In this column, cult columnist Saoirse takes you on a biweekly jaunt through the obscure annals of the cult film world. We’ll touch on everything from Giallo to J-Horror to Wakaliwood & so much more. If it’s a low budget genre film, or even a big-budget flop with a dogged audience, or even an undiscovered gem, it belongs here.
This week, we look at another of Saoirse’s favourite directors, Ken Russel, and his maligned erotic thriller, Crimes of Passion.
I’ve been a fan of Ken Russel for a while. When I was initially getting into cinema in a proper way there was a certain path as a film fan open to me. I’d fallen in love with, and am still in love with films like Fight Club and Pulp Fiction. Films which, while masterpieces have a certain… thing about them, that makes people judge you for having them be your favourite films in ways that are completely understandable. While I still love those films my true passion for cinema would find itself on deeper levels of cult cinema. Since then Fight Club has been supplanted as my favourite movie by Suspiria, not that that’s the deepest the rabbit hole goes but there’s an area of cult cinema that’s much more rough, much more strange, much more alien than anything like Pulp Fiction. The entry point to these kinds of movies for me were films like David Lynch’s Eraserhead and Ken Russel’s The Devils. It was The Devils that introduced me to the mad world that is the mind of Ken Russel. His films like Tommy, Altered States, and The Lair of the White Worm often devolve into tormented fever dreams, but that is often the point. Ken Russel was someone who made pure cinema in its strongest sense. The Devils uses the incredible intensity of a worked up religious fervor to sell the extremity of the hysteria, and intense filmmaking techniques captures the horror of the plague that contextualises the collective paranoia and social unrest that form the backdrop of the subtext of that film. Altered States just wouldn’t work if it weren’t being made by someone as willing to fully commit to extremity as Ken Russel. So blow me down when I see one of his less talked about films, erotic thriller Crimes of Passion, is streaming for free on Amazon Prime in the UK. I don’t know quite what I expected but that was something even for Russel’s high standards of batshit. That was… certainly a Ken Russel film.
Crimes of Passion was Ken’s second studio feature, making this for New World Cinema after helming Altered States for Warner Brothers. Even after the strange and surreal visuals of Altered States, I doubt New World knew what they were in for…
Crimes of Passion follows the iconic Kathleen Turner as Joanna Crane, by day a fashion designer, by nights, ‘China Blue’ a prostitute who puts on the most elaborate nights of fiscally obtained pleasure you may ever see committed to celluloid. Now, it’s not like this film doesn’t have the pretence of trying to look like it has a generic male protagonist. After all, it was the 80s and having an actually complex sex worker in the lead who has validated autonomy was maybe a push even for then. Their attempt at an 80s lead is a thing I love about 80s genre movies in general, going back further than the 80s to the early 70s and late 60s, but it’s just the lead looking like ‘some guy’, like if he drove a pickup into a Americana diner I would be about as surprised as if I found out he was an 80s movie lead, the best version of this trend we ever got was probably any number of Peter Falk roles, but the one that comes to mind for me is A Woman Under the Influence or maybe most metatextually and knowingly, Wings of Desire. John Laughlin carries this burden with all the aplomb and anonymity required of this kind of character. The opening features Laughlin’s Bobby Grady at a relationship counselling group therapy session and as we hear stories of people’s struggles he remains unmoved and when it comes to him he says he was only dragged along there by a friend, in a fit of rage it comes out that his wife and him aren’t sexually satisfying each other. This later climaxes in an argument scene that is dramatically quite impressive, and actually moved me. It’s interesting to me that it was Bobby’s moonlighting gig of seeking out corporate fraud that causes him to crow paths with Crane’s moonlighting alter ago ‘China Blue’. They begin a love affair of startling intensity that calls into question how much either of them are living their authentic selves, in either of their midnight lives which they now both lead. This somewhat done-before premise is upset by Anthony Perkins in his fullmost post-Psycho vein of just being absolutely insane. A match made in heaven with Ken Russel. He plays someone who, at least appears to be, a priest, but he is absolutely psychotic. After leering very creepily at a Peeping Tom show that doesn’t look in anyway particularly erotic, he gets on a literal soap box outside the venue’s entrance and preaches chastity and purity. In this way, we both see Russel’s fascination with cheekily mixing the sacred and the profane, it hits at longstanding and well founded archetypes about religious authority figures and undermines their religious infallibility in the way he did so deftly with The Devils. Perkins’ priest forms a strange fascination with Crane, who he ends up voyeuristically spying on during her first night of intimacy with Grady after they verbally spar and a psychological battle ensues in an almost philosophical debate between Perkins and Turner that more than it uncovers any philosophy uncovers darkness in both of them. Turner’s trauma and hurt at the men who’ve hurt her in the past, and Perkin’s psychopathy and misogyny.
So, what are the appeals of Crimes of Passion? The first is just the chemistry between Turner and Perkins. While there is a nominal conventional lead, he is really just our way into the strange world of these two characters. Scenes between them can be long dialogue driven scenes where the visuals consist of ridiculous costumes lit ridiculously, but otherwise held in long takes giving it this exaggerated stage play feeling, like they’re playing it up for the cheap seats, and you just have these two astonishing actors bouncing off each other. It’s similar appeal to The Post but on crack, LSD, and with crazier dialogue. The Perkins character in particular is interesting, because I still can’t decide if he was ever actually a priest, or if he was just deranged enough to dress up as one, assume the imagery. I can’t decide which one’s scarier. Both exemplify the key themes at the heart of his character about the hollowness of religious evangelism and proselytization. The other theme exemplified by Perkin’s contradictions, exaggerated performance, and symbolic clothing is the idea of a symbolic persona, a mask we put on. We see this in different ways pulled at throughout the film. For Grady, the problem at the heart of his marriage is to do with honesty, no one’s saying what they want, pretending for each other, and it’s ruining their relationship. For Turner, she only finds personal freedom when she’s not pretending for anyone, and the film interrogates when she ever gets that, and who she gets it with. With Perkins, he is simultaneously all artifice and all id. He is totally out there with his internal thoughts but he has externalised the source of his feelings to such a degree it’s ruined his ability to internalise his own emotional issues, and this has made him this warped monster of a human with no ability to rationalise himself properly.
Another appeal is that this is one of Ken’s most colourful films, and one of his most cheeky. Like, I’m not going to pretend like films such as The Devils and The Lair of the White Worm aren’t vaguely unhinged and colourful in a tonal way, but they do have at least a coherent colour palette. Crimes of Passion is by far the most overtly has-seen-Dario-Argento’s-Suspiria out of all of his pictures. Crane’s boudoir is lit by a cityscape of intense reds and blues, and the climax smacks of classic Argento in the best way possible, complete with self referential Psycho homage. By the end you think the film is vaguely settling down into a conventional erotic thriller, complete with marriage re-evalutions spurred by more exciting and erotic relationships that maybe provide a life dimension one’s not getting elsewhere, and emotional declarations of love to relationships that can never work before that final climax comes in which is kind of breath taking in its sleazy Giallo pastiche.
Crimes of Passion is definitely not for everyone, (just look at it’s Rotten Tomatoes score!), but if it is for you, and it was definitely for me, there’s much to appreciate here. For a start, yes, this is a movie, made in the 80s, that empowers a sex worker and gives them a stealth lead role where they fight for themselves, feel like an actual person, and have a real interior life, in this raunchy and outrageous thriller. It feels, in it’s own perverse way, strangely empowering. It’s not perfect in this respect, if we’re doing a strict reading along sex-positive-feminist lines it does fall down frequently and importantly, but even by today’s standard, it does much right. It’s a heady, indulgent, sleazy, and exciting experience that should please any fans of exploitation cinema and Ken Russell.
I do just want to take an opportunity here to add a couple of addendums to this write-up.
The first is that while Ken is a provocateur, that’s not all he has to his bow. For example, a Ken Russel film that I’ve seen is a short documentary of his in black and white from 1961 about architect Antoni Gaudí, called, shocker, Antoni Gaudí. It’s very, very restrained and very informative and quite lovely. It shows a lot of artistic sensibilities that come through in the worlds that Ken conjures just in how he appreciates and what he gets from Gaudí’s architecture.
The other thing is that despite being made exclusively for Russo Films, the distribution rights to The Devils is still owned by Warner Brothers, who still refuse to let the full cut, which has been restored and screened at select festivals, to be distributed in any way to the public. This is even though a VHS quality file is available for free online. This is because the head of Warner Brothers at the time of the making of The Devils said it offended his religious sensibilities, which raises the question of how the cut that exists didn’t just as much. Even the screenings that have been shown were obfuscated and attemptedly skewered by Warner Brothers just as they tried to sabotage the initial putting together of the cut in the first place. Ken Russel has been dead for eleven years and they still won’t let a work of his which is a revolutionary and important text in a very British strain of British horror be shown. It’s shameful, it’s imperialist, and it’s anti freedom. It’s a suppression of free speech and freedom of expression by the USA over a British film and it’s abhorrent to me. I feel that just needed to be said.
Fuck Warner Brothers.
Enjoy Crimes of Passion, enjoy The Devils, they’re both great.