Monday, November 23, 2015
Double Your Steve Railsback Fun
Well, darlings, I've been away but now I'm back. In addition to me starting a new job and fighting off a monster cold, Assistant District Attorney Jim Gillespie is all bent out of shape over his impending divorce. Honestly, I can't blame his wife because he's unrepentantly abrasive and often disgusting, but Butch Walker thought that to help him feel better we should take him to the movies. In theory this is a good idea, but the last time he, Butch and I went to a double-feature of EVIL DEAD and EVIL DEAD II, he embarrassed the hell out of me by barfing all over the front row. It wasn't even because the movies were gross, but because he discovered Chivas Regal, lithium and two double-beef supremo burritos don't mix. Also, if Jim insists on driving, his car smells like stale cigarettes and Guinness sweat and he insists on blasting MEAT LOAF's Bat Out of Hell at top volume while he tries to run over pedestrians so riding around with him is a pretty horrifying experience.
But hey, sometimes friendship is a messy job.
And speaking of difficulties with adult relationships and good things that come in twos, today I'm talking about SCISSORS (1991), the long-lost cult-classic-to-be thankfully now available for the first time on DVD and Blu-ray from the good people at KINO-LORBER, written and directed by FRANK DE FELITTA, the madman behind AUDREY ROSE, the BARBARA HERSHEY-demon-rape-classic THE ENTITY and the made-for-TV great DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW; starring a pre-stardom SHARON STONE as the neurotic heroine and featuring DESCENT INTO MADNESS favorite STEVE RAILSBACK in a dual performance as twin brothers.
My obsession with the beloved MR. RAILSBACK may border on the unhealthy. Seeing his name on the screen just fills me with child-like glee. Not only did he traumatize a whole TV-watching generation with his portrayal of CHARLES MANSON in HELTER SKELTER, but he maintains status as a cult icon, injecting every role with his offbeat, mildly unhinged charm. Seriously, is there any other movie like THE STUNT MAN or LIFEFORCE? And who else would've brought such a quirky sense of humor to infamous Wisconsin cannibal Ed Gein? Sometimes I imagine him miraculously appearing in a scene to liven up boring movies. It does not hurt that he is a fellow Texan either.
Also, am I the only one who finds his distinctive voice strangely soothing?
I found out about this film thanks to the good folks at KINDERTRAUMA. And while SCISSORS may not be everyone's idea of a masterpiece, I couldn't help but be charmed by it. With its multiple red herrings, soap opera melodrama, mad psychiatry, undercurrent of sexual perversion and histrionic HITCHCOCK hodgepodging (MARNIE particularly), it reminds me of a less violent giallo film. Sure, it doesn't really make much sense if you think about it too hard, but just go with it and you might enjoy it.
SHARON STONE stars as Angie Anderson, a young woman from Tulsa who lives in a strange version of Chicago that looks like Los Angeles. Angie leads a reclusive existence, taking temp jobs and devoting a majority of her time to repairing dolls and hanging out with her cat. Angie is also plagued by repressed childhood memories involving a man named Billy, a strange repulsion and fascination with a decrepit pig puppet and an intense fear of sex. One night, she is attacked in an elevator by a man with a red beard and defends herself by stabbing him with a pair of sewing scissors. She meets and is comforted by her neighbors, the Morgan brothers, gentle, bespectacled soap opera actor Alex and his scruffy, wheelchair-bound, artist twin Cole (it's RAILSBACK in stereo, folks!). Angie and Alex develop romantic feelings for one another and I quickly realized that I would be a fan of romantic comedies if they featured STEVE RAILSBACK as the male lead. Alex, unlike the other men around her, is dependable, patient and kind. However, despite her hesitant attraction to Alex, Angie remains fearful.
Anyhoo, Angie is called for a temp job and ends up trapped in an apartment that was apparently decorated by the production designer of SUSPIRIA with the corpse of a red-bearded man (stabbed with her pair of scissors, by the way) and a giant blackbird that cackles, "You killed him! You killed him!"
Oh yeah, and then there's some stuff about Cole and how he's faking being crippled and trying to scam Alex and is menacing Angie, Alex's jilted ex-girlfriend who still carries a torch and Angie's psychiatrist feeling romantically neglected by his ambitious politician wife.
Okay, you've got me: SCISSORS is pretty ludicrous but its enjoyably so. The more you learn to embrace its insanity and SHARON STONE's eye-bulging hysterics, you'll sink into it like a warm bath. Angie's descent into madness is simultaneously silly in its hyperbole and brilliant. Moments recall ALICE IN WONDERLAND, such as the scene where Angie attempts to twist the doorknob only to find it is made of rubber and comes off in her hand and drops down the steps or where the corpse of the murdered man is seated at a child's tea party table while Angie wanders around the apartment in a fugue state.
Aside from me succumbing to the film's RAILSBACKian charms, I think SCISSORS tapped into some personal anxieties I was experiencing at the time.
WARNING: HEREIN THERE BE SPOILERS
The source of Angie's anxiety, much like her long-lost cinematic sister Marnie Edgar, is an episode of childhood trauma involving the touch of another followed by violence. As a little girl, Angie was molested by her red-bearded stepfather under the guise of a game with a pig puppet. This was discovered by Angie's mother, who stabbed him with a pair of - you guessed it - scissors. As an adult, Angie has repressed the memory due to her inability to cope with this substantial trauma. The pig puppet evokes fear but she also uses it to comfort herself in times of distress. Despite the silliness of SCISSORS, I think this element is a realistic depiction of the ambivalence of someone who has experienced childhood sexual abuse. As a young girl, Angie was grateful for the extra attention from her stepfather, ("Do more, Billy, do more," she giggles) but the unwanted touching left her with deep sense of guilt and shame.
She has learned to regard any touch from a man as violation rather than affection.
It's not only men that Angie distrusts, she does not have any female friends she can depend upon either. "I keep to myself," Angie says.
And hey, I can get that. Through most of my young adult life, I was pretty wary of friendships and romantic relationships. I always felt nervous and out of place among my peers partly because I seemed to be surrounded by the kind of people who watch a Marx Brothers movie and say, "Well, I like MARGARET DUMONT -- but I can't stand those three weird guys that are always running around." But also partly because I had learned that people were not to be trusted.
The only time I felt safe was watching horror movies about troubled and damaged people. People can yap all they want about the harmful effects of violent movies, but horror movies are what helped me heal.
Angie's hobby of repairing dolls may be her way of symbolically fixing the damage inflicted upon her during childhood and saving herself.
Alex remarks that one of the reasons he's attracted to her is because he's seen her dolls and loves how she makes broken things beautiful. Indeed.
Angie struggles to heal and understand her anxieties. She wants to have a relationship with Alex as she senses he is a trustworthy and caring partner. She is not abnormal, but has retreated behind protective barriers she does not entirely understand. In one scene, she undresses sensually in front of her mirror as if in a trance. She possesses healthy, sexual feelings but only feels safe to express them when she is alone. However, at the sight of the pig puppet, she freezes and quickly covers her breasts.
It's interesting that the only thing the three lead male characters have in common is that each of them pretends to be something he isn't. Cole feigns being crippled. Alex is an actor portraying a psychiatrist on a soap opera. Angie's real psychiatrist (played by RONNY COX of DELIVERANCE and THE BEAST WITHIN fame) turns out to be her captor and tormentor.
It's also interesting that Alex, who only portrays a psychiatrist, is more instrumental in Angie's healing process than her actual psychiatrist who proves to be a wolf in sheep's clothing.
Psychiatrists - particularly male psychiatrists - are generally not portrayed well in genre film. Many feminists adopted an anti-psychiatry stance, believing psychiatry to be another agent of the patriarchy to control female behavior. Hey, just ask ZELDA FITZGERALD or FRANCES FARMER.
In SCISSORS, Angie's psychiatrist, Dr. Carter, rather than help her develop tools she needs to cope with her anxieties about sex and relationships, invalidates her concerns and spends most of the session dredging up past trauma. Naturally, this does not help. He also takes a personal phone call during their session which is most unprofessional.
Far worse, though, he is a manipulator rather than a healer, using Angie as a pawn in a scheme for revenge against his adulterous wife who has injured his male ego with her career ambitions and her extramarital affair. Angie has again been violated by someone she trusted.
However, I think the road ahead for Angie at the end of the film is a positive one. Dr. Carter scoffs that she is descended into a psychotic state that she won't come out of anytime soon. But even though Angie appears to be in a daze, she walks out, shutting the door on her past and leaving her captor locked inside the trap he created.
Once outside, Angie looks up from the street and offers Dr. Carter a triumphant half-smile. Though wounded by the experience, she has confronted her childhood demons and survived. She rides off with Alex to a brighter future.
So, hey, in all its goofiness, I guess you can say SCISSORS had a profound effect on me. And I now feel the urge for a STEVE RAILSBACK marathon.