THE CORPSE, AKA CRUCIBLE OF TERROR, AKA (according to my fuzzy copy, hot-spliced randomly mid-film) THE VELVET ROOM — seems to be the only film directed, amid a slew of TV work, by somebody called Viktor Ritelis*, and written by actor Olaf Pooley (great name!). It’s a trippy, woozy thing, a quasi-feminist horror movie about family life (but, weirdly, the contorted brand of feminism on display seems very NOW).
It stars Michael Gough, plus his son and his daughter-in-law (Sharon Gurney, a typically weird/beautiful Ken Russell discovery, out of WOMEN IN LOVE but en route to DEATHLINE and then retirement), so it’s a family affair, about the awfulness of families. It starts strong, with creepy authoritarian dad Gough caressing his daughter’s still-warm bicycle saddle, and it doesn’t get any more comfortable from then on. For a while it seems to be sliding towards an archetypal LES DIABOLIQUES twist, as wife (Yvonne Mitchell, from QUEEN OF SPADES) and daughter stage a clumsy suicide for the patriarch, and indeed, nine-tenths of the story probably was filched from Clouzot, but the conclusion is MUCH more interesting that some Hammer knock-off. Depressing, maybe, but interesting.
In the seventies, dark shadows weren’t dark, they were a deep luminous blue, and they glowed. And at night, our faces were purple.
Lots of orange! The sure sign of a seventies film with its finger on the pulse. In this case, pressed so hard as to obstruct circulation and cause light-headedness.
Ritelis fucks up, big-style, with solarised 2001 dream sequences — completely pointless and by-the-numbers. Any movie using this technique that isn’t sci-fi goes straight in the bargain bin (thereby guaranteeing I’ll watch it at some point). I know, I know, GIRL ON A MOTORCYCLE…
But the rest is so authentically stoned, with its draggy pace, low-affect perfs (Gurney is a particular stand-out here) and soft-focus rustic scenes, forgiveness is granted. The twisted, incestuous/sadistic relationships are creepily convincing, and the casting of real family members seems like a masterstroke. Sam Gough, as the snotty son Rupert, is shaping up to be a miniature monster version of his dad, Michael, who can be a little overeager, dials down the slavering perversion to a naturalistic level, which makes having him in your living room even more unsettling, even if he is behind a glass screen, and composed only of light. Mitchell is so withdrawn as to almost recede out the back of the set, while Gurney maintains a certain sly awareness — there’s all kinds of perversity implied in the father-daughter relationship, and a suggestion that she’s incorporated physical abuse into her sexuality — like I say, modern and disturbing.
In DEATHLINE, (AKA RAW MEAT) a really superb black-comic horror, Gurney and screen boyfriend David Ladd (son of Alan) seem rather outclassed by the more vigorous pairing of Donald Pleasence and Norman Rossington, who tear up the movie with their shenanigans. In fact, Ladd’s scenes with Pleasence are great, it’s only the writing of the lovers that let them down. Gurney, sporting the worst haircut in screen history, does score one brilliant moment, when a trip to see THE FRENCH CONNECTION is suggested: “Too violent,” she murmurs.
Again with that sly look.
*I recall seeing The Aphrodite Inheritance, one of Ritelis’ TV jobs, back in the eighties. As memory serves, that had a slightly weird feel to it also, even though it was nominally a Greek-set crime thriller with no obvious need to be peculiar. The end sequence had Greek gods turning up, as I recall. Deus ex machina…