Friday, October 2, 2015

The Films of Oliver Stone: Seizure (1974)

Seizure (1974)
Directed by: Oliver Stone.
Written by: Edward Mann & Oliver Stone.
Starring: Jonathan Frid (Edmund Blackstone), Martine Beswick (The Queen), Joseph Sirola (Charlie Hughes), Christina Pickles (Nicole Blackstone), Hervé Villechaize (The Spider), Anne Meacham (Eunice Kahn), Roger De Koven (Serge Kahn), Troy Donahue (Mark Frost), Mary Woronov (Mikki Hughes), Richard Cox (Gerald), Timothy Ousey (Jason Blackstone), Henry Judd Baker (Jackal), Lucy Bingham (Betsy), Alexis Kirk (Arris).

Like many aspiring filmmakers in the early 1970s, Oliver Stone’s first feature was low budget, B-grade (or lower), horror film – made on the cheap, to try and turn a quick buck and get some attention for the filmmaker to be able to make something bigger and better. Stone had graduated NYU in 1971 and made a well-received short documentary Last Year in Vietnam (1971). This was the time when many aspiring filmmakers got their start making low grade exploitation flicks for the likes of Roger Corman. Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets (1968) got his career off the ground, and just three years later he made The Last Picture Show – his masterpiece. One of Stone’s teachers, Martin Scorsese, had done the same thing with Boxcar Bertha (1972) – which he was able to follow-up with Mean Streets and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore in the next two years. No doubt Stone hoped that Seizure would do the same thing for him that Targets and Boxcar Bertha did for Bogdanovich and Scorsese. But it was not to be. It took Stone four years before he had another screen credit – for writing Alan Parker’s Midnight Express (1978) – for which, Stone won an Oscar – and another seven years before he would directed again. There is a reason for all of this – the biggest one probably being that Seizure is a horrible movie – one that would likely be entirely forgotten and lost to history had a director of Stone’s stature not directed it. As it stands, it has almost been entirely forgotten – for years, it was unavailable, and many still think of Stone’s next film – 1981’s The Hand – as his directorial debut. Stone doesn’t much like Seizure either – fully admitting its flaws. It exists now on Blu-Ray, although I saw it on regular old DVD – with a transfer that they clearly didn’t put much money into (not that it would have helped much. There are some directorial debuts in which you can see seeds of the future great director in – but you have to really, really want to see those seeds when looking at Seizure.

The film stars Jonathan Frid – best known for the cult soap opera Dark Shadows – as Edmund Blackstone, a bestselling author of the macabre, who is haunted by a recurring dream. On a weekend in which he has invited a group of friends to visit he, his wife and their at their isolated country estate, three homicidal maniacs show up and start terrorizing the group – killing them off one by one, starting with the dog, and forcing the survivors into a series of brutal games in order to survive. They are told that in the end, there will only be one survivor. The maniacs are a cackling dwarf with a knife known as The Spider (HervĂ© Villechaize), a hulking, mostly silent beast of a man in S&M gear known as Jackal (Henry Judd Baker), and their leader known as The Queen (Martine Beswick) – a sexy woman who pretty much want to devour them. Edmund dismisses his dream as simply that – until, on a weekend when all their friends are coming over, the dog disappears – and Edmund eventually finds it hanging from a tree. It isn’t long before more and more of his dream starts to come true.

Seizure was apparently inspired – I kid you not – by Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf (1968), which wouldn’t seem to lend itself to this sort of adaptation at first – yet when you think of it, Hour of the Wolf is more horror film than pretty much anything Bergman ever directed, and The Virgin Spring (a better film than Hour of the Wolf), was turned into The Last House on the Left by Wes Craven in 1972. Craven’s film works amazingly well (lots of critics hated it at the time, but its reputation has grown over the years) – perhaps because Craven is a natural at horror movies. Stone, however, is not – and it shows throughout Seizure. The movie is never really scary – it never generates any sort of tension at all really, because Stone doesn’t really know what he’s doing. There are some logistical gaffes that make no sense – like Spider being out among the guests who are being forced to run for their lives, then immediately back in the house coaxing another woman to suicide, and then right back in the middle of the field again. The games they are forced to play are really kind of lame – running through a field, a knife fight (in which a woman decides to wear a bikini too naturally), etc. Say what you will about the Saw films, but those people really had to earn their way out of the traps devised by Jigsaw. Not only that, but the trio of maniacs don’t seem to have too good on a hold on anyone, even though they don’t really try to get away either.

In the film’s worst scene, Stone pretty much grinds the entire film to a halt, to have one character explain precisely who each of the maniacs represent in terms of the psychology of their creator – Edmund – and their place in history. There is little that is more boring than psychoanalyzing killers like this – even Hitchcock couldn’t pull it off in Psycho (1960) (although, amazingly, the brilliant TV series Hannibal does). This sequence strikes me as if Stone were trying to make Seizure into something more important – and deeper, - than the cheapie horror movie that it is. It doesn’t work.

There are a lot more with Seizure. Like many, later Stone movies, it does seem to have a woman problem – with the female characters being either sex objects, or else, in the case of Edmund’s wife (Christina Pickles), who in a late twist, turns from a supportive, old fashioned wife into a bitch who seems to exist only to belittle and emasculate Edmund, and then morphs into something else entire. Or I could complain about the ending – that tries to have at least two “twist” endings that pull the rug out from underneath the audience.

But you get the idea. Seizure just isn’t a movie – even by the low standards of low budget horror films from the 1970s – which aren’t very high. There is a reason so few people know Seizure – and why even Stone himself doesn’t much talk about it. It would have been better for all involved had it been lost somewhere along the way.

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