"Crazy people never look their age," says a character in Joseph Losey's Secret Ceremony, which screened at Fantastic Fest as part of the "House of Psychotic Women" retrospective sidebar. The same could be said for the older films playing in the festival, that is, 'Crazy films never look their age.' From Wake in Fright to Miami Connection to The Shining (played forwards and backwards, simultaneously), none of the "crazy" older films looked out of place among the new offerings.
Hosted by Kier-La Janisse, author of a beautiful new book of the same name, published by Fab Press, the "House of Psychotic Women" series shone a spotlight on three films featuring strong female protagonists who, in Janisse's words, share a propensity for "a lot of shouting." The Mafu Cage (1978) kicked things off on a properly disquieting note. It's a rare title, one that I'd admittedly never even heard of prior to the screening.
Based on a play by Eric Westphal, the screenplay by Don Chastain keeps the action contained within the grounds of a large, aging older home, where older sister Ellen (Lee Grant) keeps a watchful eye on her younger sister Cissy (Carol Kane). They grew up in Zaire, but moved back to the States after their father died. Ellen leads a successful career as an astronomer, while Cissy stays at home, puttering around the big old house, painting pictures, and caring for her "mafu," the latest in a series of monkeys obtained for her by kindly family friend Zom (Will Geer).
The "mafu" is kept in a large cage in the house, which doesn't seem quite normal. Cissy herself doesn't seem quite "normal," either; clearly she's unbalanced mentally to a degree, though her instability takes a while to assert itself fully. Still, we wonder about the graveyard in the back yard, filled with little headstones marked "mafu," and why Ellen is so often hesitant and cautious in her dealings with Cissy. Anyone who's been a family caregiver can empathize fully with Ellen, whose nerves are nearly shot. She's plagued by conflicting, stomach-twisting emotions of guilt and resentment, wanting to live her own life free of responsibility for Cissy, who is incapable of understanding why she's such a burden to Ellen.
The simmering tension slowly heats up throughout the course of the movie, especially when Ellen's co-worker David (James Olson) enters the picture as a romantic interest, eventually building to a conclusion that, in retrospect, may have been inevitable, but is no less disturbing.
The Mafu Cage is an early directing effort by Karen Arthur, an actress who made the transition to directing, mostly working in television. The Mafu Cage is claustrophobic and features an unforgettable performance by Carol Kane, who, unfortunately, got pigeonholed shortly thereafter via her guest appearances on TV's Taxi as Andy Kaufman's girlfriend. Before that happened, however, she made a series of appearances in notable 70s movies, and The Mafu Cage showcases her ability to make quirky behavior quite believable ... and entirely frightening.
Two strong women, a big old house, and the issue of caregiving also figure largely in Secret Ceremony (1968), the second film in the series. Rewinding a decade to a pivotal year in a generally dismal cinematic decade, Secret Ceremony stars Elizabeth Taylor and Mia Farrow, with Robert Mitchum and Peggy Ashcroft in the supporting cast.
All the action revolves around the heady dynamic established by Taylor, then 36, and Farrow, then 23. Taylor plays Leonora, an elegant, destitute prostitute still grieving over the loss of her daughter. She encounters a young woman named Cenci, played by Farrow, who insists on treating her as though she's her mother. Leonora goes along with the insistent young woman to her home; once she sees that Cenci lives in large mansion filled with beautiful things, she quickly cottons to the idea of playing the role that Cenci has envisioned for her.
Leonora is no gold-digger, however. True, she doesn't mind the material trappings on offer, but Cenci's youthful exuberance reawakens her maternal instincts, even as she becomes aware that Cenci has suffered from great emotional damage. As Leonora eases into the role of a caregiver, Cenci's stepfather Albert (Mitchum) arrives on the scene, newly released from prison for a reprehensible crime, and ready to resume his monstrous ways.
As with The Mafu Cage, Secret Ceremony is a deceptively calm domestic drama that gradually reveals itself to be an emotionally deep valley of coursing neuroses. It's too sincere and low-key to be camp, too stagy and static to set up a cathartic blow-out. Instead, Secret Ceremony roils across the screen, dredging up unpleasant sentiments and memories that lesser movies would never dare disturb.
Unfortunately, I missed seeing The Entity, the third film in the series, but I was able to snare a hardcover copy of House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films -- one of a limited edition of 250 -- and already I'm finding it to be an eminently worthwhile purchase.
Janisse weaves her own personal life story into her exploration of films that examine female neurosis, but always relates her experiences to the films under consideration. Thus, her frightening, revealing tale about her mother and a childhood trauma taps directly into how she views movies such as The Entity (1982), in which Barbara Hershey plays a woman who claims that she was raped by a supernatural being.
The book weighs in at more than 350 pages, about half of that devoted to her "autobiographical topography" and the remainder consisting of a sumptuous image gallery and an incredibly detailed "Appendix: The Compendium of Female Neurosis." All in all, Janisse covers hundreds of films in the book, which has been lovingly assembled and designed by Harvey Fenton.
The book can be ordered directly from Fab Press, and if you can possibly swing it financially, I highly recommend it.