Friday, April 22, 2016

Past Misdeeds: Lady Stay Dead (1981)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

Gordon Mason (Chard Hayward) is your typical celebrity stalker: beardy, rather unpleasant and having a hell of a time with a blow-up doll made up like his favourite starlet Marie Coleby (Deborah Coulls).

Unlike other celebrity stalkers, he can get comparably close to his chosen victim/love of his life, close enough to masturbate while watching Marie doing aerobic at the beach. Those are the perks if one works as a gardener for one's stalking victim.

Less pleasant is the way Marie acts around him. Although she knows nothing about his disturbing proclivities, she treats him (like she seems to treat everyone else where she can get away with it) like dirt. After she has gotten shouty one time to many for Mason's not exactly sane temper, he rapes her and then - when she doesn't react as if she had the time of her life and is now madly in love with him - drowns Marie in her own aquarium.

Poor Marie is not the last murder Mason is going to commit that day - a neighbour who has seen too much and a little later said neighbour's dog have to die, too. Afterwards, Mason puts the neighbour back in his bungalow and hides Marie's corpse. When he's just about ready to go, the singer/model's sister Jenny Nolan (Louise Howitt) arrives to house-sit for Marie who is supposed to be away for a photo-shoot.

Unfortunately, Jenny is a lot brighter than people in films like this usually are and soon discovers some things that make her very suspicious of that friendly gardener. That night, she finds the neighbour's body and can just get out a short call to the police before her mandatory cat and mouse game with Mason begins.
Even when the police in form of officers Dunbar (James Elliott) and Collings (Roger Ward) arrive, the night isn't over for Jenny.

Most of the things I read about Australian Terry Bourke's Lady Stay Dead lead me to the assumption it was going to be another film in the slasher mold. As it is with assumptions, I was quite wrong. The film has more in common with the Giallo than with the simpler slasher formula. For one, no teenagers appear in the movie, and the killer is more or less human - if rather durable.

The sleazy parts (which just stop after about half of the film is over) are quite unpleasant and a lot more frank when it comes to the sexual motivations of its killer than most slashers are, having a brutal directness more common in the Giallo or the rougher US horror films of the 70s, while the film shows only a mild interest in gory violence, very unlike any slasher I've ever seen. I'll probably just leave it at calling it a thriller inspired by the Giallo and be done with it.

The film's director Terry Bourke has unfortunately produced only a small body of work, starting with the excellent made-for-TV-but-you-wouldn't-believe-it Night of Fear and is probably best known in cult movie circles now for his much lesser Inn of the Damned (which annoyed me so much that I didn't find it in me to even mention it on my blog). What the even smaller handful of films I have seen out of his small oeuvre shows is a director very carefully shaping the technical aspects of his films to maximize their emotional impact, much more so than typical in a low-budget film world where time and money are really the same thing.

Bourke shows the often conjured painterly eye in framing his scenes, but where that description often not only suggests beauty, but also a certain stiffness, Bourke has an excellent sense for movement and the way it builds the rhythm of a film.

In Lady Stay Dead, there's also a wonderful use of natural light on display. The first hour of the film takes place mostly by day, but is still able to convey a feeling of oppression you typically don't get from scenes filmed in the sun.

I'm less enamoured of the way Bourke directs the dialogue scenes. As soon as anyone opens his or her mouth a soap-operatic feeling of false melodrama that is at odds with the the cleverness on display everywhere else in the film overwhelms the scene. I'd blame it on the actors, but their body language whenever they don't have to talk (especially Hayward gives a great physical performance) and my knowledge of the weakness of dialogue scenes in other Bourke films put the responsibility here squarely on the director's shoulders.

Lady Stay Dead gets around this problem relatively easily thanks to the sparseness of dialogue in it. It is not a film built on deep characterization and clever repartee, but rather on an escalation of violence and suspense, and so keeps the talking to a minimum. I have the feeling Bourke realized his own weaknesses as a director quite well, seeing how Night of Fear avoided dialogue completely. In the earlier film, I initially took the lack of dialogue to be just a gimmick, but I am not so sure about that anymore.

The thing of note about Lady Stay Dead really is the sense of escalation, though. There is something slightly sardonic about the way the film goes about this main job. It starts out sleazy, gets nastier and drops the sleaziness altogether, slows down and then accelerates again and again, raising the stakes without feeling the need to show anyone's guts other than figuratively.

To some it might be problematic how little else there is to the film. It is a thrilling ride, but that is all it is. While it at first seems as if Bourke is trying to make points about class and the sexualization of the female image, that potential subtext disappears completely once Marie is dead, leaving only bare-bones characterization and a well done thrill-ride behind.

However, since the film never pretends to be anything else but a thriller, I'm judging it by how well it manages to keep me at the edge of my seat. That, it does very well indeed.

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