Wednesday, May 21, 2014

A Black Veil for Lindsay

"We're quite normal people, just with different passions. Our drives and needs aren't understood by many people, so we have to keep them secret."

-Mortician Fred McSweeney (Timothy Scott) in Love Me Deadly

In exploitation cinema where sexual perverseness is often exploited, necrophilia is surprisingly not a subject that has been touched on very much. Sex and death are two topics humanity has never been comfortable talking about, much less dealing with, and when combined, they become a potent peanut butter cup of taboo that most would rather avoid. Jörg Buttgereit's groundbreaking 1987 cult film, Nekromantik, which dealt with the topic in a graphic, over-the-top manner, was banned in numerous countries including Australia, Norway and parts of Canada despite having some critical praise and artistic merit behind it. 

Traditional network television has also been reticent to broach this subject matter. In the 1995 X-Files episode, Irresistible, the Fox Broadcasting Company refused to let Chris Carter use the word necrophiliac in describing the supremely creepy, liberty-taking funeral worker, Donnie Pfaster, played by Nick Chinlund. Consequently, Carter cleverly substituted the term "death fetishist" and changed Pfaster into someone who collects samples of hair and fingernails from his lifeless customers in lieu of overtly sexually molesting them. This subtle change made Donnie Pfaster even more disturbing (thank you, Standards and Practices, for freaking me out even more) while still implying a fundamental violation of the deceased. 

There have been rare, classy, art house attempts on necrophilia, like Lynne Stopkewich's superior character study, Kissed, from 1996 starring Molly Parker. Joe D'Amato certainly got his sleazy mitts on the topic in the 1979 gory Italian exploitation horror opus, Buio Omega (Beyond the Darkness) and crafted a surprisingly watchable film. And then there's Jacques Lacerte, who made only one film in his brief career. It was about a female necrophiliac, and it co-starred Lyle Waggoner. 

Falling somewhere in between Kissed and Beyond the Darkness on the art/exploitation meter, 1973's Love Me Deadly is the story of a woman's budding sexual obsession with the dead. The film wastes no time in establishing this in the opening scene as wealthy heiress Lindsay Finch (Mary Charlotte Wilcox) attends a funeral and plants a kiss right on the dearly departed's beard while mortician Fred McSweeney (Timothy Scott) surreptitiously looks on. 

Fred has his own set of issues which are far more advanced and unsettling than Lindsay's as  illustrated in a very effective and disturbing scene with a streetwalker in the first act. His initial offer of entree into this world is initially met with fear by Lindsay who is struggling to resist her dark desires by attempting more conventional relationships, first with handsome bachelor and smooth operator Wade Farrow, played by The Howling's Christopher Stone and later with beefcake gallery owner, Alex Martin, played by The Carol Burnett Show's Lyle Waggoner(!).

Although the film has one foot firmly planted in exploitation horror territory, the main character's fight to resist her necrophiliac impulses could be relevant to any tale of addiction or unhealthy desire and gives this story some unexpected depth. The addiction psychology angle is further illustrated by Timothy Scott's character who can easily be seen as a cold but polite enabler or pusher. Being the 70's, there is also a Freudian father/daughter aspect which may push the pop psychology button a bit too hard, but I still admired the attempt at explaining Lindsay's behavior as overly simplistic and goofy as it becomes at times.

The direction and photography are much better than most 70's exploitation horror and I was shocked that not only was this Jacques Lacerte's sole directorial effort but cinematographer David Aaron's first and last credit as well. There are some noticeably smart choices made in the film that speak to better than average talent and belie the lack of experience. In several scenes, Lacerte successfully juxtaposes Lindsay's idyllic, almost toothpaste-commercial relationship with boyfriend Alex against her dark forbidden relationship with fellow necrophile Fred. 

Another scene displays the ideal couple clearly not in sync with each other. As Lindsay and boyfriend Alex dine al fresco, her attention is diverted by a passing hearse while Alex takes no notice. An obvious shot, but efficient and simple in reinforcing the reason behind the trouble in the relationship.

And the scenes of necrophilia, while not graphic like Nekromantik, are still shocking especially when contrasted with Lindsay's idealized love life with Alex and seemingly innocent childhood flashbacks. Lacerte could have easily traveled to Joe D'amato-ville with lots of gore and sleaze but he keeps it subtle for the most part saving the shocks for maximum effect.

Unfortunately,  the film is not problem free and most of the trouble comes in the third act with the Waggoner and Wilcox characters and their performances. To be fair, Wilcox gets hung out to dry in a pig-tailed, graveyard dance scene where she's supposedly reverted to childhood, but her other scenes with Waggoner are very stiff and uninteresting as well. Waggoner, who you can't help but liking as the good looking, flawless 70's hunk he is, is way too perfect as a character, and thus, completely uninteresting. Casting-wise, he makes sense on paper but brings nothing to a character who definitely needs something more to elicit the viewer's empathy. As a consequence, the film loses a lot of the momentum it had built up in the first hour spending too much time with the least interesting couple. Better that Lindsay had returned to the funeral parlor for another get together or the story delve a little more into Fred's cult which is sufficiently creepy but gets little explanation. As is, the pacing is slowed as the two characters get clunky and some avoidable damage is done to a story that was moving right along in the early going. 

But, for a horror exploitation film in a tiny sub-genre made by very inexperienced filmmakers, Love Me Deadly is certainly a decent, well-made watch with some genuinely disturbing moments. What more could it offer?

Score 6.75/10