Tuesday, 4 June 2019
Whirlpool (aka Perversion Flash)
Denmark/UK 1970 Directed by José Ramón Larraz
Arrow Blu Ray Zone B
Warning: Some spoilerage as to the end of the movie at the end of this review.
Whirlpool is one of a few films directed by José Ramón Larraz in the UK in the early 1970s, this one under the pseudonym J. R. Larrath. It’s also the first of three of his movies featured in the new Arrow Films Blood Hunger - The Film Of José Larraz boxed set which, just on the strength of this film alone (although its a wonderful set anyway) is worth purchasing before it goes completely out of print.
The film starts out as it goes on... fairly oppressively and without a huge amount of dialogue. A man out rowing a boat in a forest lake comes across a boot in his search which he seems to know more about than he should, if his body language is anything to go by. This whole opening credits section of him rowing the lake and then walking the forest is a nice set up but it also has some interesting and somewhat bizarre edits in it... which is not out of keeping with the rest of the film. For example, a long shot of this lead antagonist called Theo, played by a suitably bizarre looking individual called Karl Lanchbury, has an unexpected series of cuts on movement as he is walking... the POV darting around between long shot, medium shot and close up but from all the same angle as he walks through the densely textured wood.
Theo lives with his aunt, Sara, played by Pia Andersson. She also runs a photographer’s agency in London and when she visits her studio and sees new ‘just starting out and needing a career’ model Tulia, played by Vivian Neves, she offers her to stay at her house for a while so her nephew, who is a brilliant photographer, can take some shots of her and increase her chances of getting work.
However, this is not the first time that Auntie Sara and Theo, who is totally obsessed with his aunt, have done this kind of thing before. We know from early on that a former ‘visitor’, Rhonda, played by Johanna Hegger, had a sexually charged ‘threesome’ relationship including Theo and his aunt before something ‘happened’ and necessitated the two of them to look for another girl to complete their ‘intimate games’. And, it’s a bit of a blast with loads of nudity and bisexual shenanigans but also permeated by both a thick atmosphere of dread and a somewhat dreamlike quality which never quite lets up.
It doesn’t take long for Sara and Theo to corrupt Tulia with their alcohol and wacky backy but Tulia is obsessed by the unseen presence created by the departure of Rhonda and there’s even a nice little dream sequence where Rhonda and Theo are having sex in his darkroom which is, of course, bathed in red for the duration, with the two characters literally making love in a ‘red light district’, so to speak. The scene ends with a double whammy as Tulia wakes up and is actually just pulled into another dream moment (I think, if I was reading the imagery right... or at least the aftermath of it).
And it’s an interesting film with various moving camera shots, some interesting compositions (especially in the interior shoots) and the odd Dutch angle or two thrown in for good measure. It slowly builds a picture of a mystery withheld... you know there’s something afoot when Tulia is forbidden to go into Theo’s darkroom (usually kept locked and with a door adorned with a poster for ‘Rasputin And His London Monks)... and an act of murder committed by, pretty much, the only male suspect in the film for any length of time. Things get even crazier when Tulia covertly enters Theo’s room and sees naked dolls nailed to the walls and, presumably, a wig and handbag belonging to the much missed Rhonda. And crazier still when Theo takes her and his drug dealer friend into the woods, where said friend rapes her and generally triggers her fight or flight reflex... although, once Theo drives the under dressed model back to the house after this distressing scene takes place, Tulia seems much more into having a threesome with Theo and his aunt, as much as she was in getting into Theo’s pants the night before, after a bizarrely long and protracted ‘strip poker’ sequence. So I wonder if the forest rape scene was improvised and then didn’t quite fit back into the final edit comfortably later because it’s not mentioned again. Although the reveal of the significance of a man playing a pipe would lend credence to the scene being in there from the beginning, to be fair.
It’s a film that feels oddly of its time while, simultaneously being somewhat out of step with those times but it’s all made watchable by the lurking sense that some kind of resolution is just around the corner.
There is, as I said, some nice cinematography too, with a shot of Tulia looks down stairs towards camera to where the darkroom would be, full of twisted shadows bouncing off the bannisters, giving it an almost Caligari feel to it. In the scene mentioned earlier, where she discover’s Theo’s room, everything is in deep shadows and mainly it’s just the girl and anything the director wants to highlight peaking out through the light in the shot... an almost colour film version of a chiaroscuro vision. Or how about a nice shot of Sara and Tulia’s naked bodies on a bed in repose shown in reflection on a small mirror on the wall to the right of the bed before the camera pans around towards the left of the scene to show us the same content from an alternate angle without cutting the shot.
There are also some terrible things too... such as some bizarrely awful timing where Theo repeatedly slaps Tulia around the face near the end of the movie but the two actors can’t get their timing right so every time he hits her on one side of her face, she throws her head into the slap rather than the recoil sending it the other way. I’m surprised the director left this shot in the movie, to be honest but, I guess these two really couldn’t get their physical performance together here. Also, there’s a piece of source music from the film’s composer, the always listenable Stelvio Cipriani, which is supposed to be background for an English pub but which is so psychedelic and out of place that the whole scene feels fake. Maybe if the director had buried it more and toned it down in the mix he might have got away with it but, as it is, it’s way too ‘in your face’ for the context required.
That being said, Cipriani’s score is, of course, one of the great things about the movie. Its mostly low key and often very sinister... which is in keeping with the astonishingly downright creepy look of the actor Karl Lanchbury. It’s got a kind of ‘dark baroque’ edge to the thing, sometimes punctuated by stabbing harpsichord and, in one sequence, what sounds like piano strings being scraped with something. There’s also a recurring music box jingle which sounds very similar to Ennio Morricone’s watch chimes from For A Few Dollars More dotted about the score. You get the feel that this is going to reveal a dark heart to the mystery and somehow be connected to the naked, children’s dolls which Tulia finds nailed to the wall but... this whole idea seems to peter out unanswered by the end of the movie. Cipirani’s score for this was released on CD by Digitmovies a number of years ago and is worth picking up.
The end of the movie is fairly strong, actually, with the thing that is being threatened to happen throughout the entire movie coming to pass which, in this case and given that the director sets up a chase scene at the eleventh hour, is quite surprising. It also dovetails onto a wonderful final, static shot of a photograph earlier in the film, where a shot of a character silently screaming is held for a while as a sort of comment on what you’ve just seen. The European cut of the movie, which is not included on this release as... with much apologies from Arrow (all they could find of it surviving was a very dodgy looking pan and scan VHS bootleg of the film)... had a ‘don’t worry, he won’t get away with it’ soundtrack of the police entering off screen and reassuring the audience but this would have really undercut the effectiveness of the ending here where, indeed, the villains of the piece really do get away with things.
Arrow’s new Blu Ray is a truly superb restoration and there’s a comparison featurette which shows you the difference in deleted shots and the order in which certain scenes play out differently between the pristine, US cut transferred for this release and the dodgy, bootleg version of the European cut which shows exactly why they didn’t try and release this version. Other extras include a great little interview with Kim Newman about the early British films of Larraz as well as a commentary by Tim Lucas (which I haven’t got around to listening to yet). There’s also a 1972 interview from Michael Parkinson’s old interview show with Vivian Neves which kind of concentrates on questions about her status as an adult model and taking her clothes off which, frankly, is quite uncomfortable to watch now but it would have been perfectly acceptable and run of the mill for audiences like myself at the time.
And that’s all I have to say, at present, about Arrow’s stonkingly good presentation of Whirlpool... other than I really enjoyed the film and the dreamlike atmosphere it creates. The Blood Hunger boxed set is definitely one to get your hands on if you are interested in these quite obscure gems from the early 1970s and I’m looking forward to exploring the other two films in the set sometime soon.