Saturday, July 04, 2009

Movies: Everything falls into place.

Though the 1970's has been pretty much stripped mined as far as horror cinema diamonds in the rough go, its odd that under appreciated flicks can still be found there. And yet, despite the relentless and meticulous efforts of exploitation era cinema-archeologists, weird good stuff still litters the ground. How are these pieces overlooked? Because much of the myth of 1970s horror cinema rests on a sort of gonzo aesthetic of "batshit crazy," the horror fancy often overlooks that some of the finest '70s era specialized in a sort of ultra low-key, faux social realism that placed a sort of lush squalor before stylishness, bleak minimalism before show-stopping pyrotechnics. Such films were exploitation to the core and pandered in straight-out sleaze as their primary draw, but these flicks also trafficked in a lightly worn documentary feel that gave them an unearned gravitas. This shallow 'realism' didn't make these flicks any smarter of more artistic than their more overtly trite exploitation brethren, but it did mean that they unfurled at a more deliberate pace, included thoughtfully rendered characterization, tonal grace notes, and attracted A-list talent. It has become unfashionable to suggest that some works transcend their genre the same way it has become gauche to suggest that some children are simply brighter than others. Yet, fashionable or not, the fact remains; genre fans are often satisfied with subpar work, and films that both deliver the goods and still go above and beyond the call of duty should be celebrated as doing more than they need to. That's called transcending the genre.

Richard Fleisher's 1971 true-crime serial killer pic 10 Rillington Place is one of those pictures that, though firmly rooted in the traditions of sleazy exploitation, manages to approach something almost Dostoevskyan by allowing the visuals of squalor and the power of two first rate leads to drag the story into affecting human directions it wasn't originally meant to contain.

Based on a much recounted historical incident, the plot of 10 Rillington Place tells the story of a blue collar couple who run afoul of a genuine monster. In the post-war squalor of Austerity Britain, illiterate Tim and Beryl move into a crumbling townhouse in Notting Hill occupied by John Christie. The role of Tim is rendered with pity-inducing inarticulateness by an excellent and shockingly young John Hurt. The cruelly meticulous and avuncular Christie is brought to chilling life by Richard (the old dude in Jurassic Park) Attenborough.

For horror fans, Attenborough's Christie would be enough to recommend the film. Played with dark humor, Attenborough's Christie is at once a ruthless predator and fussy old grump. A passionless unman who covers his pathetic unlife with an endless gloss of lies, he's only filled with energy when raping the corpses of his victims (mostly women who come to him under the misapprehension that he's a former medical man with a special passion for treating female complaints). In many ways, his protean shallowness reminds me of Warren Oates's pathetically mercurial G.T.O. from Two Lane Blacktop, trickster as crippling condition, a man whose great tragedy is that his only pleasures must be fleeting, which dooms him to live in the sharp clawed clutches of a desire greater than his decaying and insufficient frame. Though where G.T.O. is all American tall tale and gregarious banter, Christie is the murderous reflection of British reserve and the famed stiff upper lip. There's a scene is in the film where Christie stands by an old gas light (to save money, you know) talking his victims into their own doom, as the gas sputters with a constant snake hiss. The shot is one of the most perfect in all horror cinema. Attenborough's Christie ranks up with Perkins's Bates, Rooker's Henry, and Hopkins's Lecter. He's that good. Seriously.

The plot is as trashy as they come. The film opens with a sort of intro killing by Christie back during the war. Taking advantage of a wartime blackout, a young seeks Christie's unregulated amateur care. He hooks her up to a homemade gas delivery system, convincing her that it will cure her of her chronic pain condition. When he fight of flight reflex eventually kicks in, she's too weak to fight Christie, who overpowers her, strangles her, and sexually abuses her.

Jump forward: post-war Austerity Britain. The nadir of modern British culture – think Swinging London and then imagine the point furthest from which that can still boast enough infrastructure to support electricity. A time period when the national color was brownish-grey and the chief domestic product was diminished expectations.

A young couple, Tim and Beryl avec infant daughter, move into the Christie's apartment building. Beryl is a stifled ghetto flower whose desire for better things drag the family deeper and deeper into debt. Tim is a semi-alcoholic truck driver with a flair for self-aggrandizing tall tales. Their home life is tempestuous and, perhaps, not quite loving. When Beryl is knock up and with second child, she attempts some pill-delivered remedy of dubious utility. Her attempts at self-medication fail and she ends up confessing her problems to the awkward, but seemingly friendly Mr. Christie. Christie claims to have become familiar with abortion techniques when he served as a special policeman during the war and offers his assistance. Beryl and Christie convince the doubtful Tim to go along with it. (Which leads to the grimmest joke of occasionally darkly sharp flick: Christie rehashes an old joke about delivering babies and recontextualizes it to discuss the planned abortion: "Don't worry Tim; we haven't lost a father yet." Careful listeners might remember the same joke, used to very different effect, in Disney's Lady in the Tramp.)

Shortly thereafter, while Tim is at work and Christie's wife, Ethel, is off on an errand, Christie uses the fiction of his medical prowess to get Beryl up in his apparatus. He gasses and then strangles her. Christie then informs Tim and Ethel that Beryl died during the operation. He convinces Tim it would be wisest to help Christie hide the body and then flee town until such time as Christie can get everything sorted with the police. When Tim asks what will happen to his infant daughter, Christie says he knows of a nice, childless couple that would be happy to care for the girl in the meantime. Tim packs up and flees immediately. With the father gone, Christie takes one of Tim's neckties and strangles the daughter.

The frame up, though hastily constructed, is enough to trap the dim-bulb Tim, who eventually turns himself over the cops for the crime of hiding his wife's body. The cops, of course, want him for the double homicide of Beryl and his daughter. Stunned he confesses, then recants. He's tried, convicted, and hung for murder.

In the months that follow, Christie (whose fa├žade of lower middle-class civility was cracked, but not completely breeched on the witness stand of Tim's trial) and his wife grow estranged. Ethel now knows on a gut level that he's a monster, though the scope and exact details of his crimes are still a mystery to her. For his part Christie increasingly understands that framing Tim was a Pyrrhic victory: he's managed to escape the noose, but at the cost of his home and his sense of safety.

Christie's life quickly spirals out of control. He kills Ethel, kicking off a short string of uncharacteristically sloppy killings. He looses his job and then his house, becoming a homeless drifter. The house's new residents discover the hidden room Christie used to hide the corpses of his post-Tim victims. The police quickly realize their error and launch a manhunt.

Like so many serial killers before and after him, Christie is caught when, during a chance encounter, a beat cop happens to recognize him.

The plot, while lurid, benefits from an odd structure that continues the story long after the "thriller" aspect – centering around the destruction of Tim, Beryl, and their daughter – has past. By giving equal time to the aftermath, both in terms of the legal consequences and the slow decay of Christie himself, the film weds its exploitative and sleazy aspects to a genuinely dramatic framework that emphasizes the dreary fatedness of these characters.

Saving the exercise from completely lapsing into a dreary social realism is the disciplined hand of the vastly underrated Richard Fleischer. Son of the legendary animation producer Max Fleischer, Richard made his early rep cranking out budget-minded and successful film noirs flicks. He then moved on to a series of Disney produced effects-driven actioners, most notably 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and the original Doctor Doolittle. However, Fleischer's directorial career shows an astounding range and includes a surprising number of hits and enduring cult classics. Aside from big ticket pics like Tora! Tora! Tora! and the Neil Diamond version of The Jazz Singer, the sci-fi cult classics Fantastic Voyage and Soylent Green both belong to Fleischer. He's also behind Violent Saturday, Compulsion, The Boston Strangler, and the exploitastic Mandingo. Fleischer keeps Rillington moving at a calm, creepy pace, he let's his actors infuse certain scenes with almost Coen brothers-style humor. He also knows when to let the characters inject excruciating levels of pathos into a scene. These emotional tones counterbalance the detached stoicism of the rest of the flick.

10 Rillington Place is one of the better flicks in the serial killer subgenre and I think it deserves to be better known.

1 comment:

Gene Phillips said...

Dang; I can't remember if I ever saw this one, but you can be sure I'll check it out in future. Excellent writeup.

I just finished screening the DVD of Richard Blackburn's LEMORA, which might also lay claim to a certain low-key realism in its first half, and remains fairly restrained for all that it's a Southern Gothic involving a vampiress and a horde of mutants.