Monthly Archives: August 2016

Thinking about White of the Eye (1987)

Donald Cammell’s film was more-or-less marketed as a psychological thriller / slasher movie; or in other words, a non-Italian Giallo. To be sure, a rudimentary description of the plot would lead you to such a conclusion but that’s a rash way to assess what films are really about. On the face of it, the movie concerns a serial killer – diligently working his way through the rich ladies of Arizona – and his family. Underneath its slasher overcoat, White of the Eye hides a sensory marvel and, from what I can gather at least, an involved tale of the passion to destroy and its grip on the male psyche. This is all built on a bedrock of the age-old story of infidelity, the spark which lights the film’s tinder box.

Cammell is a cinematographer by trade and it’s the visual aspect which is clearly the focus of his energies. The opening murder sequence, whilst substantively inspired by Argento’s set-pieces, is a tour-de-force of ocular technique. The sequence uses a grand total of 55 shots fitting into 140 seconds, all blanched with exotic colour and off-the-wall imagery. The film doesn’t let up from here and Cammell’s camerawork stays true to the standard established in the first few minutes. The visuals are so stark that much of the picture feels like a music video driven by Nick Mason’s compositions and with the score sounding somehow aligned with another dimension, it gives sun-baked Arizona a hue of an alien and foreign land.Not only are the exterior shots so convincing and enjoyable but the attention to detail in the set-design and voyeur-like perspective of Cammell’s camera make the interiors of Arzona’s well-healed community quite hypnotic. 

At its naked least, White of the Eye is a pitifully sad movie and I liked the genuinuity of  a husky-voiced Cathy Moriarty as Joan White – wife to David Keith’s deranged killer. I note that others have been less kind to her performance, but it’s her acting which gives the love story within the film its heart. Indeed, one of the accomplishments of Cammell’s film is to drastically shift the focus from David Keith’s killer to Cathy Moriarty’s wifey in a seemless way. That said,the mood completely disjoints from a tortured marriage tale in the finale and we end up with sticks of dynamite, blazing guns and Apache legend – all thrown together in an ending which evokes some reminiscing of Kubrick’s The Shining. It has to be said that Cammell did not achieve a balanced movie here. 

 Furthermore, patches of the story are undeveloped and some key characters are left looking unwanted. The frustratingly sporadic use of Art Evans as a homicide detective with a gut instinct for White’s madness gets me down; but there’s also a healthy serving of mumbo-jumbo scriptwriting likely to put some viewers off.  Whether I will ever go to the bottom of some of the mumbo jumbo, I really couldn’t say but what it does do is hook you to the film’s themes in a manner which can only illicit repeated future viewings. With multiple ways to interpret the events and motive depicted on screen, this is a film to revisit time and again. To be certain, I am still asking some perplexing questions as to the meaning of some of the sections in this film.

In summary and having seen this film a number of times in the past few years,  White of the Eye’s aesthetic glare gives an oddly scary example of what can be done with a camera. For that alone, seek it out and all the better if you can immerse yourself in the guttural themes on display. If you decide to do the latter please do get in touch, I have some ideas I’d like to test with you about some of the subliminal and not-so subliminal messages.

Blatty’s The Ninth Configuration (1980)

William Peter Blatty will forever be known as the author and writer of The Exorcist, but it’s his 1980 directorial debut which is arguably the more interesting contribution to cinema. To date, Blatty has directed only one other film; the deeply intelligent and thought-provoking “Exorcist 3” (1990).

Often thought of as a mysterious slice of eclectic cult cinema, Blatty’s The Ninth Configuration is based on two versions of his earlier novel “Twinkle, Twinkle, Killer Kane”. It’s a film hard to assign to any particular genre, embodying elements of a psychological thriller and the darkest of comedies. Ostensibly, the plot is based on a US army psychiatrist, Colonel Kane (Stacy Keach), who is sent to a gothic castle housing officers claiming to be crazy; his task to ascertain whether these patients are truly insane or whether they are ‘faking’ it to avoid tours of duty. Blatty confidently pitches the whole thing as a pseudo mash-up of “Once Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” with the meta-physical themes of good and evil seared into his Exorcist mythology.

Initial impressions of the film usually focus on the vibrant selection of actors that make up the cast of patients. First up is Capt. Cutshaw, played by a wild-eyed Scott Wilson in a career defining performance. Here’s a former astronaut whose crisis of faith drove him to abort a NASA mission to the moon during take-off (“And what if I got there – got to the moon – and couldn’t get back? Sure, everyone dies but I am afraid to die alone, so far from home. And if there’s no God, then that’s really, really alone”). Then there’s Jason Miller’s ‘Reno’, something of a side-kick to Wilson’s Cutshaw character and his idiosyncratic condition leads him to canine recreations of the works of Shakespeare.  Robert Loggia as a cerebrally batshit lieutenant and Moses Gunn in a superman costume are delightful additions and that’s without the cameo of Joe Spinell. The staff at the facility include the ever-dependable Ed Flanders as the medic and a youthful Tom Atkins as one of the guards. 

This is a mighty collection of character actors, clearly having fun with the flinchingly funny script and the theatrics of it all. Despite the feel of a screwball farce, there’s heavy symbolism beneath the comedic charade. The film asks some resolute questions about man’s motivations for good and his relationship with a seemingly uncaring and detached God. It may be difficult to imagine genuine celluloid tension emanating from these kinds of venturesome themes but Blatty pulls it off, demonstrating an incredulous ability to build suspense from the philosophical dialogue sequences peppered throughout the screenplay. Here’s a choice-cut of dialogue from early on in the movie:

Colonel Kane: You’re convinced that God is dead because there’s evil in the world?

Capt. Cutshaw: Correct!

Colonel Kane: Then why don’t you think he’s alive because of the goodness in the world?

Much of this antipathy is developed in the confrontational scenes between Keach and Wilson who play the dynamic brilliantly with Wilson’s Cutshaw probing Keach’s Colonel Kane to find just one example of genuine, self-less goodness. But really it’s the ‘bar scene’ in the film’s final 15 minutes which earns the greatest accolade for suspense as Keach hits breaking-point to validate the motivation of goodness in this world.

We later find out – SPOILERS – that Colonel Kane himself is not quite who he appears to be but is instead a cold-blooded killer who returns from Vietnam under the mental illusion that he’s his brother, a real army psychiatrist (and castle medic Ed Flanders), in order to cope with his mental instability after he’s gone full-postal in Vietnam. The staff apprevehensively let Kane act this fantasy out in the hope that it will give an indication as to how to cure both himself of the evil he’s committed and act as a remedy to his fellow patients’ delusional parananoias. 

This would all be sufficient to make a timeless film but aesthetically it also gives in spades. The photography on display and visual imagery throughout the film is arresting and dashingly beautiful. The most obvious example being an iconic and jaw-dropping lunar crucifixion of Jesus, but it’s difficult to single out one scene when so many showcase the aesthetic skill of Gerry Fisher’s cinematography. The gothic ambience of the castle’s exterior – executed in the highest-order during the film’s opening credits – may suggest the picture’s horror credentials, but they are just a canvass for a movie which is resolutely not out to scare you but to exercise your mind. 

The closing coda is touching and brings the film full-circle, perhaps authenticating the idea of a life after death; albeit with some ambiguity depending on the cut of the movie you’ve seen.

The Ninth Configuration is spunky, it’s deep and often unfathomable but it’s a film to dwell on, perhaps for life. 

Hotdog rating: 10/10