Sunday, January 15, 2012

Gorgon Boxing

Two films last night were anything but like each other. Different decades, totally different subjects, and yet both good and satisfying.

First up was Boxing Helena, a film from 1993 that I had never got to see before. The version we have on DVD has a strange Korean or Japanese cover which spells Julian Sands' name wrong (as Julian Sand) and has a typo in the tagline ('A deep dark obsession that bares a woman's body and a mas's soul') so this didn't bode well for the DVD, but it was fine. In English and not some incomprehensible tongue, and not something filmed on 8mm from the back of an auditorium in Shanghai.

As we're just watching through David Lynch's Twin Peaks at the moment, it was fascinating to see Sherilyn Fenn (who plays Audrey Horne in Twin Peaks) as Helena, a somewhat bitchy and self-obsessed young woman, who has the misfortune to have doctor Nick Cavenaugh, played by Julian Sands, as a stalker. He went out with her once, and cannot let her go. He climbs a tree outside her flat so he can watch her wander about in her undies, calls her on the phone but then cannot say anything, and invites her to his parties. He's a strange effete chap, but Sands plays Nick's obsession with Helena very well indeed. Then, after conspiring to keep her bag and address book, he lures Helena to his house, where she is hit by a car on leaving, which smashes her legs. So we cut forward to Helena, now with both legs amputated, an unwilling houseguest in Nick's residence ... now he has her just how he wanted, in a position that he can help her and tend to her ... but this is not enough, and so he amputates her arms as well ... leaving her only a head and torso, now totally dependent on him.

The film is written and directed by Jennifer Lynch - daughter of David - and you can see some of her father's influence in the style and approach the film takes. Helena is shown to be a complete bitch, and so you're not really feeling sorry for her, however Nick is just strange - as a stalker and obsessive, he professes his love for the girl, and yet she screams at him to look at what he has done to her! It's a disturbing film, and I recall it causing some ripples at the time of first release, though this might be the news of Kim Basinger pulling out at the last moment, and then being successfully sued for breach of verbal contract (though it seems that a court of appeal then overurned that ruling, and the case was settled out of court). It's strange to see singer Art Garfunkle in an acting role as well, though he is very good as Nick's friend Doctor Augustine.

Overall it's a memorable film, mainly for Sands and Fenn's performances, and also for the twisted nature of obsession and what it can lead people to do. One wonders what a remake might do with CGI-powered amputations ... a roomful of ex-girlfriends reduced to essential components perhaps?

The other film is one of the great Hammer titles, The Gorgon. I'd not seen this for an age, and so it was good to revisit it. The story follows the story of Doctor Namaroff (played with effortless style by Peter Cushing) who is puzzled by a number of local deaths where the bodies of the deceased have turned to stone. The latest victim is Paul Heitz's father, and Heitz (Richard Pasco) and Professor Meister (Christopher Lee) believe the deaths to be the work of the Gorgon, who walks among them every full moon ...

There's much to like about this Hammer horror. It's orginal for one thing, eschewing the traditional fare of vampires, patchwork monsters and mummies, for a mythical Gorgon, a creature with snakes for hair which can turn you to stone if it looks at you directly. There's a subtext that it's actually the bite from the snakes which does the work - the victims all have bite marks on their foreheads - but this seems to be glossed over. Barbara Shelley does a good job as Carla, Namaroff's assistant, and the Gorgon itself is a lovely piece of work from actress Prudence Hyman, combined with Roy Ashton's makeup and Syd Pearson's prosthetic snakes. She remains a spooky figure, shrouded in the distance until a couple of effective close shots in the climax ... lovely stuff.

The stone bodies are very well done, looking remarkably like the actors, and the interim grey make-up as the hapless victims turn to stone is also effective. One concern would be the length of time it takes to turn though - Heitz' father is able to get back from the castle to his home, and to write three pages of a letter before he succombs, wheras others collapse almost immediately. Maybe the venom (if that's what it is) takes longer to act on some people, or perhaps the dose is different.

Our copy of the film came with a superb little booklet by Hammer historian Marcus Hearn, and this is a great addition to the disk, revealing much about the making of the film, and containing some excellent photographs.

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