes charge of the bunker and everyone in it he then says that they have to work under his command and anyone who disobeys will be executed.
Just like in the opening scenes of Dawn of the Dead where the scientist who is trying to use logic to find a way out of this emergency is ridiculed in a TV studio, here the scientists are ridiculed and looked down on with skepticism by the military led by the vile (and possibly psychopathic) Rhodes.
When Logan is asked to show Rhodes what progress he has made, he is shown his pet project. Bub is a zombie who shows signs of remembering his former life, can utter a few human words and has been successfully trained by Logan to use a gun, listen to a Walkman and even salute Rhodes- huge steps when dealing with the undead. Rhodes scoffs at this ‘progress’ and orders all zombies to be killed when one of them isn’t harnessed in properly and kills two soldiers.
Romero viewed the military in the same way within his film The Crazies. He saw them as bloodthirsty, ruthless and adverse to progress or rationality in the midst of a disaster.
When I first saw this movie in the 80’s I loved it, then as a teen I though it was too talky with not enough action (ahh, the folly of youth!) but I reinvestigated it when it was released by Arrow and I love it again now. The gorgeous cinematography, the intellectualism regarding the pandemic, the evolution since Night and Dawn, the zombies who are now actually rotting and looking worse than ever.
It’s a great moment when the zombies are eating Rhodes’ intestines and his dying words are ‘Choke on em!’
I remember going to a midnight screening of this one of my local cinemas. As myself and my friend were too young to go on our own my friend asked his Dad if he would accompany us. He agreed but didn’t know what sort of film this was. Boy, did he get a rude awakening! He even made the audience laugh at one point as when a character on the screen said ‘I can’t belive this is happening!’ he responded very loudly and grandly, ‘You and me both!’
Herbert West is a scientist who has invented a serum that when injected into a dead being can bring them back to life. He conducts experiments to test the serum on first a dead cat and then on dead human subjects. A rival, Dr Hill wants to take credit for the serum and wants West’s notes regarding it so he can take the credit for the discovery and so attempts to blackmail West to get what he wants. After being beheaded by West, Herbert reanimates both the head and body of Hill separately. For the rest of the film we see Hill’s headless body wandering around, sometimes with his now unattached head in it’s hands.
It was the severed head of Hill that caused consternation for the advertising regulators in the UK upon the release of Reanimator. The movie’s poster depicted the severed head with it’s face in the direction of the viewer so that there was absolutely no doubt as to what it was. This was deemed to be too much for the general public. The film’s distributor instead plumped for the head to be turned around as the back of the head would make it more ambiguous for any of the faint of heart.
This movie is so good. The humour is sick (on reanimating his friend Dan’s dead cat he says ‘Remember, it’s got a broken back. Don’t expect it to do the tango!’), on point and the premise wildly entertaining. The scene between Hill’s headless body holding his head and as it tries to have it’s wicked way with the character Megan’s strapped down naked body is something that won’t be forgotten in a hurry.
This film being so zany, gross and intelligent was a cinematic blend that was such a great shot in the arm (pun not intended) for the horror genre. This film felt like it was light years ahead of the more generic entries in the slasher subgenre. By 1985, horror was mutating and evolving in interesting new directions and this film was leading the way.
1 The Stuff
A white goo is found to be bubbling out of the ground by workers. It’s found to be edible, sweet and highly addictive. The yoghurt like substance is then branded as The Stuff, sold and marketed. It sells like hot cakes as it’s sweet, highly addictive and, most importantly, has no calories! But, unfortunately, The Stuff is actually a living, toxic and parasitic organism that turns it’s consumers into zombies before eating them from the inside.
Because of The Stuff and it’s success, sales of ice cream are affected to such an extent that former FBI agent David ‘Mo’ Rutherford is hired by confectionary industry insider Charles Hobbs to find out exactly what The Stuff is and how it’s success can be sabotaged. Rutherford also teams up with a young boy called Jason who sees that The Stuff is actually alive and the dangerous addictive effects it can have. I love the part of the film where Jason becomes to a one-man army against The Stuff, attacking displays in local supermarkets and smashing glass freezers that contain the product.
This film is not just a really effective horror film but is also very humorous and also a very perceptive satire on advertising, consumerism and even the military (Paul Sorvino stars as a retired Colonel who leads a squad to battle the zombies and destroy the product using brute force). Its very telling that when the workers discover the goo bubbling up from the ground they instinctively want to taste it.
I love the adverts we see for The Stuff as well as it’s logo and packaging. The film is so perceptive and accurate that it feels like this could actually happen! Dollars and pounds are more important to corporations and capitalism over humanity and safety.
Yes, The Hills Have Eyes Part 2! I can see some of you sniggering! I have great memories of watching this film on VHS as a kid as it had some great lurid artwork (the video company were probably thinking ‘This movie sucks! We need great artwork to get people to rent this!’) and actually really enjoyed it. At the time the original film wasn’t available on video and so this was the next best thing.
It was great to see the flashbacks to the original film (I love the fact that Beast the dog has a flashback) and it was great to see Bobby, Ruby and Pluto in a follow-up film.
It was also interesting to see Wes Craven make a strictly genre film within those formula constraints.
I love the new member of the cannibal family, Reaper and more examples of their extraordinary wardrobe (check out Pluto’s headband!). I also like the Scooby Doo vibes I get with this sequel with the bike team and their bus.
This was a cash-grab for Craven which, of course, is nowhere near as brilliant as the original film (which I think is Craven’s best film and a true blue masterpiece) but it’s still entertaining whilst it lasts. Theres even a blind psychic character who uses her senses of smell and hearing to help tell when the baddies are approaching. Whats not to like about that?!
The film John Carpenter was due to direct but lost out on as The Thing tanked at the box office.
Andy and Vicky have a 9 year old daughter Charlie who can start fires with her mind and predict the near future. She gained this power after her parents took part in a government experiment which gave Vicky the ability to read minds and Andy the power to completely control people’s thoughts so that they implicitly believe him and do as he says (he gets nosebleeds when he uses his power, however).
The family had always had their suspicions that the government who were responsible for the experiment they had participated in were watching them and want to utilise Charlie’s power for their own uses. These suspicions are then realised for Andy when one day he returns home to find that Vicky has been murdered and Charlie has been snatched.
Andy tracks down his daughter and then goes on the run with the Government in hot pursuit.
This film has two elements I love- gifted people with powers not normally afforded to mere mortals and shadowy government agents who are up to no good. This is also adapted from Stephen King’s novel with the screenwriter employed by Mark Lester to pen the adaptation sticking closely to the source novel (John Carpenter had employed Bill Lancaster who penned an adaptation of The Thing that Carpenter was working on at the time he was asked to direct Firestarter. Apparently Lancaster’s adaptation didn’t stick as closely to King’s novel).
This is very well directed, perfectly cast and with fantastic special effects, especially the fire scenes. This also feels quintessentially 80’s but in a very dignified way. I remember this film being on the shelves of every video shop that I frequented back in the day (and I went to a lot of them!) I’m glad it was so ubiquitous.
8. Night of the Comet
I first caught this film when it was shown on late night BBC2 in the late 80’s. It stayed with me so much that I had to rent it again soon after to see if it really was as good as it was when I watched it first time round. It was.
Three friends find that most people in the outside world have turned into zombies or dust. They didn’t as they have spent the night in a cinema. It turns out that so many people met this fate as it was publicised that the Earth was travelling through the tail of a comet and so they went outside to witness this extremely rare event not knowing that they will either die or become zombiefied because of it.
I love the quirky characters in this film. The shots of the two girls wandering around completed desolate Southern California streets are extraordinary and very eerie and disorientating. The zombies are excellent and these scenes are genuinely unsettling.
This film later became a cult classic and I can see why.
7. A Nightmare on Elm Street
It’s a given that film should be in a best of list for 1984, the 80’s and even lists of the greatest horror films of all time.
The teens on Elm Street seem to be dreaming of the same grotesque man in their dreams (or should that be nightmares). When one girl, Tina Grey actually dies horribly during one of her nightmares, it’s presumed her delinquent boyfriend, Rod Lane has done the deed. But plucky and resourceful Nancy Thompson has a feeling that theres more to this and that the man she keeps seeing in her nightmares is somehow responsible.
This film has more plus points than minus aspects. It’s completely unique with the ‘what happens in your dreams happens in real life’ conceit. This means that if you’re killed in your dream then you’re not waking up! The first kill is extremely graphic and very shocking, even by the standards of the more extreme horror films available on home video at that time (it’s worth noting that the Video Nasties brouhaha was going on at that time in the UK. How ANOES wasn’t censored by the BBFC is anyone’s guess. Mary Whitehouse could have also chosen this film and it’s killer as Public Enemy Number 1 as well. Instead, she designated The Evil Dead as her cause celebre and so Craven was spared).
I was obsessed with this movie when I first saw it on home video in the mid-80’s. Expert direction, awe-inspiring cinematography and pitch perfect locales that capture the essence of Americana with surburban streets, high school classrooms and corridors. But the sphere of killer Freddy Krueger’s boiler room is also perfect. We find out that Krueger has somehow manifested himself in the teen’s nightmares after he was killed by a lynch mob of the Elm Street parents after he was found to be a local child killer who was set free on a technicality even though he was guilty of his crimes. The parents corned him in his boiler room, doused the building in gasoline and set fire to it with him inside. In their dreams Krueger uses a leather glove that he has fashioned with long sharp blades.
I also love that another ‘dream rule’ is established in the film and that is that if you are holding something in your dream when you are woken up this comes out of the dream with you.
The cast are also perfect with cult favourite John Saxon starring as Nancy’s cop father. We even have a young Johnny Depp as Nancy’s boyfriend. But it’s Heather Langenkamp as Nancy that steals the show. She carries the movie from start to finish and is the brilliant cast’s strongest link. Her performance is one of the best in the whole horror genre as she plays Nancy as extremely strong, very believable and, occasionally, very funny (after she looks at herself in the mirror to see if her recent traumatic experiences have affected her looks she remarks ‘Oh God! I look at least 20 years old!’).
Whilst this is a great movie it is marred by a couple of issues that prevent it in my mind from being the classic some lazily extol it to be. Firstly, I don’t believe that ANOES was only intended as a one-off and not as the start of a franchise. Witness the number of times Freddy’s name is mentioned in the film and is even uttered by him a couple of times! It feels to me like they are trying to establish him as a brand. Certain people had a franchise in mind and I’m sure Craven and Robert Shaye at New Line were amongst them. Not that theres anything wrong in that but please fess up if that was the case!
Also, this is a great movie with a laughably bad ending. It must have been extremely difficult to end the film after Nancy has turned her back on the killer and taken away his power through not giving him that power (a great metaphor for Narcissistic Personality Disorder and how to deal with narcissists). Should the film have ended there? There were many other filmed endings that appear on the many ANOES DVD’s and Blu Rays that have been released over the years. None of them really work. But with a movie to finish quickly it must have been difficult to suddenly come up with a twist. But an obvious doll being yanked through a tiny window in a front door was a terrible choice.
But with the positives significantly outnumbering the negatives this is still a horror film that deserves the recognition it gets. But it’s still not as good as The Hills Have Eyes which I consider to be Craven’s masterpiece.
Teenager Billy receives a creature called a mogwai as a gift but there are strict rules as to how to care for it- don’t feed it after midnight, don’t get him wet and don’t get him into contact with any form of light especially sunlight. After naming him Gizmo, Billy’s friend Pete (played by cult favourite Corey Feldman) accidentally gets him wet meaning that he spawns more creatures but not the cute sort like Gizmo but mischievous, dangerous and also, it has to be said, really entertaining creatures who look like really evil lizards who stand on two legs.
Is Gremlins a horror film? Yep. Check out the scene with Billy’s mother. If this isn’t like a scene from a slasher movie than I’ll eat my hat. Also, check out later scenes like the one in the sports store for more horror or the part of the hilarious bar scene where we see Gizmo nailed to a dartboard whilst other Gremlins are firing darts at him. It’s horror but also gallows humour. It’s also a horror film for kids. But kids with a really sick sense of humour. The microwave and stairlift scenes are also great examples of this.
But it’s also a very dark family film mixed with comedy elements and even qualifies as a Christmas film.
Was Gremlins a metaphor for childhood as the angelic cute little toddler (like Gizmo) enters into the terrible twos and becomes more like Stripe?
A huge hit in 1984 and deservedly so. Another example of perfect casting and only Joe Dante could have directed a film as funny, scary and satisfying as this.
5. The Toxic Avenger
From Troma, of course! I’ll always feel indebted to Troma Studios as not only have they distributed many of my favourite films (Bloodsucking Freaks, Mother’s Day, Rabid Grannies) but have also produced many classics such as Sgt, Kabukiman, Beware Children At Play and, of course, The Toxic Avenger.
Melvin mops floors in a New Jersey health club for a living and is regularly bullied by the customers there. One day they make him dress in a pink tutu and chase him through the building until he throws himself out of a second floor window and lands in a vat of toxic waste. However, this works to his advantage (theres a silver lining to every cloud) as he mutates in size and strength to superhuman proportions. He then starts to rid the streets of Tromaville of it’s criminal elements and becomes a superhero of sorts.
The Toxic Avenger is funny, sick and horrifying all at once. It’s also a film that feels like no other with this kind of horror and sick humour being specific to this film only. It was quite a gamble to make a film that is so idiosyncratic and esoteric. But it works brilliantly and for every target it aims at it hits. It also parodies and lampoons the conventions and tropes of other genres and does so very intelligently and accurately. Theres a real sense of cine-literacy and knowing under the surface anarchy of the movie.
This garnered attention after it became a midnight movie sensation in New York and it’s legend just snowballed from there. And this film is certainly legendary.
4. Children of the Corn
This movie is adapted from 80’s favourite for film adaptations, Stephen King and was one of the short stories in his brilliant book, Night Shift.
***Now, if you haven’t seen this film, please skip this bit as herein lie spoilers***
This movie has one of the most shocking openings for a film I’ve ever seen. A young man goes to a local diner with his father. A very creepy looking young man named Isaac comes to the window, gives a nod to his comrade Malachi in the diner whereby all of the kids in there bring out concealed weapons and commence to annihilate all of the adults. The horror of this scene is completely unexpected and truly disturbing because of it.
The film then skips forward and we find out that all of the town of Gatlin’s adults have been slaughtered so that a huge sacrifice can be made for He Who Walks Behind The Rows, a god that needs such a sacrifice to make sure their corn harvest doesn’t fail like it has in the past. All of the children except young Job and his younger sister Sarah were involved in this action.
A young couple travelling to Seattle drive through Gatlin not knowing that the children in the town are homicidal and that they should have found another route to take!
This is a very taut horror movie that deals with a topic that is still taboo within society- the killer child. In this movie, we have scores of them! Another master stroke by the film is that it’s not actually proven that the god that the children worship is actually real. You begin to think that they have just been gaslighted into believing in him and that he is a figment of the children’s leader’s imagination. But then, lo and behold, it manifests itself, you get to see it’s malevalent power in action (special effects and visuals that have ages really well thankfully) and then the film starts to go down more of a supernatural, occult route. The film also feels more sinister because of this.
It helps that the two outsiders who stumble across the town are played by Linda Hamilton and Peter Horton and that the young actors who play Isaac, Malachi, Job and Sarah are also brilliant in their roles.
This could easily have felt like made for TV fluff. Instead we have a serious, haunting and very affecting horror film that is intelligent and very well made indeed.
3. Silent Night, Deadly Night
The film that outpaced A Nightmare on Elm Street when they were both released the same week. But then some vile mother’s protest group noticed that there was a killer Santa in this film and so pressurised the film’s studio, the general public and the media to have it pulled from theatres. It worked.
But whilst the film was prevented from playing theatres, it was released on video and became a huge cult classic.
It’s easy to see why. After he sees his parents slaughtered by a homicidal maniac dressed as Santa, Billy finds himself growing up in a very strict Catholic orphanage presided over by a vicious Mother Superior. He has an aversion to all things Christmas and even punches out the visiting Father Christmas after said Mother Superior tries to make him sit on his knee.
The film then fast forwards to Billy (now tall, muscled and blond) going to work at a toy shop. As Christmas approaches he feels his old phobia coming back to haunt him. But this time he goes full retard, dresses as Santa and starts killing people.
Like The Toxic Avenger theres a sly sense of humour at work here and also a deep running knowledge of other movie cliches and genre conventions being gently teased and ridiculed. Check out the wholesome montage of Billy working at the toy store- he’s hard working, good with kids and prefers drinking his milk when a co-worker offers him Scotch.
But the film also has a steeliness and grittiness to it that is undeniable. It feels dangerous, forbidden and perfect for horror and cult cinema audiences. Witness the creepy Grandfather who only comes to life when hes alone with the young Billy whereby he can scare the young child to death. Also, the scene with the killer Santa is especially on the edge and tries to push boundaries when it comes to taste and decency and it manages handsomely. It’s almost like the makers of this film knew what an audience of exploitation film fans wanted (sorry One Million Moms). I also love the fact that it isn’t just the psychos and Billy who are shown to be deranged. The Mother Superior is just as empathy-free and vile and I’m glad this wasn’t watered down.
This film joins the ranks of other Yuletide shockers like Black Christmas and Christmas Evil that I watch every Dec, the only concession to the over-hyped season I make.
2. Terror in the Aisles
This compilation of clips of horror films will always have a special place in my heart.
Firstly, it has links within it by Donald Pleasance and Nancy Allen who both attack them with real gusto and relish.
Also, it sources such a wide range of horror movies from many different eras that it made me seek out such diverse fare as Alone in the Dark, Night Hawks and The Fury.
But, most importantly, it contained clips of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Exorcist that had been removed from UK video shelves by the dreaded BBFC. This was the only way to see these golden nuggets of these fabled depraved masterpieces.
The film also contained interview clips from masters such as Alfred Hitchcock talking about how to ramp up tension within the cinema audience.
Add to that some really cool artwork and you have a GREAT movie! I was so glad when this was released as a special feature on the Blu Ray release of Halloween 2. I thought if one title wouldn’t get a Blu Ray release it would have been this because of rights issues.
1 Friday the 13th Part 4: The Final Chapter
When this was released my friend and I just happened to be in the video shop when it was being put onto the shelves. My friend’s mother as with us and so we asked if she could rent it for us. She said, ‘Yes’ (!)
Yes, this was cut by the BBFC with the brutality of some of the scenes trimmed or excised completely such as the infamous ‘machete slide’ scene. But there was still enough in it to give me sleepless nights. In fact after we had watched it, it was dark and I had to have my friend’s dad walk me home as I was so scared.
What makes this Friday 13th my favourite instalment? Well, after the high-camp of part 3 (well it was camp compared to the other Fridays at least) it was back to business with this entry. Back to the dark, shadow hued locales (Part 3 was brighter than the other films so that the 3D it was filmed in would work to it’s maximum potential as dark surroundings aren’t conducive to that technique), back to the brutality and cruelty of the earlier films. Who would you call for this feat? Tom Savini, of course. With Savini’s return we get kills that aren’t just more painful but that are amazingly orchestrated, innovative and distinctive. These were generally blunted by the cuts made by the BBFC when the video was released 1987 but the film is now available uncut here in the UK. We get to see Jason taking a hacksaw to a victim’s neck followed by a massive twist of said neck which almost completely beheads the poor man, a woman who is pinned to a wall whilst Jason as good as guts her by inserting a knife in her stomach to pull it upwards, a woman is thrown through an upper floor window to land on the top of a car with all of the windows exploding outwards all at once. Violence and brutality have never been so beautiful.
We get some great characters in this instalment also. When Jason’s body arrives at the local morgue from the end of Part 3, the morgue worker is there to induct him. He is called Axel and is shown to be so inappropriate in his role that it’s untrue. Not only is he eating a cream cake (that he places on down on top of Jason’s corpse whilst he needs to sign the relevant paperwork) but he makes sick jokes about a female corpse in the room who he thinks is good looking. He sits down and is enjoying Aerobicise: The Beautiful Workout when he receives the hacksaw neck twist from Jason.
We also get the genius of Crispin Glover in this sequel before he starred as Marty McFly’s father or started appearing all unhinged on TV chat shows. His character is worried that he might be seen as a ‘lame fuck’ when he finally gets with a girl (this is later disproved later on in the movie) but also displays quite possibly the quirkiest dance moves ever captures in the annals of horror movie history. On asking where the corkscrew is later on, Jason obliges him by stabbing said implement into his hand and sinking a meat cleaver into his face.
Then we get Tommy Jarvis played by Corey Feldman. He’s a young boy who’s into horror movies and making masks. He would reappear in Parts 5 and 6 after defeating Jason at the end of this epic (thats after he has shaved part of his head to resemble Jason as a young boy to confuse him which, of course, reminds the audience of the kind of deep psychology used by Ginny at the end of Part 2 putting on Pamela Voorhees’ jumper, and hey presto, becoming Jason’s mother to him).
The Final Chapter also feels more than just another film in the Friday the 13th series. It feels like the end of an era not just because this instalment promised Jason’s demise but it also signifies the end of the Friday the 13th series as we know it and the era captured by the first four films. The end of a golden era for horror fans that seemed to start in earnest with the release of Halloween in 1978 with new horror releases appearing more and more. At it’s peak it seemed like there was a new horror release in theaters every other week. This era is also marked by the amazing horror magazine Fangoria which was there to document and celebrate this age. Joseph Zito, the director of this film was the one who suggested the killing of Jason as he could see the slasher phase was going to end soon and so it was better to be ahead of the curve.
After this film was a huge success, of course, there was another sequel. But the Friday the 13th series had started to mutate and change which is understandable. Especially as it wasn’t even Jason who was the killer in the next movie. And, for what it’s worth, whilst I eventually give up on all horror franchises, it’s the Friday the 13th series that has continued to hold my attention the most. Even the missteps (Part 5, The Final Friday) are interesting.
But for me the first four Fridays signified more than just mere slasher movies. They encapsulated a whole brilliant era for horror culture.
After reading Mary Higgins Clark’s book in the late 80’s, I was intrigued to learn that it had made into a film previously..
We had a huge video store near us at the time called Barker’s which was cavernous and full of quite obscure titles, including a lot of Made For TV titles that were released onto video in the UK (I saw the two tape edition of The Deliberate Stranger in which Mark Harmon plays Ted Bundy after renting it from there).
On seeing the film I felt they had done a really good job! This was a low-key, understated film and all the better for it. A young girl and her father’s girlfriend are kidnapped and held ransom by a psychotic nutjob in the tunnels under Grand Central station. Rip Torn makes for a terrific baddie and Sean S Cunningham (Mr Friday the 13th) does a very good job directing. Gritty, dirty and underrated. Oh, and a great New York movie.
9. Visiting Hours
I love hospital based horror movies. The pinnacle of this subgenre was, of course, Halloween 2 but Canxploitation flick Visiting Hours released the year after is also a treat. In fact, Visiting Hours also had the honour of being decried against in the press after it was judged to be ‘misogynistic’ by oversensitive feminists (maybe the fact that the lead woman is playing a feminist provoked her fellow real life sisters into action).
Michael Ironside stars as the psycho here named Colt Hawker (!) and attacks Lee Grant’s feminist activist after she riles him on a TV chat show. He attacks her viciously but after surviving she is taken to the local hospital. But he isn’t finished with her yet.
This film feels sleazy, dark and is as fucked up as it’s psycho lead. This film came in for a hard time with The British Board of Film Classification (they seem to be an unwelcome guest in so many of my reviews) with a minute of footage excised from both the theatrical and video version. The film was also dragged into the Video Nasty moral panic.
Yes, the film is disturbing. Yes, women are treated appallingly and are the focus for the ire of Ironside’s character (an explanation for this is given when we see him visit his father who was disfigured by his mother and has caused him to foster a hatred for women ever since) but there are really characters like this in real life with women being the target for their twisted actions. Maybe this film not being censored would bring attention to this and act as a reflection of society. Or maybe I’m just trying to substantiate my twisted tastes in films…(I suddenly thought of porn theatre owner Elmer Fishpaw in John Waters’ Polyester- ‘my theatre helps stop rape!’)
Have a shower after watching this. But watch it!
I didn’t see this for the longest time even thought I had seen it mentioned in books and had seen the great poster for it. When I was living in Sydney I rented it out from the incredible Dr What video with Madman (another film I had always meant to get round to watching).
What can I say?! Cult classic! Lynda Day George screaming ‘Bastard!’ isn’t just cinematic gold but my message to the world!
The king fu professor scene, Paul Smith polishing his chainsaw, the tennis scenes, the clawed crotch scene, the opening backstory with the jigsaw…all utterly brilliant. And I haven’t even mentioned the kills! How brilliant they are, how deliciously gory and aesthetically pleasing each one is. Its like this film was made by a team of horror fans who had a roundtable discussion regarding what would be cool ways to kill people in a horror film. A girl on rollerskates going through a glass pane being carried by two guys who cross her path? That’d be cool! A girl in a lift is joined by a nutjob hiding a chainsaw behind his back? Lets do it!
If a film is brilliant enough it won’t just sink into obscurity. Eventually it will be rediscovered and treated like the great work it really is. That’s the Pieces story. I’ll never understand the massive cult status given to a film like The Room. It should be given to Pieces instead. And it’s already started.
A horror classic. And remember- ‘Theres nothing better than smoking grass and fucking on a waterbed!’
7. The Forest
I didn’t even know of the existence of this film until it’s restoration for DVD was announced in the 2000’s. I happened to see an original copy of it on the shelves of the afore mentioned Dr What video store in Bondi Junction and so rented it. I’m glad I did. It’s a cracking film.
A bunch of hikers find themselves the target of a madman whilst being warned about him and if he’s close or not by the ghosts of two dead children (back story- the two children used to be his but were mistreated by their mother. Their father killed her when he found she has been having numerous affairs behind his back. He runs off to live in the woods with them but after the onset of malnutrition they commit suicide together. This makes their father go mad and live in the woods as a cannibalistic hermit. Shit happens). As they tell the hapless cityfolk, ‘Daddy’s gone a-huntin!’, what the hikers don’t realise is that it’s the kids who are the ones who let their father know when there is fresh meat to be had nearby. Damn those double-crossing ghost children!
This film is a low-key, frenetic joy. Check out the fight scene between the killer and one of the campers. It’s one of the most high octane and off the wall bouts I’ve ever seen in a film and a triumph of kinetic direction and editing.
Another sign that you need to see this film is that there’s an actor in it called Corky Pigeon. True fact.
One of the many great things that the early 80’s video boom did was introduce movie viewers to the delights of Italian horror movies commonly known as Giallo. One of the leading directors of this genre was (and still is) Dario Argento. 1982 saw the release of his masterpiece Tenebrae. This time not only did horror fans get the usual exquisitely directed and staged bloodshed that Argento fans came to expect but they got a bona fide Hollywood cult star as one of the leads, John Saxon!
Peter Neal is an author of violent horror fiction and it would seem he has inspired a murderer to undertake a killing spree in his name.
Innovative murders, double and triple crossings, red herrings and an ending that has to be seen to be believed! I’d love to elaborate but I’m giving nothing away! I’d also love to explore the themes and meanings within this film but I’m reserving that for a future essay. I don’t want this list to become a thesis length dissertation.
In Italy Giallo directors were treated like royalty. In Britain their movies were banned and lionised (as we’ll see in a much more extreme example later in this list!) See this film to find out why Italy has such high regard for Giallo and it’s filmmakers. In fact, see any of Argento’s films to see why.
5. Friday the 13th Part 3D
I still remember seeing the poster for the video release of this film and feeling so excited. Let me provide you with some backstory. This film was made in 1982 and gained a cinema release in the UK but then when it came to the video release it was the era of the Nazi video banning and burning that was the Video Nasty furore. CIC Video who distributed the Friday the 13th films on video released a press release that basically said that in the current climate they would hold back the release of Friday Part 3 and the forthcoming Part 4 until things had calmed down a bit. A wise move. Imagine Mary Whitehouse if she ever saw a picture of Jason in his hockey mask. He would have quickly become Public Enemy Number 1 with regard to this moral panic.
When I saw the poster for this release in the window of a small supermarket/off-licence near my house in 1987 it meant that their release was imminent (there were doubts as to if CIC would release them at all).
I then got to see the film in all of it’s 3D glory quite a few times in the late 90’s at the NFT in London.
Why do I love this film so much? The 3D is stunning and not just the technique they used to ensure that it could be the best possible presentation for audiences but also the many different ways it’s used in the plot and in what contexts. We get fun scenarios that utilise the 3D and so we have popcorn shooting out of a pan into our faces, a yo-yo being spun at us, a baseball bat being poked into the camera and even a spliff being passed over. But the 3D is also used for, thankfully, many disgusting uses. And so we get an old man clutching an eyeball which is poked into our faces, a hot poker used by Jason to stab a character in the stomach being pointed at us first, a victim whose head is being squeezed by Jason with a bit too much vigour resulting in one of his eyeballs shooting out of his head at us. Thats the kind of shit you need from a horror film shot in 3D.
This was also the first Friday in which we see Jason in his trademark hockey mask after he has ‘acquired’ it from one of his victims (after slashing said victim’s throat first). Jason’s first kill wearing this new fashion accessory is to fire a harpoon gun into a victim’s eye via the audience first of course. Jason then dispassionately throws down said harpoon and walks away. Killing is just functional to him.
The climax in the barn is worth the price of admission alone. At one point we have Jason with an axe protruding from his head coming towards us with his arms outstretched as if hes trying to grab us. Now that’s genius.
A gimmick used well. The spirit of William Castle lives on. It sounds easy, doesn’t it? Shoot a film in 3D and watch the money roll in. Not quite. I also saw Jaws 3D at the NFT and it was dreadful!
Friday the 13th Part 3 in 2D highlights one weak chink in the film’s armour however- the final girl. Shes unbelieveable, lacking in spunk and a dreadful actress to boot. Spoiler alert- after ‘killing’ Jason she is meant to show that shes gone mad in the process. Honey, you have a longgg way to get to the levels of insanity that Marilyn Burns achieved in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
But other than that, Part 3 is a hoot.
4. Basket Case
When we first got our new video machine (a top-loader from Granada Rentals) my family rented two films with it. One was Captain America and was intended as safe enough for 7 year old me. But the other film was Basket Case which interested me a lot more. I remember watching and loving both.
Watching Basket Case years later, it’s so on-point that it’s incredible. It seems to contain everything that an exploitation film fan would salivate over. In fact, it reminds me of another masterpiece that also hits every exploitation/cult film target it aims at, Bloodsucking Freaks (R.I.P. Joel M. Reed).
Duane books into the flophouse Hotel Broslin with a large wicker basket. Whilst the contents of the basket arouses the curiosity of almost everyone who comes into contact with Duane as he’s always carrying it around (we even see him take it to a 42nd Street grindhouse cinema and with wild results!) Duane seems backwards in coming forwards about the secrets contained within. The audience sees that it actually contains Duane’s previously conjoined deformed twin called Belial. The twins didn’t want to be separated and so seek revenge against the doctors and surgeons who performed this operation.
Basket Case is extreme, depraved, gory and very very funny. It’s also a very lurid time capsule to a time when 42nd Street was awash with cinemas showing horror, kung-fu, action and porn. In other words, the good old days.
3. The Thing
In 1982 American audiences wanted only one alien. He wasn’t the shape-shifting evil alien in John Carpenter’s The Thing, he was the cute alien who wanted to ‘phone home’ in Steven Spielberg’s E.T.
A dog who is being shot at by the crew of a helicopter flying overhead is taken in by an American compound of researchers situated in Antarctica. When the helicopter is accidentally blown up by one of the men aboard, the crew try to find out why. But then the dog who is now in the same pound as the camp’s own dogs starts to act strangely. And then things start to change very rapidly indeed!
Theres a lot to love about The Thing. Rob Bottin’s bar-raising special effects, the perfect casting of the all male cast (unthinkable nowadays with the current emphasis on ‘diversity’ whether it’s necessary or not), the frozen, isolated locale, the colour palate that compliments this setting perfectly.
Ennio Morricone’s score is as intricate, complex and multi-layed as the rest of the movie. It’s been out of print for a log time and is well over due to be rereleased.
The film is also able to be read into in a number of different ways. It can be seen as a study into masculinity and a metaphor for a new disease being reported about on news reports called AIDS. The movie also doesn’t definitively answer vital questions but leaves it up to the audience to decide for themselves questions like who might be human and who might be an alien at the end of the movie. A film that grants the audience with a modicum of intelligence, another reason to love The Thing.
The Thing tanked at the box office. But it then found it’s audience when it was released on home video. Hooray for video!
2. The New York Ripper
If this film was a stick of rock it would have the word ‘Exploitation’ running through it. This film is the Giallo Citizen Kane, the Gone With The Wind of sleaze. This is my favourite Lucio Fulci movie and I love his work.
A killer is on the loose in New York. Oh, and he has the voice of Donald Duck. He slaughters his female victims in the most disgusting ways possible using razor blades on intimate areas of their naked bodies. One attack on a female victim involves a broken bottle being thrust and ground into a very vulnerable part of her body. Really! And this sequence is featured in the film’s trailer!
This was banned outright by the BBFC and it was rumoured that they were so outraged by the film’s content that they actually escorted the copy of the print out of the country! This story was later proven to be untrue by the BBFC, who said that instead they just didn’t return the print to the distributor after they had banned it.
Right from the film’s start its a grimy and slimy excursion into New York’s underbelly. We see an old man throw a stick for his dog to go and fetch. Instead, the dog brings back a severed hand it has found. From then on in it never lets up with murders and deviant sex galore (check out the scene in the dockside diner involving a woman we had seen in a sex cinema earlier). And the film never flags and is just as disgusting and brilliant with every single scene.
Whilst this film still isn’t legal in the UK, it can be seen uncut on YouTube.
1 Halloween 3: Season of the Witch
I saw this on Thorn EMI video when I was 8 years old. I didn’t think about Michael Myers and his no show in the movie but just loved it from the first time I saw it. The plot, when explained, is the most nonsensical load of nonsense you’ve ever heard. An Irish mask and practical joke manufacturer plans to kill all of the children in America via a microchip in the back of each of the masks his company makes coupled with a signal to be transmitted via a TV commercial to be shown on Halloween. Oh, and Stonehenge has made all of this possible.
Sounds ridiculous, right?! But when you watch the film, it works! Add to the mix a great cast (Tom ‘The Man’ Atkins as well as Stacey Nelkin and Dan O’Herlihy as the evil Conal Cochran), amazing cinematography (Dean Cundey’s genius again) and quite possibly one of the best soundtracks I’ve ever heard. John Carpenter and Alan Howarth outdid themselves with this soundtrack as it sounds almost like the work of Can or Tangerine Dream but better! Everything adds up to such a haunting film full of gorgeous shots, genius music and characters that feel believeable as they’re so well sketched out and flawed. Take for example, the film’s lead Dr Dan Challis who is a great crusading hero but is also an alcoholic and serial womaniser.
The video release I saw was censored but a few years after, the film was shown on BBC1 who accidentally transmitted it uncut. The kills are very full-on and pull no punches which makes the film feel even grittier and on the edge. There is a sense of doom that permeates the whole film that really works to it’s advantage.
Halloween 3 had been reappraised over the years as the cult classic that I always thought it was. Even if it doesn’t feature Michael Myers. Halloween 3 never fails to make me feel like the 8 year old who first saw it. It holds the same mystique and power of a campfire tale told to scare and captivate children and adults alike.
I remember the Video Nasties furore like it was yesterday. With my father being an avid Daily Mail reader and staunch Thatcherite I felt like I had a front row seat with the then Tory government seeking to ban the very films I loved when they were released on video in the early 80’s.
I saw most of the media coverage regarding this as it happened. I’ve also seen the later retrospective takes on the moral panic regarding the so-called ‘Video Nasties’ but there is one documentary that perfectly captures the sense of fear, paranoia and scapegoating for the ills of society unfairly placed on these horror films which some were even calling ‘snuff movies’ (!) I’ve uploaded this here for your delectation. Please watch and prepare for your jaw to drop as you witness a frankly unbelievable episode from history in which, at the time, there seemed to be plenty of authoritative voices against these videos but none in the mainstream media who were standing up for them. It was akin to book-burning.
Hopefully we can learn from this sad era. It could never happen again. Or could it? With this documentary reminding us what happened, more and more this seems like an episode of unjustified censorship which can be consigned to history where it belongs.
I actually went to see Lady Bird because the trailer was so good. Any film that uses ‘Days of Steam’ by John Cale instantly grabs my attention.
Lady Bird is a quirky film that makes me want to punch the air with delight. Thank Christ for all of the filmmakers who see things from a different perspective and dare to portray events by thinking outside of the box rather than just following the herd.
The lead character of Lady Bird is finishing up at school and waiting to go to college. The netherworld period of transition just before the bird leaves the comfort of the family nest is poignant, restless and full of conflicting emotions- a fact which doesn’t escape the filmmakers.
There are gorgeous observations concerning family relationships and dynamics. One scene involves Lady Bird and her mother having a very serious and embittered argument in a thrift store. But this all ends abruptly on the discovery of a beautiful dress. Suddenly all resentments and grievances evaporate as mother and daughter bask in the glory of this maroon lace concoction.
Another thing about the film that I loved was the Catholic setting. It was refreshing that we have such a setting in a film and it isn’t full of cruelty and abuse (OK- maybe thats me as I’ve watched both Spotlight and Silent Night, Deadly Night recently). Watch out for the inspirational Mother Superior, the all too enthusiastic play director/wannabe football coach and the drama teacher. All great characters which compliment this unique film.
The entire cast are awe-inspiring. Saoirse Ronan owns the role of Lady Bird and is perfect. And its great to see Laurie Metcalfe on our screens again after years of watching Roseanne.
Offbeat, innovative and original. Lady Bird deserves all of the praise its receiving at the moment.