Tuesday 21 October 2014

The Attic [1980]

THE ATTIC is a psychological thriller that was directed and co-written by George Edwards and originally released in October 1980.  It stars Carrie Snodgress and Ray Milland with a supporting turn by Ruth Cox.  The film explores the bizarre relationship between Louise, an old-maidish librarian, and her tyrannical invalid father Wendell, with whom she lives in a palatial house in the suburbs. Wendell treats his daughter with such cruelty that Louise often fantasises about killing him but painful flashbacks to a love lost years before hint that she too has a darker side.

 This is one of those lush American thrillers that proliferated through the 1970s as self-consciously glossy alternatives to the grittier independent features.  REFLECTION OF FEAR [1972] is another example as are Brian De Palma's OBSESSION [1976] and THE FURY [1978] which coincidentally also features Ms Snodgress.  I would also cite THE REINCARNATION OF PETER PROUD [1975] but will not (oh I have) because it is one of the dullest, most incident-free films I have ever seen, in any genre.

These films, it seems to me, are characterised by three elements in particular: hazy, soft-focus photography, a middle or upper-middle class location - often a grand old house, and a shaggy dog narrative, which builds and builds to a climax which may or may not be a twist.  In some respects they are bigger budget equivalents of all those British thrillers from the 1960s with the 'is someone trying to drive me mad?' plots.

Louise gets home from work.

As a consequence of the slow narrative they are often rather tedious to sit through and risk total failure by staking everything on the ending.  It would be uncharitable of me to say much more about the endings of these films because to do so would remove perhaps the only reason for sticking with them, assuming you seek them out in the first place.  What I will say is that inevitably some work and some do not; in this particular case, after some deliberation, I concluded that it did work, that I hadn't fully seen it coming, and that it did give me pause to consider what its implications might be.  So there's a recommendation for you.

Consider the implications of this.

The trouble is that before you arrive at that point there are about 95 minutes to sit through which, despite taking in libraries, travel agents, casual sex, a pet monkey and Ray Milland in the bath, are not terribly entertaining.  Director Edwards manages - just - to keep you watching but, as is often the case with films such as this, it's difficult to tell whether you're ploughing on because you're enjoying it or because you just want to find out what happened.  That's what I mean by staking everything on the ending; the patient, not to say painstaking build up, means the film really has to deliver the goods in the last five minutes or risk total viewer alienation, like listening to one of those long, rambling old jokes that no-one seems to tell any more.  British readers who are familiar with Ronnie Corbett will know what I'm talking about.

Anyway, I digress.  Louise is a monumentally wet character for the most part who for reasons unknown puts up with appalling treatment at the hands of her wheelchair-bound father.  One wonders why she doesn't just bugger off and leave him to it; however, the ending does oblige you to revisit that question in a very unpleasant light.  Which is true of several plot strands actually, to the extent that the film becomes more interesting after it has finished than it was while you were watching it and there aren't many films you can say that about.

Carrie Snodgress as Louise Elmore

Carrie Snodgress, who rather sadly passed away about ten years ago aged only 58, was an interesting actress who mainly avoided mainstream pictures in favour of more offbeat work.  She made a huge splash in her first proper screen role in DIARY OF A MAD HOUSEWIFE [1970] for which she was nominated for an Academy Award.  Pretty much straight away after that she began a relationship with Neil Young and became a mother; because her son was born with a significant disability she retired from acting in order to care for him.  She was away from movies for most of the 1970s and by the time she came back Hollywood, as it tends to do, had moved on.  Subsequent parts were very much supporting roles; it's fair to say that the lead in THE ATTIC was very much the exception. And very good she is in it too; it's not a great character to be honest but she makes an excellent fist of it and her interplay with Ray Milland is what drives the movie.

Ray Milland as Wendell Elmore

Milland was old school Hollywood and a major star in the 1940s.  For lovers of delirious cinema though his most interesting work came from the 1960s onwards when he began to crop up in some properly weird and challenging pictures.  He's really good in Roger Corman's THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES [1963] which is simultaneously a trippy sci-fi picture and a philosophical examination of, well... religion, the existence of God, and basically the entire universe.  Great stuff. He made two films in 1972 alone which demand the attention of lovers of the bizarre.  First came FROGS, an eco-horror movie set on an island overrun with the titular creatures, and then THE THING WITH TWO HEADS directed by exploitation genius Lee Frost.  Some may think that he was degrading himself by appearing in films like these but, like I say, they're far more memorable than a lot of his routine 40s movies (with the honourable exception of Fritz Lang's MINISTRY OF FEAR [1944], which is absolutely bloody brilliant).

THE ATTIC was George Edwards' first and last feature as director.  He was much more at home behind the camera both as producer and screenwriter.  Among others he produced the aforementioned FROGS and, in collaboration with Jack Broder, THE NAVY VS THE NIGHT MONSTERS [1966] which keen readers will note was mentioned in today's earlier review of BRIDE OF THE GORILLA [1951].  How's that for a coincidence?

A spirit of ribald mischief prevents me from concluding without mentioning Gary Graver who shot this picture and in some quarters is credited with a hand in the direction too.  Graver did a lot of his work in the porn industry (being responsible for such timeless classics as THE SILENCE OF THE BUNS and CAPE REAR) but it wasn't always thus and he was the DP, if you'll pardon the expression, on Orson Welles's aborted lost feature THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND [1972] which was only part of a long professional association with the great man.

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