Monday, November 28, 2011

R.I.P.: Ken Russell

Henry Kenneth Alfred Russell
3 July 1927 – 27 November 2011

In a career that spanned decades, British director Ken Russell was the undisputed enfant terrible of the movie industry, and his Baroque vision was both presided and vilified by fans and detractors alike. First gaining attention as the director of TV biographies in Great Britain, he gained international fame with the Oscar-winning film Women in Love, a film based on the novel of the same name by D.H. Lawrence. In his later years, after becoming a popular whipping boy for the press and suffering a series of critical and commercial disasters, aside from an occasional TV project or short film he concentrated mostly on the stage productions of opera. From sensitive and insensitive biographies to nun exploitation to light musicals to weirded out horror to rock n roll opera, Russell continually presented his uncompromising creative vision on the big screen, the result being one of the most consistently outrageous and interesting filmic outputs to be found in the last quarter 50 years. Ken Russell dies of natural causes at the age of 84 on 27 November 2011; he is survived by his fourth wife Lisi Tribble and five children. Below is an overview of a selection of his early, TV and feature-length films.

Knights on Bikes
(image from the film)
We all have to start somewhere. According to, this is Russell's first film. Knights on BikesA Knight on a Bike may perhaps have been a more appropriate title – is also generally reported as being unfinished, but the "The End" title card sort of belays that idea. (Perhaps he was simply unable to develop it to the extent that he would have liked to, and thus always considered it unfinished.) In any event, as primitive as this silent film film may be, it does exude a certain charm and is also easy to perceive as Russell's: both his scurrilous humor and entertaining symbolism is already evident (I think I even see a penis reference in this film).
The first 4.25 minutes of his first, unfinished short film:

(image from the film)
And here we have his oldest surviving finished film, a silent short that he shot on a budget of 100 pounds. In Kevin M. Flanagan's book Ken Russell: Re-viewing England's Last Mannerist, the plot is given as that of "the comical conflict between a gang of con men impersonating disabled was veterans and a couple of traveling street performers who impose on the con men's London patch." A silent film, it also very much embraces the visual and stylistic vocabulary of the traditional silent film.
Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Shelagh Delaney's Salford
(1960, TV documentary for Monitor)
(image from the film)
By 1959, Russell was doing short documentaries for British TV. This one was done in 1960 for Monitor, a regular program about the arts first went on air in 1958 and ran until 1965. This broadcast, entitled Shelagh Delaney's Salford, is about the then-young British playwright and screenwriter Shelagh Delaney, who died a week before Russell on November 20th, 2011. Delaney is considered one of the first of the so-called "kitchen sink realism" movement, which focused on social realism; her renowned play A Taste of Honey, which was made into a film in 1961, is an exemplary example of the genre. In Russell's documentary, Delaney returns to her hometown of Salford, where A Taste of Honey is set. A fairly dry and traditional if interesting film, but there is nothing about it that would make you think it was directed by Russell.

A House in Bayswater
(1960, television documentary)
(image from the film)
BFI Screenonline says: "A portrait of a five-storey Edwardian house in Bayswater, and of the people who live there." It was his first BBC television film not made for Monitor, which explains its length of roughly a half-hour. Russell himself had once lived in the house featured. In an entry about A House in Bayswater in his blog, Michael Brooke writes: "[...] At the very end there's this extraordinary dreamlike coda, which is quite unlike anything Russell had done up to then. The house is about to be demolished, but just before it vanishes from the map, there's a montage of its occupants and their defining characteristics, seamlessly dissolving into one another as if to cram as many of their memories as possible into what time is left to them before they're irretrievably lost in the rubble." An oddly touching film.
Full film:

London Moods
(1961, TV documentary)
(image from the film)
BFI Screenonline points out: "Ken Russell is often cited as one of the fathers of the music video, with Tommy (1975) widely recognized as one of the pivotal works in the development of the form. However, as this far more obscure Monitor item from 1961 proves, he was experimenting with non-narrative illustrations of pre-recorded music fourteen years earlier." Everyone likes the gym sequence – and it's easy to understand why when you watch it.

London Moods from Mounds & Circles on Vimeo.

French Dressing
The debut feature-length film of "Kenneth Russell," as he is credited in the film. At the fansite, the film is described thus: "[...] With stylized romping scenes, speeded-up action , and other visual tricks, French Dressing looks and feels a bit like A Hard Day's Night (trailer). There are some lovely lyrical moments, [...] and there's a lot of slapstick (that generally fails as humor, unfortunately). Beneath its intentional silliness, French Dressing tells a coming-of-age story with a sentimental heart." The B&W film was a flop, and the resounding criticism it received caused Russell to return to TV. It was first screened in the US in 2004, and still is not available on DVD. Whatever its flaws might be, it does have one major calling card, aside from being Russell's debut film, that puts it on our list of films to see one day: the beautiful Marisa Mell plays the part of the sex-bomb French actress Françoise Fayol – seen here from the film wearing a nun's habit and smoking – who comes to open the film festival at Gormleigh-by-the-Sea. The NY Times says "Ken Russell's first feature film is a slight comedy about a stodgy British resort," but savage messiah says "[...] it is a minor classic."
Title sequence:

Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World
(1966, TV documentary)
(image from the film)
I actually caught this on television as a child in Germany – it was one of the first "grown-up" films my mother let me watch (I was anywhere between six and nine years of age). I remember thinking the Russian guy danced funny, and I was surprised to learn that it was considered shocking to be naked (our family was relatively freizügig in those days – we didn't develop our prudish tendencies until we returned to the US in '72). Also, my mother had to explain to me that the woman in the film (Isadora – or rather, the actress Vivian Pickles) hadn't really died in real life in the finale scene, that she was acting, and that the stuff coming out of her mouth wasn't real blood but rather ketchup that someone who had run out real quickly had poured on her face to make her look dead. I also learned that day that you don't die with closed eyes. Yes, the film left a lasting impression on me – I, for one, never wear long scarves when riding in convertibles. Below, the 67-minute film presented in four.
The film in 4 minutes:

Billion Dollar Brain
Ken Russell's second cinema film, and one that he really didn't want to do – but contractual obligations are contractual obligations. It's the third of the Henry Palmer spy thrillers (based on the books by Len Deighton) that helped make Michael Caine a star; preceded by The Ipcress File (1965 / trailer) and Funeral in Berlin (1966 / trailer), Caine left the series thereafter, though he did return to it almost twenty years later to make Bullet to Beijing (1995 / trailer) and Midnight in Saint Petersburg (1996 / trailer). The plot, according to John Vogel at imdb: "Harry Palmer no longer spies for the British and is instead a starving private detective. He receives a package of money which is followed by a mechanical voice that gives him his instructions over the phone. He accepts the assignment and finds that he has entered the world of a Texas billionaire who thinks he can bring about a popular uprising in the Soviet Union with the help of a highly sophisticated computer." Needless to say, Billion Dollar Brain is perhaps one of Russell's most conventional films – that is, until he moved to doing television movies during the twilight of his career.

Dante's Inferno
(1967, TV documentary)
Scene from Dante's Inferno:

Dante Gabriel Rossetti - First Fire von poetictouch
Like Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World above, Dante's Inferno: The Private Life of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Poet and Painter (1967) was originally made for the small screen; in the case of Dante's Inferno, for Omnibus, a BBC documentary series that ran from 1967 to 2003. And like Isadora, the film is less a documentary than docu-drama with an arty twist. Filmed in B&W 35mm, Russell appropriates the visual vocabulary of silent comedies and German expressionist horror films to tell a poetic, impressionistic version at the life of painter/poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, an artist of the Pre-Raphaelites, an English art movement of the mid-1800s that was extremely out of fashion when Russell made this film (many of the images of the film quote his and other Pre-Raphaelite paintings). At the Columbus Museum of Art, Dennis Toth of Cinema of the Damned once explained: " The smallness of the [TV] screen, as well as Russell's perception of the potential narrowness of the viewer's mind, led him to develop a biographical cinema based upon shock values (e.g., the opening scene of Dante's Inferno); an editing structure built upon abrupt transitions; and an ability to radically shift in his films from the sublime to the ridiculous, from placid beauty to surreal absurdity." The plot, according to DVD Talk: "With his wife sickly and his career stifled, Dante Gabriel Rossetti tries to make a mark with his painting and poetry." Considered one of Russell's best TV productions of the 60s, the roots of many of his later troupes and visual trickeries are found in this production, one that is far too artsy to readily be accepted as a TV film...
Another scene from Dante's Inferno:

Dante Gabriel Rossetti - Alas, So Long! von poetictouch

Women in Love

Ah, Women in Love! A classic – it's even ranked #87 on the British Film Institute's top 100. It is the first of three projects Russell made over the course of his career based on the works of the rather verbose author D. H. Lawrence, the later two being The Rainbow (1989), a prequel of sorts in which Glenda Jackson plays the mother of the character she plays in this film, and the four-episode TV drama Lady Chatterley (1993). The general consensus about the film is well summarized by Leonard Maltin: "[A] fine adaptation of D.H. Lawrence's novel about two interesting love affairs. Tends to bog down toward the end [...]." Made when all the main actors and actresses were in their prime and, aside from a scene featuring Glenda Jackson's cherry-sized nipples, the film has the infamous interlude with Alan Bates and Oliver Reed wrestling nekkid. Supposedly, some of the characters in the book (and therefore the film) are based on real members of the Bloomsbury Group: Loerke (Vladek Sheybal), for example, is based on painter Mark Gertler, and Hermione (Eleanor Bron), Lady Ottoline Morrell. Above, the trailer; below, the wrestling nude scene, which seems to be the only thing most people know about the film.

Nude wrestling without oil and flaccid:

The Music Lovers
As Ken Russell summarized the film once upon a time: "It's the story of the marriage between a homosexual and a nymphomaniac." Roger Elbert was not fond of the film: "The Music Lovers is [a] totally irresponsible [...] film about, or inspired by, or parallel to, or bearing a vague resemblance to, Tchaikovsky, his life and times. It is not, however, a complete failure. Ken Russell is a most deviously baroque director, sucking us down with him into his ornate fantasies of decadent interior decoration, until every fringe on every curtain has a fringe of its own, and the characters have fringes, too, and the characters elbow their way through a grotesque jungle of candlesticks, potted plant stands, incense sticks, old champagne bottles, and gilt edges [...]." Sounds good to us. Besides, any film having a young, good-looking Richard Chamberlain pretending to be a homosexual (Tchaikovsky) can't be all lies – I mean, all that bad.

The Devils
Ken Russell goes Nunsploitation, with Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave along for the crazed, opulent, torturous ride. Some on-line sources claim that the film is still virtually unavailable in its original, uncut form. The film is based on John Whiting's play The Devils, in turn based on Aldous Huxley's book The Devils of Loudun, which in turn is based on a true story: "the rise and fall of Urbain Grandier, a 17th century French priest executed for witchcraft following the supposed possessions of Loudun." This is the film to watch with your religious, sexually repressed friends and relatives – they'll drop you like a hot stone. Redgrave, a nun gone batty from not getting enough sex and totally hot for Reed, causes his downfall and death – but gets a hard piece of what's left of him between her legs by the end of the film. The Devils is a grueling, bat-shit crazy film.

The Boy Friend
Ken Russell's follow-up project to the ultra-heavy and disturbing movies The Devils was this light-hearted homage to Busby-Berkeley-style musicals featuring the film debut of the world's first famous anorexic model Twiggy and based on a Broadway musical from 1954. (The play was Julia Andrews US debut.) Generally considered a lesser film of the director's, the film is less "lesser" than simply lighter – had it not been savagely edited for the US release, its general reputation might be higher. The film drips visual verve and creativity, and remains light even as it interweaves modern topics such as "British class tension, hints of lesbianism, bawdy physical comedy and a telling comparison of film and stage craft." (That comes from TCM.)

Savage Messiah

Russell continues with thematic obsession: creative genius, but for a rare change tackles the topic of the visual arts in this, one of his (unjustly) more-overlooked films. The focus of this biographical film is the French painter Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, an early and influential modernist who died at the tender age of 24 in the trenches of WW I. This film, based on H.S. Ede's book Savage Messiah, focuses on his relationship with Sophie Brzeska (Dorothy Tutin) and his model Gosh (Helen Mirren).
Helen Mirren's famous nude scene:

Russell returns to musical geniuses in this highly entertaining, typically over-the-top Russell film "about" the famed composer Mahler who, like Russell, converted from Judaism to Catholicism. For more on what A Wasted Life thinks of this wonderfully Baroque film, go to our review of the film here.


With Tommy, Ken Russell begins ever so noticeably to move from his Baroque phase to his Rococo stage – and thus made a movie version of The Who's rock opera that even those who dislike The Who can still find highly appealing and entertaining. This is not a film to watch for the story or the acting, though, since the film is a musical the latter never becomes as obviously atrocious as in Russell's follow-up film Lisztomania. The music is good enough, but it's the visual excesses of the director that make this film – scenes like that featuring a hot, stacked Ann-Margret, still pre-MILF, wallowing in soap, beans, and chocolate pouring out of the TV set doesn't hurt the eye any, that's for sure. Little Tommy witnesses the murder of his war hero daddy (Robert "Mahler" Powell) and grows up to be a psychosomatically deaf, dumb and blind Roger "The Bod" Daltrey. He gets molested by family and friends and goes through all sorts of quack cures before becoming a pinball wizard and then a cult leader and – well, all good things must come to an end... Tommy really doesn't work as well on the small screen as it does in a movie theater, but then, this is true of most of Russell's mature films.
Trailer II:


Lisztomania is Russell at the highpoint of his Rococo excess – and, as such, is a film that not has to be seen to be believed, but also separates the men from the boys. Having discovered rock stars when making Tommy, for Lisztomania Russell pulled in another cast of musically talented thespian nulls, headed by an unbelievably bad Roger Daltrey as Liszt. (In theory, the concept of casting a rock star to play what may have been the first rock-star classical musician is not a bad idea – but as Daltrey's acting ability is as flat as his six-pack.) But thanks to the non-stop visual barrage, one usually forgets to notice the acting in what is, essentially, a colossal visual farce. Historical fact plays twelfth fiddle – if it plays a fiddle at all – to Russell's visual madness, liberally seasoned with his obsession with cock, which stands tall more than once in this fabulous auditory assault of what must have been acid-inspired scenes and a narrative dictated by peyote. This film is simply nuts – and a true masterpiece!
Penis, anyone?:

After practicing uncontrolled cinematic bukakki with Lisztomania, for his next artist's bio two years later Russell decided for a slightly more controlled, almost Mannerist approach. But neither the public nor the critics were in an agreeable mood: the film tanked critically and commercially, and can be seen as the first loose nail in the coffin that was Russell's career. In his book The Official Razzie Movie Guide, John Wilson even lists it among "The 100 Most Amusing Bad Movies Ever Made" – a list upon which this film does not belong, for Valentino is far from bad. True, the film lacks any notable continuity of disposition, and neither Rudolf Nureyev nor Michelle Phillips – who both lack screen presence and any believable mutual attraction – are the strongest actors, but the film is a good example of style over substance and has some truly well-imagined visual sequences (I for one love the mini-western that plays from beginning to end over the shoulder of Huntz Hall [as Jesse Lasky] during a scene on a film lot). As Valentino is a Ken Russell bio, the possible validity of the facts presented need not be discussed, but the basic story takes the sadly early death of Valentino (at the age of 31) to present a series of flashbacks presenting Russell's interpretations of the life and times of the Great Screen Lover during his climb to success in Hollywood. A film well worth watching.

Altered States
Three years later Russell returns from dishonor with a pretentious if ultimately popular take on the Jack Arnold's classic trash film Monster on the Campus (1958 / trailer), but this time around it isn't fish blood and gamma rays that instigates the transformation, it's drugs and (GASP!) something dangerous known as a sensory-deprivation tank. Based on a book by Paddy Chayefsky, who both wrote the screenplay and disowned the movie before it was released, Altered States seems to be the drug movie that even non-drug users like. Personally, here at A Wasted Life, we agree with Roger Ebert when he says "the movie's characters [are] a band of overwrought pseudo-intellectuals who talk like a cross between Werner Erhard, Freud, and Tarzan." The feature film debut of both William Hurt and Drew Barrymore, Altered States is pretty stupid stuff but, as always, Russell throws in enough explosives and weirdness to make the film bearable – if barely.

Crimes of Passion
Whoever gave the go for this movie must have been taking the same drugs as William Hurt in Altered States – but we here at A Wasted Life can only say "Yay for Drugs!" This film is high camp and unbelievably ridiculous – the perfect film to show, dunno, as a double feature with Psycho Beach Party (2000 / trailer). It is perhaps a bit sad to think that everyone involved probably thought they were making a serious film with a serious statement (albeit with an occasional wink of the eye) about American sexuality, but had they not been so serious the film would surely never have become so enjoyably "bad." This film is very similar to another classic "serious" film gone camp, Mommy Dearest (1981 / trailer): both films were made with deeply sober intentions, and both simply lost their way so thoroughly and deeply that they achieve a new inexplicable level of otherness, a level of unadulterated kitsch and camp, thus causing them both to become much more enjoyable and memorable they in any way should be. Crimes of Passion is a thriller to see – preferably uncut! Plot: A P.I. (Bruce Davison) with a rocky marriage finds out the object of his latest surveillance job, a sportswear designer (Kathleen Turner) has a secret double life as a prostitute named China Blue. He gets the itch and lets her scratch it, and before you know it the two emotional cripples sort of become a thing. One of China Blue's clients is the nutziod street preacher Rev. Peter Shayne (an entertainingly overacting Anthony Perkins) who likes to flaunt a razor-lined vibrator; he decides it is time to save her mortal soul... This film may well have added another few nails to the coffin that was Ken Russell's mainstream career as a name director.

After Crimes of Passion, Russell attractiveness for the major studios sort of disappeared; for his next four solo projects, the low-tier Vestron Pictures was his studio of employment. For the first of the two feature-length horror films that Russell made for them in order to hasten the end of his Hollywood respectability, he decided to combine horror with his favorite genre, the artist's biography film. The result is a typically crazed and enjoyable mess that isn't very scary but is highly entertaining in a bombastic, badly acted sort of way – had he only found someone other than Thomas Dolby to do the music! His true Rococo and Baroque days long behind him, Gothic has its share of pretentiousness and disturbing scenes, but the film is hardly as extreme as those of his heyday. It is, so to speak, Russell Lite, but with more pretentiousness and less intentional stupidity than his next horror film, the surreally inept but enjoyable Lair of the White Worm (1988). The plot of Gothic, as supplied by the Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy Film Review: "1816. The poet Percy Shelley goes to visit fellow poet Lord Byron [...] on the shores of Lake Geneva. Shelley takes with him his lover Mary Godwin and her half-sister Claire. While there Byron urges them to seek madness and inspiration in the name of free love, free thought and defiance of religion. They take turns reading from a book of horror stories and on impulse decide to hold a séance around the skull of a medieval monk Byron has found [...]. But for each of them this brings into existence a greater horror than they imagined."


MTV for opera lovers: producer Don Boyd culled together ten directors (including Ken Russell, Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Altman, and Nicolas Roeg) to direct ten separate short vignettes inspired by arias by Vivaldi, Bach, Wagner, etc. Aria features the film debut of Bridget Fonda, but in the segment by Franc Roddam (the director of The Bride [1985 / trailer] and Quadrophenia [1979 / trailer]), not by Russell – though she, too, does a nude scene for the film. Russell's segment is set to the aria Nessun dorma from Giacomo Puccini's opera Turandot and stars the English Page Three model and porn star Linzi Drew as an accident victim – seen here from the film – who fantasizes her body being adorned with jewels in a tribal ritual; the jewels correspond to her real injuries, the rituals to the medical procedures of the hospital staff treating her. A rather dull and cheap-looking segment, actually...
Russell's segment to Aria:

Salome's Last Dance

His second film with Vestron was a direct-to-video trifle that came and went quickly, but not quickly enough not to add another nail to the coffin of his reputation. A throwback to his more Baroque days, it may be second-rate Russell but it is fun in its own way, forced shocks and all. In Paris, Oscar Wilde – who, although most people see him as a guiltless victim of the homophobia of his age, was actually very much into underage boys (you know, like them guys at Nambla) – arrives at a male bordello where the owner, as a surprise, has arranged a performance of Wilde's banned-in-England play Salome, a fem-fatale version of the Old Testament tale of Salome dancing the Dance of Seven Veils for her father King Herod in exchange for the head of John the Baptist. The big surprise of the film is off course the dangling weenie, but somehow it just fits to the gaudy stylization and excess of the whole film. Your mommy probably won't like the film, but you might – even if you don't belong to Nambla.
Full film:

The Lair of the White Worm
Everyone hates this one – except us. The film is ever-so-loosely based on one of Bram Stoker's many numerous lesser novels – his last, actually – previously published both as The Lair of the White Worm and The Garden of Evil. The book, based in part on the legend of the Lambton Worm, was published in 1911, a year before Stoker's death. Russell moved the action into then-present-day England. Theoretically a horror film, it has all the troupes one might expect from a film named The Lair of the White Worm – teenage heroes, a big white worm, a couple of nasty deaths, screaming gals that need to be saved – and a lot of sly as well as pubescent humor thrown in on top. As Lady Sylvia Marsh, the evil bitch of the tale, Amanda Donohoe might be hot but she definitely personifies the last person in the world from whom you would want a blowjob. A young Hugh Grant is there as one of the two lads that go up against her to save the babes and kill the worm in what is a relatively tame – but for a few nicely over-the-top hallucination scenes like the one of Roman soldiers raping nuns in front of a cross upon which the white worm slithers – but nevertheless entertainingly ridiculous, weird and witty (lesser) Russell film. We recommend it

A British Picture
(1989, TV movie)
One can only wonder the sales pitch for this movie – "I'd want to make a movie about me" – but Russell managed to sell the project: a 50-minute biographical film about him, his path to becoming filmmaker, and his films. Was this actually ever aired anywhere? Russell's book biography, published in 2008, shares the same title.
First 12 minutes:

The Rainbow
For his final Vestron-financed project, Russell returned to the works of D.H. Lawrence to make this drama, a prequel to his film of 20 years earlier, Women in Love. Glenda Jackson also returns (in her fifth of six projects that she worked on with Russell) to play the mother of the character she played in Women in Love, Gudron (played here by Glenda McKay). But the focus of the film, which Roger Elbert calls "a measured, thoughtful literary adaptation," is not on Gudron, but rather her sister Ursula (Sammi Davis), a young woman of a staid family who, as a proto-feminist, spurns the traditional path of marriage, hearth and home to venture forth on her own as a schoolteacher. She befriends the schoolteacher Winifred (Amanda Donohoe), an older, unmarried and independent woman in whom she sees a role model. Is lezzie love in them thar hills? Nope, Winifred marries Uncle Henry (David Hemmings), who is liberated in his own way – but the man in Ursula's life, Anton Skrebensky (Paul McGann), proves not to be... Few people have seem to have seen the film, and but for Roger Elbert, no one seems to have liked it. But then, by 1989, Ken Russell was very much a popular whipping boy and any film he made was bound to be trashed by the popular press.

The Strange Affliction of Anton Bruckner
(1990, TV movie)
Russell returned to television again after The Rainbow to once again return to his favorite theme, the artist's biography, this time around focusing on the Austrian composer Anton Bruckner – or, to be more exact, to cast a fictionalizing eye upon Bruckner's real-life stay in a sanatorium due to his "numeromania," an obsessive-compulsive need to count objects and things – something that is, arguably, reflected in the almost manic repetitions found in his symphonies. No one seems to have seen the film, however – or if anyone has, they haven't written about it on the web. The bad-quality outtake below, tame as it may be, does exude an oddly Ken Russell shine...
Outtake from The Strange Affliction of Anton Bruckner:

Women and Men: Stories of Seduction
(1990, TV movie)
In the first of what was to be two anthology films made for HBO – Women and Men: Stories of Seduction was followed by W&M:SoS II in 1991 – Russell joins director Tony Richardson (whose best film may be the much contemned B&W masterpiece The Loved One [1965 / trailer]) and, in a rare directorial excursion, the scriptwriter Frederic Raphael (who, also in 1990, supplied the screenplay for the decidedly odd costume drama, The King's Whore [trailer]) to film three separate short stories. Russell's segment was based on Dorothy Parker's Dusk before Fireworks and starred the great thespian luminaries Peter Weller and Molly Ringwald. A minor discursion for Russell, and one not worth taking for the viewer.

Whore pretty much put the final nail in Ken Russell's feature-film directorial career; until his low-budget, direct-to-video Poe-inspired The Fall of the Louse of Usher: A Gothic Tale for the 21st Century in 2002, he was pretty much stuck simply telling cameramen where to point the camera in extremely uninteresting television movies. Unlike Crimes of Passion, Russell's subsequent film about career girls, Whore, is more gritty docu-drama than thriller-chic. The film is based on a play entitled Bondage, which was written by the London cabbie David Hines and in turn based on the tales told to him by the hookers he'd carried in his cab; Russell and his co-scriptwriter Deborah Dalton moved the "action" from London to Los Angeles. Needless to say, Pretty Woman (1990) it ain't. Liz (Theresa Russell) never gets her millionaire, but she does have a lonely and dangerous life. Of course, it was cut to shreds in the US to get any viable release, but the uncut 92-minute European version is available – here, for example. Unglamorous and depressing, Whore was not exactly a hit... which makes it all the odder that it was followed by an in-name-only "sequel" three years later, Whore 2 (trailer), directed by the independent filmmaker Amos Kollek (Fast Food Fast Women [2000 / German trailer]). Unlike in Russell's film, however, in the more traditionally structured Kollek film – originally entitled Bad Girls – many of the "actresses" playing prostitutes are actually the real thing.

Prisoner of Honor
(1991, TV movie)
Russell's days of feature-film productions ended with Whore. His next project was a British TV film originally shown on HBO in the US entitled Prisoner of Honor, which is based on the turn of the century French scandal known as the Dreyfus Affair. In short, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, of Jewish descent, was wrongly accused and convicted on trumped-up charges of espionage for the Germans and sent to Devil's Island (where he ended up serving almost five years before rehabilitation). Lieutenant-Colonel George Piquart (played by Richard Dreyfuss in the film, who claims to be a direct descendant of Alfred Dreyfus in real life) found evidence that Dreyfus was innocent, but was forced to suppress it by anti-Semitic officials; he leaked it to the pro-Dreyfus press, which eventually led to the end of his military career. (The author Emile Zola, also a proponent of Dreyfus's innocence was found guilty of libel for the damning articles he wrote about the case.) Eventually, both Dreyfus and Piquart were exonerated, but the events are a black mark of anti-Semitism in French history. According to Wikipedia, "Russell's flamboyant direction takes the heroic tale into the realm of the surreal; this may not be a thoroughly accurate account, but it's one of the more eye-filling."

Tales of Erotica
In 1996, Russell contributed a segment to the long-lasting and usually boring German television program Tales of the Erotica; his segment is among those later collected and released as a series of direct-to-video compilations which also featured shorts by Susan Seidelman (The Dutch Master), Melvin Van Peebles (Vroom Vroom Vroom), Bob Rafelson (Wet), Paul Cox (Touch Me), Mani Kaul (The Cloud Door), the under-appreciated Jos Sterling (The Waiting Room) and others. Russell's segment is entitled The Insatiable Mrs. Kirsch. (We assume it to be an in-joke that the lady's last name is the German word for "cherry.") The plot, as far as we could find out, involves a young novelist (Simon Shepherd) who becomes obsessed with a highly-sexed woman (Hetty Baynes) with a thing for masturbation and toys.

Trailer provided by Video Detective

Dog Boys
(1998, TV movie)
Two years after sinking so low as to do a TV movie bio of the great fraud Uri Geller (Mindbender, 1996), Russell did Dog Boys – also known as Tracked – a tenth generation misbegotten son of The Most Dangerous Game (1932 / full film) starring a batch of equally on-the-skids former "stars: Dean Cain (TV's Superman in Lois & Clark), Bryan Brown (F/X [1986 / trailer]), and Tia Carrere (Wayne's World [1992 / trailer]). The result is a film that leaves one wondering where Russell was while it was being made – there is nothing about it that bears his stamp; in fact, this flick is across the board uninteresting. The trailer for Dog Boys / Tracked can be seen watched here.

The Fall of the Louse of Usher: A Gothic Tale for the 21st Century
With no real mainstream directorial career left to speak of, Russell's last feature-length film is basically a home movie shot on a camcorder in his garage/studio/back yard, featuring a cast of friends and neighbors. The website The Spinning Image says: "The Fall of the Louse of Usher ought to have disciples of one-time 'enfant terrible' Ken Russell salivating, producers flinging open their chequebooks and showering the great man with millions, and the arts world in general besieging parliament and demanding that Ken be given a life peerage. What will really happen is that this camcorder masterpiece will be ignored by most, and dismissed as trash by 90 per cent of those who do manage to see it. If you've got the slightest interest in movie mavericks, outrageous visual style, Edgar Allan Poe, or fighting against adversity, I urge you to seek out [...] Usher wherever you can." The plot, as described by Worldwide Celluloid Massacre (which hates the film): "[...] A kind of sequel to the story of Usher with random Poe allusions and puns. After the murder of his wife, Roderick Usher the rock star is put in an insane asylum where the chief doctor is Russell himself as a kind of crazy, naughty Benny Hill psychiatrist with a young nurse sidekick."
Official trailer to The Fall of the Louse of Usher:

Brothers of the Head
(2005, dirs. Keith Fulton & Louis Pepe)
On the rare occasion, Russell would also appear as an actor in the films of others. He has a small part as a rather flamboyant gay Englishman in Fred Schepsi's film The Russia House (1990), for example, but the film is not really interesting enough to feature in this overview of Russell's projects. Brothers of Head, however, is. The directors of the film, Keith Fulton & Louis Pepe, are better known as documentary filmmakers and received some acclaim for their 2002 movie Lost in La Mancha (trailer), a film about Terry Gilliam's cursed and never-completed film project Don Quixote. Brothers of the Head is a faux documentary (based on the book by Brian Aldiss), and Russell appears as himself as one of the talking heads in a film based on an idea so weird that it could well have come from him. The storyline, to quote imdb: "In the 1970s a music promoter plucks Siamese twins from obscurity and grooms them into a freakish rock'n'roll act. A dark tale of sex, strangeness and rock music." Sound unreal, impossible? Guess you don't know the biography of the Hilton Sisters – Violet basically suffered the same terrifying end as Eng of the conjoined twins that gave birth to the term Siamese Twins, but unlike him she was alone at the time. A film that is now on our "must see" list.

Trapped Ashes
(2006, multiple directors)
Russell's last directorial project was his segment for this overlooked and forgotten horror anthology film, which very much follows the structure – as well as the traditional ending – of the classic Amicus horror anthology films of yesteryear. Among the six directors involved aside from Russell are Sean S. Cunningham, Monte Hellman and Joe Dante – and among the cast are no less than Dick Miller and John Saxon. Neither appear is in Russell's segment, however, though Russell himself does as the crazed Dr. Lucy. Entitled The Girl with Golden Breasts, the segment is properly Russellian: The blonde actress Phoebe (Rachel Veltri) is of the opinion that babes with bigger boobs get all the parts, so she decides to lift her career with an augmentation. But she chooses the wrong doctors – they all have undergone boob jobs themselves, as can be seen in image above – and ends up with a pair of breasts that give breastfeeding a new meaning. Not a segment for the more mammary-obsessed among us...
German trailer:

Invasion of the Not Quite Dead
(2011, dir. Tony Lane)

Ken Russell is/was one of many who have thrown their support for this independent production that seems to still be in production; according to imdb, he also has a small part in the film as "Alan Burrows." The storyline, as supplied by none other than Tony Lane himself (on imdb as well as Wikipedia) is as follows: "In 1978 a meteorite crash lands into the Swiss Mountains, unleashing a deadly virus. Killing everyone within a 20 mile radius, the incident was covered up by local officials. Now thirty years later the virus is released onto an unsuspecting island off the coast of England. A group of survivors must band together in order to survive the death and destruction of the once friendly locals in this black comedy horror Invasion of the Not Quite Dead." Interested in becoming a producer of the film? Go here.
Promo II:

1 comment:

Shah said...

Great post. Thank you!

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