Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Anniversary (1968)

Whether it's horror, black comedy, or one of those tragic, weepy Lifetime originals, there are a few surefire ways to make a "dark" film. The most obvious of which is having as much cruel, gruesome death as possible. If the budget can't stomach the gore, then create likable, sympathetic characters and rain shit on them for 90 minutes. (Bonus points if they have tragic character flaws that incur said shit-rain.) For a more complex and rewarding route to evil, take a concept or institution universally accepted as positive and portray it through a twisted funhouse mirror. As body horror provokes a reaction though the abjection of the human form, similar revulsion can be induced by the abjection of social moorings. For the least specific example possible, look to the perversion of all possible human interaction in the innumerable Body Snatcher films. (At least the ones with downer endings.)

In horror films, one of the richest and most popular subjects to "corrupt" in this manner is motherhood. In every culture across the planet, almost nothing is more revered than the bond between mother and child. Despite some of the unpleasant physical processes involved in its early phases, (excluding the very first step, which is awesome) motherhood is one of the most sacred institutions imaginable. With such a tall pedestal, it only makes sense that the forces of fictional darkness should attack with such vigor. After all, the crater from that fall is guaranteed to be huge. We all know how much the forces of darkness enjoy huge craters and labored metaphors.
Artist's Rendering

In the sub-genre of 'baby anti-christ' films, motherhood is often corrupted for the purposes of evil. The slightly unstable heroine of Rosmary's Baby, upon being impregnated with the seed of Satan, is forced to choose between her overpowering maternal instincts and the fact that her baby is a cloven, cat-eyed abomination of ultimate terror. (I guess that could still be cute in the 'big head-small body' configuration.) Thus the simple, biological urge to do good is corrupted.On the gooier end of the spectrum is the Alien franchise and its legions of imitators. The creatures' overly complicated, invasive, and parasitic method of reproduction can be viewed as a grim parody of mammalian reproduction. Instead of the story of birth ending with the creature hatching from its egg, the larval facehugger must locate a victim to impregnate. Unfortunately for the unwilling "mother," the final creature has no interest in using any of the pre-approved birthing egresses; the iconic chestbursting method is just fine by it. While it is true that the violent co-opting of another lifeform for hatching young is nothing new for terrestrial fauna, it never happens on a scale appreciable to humans in a non-fictional setting. Also, there is the little matter of creature designer HR Giger making everything look as much like penises and vaginae as possible.

Another great example of the abjection of birth: David Cronenberg's The Brood. (Psycho mom makes snowsuit clad killer anger-babies; check it out.)

Finally there is the simplest and most obvious take on motherhood's dark side: the Mean Mom. Even though motherhood is a sacred institution, there is no cosmic rule demanding a Marge Simpson or Jesus-like dedication to the post. Plenty of moms in the real world fail to live up to its cultural ideals, as do plenty of their fictional counterparts. Plenty more do their absolute darnedest to be indelible scourges on the fruit of their loins. The preeminent cinematic example is Mommie Dearest, the Joan Crawford biopic/craziness exposé and camp classic.
Wire Hanger Joke Goes Here

The Anniversary (you know, that movie I should have been writing about 4 paragraphs weeks ago) falls squarely into the Mean Mom camp. In fact, the monstrous matriarch is such a snarling hellbeast that the film could almost justify its trailer's perplexing inclusion with Anchor Bay's "shitty horror collection" that you can find at the beginning of all their DVDs produced within a certain timeframe. Otherwise I'd be hard pressed to come up with a connecting thread between it and Bad Dreams. (Which incidentally looks pretty awful.)
Fear the Doily

Said hellbeast is played with gusto by the terrifying, husk of Bette Davis, though it is hard to scry the once lovely lady through the eyepatch, makeup, and brown dentures. She's terrifying even before opening her mouth. It would be a revelatory performance (of the sort studio starlets seem to always have once their looks go) if she hadn't already been an iconic psycho-shrew six years earlier in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, a film whose long shadow Davis' character just barely manages to escape from. (The rest of the film is not so lucky.)
The story centers around Davis' Mrs. Taggart and her loopy brood of luckless sons. Together they operate a construction firm that specializes in fast work, low prices, and dubious quality. Every year she rounds everyone up to celebrate the anniversary of her wedding to the boys' long dead father. They respond by drawing the emotional battle-lines and plotting to finally take the cruel bitch down.
Young Tom is an incorrigible womanizer, bringing a new finance to the celebration each year. His latest catch, Shirley, is smart, beautiful, secretly pregnant, and once informed of the verbal threat that her future mother-in-law poses, ready for scrapping. Terry the middle child is a handsome but meek family man with a domineering wife and a prodigious progeny. His spouse Karen has sparred with Mrs. Taggart before, and has their plans to emigrate to Canada (they're British in case you were wondering) up her sleeve when things get dicey. The oldest brother is Henry, who is almost completely acquiescent to his mother, siblings, and overwhelming urges to wear women's clothing.

They are all steeled for conflict and ready to join forces, but when Mom finally descends the stairs it all goes to pot. Easily able to manipulate and emasculate her children one at a time, she deftly plays them against each other by constantly alternating which she favors. Combined with her ironclad grip on her late husband's contracting fortune, she can effortlessly sow dissent in her kids' unified front. Terry and Karen's plan to emigrate is preemptively diffused with the gift of an expensive home, while Tom and Shirley are offered diddily bupkis. Near the end of the film, when the situation's dynamics have radically changed, she reverses her decision and gives the money to the engaged couple instead of Terry. (Who now desperately needs it)
You guys remember that scene in Scanners?

In addition to being cruel, vindictive, and downright mean (she politely accuses Shirley of having terrible body odor for no reason other than to piss her off, then follows up by calmly telling Karen that all her children have died in a car wreck) Mrs. Taggart provides many textbook examples of how crush children under the weight of immense Freudian issues. In one of the film's more disturbing moments, she plants a big gooey kiss right on poor Tom's mouth. Possible attempt to suck his soul, or just another way to show Shirley just how messed up her fiance's family is. All the boys have inherited terrible issues with relating to women, though each manifests differently. Terry has settled down with another dominant woman as a replacement for his cruel mum; she's not nearly as mean and he can boink her without any disturbing incest issues, but mainly she is a proxy or shield for/from Mrs. Taggart. Tom flirts his way through vast oceans of pussy, but tosses each girl aside either due to pressure from his mom or fear that they will lord over him like Terry's wife. Henry, as told by his brothers, took the easy route to escape their mother: "round the bend." Incapable of reconciling his mommy issues or dealing with people in general (girls in particular), he finds it easier to just let people walk all over him. Oh yeah, and he pathologically steals and wears ladies underwear, which happens to be a surprisingly serious crime in '60s England.
The pieces are all in place on the chessboard of familial battle, and the film has already established its coal black comedic heart. Judging from the trailer (posted below) and the fact that this is a '60s Hammer Film, it could easily be assumed that the movie will quickly escalate into violence. No dice. A quick glance at the credits reveals that the film is based on a stage play. Actually no checking of the credits is necessary; if you were to make it through the first act without noticing the picture's obvious dramaturgical roots, then you are completely daft and beyond help. Aside from a handful of token location changes and a couple of scenes that would have originally happened off stage, the whole thing reeks of the legitimate theater.
Hello, I have the crazy.

The problem is that what works on stage often falls flat on the screen. The intricate and slowly revealed web of motivations, influences, and general scheming, along with the vicious and equally intricate verbal sparring, when viewed on a television screen a half century later, seems talky and inert. Davis is clearly enjoying her time as a cyclopean horror and there are some entertaining "oh snap!" moments, as when she finally discovers Shirley's ultimate weakness (Spoiler: cauliflower ears) or the semi-climactic "how I got my eyepatch" monologue. (MegaSpoiler™: young Terry accidentally shot her with a bb-gun and is thusly wracked with guilt, so any attempt to use it against her just makes him feel bad.)
While watching The Anniversary, I often thought of the episode of Spaced where Tim and Daisy have a verbal argument that is acted out via a Tekken match. The characters twist and parry each other's words so deftly and often that I kept waiting for health bars to appear or at least big red letters proclaiming things like "Wicked Comeback" or "Low Blow - Finish Him!"
In the end the film is only tangentially related to the genre's usually explored at Video Updates, but like many horror films, the villain ultimately succeeds in crushing the poor heroes' spirits. Though unlike those films, our sympathies lie squarely with the victims. Crazy eye-patch Bette Davis may be a sadly ignored character in pop culture, but she is far to big of a bitch to be as sympathetic as, say, Jason Vorhees.


  1. That little statue is pissing, right? :-D

    I always liked Bette Davis. She seemed almost as wacked-out as her characters, but in a nice sort of way.

  2. Not quite chest-burster scale, but...

    Violent co-opting of another species for the birthing process on a scale appreciable to humans in a non-fictional setting... the bot fly. Look it up... I haven't checked to see if there is video on the internet. I hope so and not at the same time.

  3. Thanks. I'm so glad I now know all about this horrible thing. Those videos are repugnant.