Realising that Bunuel’s old cinematographer from his Mexico days shot a movie about LSD was enough to make me very grateful to a kind providence. Realising that said movie starred Lana Turner was enough to make me want to kiss God full on the lips.
But the TV-style yellow credits and flat, unimaginative staging of most of the regular action was a warning that THE BIG CUBE was not going to be a real masterpiece, even of the camp variety. The trip sequences turned out to be enjoyable but not too inspired: plasma lighting, flash cuts and solarisation effects were the extent of it, and while I enjoy all of those things, sometimes you want a little more. And sometimes you think, gee, they really haven’t done their research, have they?
Basically THE BIG CUBE is Patrick Hamilton’s GASLIGHT on LSD, and while that may sound alluring, the combination of hip trendspotting and old-fashioned morality tale is pretty stodgy in reality. Dopey Karin Mossberg is jealous of her new stepmother, Lana T, a glamorous stage star. When dad Daniel O’Herlihy is killed in a yachting accident (NEVER go boating with Dan O’Herlihy, movie-goers: that’s basic), her venomous stepchild is seduced into a fiendish plan by George Chakiris, an acid-peddling med student: drive Lana mad by spiking her tranqs with lysergic whatnots. Cue faux-trippy montages and much screaming.
More compelling than that, and more compelling than Lana’s bizarre performance in the everyday scenes — incompetence + total self-belief = a Maria Montez-like mindblowing poise and preposterousness — and more compelling even than Dan O’Herlihy’s bizarre attempt at a performance (good actor: what was he thinking?) are the two female supports, the stepdaughter and her best pal, Bibi (Pamela Rodgers).
As you can see, Pam gives a bizarre, strained, one-note performance that’s like a third-hand imitation of Marilyn Monroe misremembered in a trance. (Next in her career, THE MALTESE BIPPY beckons.) On the other hand, at least it IS a performance (she can’t really be like that). At least it HAS one note.
Karin Mussberg manages to convey all the different kinds of bad acting you could ever hope to see, entertainingly wrapped up in one package. What can go wrong with a performance?
When normal people try too hard to act, they tend to sound stiff and forced. Sometimes they fall into copying, badly, something they’ve seen that they think of as “acting”. This kind of strain is well-evoked by Julianne Moore in BOOGIE NIGHTS when she adopts a forced high-pitched voice when her character attempts to act.
When you encounter trained actors who are simply untalented, as I’m afraid I have from time to time, you sometimes get a tendency to load “import” and “meaning” onto lines by heavy stress. This isn’t actually import or meaning because it has no actual importance or meaning, it’s just stress. And also, clumsy or inexperienced actors sometimes place the stress on the wrong word. In this way, trained actors can actually be worse than amateurs. Real people, in real life, never ever stress the wrong word in a sentence.
Even good actors can make other kinds of blunders — I’m really only dealing with dialogue here. If an actor is confused they can read a line with the wrong meaning in mind, with the wrong tone or mood. They can be unintentionally funny, as I think Dan O’Herlihy is at the end of that first clip a clip you’ll find in the comments section.
What’s impressive about Mussberg is her ability to blend and fuse all those errors together in a single performance. It’s not like these mistakes are blemishes upon the performance. They ARE the performance. It’s quite fascinating.
The only really comfortable player in the film is Chakiris, as the villain, who’s actually good. Our faith in him as a heartless Machiavellian seducer is hurt by the fact that he embarks upon this plot with a complete idiot for an accomplice, but he’s still got more on the ball than anyone else. Life is so unfair! Nic Cage eats a cockroach in VAMPIRE’S KISS and the world swoons. George Chakiris puts an ant in his breast pocket in THE BIG CUBE and his only reward is weary indifference. It’s exactly this kind of injustice I established this blog to rail against.
The film reaches a new and, I must admit, agreeable height of insanity after Lana is plunged into amnesia by all that acid, so her playwright friend resolves to cure her by writing a play that will force her to reenact the trauma and confront what’s happened. Quite incredibly, they not only rehearse the play with a full cast, but proceed to opening night with a full audience. Lana recovers her memory, is reunited with her repentant step-brat, falls in love with the playwright and scores a theatrical smash-hit. Meanwhile George Chakiris freaks out and overdoses on acid-laced sugar cubes. An ambulance hurtling him to hospital passes Lana’s limo. Cue jaunty music, the end.