Tuesday, March 8, 2016
It's impossible to overstate the impact of Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" on cinema, especially horror cinema. Some movies quote it with a visual cue, like when Susy Banyon pulls back the curtains surrounding the big bed of Helena Markos and sees only the imprint her body made there, or Stacy Nelkin distracting the motel manager while Tom Atkins gets a good look at the guest ledger of the Rose of Shannon Motel in Santa Mira, California. Other films, such as "Dressed To Kill", "Silent Scream", "The Unseen", William Castle's "Homicidal", and "Three On A Meathook", borrow so liberally from the story that it's a wonder nobody got sued. Add to that list a very strong low budget film I missed out on until recently, "Slipping Into Darkness", a movie that also appeared on VHS as "Bloodshed" and "Crazed". Although IMDB dates it as 1978, I'm guessing this refers to its 1978 theatrical release as "Slipping Into Darkness", because the movie actually looks like it was filmed around 1975 or 76. Part art house, part grindhouse, it's one of those types of movies that makes you feel like you need to bathe afterwards.
Although it does owe a lot to "Psycho", "Slipping Into Darkness" adds a few creepy new twists to the tragic story, and while "Psycho" kept a big secret until the end, there's no real mystery here and the emphasis is on the emotional horrors that its two protagonists experience. It opens from the perspective of Karen (Beverly Ross), a brooding young woman who seems to have a decent life on a farm with her boyfriend Rodney (Tommy McFadden). Just in case we didn't understand she's got some issues, we meet her as she is delivering a heartfelt monologue to a farm animal in a barn stall. It's clear that although she's facing one of her sheep, in her heart she's talking to Rodney. "I just have to see if I can do it on my own, away from here." She has a dream that she wants to pursue, something that will take her away from the farm. Rodney arrives home and finds her suitcase on the porch, and joins her in the barn. She never faces him, but keeps looking at the sheep. "You're really going," he says, and she nods, her face anguished. After he walks away, she sobs "I love you, I love you." She can't say it to him, she can only say these things when she has a passive animal to listen. As Karen leaves in her car, she flashes back to a diabetic seizure she suffered, which she survived because Rodney intervened. He asks her "What if you're alone and this happens?" Karen answers "So, I'll croak."
The thing Karen needs to do is pursue a career in writing, so she's leaving her life with Rodney to take a college writing course. We see her looking at potential boarding houses for a room, all of them offered by bizarre individuals. One is a stuffy woman with so many rules, it's clear she will be a renter's worst nightmare. Another woman is a frustrated writer who admits she gave up serious work to write pornography ("Plunging Genitalia and Throbbing Clit were best sellers in certain circles, OK?" she tells Karen). A third landlord shows her a room without a shirt on and propositions her. Perhaps out of frustration, she settles on a room in a big old house owned by daffy Mrs. Brewer (veteran character actress Belle Mitchell, in her final role). Although she rambles on as if she's senile, Mrs. Brewer's leg braces keep her confined to the first floor, and she tells Karen she hasn't been upstairs in 20 years. Karen soon learns that she has another roommate: an introverted oddball named Grahame (Laszlo Papas). Apparently having lived with the old lady for quite some time, Grahame seems to be a surrogate son for Mrs. Brewer, although she orders him around and demands that he be at her beck and call whenever she pounds on the ceiling with her broom handle. As soon as Karen agrees to take the room and starts to move in, the film reveals that Grahame is a voyeur who has rigged the upstairs so that he can spy on any other tenants of the house through peepholes in the wall and a two-way bathroom mirror.
The symbolism of the mirror illustrates that they are reflections of each other. Both Karen and Grahame are people who have lost their way in life, or at least that is how they feel. Karen could have continued her life on the farm with Rodney, whom she loves, but she needs to feel as if she can be secure without him. She also can't express herself when it comes to her emotions; she can't tell Rodney she loves him, even though she does. Grahame can't reach out, either, having experienced the pain of rejection and abandonment so many times that he has retreated into a fantasy life, turning to voyeurism to attain some form of intimacy with another human being.
The scene where Grahame watches Karen have sex with Rodney is the first glimpse we get of the film's use of disconnected images and audio to represent Grahame's inner thought life. Whenever he faces these moments of unhappiness and crisis, we see Grahame's past pieced together in a series of random flashbacks, and this ability to take us inside Grahame's head is the most disturbing aspect of "Slipping Into Darkness". The scenes are fragmented and non-linear, jumping around to different disappointments and humiliations in his life. As a young boy, we first see his parents abandon him at an institution, saying they're "returning" him because he is non-communicative and they suspect he is brain damaged--this suggests Grahame was adopted and these are not his birth parents. The mother in particular seems to be the one rejecting him, and it's her voice who keeps returning during the film's hallucinatory flashback montages, saying her son is "retarded". Grahame's father sits sideways, not meeting anybody's eyes, seemingly unable to assert himself and looking guilty. The mother cruelly kisses the young Grahame through a chain link fence before they leave him forever, saying they'll be back. We assume they never returned when later, Grahame's visions of himself in the military intersect with his childhood recollections; either upon discharge or on leave, he attempts to visit his family and is driven off the rural property by two strangers that appear on the porch of his former home, one holding a shotgun. They refuse to speak to Grahame, so he turns and leaves, presuming his family has either moved away or no longer wants contact with him. We see him hitchhiking back to the army base, his attempt to reconnect with the parents who abandoned him having been met with hostility, leading him to understand he is alone in the world. As he wanders the base, he hears an eerie, beckoning voice whispering his name. Interestingly, he is glimpsed through a chain link fence here, too.
Additionally, we are shown humiliating vignettes that illustrate Grahame's loneliness for a woman. When he and his army buddies patronize a prostitute, she mocks him during the sex act and also in front of the others afterwards. In the present day, we see him visiting a massage parlor and paying for female contact, the awkward sex act intercut with visions in Grahame's head of a fanatical preacher praying in an aggressive way over young Grahame. Finally, during the film's crucial turning point, we see splintered fragments of scenes that provide the key to Grahame's intimacy issues: at a very young age, he is abused sexually by a group of older boys, and after the abuse is discovered by Grahame's adoptive father, the man humiliates Grahame and then also sexually abuses him.
These painful segments build a very sympathetic and realistic backdrop for Grahame's character, as do the moments where we see Grahame being kind to his elderly companions. Not only is he patient with the daffy Mrs. Brewer, Grahame also works as a night clerk in a fleabag hotel that seems to be mainly populated by old folks with nowhere else to go. His unhealthy obsession with Karen begins to get the better of him though, and the situation takes a sudden turn for the worst, beginning Grahame's descent into madness.
Encouraged by his elderly companions to make a date with Karen, Grahame works up the nerve to ask her out only to have her reject him; in response, he loses control and forces himself into her room and starts kissing her violently. When it becomes clear Karen is not enjoying it, Grahame seems to snap out of it and leaves, aware that he has now permanently damaged his relationship with her by attacking her. Before he leaves, he says "I love you, I love you." He goes back to his room distraught and screams at his reflection in the mirror, and this is where we see the flashback that reveals Grahame's molestation. He smashes a mirror while screaming over and over at his fragmented reflection, "Stupid, stupid!" Karen hears it in the next room and is shocked at the violent side the normally quite Grahame has revealed to her.
Karen is confused and upset afterwards; she tries to tell Mrs. Brewer what happened, but the old lady won't listen to her. She takes a phone call from Rodney and makes plans to meet him on the weekend, then she goes upstairs to take a bath. Grahame is watching her as usual when Mrs. Brewer bangs on the ceiling to summon him. While Grahame is distracted, Rodney's prediction comes true when Karen suffers a diabetic seizure in the bathtub, and with nobody there to intervene, she drowns. When Grahame returns and discovers her body, he drags it into his bedroom in an attempt to revive her, but is suddenly overcome by the reality of having her nude body to himself. He begins to kiss her corpse tenderly, and decides to keep the body with him in his bed.
Stashing Chuck's body in the bathtub, Grahame has now damned himself completely, having committed a murder in order to keep his ghoulish secret, but it's only a matter of time before Mrs. Brewer starts to get suspicious. While she's alone in the house, she manages to get upstairs to Grahame's room and investigates; in a fantastic sequence, we see her find a strange prayer closet in his bedroom, which she returns to twice before finally pulling a rope that causes Karen's suspended body to fall out of the attic. Grahame has now dressed the body in a wedding gown, revealing he considers dead Karen his bride. Although she tries to put on an act, Mrs. Brewer is unable to hide the fact that she discovered the body when Grahame returns, and in a very creepy segment he realizes he will have to murder this woman, the only constant relationship in his life and the only one he could consider any kind of parent. He strangles her to death and then starts to have conversations with her body as if she's still alive, hearing her voice in his head in response.
Grahame desires nothing more than to be left alone in his fantasy world with his growing collection of corpses, but the world won't be put off for long. Mrs. Brewer's equally obnoxious friend Mrs. Dobson comes calling as Grahame is making preparations to board up the house to keep intruders out, and she discovers the bodies. Grahame corners her in a bathroom and breaks down the door to murder her, but suddenly Rodney appears behind him and restrains him. The illusion now shattered, Grahame collapses and seems to snap back to reality momentarily, "Oh god, I loved her!" he shouts. Grahame's sanity now completely broken, the last images of him in the film are terrifyingly bleak: he is glimpsed through the chain link fence of a mental hospital exactly like when his parents abandoned him in an institution as a child. Secretly, Grahame scoops something up off the sidewalk before his accompanying nurse leads him gently along. Back in his cell, he opens his clenched hand to reveal an insect he captured and concealed to take back to his cell, presumably so desperate for companionship. To his horror, he realizes that in smuggling the insect inside, he has killed it. Grahame hears that eerie whispering of his name again, his face twisting into an insane grimace of anguish.
The central performance by Laszlo Papas is extraordinary. For a character who is first presented as a threat, a mumbling creep who invades peoples privacy by spying on them in the bathroom, we end up disturbingly familiar and sympathetic with him. We first glimpse him when Karen mistakenly opens the door to his room, which he secures with three chains (in the early stages, the script was titled "The Paranoiac", which would also explain Grahame's illogical ramblings about mind control). Both Karen and Grahame speak in a hushed, hesitant cadence, another thing that ties their characters together, and their delivery is very unaffected and real.
The comparison to "Psycho" is unavoidable, and the movie seems to embrace this rather than ignore the elephant in the room. Writer/director Richard Cassidy (a first time director whose only other credit as such is a 1990 documentary on the Dead Sea Scrolls) endows the film with a lot of sly references and in-jokes. For instance, he probably didn't have to make Grahame a hotel clerk, or provide shots of Mrs. Brewer's big old house with the upstairs windows lit. There are numerous other references too, like the sudden death of the heroine long before the film is over (and while she's bathing, even), the peeping from behind walls, the creative use of mirrors, the old woman's corpse that the young man talks to, a crucial scene that involves a hanging lamp that ends up swinging, and the ending of the film showing the young man in a mental hospital.
The score is effective, with two distinct personalities throughout the film. One is an ominous horror approach with low, churning strings that don't exactly mimic Bernard Hermann's score for "Psycho", but don't stray too far from the game plan, either. Early in the film, Karen sets out on her doomed journey with the strings in frantic spooky mode, driving away from her trapped existence and directly into her own destruction just like Marion Crane. Another recurring theme figures most prominently over the end of the film, a melancholy piece with harp and flute that represents the tragedy of Grahame's life. The suspense and shock themes often sound a little campy, but there is a strong sense of humor in certain parts of the film already.
This movie probably disappointed people who rented it on VHS expecting a lot of gore, aside from the knife attack on Chuck that I mentioned. Even the corpses don't really look like corpses; Karen's body is supposed to have been decomposing for at least a week, and Mrs. Brewer complains vehemently about the rotten smell in the house, yet when we see the body it doesn't look like she's been dead for more than a few hours. The opportunity to present the horror of sleeping with a corpse could have been more disturbing had the director chosen to go with a more gruesome makeup job on Beverly Ross. Maybe he was worried about the rating it would get the movie, or maybe he just wanted to keep the horror psychological.
This was definitely a good thing, as the film is able to easily communicate where its characters are coming from, even without a lot of dialogue. That final image of Grahame is haunting, a freeze frame that turns it into a lingering silent scream of despair, and this is the essence of the film's horror. Being isolated and alone is a terrifying concept for many people, whether it is a literal separation from society or simply the inability to reach out to others and communicate. Richard Cassidy brings both of these perspectives to his film and more; it's a shame that this film seems to be obscure, it deserves a much wider audience.