Examining the "paradigms of perversion" in two films by the unlikely team
of Paul Morrissey and Antonio Margheriti, Patricia MacCormack shows how
Italian horror "demands... that viewers reorient their own specifically
cinematic libidinal expectations."
Paradigms of perversion
Dreams of muslin-draped virgins and blood-soaked whores, nightmares of necrophilia and dismemberment populate the baroque worlds of Il mostro é in tavola, barone Frankenstein (Flesh for Frankenstein, 1974) and Dracula cerca sangue di vergine... e morì di sete! (Blood for Dracula, 1974). The authorship of both of these films has sparked much debate, and so I will be tactical in my ambiguity about whether it was Italian gothic maestro Antonio Margheriti, director of such films as I lunghi capelli della morte (The Long Hair of Death, 1964) and La vergine di Norimberga (The Virgin of Nuremberg, 1963), or Warhol factory director of Trash (1970) and Heat (1972), Paul Morrissey.
Both directors were certainly present at filming, and the general consensus is that Margheriti was primary second-unit director while Morrissey scripted (in the back of a car on the morning of shooting) and directed the main action. The films however are undeniably Italian, born at the junction of the Italian gothic movement inspired by Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava, and the burgeoning delirium of viscerality celebrated by Dario Argento and honed to a fine art by Lucio Fulci later that decade.
Flesh and Bloodmake perversion delicious while denouncing traditional heterosexuality as "filsy!", as espoused in Flesh by the two films' star Udo Kier. Another contentious issue surrounds the question of just who is the "star" of these films, Kier or Joe Dallesandro. Kier's texture of Euro-trash incoherence as to what he is saying, neurotic fits and mesmerising aesthetic perfection resonates more with the general feel of the films. Dallesandro seems a rude Imperial American interruption to the fairytale Italian worlds, a feeling used effectively as he attempts to restore these perverse worlds to, not normality but his order, for his own gains rather than through any sense of moral outrage.
In Flesh, Dallesandro challenges Kier's Baron Frankenstein on grounds, not of gall-bladder fucking, but for spoiling his drinking and whoring fun with his less-than interested friend (Srðan Zelenoviæ). In Blood, Dallesandro uses faux communism to justify his overt misogyny, disgusted at Dracula's bloodsucking yet simultaneously raping two of the four daughters in the DiFiori villa, Rubinia (Stefania Casini) and Pearla (Silvia Dionisio). The juxtaposition of hypocritical gung-ho American in a European paradigm of perversion sets up a basic quest for Dallesandro that ends up being a flimsy excuse to show all manner of excess in the films.
This should not, however, be understood as a failing of the films. Such criticism reflects Dallesandro's intrusion in a system into which he cannot and will not be seduced. The viewer herself must choose which side of the Atlantic she is on, so the films could be strange and narratively flaccid or incoherent, but optimistically they represent a particular plateau of Italian cinema, simultaneously perverse and seductive, grotesque and beautiful, gory and refined, horrific and witty.
This article will focus on the paradigms of perversion found in these two films. The primary perversion must occur within the viewer, to exhibit a certain openness to the intensities of the pictures. Such openness precludes judgement based on a single or traditional interpretation of the function and effect of cinema, and the quality of a film's expression based on narrative, reflection or resistance. The Italian horror film neither reflects nor resists traditional "high" or popular cinema, but demands instead that viewers reorient their own specifically cinematic libidinal expectations. Despite the inclusion of minimal US elements, the worlds of Flesh and Blood fulfil the baroque phantasies of an audience that do not expect certain plateaus of desire to be fulfilled, but whose desire is launched as the films involute them into different configurations of visual and intelligible pleasure.
Established equations of heterosexuality, gender, possible worlds and even objects demarcated in normal ways (the exterior of the body exchanged for the body in various folds of the exteriorisation of its interior) are thereby extended and challenged. Or, if the viewer is prepared to be used by the films rather than subject them to ready-made meanings, their qualities can go beyond extension to inciting a singular and unique visual and visceral force.
Therefore, I will not attempt to vindicate these two films in order to coerce the reader into accepting that Flesh and Blood are valuable within a traditional cinematic canon. Although it has been argued that the pictures are concerned with complex issues of serfdom and the bourgeoisie, political revolution against established class systems and topical issues such as drug culture (primarily the Morrissey aspects of the films), I will focus on their innovative specular aspects, encouraging a different way of thinking about these and potentially other films that deal with perversions of desire—and of the practice of viewing itself.
Flesh and Blood each present simple narratives in order to indulge in the excesses of their visual and sexual representations. In Flesh, Kier as Baron Frankenstein attempts to find the perfect "nasum" representing "Serbian Ideals" so that he can create a master race. He is assisted in this effort by Otto (Arno Juerging). Nicolas (Dallesandro), a servant at Castle Frankenstein, recognises his friend's head, decapitated and sewn to the body of the Baron's male zombie. Dallesandro becomes stud to the Baroness (Monique Van Vooren), wife and sister of the Baron. In the film's Hamlet-like ending, everyone dies save for Nicolas and the Baron's children. Nicolas hangs in the laboratory, awaiting his fate at the hands of the young ones, who are keen to continue their father's work.
Blood, meanwhile, sees the Count (Kier) leave Romania for Italy as a result of a dearth of virgins. "Why Italy?" he asks his minder Anton (Juerging), who replies "because they need wurgens for their marriages." Upon arriving at the Villa DiFiori, headed by Vittorio De Sica, the Count discovers that two of the four daughters are not in fact virgins, and spends much of the film vomiting blood. Mario (Dallesandro), the communist-wannabe servant, makes sure the youngest daughter escapes the Count by raping her, and expresses his disdain for old money by amputating Dracula's arms and legs, eventually staking his heart.
The Baron in Flesh is repulsed by copulative sex, but relishes the opportunities he is afforded as an anatomist. He fondles the entrails of his female zombie (Dalila Delazzaro) until achieving climax, and literally fucks her gall bladder, espousing to Otto, "to know death... you have to fuck life... in the gall bladder." Otto later tries to emulate the Baron, accidentally eviscerating the female zombie.
The Baron's adept performance raises questions regarding the pleasure science affords as an episteme, especially due to its more intimate than intimate relationship with the various dishevelled plateaus of the flesh. The act of groping organs in particular can be nomenclatured as perverse—masturbatory and necrophilic—or it can express a reconfiguration of flesh and sexual dialectics. While the female zombie is opened up, the Baron opens up as well, exposing his perversion and his climaxing face in extreme close-up. The zombie opens her eyes during the act, confounding the stereotypical aestheticised dead female that populates many horror films. Most emphatically, the viewer is opened up, presented sensorially with the force of the body unwound like a great visceral ribbon and intelligibly with desire that exceeds hetero, homo or pathological. It is an extraordinarily sensual scene to watch, as the Baron breathlessly coos "spleen, liver, kidneys, gall bladder...".
It may be argued that this is a version of the phallologic desire to name and know the female body in order to control it. But entrails are not gendered, and so this scene is as far from predictable praise in sexual scenes for "breasts, legs, ass, mouth"—organs that have gendered resonance—as it is from a heterosexual act. There is a tension here, however, between the Baron's naming of the organs and the act's revolutionary potential. Naming risks structuring the pleasure, "since instead of being passages of abundant intensity, these metamorphoses become metaphors of an impossible coupling." The Baron presents an impossible coupling as possible, and indeed as immanent. Watching the act and the pleasure experienced from viewing adamantly continues to resist being reified as a repeatable dialectic of pleasure.
Why is this apparently confounding and strange scene pleasurable to view? If we cannot describe the on-screen pleasure within established sexual systems, how can we describe our pleasure at viewing them? Thought traditionally, where on-screen flesh and pleasure sets up a demand for a similar or simulated version in the viewing flesh, in what ways does our pleasure reflect these on-screen bodies and pleasures? To take Lyotard's definition of the flesh literally, the "body is undone and its pieces are projected across libidinal space, mingling with other pieces in an inextricable patchwork."
Our viewing bodies must be thought differently, stratified in a different pattern, undone and re-patched so that we are no longer dependent on genitals as gendering and desiring organs. Viscera and confusion, even repulsion, enter into our pleasured viewing bodies. Thus definitions of pleasurable scenarios, bodies and what is desirable at all become re-configured. It could be argued, of course, that this reconfiguration occurs at every libidinal situation. This scene's unusual representations of desire and flesh perhaps make thinking the reconfigurations all desiring bodies go through more immediately accessible, even compulsory.
What is the Baron's desire? Why do we watch it with such an intermingling of disgust, confusion and desire? Traditional desire, her body and our intelligible viewing flesh that attempts to make meaning of the image are all undone, coming together in a constellation of pleasure, perversion and openness, breaking down the material and discursive fissure between viewer and viewed. Remaining in a simple binary of ordinary/extraordinary or normal pleasure/perversion positions relies most often on the subjugated terms—extraordinary, perversion—being defined not by what they are, but by the ways in which they fail the regimental and specific criteria of the dominant terms. For example, the opposite of heterosexual is not only homosexual, but also any failure at heterosexuality, from bisexuality and heterosexuality that includes effeminate masculinity, to small fetishes and grand panic narratives such as paedophilia. But between the cracks and fissures of these epistemological pathologies are found an infinite amount of minor and major transgressions of the rigid parameters of normalcy.
Culture both celebrates and condemns perversion primarily through first enclosing it within a defining structure, both fluid or firm. Naming a perversion can have important political effects in making visible and acceptable maligned sexualities, for example queer politics and theory toward the legal and ethical recognition of homosexual couples. However, speaking the structure of a perversion can result in the internalisation of legislative notions that regulate one's behaviour even within a desiring system considered perverse. Watching film, for example, is psychoanalytically considerable as fetishistic voyeurism (overactive gazing and lingering on body-parts in close up). This results in notions of watching in a normal" and in a less-than-normal way.
The more confounding the perversion, the greater the resistance to it being reduced into a conceptual list of symptoms and reasons for these. Our pleasure at the Baron's perversion is difficult to fix into an established perversion that includes the perversions on-screen and our pleasure at watching them, as well as our horror at our pleasure, and at what the Baron is doing and an endless list of further intensities difficult to demarcate and name. That we cannot comprehend the Baron's perversion is essential to the scene's powers of differentiating the spectator from a traditional viewing dialectic.
Jacques Rancière points out that "the response to the false question 'Do you understand?' implies the constitution of a specific speech scene in which it is a matter of constructing another relationship by making the position of the enunciator explicit. The utterance thereby completed then finds itself extracted from the speech situation in which it functioned naturally." To contend that we do not understand without answering that claim resists interrupting the visceral pleasure of the scene for a simulacrum of that scene which replaces the material and transformative with the discursive and repeatable, where pleasure reflects the already-thought instead of relishing the never-known.
Attempting to explain why we take pleasure in the scene inserts us into an ontology of perversion. The parameters of the perversion then regulate our pleasure instead of the images. The pleasures of the image are exchanged for external reasons for enjoying it. The issues of what is at risk and what is the need to reduce confounding perversions to a series of symptoms and reasons follows the desire to know them. The Baron's pleasure at the perverse—remembering that his taste also ranges over consensual incest, anatomo-epistophilia and autoeroticism (as he enjoys both the masturbatory pleasure the female zombie affords him, but also his ecstasy at dying with a barge pole through his gall bladder)—contrasts with the investigative purpose of Nicolas, who subjects himself and the audience to the setting up of specific questions that must be answered, closing off rather than splaying the pleasure of the film.
Revolutionary resire, revolutionary bodies
If Dallesandro's investigations close off the plethora of perversion in Flesh, then his sexual taste in Blood is difficult to take because it is perverse in a way which reflects rather than resists the traditional power dynamics of heterosexuality. Not resistant to but a hyper-representation of the dialectic of forces of heterosexuality, Mario forces himself on two women. He subjugates Rubinia orally as they argue over who has dominance in the household, in order to subject her to his discourse. He "saves" Pearla from Dracula's perverse desires by forcibly re-establishing her within a paradigm of heterosexuality, and more importantly, as a woman, re-establishing her as subject to the power dynamics within that paradigm. If the Baron found heterosexual desire repulsive in Flesh, then the reason why is given explicitly in Blood.
There is a temptation to argue that vampirism is a metaphor for rape. Are the sisters simply subject to a different form of phallic domination? Mario is most angered when they tell him of Dracula, "He was better than you." The power of the similar dialectics lies in what ways they refigure that dialectic. Mario's offensive use of force becomes the monument of heterosexual power relations in their worst incarnation. "A monument does not commemorate or celebrate something that happened but confides to the ear of the future the persistent sensations that embody the event: the constantly renewed suffering of men and women, their re-created protestations, their constantly renewed struggles."
Mario's acts have a persistence that heralds the future rather than reflecting the past. He claims to represent revolution—the hammer and sickle on the wall behind him as he rapes Rubinia—while confiding that his struggle is simply about elevating his position, politics for class power that resonates with his gendered power dynamic: reversion not revolution. As Guy Hocquenghem observes, "A 'revolutionary consciousness' is nothing but a chimera as long as it remains outside of a 'revolutionary body'."
Dracula, meanwhile, rearranges sensations altogether. When Mario rapes Pearla, she bleeds. When Dracula bites his victims, he bleeds, vomiting projectiles of blood like hysterical menstruation. His hysteria continues as he fits from withdrawals from blood. His attempts at seductive rhetoric are pathetic compared with Mario's use of rhetoric to vindicate his rape of Rubinia and Pearla. The first he explains because she has to get used to being lower class after the revolution; the second because otherwise Dracula will bite her, despite his earlier claim that "I'd like to rape the hell out of her." Dracula expresses his love for his first wife by knocking at her door each morning and revelling in the fact that "she didn't like to shop... She liked to read."
Mario is the only other character who reads in the film, slavishly espousing his communist manifesto. But where Dracula's wife reads for pleasure, Mario forces his system of knowledge down the throats of the sisters. This concept is made literal and explicit as he orally rapes Rubinia after telling her about communism not as a redistribution of wealth but as the manifesto that will position him as superior to her. If knowledge is seen as defined by the dominant subjects in culture for the benefit of those subjects (an oversimplification admittedly) then Mario's manipulation of theory correlates his gender and sexuality with stereotypes of masculinity and the control of knowledge. Interestingly, after Mario bites Rubinia and Sapphiria, the women repudiate their sexual relationship with him but retain their consensual incestuous lesbian relationship with each other.
Dracula bleeds, fits and fails at rhetorical discourse; his phallic tools (ie, his teeth) are more-than-one, resisting the prime signifier of gender, difference and power. Far from being dominant to his assistant, Anton looks after Dracula as if he is a little child. Is he female? The sinewy, pathetic, bleeding, dismembered Dracula of Blood contrasts emphatically with the tall, phallic figure of Dracula at the window in films from Nosferatu (1922) to Hammer (1958's Horror of Dracula, etc)—yet even in the more traditional pictures, Dracula offers a different kind of sex.
The hysteria inspired by vampire seduction reflects hysteria's clinical and particularly female genesis in dissatisfaction at traditional gender and sexual roles. Kier's hysteric Dracula offers sex that isn't sexual, sex that redistributes desire, intensities of desire separate from discourses of sex and all their power residues. This is why Dracula continues to live and squirm, even after his arms and legs are castrated. As Mario chases him with the axe, cutting off his arms, Dracula continues to hiss and threatens to bite, bleeding profusely and joyously so.
The axe of monumental heterosexuality can cut off different desire, but resistant desirepersists in its protestations even after being dismembered. If we understand Dracula's feminised, biting body as offering a different sexual act beyond gender and established power dynamics (perhaps, but as suggested above, not necessarily), then this body must be revolutionary in what it does. Deleuze and Guattari claim that the monument confides in the ear of the future. What Dracula does to the sisters results in shock, not degradation, offering futures they do not expect.
Sylvère Lotringer mourns the loss of sexiness to repetitive discursive systems of sexuality:
SEXLESS SEX. THE ULTIMATE WISDOM. MAKING IT BY THE SKIN OF YOUR TEETH. THE AGE OF DRACULA: "IF HELEN GURLEY BROWN WERE TO ANALYZE DRACULA I'M SURE SHE'D SAY THAT NO SEX IS SEXY." SEX ISN'T SEXY. TOO MUCH OF A MOUTHFUL, NOT ENOUGH OF A BITE.
Pearla and Rubinia have to swallow Mario's predatory sexuality, as well as his discourse. With Dracula, it is he who swallows, the sisters all getting the bite of sexiness without sex, sexiness beyond the repetitions of predictable sexuality. On a grander scale, Italian horror cinema can be seen as similarly presenting viewing with a bite. Dallesandro offers the memory of Hollywood horror at its worst—misogynistic, concerned with re-presentation not differentiation, punishing perversion.
In Flesh and Blood, viewers are offered the redistribution of their cine-sexuality from identification to exploration of new libidinal bands, reminded of the importance of the risks they take through Dallesandro's characters. Kier's hysterical perversion confuses his potential gender identifications, but what he does far exceeds his gender polymorphia, encouraging the viewer to regurgitate Hollywood's mouthfuls and relish the bite of Italian horror's perversions.
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