“. . . a jewel with facets of disease running all through it.” – Lester Bangs
* * *
It was once said that the real heroes of 18th-century writer Anne Radcliffe’s gothic tales were the readers who were able to withstand their terrors, and I think a similar dynamic informs the modern-day trash-film fanatic, as reflected in the often masochistic rhetoric of their writings (a familiar cliché being that the reviewers have put themselves through a particularly loathsome slog “so you won’t have to”). The flagellants and penitents of the 13th century had the same idea, believing the true path to enlightenment lay not in pain, necessarily, but in the transcendence of it, excoriating the flesh till there was nothing left but spirit; “beating the Truth out” of oneself. It’s the essence of philosophy: deconstructing the finite exterior to discover the infinite within. In some ways the Bad Film enthusiast’s project is a similarly religious one – to find transcendence through the systematic obliviation of traditional film values and expectations, a Rimbaudian sort of disordering of the senses. Perhaps fittingly, there’s a form of sadism built into their commentary too, their condescending tone suggestive of a resistance to the realization the best of the “loser” films abandon themselves to: that we are diseased – yet, diseased, we can prevail.
I first caught Pat Boyette‘s sublime 1962 Texas-made no-budget gothic The Dungeon of Harrow on late-’60s late-night TV and have never been able to forget it. Decades on from those initial flickerings, the film’s sense of contamination, of an endemic, systemic impurity, bears renewed significance as the contemporary culture evidences a sense of the self-loathing Boyette, who wrote, produced, edited, and scored the feature, often pseudonymously, steeped his cheap, dark dialogue and set-pieces in.
It’s no wonder trash-film aficionados have latched onto the movie: its dialogue, acting, cinematography, and score – mostly a blaring, halting collection of overheated suspense and romance cues from unidentifiable pictures past, often inappropriately placed and augmented by a primitive synthesizer – are pitched so highly as to produce an atmosphere of disorientation from which relief is fleeting, and futile. But neither should we try to deny it its many virtues, its narrative symmetry and purely framed compositions (a harbinger of Boyette’s later career illustrating such ’60s pulp staples as Creepy and Cracked magazines) suggesting that the artist was in complete control of his disorder; it’s just that nobody had ever so perfectly succeeded in realizing the structure of the irrational on film before. The movie is all about being a misfit, peopled as it is by all manner of lepers, exiles, castaways, and minorities, another reason it’s caught on with the nonconformist clique and why some have responded with ridicule, sensing, perhaps, that the film cuts a little too close to the bone. As a result of its directness, when it ponders its own cancerousness it achieves a defeatist form of confessional poetry: “I used to be a nurse,” heroine Cassandra deadpans at one point; “now I’m not much of anything,” even this character – named for the seer who was doomed never to be taken seriously – too burned out to prophesy anything, as though aware that insight is useless to the forsaken. That masochistic relinquishing of oneself to one’s fate is what distinguishes Dungeon from the main stream of Hollywood fare most alternative critics decry, and may be the key to its particular form of genius.
Its story of insane 19th-century count Lorente de Sade, his leprous bride, her atrophied nurse, and the hapless nobleman who arrives on their island bears significantly on its 1960s vintage. The air of loss and decay inhabiting such lines as “We’re in exile, sir; we’ve been severed from humanity. We’re a disease; we’ve been cut out,” delivered in the drabbest of monotones, reflects the inmost doubts of a country during one of its most prosperous eras, questions so threatening to the national ego they had to be relegated to the lowest budgetary and geographic quarters of the entertainment world. When Sade proposes “a conversation – an exchange of personalities” with his shipwrecked houseguest Fallon, you know that this is no physical wreck or island; it’s the psychological crash of an illusion – of purity, privilege, and priority. Our freedom fighters brought with them a propensity toward slavery; our Eden was watered by the blood of its natives. When the countess makes her escape from the title chamber, it’s a document of not so much a physical illness invading the body as a psychic one emerging into consciousness. It was only a matter of time before the malaise was to creep out of Boyette’s cinematic Third World and into the larger culture too busy celebrating its own optimistic Youth Explosion in anticipation of some storied Age of Aquarius to notice this new thing sneaking out and slouching toward My Lai. The countess finally does get out, of course, and for the spoiled, aristocratic Fallon it’s the emergence from his subconscious of the leper within – the moment he becomes “fallen.” He arises from the dungeon with the count’s shocked-white hair (the latter character later to echo his “damn you to hell,” indicating his “exchange of personalities” has indeed taken place), a demonstration of the new purity he’s found on this confrontation and submission.
Flash forward 30 years to the ’90s, with its epidemic of virus-paranoia thrillers in movies, books, and on TV, ostensibly elicited by a fear of AIDS and other illnesses but arriving so tardily as to suggest a less immediate, or literal, motivation. That generation’s corporate culture (Dungeon’s castle as oppressive multinational) was rife with talk of trade secrets and line contamination and the importance of maintaining “line purity” even as those businesses were gearing up for their own first wave of downsizings (their employees bearing the projection of management’s tainted shadow; in my workplace, the chief patrolman of such “contamination” was indicted a few years later on insider-trading charges) while across the Atlantic the Balkans were abuzz with the ethnic cleansings that posed a mirror to the continued activities of America’s White Supremacist and other hate-group movements and their religious-persecution complexes unabated to this day. With our contemporary right-wing immigration paranoia, Ebola and measles outbreaks coupled with the hand-sanitizer fear of all things bacterial, Dungeon’s masochism bears renewed significance, as though emblematic of a need to rid the filmic, personal, and political organisms of other, real impurities. Maybe it’s time, then, that the universality in this once-outcast example of Southern grotesquerie were acknowledged and its implications reassumed into the mass consciousness, like Fallon himself, who prepares to go down into the title dungeon in the end to meet the dis-ease he now accepts as his mate.
As Lyn Cowan describes him in Masochism: A Jungian View, the masochist, “In his heroic stance, stuck fast . . . is compelled to bow before the gods. Trapped in the painful knowledge of his own inadequacies, he suffers the internal, often invisible, humiliation of his humanity.” It’s as fair a summation of Dungeon’s aristocratic hero as you’ll find; even his name indicates the fallen state he’s accrued to. (His first name, Aaron, is Boyette’s middle.) The shipwrecked son of a shipbuilder, his sense of unworthiness of the father’s legacy and that father’s inability to adequately prepare his son for this “passage” are fundamental. The movie is bookended and narrated, like the similarly themed Japanese production of two years later, Matango, by this figure as he prepares to consign his contaminated mistress to the title location. (The film also bears similarities to 1961’s Mr. Sardonicus and the Jan de Hartog love-and-leprosy novel The Spiral Road, as well as Shakespeare’s The Tempest [“SCENE. – The Sea, with a Ship; afterwards an Island”] – possibly by way of 1959’s The Killer Shrews or 1932’s Most Dangerous Game – as well as Roger Corman‘s recently initiated series of Poe adaptations. Its title possibly derives from 1947’s Foxes of Harrow, its protagonist’s name from the similarly taciturn wanderer of 1945’s The Vampire’s Ghost.) Everything in the film plays like a giant fatalistic machine destroying each glimmer of chance it sets up for itself: the happiest character here is the terminal countess-to-be, and she’s insane, the relationship between the hero and heroine one of the most passionless and rote as has been committed to film. Far from conveying any presence or allure, they’re two unattractive and withdrawn neurotics who, for all their high-blown dialogue and heroic stances, shrink from the screen and each other, so devoid of stamina that, after narrowly escaping rescue from their effeminate old captor the Count, they almost deserve the sorry fate they come to. Next to Dungeon, film noir really is, as has been argued, just an intellectual pose.
Coming from Texas, a former slave state contiguous to and often identified with the South, adds an extra dimension to the movie’s self-flagellating tone and allure. According to W. J. Cash in his signature work on The Mind of the South, a form of entropy was encoded in the origins of the land, from the inbreeding that resulted from the isolation of the early settlers in the mountains and forests to the nature of the aristocracy that had quickly taken root in that soil, manufacturing another sort of isolation for themselves at least as corrosive as that of the lower classes’. Arising from a vestigial attachment to Old England by way of the more established plantations to the north and based largely on a social ideal inspired by the romances of Sir Walter Scott, this aristocracy was from the first an imitation of an imitation, an affectation of those who had attained their station not by breeding or bloodline but from a few fortunate land claims and on the sweat of a horde of African backs.
This atmosphere lends resonance to Sade’s portrayal by a crashingly fey and campy Englishman, Bill McNulty: he is, in fact, a parody, an idea of nobility projected by the very “common whites,” as Cash describes them, from which he arose and from whom he was often only a relative or two removed. As Cash has it, “the individualistic outlook” that made their expansion possible in the first place as well as “the lack of class pressure from below” those new barons; “the divorce of pride from the idea of effort and achievement” wrought by slavery; “the very conviction that they were already fully developed aristocrats – all this, [combined] with their natural unrealism of temperament, bred in them a thoroughgoing self-satisfaction, the most complete blindness to the true facts of the world.” As a result of the “tragic descent into unreality” that was the South’s inheritance, the often hysterical wrongness of Cassandra’s degradation and her patient’s derangement as well as the count’s arrogance and Fallon’s affected noblesse – the very tone of the movie itself – achieves a dreamlike rightness, an accurate approximation of Cash’s self-described Mind, if not an actual film.
The presence of the count’s Nubian servant, Mantis, indicates the most outright form of the leprosy destroying this faux-aristocratic world, the slavery Faulkner considered a curse on the Southern temperament and which was partly the reason for its own brand of flagellant religion, the evangelical and revivalist traditions. Consequently, the elevation of the Southern Belle – symbolic of the land the pioneers had fought for and tamed along their expansionist destiny and so representative of the sins committed on it and in its name – was an overcompensatory reaction to the Southern man’s personal descent into “bestiality,” the countess’s dissipated condition an indication that not only his moral character but his defense mechanism as well was eroding. Likewise, the “rape complex” – the insistence that the newly freed Negro posed a threat to Southern womanhood – betrayed a similar sense of corruption, the metaphoric “black man,” or shadow, a projection of the white man’s guilty conscience. In this lightm Fallon’s “fall” – after the House of another fallen gentleman who must have been Boyette’s model for all this lurid activity, Poe’s Roderick Usher and his similarly in-bred ancestry – is reflective of not only this disease in the blood but also a psychic shaming after the defeat of Dixie.
After the Civil War (an appropriate symbol for all the cognitive dissonance within the Southern mind) and Reconstruction, the region’s “march toward aristocracy” came to a halt, as reflected in the traditional Gothic end-of-the-family-line motif that reverberates throughout Dungeon, from the figure of the unregenerate Sade to his nurse’s failure to midwife his inheritance and the terminal feel of the movie itself. (You get the sensation watching it that the insanity can’t continue much longer, only to have it protracted time and again by Boyette’s reported padding of the film by 20 minutes at the insistence of his distributor.) The industry that came in toward the turn of the last century to replace the plantation system and in many ways replicate it as an economic anchor for the territory finally also proved to literally poison the land via its pollution of the air and waterways, doubling the effect of the diseased countess as a Gaia figure reaching from her position of incarceration and repressed shame to poison us as well, as in Boyette’s key sequence, where Fallon, chained outside her cell, watches as her diseased arm reaches through the window to unlock her door, accompanied by the creepiest cackling ever put on film.
Freud saw masochism as rooted in a stage of development when the child starts repressing its incestuous inclinations, creating a pull between attraction and restraint and a confusion between the parent (or superego) as both dispenser of love and lordly meter of punishment. Guilt over insufficient resolution of this complex impels the masochist to continue rehearsing such behavior—”You’ve been a very, very bad boy” – throughout life. We see in Fallon’s moroseness and sullen gestures a similar adolescent trapped in the void between seeing his father as helper (the shipbuilder, facilitating passage) and oedipal threat to his mobility (the count, whose house breeds only rivalry and repression). The psychic currents that brought him here demand that he encounter the latter image, though this infantile and recalcitrant not-father seems himself stuck in low gear, as is his bride-to-be, who, diagnosed on her wedding day – another rite of passage – was imprisoned in the gown she wears today, always the bride, never the countess. With the island a desiccated Eden and the count its lunatic god, she is the barren, suffocating virgin mother-Eve infecting Fallon in their deepest-unconscious mutual cell, Cassandra a Mary Magdalene who can’t properly minister to her failed messiah.
Jung, Freud’s student and oftentimes rival, on the other hand, believed masochism was a way of connecting us to the collective unconscious and a forgotten animality by stripping away the ego, achieving an intercourse with nature and the archetypes denied us in our alienated modern lives. Indeed, this is how the novelist whose name furnished the root of the term, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, saw it, as a liberation of all the pagan (often rooted in a veneration of the Goddess and of Earth), Dionysian imperatives buried in civilized society but still fighting for expression. The not-countess’s cell features as her own dead womb denied the ability to fecundate under the mad patriarch’s rule. Thus the other hidden females in the film, from the little-seen survivor on the other side of the island – an invisible, vestigial feminine character in the men themselves, her screams the cry of their own anima in the darkness of masculine identity – to the vision of servant Little Anne being tortured in a window across from Fallon’s as he sleeps below. (When the light in the opposite room goes out moments after the hero wakes, it casts the episode as a scene from a dream, her window one of Boyette-the-comic-artist’s thought bubbles.) Anne’s later emergence from behind a curtain in his room anticipates both the escape of the countess from her cell and the appearance of Cassandra from out of the shadows in the room where Fallon has been narrating his histoire, to be relegated to the same dungeon as her predecessor – buried, soon rejoined.
What all this boils down to is an eruption of a basically noble feminine character into a film-world where man is the violent and obstructing efficient cause of all that’s cruel and unreasonable. Because such men as Fallon and his burly captain are trained from birth (the identifying crests the former accords such respect) to be the stoic and heroic, this feminine emergence is perceived as a threat, the count who holds sway over all himself a flake, a pipsqueak no one would fear. McNulty goes full-tilt with the fey grandeur; the fact that he’s in charge is the real horror of the film. When the men land on the island, they enter a world of ambiguity where their every patriarchal principle is thrown into question, the leprosy that wears at the body (as the unconscious encroaching on the dreaming consciousness) a creeping inadequacy assaulting the tumescent ego. The brutalizing of the women at a (psychological) distance indicates both the effect of patriarchy on not only the females under it but also the males whose inner feminine is being offended and the “torturing out” of this quality in Fallon himself, a bringing of Her into the daylight. (It’s also a metaphor for the brutalization of the South – portrayed, again, in terms of its women – by the censorious North.) When Anne offers herself to Fallon in gratitude for her rescue, his demurral is at once a recognition that he’s not yet ready to accept this woman as part of himself and a synecdoche for the entire movie, a dream of control that doesn’t have the will to dream itself triumphant. It’s the dungeon for him next, a confrontation with his essential weakness and corruption and an acceptance of this reality as his spiritual bride.
Since “humiliation” shares its root with “humility,” for the arrogant aristocrat this tearing down is an elevation. Like the similarly transcendent Incredible Shrinking Man, he becomes, via deterioration, a whole person. Though the film’s library-music score helps reinforce the sensation of an inescapable – programmed – fate, a reiterative dependence on a circumscribed, closed universe, Fallon’s defeat is Fallon’s triumph, his physical disease a spiritual cure. When he goes down to join Cassandra in the title dungeon – indicating the film itself as a melting pot with the power to reduce all who inhabit it for a while to equals, all similarly diseased – as descend he predicts he will do, it will be the joining of Orpheus with his Eurydice in the underworld from which he has no hopes, this time, of escape. The triumphant music serves to both mock him and to honor his acquiescence, as we viewers are given to do: he has won out in the end over his own most debilitating characteristic, his sense of well-being. The movie proves itself a parable of the simple act of living, a progressive erosion of the body as well as the spirit, from its opening birth-separation from the father-divine to the leaving behind of childhood attachments – the loyal ship captain – and defeat of the father-surrogate in order to take a bride and become a sexual being. The Jungian take prevails.
If watching movies like Dungeon of Harrow is a masochistic act, though, the question arises, What truth are we looking to torture out of ourselves in so doing?
Maybe, if the form of punishment we choose is audio-visual in nature, the kind of rapture we’re seeking is sensory too: the desire to see and hear represented outside what we hold true within. Like Ray Milland in X – The Man with X-Ray Eyes constantly punishing himself through the use of vision-enhancing chemicals, we’re enacting a desire to see until we can see beyond, past the façades that divide and obscure the divine; to see the chaos behind the structure behind the chaos. If we follow Jung through masochism to the collective unconscious, then maybe what we misfits and nerds are really hoping to find is that sense of oneness and connection behind our individualizing quirks, which can bring us back into the experiential world we feel so alienated from.
On John Cale’s 1982 album Music for a New Society there’s a piece called “Risé, Sam and Rimsky-Korsakov,” where his wife recites a Sam Shepard vignette concerning a man who considers the radio “friendly,” who feels he communicates with it in a primal, pre-lingual way. Other pop songs like Thomas Dolby’s “Airwaves” and Kit Hain’s “Danny” paint the radio in similar terms, as a metaphor for telepathic communion and a shared “heritage,” as Shepard put it; it emerges, too, in such terms in Cocteau’s Orpheus and Tobe Hooper‘s Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2, and in the form of television in Hooper and Steven Spielberg’s Poltergeist. You get the same feeling watching some of these “trash” movies late at night, half asleep and only partly registering the impact they’ll have on you in years to come. Through their inefficiency with some of the most basic tools of narrative craft, they’re able to strip away the artifice of filmmaking to reveal the archetypal material within. As a result, you feel like you’re tapping into a form of collective unconscious Jung didn’t intend in his coining of the term, as though the images and signs were coming to you not via your sensory apparatus but through the mind directly, in the same sort of wave-form they were originally broadcast in.
Some films go further than others in making the connection between their own nature and that of dreams, and not only the experimental works of Surrealist auteurs out to subvert our expectation of visual and narrative flow; rather the sincere efforts of low-budgeters like Boyette, lacking the technical properties and skills needed to convey a more conventional sense of film reality. The aimlessness and repetitiveness of these films can enslave you in their illogic so that you have to watch to the end that sometimes seems will never come. (Dreams don’t climax; they only stop.) You can imagine them playing in their day to some big, empty drive-in (an existential vision of hell on earth, where the bad movies play continuously and there’s nobody there to even watch them), and you have to wonder if some filmmakers didn’t intend them to be shown that way in the first place. (Tarkovsky’s Stalker seems made to be drifted in and out of, like a dream.) More than most renegade movies, these films (what critic Manny Farber termed “termite” cinema) can have a disturbing presence that clings to the memory and mirrors the sensation of the dreams you should be having at that hour anyway – movies so cheap and illogical they almost succeed in creating another reality; movies that make their own rules.
Maybe because trash works on us on such a subliminal level and without any filmic superego to enforce order or sense or even embarrassment on itself, it can become so ingrained in our subconscious that it can either drive us out of the room speechless or stir a helpless fascination – like masochism – akin to Fallon’s as he sits watching the countess reach from that terrible window on his mind. Because Dungeon is like a dream, one where you recognize people even though they’re not who they’re supposed to be, because they’re you – your memory of the world divorced from all but its surface images and imbued with your own meaning. We can’t help but watch these movies, because we know something of us is reaching from that window, too: something is leaning toward consciousness; something desires recognition. Dungeon is the kind of film that can evoke that nocturnal feeling no matter when you experience it, but if you do watch it, wait till you’re on the verge of sleep. Let it become part of your dreams, and then try to deny it, for all its limpness and perversity, its own insensible power.
* * *
All images are screenshots from the film’s DVD.