Sunday, December 7, 2014

Killing Me is One Thing

I've recently had cause to think about Klaus Kinski. Not necessarily something you want as the Christmas Season kicks into gear, but I'm at least partly at fault in that I recently obligated myself to watch and write about (as you see) Slaughter Hotel, director Fernando di Leo's 1971 giallo in which Kinski appears. I compounded this by also watching -- rewatching, in fact, a thing I find strange to admit -- an American horror film from 1986 that Kinski starred in called Crawlspace, written and directed by David Schmoeller. This would turn out to be one of Kinski's last films, a relative statement given that the actor was so prolific that you can say that with the understanding that after Crawlspace he still had five to go before he died in 1991. In 1999, Schmoeller would make a short documentary about the making of that movie called Please Kill Mr. Kinski, a title that apparently reflected the general sentiment about the man during filming. It was not the first and probably wasn't the last time that request was made in Kinski's lifetime.

I don't know if at any point during the filming of Slaughter Hotel Fernando di Leo was asked by a crew member if he would be so kind as to murder Klaus Kinski, but I bet there are some stories from that set. In the entire combined thirty-two minutes that comprise the two short featurettes available on the new Blu-ray of Slaughter Hotel that will be released by Raro Video on Tuesday, Kinski is mentioned only once, when actress Rosalba Neri calls him "unpredictable and weird." Note that she doesn't say "He was unpredictable and weird and so I wanted him dead." Perhaps her description, which in the annals of Klaus Kinski lore is comparitavely pretty straightforward, indicates that he was on his best behavior on this set and if so that may be because Slaughter Hotel is not strictly speaking a "Klaus Kinski film" in the way that Crawlspace is. What Slaughter Hotel is, is "shabby," a judgment I borrow from the film's director, Fernando di Leo, who in one of those aforementioned Blu-ray extras, a fifteen-minute clutch of talking heads called "Asylum of Fear," is very casually, and I must say delightfully, free of any bullshit regarding this film. In addition to calling it shabby and, later, "not a good film," he admits to stealing the basic plot from Agatha Christie and to doubting that anyone who saw Slaughter Hotel fell for a bit of misdirection he threw in regarding the killer's identity. He says that the job was to make a Dario Argento film "without his talent."

Which, hey, what is this film anyway? Well, the first scene is the cleverest one, and when di Leo talks about being shabby in a subtle way, by which he means, I think, that he knows how shabby he's being, what he means is best represented here. It's late at night in a large secluded mansion. A figure dressed all in black is stalking through the empty hallways. On the walls are ancient weapons -- swords, axes, morningstars. The figure takes one of these and finds the bedroom he or she is looking for. Sleeping in the bed is, naturally, a beautiful nude woman. A murder is about to take place, of course, but suddenly we hear movement and a light in the hallway flicks on. The figure is startled and hurries away. Just as he or she is safely out of sight, around the corner and into the hallway come two nurses wheeling a cart. So we're in a hospital? Cut to credits.
Not bad! But a hospital with weapons on the wall? That's what di Leo called "shabby," though he claims, and I don't doubt him, to have been fully aware of the extent of his film's shabbiness (he also wrote the script). Worse (or better, depending on your temperament) is this is a mental hospital, so a bunch of mentally ill patients are wondering around a place where swords and axes are readily available. On an ancillary note, it should be mentioned, or might go without saying, that all of the patients are beautiful young women, some of whom like to be nude a lot, primarily a nymphomaniac named Anne (Neri), who in her own way provides a stronger engine for the film than the perfunctory mystery plot could ever begin to manage. Same goes for the nurses. That's both neither here nor there, in that it's irrelevant to the plot, and also the entire movie, because there's very little plot to speak of. Someone begins killing people -- patients and staff -- in the hospital. The head doctor is played by Kinski, and his name is Dr. Francis Clay, because sure whatever. Kinski being Kinski, feelings of suspicion within the audience fall immediately upon him, but beyond filling that role, Kinski doesn't have much to do here. Another patient, a wealthy young woman named Cheryl Hume (Margaret Lee), seems to be developing feelings for Dr. Clay (because sure whatever), but he doesn't react to this development with much passion one way or the other.

Slaughter Hotel exists to show off a lot of skin and to, eventually and occasionally, be rather violent. It is a fairly lousy movie in a lot of ways (and speaking of shabbiness, I feel compelled to tell you that the Raro disc is sometimes alarmingly shabby, specifically during two sequences when the sound drops out altogether, for not insignificant periods of time; if you get the disc, even though the film is dubbed I would recommend turning on the subtitles), but as sometimes happens with this sort of thing, some bits of interest can be found in the ways in which it is not exactly like you'd expect it to be. For one thing, who exactly is the protagonist of this thing winds up being less certain than you might have thought. I guess I won't spoil it, although who would watch this film to watch the story unfold, but films like Slaughter Hotel are able to upend these sorts of expectations by virtue of not giving a shit about the form of the thing. Or, it's not that di Leo's not giving a shit about the form -- it's more that it doesn't concern him. Either way, that's one surprise you can look forward to, at least. Another one is where the violence eventually goes. There are a lot of films that are a lot more violent than Slaughter Hotel, but because for much of the running time the violence is pretty much just violent enough to fulfill what di Leo and company consider to be certain genre expectations, when, in its last minutes, Slaughter Hotel becomes slightly and randomly berserk, there's a certain power to it. Unintentional power, I would say, but there's something about the frenzy that closes out the film that makes me wish it was part of a better movie. Whose idea was it to put that in this? Di Leo's, obviously, but why? I'm in danger of selling this too hard, probably, but I do think it's pretty undeniably unusual, certainly for what is essentially a murder mystery, even an Italian one from the 1970s.

Again, though, for a dose of Klaus Kinski, if that's what you're after, you'd be advised to look elsewhere. Where you might look is Crawlspace, which is a better film with a strong Kinski performance. It's nothing like a great movie, or even one you need to go out of your way to see, but this is a slasher film in which the killer, Kinski, is essentially playing a landlord/Nazi doctor. And of course I say it's a slasher film even though it doesn't progress the way we're conditioned to think slasher films progress, but then very few of them do, do they? So it's not without its attractions, but I bring it up primarily because of Kinski and his career. Though Kinski is best known as Werner Herzog's muse in a series of that venerable director's best films, and even though he also acted for David Lean, Sergio Leone, Sergio Corbucci, and other major figures of international cinema, Kinski lived and worked for most of his 130+ screen credits in trash. One could argue it's where he wanted to be, and one could argue even more strongly it's where he belonged. Not because he was untalented -- David Schmoeller says, for all the torture Kinski put him through on the set of Crawlspace, that he was "great to watch," and he was. In My Best Fiend, his documentary about his relationship with Kinski, Werner Herzog talks about seeing him in the film Das Geheimnis der Chinesischen Nelke, and shows a clip of Kinski's character waking up. The way Kinski woke up, Herzog says, mesmerized him, and set him on a path that would lead him to an extremely fruitful yet almost terrifying relationship with the actor. Herzog also says that the moment where Kinski awakes no longer impresses him as it once did, but seeing it you can understand what he was seeing on the screen in 1964. Yet Kinski made mostly trash. Sometimes good trash -- I want to use shorthand here, you understand, so allow me to unfairly generalize -- but Kinski, who wanted to bully directors, maybe couldn't bully Lean, or Leone, or Corbucci. And maybe those filmmakers didn't have a natural gift for harnessing him, like Herzog did. So Kinski could later claim he made the films he did because he just wanted the money, and maybe that's true, but I do wonder. Certain aspects of Kinski's life have slowly been revealed over the years, until recently they became hard to ignore or deny, and what they finally show is a man who was awful far beyond the realm of being professionally aggravating. As a film fan, I've often wished, as I'm sure many like me have done, that Kinski could have ignored the easy money in favor of taking chances with potentially better films. But you get to a point where you change your mind. Maybe he knew what the deal was. Maybe he alone understood that he'd found his level.


John said...

Slaughter Hotel exists to show off a lot of skin and to, eventually and occasionally, be rather violent.

There are those for whom such a statement can only be made or taken in a wholly negative sense. I am not one of them. And in fact, I don't have much patience for their type, at least when they start talking about what movies are "supposed to be" or some similar-sounding junk.

That said, Slaughter Hotel, despite its promising title, doesn't sound particularly essential here. If it was Argento, maybe, or it had a more prominent role for Kinski.

Crawlspace I'm sure I have seen but don't remember too well. A couple of nasty traps or torture devices come to mind, but I don't recall them being used to especially memorable effect. Kind of a disappointment at the time, I think even Kinski's performance seemed a little feeble given the potential there.

bill r. said...

Hey, listen, I'm watching these movies on purpose. I know what I'm getting into. But if you want to talk about them objectively, in several cases you will be forced to conclude that they're not very good.

I liked Kinski's feebleness in CRAWLSPACE. It was part of the character.

John said...

I wasn't referring to you there, Bill, I thought that would be obvious. It was meant to be a general observation.

The point isn't that these movies are necessarily much good (though how entertaining they are is an entirely different matter), it's the "moral" opposition to their existence that I find objectionable, and almost always completely phony.