Terry Gilliam and the Devil Worshippers

Saw two films of particular interest recently. The first is the recentish Terry Gilliam film Tideland, in which a young girl spends a few days in the country amongst the wheat fields, along with the corpse of her father (Jeff Bridges), talking doll’s heads, a mad taxidermist and her lobotomised son. This film largely disappeared without trace, in part due to some unsettling scenes in which the girl and the mentally disabled boy kiss, and he clearly experiences urges that she seems unaware of, and that he doesn’t understand. It’s been labeled exploitative by some, and I can see how there’s a debate to be had as to how a nine year old child can really be said to have given consent in such a situation, but I shall leave that one to others. In dramatic terms it certainly works, and a similarly charged scene between a boy and an adult in Shane Meadow’s This is England seems to have raised no objection at all. Can’t have one rule for a Surrealist and another for a realist. That’s just not fair.

In my view, this is the film we’ve been waiting for from Gilliam. The wicked imagination is still present, but for the first time, the plot doesn’t collapse under the weight of it. Other Gilliam works such as The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and Jabberwocky have been effectively strangled by their own whimsy, but not here. The dream-fantasy sequences are tight and contained, and sit naturally in the overall fabric of the film. What is most impressive, however, is how a genuinely believable inner world of a child is conveyed. Anything remotely resembling sentimentality is absent, and it all appears initially alien and strange, yet ultimately reminding us of a state we ourselves once occupied and is in fact the foundation of our adult selves, something we generally now choose to deny.

Another film I saw recently was The Seventh Victim. This is an RKO B-movie from the early forties, and probably the closest the Hollywood studio system got to producing a genuinely Surrealist film. A suspiciously adult-looking girl leaves her boarding school to search for her disappeared sister. Arriving in the big city, various individuals agree to help her, but who is actually on her side is often obscure. The sister appears, sporting a crazy fringe, only to disappear again, before re-appearing later. Often the trail that leads to the sister makes little sense, and the viewer begins to wonder if they missed a vital piece of information, or whether it simply wasn’t in the film in the first place. Meanwhile, there are set-pieces of a nightmarish quality – a pair of men drag a clearly dead third man around a subway train, and a sinister beautician issues a warning from behind a shower curtain in silhouette, capturing the potential no-escape situation of a shower cubicle twenty years before Psycho.  

Ultimately the missing sister stays found long enough for it to be established that she is part of a Satanist cabal, who are not the vulgar knife wielding maniacs of later horror films, but a Crowley-esque bunch, living to a code and set of principles that determine their actions. I won’t give the ending away, but it bucks not just the traditions of Hollywood, but pretty much that of all storytelling.

The actors in the film often seem possessed of odd motivations that do not fit in with the events surrounding them, reminiscent of the films Bunuel and Dali made together in the twenties and thirties. The continual search for a repeatedly disappearing object is very Freudian, with the fact that something is lost being far more important than what, or who is gone (A missing object being, of course, a symbol of the castrated male genitalia of the mother, if you’re into that sort of thing).

If you ever get a chance to see this film, do. It turns up every few years or so after midnight on British telly, so keep a look out. You may not like it, but it’ll get under your skin, crawl into your brain, and bore holes in it until it resembles Swiss cheese. And there aren’t many films that can do that.  In the meantime, here’s the trailer.

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