Welcome to our editing class again.
Fiona and our friend & former flatmate Travis alerted me to this one some years back, after they caught it on late night TV — I think they may have actually got me out of bed to look at it. Bad editing raised to an art from in Robert Hartford-Davis’s INCENSE FOR THE DAMNED, also known as BLOODSUCKERS, a vampire pic set in Oxford and Greece.
It features an exciting donkey chase. Apart from that high point, undoubtedly the slowest pursuit sequence prior to Father Ted‘s milk float recreation of SPEED (at one point, a character has the brainwave of dismounting his steed, and is immediately able to overtake his opponent on foot), there’s this opening sequence, which contains brilliant and flamboyant errors of taste and judgement, mounting up one on top of the other until the viewer becomes giddy — the spatio-temporal dislocations fire from the screen with such rapidity that you may begin to feel HIGH.
One thing we mustn’t do, before continuing with the symposium, is blame Hartford-Davis, who was fired from the picture before editing began. Who knows what his intentions may have been? He certainly provided his paymasters with plenty of coverage, so that a coherent version of the scene ought to have been possible. But part of the problem in the “finished” work seems to be trying to use as many of these angles as possible, as quickly as it can.
First things first — immediately after the titles, a montage of dreaming spires and similar architectural evocations of academia, we get this voice-over info-dump, complete with a split-screen configuration not often seen outside of the credits of The Pink Panther Show. I call it an info-dump because it attempts to offload raw exposition on the audience before giving them any dramatic reason to be interested. This never works. I take the term from screenwriter Terry Rossio, who accused LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOW SHIP OF THE RING of opening with this strategy. It must be said, Jackson’s film has more visual interest to support the move…
Then, hilariously and awfully, we get the looming porter, who suddenly lunges at us in a dislocated close-up flashing out of the blue, the wet lips of his geriatric visage flapping offensively at us in a brief yet unendurable bit of overacting. The shot comes out of nowhere, and we can’t mentally match his background to the previous establishing shot, and we don’t get a matching view of the other guy, despite his being our main character. Maybe the intention was that this should be startling, because it’s a horror movie, but, to use Lindsay Anderson’s favourite argument, It Doesn’t Work. I mean it IS startling, but only in a “Who’s minding the store?” kind of way.
But now things get juicy. Our next scene, after showing our stolid protag arriving, should continue with him entering the Dean’s chambers, but instead it confuses by having him already in situ while the Dean enters, played by Peter Cushing with customary sang-froid. A notable attribute of this kind of film-making is that it can make even suave professional actors look incompetent, but Cushing kind of sails through like a gaunt duck, the showers of ineptitude never quite adhering to his slick tailfeathers. He leaves the rest of the cast floundering in his wake, waterlogged and desperate-eyed, even though they include the talented Johnny Sekka, and that fat bald guy, who seems at least to have a handle on his character (“I play the role of a fat, bald guy.”)
All at once there’s two much bad stuff happening at once, and our synapses fuse as we mentally burn up on re-entry into a world of shit. Fat bald guy opens his mouth to speak in the midground of a group-shot, but we immediately cut him off and cut to someone else speaking. When we come back to him, he’s no longer about to speak and seems to have teleported a fo0t. Close-ups show characters in complete isolation even though wider shots show other characters practically touching them. As Johnny Sekka strolls in, other characters go into a mysterious huddle for no apparent reason. Non sequiturs spring up like tumours. Every line seems to have its own shot; there are no reaction shots; it’s all unpleasantly fast, the young woman is hilariously over-intense like she’s trying to hypnotise everyone into sex; one edit sees her go from turning, facing one way, to static, facing the other; eyelines are crossed creating complete spacial disorientation as the fat bald guy seems to deliver a line to the wall; the rhythm is unvarying, as if the whole cast had been drilled in the same rapido robot-speak (a hash-cookie party in I LOVE YOU, ALICE B. TOKLAS deliberately produces a stoned effect by this kind of flat, fast editing).
And everybody keeps saying “Richard.”
Stop saying “Richard!”
What lessons can be drawn from this? “Don’t watch any film called INCENSE FOR THE DAMNED,” would be one, I guess. But on a deeper level, we can learn about mise-en-scene ~
When tackling a scene with multiple characters, Herr Future Film Director, don’t shoot a close-up of each of them: (1) You’ll be there all day, and (2) You’ll confuse the audience. But see the coffee-stirring scene in ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA and the wedding in THE SCARLET EMPRESS for examples of where that doesn’t matter, where it actually becomes a boon. A key reason those scenes are stunningly effective is that the characters don’t move. So that once the establishing shot has been set up, we may forget where everybody is in relation to everybody else, but we won’t feel confusingly adrift because we know where they were, and we know they’re still there, and the eyeline-matches tells us who’s looking at whom.
When dealing with a largish group of characters who DO move around a little, having the confidence to stay wide is a gift worth cultivating. This needn’t mean a static longshot — arranging the characters in depth and then repositioning them in action could motivate camera movement and lead to a really interesting scene. You MIGHT also cover it in a reverse, making sure all the performances are captured, and the great advantage is being able to see where everybody is in relation to everybody else. If, after the movement has settled, you do start cutting in closer, it’s fantastically useful to shoot doubles rather than singles, and over-the-shoulders rather than clean singles, because being able to see at least part of another actor helps us keep the interpersonal geography clear in our heads.
An interesting side-lesson of the scene, though not one which may be of much use, is this: in comedy, the principle One Joke at a Time can be taken almost as an absolute rule. Overlapping gags results not in hilarity but uncertainty. And yet here, it seems that when incompetent filmmaking is the source of the humour, it is possible to have more than one, indeed more than four, separate forms of incompetence introduced and developed at once, and the result is a dizzying hilarity akin to a strobe-lit elevator plunge through clouds of laughing-gas.
It’s possible that if I could only harness this new wisdom to some commercial project, I might get rich.
Buy this crap! Blood Suckers [DVD]