UK-based distributor Salvation Films have just unveiled two new-to-DVD releases on their Redemption USA line: Daughter of Darkness> (1948) and Burke and Hare (1972). While both share a debt to Val Lewton‘s less-is-more B-horror productions (the former to Cat People  and the latter to The Body Snatcher ), neither is merely imitative. Instead, they diverge from their forerunners in distinctive, and often eccentric, ways, culminating in works that at once pay tribute to their roots but also stand apart.
Daughter of Darkness casts Jacques Tourneur-esque shadows across the farmlands of rural Ireland and England, distorting the pastoral landscapes into threatening ambiguity. Siobhan McKenna stars as a beguiling Irish maid whose child-like features (alternately coy, innocent, and devilish) have all the men in the village transfixed and all their wives jealous. At times she plays society’s scapegoat, at others the local priest must pull her out of an atonal organ-pounding trance, and still at others she allows men to escort her into the woods at night, only to slash their faces with her nails. Booted out of town, she makes her way to a small English farmhouse where she hopes to start life anew, but lustful men, resentful women, and a trail of corpses continue to haunt her wherever she goes.
McKenna’s uncontrollable status as both predator and victim (of her own sexual desire, and of other men and women’s) recalls Simone Simon in Cat People, who believes she is under the spell of an ancient curse that occasionally turns her into a homicidal panther. Daughter of Darkness diverges from this model, not only in that McKenna’s agency-and thus reprehensibility-remains uncertain. While her priest seems to think she is possessed by the devil, and the townsfolk think of her as “a brazen slut,” director Lance Comfort and screenwriter Max Catto (who adapted his own play) don’t seem tied to any one interpretation. Wellesian extreme close-ups of Siobhan’s wax-like face reveal slow transformations that fluidly morph between different expressions, each one seemingly aligned with a different interpretation for her actions.
These contradictory readings of McKenna’s character amplify the film’s complexity, particularly in terms of audience sympathy. While we are able to show both concern and trepidation over Simone Simon in Cat People, we also have her average-joe husband as our moral anchor. There is no such grounding in Daughter of Darkness, where even the seemingly rational townspeople eventually reveal their own darker tendencies. This complete breakdown of traditional dichotomies of good/evil and moral/immoral is what ultimately makes the film so unsettling.
The Victorian-set Burke and Hare, directed by Vernon Sewell and written by Ernle Bradford, shares with Lewton’s The Body Snatcher a certain focus on the snatching of bodies, but this time only partly in the name of science. There’s less of an interest in the doctor who uses the cadavers for research and education than in the bumbling duo—The Laurel and Hardy of “resurrectionists”—who provides them, as well as the doctor’s students, who frequent the local brothel for all manners of lewd and crude enjoyment. Like a burlesque written by Poe (complete with a magnificent “success” montage full of corpses, murders, sex and beer, set to the film’s rowdy rock n roll theme song [CLICK THAT LINK RIGHT NOW, please. -Ed.), the film’s morbid fascination with the human body is in complete accordance with its insatiable zest for life-and death, for that matter.
Also on DVD this week:
The Blood (O Sangue) (1989) (Second Run, PAL Region 2 DVD) – For someone as internationally revered as Pedro Costa, it is a constant source of irritation that his movies are as unavailable as they are. This marks the first home-video appearance of his debut feature, about two young brothers left without parents who are on the run with their teacher. Jonathan Rosenbaum described it as “gripping, even though I couldn’t follow all of the plot [and] its fairy-tale poetics evoking Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955).”
Frownland (2007) (Factory 25, Region 1 DVD) – In his debut film Frownland, director/writer Ronald Brownstein hits all the right, uncomfortable places again and again. His characters’ inarticulate neuroses make us squirm, because they so earnestly want to break out of their shells and have some sort of connection with other human beings. Watching a girl repeatedly rub her face in a pillow, even after realizing it is activating her allergies, is as endearing and painful a moment as any I’ve seen in a long time.
The Girlfriend Experience (2009) (Magnolia, Region 1 DVD) – The L’s Nicolas Rapold had this to say when Steven Soderbergh’s film, which stars real-life porn star Sasha Grey, was released theatrically earlier this year: “The accumulation of off-kilter fragments from a young entrepreneur’s life mainly conveys that—surprise—upscale prostitution is alienating, mercenary, catered to easily mockable tools, and metaphorically handy.”
The Wizard of Oz (1939) (Warner, Region 1 DVD and Blu Ray Region ‘A’) – I’ve heard this is a giant allegory for the Great Depression. Time to bust out those dusty books from Undergraduate history classes and try and decipher the code. I wonder how Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon plays into this whole political recontextualizaiton?