The Savage Stack: CRIMES OF PASSION (1984)

Jacob Knight's brand new column will make your "To Watch" list that much more insurmountable. First up -- Ken Russell's essential piece of sleaze mega theater.

There’s always going to be – for lack of a better term – a stack of films we’ve been meaning to get to. Whether it’s a pile of DVDs and Blu-rays haphazardly amassed atop our television stands, or a seemingly endless digital queue on our respective streaming accounts, there’s simply more movies than time to watch them. This column is here to make that problem worse. Ostensibly an extension of Everybody’s Into Weirdness (may that series rest in peace), The Savage Stack is a compilation of the odd and magnificent motion pictures you probably should be watching instead of popping in The Avengers for the 2,000th time. Not that there’s anything wrong with filmic “comfort food” (God knows we all have titles we frequently return to when we crave that warm and fuzzy feeling), but if you love movies, you should never stop searching for the next title that’s going to make your “To Watch” list that much more insurmountable. Some will be favorites, others oddities, with esoteric eccentricities thrown in for good measure. All in all, a mountain of movies to conquer.

The first entry into this unbroken backlog is Ken Russell’s 1984 sliver of essential sleaze Mega Theater, Crimes of Passion

Even amongst his most ardent enthusiasts, it's near impossible to find anyone who claims to enjoy all of Ken Russell’s films (though I’m sure someone in the comments will immediately scream “me!”). Beginning with 1967's Billion Dollar Brain (British spy Harry Palmer's third adventure in as many years), Russell's feature career would marry an auteur’s visual and thematic sensibilities with a workman's approach to choosing projects. He loved to profile musical artists (Mahler, Lisztomania), and transformed The Who's Tommy into a hit big screen rock opera. The '80s found him dropping acid (Altered States), reading Byronic literature (Gothic), and worshipping worm gods with ancient cults (Lair of the White Worm). Russell's aesthetic sensibilities were often garish and eye popping; an emphasis on overwhelming cacophony that took the place of traditional narrative coherence, even when the material may have called for the reverse. The resulting filmography is something of a mixed bag – undeniably the product of a singular artist who wasn't necessarily concerned whether the audience was operating on his wavelength or not. It’s a commitment to extremity of vision that’s admirable, as commercial jobs never diluted his crazy.

Crimes of Passion may be the ultimate litmus test when it comes to Ken Russell’s filmography. A cum-stained piece of mega theater where motel rooms become stages and Barry Sandler’s script is seemingly written in pornographic iambic pentameter, nothing is off limits as neon lights strobe and pulse during various sex acts. Nevertheless, Russell is attempting to evoke sympathy as much as he’s trying to shock, placing an emotionally glacial fuck princess (Kathleen Turner) front and center and then having her melt into a puddle of vulnerability before our eyes. It’s an incredible bit of acting on Turner’s part, as she performs multiple roles within one prostitute, cautiously offering her clientele an impersonal aloofness while indulging their desires. At the same time, she keeps an eye on the door, as various wolves are clawing to get in, their advances scored by stabbing synths provided by prog wacko Rick Wakeman. It’s sticky, disorienting and incredibly distasteful, but Crimes of Passion might also be an utter masterwork.

There’s a real Clark Kent/Superman dynamic to Joanna Crane/China Blue (Turner). By day, she’s a chilly peon, navigating the unglamorous cavern of a sporting fashion studio, keeping to herself and certainly staying away from the suspicious man who signs her paychecks and suspects she’s selling designs to his competitors. By night, she’s China Blue, a platinum wig and short, shimmering dress transforming her into the equivalent of a sex worker superhero. Fantasy is the power she wields, and the dress is often shed in order to make way for elaborate costume changes. Whether it’s a beauty queen’s gown and sash or the gaudy getup of an erotic flight attendant, she’s here to satisfy the needs of poor schlubs who just want to blow fifty bucks and their load. Yet when they start to become attached and request her real name, she shrugs them off and keeps the losers at arm’s length. The men attempt to assign motive, possibly projecting their own crimes onto her as to not feel guilty about the acts they engage in. “Your father touched you as a child,” one regular client who requests rape roleplays says to China after rolling off of her, to which she merely replies “does it matter?”

In keeping with this comic book point of comparison, if China Blue is Superman then orgasms are her kryptonite. Her commitment to being an object instead of a flesh and blood human being keeps any semblance of human connection at bay. It isn’t until Bobby Grady (John Laughlin) is hired by her daytime employer to file reports on whether or not she’s schilling company trademarks that China’s finally forced to confront her fantastical façade head-on. Bobby is facing his own crisis at home – unable to satisfy his wife, Amy (Annie Potts), as she’s thrown in the towel on their marriage’s intimacy. He remains committed to being a provider, taking the surveillance gig as a means to earn extra money, but deep down knows that the romantic relationship he’s worked so hard to maintain is over. When he and China finally fuck, it’s a roaring explosion of raw, primal carnality; switching positions at the drop of a dime until each are completely spent. But their physical rapture gives way to emotional rupture, and both see that their paths have led to each other for a distinct purpose: so that they can finally explore feelings past relationships brutalized without their conscious acknowledgement.

We’ve vastly undervalued the whole of Anthony Perkins’ career, too often reducing him to the iconic murderous mama’s boy role of Norman Bates in Psycho. Many subsequent directors would either play to his boyish good looks, or try and replicate the same psychotic menace he exuded in Hitchcock’s slasher granddaddy. But in the hands of our most talented filmmakers, Perkins came alive in roles that ran perpendicular to both of the personas he had become known for. Alan Rudolph’s Remember My Name instantly comes to mind – casting Perkins as an everyman construction worker pursued by Geraldine Chaplin’s ex-convict stalker. In Crimes of Passion, Ken Russell helps transform Perkins into sinewy, dirt smeared street preacher Peter Shayne – a howling nightmare of a man hell-bent on condemning China Blue while controlling his own sinful urges. On the surface, Russell seems to be toying with Perkins’ self-minted maniacal image, cranking the actor to eleven and just watching him go. In actuality, Perkins plays Rev. Shayne as a quintessential Ken Russell antagonist – a supervillain made of equal parts religious hypocrisy and depravity who wields an aptly named titanium dildo as his weapon of choice. Imagine Brian De Palma regular Bill Finley as a homeless version of The Devils’ relentless religious inquisitor and you’re halfway there.

For all of its filthy pomposity, one of the most devastating scenes in Crimes of Passion takes place within a dark bedroom filled with deafening silence. From a single overhead shot, we’re treated to a God's Eye View of dying love, as Bobby and Amy struggle to discover the words to express that they've grown more than apart - they're complete strangers. This bed hasn't seen love, physical or soulful, in quite some time. We know Bobby would do (and is doing) anything to keep his family financially afloat. And Amy is the dutiful den mother, practically holding the foundations of their idyllic suburban home up with a Herculean act of psychic fortitude. Yet when they look in each other's eyes, all that's left is obligation, not passion. Years of hardship and tiny resentments murdered that sensation. It isn't until Amy blurts "maybe we should do it alone" in response to Bobby's plea that they take time to reconnect with who they really are that we understand how truly broken this partnership is. It's a cathartic stab of truth that Russell and Sandler have been building toward, and Bobby's stunned lack of retort is a pained lump that can be felt in our collective throats.

Like grime classics such as Vice Squad and Angel before it (or, to a lesser extent, Russell’s own Whore after), Crimes of Passion is concerned with the innate duality of a lady streetwalker, and the dangers she faces once she clocks in on her respective corner. Only where those movies eventually descend into hyper-violent portraits of street justice, Crimes of Passion becomes a delve into the rebirth of human empathy on trash-littered streets. Much how Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut found its disaffected doctor protagonist wandering off into the night in search of stimulation, both Joanna Crane and Bobby Grady are on a similar quest to rediscover a part of themselves that’s been killed off by bad couplings. While this viewpoint regarding adult connections is a tad reductive and literal, Russell no doubt sees sex as a key part of the human experience, and is exploring the ways in which we numb, pacify and (finally) reawaken while indulging in each other’s’ bodies. Hell on Earth is a lonely life, and both Joanna and Bobby have created prisons to which each other are the key. So once we wipe away the sweat and the cum and the blood, what we’re left with is a romance based in fucking - carnal instincts and a rejection of religion leading to happiness while our protagonists have a few of their best years left.

Crimes of Passion is available now on a gorgeous Dual Format edition from Arrow Films.