Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Craze (1974)

London antiques dealer Neal Mottram (Jack Palance) is in financial trouble, with creditors and the IRS breathing down his neck.

Neal also just happens to be the leader of a small cult that worships the idol of a demon named Chuku (or something of that sort) he keeps in his cellar. Neal's situation begins to improve when he has an altercation with a former member of his coven and accidentally pushes her onto the (not very spiky looking) trident the idol carries. Neal - not the sanest of men - decides to interpret the woman's death as a blood sacrifice, rolls up the dead body in a carpet and throws it in the Thames.

A bit later, Neal suddenly finds a secret drawer full of gold coins that should take care of his most dire financial troubles. Clearly, it's Chuku's reward for the sacrifice!

With this sure sign of godly intervention in hand, it does not take long until Neal loses it completely and decides to sacrifice more women to satisfy Chuku. Neal's live-in "associate" Ronnie (Martin Potter), a young man whom the antiques dealer took in from the street where he was working as a (gay) prostitute, soon enough cops to what his boss is doing, but a weird mixture of loyalty and what one assumes - though the film does never actually show it - must be at least a part-time physical relationship between the men, possibly something more romantic, keeps him in line while Neal continues killing.

The police (with a short appearance by Trevor Howard and a young David Warbeck) are soon on Neal's case.Yet even though the antiques dealer acts as suspiciously as humanly possible, the cops can't prove anything. That may have something to do with the fact that the leader of the investigation, Sergeant Wall (Michael Jayston), seem more used to letting his fists speak than to the actual investigation of crimes. Still, Neal's luck (or Chuku's blessing) can't hold out forever.

Craze is a minor film in the body of work of the great Freddie Francis (here working for producer and writer Herman Cohen) that is quite below much of the director's best work in quality, but that functions perfectly well as a time capsule of early 70s London as seen through the eyes of the elderly.

Consequently, the film is full of everything you expect from the first half of the 70s: blinding fashion (and blinding wallpapers), random occult nonsense that tries to give itself an "exotic" sheen, cops who may have once heard of civil rights, awkward sex scenes (they do after all include Jack Palance as an irresistible ladies' man, though his character seems to assume that's Chuku's - big scriptwriter in the cellar that he is - blessing too and so on. These pleasures/eyesores all come together into a thick miasma of the mood of the film's time.

As a time capsule, Craze is highly entertaining, and really pretty brilliant; as a horror film, it's okay when one has a tolerance for middling genre pieces whose strengths don't have much to do with them being horror films. Francis was incapable to shoot a bad looking movie, as he again and again demonstrates through his lovely eye for visual detail here, yet the director was well capable of making a film that just doesn't do much of interest when it comes to its actual storyline. The plot meanders a bit too much, the murders tend to the absurd, yet are never absurd enough to get Craze into the zone of irreality, and most of the interesting thematic avenues are never really explored. There's a bit of subtext in the movie that could lead to one interpreting Palance's murders as his attempt to deny his attraction to Ronnie, but honestly, that's stretching interpretational freedom in the manner of Mister Fantastic.

So what's left when one tries to watch Craze as a horror film are scenes of Jack Palance mugging, Jack Palance killing women, some very brightly coloured blood, and Jack Palance's bare chest. That would leave the film barely watchable in a "point and laugh" sort of way, but for me, there's something utterly irresistible about a film so desperately trying to be part of its time, and to be pop. I do doubt Francis or Cohen actually understood contemporary pop culture in the least, but that's part of the fun of the whole affair.


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