Thursday, December 20, 2018

The Butterfly Room (USA/Italy, 2012)

Somehow it seems oddly fitting that it was an Italian, Jonathan Zarantonello, that, after years if not almost decades, finally gave the great Barbara Steele a lead role in another horror film. After all, it was an Italian, the great Mario Bava (31 July 1914 – 27 April 1980), that gave Steele her breakthrough double-whammy as the duel lead females of his 1960 masterpiece, Black Sunday (trailer). What is less fitting and far less satisfying is that the movie Ms. Steele so effectively carries on her shoulders — a film far superior to her few film credits of the previous two decades, namely the wannabe cult farce The Boneyard Collection (2008 / trailer), Fred Olen Ray's The Prophet aka Fist of Doom (1999), and the decidedly obscure Austrian fantasy Tief Oben aka Deep Above (1994) — has not only remained relatively obscure and ignored, but also didn't really lead to all that many further roles. (Kudos to Ryan Gosling for at least giving her a small part two years later in his arty directorial debut, Lost River [2014 / trailer].)
Spoiler-heavy Trailer to
The Butterfly Room:
The Butterfly Room's opening credit sequence already speaks a lot about what is to come: aesthetic but with a sudden shock, it indicates a directorial eye aiming towards art as well as horror. And while the movie seldom achieves the same level of visual aesthetics as the in the opening credit sequence, The Butterfly Room is well shot, never gratuitously gory, and ingenuously constructed.
During the credit sequence, one is not initially sure whether one is being witness to a suicide attempt or an unexpected menstrual flow, but over the course of a narrative that interlaces multiple times lines to tell it story, the viewer learns which it is — indeed, throughout the movie, the viewer is often given clarification only in retrospect. Zarantonello's interweaving of different temporalities does on occasion leave one slightly unsettled, as one is often not 100% sure where one is within the tale, but it proves to be a stimulating narrative trick that not only ends up working, but is, in the final scenes, tied into a tight and neat bow.
Set in Los Angeles, the story could work in any larger city. Barbara Steele is Ann, a reclusive and butterfly-obsessed lady of the later years (Ms. Steele was 75 at the time) who is, without doubt, a psychopath. And like so many crazy egoists, her id and person are not immediately apparent to those around her. But the viewer knows her screws are loose from the start, as unlike anyone in the movie we see her as she apparently for no reason kicks the ladder out from beneath an Afro-American workman (Joseph H. Johnson Jr. as Chris) chain-sawing tree branches.
Not that we know it when she does it, but not only is kicking away the ladder not the worst act that she has already committed, but there is also a method to her actions. Before we learn what the method is, however, and all that she has already done, we witness how she comes to befriend the young Julie (Ellery Sprayberry), the daughter of Claudia (Erica Lei Leerhsen of the unjustly maligned Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 [2000 / trailer], The Texas Chainsaw Massacre [2003 / trailer] and Wrong Turn 2: Dead End [2007 / trailer]), a young and not particularly capable single mother...
The Butterfly Room is rare in that it is movie dominated by females. True, men that function to advance the narrative do pop up here and there — e.g., the ill-fated Chris or the taxidermist from whom Ann busy supplies (the great character actor James Karen [28 Nov 1923 – 23 Oct 2018]) — but with the exception of Nick, the contemptible building handyman played by Ray Wise (of Swamp Thing [1982 / trailer] and so much more), the men are all fleeting appearances of little consequence. Females are the focus of the movie, and all but two — the previously mentioned young Julie, and the equally young grifter Alice (Julia Putnam of House of Bad [2013 / trailer]) — are adult, carry emotional baggage, and are or were mothers. And with the exception of some of the more-fleetingly seen mothers when Ann is out uncovering Alice's secrets, all are noticeably emotionally and/or psychologically damaged and hardly "perfect" mothers. Indeed, Alice's mother, Monika (Elea Oberon), a one-legged prostitute that obviously enough made Alice what she is (a conniving, thieving con artist who literally sells herself to play the daughter of lonely women), is definitely a horrible mother — but then, so is/was Ann. (When reviewing all the mothers of the movie, it could be feasibly argued that The Butterfly Room has a definite anti-mother undertone. For a perfect anti-mother double feature, watch this movie with Sonata [2004].)
In many ways, The Butterfly Room feels like a classic Italian giallo film, only that no black gloves ever appear and there is very little mystery to who the killer is, even if you don't always initially know who the victim was. Indeed, since one knows that Ann is rather unhinged, there is little true mystery to the movie; instead, the tension lies in when and how the snake is going to bite again. And thus the body count rises, unnoticed by the other characters of the movie, until the final orgy of violence is ignited and Barbara Steele goes full Tallulah Bankhead (Die! Die! My Darling! aka Fanatic [1965 / trailer]) / Gloria Swanson (Sunset Blvd. [1950 / trailer]) / Bette Davis (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? [1962 / trailer]) / Shelley Winters (What's the Matter with Helen? [1971 / trailer]) / add the name of your favorite former cinema beauty* and a late-career horror movie in which she plays a lady who loses it. But even before Ann finally reaches for the sledgehammer and Alice's final fate is revealed, The Butterfly Room delivers some shockingly violent deaths.
* Yes, even Shelley Winters didn't look that bad once upon a time.
Barbara Steele rules the roost in the film, moving smoothly between ice queen to needy, friendly to hateful, seemingly normal to total nutso — sometimes within a single scene. Fellow cult fav Ray Wise does another one of his seemingly easy turns as a smiling but morally corrupt house janitor. Special note should also be given to the young actress Julia Putnam, who does a well-tuned performance as the duplicitous Alice.
For those who like to play "Spot the Faces", a variety of genre cult names also pop up throughout The Butterfly Room for a single scene or two, including Joe Dante, P.J. Soles (Halloween [1978 / trailer], Uncle Sam [1996 / trailer] and so much more), Adrienne King (Friday the 13th [1980/ trailer]), Heather Langenkamp (A Nightmare on Elm Street [1984 / trailer], A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987 / trailer], and The Demolitionist [1995 / trailer, with Susan Tyrrell]), Camille Keaton* (What Have You Done to Solange? [1972 / trailer, with Joachim Fuchsberger], Sex of the Witch [1973 / music], and — most famously — the original I Spit on Your Grave [1978 / trailer]), and the previously mentioned James Karen (Hercules in New York [1970 / trailer], Return of the Living Dead [1985 / trailer], and so much more), but with the exception of Langenkamp and possibly the almost unrecognizable Camille Keaton, they come and go too quickly to truly make a "Hey! That's…" impression and thus are simply functionally effective as tertiary or minor characters.
* What? No Tisa Farrow? Catriona MacColl? [Add your favorite still-living cult horror actress's name here: _______________.]
For all the bodies, The Butterfly Room is hardly a gratuitously violent film in the typical bodycount/slasher tradition. Zarantonello is very much interested in the psyche of his characters, and the emotional and psychological scars that drive them and their actions. The final scene also infers that the flaws (for a lack of a better word) of our progenitors can very well become our own, as the psychological scars left behind can be a slow but inescapable formative element that unavoidably shape and create.
Well made, engrossing and often shocking, The Butterfly Room is well worth checking out, and not just for the added attraction of the great Barbara Steele. It works as a horror film and a suspense film, not to mention as a tragedy, and will easily also appeal to those not particularly enamored by the modern gore-laden horror genre in general.

No comments: