Thursday, February 15, 2018

"Tops in Total Horror!"


The daughter of UPSTAIRS DOWNSTAIRS actress Rachel Gurney, Sharon Gurney's brief screen career began on television, before graduating to memorable roles in WOMEN IN LOVE and DEATH LINE.

RELEASED in the United States under the nonsensical banner CRUCIBLE OF HORROR, this ambiguous, dreamlike melodrama takes its cue from Henri-Georges Clouzot's celebrated psychological thriller LES DIABOLIQUES. Walter Eastwood (Michael Gough) runs his upper middle class family with suffocating repression: wife Edith (Yvonne Mitchell) has retreated into painting from years of neglect, son Rupert (Simon Gough) is a facsimile of the patriarch working for the same insurance firm, and it is only rebellious daughter Jane (Sharon Gurney) who strives for a life beyond these watertight walls. When Walter discovers sixteen-year-old Jane has been sleeping with a friend from his golf club - and that she has also stolen money from the premises - he horse-whips her to sleep, while in an adjacent room Rupert turns up the volume in his headphones. Listening to her daughter's cries of pain, Edith is awakened from her trance-like state, and the following morning openly whispers to Jane "lets kill him."

Creepy and compelling, Michael Gough is perfect as the overbearing head, illustrating his unwholesome air early on when Jane returns home on her bicycle, only for him to instantly clasp the still-warm seat. One reading is that Edith imagines everything after the beating of her daughter, yet spliced frames of jagged close-ups, a possible rape and a bag full of masks adds to the disorientation. When Edith corners Walter at his grouse shooting weekend - explaining that "I recently bought a copy of the Marquis de Sade, it's full of the most unutterable filth, but it opened up a few windows for me, I thought it might help to understand you" - it begins a middle third which sets up much but delivers little. Walter may well have been poisoned by the females of the clan, but his body won't stay still, moving from its bed to a crate marked "Mrs E Eastwood, Velvet House, Richmond" and creating a floating mental state for the mother who fades altogether as Water retains his place at the breakfast table.

Similar to the filmography of Peter Cushing, Michael Gough never disappoints, even in a wooden crate. His underappreciated performances as a parade of slimy villains should rank higher with the icons of the genre.

Described by producer Gabrielle Beaumont as a political work, THE CORPSE was actually filmed in the Spring of 1969, a period when the feminist movement were questioning the persistence of gender stereotypes; here, the emotionally and physically-abusing male is always in control, with his understated British venom. Consequently, the project can be viewed as an allegory for the ineffectiveness of rebellion within the traditional family unit, to the point where the mother even longs for a fresh outlook she knows will never come ("I'd like to go back to school, start again") and that the father will always return even if he is dead. To add to the frisson, Gough stars with his real-life son and daughter-in-law.