Jul 5, 2015

Friday the 13th: The Orphan

Even as a kid, I hated most movies about or made for kids, as I felt they were patronizing and portrayed children with a sort of obnoxious pseudo-sophistication and moral righteousness that made me question whether or not the filmmakers were pedophiles (of course, as tragic child actor Corey Feldman revealed a couple years back, a number of them apparently are). In short, I tend to try to avoid virtually any and every film featuring a child protagonist, but there are certainly exceptions where a kid hero can be an advantage of sorts. Indeed, the somewhat unclassifiable coming-of-age horror flick Friday the 13th: The Orphan (1979) aka The Orphan aka David directed by one-time-auteur John Ballard benefits from the fact that it features what is most certainly one of the most bat-shit crazy and hysterical boy protagonists in cinema history. Better known for its somewhat unfortunate title and the fact the producers of the Friday the 13th slasher franchise had to pay the producers of Ballard’s film to use said title, the work is based on the short horror story Sredni Vashtar by Saki (Hector Hugh Munro) written between 1900 and 1911 that was also adapted by Andrew Birkin and countless other filmmakers about a sickly 10-year-old boy who hates his cousin-guardian and ultimately invents an eponymous god that he summons to seek revenge against his pseudo-parent after she dares to sell his hen. Despite being released in 1979, director Ballard began shooting in 1968 and the film was not released until about a decade later after the filmmaker was forced by two presumably financially enterprising and artistically retarded female producers to cut out about 30 minutes of what was originally a 110 minute cut that was edited by Ralph Rosenblum, who edited a number of Woody Allen flicks, including Annie (1977) and Interiors (1978), as well as Sidney Lumet’s Eugene O'Neill adaptation Long Day's Journey Into Night (1962) and Mel Brooks’ The Producers (1967). Undoubtedly, it is obvious while watching The Orphan that Rosenblum’s seamless editing was ripped at the seams, as the film seems so compulsively spastic in its editing. Seeming like a sort of Southern Gothic tale made for psychopathic prepubescent boys, the film, which originally had the working title ‘Betrayal,’ was notably directed by a Harvard and NYU educated child progeny who became an accomplished oil painter at the mere age of seven. Admittedly, as a result of assuming it was another disposable 1970s horror flick, I had no interest in seeing the film until reading about it in classic tome NIGHTMARE USA: The Untold Story of the Exploitation Independents (2007), of which author Stephen Thrower stated, “THE ORPHAN is one of the most literate, intelligent and unusual films covered in this book,” but luckily I did as it proved to be one of the most bizarre, idiosyncratic, and terribly misunderstood American genre flicks.

Part tragic coming-of-age flick, part hallucinatory hagsploitation nightmare, part surrealist horror show, part misguided minstrel show, part 1930 period based melodrama, and part arthouse revenge-thriller, The Orphan probably will not appeal to most diehard horror fans and especially not Jason Voorhees fanboys. Set in the post-WWI era, the film tells the increasingly disturbing and nightmarish story of a curious and excitable 10-year-old boy who is forced to live with his exceedingly bitchy, anal retentive, and sexually repressed old spinster aunt after both of his wealthy parents end up dying tragically. Of course, as a young boy who invents a religion with a taxidermied monkey as the godhead and whose best friends are a middle-aged African negro who was a traveling companion of his explorer father and an Irish maid, the eponymous protagonist is not your typical boy and it ultimately comes as no surprise when he completely snaps and becomes a seemingly schizophrenic psychotic killer of sorts. Featuring the sort of deadly family dysfunction and somewhat ‘eccentrically’ executed killings one would expect from an Andy Milligan flick, the film certainly owes comparisons to Jack Clayton’s classic Henry James adaptation The Innocents (1961) and Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander (1982), but also Richard Blackburn’s Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural (1973) and especially Philip Ridley’s The Reflecting Skin (1990), as one of the most feel-bad coming-of-age films ever made. 

 After a fairly aesthetically pleasing kaleidoscopic opening montage featuring happy photographs of the protagonist and his dead parents and retro images of Harvard University banners and WWI era American soldiers, among other things, juxtaposed with outmoded ragtime music, the viewer is introduced to boy protagonist David (Mark Owens), who narrates to the viewer how he fought a couple of his male relatives when they forced him to look at the corpse of his father at the viewing. On top of being told by a mean-spirited androgynous little girl that he is now an orphan, David is forced to kiss the cold corpse of his truly deathly pale father, who he loved very much, even though his father was oftentimes away travelling around with his Afro-negro comrade Akin (Afolabi Ajayi), who is what one might describe as a ‘magical negro.’ After his parents die, David’s maternal Aunt Martha Fairchild (Peggy Feury of Matt Cimber’s The Witch Who Came from the Sea (1976)) moves into the large rural family estate to become his legal guardian and she immediately begins bitching, stating of her new luxury home, “I can’t believe my sister slept here.” Akin, who lives in a shack on the family estate, immediately realizes that Aunt Martha is a deleterious influence and decides to stay with the protagonist until he becomes strong and independent, or as he states like some sort of wise negro tribal elder, “I’m going to stay here until I feel that David has the strength to stand on his own two feet. Once he knows what his father stood for, there is no way she can influence him.” Despite being a rather wealthy and handsome chap, David’s father was a sort of wild child and perennial wander who could not help but spend much of his time dicking around the Dark Continent (or as one of his less than sympathetic relatives states, “jackassing around Africa”). Like his father, David has an aversion to Christianity and is a pagan at heart, though he decides to codify his own religion involving a taxidermied monkey named ‘Charlie’ as his god. While Aunt Martha bitches to him, “Your know, David, our family has always made a contribution to the Christian community…and we expect you to do the same. Frankly, we can’t afford to have you grow up to be like your father,” the protagonist is just like his dead daddy in that he is more interested in being an African pagan tribesman than a sterile bourgeois ‘cultural Christian’ fraud and social automaton.

By today’s candy ass pussy standards where people throw around made-up pseudo-academics words like ‘microaggression’ to highlight completely imaginary forms of racial discrimination, David and his negro friend Akin have what one might describe as a somewhat strange and awkward relationship, with the protagonist asking the strange African questions like, “Why are you black?” and him replying, “I’m not. Nooooo…You’re are black and I….I’ll be white.” In a somewhat curious scene, David touches Akin’s steel-wool-like hair and remarks “That’s wild,” and the humble homeboy proudly replies, “I’m glad you like.” In fact, Akin likes David so much that he always asks him to smoke out of his hookah with him. Unfortunately, Aunt Martha spots David and Akin together while lying on a leopard skin rug and she goes completely berserk and attacks the protagonist. When Akin attempts to physically restrain Aunt Martha, she hatefully, if not hilariously, yells, “Don’t you touch me, you black nigger Man!” and complains that she does not want her nephew being around “dirty” things like the decidedly dark negro. Not surprisingly, Aunt Martha demands that Akin leave the estate immediately and even goes so far as ordering the jolly black brother to kill David’s pet chicken Apple Betty before he leaves. While demanding that he not say goodbye to David before he leaves, Akin manages to write a letter to the lad reading, “David, your aunt has ordered the destruction of your hideout. I have killed the animal but she’s to blame. Prayers are no longer good. You must stand on your own two feet and face her.

Naturally, with his best friend gone and his favorite pet dead, David’s rather fragile mind begins to unravel and he begins spending a good portion of time hanging out in the chicken coop where he intentionally burns his hands over a flame and sees his ‘god’ Charley come alive and his dead father appear with glowing hands and proclaiming, “Don’t you forget me.” In a blatant tribute to Persona (1966), David and his father’s faces become one just as Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann’s faces did in Bergman’s masterpiece. Meanwhile, it becomes quite apparent that one of the reasons Aunt Martha hates David’s father so much is because she might have been in love with him and was quite possibly even once his lover. While looking around the house in a frantic fashion for a photo of David’s father, presumably to masturbate to, Aunt Martha accidentally kills the protagonist's cute little white puppy dog ‘Henry’ upon unwittingly slamming its body into a door. Rather tragically, David walks in just as the dog dies and when he cries, his considerably insensitive aunt has the gall to rebuke him, stating, “Don’t cry, David. He’s dead. Leave him alone.” When David rebels against his aunt by writing “bitch” on a bathroom mirror with lipstick and leaving her a threatening message in the form of a pile of chopped up bread with a butcher knife sticking out of the top, Aunt Martha decides to lock him in his room. In a fairly bizarre and seemingly sexually confused scenario, David decides to mock his aunt by dressing in full drag and complaining in an exceedingly grating fashion by saying things like, “Now, David, you must take your medicine.” Judging by his tragic childhood, fascination with becoming like his father, and tendency to dress in drag while he is pissed off, one can only assume that David will grow up to be a pervert of sorts.

David inherited a breathing problem from his father, so when Aunt Martha opts to tie him to his bed in a cold room that lacks a heater, he naturally becomes quite sick. Luckily, the family maid, Mary (Eleanor Stewart), decides to comfort David by saying things to him like, “Sleep, David, while I watch over you. I love you, like I would my own son.” Naturally, Aunt Martha becomes infuriated that Mary slept with David and ultimately decides to fire the feisty Irish maid, thus causing the protagonist to lose his last friend. To make matters worse, David overhears Mary state to a family friend named Dr. Thompson (Stanley Church of Peter Godfrey’s The Great Jewel Robber (1950)) regarding him, “I don’t care about him. I just want you.” Indeed, in a scene inspired by William Faulkner’s Light in August (1932), David hides under a bed while listening to Mary attempting to get in bearded ‘bear’ Dr. Thompson’s pants by negating her affection for the protagonist. For her sins, Mary is subsequently mysteriously murdered while hanging sheets after having her entire body is rolled up in a sheet and repeatedly stabbed.

After being injured after crashing through a greenhouse window upon attempting to escape from his aunt, David is confronted with his greatest fear after being told that he will be sent to a boarding school. Indeed, after Aunt Martha patronizingly states to him, “I know you’ll be happy there. You’ll make lot of friends,” David suffers a hellish A Nightmare on Elm Street-esque hallucination where he is sent to a sort of post-industrial orphanage (which was shot on Roosevelt Island where parts of William Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971) was shot) full of grotesque negro children where he receives an Auschwitz-esque numbered tattoo on his arm and Dr. Thompson and Aunt Martha in drag operate on him and cut his tongue off. Of course, the ominous orphanage dream throws David completely over the edge and with a psychodramatic montage featuring a flashback scene of the protagonist’s mother committing suicide by putting a gun in her mouth after accidentally killing her hubby with Charlie the chimpanzee attacking Aunt Martha, the film finally reaches its natural conclusion. Indeed, while Aunt Martha is being violently mauled by Charlie in the chicken coop, David appears with a shotgun and pulls the trigger while recalling his mother putting a bullet in her brain. In a scene that hints that the protagonist has been brainwashed by one-too-many holocaust classics, David stares at Aunt Martha’s corpse, which is covered with mice and states “never again.” After liquidating his aunt, David celebrates by eating toast.  Of course, he chows down on the toasted bread in celebration of the death of his aunt, who regularly berated him any time she saw him eating it.

Aside from being one of the most patently peculiar and genre-bending coming-of-age films ever made, The Orphan is arguably also the most anti-Oedipal and even ‘misogynistic.’ Indeed, while virtually all the adults featured in the film betray the boy protagonist in one way or another, the female characters are especially cold, calculating, and irrational in their treachery. As Stephen Thrower noted in NIGHTMARE USA, it was not exactly common for a young director in the late-1960s to make a film with a sort of pro-patriarchal piece where ‘father knows best’ and where the death of the male parent is depicted as the most deleterious of things that can happen to a boy (notably, the protagonist’s few recollections of his mother are negative, as she is ultimately depicted as the source of the eponymous character’s problems). Indeed, unlike Jason Voorhees, the orphan is no momma’s boy but a young boy who lost his father at a critical age, thus guaranteeing that he will never be as great of a man as the fellow that sired him. In its unintentionally hilarious depiction of a cracked cracker adopting tribal negro garb and customs, the film can only be compared to similarly strange works like Karen Arthur’s The Mafu Cage (1978), which depicts a deranged dame with delicate daddy issues and an unhealthy chimp fetish, among other things. Of course, as one would most certainly suspect from watching the film, director John Ballard is a negrophile of sorts. In fact, aside from being actively involved in the so-called Civil Rights movement during the mid-1960s, Ballard attempted to direct a film entitled ‘Hoops’ about inner city negro basketball players around the same time he was putting his finishing touches on The Orphan, but gave up on the project upon being flown to Hollywood and being told by producers that they wanted a black coach character, which was originally supposed to be played by James Earl Jones’s father Robert E. Jones, changed to a white man. Indubitably, the height of Ballard’s cultural cuckoldry is probably most apparent in a scene that was from The Orphan where the evil Aunt Martha character fantasizes about giving negro Akin a blowjob. Ballard must have realized the scene was the height of libelous Judeo-negro propaganda in its depiction of a supposedly racist rich old cracker lady longing for darkie dong as he would later state of it in Thrower’s book, “I didn’t mind that being taken out.” Negrophilia aside, Ballard at least seems to have some sane views about race as reflected in the following remark he made to Thrower in regard to Blaxploitation cinema, “SWEET SWEETBACK was creative; most of the others were really stupid. It’s the same feeling I have about Tarantino. He has a wonderful talent with actors, but what is he doing? He’s like a wannabe black person.”

Of course, as its sometimes incoherent and wayward structure demonstrates, the film also had a number of other imperative scenes cut that make more sense of the overall story. In fact, Ballard has gone on to confess that the entire structure of the film was mutilated when it was reedited at the behest of its two art-annihilating female producers, or as the director stated himself, “There was a structural design to the film, to do with pastel autumnal scenes at the beginning and cold winter scenes at the end, but because the film was restructured for its final release, this structure is compromised, with scenes from winter added to the early stages.” Indeed, it might be part delusion on my part, but I sincerely think that The Orphan had the potential to be a hit midnight movie and artsploitation classic, but meddling producers and poor distribution put a stop to that, thus making the film now seem like a sort of pretentious yank cinematic cousin to Italian arthouse auteur turned exploitation hack Romano Scavolini’s totally tasteless trash classic Nightmares in a Damaged Brain (1981). Although too blatantly butchered and ‘politically incorrect’ for arthouse fans and too tame and bloodless for gorehounds, Ballard’s shockingly original and truly one-of-a-kind work most certainly has more artistic merit than all of the films in the Friday the 13th franchise combined. Naturally, it also has to be the most curious film ever directed by a former child prodigy, as one certainly gets the feeling while watching The Orphan that Ballard still has a special visceral hatred for adults, especially women, as a result of some dubious experiences he had with grownups while creating masterful oil paintings while just still a wee lad. I would even go so far as to argue that the film makes it seem as if Ballard never wanted to grow up, at least not in the conventional sense, as the eponymous protagonist of The Orphan dreams of becoming like his dead father who, as a man that spent his entire life going on exotic journeys and playing around in general, was more or less a perennial kid with Peter Pan syndrome. Indeed, aside from Charles Laughton’s masterpiece The Night of the Hunter (1955), I cannot think of another film shot from the perspective of children where adults seem so collectively flawed, deceitful, and just plain despicable. Although a coming-of-age flick that would probably greatly appeal to certain children due to its ridiculously rebellious boy protagonist, The Orphan probably makes for uniquely unhealthy viewing for kids, especially of the highly impressionable, criminally-inclined, and/or mentally imbalanced sort, though, admittedly, I wish I had the opportunity to see the film when I was a budding juvenile delinquent, even if I would have cringed at the titular character's patently preposterous proto-wigger dream of becoming a magical Zulu warrior of sorts. 

-Ty E

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