Thursday, June 07, 2007

Honourable Mentions – Psychopathia Sexualis (unrated director’s cut)

In 1886 Richard von Krafft-Ebing, an Austro-German psychiatrist, published the book Psychopathia Sexualis, a study of sexual perversion. This film, directed by Bret Wood, uses both that text and ‘Text-book of insanity’ as its basis.

The film itself is an art-house movie, there can be little doubt about that. The film is also marvellously acted and beautifully shot, lighted and directed. It immerses the viewer in a feel of Victoriana. The soundtrack is beautiful, fitting the mood of the film perfectly and the DVD itself is packed full of extras – and ones worth viewing! The film does concern itself with several cases from the text, using a variety of techniques to film them, and shifts between aspects of several case studies.

There are two main reasons for giving this an honourable mention. Firstly it does concern itself with vampirism – as a sexual act rather than a supernatural myth. This is evident in the very opening of the film where we see a woman saying her Hail Maries. She hears an approach and hurries to bed. A man enters and takes out a razor. He cuts his arm, holds it out and the woman feeds gladly from it.

The main case we are concerned with is that of JH (Daniel May). This is an actual case from the book – case 31 in fact. Whilst this is a case from the book, the film uses artistic license and takes the story perhaps further and this is the second reason for the honourable mention – though perhaps it is a case of reading too much into the film, even wishful thinking on my part.

It is possible that Stoker had read Psychopathia Sexualis, or was aware of it. Whilst I have no direct evidence of this, "Vampires, Werewolves, & Demons. Twentieth Century Reports in the Psychiatric Literature." by Richard Noll (an extract of which can be found here) suggests: “It is quite conceivable that Bram Stoker came into contact with the 1892 English translation of Psychopathia Sexualis” which would have been in the early stages of the writing process of Dracula.

Perhaps Wood perceived this as he wrote this section of the screenplay. JH – note that the actual person from the text shares initials with Jonathon Harker and Wood gives the character the name Jonathon – was a young man inflicted with neurasthenia, hypochondria and frequent onanism – keeping in mind the belief from the time that any sexual act that did not involve the opportunity of impregnation was a perversion. We see in the film that he is very much under the thumb of his mother (Jane Bass).

One day their maid cut her hand whilst cleaning and JH was unable to control himself. He suckled the blood from her hand and, in doing so, achieved sexual satisfaction. Of course the modern vampire myth has sexuality at its core, and the vampirism is often portrayed as a pleasure for both the vampire and the victim. In this the maid was clearly pleasured by JH’s ministrations.

The next time we see JH we see him creeping through his house. With a beautiful blue light effect and use of shadows the scene is actually reminiscent of Nosferatu, though the screen shot I’ve taken does this feel little justice, I’m afraid. In fact the Chicago Tribune likened the film’s look and feel to the works of Murnau (and Lang as well).

He finds the maid and pricks her thumb with a lancet in order to get to her blood. It should be noted, again, that she is a more than willing participant in this. Unfortunately he is caught by his mother. The maid is dismissed from service and JH is sent to a sanatorium. Remember the large role that asylums play in Dracula. Harker is cared for in an equivalent of a sanatorium after his escape from Dracula’s castle and there is an asylum run by Seward that boasts Renfield as an inmate.

In the sanatorium JH’s true cunning is revealed. He witnesses a female patient ‘pay’ an orderly to post a letter for her, steals the letter and passes it to the Doctor, Goudron (Bryan Davis). In this way he garnishes the favour of the Doctor, making himself the subject of special notice.

At another point we see him place a knife under another patient’s mattress. When next we see him he is linked to electrical ‘treatment’ equipment. He suggests that perhaps he could be excused from treatment and then says he saw the other patient secure a knife. He goes on to suggest that, once his story is corroborated, perhaps he could be excused treatment the next day.

Eventually JH is deemed cured and released. Once home he becomes more dominant within the household and hires three maids. His mother becomes suspicious of his motives and more and more paranoid. The voice over tells us of delusions brought on by menopause – especially when faced with younger, fertile rivals. The mother at one point pricks her own finger to tempt him and actually checks their hands and necks for wounds, convinced that he wants their blood. She does use the word vampire.

Eventually it is she who is taken to a sanatorium. We see no evidence of the blood drinking she suspects in the film (though the book tells us that “when the patient felt himself free again, he would immediately fall into his old passion, and spare no pains or money to satisfy his sexual desire in the abnormal manner described.”) and yet the image of the three maids, as we cut away from JH’s story, could only bring to my mind thoughts of Dracula’s brides. “Two were dark, and had high aquiline noses, like the Count, and great dark, piercing eyes… The other was fair, as fair as can be, with great masses of golden hair… There was something about them that made me uneasy, some longing and at the same time some deadly fear.” wrote Stoker and whilst I admit I might be reading too much into it, the maids seemed purposefully synonymous with the brides.

Whether Stoker had read or was aware of Psychopathia Sexualis is unknown to me but his novel certainly contained a thinly veiled Freudian sexuality and nowhere is this better illustrated than during the staking of Lucy. Stoker had already established, within the narrative, that a vampire must be staked with one clean blow and yet with Lucy: “Arthur never faltered. He looked like a figure of Thor as his untrembling arm rose and fell, driving deeper and deeper the mercy−bearing stake,” This is clearly mimicking intercourse and the use of Thor draws the reader to imagine a primal, pagan act. It is clear to me, however, that Wood, either consciously or subconsciously, was influenced in his interpretation by Stoker.

Keep in mind that JH’s story is only one of an interwoven series. At one point I was struck by the similarity, in structure not content, to The Company of Wolves. This was at the point of the film when we have two young women being told the story of the ‘crooked man’ who was a shadow puppeteer. During this story we get a shadow puppet show that tells a tale of necrophilia and sexual mutilation based on Sergeant François Bertrand, who was named vampire by the Paris press.

This is a marvellous film, though it will not be to everyone’s taste. Obviously, by the nature of the subject matter viewer discretion is advised. For the genre fan, whilst vampirism is involved in a sexual sense, there is no undead or supernatural involvement but the film does capture the underlying sexuality and eroticism found within the genre and the ties to Stoker are strengthened by the Victorian setting. Those interested in the original book can download it in pdf format from the archive. The film has a wonderful website here.

The imdb page is here.


Anonymous said...
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Taliesin_ttlg said...

D=niel Del - do not spam my blog

Derek Tatum said...

I finally just saw this, strange as I have known Paul Mercer for many years. I enjoyed watching it, especially because of the contributions of Paul as well as the knowledge that it was an indie film shot in nearby Atlanta. Since I might be a tad biased, it is good to know it plays well to other people!

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hi Derek, it is a marvelous little film and deserves a wider following imho