The head of a theatre troupe Alan (think of a cross between Charles Manson and Timothy Claypole in lurid and very colourful 60’s clothing) takes his fellow thespians (who he refers to as his ‘children’) to an island which is used as a kind of graveyard for dead criminals. He then assumes the role of a religious leader, puts on robe he just happens to have brought with him and proceeds to try and raise the dead using his knowledge of magic. Whilst this (seemingly) doesn’t work they dig up the dead body of a man called Orville. However later on in the film the dead do indeed rise again and get their revenge. They board the actor’s boat at the end of the film.
The director of this film is listed as Benjamin Clark but is in fact Bob Clark who went on to make the masterpieces Dead of Night and Black Christmas. Allan Ormsby who plays Alan went on to direct the excellent Ed Gein biopic Deranged.
This film has an interesting vibe to it that is similar to the counterculture early 70’s vibe of Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left (but without the violence or genuine transgression). This is gritty low budget filmmaking that points to the drive-in but also to the arthouse realm.
The colour palette of the cast’s wardrobe is like watching an acid trip with each character wearing a different very bright colour and when more than one cast member is in the frame together it’s a trip. In fact theres a shot in the movie of the cast members all lines up behind each other and it’s like a spectrum of colour. The audience members on certain substances must have loved this sequence.
This is an interesting film but far from being some kind of 60’s classic. The title is very misleading also.
It’s 1974. A French starlet who isn’t averse to modelling with no clothes on is seduced by an enigmatic young man who asks to take her home to meet his parents. However, his home appears to be some kind of old institution like a long forgotten prison. And this is exactly what it is. His mother is the sadistic Governor of her own prison where her son takes flagrant examples of the new ‘permissive’ society so that they can be punished and even executed because of their lax ways.
This is Within These Walls on steroids. I love the fact that there is a notice at the start of the film that reads “This film is dedicated to those who are disturbed by today’s lax moral codes and who eagerly await the return of corporal and capital punishment.” This is obviously a film that is parodying and sticking up two fingers to the puritanical types who didn’t like that the society of the time was becoming more permissive and free, the ‘Bring Back Hanging’ brigade. Britain was moving away from it’s more conservative ways and some weren’t happy about this as they flocked to fill the letters pages of every national newspaper. Precedents were falling and were set to fall even further as during the 70’s. One prime example of this movement that directly affected film was Mary Whitehouse and her Caravan of Light both of which would try to get exploitation films like House of Whipcord banned. Whitehouse was massively active during the Video Nasties furore that would occur during the next decade.
But within the film’s duration there are currents of dissent as prisoners held at the institution secretly plan to overthrow the evil wardens and hopefully escape this kangeroo prison. This film adheres to but also subverts the conventions of prison genres but especially the ‘women in prison’ genre and only excludes lesbianism which maybe for the time in Britain would have been a step too far for that still conservative time. Had it have been included then the film may have fallen foul of the BBFC. The theme of an uprising is one of the prime tropes of this genre and I love that this was so brilliantly depicted. But I also love the result of this which ironically delivers back to the prison the woman who had successfully escaped.
Special mentions go out to Barbara Markham as the deranged Governor and Sheila Keith as one of the sadistic wardens. House of Whipcord was called Flagellations abroad. Quite.
Another Pete Walker masterpiece. Now, can we have a Blu Ray boxset of his back catalogue please?
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!
I often think about my love of cinema, where it began and the influences on it, both film-based and what was going on around me.
I was born in February 1975. My arrival into the world coincides with the day on which Stephen Murphy the BBFC’s secretary first saw a new independent film called The Texas Chain Saw Massacre with a view to providing a certificate for it. It feels apt that my birth coincided with an event connected to such a sordid masterpiece which remains one of my favourite films to this day.
On hearing of a new arrival into the world most people want to hear information that I’ve always thought was a bit random and really boring. Who gives a flying fuck about a baby’s weight? I want to know what was showing at the local cinema.
Thankfully the information I was looking for regarding my own arrival onto this planet was awaiting me in the Central Library in York amongst the archived local newspapers on microfilm.
I’m thrilled to report that when I was born the films being shown were veryyy me! And before you ask, one of them wasn’t The Omen.
There was either the Safari suited, high camp antics of eye-brow raising Roger Moore as 1970’s James Bond in The Man With The Golden Gun or a sex comedy double-bill consisting of Line Up and Lay Down (!) and Nurses on the Job (!!) Both choices I’m more than happy with.
The cinema these masterpieces were being shown was the Odeon Cinema in Blossom Street in York which remains my favourite cinema of all of the movie houses I’ve been to.
The Odeon was opened on 1st February, 1937. You can see how much of an exquisite building it was by it’s very architecture. A gorgeous building by any standards with it’s distinctive Art Deco form and shape, this was seen on it’s construction as an outstanding addition to the Odeon family.
The Odeon is situated on one of the main streets in and out of the city and more importantly, it’s on the route that my father would use when driving us home after going to the city centre. I remember driving past this cinema even before I was old enough to start frequenting the place with my family. Driving by I’d see the garish, alluring and beguiling posters outside. Just the posters alone had the power to scare the fuck out of me as a child with the colourful and nightmarish artwork for horror films leaving the deepest imprints in my young and very furtile psyche. It was just one glance of the poster for the double bill of The Incredible Melting Man and U.S. TV movie The Savage Bees that prevented me from sleeping for several nights in a row.
I also distinctly remember seeing the poster for The Fog in 1980 (I must have been five years old) and that really freaking me out. Again, sleepless nights followed.
One of the other things I loved about cinemas in those days was that they didn’t just have amazing posters for the films they were showing but also lobby cards which showed key scenes of the films being shown within. Lobby cards seem to have died a death these days but I always loved them especially when they were for the horror fare of the day. If a poster could invoke fear in me then going up close and peering at some of the horrific and disturbing scenes that took place within these cinematic shockers was also an amazing experience for an over imaginative small child.
One of my earliest memories is of my 5 year old self running to where the posters and lobby cards were outside The Odeon to gaze for the longest time at the artwork for a new film that had just started to play there. That film was called Friday the 13th and it was again, 1980. The lobby cards prompted many questions. Who was the kindly old woman enveloped in the misty woodland? Was the killer a dab hand at archery? Hadn’t the girl in the canoe seen Joe Dante’s Piranha?! I’d never dip my hand so casually in a lake like that…So many thoughts ran through my fevered little brain.
There was actually a Kentucky Fried Chicken opposite The Odeon and so because of this proximity a unique urban legend came into being. Even though it’s a slight variation on an already well known yarn, the people of York insist that this actually happened. Some say they even know the people involved. It goes like this-
A young couple decide to go to collect KFC and then dash into The Odeon opposite with their greasy meal. The film they are going to see has already started and so they order their food, pay and rush into the cinema to buy their tickets and find their seats. They do this and find that the house lights have already gone down and the place is packed. They somehow manage to find two seats together in the rammed auditorium and start to chow down on their KFC. Because the film has already started the couple can’t see what they are eating and just tuck in regardless. The young woman notices that what she thinks should be a piece of chicken tastes funny. It also doesn’t feel like a leg or breast. Sure, it’s coated in the Colonel’s secret coating but chicken it must definitely aint. With her eyes now started to get used to the darkness of the cinema she sees that in fact what shes been tucking into looks very strange indeed. She decides to take some of the coating off with her fingers and is horrified to see what is concealed underneath- and of which she still has a piece of in her mouth. She has been eating a deep fried rat! She screams, her male companion screams, the audience screams.
The ‘deep friend rat’ is an urban legend that is well-told the world over and can be applied to any fast-food joint but seems to be specific to KFC (much to their chigrin). There was even a case recently whereby someone posted the same story as fact, even with pictures as evidence. But when asked by KFC’s management for further evidence or closer investigation, the story’s perpetrator seemed backwards in coming forward with further details. Social media, the internet and emails are perfect for the further advancement of urban legends in the cyber age.
But I digress. Most of my trips to the cinema during my childhood and teen years were to The Odeon. I loved seeing films in such a venue that was steeped in history and gorgeous to boot. I could almost feel the history of the place as people who had been lucky enough to see some of my favourite films (and that I would have been too young to see at the time of their release) would have delighted in the magic of seeing such cinematic masterpieces as Taxi Driver, Jaws and The Exorcist (fast forward and this would change with The Exorcist as there was a one-off screening and on my 18th birthday (of all days!) It was almost like it was scheduled especially for me! And so in February 1993, even though it had snowed, my friends and I went out on the town and then went to see the film with a packed house (the film was still banned on video in the UK at that time). Whilst the print was in appalling condition and most probably one of the same prints used on the film’s original release in 1974, it had lost none of it’s power. I’ll never forget leaving the cinema, bidding my friends farewell and precariously going to find a taxi whilst wading through snow and trying not to break my neck whilst walking like Bambi over the ice underfoot. Oh, and I remember being really fucking scared because of the film!
In these innocent days of my early childhood a couple of Odeon visits really stick out in my mind for some reason. I think it’s because these films were perfect for kids- even kids who would have no chance of getting into screenings of the horror and exploitation films he’d preferred to have been watching even at a very early age.
One screening I went to when I was 5 years old was for Robert Altman’s Popeye and I absolutely loved it! The perfect casting, the set designs, the songs- the cartoon series I loved so much was effortlessly and almost eerily brought to life.
Another cinematic excursion to the Odeon that I look back on with real fondness was a double bill of a pre-Terminator Arnie and Kirk Douglas in the zany Cactus Jack and the live action kitsch fest Spiderman and the Dragon’s Challenge. This was originally a two-part television special made for American T.V. but was spliced together to make a feature film to be shown theatrically outside the U.S. Hence, how I had the good fortune to be watching it. Spidey was played by Nicholas Hammond, one of the Von Trapp brats from The Sound of Music. The film was so bright and colourful that it was akin to a Pop-Art Warhol print come to life. I seem to remember that Spidey’s webs looked like white rope. Myself and all lovers of cinematic cult fare need this film and the films that preceded it (Spiderman and Spiderman Strikes Back) to be released on Blu ray tout suite.
It was at The Odeon that not only did I fall in love with film as a medium but also the sense of occasion involved in going to see a film. There was the excitement of the snacks on offer, the stench of popcorn meaning only one thing. It was also the trailers for the upcoming films and then the Pearl and Dean advertising for products such as Fry’s Turkish Delight, Westlers hotdogs and Red Mountain coffee. Then it was the wonderfully kitsch and camp ads for local businesses in York such as Indian restaurants and local pubs/nightclubs. The glittering world of York’s nightlife! It seemed so sophisticated. Theres a great sample of similar cinema advertising here. And here is a cinema advert shown locally in the 60’s in Plymouth advertising the local nightspots. It has to be seen to be believed! It’s all about the camp bleach blonde bartender. Something tells me he might be a Friend of Dorothy.
But there was also another cinema in York in those days that I also went to. The ABC cinema was right in the city centre on a street called Piccadilly and whilst it didn’t have the history, grandeur or sense of occasion that The Odeon had, I also went there and thoroughly enjoyed myself.
One of my earliest cinema going experiences here involved my father taking me and my two older brothers to go and see the newly released Superman 2 (which I didn’t like as to my 6 year old eyes the film was too violent- how things would change when it came to my tastes in cinema!) and way too loud. But other than those reservations, I had a great time. My Dad then took us to see executed highwayman Dick Turpin’s grave which is nearby. All in all, a great day.
For more on the curious case of the burial of Dick Turpin, click here. It’s just one more story from the blood-soaked history of York.
Another major source for my burgeoning passion in film was, of course, the television. Whilst I couldn’t get in to see the X certificate films at my local cinemas, there were no restrictions to me seeing any of the films shown on TV, whether they were intended for children or not. Hooray for lax parenting!
I remember vividly the first ever screening of Jaws on UK TV. According to the internet this took place on 8th of October 1981 which means that I was 6 years old when I saw it (it was actually certificated A when it was originally released in 1975 meaning that it wasn’t suitable for children under 11. This was changed to a PG years later, but recently was controversially upgraded to 12A as it was felt that PG was too lenient. Which, I suppose, is a testament to the brilliance of the film). This was a HUGE event and garnered mammoth ratings with 23.25 million viewers tuning in, one of the biggest ratings ever for a film shown on TV.
I also remember similarly huge ratings for the first time Superman: The Movie was shown on UK TV. This was also a pivotal event for not just myself but for most of the population.
Thankfully when I was growing up my father didn’t believe the theory that children watching late night movies that might be violent or disturbing in some way could negatively affect a child and so I was allowed to stay up late and watch the likes of Carrie, The Omen and Dirty Harry when they were shown. I realised that most of my school friends didn’t have parents who were this liberal or maybe just didn’t give a shit as I’d say to them ‘Did you see (insert name of some film usually with an X certificate) last night?!’ to be met with blank stares or a slow, jealous shake of the head.
Not everything that influenced me in those days was film based but still fed into my love of cult cinema and all things fucked up. I was and still am an avid reader. Sometimes I sped through books so fast that my father used to take me to the library more than once a day (really!). It was here that I came across a book that was perfect for a young freak with a taste for the macabre.
Usborne’s Guide to the Supernatural World was a compendium made up of three earlier titles (Vampires, Werewolves and Demons, Haunted Houses, Ghosts and Spectres and Mysterious Powers and Strange Forces) and was pretty much a bible for me from that moment on. It’s one of my favourite books and I still dip into it for pleasure and for life-affirmation purposes.
My knowledge of everything supernatural was expanded immeasurably with this tome as my eyes pored over the gaudy illustrations whilst taking in every detail of the text.
Usborne have just reissued another of their titles, The World of the Unknown: Ghosts which was just as influential in the late 70’s (see- there were other young weirdos just like me!). Let’s hope they see fit to reissue Supernatural World too. Copies are selling for a fortune on the internet. We need a reprint and pronto. It would sell just as well as Ghosts.
But there was something a lot closer to home and all too real that provided a macabre backdrop to my earliest years. The county that I grew up in had it’s own serial killer that was at large with his earliest noted murder (but it’s rumoured that he killed earlier and more than has been publicly recorded) being in the year of my birth and not ending until his capture in 1981. Peter William Sutcliffe aka The Yorkshire Ripper murdered women who were out alone at night. One of my earliest memories was of watching the local news programme Calendar which was presented by Richard Whiteley (later the presenter of student and old person favourite Countdown) who was normally a jolly and happy kind of fellow. I knew something was wrong as on this occasion he wasn’t smiling or jolly but had a grave expression on his face as he stood in front of a board that had numerous women’s faces on it. He explained that yet another women had been added to the list of those poor women who found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. This victim was Jacqueline Hill, a Leeds student who was walking from where her bus had dropped her to her student lodgings (a matter of a few yards) but instead met her ghoulish fate.
Because of the Ripper life had to be changed massively. There was an unofficial curfew for women and a feeling of omnipresent dread in the air until his capture. When I grew older and started going out as a teenager I’d always accompany female friends home and make sure they were inside and safe until I left. I never thought why I did this until much later- it had been because I has grown up in the era of the Ripper. It’s strange how life comes full circle. I’m now writing this in Chapeltown in my flat. This area of Leeds was a major hunting ground for Sutcliffe. The murder scenes for at least 4 of his victims are within walking distance of here.
This sense of dread was also all around us in other ways in the late 70’s/early 80’s. This was in the form of Public Information Films which were short adverts made by the government which warned the general population of the dangers of any number of potentially lethal activities as varied as mixing different types of tyre on your car, letting your child talk to strangers, putting down a rug on a freshly polished wooden floor…you name it. My favourite was The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water which was voiced by Donald Pleasance and warned of the dangers of children playing near rivers and lakes and what could happen.
This PIF scared the shit out of me and reminded me of another childhood source of sleepless nights, a paperback of The Lord of the Rings that was knocking around our house resplendent with becloaked soldiers riding nightmarish horses each with glowing red eyes.
Missives from on high of how to prevent catastrophe in your life weren’t just made for the TV screen either. There were plenty of leaflets, posters and literature around at this time that could educate the populace of how to avoid potential disaster.
There was plenty of imagery that I found so attractive as it would appeal to any fan of cult cinema and particularly the horror/slasher genre. The threat of some crime being committed to either you or your property was very real with an unspecified shadowy figure (the best example being depicted in the ‘Watch out! There’s a thief about’ campaign) seen approaching (a great example of this was the two black boots walking on breaking ice in the excellent ‘Neighbourly Nell’ Public Information Film) or running away.
One poster that I used to see on the wall in doctor’s surgeries, chemists and libraries was the design classic of The Pregnant Man.
Another moral panic that I remember vividly from my early childhood concerned the dangers of rabies entering the UK. Cue distressing images of rabid animals attacking children and humans frothing at the mouth due to the disease. And this wasn’t just in print.
And then there was Protect and Survive. This was a campaign regarding what to do if there was a nuclear holocaust. This booklet would be sent to every household if the button had been pushed and certain psychopathic world leaders wanted the ultimate in narcissistic supply. Details on how we were all to hole up in our self-made bomb shelters with only our loved ones and tinned food for company were outlined. There were even details on what to do if someone in your enclosure had passed away and how their body could be disposed of.
And here, for your perverse pleasure, is the full booklet. I’m sure in these times of lockdowns and Coronavirus we can pick up some worthwhile and strangely relevant tips.
The threat of nuclear war was everywhere in the late 70’s and 80’s. To quote those purveyors of style and hair dye Duran Duran from their number 1 single Is There Something I Should Know, ‘You’re about as easy as a nuclear war.’ Just one push of a button and we would be pushed into a dystopic netherworld.
There was even a drama, Threads made about what that post-nuclear holocaust would look like. It wasn’t pretty and remains a powerful, brilliant and extremely difficult to watch masterpiece. I recommend you to find it but proceed with caution.
But back to film. Another rich source of cult film goodness was to be found in our local newspaper, of all places. Film adverts were placed in here by the local cinemas that showed artwork (sometimes different from the posters) that was, in the case of horror and cult films, lurid in nature and again, utterly alluring to me.
As it would happen, other cult movie fans were indulging in the same pleasures with the excellent book Ad Nauseam being released not so long ago- a compendium of newspaper ads advertising the kind of movies I relished seeking out the ads for.
Just as there were newspaper print ads, there were also TV adverts for upcoming and films that were currently playing. Some of these were just as disturbing as the films themselves. I remember seeing a TV spot for The Shining that was possibly the scariest thing I had ever experienced up until that point. On seeing it again, I still feel the same. It’s a terrifying experience.
Whilst all of this quenched my growing passion for cinema and particularly cult cinema, there was an upcoming innovation that would change everything! That was, of course, VIDEO! And such a momentous event deserves a blog entry all of it’s own…
I have an ever-changing mental list of films that I’d most like to see on the big screen. A few entries on this list I’ve been lucky enough to actually see in a cinema such as Halloween 3: Season of the Witch, Cruising, The Hills Have Eyes (the masterpiece original, not the remake shitfest), Mommie Dearest, Friday the 13th Part 3 and YES! it was in 3D, Last House on the Left… The film that was at the top of my list (Female Trouble) is about to be ticked off when I go to see the film at my local cinema tonight.
This has made me rethink and rejig my Cinema Wishlist. And here, for your enjoyment, it is…
1. Supergirl (1984)
The film I probably rented the most on VHS back in the 80’s when I was a kid. The Superman franchise takes an unexpected turn with this tale of his female cousin, Kara who lives on Argo City (a huge piece of Krypton which survived after it’s explosion) who has accidentally lost the omegahedron (an artefact that gives the owner huge power and could be lethal in the wrong hands). And so we see Kara come to Earth in search of it and become Supergirl in the process.
The special effects haven’t dated very well but who cares? Everything that makes Supergirl such a treat is in place- great dialogue, an all-star cast (including Simon Ward, Peter O’Toole, Brenda Vaccaro, Mia Farrow, Peter Cook…) and great cinematography and locations which really establish the feeling of small town America so lovingly.
But the jewel of this crown is that Faye Dunaway plays Selina the self-styled white witch who has come into possession of the omegahedron. FAYE FUCKING DUNAWAY!!! I think of La Dunaway’s filmography as being split into two very distinct categories- the critically acclaimed movies that are examples of brilliant cinema that she has acted in and greatly contributed to (examples of this include Chinatown, Network, Bonnie and Clyde) and then the other category in which Ms Dunaway stars in films that are some of the greatest examples of cult cinema in which she hasn’t just contributed greatly but stolen the show by being larger than life, going batshit crazy in her role when she needs to and not just going the extra mile but the extra five miles. Examples include such brilliance as Mommie Dearest, The Eyes of Laura Mars and The Wicked Lady. Guess which category Supergirl is in?
Supergirl is the rarest of things- intentional camp which works really well. Mostly in cult cinema terms when a big budget film becomes defined as camp it’s in fact strayed off-course and found itself being an uneditable mess and utterly terrible to boot. Cinema goers may appraise it as ‘so bad it’s good’ as camp wasn’t intentionally sought as a tone but camp is what the filmmaker got, whether they like it or not!
But in Supergirl the entire cast knew right from the get go that this film was supposed to be camp and boy, do they go for it! And most importantly- they succeed.
Also, Selina’s character has her own fantastic environ set piece which is an abandoned fairground which looks very sinister but also a pretty cool place to reside.
The dialogue is a knockout. It wouldn’t surprise me if John Waters penned the screenplay under a pseudonym. There is some real comedy gold in this film. One example- when Selina reminds her sidekick played by Brenda Varraco that she’d be nothing in the dark arts without her, she remarks ‘If it wasn’t for me you’d still be reading tealeaves in Tahoe!’
2. Walkabout (1971)
A film that is contained in one of my favourite film books of all time ‘Movies of the Seventies’ by Lloyd and Robinson. A great book that provides a wide ranging overview of many different genres, it also pays particular attention to some individual films and analyses them whilst providing stills of scenes from that movie. One such film was Nicolas Roeg’s Aussie classic Walkabout. The film was shown out of the blue in the late 80’s on late night regional TV and because I had already read about in in this brilliant book I recorded it. And I’m so glad I did.
A well to do man tales his son and daughter out of school with the promise that they are going on a picnic. They drive out of Sydney and into the outback. As his kids start to prepare the picnic their father unexpectedly starts firing shots at them with a gun before setting the car on fire and turning the gun on himself.
We then see the children the next day after they have been aimlessly wondering through the barren terrain. They encounter an Aboriginal boy who decides to accompany them on their journey.
This is an amazing film with stunning photography which Nichols Roeg has spliced, manipulated and completely buggered around with to illustrate themes such as the disorientation the children are feeling and the forward and backward passing of time. We see the father’s suicide in reverse and later see a flock of birds flying backwards.
Time and the brutality of civilisation seems to be another theme that is explored within the film with the civilised youths being paired with the uncivilised Aborigine. In one scene we see hunters killing numerous animals and wildlife which really hammers home this brutal intrusion of those who are supposed to be more advanced yet aren’t.
This film was tied up in rights hell for years which prevented it’s release on home video. But the requisite number of years have passed and it was finally issued to an gobsmacked public who could finally see this classic. It’s now rightly on Criterion Blu-ray- it’s place as a bone-fide classic firmly established and recognised. Walkabout is another Roeg masterpiece.
3. King of Comedy (1982)
Rupert Pupkin is obsessed with becoming a famous comedian and is also obsessed with the late-night talk show host Jerry Langford. And he’ll do anything to get his shot. Anything.
This 1982 Scorsese film was a first glimpse into the crazy world of fandom, celebrity obsession and follows it through to it’s darkest conclusions. This was unexplored territory at the time and so some thought of this film as overdramatised, exaggerated and how the events depicted could never happen in real life. This seems incredible now as Scorsese’s film has been shown to be, if anything, a conservative depiction os how dark this world can be.
Another criticism of The King of Comedy by critics was that it feels quite flat compared to other Scorsese films. Thats because Scorsese employs a lot of techniques and styles found in television as this is the axis of the film’s narrative rather than him utilising overelaborate cinematic techniques.
Watch out for Sandra Bernhard’s role as Masha. She almost steals the film from right under De Niro and Lewis’ noses.
Loner Pupkin has many similarities with Taxi Driver’s protagonist Travis Bickle. Both films have been referenced in the recent brilliant film, Joker. I’d love to see King of Comedy on the big screen. If a cinema programmer really wanted to go the whole hog then why not put on a King of Comedy/Taxi Driver double-bill or even a triple bill with Joker. With the latter film’s popularity at the moment, the time is right.
4. Spawn of the Slithis (1978)
A film I caught on late-night Yorkshire TV in the 80’s. And this is why I loved growing up with the truly fucked up stuff my local television station was showing!
A monster born of nuclear waste stalks the environs of Venice, California.
Not only do we get a great low-key and little known horror movie that features a guy in a suit, we also get the local weirdos, kooks and freaks of Venice that are intertwined into the story. We also get gorgeous cinematography which gives us a flavour of how far-out 70’s bohemian Cali really was.
Roger Ebert hated this film when it was first released. If I saw this poster outside a cinema I would be first in line to watch it. The film had it’s own fan club for the eponymous monster that is the film’s star. The film was shown at various college campuses across America during it’s initial release with the actual monster suit being used so that one of the film crew could dress up as Slithis for delighted (and possibly stoned) students. You got to watch Slithis with Slithis. Now that’s genius.
5. The Tingler (1959)
In fact I’d love to see ANY of William Castle’s masterpieces on the big screen. And yes, if possible, utilising some of the many brilliant gimmicks that Castle employed in the name of entertainment and showmanship.
The ‘tingler’ from the movie’s title is a parasite that lodges in the spine of it’s host and feeds on fear. When the host is scared, the creature makes him/her ‘tingle’.
For this opus, Castle planted electrical devices under random cinema seats in the cinemas it was showing that would vibrate at a key point in the film’s plotline. Theres a great story of John Waters as a child going to The Tingler everyday for it’s theatrical run in a Baltimore cinema, making sure he was always the first in and checking underneath each seat until he found one with the vibrating devices under it.
But the biggest shock regarding Castle’s oeuvre is that his films, even without the gimmicks, work beautifully. Watch this movie and base your judgements just on the film itself. It’s beautifully shot and is extremely aesthetically pleasing. Vincent Price is perfect casting and check out the sequence in which the seemingly black and white movie lapses into colour for one scene. It’s a joy to behold.
Castle has now been reappraised as a great American auteur rather than just a schlockmeister. This film more than amply shows why.
6. Incredible Melting Man/The Savage Bees (1977)
My history with this film goes wayyy back! My family were driving by the Odeon cinema in York in the late 70’s and I saw the poster for this double-bill of cinematic goodness. This was enough to give me nightmares for weeks! I was only 3 years old.
I got to see both films when I was still a kid when they were shown on TV. Again, nightmares followed. I love the fact that the made for TV movie The Savage Bees was actually shown on cinema scenes in the UK (the same thing happened with Spielberg’s genius Duel which was granted a UK cinema release resplendent with added scenes).
Rick Baker’s make-up FX would have made seeing The Incredible Melting Man on the big screen an almost hallucinatory experience. The film also has a keen eye for humour (check out the severed head/waterfall scene. It’s one of the sickest and funniest in horror history) but also for pathos. Steve West is now utterly tormented by his melting condition and the film makes the audience genuinely feel for him.
I need to see this double-bill on the big screen NOW!
7. Bloodsucking Freaks (1976)
Where do I even start with this opus. I honestly think Bloodsucking Freaks is one of the best movies ever made and there will one day be an essay written by yours truly which will give the movie it’s proper due.
Sardu’s Theatre of the Macabre hosts Grand Guignol shows in which the goriest and most violent acts are depicted. We get to sample first-hand the kind of acts that are put on. Creasy Silo (!) a theatre critic is in the audience and denounces the show as crass, tasteless rubbish much to the chigrin of Mr Sardu. But is Mr Sardu’s show fake or real? We see that he also has much bigger plans for a much more ambitious show involving Miss Natalyia, an internationally renowned ballerina.
We get to see Sardu and his faithful sidekick Ralphus as they live day to day backstage of the theatre and how they plan for their spectacular spectacle which they are sure will shock the world.
This film was never released in Britain until 2014 even though it was made in 1976. Thankfully, when the internet and Amazon became popular, horrorhounds could order the VHS/DVD from America and cross their fingers that it got through customs.
Bloodsucking Freaks captures a time in film history when exploitation was king, 42nd Street was Mecca for horror/porn/kung fu fans and when sick cinema really was sick. It’s tasteless, shocking, VERY funny and camp as tits. Whats more, you’re always routing for Sardu and Ralphus with both roles being portrayed to perfection. The dialogue crackles with the film hitting a bullseye for every target that it aims at.
One day Bloodsucking Freaks will be held aloft and given the same respect and reverance that John Waters’ early films are now being awarded. Bloodsucking Freaks on Criterion alongside Female Trouble? I don’t see why not.
8. Halloween 2 (1981)
I’ve been lucky enough to see Halloween on the big screen ranging from an original 1978 print copy that looked appalling right through to new prints which visually and audibly are a treat to behold. I’ve been lucky enough to see Halloween 3: Season of the Witch at a small screening a few years ago and so I’d love to see 1981’s Halloween 2 in a cinema.
This sequel takes place straight after the events of the original film with Laurie Strode being taken to the local hospital only to be followed by Michael Myers who wants to try and finish her off again.
Cue some truly unsettling scenes of Myers captured on hospital CCTV, further casualties in the form of hospital staff of all stratas (Michael doesn’t discriminate) and a cracker of a chase scene when Michael finally finds Laurie. The hospital forms a really eerie backdrop for the action, theres more great cinematography from Dean Cundey who also shot the original and a brilliantly updated electronic soundtrack by John Carpenter and Alan Howarth.
In fact, instead of just seeing this on the big screen, can someone please programme a triple bill of the first three films? There would be massive demand for it. That might just make up for the awful Rob Zombie remakes/reimaginings.
9. The Cure In Orange (1987)
I got into The Cure in 1986 when Standing on a Beach was released. It was love at first listen. The Cure in Orange was released shortly after this but alas, there were no screenings at my local cinema.
However, I bought the home video when it was released. This is quite possibly my favourite incarnation of the band playing a career encompassing setlist with the amazing architecture at the Theatre Antique d’Orange in France as a backdrop. The Cure were HUGE in France at the time and so the concert is rammed full of fans and the brilliant reaction from these fans brings out the best in the band.
Add to this the fact that the concert film was shot by the brilliant director of The Cure’s videos at this time, Tim Pope and you have a winning combination.
A few years ago Robert Smith mentioned that The Cure in Orange would be released as part of a Cure live DVD box set. This hasn’t materialised. This works to our advantage. We now live in an era of Blu ray. Any media shot on film looks especially great when released in High Definition on this format. It would be great for director Tim Pope to go back to the original film negatives and remaster them for a Blu ray release along with a Pope/Smith audio commentary and maybe a CD release also.
There have been cinema screenings of The Cure in Orange in the States. There needs to be some in Britain too.
10. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
Roald Dahl is a legend. One of my favourite books of his when I was a kid in the 80’s was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, wherein eccentric chocolate factory owner Willy Wonka has placed six Golden Tickets in random Wonka Bars. The lucky recipient and a guest of their choice will gain access to his fantastical chocolate factory for an all-immersive guided tour. One of the lucky children to find one of these tickets is poor but kind-hearted Charlie Bucket who decides to take his grandfather.
I’m so glad that Dahl’s masterpiece of kids fiction was translated into a film that lives up to the filmic potential that the book hinted at. Before the film was made the book must have seemed virtually unfilmable as the book was so outthere but the film more than copes with the lofty imaginative standards set by the book.
The film was named Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory rather than sticking to the book’s name and it is TRIPPYYYY! The LSD soaked sensibilities of the late 60’s permeate the look, feel and visuals of the film. The film is also a musical and the songs are just as brilliant as the visuals on offer.
But these drug induced aspects of the movie don’t get in the way of the story being told. The morality of Dahl’s story regarding being a good human being rather than a spoilt brat whether these qualities manifest themselves in children or adults is still present but isn’t overly sugary or overegged.
The casting is pinpoint perfect with Wilder stealing the show as Wonka (lets not go into the disasterous turn by Johnny Depp in the terrible remake by Tim Burton).
A visual feast that entertains, tugs at the heartstrings and makes having acid flashbacks a very real possibility.
I love it when I find the unexpected on the internet.
Such as this merchandise that was made for the release of the brilliant horror film The Incredible Melting Man in 1977.
Why on Earth would a film company commission a children’s costume for a film that was rated for Adults Only?! Did they know that in fact loads of kids would flock to see the film even though it was horror as long as they had a responsible (ahem) adult in tow?
I love this merch.
I love forward to unearthing more inappropriate but brilliant movie related goodies soon.
Layabout crazy cat Jerry (played by the director Ray Dennis Steckler under the hilarious pseudonym Cash Flagg), his girlfriend Angela and his friend Harold go to the seaside to visit a carnival there. After getting their fortunes told they see the fortune tellers sister Carmelita who is a stripper. Jerry is seen by Angela to be staring a bit too intently at Carmelita and so leaves in a huff with Harold. With them gone Jerry decides to go and watch Carmelita’s strip show (the carnival has it’s own nightclub that holds such entertainment. The name of this establishment is, wait for it, The Hungry Mouth which rivals only The Flaming Cave Lounge from John Waters’ Female Trouble in terms of a brilliant name for an establishment of that kind).
Jerry is then lured to Carmelita’s dressing room where he is hypnotised. This then turns Jerry into a ruthless killer of which afterwards he has no memory of. He had in fact killed two characters whilst he was in his murderous trance-like state. He also tries to throttle Angela to death the next day.
Carmelita’s plot is then revealed. She has been throwing acid into people’s faces which turns them into zombies (!) and then keeping them captive.
But Jerry then decides to confront Carmelita as he keeps having flashbacks and knows that something isn’t quite right ever since he visited Carmelita at the carnival. This all builds to a very eventful climax.
This is pure Drive-In B movie goodness. Theres so much to like here. The hypnosis scenes, the hallucinatory dream sequence Jerry has, the zombies, the song and dance sequences at the nightclub (one of the girls can be seen chewing gum as she performs her dance moves. Now that’s attention to detail and classy to boot!).
The film also has a colour palate which can make your eyes water. I had several acid flashbacks whilst watching this gem.
I first found out about this film from reading the cult film bible Incredibly Strange films from Re:Search publishing at the tender age of 14. This book treats Steckler as some kind of god in much the same way more pedestrian film fans look up to John Ford. And they’re right. Steckler is an Orson Welles for the perverse.
Duane books into the sleazy flophouse Hotel Broslin with a large basket. It’s contents consist of his deformed twin brother who he used to be conjoined with. Both Duane and his twin are hellbent on enacting revenge on the surgeons who separated them against their wishes.
Basket Case will always occupy a special place in my dark little heart. When my family first bought a VCR in 1982 we rented two films. One was the cartoon of Captain America from the 60’s. This choice was intended for 8 year old me. And whilst Cap is very cool, it was the other film that intrigued me.
It was rented to be viewed by the rest of my family when I had gone to bed. It was Basket Case. The forbidden always seemed more alluring to me. And after much pouting and pleading I was allowed to watch the film. It was an amazing night of mind-expanding and gleefully deprived family viewing.
The film hits every bullseye it aims for. Theres humour (check out feeding time for the basket’s resident), gore (each attack is bloody as hell and very inventive) and well rounded characters whether they’re the main players or the supporting cast. In fact a film could be made based on any of the film’s characters and it would rock.
Whilst the film does contain very black humour this doesn’t dilute the horror sequences which pack a real punch still. In fact, Basket Case has an air of sleaze, filth and edginess that reminds me of another masterpiece, Bloodsucking Freaks. Both films capture a time when 42nd Street and The Deuce reigned supreme. Basket Case even takes us into one of the grindhouse cinemas. We even get a cameo by Sonny Chiba!
Basket Case is The Evil Dead’s low budget filmmaking genius with John Waters’ writing brilliance. I can’t think of any higher recommendation to a fellow lover of warped cinema brilliance than that.
a) A beautifully acted, nuanced and sensitive portrayal of the horror of the Nazis and those unlucky enough to have crossed paths with them?
or b) A badly acted slice of exploitation resplendent with terrible dubbing and almost no budget?
I’ll give you a clue- look at the film’s name! This is also known as The Beast in Heat (it’s on the UK Video Nasties list under that title) and Gestapo’s Last Orgy.
I’d love to give you a summary of the plot but I don’t want to be banned from this platform.
Be sure to run a bath before watching this. You’ll need it.
But when you know exactly what you’re letting yourself in for this movie ticks all of the depraved boxes regarding lurid and boundary pushing schlock filmmaking. Imagine watching this back in the day on 42nd Street or on VHS in the early 80’s in the UK. Your mind would have been well and truly blown.
And by a weird turn of fate it’s uncut on YouTube! Enjoy (if thats the word).
I first learnt of this film as it was called The Day After Halloween and marketed as a sequel to John Carpenter’s classic. It isn’t. But it’s still a really interesting movie.
Angela (played by Prisoner Cell Block H’s brilliant Sigrid Thornton) is persuaded to ditch her low paid hairdressing job and enter the world of modelling. Nude modelling.
This could have been a generic ‘nice girl gets led astray’ film but it isn’t. Theres too many genuinely unexpected twists and turns for it to be predictable. An example- Angela is stalked throughout the film by her creepy ex-boyfriend- who just so happens to drive a pink ice-cream van!
There’s an air of unease and menace that runs through the whole film that gives it a truly unsettling feel.
Watch out for the ending- it’s very unsettling indeed.