Bonus Features: The Music Lovers (1971)

Our current Movie of the Month, 1971’s The Music Lovers, is a biopic of 19th Century composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.  Most of my biographical knowledge of Tchaikovsky comes from this over-the-top distortion of his life, which mostly fixates on his volatile marriage to a fantasy-prone nymphomaniac.  A closeted homosexual, Tchaikovsky pursues a traditional marriage with the manic, insatiable woman to the detriment of his own sanity, inviting director Ken Russell’s usual erotic funhouse nightmares to spill onto the screen in spectacular ways that match the explosive piano jolts of Tchaikovsky’s music.  His violent compositions & barely closeted homosexuality land him firmly under the Misunderstood Mad Genius umbrella where Russell loved to play, meaning the film is so indulgent in its fantasy sequences and stylistic expressiveness that it’s foolish to form any concrete historical or political conclusions without further research.

Ken Russell was the master of turning real-life, historical artist’s lives into fodder for his own auteurist idiosyncrasies, from Lord Byron in Gothic to Franz Liszt in Lisztomania to Oscar Wilde in Salome’s Last Dance (which is what originally inspired me to track down The Music Lovers in a previous Movie of the Month cycle).  He did not own a total monopoly on the practice, though.  There are plenty of other directors who used loose-with-the-facts biopics of famous composers as inspiration for over-the-top, high-style pictures with little historical connection to those musicians’ lives.  To that end, here are a few recommended titles if you enjoyed our Movie of the Month and want to see more composer biopics gone wild.

Amadeus (1984)

Miloš Forman’s libertine biopic of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart doesn’t quite match the unhinged, sweaty mania of Ken Russell’s composer “biographies”, but it’s likely the closest you can get and still win a Best Picture Oscar.  Amadeus is wonderfully, extravagantly lewd, especially for a mainstream production. It characterizes the composer as a shrill, ridiculous fop whose fame at an early age stunted his emotional maturity — like so many fallen Disney Channel stars.  According to its stats on Mozart’s child-celebrity accomplishments, he had composed his first concerto by the age of 4, his first symphony by 7, and his first opera by 12.  It is not a birth-to-death biopic, though, so we do not see these adolescent accomplishments.  Instead, Forman delivers a character study of Mozart as a fully grown, immature lush whose undisputed musical genius does nothing to impede his love of sex, booze, and fart jokes.  He drinks himself into total delirium just like Tchaikovsky does in The Music Lovers, but for most of the picture he’s more of a hedonistic party boy than he is a self-hating sad sack.

While Amadeus indulges in the same “ecstatic truth” approach to historical storytelling as Ken Russell’s comparable biopics, it never totally detaches from reality in any decisive way.  Mozart’s bifurcated nature as a musical genius and a ludicrous fop is solidly grounded in a decades-long rivalry with his fellow composer Antonio Salieri, who cannot stand that his professional competition is a drunken jester whose music is “The Voice of God.”  That rivalry is fictional, but it’s not exactly a Ken Russell-style break from reality.  It does offer the film a bitter source of comedy, though, especially as Salieri’s frustration with Mozart’s ease in exquisite compositions starts to resemble Frank Grimes’s one-sided rivalry with the clueless Homer Simpson.  Forman has self-indulgent fun with Mozart’s life & music—historical truth be damned—which is the core tenant of all of Russell’s own biopics.  Lisztomania never had a chance at winning a Best Picture Oscar, so we might as well celebrate the closest the industry would ever get to that kind of anomaly.

Immortal Beloved (1994)

Candyman & Paperhouse director Bernard Rose attempted his own Ken Russell style biopic in Immortal Beloved, which portrays Ludwig van Beethoven as a temperamental rock star who took his anger over his own hearing loss out on the world at large.  Immortal Beloved delivers even less feverish Ken Russell theatrics than Amadeus, despite the surrealism of Rose’s iconic horror films.  It’s a little too restrained to match the fantastical heights of The Music Lovers or Amadeus, but it’s still a relatively fun, volatile period drama on its own terms.  That’s because it fully commits to the mystery genre structure that Amadeus only toys with as a convenient launching pad.  At the start of Amadeus, Salieri claims he murdered Mozart, but the 161min flashback that follows proves that confession to be figurative (and, again, fictional).  For his part, Bernard Rose fixates on a line in Beethoven’s actual last will & testament that refers to a mysterious “Immortal Beloved” that historians have never successfully identified.  Rose claims his own research and resulting Citizen Kane-inspired screenplay conclusively identified this Immortal Beloved that has been so elusive to Beethoven biographers for centuries. That claim, of course, is insane, but it’s the exact kind of unhinged energy directors need to bring to their projects if they plan to outshine Ken Russell in any way.

Unfortunately, Immortal Beloved also participates in the lowliest form of art: the Gary Oldman acting showcase.  Oldman plays Beethoven as a tortured creative genius and an excuse to don some dinner theatre old-age stage makeup.  Acting!  At least the movie’s adherence to Citizen Kane story structure allows for many points of view on Beethoven’s violent abuses.  Enough of his acquaintances report that the composer was “a terrible man” & “a scoundrel” that there’s nothing cool or romantic about watching him trash hotel rooms like a geriatric rockstar or cruelly insult the people who work to keep his life afloat.  Hanging out with a drinking, farting Mozart in Amadeus is a lot more fun, but there’s enough mysterious intrigue & proto-Sound of Metal dramatics in Rose’s take on Beethoven to make Immortal Beloved worth a look.  Besides, Rose’s conviction that he solved the case by processing it through mainstream screenwriting conventions is just objectively hilarious.

Paganini Horror (1989)

Both Amadeus & Immortal Beloved play around with the biographical details of their respective composers to up their own entertainment value, but neither can claim to go as off-script as the cheap-o Italo slasher Paganini Horror.  There were real-life rumors Antonio Salieri maintained a bitter rivalry with Mozart, even if those rumors have been proven false by historians.  Beethoven’s final will did refer to a mysterious “Immortal Beloved”, even if Rose’s claims to having uncovered that enigma’s identity are ludicrous.  Luigi “Star Crash” Cozzi’s Paganini Horror is working with even an even flimsier scrap of historical inspiration than either of those pictures, though.  Apparently, Niccolò Paganini was such a virtuoso violinist that it was rumored he sold his soul to Satan for the talent, earning him the nickname “The Devil’s Violinist”.  That’s all the real-world inspiration Cozzi needs to resurrect Paganini’s ghost on the set of a “Thriller” rip-off music video shoot, modernizing his musical devilry in the most direct, literal way possible.  Now, there’s a Ken Russell-style disregard for the respectability of real-world logic & historical fact.

Paganini Horror is basically off-brand metalsploitation, trading in the genre’s hair metal soundtrack for classical compositions and cornball 80s pop.  While filming a promotional “video clip” for their new single (a modernized recording of a lost, cursed, Paganini composition, of course), an all-girl rock band accidentally summons Paganini’s ghost, who hunts them one-by-one with a novelty violin knife.  They trade myths about Paganini’s signature on a literal contract with Satan, or how the musician used his wife’s intestines as strings, and you can still hear “the screams of his poor bride” today.  We don’t get to see much of that, though.  We get loopy music video clips & dream sequences where the devil’s violinist chases buxom new wavers around an abandoned castle.  Apparently, the production couldn’t land the full financing needed to stage all of the gore gags in the original script (co-written by Daria Nicolodi as a mockbuster version of a Klaus Kinski Paganini movie that never materialized), so they replaced the gnarlier details of those kills with more loopy dream sequences.  It’s a fun, detached-from-reality schlock novelty as a result, never quite reaching the euphoric highs of a Ken Russell art film but often reaching for the weirdest indulgences possible in a movie about a real-life historical figure, fictionalized beyond recognition.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: The Music Lovers (1971)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made HannaBoomer, and Britnee watch The Music Lovers (1971).

Brandon: The ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine is awful to watch. Daily doomscrolls of the latest atrocity footage from Ukraine have been a weight on our hearts & stomachs for months, so it’s understandable that Westerners distanced from the conflict feel the urge to do something to help, however small.  People are being weird about it, though.  Recalling the xenophobic “freedom fries” days of post-9/11 America, there has been a recent online push for “cultural boycotts” of all things Russian, often punishing the lives & work of Russian people for the actions of the Russian government.  It’s a modern Red Scare reboot that has US bar owners dumping Stoli vodka down the drain and EA Sports removing digital representations of Russian teams from their video games – symbolic gestures that do nothing to ease the suffering of Ukrainian people but do a lot to fan the flames of Slavophobia. 

The strangest example of these cultural boycotts I’ve seen in the past couple months was from, of course, a rando on Twitter.  In response to the tweet “banning all things russian is so bizarre and it will definitely trigger an increase in xenophbia against russian (and slav) immigrants”, the rando replied “Don’t think that matters now , I can’t even listen to Tchaikovsky without feeling sick”.  That is obviously not the most unhinged exchange I’ve seen on that platform, but it’s still an odd sentiment.  It’s also one that’s been echoed in real-world actions, with multiple philharmonic orchestras around the globe removing Tchaikovsky symphonies from their programmes.  I really only know two things about Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s place in Russian history: he was disregarded by contemporaries for not being nationalist enough in his music (embracing influence from Western outsiders in his compositions), and his cultural importance is still often downplayed by Russian musicologists because he was homosexual.  I’m not sure how boycotting a dead, gay Russian iconoclast is supposed to ease the suffering of modern Ukrainians, but I also was never clear on how a “freedom fries” culinary rebrand was supposed to protest France’s opposition to our own government’s invasion of Iraq twenty idiotic years ago.

To be fair, I’m missing a lot of cultural context here, since most of my biographical knowledge of Tchaikovsky comes from Ken Russell’s over-the-top, loose-with-the-facts biopic The Music Lovers (starring Richard Chamberlain as the 19th Century composer).  The Music Lovers mostly focuses on Tchaikovsky’s marriage to Antonina Miliukova (played by Glenda Jackson), whom Russell portrays as an insatiable, fantasy-prone nymphomaniac. Unable to copulate with his wife, as he is anchored to the extreme right end of the Kinsey Scale, Tchaikovsky becomes increasingly volatile as a person and unproductive as an artist throughout the film. Although he’s solely attracted to men, he finds himself torn in all directions by a small coven of women: his horndog wife, her grifter mother, his overly adoring sister, and his wealthy stalker/patron. At the time when he was working, being officially outed as gay would have ruined his career as a composer. In a modern context, it makes him Cool as Hell, the perfect subject for a Ken Russell film – especially as his repressed desires drive him into a drunken, sweaty mania. When his closeted relationship with a longtime male lover reaches its violent breaking point, Russell’s usual erotic funhouse nightmares spill onto the screen in spectacular ways, matching the explosively violent piano stabs that typify Tchaikovsky’s music. I’m particularly fond of a drunken train ride where his wife fails to seduce him in the sloppiest, most explicit maneuvers she can manage and the climactic sequence where the composer’s pent-up creativity floods onto the screen and washes away the last semblance of reality holding the entire picture together.

Russian state-sanctioned homophobia is still alive & well in the 2020s, so it’s unlikely that a cultural boycott on Tchaikovsky’s music is an effective way to stick it to Putin & The Kremlin.  There’s something genuinely heartbreaking in The Music Lovers about Tchaikovsky’s urge to fit in with heteronormative society by pursuing “spiritual relationships” with women in search of “marriage without a wife,” even as Russell finds lewd, lurid joy in the conflict.  Tchaikovsky’s violent compositions & barely-closeted homosexuality lands him firmly under the Misunderstood Mad Genius umbrella where Russell loved to play, and I’m not convinced he would’ve had any easier of a time living & working as a gay man in the country’s modern era – especially considering the legal troubles of contemporary iconoclastic artists like Leto director Kirill Serebrennikov (who incidentally has a movie titled Tchaikovsky’s Wife premiering at this year’s Cannes) and the punk band Pussy Riot.  Then again, Russell’s Tchaikovsky biopic is so indulgent in its fantasy sequences and stylistic expressiveness that it’s likely foolish to form any concrete historical or political conclusions without further research.

Hanna, how useful or trustworthy do you think The Music Lovers is as a historical biography of Tchaikovsky?  Do you feel like you learned anything about his place in Russian culture from the movie, or do you think it excels more as an excuse for Russell to indulge his own volatile creative impulses?

Hanna: Per Roger Ebert, “The Music Lovers is totally irresponsible … as a film about, or inspired by, or parallel to, or bearing a vague resemblance to, Tchaikovsky, his life and times”. Truthfully, I really didn’t know anything about Tchaikovsky before watching The Music Lovers, and I was doubtful that any part of the film could serve as a remotely reliable biography until after following up on some of the key points online. I think that Ebert is technically correct in his assessment of the film, but I don’t care! It was a pure Russell festival of opulent indulgence, and I was totally into it.

I read up a little bit on Tchaikovsky immediately after returning from Brandon’s watch party (emphasis on “a little bit”), and from what I could glean, the skeleton bolstering The Music Lovers is more or less accurate (e.g., his very compelling patron relationship with Nadezhda von Meck, his disastrous relationship with Antonina, the trauma of his mother’s death from cholera). However, Russell has draped this skeleton in an absolutely thrilling, garish, psychosexual drama. I’m not sure that I learned anything about Russia from this movie, and I don’t think I ever felt a strong “Russian” identity in the film. In fact, I had to continuously remind myself throughout the movie that the film was based in Russia as the actors accosted each other in British accents. The Music Lovers also mostly focuses Tchaikovsky’s ill-fated marriage to Antonina and the period of creative stagnation and isolation that followed, so I always felt like it was more concerned with Tchaikovsky’s mental landscape than anything else; I never had much of a sense of the Russian society surrounding Tchaikovsky during the middle stretch of the movie, except maybe during the Swan Lake performance, where he’s awkwardly wedged between his wife and Count Chiluvsky, surrounded on all sides by members of the Russian art crowd. I’m a passive fan of Tchaikovsky’s music so I had a vested interest in learning about his life, but I found myself more drawn to the hazy dream and nightmare spaces that Russell conjured than the historical, cultural, or objective details of Tchaikovsky’s life. I’m thinking especially of Tchaikovsky’s long stay in von Meck’s “small” cottage, which was an especially evocative, mist-laden affair detailing a distant queerness and eroticism that transcended the historical moment (although it had all the dressings of the period, which were an absolute pleasure to behold). The train car (pure nightmare!) and Tchaikovsky’s apartment (so lush! so pink!) are equally hard to leave behind. At the same time, his mental landscape was, of course, directly informed by the politics of his time, so it’s impossible to separate them completely.

Boomer, I know you’re a fan of Russell’s comingling of high-falutin sensibilities and gaudy mayhem. Personally, The Music Lovers scratched that itch perfectly, and delivered some genuinely moving human moments along with it. How does this stack up for you in the Ken Russell canon?

Boomer: Oh no! Reports of my knowledge of Ken Russell movies are greatly exaggerated! As an adult, I’ve only seen Altered States many times and Salome’s Last Dance the once, although I have extremely vivid memories of Lair of the White Worm during HBO’s free preview weekend when I was far, far too young for it. Within my limited experience (as a viewer and hearing Brandon talk about them on our Lagniappe episodes of the podcast), however, I can confirm that his films are generally disinterested in attempting to adhere to the confines of realism. It’s rare, even among the most talented directors, for the creator to forsake the concept that the camera is objective or an observer and instead make something that attempts to capture the subjectivity of feelings. It’s not real, surreal, or hyperreal: it is simply unreal, but is somehow universal as a result. Altered States has this as its text: that the altered, uh, states of human consciousness are just as real as the one we “agree” is reality. In Salome, it’s all about the play within the film; both are fiction, but the viewer is expected to preferentially conceptualize one as “reality.” In the former, this is done for horror, in the latter it is done for comedy, and in The Music Lovers, it’s done for transcendence. 

During the first scene in which Tchaikovsky performs at the piano, I was absolutely captivated by its minimal dialogue and the flights of fancy and fantasy that the various listeners feel as they attend. Similarly, music critic Deems Taylor describes how Fantasia begins with impressions of the orchestra and then moves into more abstract concepts as the music “suggest[s] other things to your imagination,” and that’s often the draw of classical music and the live performances thereof, at least for me. I go into our Movies of the Month with as little foreknowledge as possible, and when it comes to films that have a minimal pop culture footprint (like this one, although it certainly deserves better), that means that I go into these completely blind. Starting at the nine minute mark, it indulges in twelve minutes of people attending a performance and the vision of what the music means to each of them, and although each imagines a different scene, all of them are suffused with an almost palpable yearning, a longing for the romance of familiarity and simplicity, of excitement and newness, and of a time irretrievable. Maybe I’m just dense, but I hadn’t even put together at that point that our lead was Tchaikovsky. (The title card, which reads Ken Russell’s Film on Tchaikovsky and The Music Lovers, is both completely accurate and somewhat impenetrable, on purpose).  I would have been perfectly satisfied if the whole film had simply been people listening to Tchaikovsky compositions and then having rapturous daydreams. That it leaves that conservatory hall and surveys much larger sections of the lives of others is icing on the cake. 

Britnee, every time I engage with a text that’s about a creator—a movie about a playwright, a book about a painter, a comic about an illustrator—there’s a little light that goes off in my head that tells me to look for the way in which the person creating that text is commenting upon the act or process of creation. Not every work that meets that criteria is necessarily being used by the author to talk about their work or the work of others, but it’s a pretty common rhetorical and narrative device. For me, when I apply that perception filter to The Music Lovers, what that part of my brain wants this to be is a story about the death of creativity as it relates to being in a relationship; that is to say, it feels like something that would  have been created by someone who, in their personal life, was feeling creatively stifled by their partner. I can’t find any evidence that this was the case for Russell here (he and his first wife had been married for thirteen or fourteen years at this point and would remain so for another eight or nine, and he was making a film nearly every year during this time with no apparent writer’s block), but I wonder if you got that same feeling, or if you felt something different. In other words, what, if anything, do you think Russell is saying about being an artist? 

Britnee: While I’m a fan of his movies, I don’t really know that much about Russell as a person or an artist. That’s embarrassing to admit, so shame on me. All I know is that he’s some sort of perverted genius. As the audience journeys thorugh the tortured life of Tchaikovsky, I have to admit there were times that I questioned what was the biographical component of Tchaikovsky versus what was the influence of Chamberlin versus what was the personal touch from Russell. Tchaikovsky struggled to live a truly authentic life, so what did that mean about his art? All of what he longed for was put into his musical creations. Russell’s films are known for being beautiful fever dreams, but I’m sure that he had his fair share of hardships (hopefully not as much as Tchaikovsky). I think he’s trying to remind us all of the struggles that artists endure to give us something that makes our lives more enjoyable. There is always pain lurking behind something beautiful. I didn’t think that Russell was trying to say something about how relationships can hinder the work of an artist, but now that I’m thinking about it, that seems pretty likely considering that the romantic relationships in film were what stopped Tchaikovsky from creating. And yes, it seemed to be more personal than just an exaggeration on a historical fact. I definitely want to give this another watch with this in mind!

Speaking of relationships, I was absolutely fascinated with Tchaikovsky’s relationship with Madame Nadezhda con Meck. I was ignorant to this prior to watching The Music Lovers, so I was completely enamored by it on the initial watch. The horniness between the letters and visits to her estate without her physical presence had me so giddy with excitement. It was so kinky and so dramatic!

Lagniappe

Boomer: Above, Brandon mentioned four women who governed Tchaikovsky’s life—Nina, her mother, sister Sasha, and Nadezhda von Meck—but we’d be remiss to not mention the fifth: Tchaikovsky’s own mother. Her death haunts the composer for his whole life, literalized by Russell on screen as we see Tchaikovsky as a child witnessing her traumatic death at the hands of physicians attempting to treat her cholera, and those images reappear throughout his life. That Tchaikovsky’s life is in the shadow of such personal and intimate tribulation lends the whole thing an air of not just tragedy but inevitability. 

Hanna: I have a plan to mine the world of media to discover the truth about Tchaikovsky! To start, this weird little Disney mini-autobiography from 1959 is lacking in emotionally charged train-car seductions and (of course) absolutely refuses to acknowledge Tchaikovsky’s sexuality, but I think the childhood sequence still captures his passionate, manic energy and dependence on platonic female relationships.

Britnee: I’ve loved every Ken Russell movie I’ve ever seen, so I’m on a mission to watch them all! I’m probably not going to come out of this the same. Thank god for therapy.

Brandon: As this is his third entry in our ever-expanding Movie of the Month canon (after Crimes of Passion & Salome’s Last Dance), I believe we should declare Ken Russell as Swampflix’s official MVP.  Before he loses this blog-historic lead to the likes of Mario Bava or Tobe Hooper (who both have two MotM selections to their name), I say we all join in Britnee’s mission and rebrand this feature the Ken Russell Movie of the Month, sinking forever further into the madness of his filmography. 

Next Month: Boomer presents Embrace of the Serpent (2015)

-The Swampflix Crew

Bonus Features: Salome’s Last Dance (1988)

Our current Movie of the Month, Ken Russell’s lurid living-tableau Salome’s Last Dance, is a metatextual adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s banned stage play, Salome. It’s a wonderful clash of high art pretension and broadly comedic, hyper-horny trash: Russell’s specialty. His metatextual approach to Salome allows for an overlap between Wilde’s rapidfire dry humor (as the jeering audience for a brothel-staff production of his own play) and the director’s sopping wet everything else. It’s an example of a provocateur artist lovingly tipping his hat to an even more infamous provocateur artist from our literary past, and not the only example from Russell’s own catalog.

Here are a few recommended titles if you loved our Movie of the Month and want to explore similar instances of Ken Russell paying homage to the over-the-top weirdo artists who inspired him.

Gothic (1986)

The only other literary figure in Ken Russell’s collection of provocateur homages is the poet Lord Byron, who looms large as a horndog villain in the hallucinatory horror-drama Gothic. In Gothic, Russell dramatizes Byron’s infamously sweaty night swapping ghost stories & hallucinations with fellow writers Mary & Percy Shelley while growing increasingly mad with horniness (and laudanum!). It’s a historic event that’s been made legend by teenage lit nerds & Kate Beaton comics, if not only for inspiring Mary Shelley to pen her novel Frankenstein and, thus, effectively inventing the genre of science fiction. When seen through Russell’s eyes, however, it’s an event most interesting for its unhinged social chaos and the monstrous behavior of the evening’s host, Byron, in particular.

Whereas Salome’s Last Dance turned Oscar Wilde’s play into a series of outrageous living tableaus, Gothic reinterprets an infamous moment in literary history as a cheap haunted house chiller. After a group séance conjures a demon that disrupts their ghost story trading with some “real” (i.e. hallucinated) scares, the story that inspired the film mostly devolves into manic haunted house gags that Byron lords over in hopes of isolating every last one of his guests for an intimate sexual encounter. Like with Salome, this event is also presented through a metatextual framing device, with modern tourists snapping photographs of the estate where Byron’s horned-up antics tortured two fellow literary geniuses for his own amusement – something Russell himself can’t help but gawk at in admiration.

Gothic is Ken Russell striving to be on his worst behavior despite an unusually tight budget. It’s the exact kind of maniacally perverse spectacle you always hope for from him, staged with the resources of a Kate Bush music video stretched out to feature length. The way it depicts the Shelleys’ romantic dynamic is also surprisingly on-point about the misogyny at the core of Free Love politics, but it’d be a lie to suggest that’s the #1 issue on its mind. Mostly, the film is presented as an amoral appreciation of Lord Byron’s laudanum-fueled prurient villainy.

Lisztomania (1975)

If Gothic finds Ken Russell’s wildest impulses restrained by a 1980s music video budget, his mid-70s rock opera Lisztomania is a glimpse of what he could do when fully allowed to run wild & torch piles of studio money. Hot off his sole mainstream hit with Tommy, Russell cast The Who frontman Roger Daltry as Hungarian composer Franz Liszt in an even more obnoxious, unwieldy exercise in pure style. Lisztomania is all shrill, gleefully vapid, dialed-to-11 excess from start to tend – a Pure Sinema indulgence that’s just as obnoxious as it is magnificent. It’s essentially Ken Russell’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, with all the triumphs, sleaze, and annoyances that descriptor implies.

In a proto-Velvet Goldmine meltdown between reality & fantasy, Russell positions Liszt as a glam rockstar heartthrob more befitting of the 1970s than the 1800s. The film opens backstage at a wild orgiastic party preceding one of his concerts, where hundreds of squealing teen girls demand that he play “Chopsticks” on loop in a fit of 19th Century Beatlemania. Liszt truly was a Teen Beat heartthrob in his time, and the movie remains “true” to the bullet points of his life in that way as he pursues his “art” at the expense of his his family & comrades. It’s impossible to claim that a movie where Listz’s friend/rival Richard Wagner is a literal Nazi vampire whom Liszt must smite in order to save the planet is historically accurate, but the film is at least spiritually accurate in touching on the broader details. Lisztomania is mainly a celebration of Franz Liszt as a himbo partyboy pop icon, with very little energy put into tempering or contextualizing that indulgence.

I don’t know that this registers as one of my very favorite Ken Russell pictures, but it does feel like one of the most Ken Russell pictures. If you think watching a series of films wherein a 1970s British auteur pays homage to composers, artists, and literary giants of the past sounds stuffy or pretentious, I offer this horned-up nightmare as a counterpoint. It’s an anti-Nazi glam rock opera that features vampires, Frankenstein monsters, forced-femme fantasies, paper mâché dicks, and Ringo Starr as the goddamn pope. What a beautiful, cacophonous mess.

The Music Lovers (1971)

This manic love letter to a provocateur artist of the past is aimed at 19th Century Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, whose violent compositions & barely-closeted homosexuality lands him firmly under the Misunderstood Mad Genius umbrella where Russell loved to play. It’s a lewd, lurid joy as always, but it’s one that smartly saves its most over-the-top indulgences for well-timed bursts. As a result, it very well might be my personal favorite film of this bunchSalome’s Last Dance includedif not only for knowing how to choose its Moments wisely. If the dialed-to-11 zaniness of titles like Gothic & Lisztomania test your patience as if you were babysitting a hyperactive child, I highly recommend giving The Music Lovers a look so you can experience those same manic highs in small, manageable doses.

The Music Lovers mostly focuses on Tchaikovsky’s marriage to Antonina Miliukova, whom Russell portrays in the film as an insatiable, fantasy-prone nymphomaniac. Unable to copulate with his wife due to his strongly queer sexual preferences, Tchaikovsky becomes increasingly volatile as a person and unproductive as an artist. Although he’s solely attracted to men, he finds himself torn in all directions by a small coven of women: his horndog wife, her grifter mother, his overly adoring sister, his stalker/patron, etc. At the time when he was working, being officially outed as gay would have ruined his career as a composer. In a modern context, it makes him Cool as Hell, the perfect subject for a Ken Russell film – especially as his repressed desires drive him into a drunken, sweaty mania. When his closeted relationship reaches its violent breaking point, Russell’s usual erotic funhouse nightmares spill onto the screen in spectacular ways, matching the explosively violent piano stabs that typify Tchaikovsky’s music. I’m particularly fond of a drunken train ride where his wife fails to seduce him in the sloppiest, most explicit maneuvers she can manage and the final sequence where the composer’s pent-up creativity floods onto the screen and washes away the last semblance of reality holding the entire picture together.

Watching this particular batch of Ken Russell films was an extremely rewarding exercise for me. I expected these titles to be some of Russell’s stuffiest and best-behaved, given the high-art pedigree of their historic subjects, but they turned out to be just as wild as his no-fucks-given 80s frivolities like Altered States & The Lair of the White Worm. Even The Music Lovers can be wildly over-the-top when it chooses to be, an occasional self-indulgence that landed the film fiercely negative contemporary reviews for its historical inaccuracies. As someone who cares way more about cinematic hedonism & over-the-top artifice than faithfulness to source material or historical fact, that self-pleasing blasphemy pandered directly to what I love about movies. I’m now starting to consider Ken Russell one of my very favorite directors (as opposed to just the director of Crimes of Passion, one of my very favorite movies).

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Salome’s Last Dance (1988)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Britnee made Brandon, Boomer, and Hanna watch Salome’s Last Dance (1988).

Britnee: Last year, while I was on a month-long Ken Russell binge, I watched Salome’s Last Dance for the very first time. I had avoided it for a while because I assumed it was going to be a run-of-the-mill period piece. I do enjoy period films, but I have to be in a particular mood to watch them. It turns out Salome is more than just a period film. It’s a trashy masterpiece! How could I expect anything less from Ken Russell?

Salome starts with a framing narrative where the staff at a London brothel put on a performance of Oscar Wilde’s banned play, Salome, for none other than Oscar Wilde himself. The play is so magnificent that it’s easy to forget that you’re watching a play within a movie. The vibrant set and gaudy costumes are visually pleasing components to this very sexy Salome production, and I just loved all of it. Ken Russell even plays the part of the play’s photographer! There all sorts of delicious little treats strewn throughout the show, such as topless dominatrix guards with silver nipples and a zombified John the Baptist.

The actress who plays Salome in the play, Imogene Millais-Scott, is phenomenal. She has a very cat-like presence that really makes for an interesting take on the character, and her passionate and intense line deliveries outshine everyone else in the film. Millais-Scott was almost blind from an illness before she started filming, so the fact that she showed up and showed out in Salome regardless is insane.

What I enjoyed the most about Salome is that we never really leave the theatre. There aren’t many moments where we go into different areas of the brothel to follow up on what Wilde and everyone else is doing while the play is going on. The play is just so damn good that I never wanted to leave, so that layout worked out for me. Brandon, was that something you enjoyed as well? Would you have preferred more scenes that were not part of the actual Salome play?

Brandon: While I appreciated Russell’s playfulness in burying the play under several layers of metatextual remove, I don’t know that diving any deeper into the off-stage narrative would’ve added anything to this film’s entertainment value. It makes sense for Russell to include Wilde’s off-stage antics in the brothel for a couple reasons: to help highlight their shared qualities as button-pushing provocateurs and to give shape to the brothel’s otherwise slight production of Salome. The onstage performance is presented almost as a series of living tableaus, where the actors’ costuming & positioning against the hand-painted backdrops is far more outrageous & attention-grabbing than any of the spoken dialogue. There’s almost a John Waters Community Theatre quality to the play, wherein total freaks endlessly rhapsodize about how gorgeous they are – only interrupting those breathlessly horny rants for an occasional fart joke or dance break. As fun and as wonderfully artificial as that production can be, it’s also a huge relief to occasionally drift away from it to check in on Wilde’s escapades as a half-attentive audience. He gropes the staff, ruthlessly critiques their acting skills, and fires off a few of his infamously dry witticisms as a form of self-amusement (including a particularly great one about how brothels “combine business with pleasure”), seemingly bored by the onstage tableaus. I was not bored by this stage production of Salome, but it was still funny hearing that potential complaint in real time from the author of its source material. He doesn’t need to do anything more than that to justify being there.

Overall, I found this movie to be a wonderful clash of high art pretension and broadly comedic, hyper-horny trash: Ken Russell’s specialty. It often feels more like Russell doing Derek Jarman or a Cockettes stage show than Russell doing Oscar Wilde, so it was smart for the director to include an in-the-flesh avatar for Wilde onscreen, injecting the writer’s more idiosyncratic quirks into an adaptation of his play that doesn’t especially highlight them (the way a straightforward adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest might have). I totally get Russell’s decision to stage Salome with that metatextual remove, as it allows for an overlap between Wilde’s rapdifire dry humor and the director’s sopping wet everything else. What I’m much less clear on is whether there’s any significance to the movie being set on Guy Fawkes Night in particular. Boomer, is there any textual or historical significance you can glean from this private, brothel-set staging of Salome occurring on that uniquely British holiday? Or did that register as just as significant of a detail as the fart jokes and the hand-painted moon?

Boomer: Is there any figure in English history more widely misunderstood in the pop cultural consciousness than Guy Fawkes? His exaggerated likeness went from centuries-old scapegoat mask to symbol of anti-tyranny in Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta, then to wider infamy with that graphic novel’s 2005 film adaptation, and then as the mask of online hacktivism group Anonymous. In all of his popular culture incarnations, Fawkes is a man of progress fighting for liberty against an oppressive state, but in reality Fawkes himself wasn’t … that.

Most of our readers probably already know this but just to be safe (and as Cliffs Notes as I can make it): infamously, Henry VIII blamed his wife/wives for giving him nothing but daughters (and thus no mail heir to the throne, as the law sort of dictated and tradition clearly required) and, since the Catholic Church wouldn’t let him divorce any of them, he created his own, new church (The Church of England, aka the Anglican faith) with blackjack and hookers with the option to let him trade in his wife for a new model without having to do all that beheading (which he still did sometimes anyway). He was immediately succeeded by his (Anglican) nine year old son Edward VI, and upon Eddie 6’s death at 16, the crown passed to Edward’s (Catholic) sister Mary. Better known as Bloody Mary, she attempted to return property that had been acquired by the state back to Catholic control but was largely prevented from doing so by Parliament, but that didn’t stop her from burning 280 (Protestant) people at the stake for religious dissent. When she died, there was yet another hullabaloo that eventually led to her (Protestant but, like, mostly pragmatic about it) sister, Elizabeth becoming the Queen of England. Elizabeth never had any children of her own and went to her deathbed saying “nah” to requests that she name an heir, there was another succession debate that resulted in her nephew James (also a Protestant but hyperfixated on the heresy of witchcraft rather than the heresy of Catholicism), Mary’s son, being coronated as the new king.

The Gunpowder Plot was an attempt by Catholics to assassinate James I solely because he was a Protestant (and a fairly tolerant one at that, having seen how the people turned on his mother for her religious persecution). Guy Fawkes was just a guy from York who had been fighting in Spain during a time when Spain and England were allied (mostly because they were both Catholic states) and was so unhappy that everything was so Protestant now that he went so far as to petition the Spanish throne to turn their attention toward retaking England, for Catholicism. His job in the plot was to guard the gunpowder, but he was caught, and the whole thing fell apart; this lead to the declaration of November 5 as Guy Fawkes Night, which became the primary commemoration of England as a nation-state (a corollary would be the U.S.’s Independence Day) as well as a focus for anti-Catholic sentiments. Eventually, things got so heated that Guy Fawkes Night may as well have been The Purge for Catholics, but reform eventually nerfed that element of the proceedings until GFN was essentially little more than a name for a celebration that was mostly divorced from its roots (a corollary would be the U.S.’s Labor Day, which was originally created as a celebration of the Labor movement and is now mostly a holiday for the enemies of Labor to get 50% off jeans while Laborers … labor), becoming just a holiday.

Historically, Wilde’s actual arrest occurred in late May 1895, at nearly the opposite side of the calendar cycle as early-November’s Guy Fawkes Night; Russell, as a Briton himself, would know this and wouldn’t have made such a significant change without reason. Or would he? Robert Catesby, the mastermind behind the Gunpowder Plot, was beheaded like John the Baptist, but his decapitation was postmortem (in order for his head to be exhibited outside of Parliament as a warning, as you do). He did die (of being shot) clutching a portrait of the Virgin Mary, who was John the Baptist’s aunt. But really, that’s grasping at very tenuous threads. There’s little that correlates Fawkes or the Gunpowder Plot to Wilde or Salome. Salome as a figure of myth/history is technically royal and the Gunpowder Plot revolves around an attempt at a religious coup via regicide, but the two events are fairly different otherwise. One could sift to find some relationship between Salome’s existence as Herod’s stepdaughter from a previous marriage and the succession crisis (that at least partially revolved around kingship transferring from Edward VI to Mary, his stepsister from his father’s previous marriage) that eventually led to James I’s reign, but that’s really pushing it. Biblically, Salome isn’t even given a name and is mentioned only as Herodias’s daughter, and we only have a name for her because of Titus Flavius Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews (completed ca. 93 or 93 C.E.). There are some who argue that Salome the Disciple (one of the tenders of Jesus at the crucifixion and witness to his empty tomb, depending upon the gospel in question) and Salome the daughter of Herodias could be the same person, and that admittedly makes for a fun redemption arc Bible headcanon if that’s your bag, but most scholars hold that the latter Salome was the sister of Mary.

Beyond that, one is hard pressed to find a connection between GFN/The Gunpowder Plot and Salome/Wilde other than this: despite how they have been interpreted by right wing regressives in the present, the teachings of Jesus were iconoclastic and progressive, and the decapitation John the Baptist as both his harbinger and hype man could be interpreted as the state’s execution of a rabble-rousing progressive dissident; if one sees Fawkes as an analog of Herod II, pushing for a return to a more regressive, conservative form of governance, it almost works. But not quite. Maybe all he wanted was for future viewers to watch the film annually on GFN? Move over, “Is Die Hard a Christmas movie?”, it’s time for the real debate: “Is The Last Dance of Salome a Guy Fawkes Night movie?”

One of the things that I found puzzling while watching the film was the presence of ciswomen actors as women in the play and its framing device. Every plot summary of Last Dance online notes that the film takes place in “an all-male brothel,” but that doesn’t seem to be the case for many of the ostensibly cisgender topless women serving in the ensemble or Imogen Millais-Scott as Salome/Rose. It’s possible that I’m very wrong about this (the copy of this film that I saw was the one that’s grainy, free on YouTube, and subtitled in Spanish), but I’m guessing that there was a body double used in the final, full monty frame of Salome’s dance itself, which makes me curious about the casting, given that I can find no evidence that Millais-Scott is trans. Does this casting of a ciswoman as a man-portraying-a-woman read strangely to you, Hanna? Given that Millais-Scott’s powerhouse performance is the biggest draw in the film (at least for me), I’m not sure I would have preferred this be done a different way, but I’m of two minds. After all, men portrayed all roles, including women, for a huge chunk of British theatrical history. What do you think?

Hanna: In general, I was a little torn by this too. Why not feature an all-male performance for Oscar Wilde, especially given the history of British theatre? I would have loved a glitzy, dragged-up rendition of Salome. On the other hand, since the premise of the film is that Salome is so publicly subversive that Oscar Wilde can only view its performance behind the walls of a brothel and women were banned from performing onstage in England until the 1660s, the use of female actresses would technically be the more subversive choice for that time (although that point was probably moot by the late 1800s).

Regarding Millais-Scott’s casting specifically, I actually didn’t think that she was cast as a man portraying a woman; I thought that Rose was a cisgender female chambermaid for the brothel playing Salome, not a male worker, and that the appearance of the body double – dubbed “Phoney Salome” in the credits –was meant to be a prank on Herod within the play (i.e., Herod got horny for an anonymous male slave and Salome never really danced for him) and a scintillating little show for Wilde. I would guess that the bare-breasted guards were also workers in the brothel. That being said, I truly have no idea what actually happened – that’s just my best guess.

If I’m wrong about the casting and Rose/Salome is meant to be a male actor playing a woman in the film, it might have bothered me if the role had been taken by any other cis-woman. As it is, I wouldn’t trade Millais-Scott’s mesmerizing performance for anything, and if it were up to me, I would probably shirk gendered roles and British theatre history to feature her. Her Keatsian monologue with John the Baptist was equal parts hypnotic and bratty, and has significantly contributed to my arsenal of obsessive, lusty similes. That scene alone was worth the $3.99 rental.

Lagniappe

Britnee: I love the costume design in this movie, especially the costumes for Herodias and Salome. It’s all a mix of BDSM, pageant drag, and Victorian fashion. The costume designer, Micheal Arrals, is only credited for this one film, and I can’t find much about him online. I want to know more about this mysterious genius!

Hanna: My first exposure to the story of Salome was stumbling upon the grotesque and gorgeous illustrations that Aubrey Beardsley produced for Wilde’s original run of his play (especially “The Dancer’s Reward”). Those illustrations and Salome’s Last Dance compel me for the same reasons: they are intricately and ornately detailed, a little bloody, and horny as all get-out. Those illustrations were highly regarded by Wilde, and in my opinion, Russell did a fantastic job of bringing that mood to his adaptation.

Boomer: Thank you for indulging me in my recapitulation of various English succession crises. For a film that features an entirely male cast performing a play in which they inhabit men and women’s roles, I recommend Lilies. If you’re interested, the single-Salome interpretation noted above (that she was both Herodias’s daughter and later a disciple), was an idea probably influenced the narrative of the 1953 film Salome with Rita Hayworth in the title role.

Brandon: This conversation concludes five full years of Movie of the Month discussions, a tradition we’ve continued since our very first month blogging as a crew. Somehow, this is the first time we’ve ever doubled up on any one particular director over all those years, having previously covered Ken Russell’s Crimes of Passion (still one of my all-time favorite films) back in May of 2015. I’m proud of the wide breadth of movies we’ve discussed so far with this project. I’m also proud that when we inevitably cycled back it was for Ken Russell in particular. It couldn’t have happened to a bigger pervert.

Next month: The Top Films of 2020

-The Swampflix Crew

Salome’s Last Dance (1988)

Oscar Wilde’s scandalous play, Salome, was banned from the stage in London for its depiction of Biblical characters (apparently this was illegal during the late 1800s).  In the play, Princess Salome (daughter of Queen Herodias) catches the eye of her stepfather, King Herod. King Herod offers her anything she wishes in return for her dancing the Dance of the Seven Veils for him, and her wish is to have the head of Saint John the Baptist. It’s one of those racy Biblical tales, so I can see why it captured Wilde’s interest. I’m also not surprised that Ken Russell directed the 1988 film about Wilde’s banned play. Russell’s quite a “Wilde” man himself, known for his own decadent style, so this is right up his alley.

Russell created a framing narrative surrounding Salome where the staff of a London brothel puts on an elaborate production of the play for Oscar Wilde on Guy Fawkes Night in 1892. Russell even has a cameo as a photographer in the brothel! The production is so vibrant, raunchy, and full of male and female dominatrix-type guards.  I doubt that the dominatrix guards were intended to be in the original production, so unsurprisingly, they are 100% Ken Russell. All of this was staged for a one-man audience, and Wilde doesn’t even pay attention to about half of the play as he is busy eyeing one of the male actors (a young guy covered in gold body paint).

The star of the show is of course Salome, played by the talented Imogen Millais-Scott. She’s a thin, pale blonde with blood red lips dressed in a shiny frosted blue gown. Her look is much different from the Salome that we see in illustrations (typically a dark-haired curvaceous woman), but her attitude screams Salome. I can still hear her shouting her famous line, “ I will kiss your mouth, John the Baptist!” Ms. Scott knows how to command a stage. It’s a shame that this was her final film as she retired from acting due to medical issues.

I thoroughly enjoyed Salome’s Last Dance. It has the charm of a D.I.Y. production while being so damn extra. There were moments where I forgot that I was watching a play within a movie. The lines between Salome and reality are definitely blurred, which makes for a very interesting ending.

-Britnee Lombas

Ken Russell’s Streamlined Modernization & Perversion of Bram Stoker’s The Lair of the White Worm

Ken Russell’s 1988 film adaptation of the 1911 Bram Stoker novel The Lair of the White Worm is often criticized for being an adaptation in name only. Critical consensus is that Russell’s The Lair of the White Worm maintains only minor details of Stoker’s original premise and the most the two works share is a common title. It’s true that Russell’s adaptation strays much further from its source material than 1922’s Nosferatu does in its faithful, but copyright-infringing bastardization of Stoker’s Dracula novel. The film The Lair of the White Worm is not a blasphemous, in-name-only adulteration of a sacred text, however. Bram Stoker’s White Worm novel is incoherent pulp. It’s a tawdry mess of a work written late in the author’s life, long past when his mental facilities were at their sharpest. Russell modernized and drastically altered basic components of the late author’s work, but he was much more faithful to the source material than what’s typically acknowledged. There’s even a prideful title card that proclaims, “Screenplay by Ken Russell from the Bram Stoker novel” to boastfully acknowledge their posthumous collaboration. Russell did not disrespectfully diminish a well-loved literary work. The filmmaker streamlined and enhanced an imperfect, misshapen novel that had been largely (and perhaps rightfully) forgotten by time by accentuating its most worthwhile aspects. He transformed a painfully slow read into a wildly fun horror film.

Although Stoker’s The Lair of the White Worm is a mid-length novella, it reads like a rambling epic that drones on for thousands of pages. Its story is essentially a simplistic rehashing of Dracula, in which a naïve outsider intrudes on a world of supernatural menace while conducting entirely unrelated, mundane business. Instead of providing legal service for suspiciously inhuman royalty like the solicitor Jonathan Harker in Dracula, The Lair of the White Worm’s naïve outsider, Adam Salton, is thrust into contact with similarly inhuman gentry by neighborly proximity. During a routine getting to know the attractive neighbors visit, Salton finds two wicked figures tormenting the innocent women of the house. One of these figures, Sir Caswall, is a weak carbon copy of Count Dracula. Although his apparent vampirism is never made explicit he physically resembles Bram Stoker’s most infamous creation and shares Dracula’s passion for hypnotizing women, this time under the guise of practicing “mesmerism.” The second tormentor, Lady Arabella, is more of a creation original to this novel. Lady Arabella is gradually revealed to be a shape-shifting “worm” (skewing closer to a giant snake or a dragon than an earthworm) known to feed on locals who dare encroach on its territory. While Dracula touches on the danger of female sexuality, Lair explicitly refers to our villainess, Lady Arabella, as a “cocotte”, French for prostitute. Despite her Anglo-Saxon good looks, a dangerous fiend like Lady Arabella could “infect” respectable English women with her serpentine (and independent) ways and seduce men to their ruin.

Furthering the Dracula parallels, a Van Helsing-type (Sir Nathaniel) helps Adam concoct a plan to destroy the worm’s pit below Diana’s Grove, but instead of confronting the villainous Arabella and Caswall on their adjacent ancestral lands, Adam and his wife Mimi bafflingly run around the countryside in an effort to avoid the villains. Lady Arabella is responsible for her own destruction by running a wire directly from the kite to her own well in hopes of lurig Caswall into her clutches. The villains’ fate is sealed by a random lightning strike that ignites dynamite meant to destroy the pit below Arabella’s property, where the worm is known to feed. It’s as if the lightning were a direct punishment from God or, more likely, Stoker had no idea how to wrap up a mess of a plot he had dug for himself.

Russell’s screenplay adaptation cleans up the mess Stoker made by combining and excising characters to essentialize what makes it distinct from being yet another Dracula. One major change was combining the Dracula and Van Helsing archetypes of Sir Caswall and Sir Nathaniel into a single character. Portrayed by a young Hugh Grant, Lord James D’Ampton is a destined hero ordained by heritage to destroy Lady Sylvia Marsh (Lady Arabella in the Stoker version) once she’s revealed to be a shapeshifting, killer “worm.” D’Ampton remains a “mesmerism” enthusiast, but in the way of a snake-charmer, a skill willed to him through family to aid in his task of hypnotizing and slaying the titular worm beast. Two major villains tormenting Derbyshire, England is one too many for a work this simple; Russell was smart to remove the most Dracula-reminiscent one of the pair. His other character changes are basic modernizations meant to update Stoker’s outdated material to a 1980s setting. For instance, the naïve Adam Salton character (now named Angus Flint and portrayed by Peter Capaldi) is an archeologist, not newly-landed gentry. This style of modernization did require some major changes in terms of character traits, however. Russell removed the bizarre racial fixations Stoker focused on in his novel. In particular, Stoker exhaustingly others an African immigrant servant to Sir Caswall and a biracial female love interest for their cultural and (worse yet) supposed biological differences. Oolanga is framed as an obviously evil character. He writes, “But the face of Oolanga, as his master at once called him, was pure pristine, unreformed, unsoftened savage, with inherent in it all the hideous possibilities of a lost, devil-ridden child of the forest and the swamp—the lowest and most loathsome of all created things which were in some form ostensibly human.”  Meanwhile, Mimi Watford is compared favorably to her white, but passive & tragically doomed cousin as an exotic, fiery beauty: “Strange how different they are! Lilla all fair, like the old Saxon stock she is sprung from; Mimi almost as dark as the darkest of her mother’s race. Lilla is as gentle as a dove, but Mimi’s black eyes can glow whenever she is upset.” Russell excises this aspect of the work entirely by casting white actors in their roles and diminishing the parts they play in the central story. There is both a shrewdness and a cowardice to Russell’s avoidance of the uncomfortable racial issues at the heart of his Bram Stoker source material, but it’s ultimately an improvement that helps declutter the work just as much as removing the redundant, Dracula-reminiscent villain.

Russell had to polish and streamline Stoker’s original vision to craft a fun, watchable horror movie out of the rubble, but the novel plays directly into the auteur’s pet obsessions. At the heart of Stoker’s novella is a deep-seated fear of female sexual autonomy, detectable in the sexual imagery of Lady Arabella’s phallic “worm” form and the vaginal cave where that monster feeds. Russell was well established as a sexual provocateur by the time he adapted Lair of the White Worm in 1988. Transgressive works like Crimes of Passion and The Devils had already allowed the director to indulge in blatant depictions of the perceived horrors of autonomous female sexuality in a way Stoker’s much earlier novel could only subtly imply. Streamlining The Lair of the White Worm’s most exciting components allowed Russell more time to exploit the Cronenbergian sexual menace inherent to the character of Lady Arabella (Lady Sylvia). He wastes no time revealing that she is a shapeshifting, humanoid snake, unlike Stoker who saved her mysterious villainy for much later in his novella. Before actress Amanda Donahue is even depicted spitting venom or baring comically oversized fangs, she is costumed wearing cowls and headscarves that accentuate her reptilian nature, affording her the silhouette of a bipedal cobra. This allows more time for Russell, who was never one for subtlety, to indulge in the character’s over-the-top sexual villainy. Her consumption of young, innocent locals is made explicitly analogous to sexual desire and is even tied to an elaborate sex ritual that involves a giant, sharpened phallus (a favored instrument of death for Russell, as indicated by its inclusion here and in Crimes of Passion). The director’s screenplay may play loose with the details of its source material, but there’s enough of Bram Stoker’s influence detectable to see why he was drawn to it. Russell maintained the mesmerism hypnosis of the novella, but made it a psychedelic side effect of Lady Sylvia’s venom (in imagery directly pulled from his previous works Altered States and The Devils). Russell latched onto Stoker’s subliminal sexual anxiety, but elevated it from subtext to the forefront. He even held onto the Dracula-reverberating aspects of the novel by accentuating the comically oversized, vampire-like marks Lady Sylvia’s snake bites leave on her victim’s necks. Russell made major changes to the novella, but in a way that was more of a personalized distillation than a disrespectful dilution.

Besides cleaning up its loose ends and blatant character-based redundancies, Ken Russell improved The Lair of the White Worm by making it fun, memorable, and genuinely unnerving. Many movie adaptations of literary works are derided as lesser echoes of superior source material. Russell, by contrast, altered a near-forgotten work for the better. As Stoker’s original The Lair of the White Worm was never considered to be an especially well-written or even well-conceived literary work, the decades-late, culturally updated revision had to come from a genuinely enthusiastic place as a reader. Ken Russell was himself no stranger to critical consensus that his work was over the top, messy pulp and saw some of his own perverse passions in Stoker’s little-loved final novel. His adaptation may have been more dedicated to bringing out those auteurist similarities between their two minds than it was to faithfully mimicking Stoker’s work, but given the lowly place where the novel started that’s something of an honor.

-CC Chapman

The Lair of the White Worm (1988)

I suscribe to the belief that British director Ken Russell was one of the most underappreciated madmen in all of trash cinema. Titles like The Devils, Crimes of Passion, and Altered States stand as immaculate works of over-the-top shock value provocation. Russell filtered the seedier sex & violence of schlocky genre films through the meticulous aesthetic of art house cinema. He operated as a kind of bad taste prankster who knew deep in his bones how to appeal to a more refined audience, but gleefully indulged in cartoonish violence & sexual humor instead. It’s difficult to say exactly which Ken Russell film would be the perfect introduction to his hyper-violent, oversexed, art house pranksterism (Crimes of Passion is a personal favorite of mine, at least), but his 1988 Bram Stoker adaptation The Lair of the White Worm is as good of a place to start as any. The film operates as a kind of crash course in his pet obsessions as a crude auteur: hallucination, transgressive sex, religious blasphemy, lethal women, etc. It’s by no means his classiest or his most formally precise feature, but it covers a lot of ground on exposing audiences to what makes his work exciting & worthy of reappraisal, while still making no excuses for how cheap & ludicrously ill-considered his personal brand of provocative trash-art cinema could be.

Russell admittedly plays loose with the plot details of Stoker’s original The Lair of the White Worm novel, reducing its atmospheric (and by all accounts incoherent) horrors into an erotic farce about reptilian vampires. He still shows more respect than that pulpy source material likely deserves, however, as it was written late in Stoker’s life when his mental facilities were fading and included many strange bouts of Dracula-rehashing & racial philosophizing Russell smartly excised. One major difference between the book & the movie is the choice of when to reveal the true nature of the villain. Stoker saves the revelation that the conniving female royal of his novel is actually a shapeshifting snake (“worm” is kind of a misnomer) until very late into the proceeding. Russell, however, wastes no time. Actor Amanda Donohoe’s shapeshifting reptile villain is costumed to look like a bipedal cobra in the film; she wears hoods, scarves, and cowls that immediately make her appear snakelike in her cold, ultra-modernist rural England mansion. She makes no real attempt to hide her reptilian nature from potential victims either: she steals a giant dragon-like snake skull discovered in the first scene for an occultist ritual; she invites visitors to her home to play a Snakes & Ladders board game; she boasts of going “snake watching” in the woods. Long before she reveals her comically oversized vampire fangs & spits hallucination-inducing venom, the audience is well aware that she’s some kind of humanoid “worm.” Russell spends no more time covering up that his villain is a monster than Todd Browning did in his Dracula adaptation. As soon as you see her, you know. The mystery, then, is what sexual, sacrilegious terrors she’s planning to exact on her villains.

Hugh Grant appears as a kind of Van Helsing archetype destined to defeat this reptilian sex villain as part of his family heritage. Peter Capaldi, Catherine Oxenberg, and Sammi Davis round out the cast, partly to maintain Stoker’s original story structure and partly to diversify Donohoe’s victims. Donohoe slithers around in high class dominatrix gear, sexually teasing & occasionally draining the blood of the entire crew and any horny teen boys who happen to wander into her lair. She flicks her tongue before lunging in for a kiss, like a snake surveying its prey. She spits a hallucinatory venom that triggers trippy, sacrilegious imagery pulled directly from previous works Altered States & The Devils. She occasionally transforms into a giant, Falkor-like snake puppet that recalls an especially demonic creation from Sid & Marty Croft. All of this torment & mayhem culminates in a demonic sex ritual that involves a deadly strap-on phallus and a bottomless pit where Donohoe feeds her almighty worm beast. The Lair of the White Worm is a hallucinatory free-for-all of sex, violence, and religious blasphemy, the only possible outcome of Ken Russell making what’s, at heart, a simple vampire picture. If you want to get a good idea of the director’s aesthetic as a madman provocateur, all you need to do is compare this reptilian, horndog monster movie to any stately Dracula adaptation out there (of which there are too many, whereas there’s only one Ken Russell).

Loving Ken Russell means disregarding any & all personal desire for subtlety. Very early on in The Lair of the White Worm Donohoe sensually sucks snake venom out of a hobbled cop’s leg while a cheese-coated saxophone wails on the soundtrack, matching the already porn-level acting of the film’s brayed line readings. In that moment, we know the nature & intent of the villain, the film’s disregard for coming across as erotica, and the exact tone of absurdist humor & violence Russell intends to amuse himself with. All three of those elements are only heightened & dragged further away from subtlety from there. The Lair of the White Worm may not be the director’s most carefully constructed or well-considered work, but it’s pure Ken Russell, something to be cherished by trash-gobblers & cinephiles alike.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #4 of The Swampflix Podcast: The Devils (1971) & Seven Decades of Batman Cinema

inaworld

Welcome to Episode #4 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our fourth episode, James & Brandon discuss all ten actors who’ve played Batman on the silver screen since the 1940s with illustrator Jon Marquez. Also, James makes Brandon watch the sacrilegious Ken Russell epic The Devils (1971) for the first time. Enjoy!

Production note: The musical “bumps” between segments were provided by the long-defunct band Trash Trash Trash.

-James Cohn & Brandon Ledet

The Threat of Masculine Entitlement in Crimes of Passion (1984)

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In our coverage of Ken Russell’s acidic sex farce Crimes of Passion, there’s been a very essential bait & switch that we have not yet touched upon. In our Swampchat discussion of the film we claimed that its central message was almost entirely restricted to the simple idea that monogamy = bad. Upon further reflection, I think that might be a little disingenuous, as it doesn’t entirely account for the relationships formed between the film’s three central characters: fashion-designer-by-day-prostitute-by-night Joanna Crane/China Blue, adulterous private investigator Bobby Grady, and type-casted-Anthony-Perkins-psycho Rev. Peter Shayne. When viewed as a group, this unlikely trio reveals that Russell had a little more on his mind than just tearing down heterosexual monogamy through satirical pop music & tawdry sex jokes. He also had another target in mind: masculine romantic entitlement.

If you’re going to make the case that monogamy is not the film’s main villainous conflict (although it almost certainly is), that leaves Anthony Perkins’ reverend, with his amyl nitrite-fueled sermons & killer vibrators, to fill the role as antagonist. Indeed, Reverend Peter Shayne does fill the role of blood-thirsty villain quite well, acting almost as a sex-obsessed Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers. In his obsessive stalking of sex worker China Blue, Rev. Shayne invades her personal space, questions her self-esteem & moral fortitude, and although he doesn’t know her beyond a few brief encounters, claims that he knows her more than anyone else, going so far as to say “I am you.” The subversion at work here is that Rev. Shayne is not the same as China Blue, as he suggests, but rather is the same as Bobby Grady. Bobby also invades Joanna’s personal space, spying on her at work & showing up unwanted at her apartment, just as the reverend does. He calls into question her self-worth & sense of morality, shaming her into leaving the sex trade, something she clearly has fun doing. He even claims that the two of them belong together after one passionate, but brief sexual tryst that instantly sours their relationship. Despite what the Rev. Shayne suggests, he is not the same as China Blue. He’s just a more honest & straight-forward Bobby Grady. While Shayne poses his obsession with China Blue as religious piety, Grady conceals his own emotional manipulation & sense of entitlement under the guise of “true love”. Either way you slice it, they’re the same threat to her self-worth & happiness.

The thing is that the Blue-Grady-Shayne love triangle is not a separate conflict from Crimes of Passion’s fear of the evils of monogamy. In fact, it’s just a more honed-in aspect of the same idea. The reason that heterosexual monogamy is bad (according to the film anyway), is that entitled, inflated, fragile male egos like Rev. Shayne’s & Bobby Grady’s are not content to merely spend time & connect with the Joanna Cranes & China Blues of the world. Instead, they feel a need to possess & claim them for their own individual purposes. Two sides of the same monster, Shayne & Grady are the idea of masculine romance personified & skewered. There is a feminine side to the Crimes of Passion’s monogamy-bashing, like in Mrs. Grady’s eternal grumpiness & Joanna’s self-hatred, but it’s the masculine possessiveness of Shayne & Grady that turn something as sweet & fun as sex into something sour & destructive. In other words, their passion for China Blue is a crime in itself.

For more on May’s Movie of the Month, 1984’s Crimes of Passion, visit our Swampchat, our list of tawdry sex jokes from the film, and last week’s note on the film’s maddeningly repetitive soundtrack.

-Brandon Ledet

A Note on the Repetition of “It’s a Lovely Life” in Crimes of Passion (1984)

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In our Swampchat on May’s Movie of the Month, Ken Russell’s acidic sex farce Crimes of Passion, I asked a question I did not yet have an answer to. I said, “I wasn’t keeping a tally, but I want to say that the not-so-subtly sarcastic, anti-monogamy ditty ‘It’s a Lovely Life’ plays more often in this film than ‘That Thing You Do!’ plays in That Thing You Do! Every time I thought they were finally playing a new tune, a stray bar from the chorus of ‘It’s a Lovely Life’ would interrupt and remind me that there really is only one song on the soundtrack, like the movie was one overlong, salacious music video for a parody of a rock song. I’m definitely willing to chalk up that effect to Russell being a ‘prankster provocateur.’” I later decided to revisit the film to take a more accurate tally of how many times the song actually plays in the film.

If you only include the times the song plays in full, lyrics & all, “It’s a Lovely Life” only plays three times in Crimes of Passion. If you count every time the notes of the chorus are echoed in the film’s score, however, the tally is well over 30 instances. Now, according to the IMDb trivia page for That Thing You Do!, “Including full versions, alternate versions, live versions and snippets, the song “That Thing You Do!” is heard eleven times in the movie.” By the time “It’s a Lovely Life” properly plays 20min into Crime of Passion (in music video form), its theme has already been referenced in the score over two dozen times, twice the amount of times “That Thing You Do!” plays in the entirety of That Thing You Do!. The only way you could say that Crimes of Passion isn’t more aurally repetitive than That Thing You Do! is if you consider that, like I said, maybe the song never really stops and the entire film is like an extended music video.

Of course, this maddening repetition and music video aesthetic was most likely a deliberate decision on Russell’s part. As Kenny put it in our Swampchat, “This movie couldn’t be more MTV if it had a Billy Idol music set in the middle.” Well, it practically did. Released just a few years after the inordinately successful launch of MTV, it’s far from a stretch to imagine that the film was influenced by the music video format. And what’s more MTV that repeating the same song 30 times in a two hour period? Nothing, really. Nothing at all.

For more on May’s Movie of the Month, 1984’s Crimes of Passion, visit our Swampchat & last week’s list of tawdry sex jokes from the film.

-Brandon Ledet