Jul 19, 2016

Ursula (1961)

If there is an avant-garde film that comes anywhere close to depicting the unhinged psychosexual nightmare the was the abusive childhood of uniquely inarticulate white trash serial killer Henry Lee Lucas—the genetically challenged fiend that inspired the eponymous lead of John McNaughton’s cult classic Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)—it is indubitably the ominously oneiric experimental horror short Ursula (1961) directed by little known subversive avant-garde auteur Lloyd Michael Williams (Line of Apogee, Two Images for a Computer Piece). Indeed, not unlike many serial killers and criminals in general, Lucas was abused by a single mother during his childhood and, like the poor little boy depicted in Williams’ film, he was forced to wear a dress (in fact, Lucas’ mother was a sexually savage prostitute that made her little boy watch while she was being sensually serviced by various strange men). Also like Lucas, the cross-dressing little boy in the film ultimately brutally murders his mother with a knife in what one might describe as an aberrant act of patently perverse poetic justice of the anti-Oedipal sort. Of course, judging by his later rather subhuman adult appearance, Lucas was probably never a pretty blond boy that could easily pass for a girl like the poor little eponymous lad in Williams' film, but I digress.

While Curtis Harrington (Games, What's the Matter with Helen?) began as an avant-garde filmmaker and became a master of the covertly queer hagsploitation subgenre, Mr. Williams, who is all but completely unknown today, should be credited for directing what is the first (and probably last) experimental Grande Dame Guignol film. Indeed, it is almost incomprehensible to think that anyone, especially an American, would direct an experimental horror film in the early 1960s featuring a little dude in drag that concludes with said little dude brutally butchering his bitch of a mother with the same exact knife that she just used to slaughter her sexually confused son’s new pet frog.  To be fair, Ursula is a fairly subtle and hardly graphic film, thus its particular brand of psychosexual perversity might be lost on many contemporary viewers who expect to see buckets of blood and guts. Of course, as a man that previously directed an experimental surrealist adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s 1871 poem Jabberwocky entitled Jabberwock (1959), Williams—an auteur that is even pretty much completely unknown among cinephiles and avant-garde film fetishists—was no ordinary filmmaker, but I guess one should not expect anything less in a country were art cinema is hardly respected and horror cinema is mostly considered titillating teenage trash. 

 While I am hesitant to go as far describing Ursula as a lost masterpiece, I certainly see it as a sort of important missing link of American avant-garde horror cinema that has yet to get its due as work featuring certain sexually subversive themes that predates works ranging from Frank Perry’s post-psycho-biddy classic Mommie Dearest (1981) to classic sexually schizophrenic slasher trash like Sleepaway Camp (1983). Indeed, despite the fact that he was one of the co-founders of The Film-Makers' Cooperative aka The New American Cinema Group along with Jonas Mekas, collaborated with pioneering female animator and filmmaker Mary Ellen Bute on her film The Boy Who Saw Through (1956) starring a very young Christopher Walken, and has worked with important queer cinema figures ranging from Warhol superstar Taylor Mead to raging kraut queen Rosa von Praunheim, American avant-garde authority P. Adams Sitney did not even make a single reference to Williams or any of his films in his supposedly comprehensive text Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde, 1943-2000, but then again he also forgot about important proto-counterculture auteur Peter Emmanuel Goldman (Echoes of Silence, Wheel of Ashes), among various other negligent omissions. Aside from James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber’s quasi-Expressionist Poe adaptation The Fall of the House of Usher (1928), Harrington’s 1942 amateur teenage reworking of the same Poe story and Fragment of Seeking (1946), and a couple other examples, American experimental horror cinema is all but nonexistent, with Williams indubitably being it’s most criminally unsung auteur. Aside from Ursula, Williams also demonstrated a knack for the forebodingly cinematically phantasmagoric with esoteric cinematic poems like Opus#5 (1961) and Two Images for a Computer Piece (1969), with the latter featuring a notable original musical score by Vladimir ‘father of electronic music’ Ussachevsky. While I have not been able to track down his later longer cinematic works like Line of Apogee (1968) and Rainbow's Children (1975), Ursula seems to be his darkest and most daring yet, at the same time, most accessible and revolutionary film as a genuinely haunting homo oneiric celluloid nightmare made at a time when being a homo was more or less illegal and thus something to be petrified of, or so one would assume after watching the somewhat surprisingly unsettling short. 

 Based on the vaguely autobiographical short story Miss Gentilbelle by writer and sometimes screenwriter Charles Beaumont—a man probably best known for penning many episodes of the original The Twilight Zone TV series whose tragic death at the premature age of 38 as a result of “a mysterious brain disease” seems like something that he might have penned himself—Ursula is pure celluloid Americana in the greatest and most fullest sense as a piece of organic yank horror that can only be compared to a handful of other cinematic works like Richard Blackburn’s criminally underrated Lovecraftian vampire lesbo flick Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural (1973) and Don Coscarelli’s classic surrealist horror piece Phantasm (1979) in terms of contributing to a truly authentic and artful American horror film mythology that is completely outside the alien influence of the culture-distorters of Hollywood. Notably, Armenian-American NYU film professor Haig Manoogian, who acted as a mentor to a young Martin Scorsese and even produced his first feature Who's That Knocking at My Door (1967), is credited as an ‘advisor’ on Williams' film. In fact, despite earning Williams the Bronze Medallion at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival (incidentally, he previously won the Silver Medallion for his short Jabberwock in 1959), Ursula is actually a student film, hence the completely unknown actors and composer. In my less than humble opinion, the film’s low budget and sometimes amateurish production values (including glaringly dubbed voices) ultimately work to its advantage, as Ursula, which feels like it is set in antiquated Anglophile realm that is equal parts Southern Gothic and Victorian Gothic, seems like the creation of a decidedly damaged young man that was less interested in trying to make a film to entertain people than to provide himself with therapeutic emotional release by documenting the decay of his own mind in a most visceral manner. Indeed, I do not know much about Williams but just by watching his fairly idiosyncratic horror short, which was notably made at a time when wholesome TV swill like The Andy Griffith Show was extremely popular, I would assume that that he had a sadistically bitchy mother who stunted him manhood and ultimately turned him into a woman-hating homo. 

 Undoubtedly, the central theme of Ursula is how damaged and broken things can never be fixed, especially when it comes to the mind. Indeed, at the very beginning of the film, tragic she-boy protagonist ‘Ursula’ (Calvin Waters, who has no other film credits aside from being the producer of an aborted reality TV show about an eponymous gay negro fashion designer entitled Living Life with Dwight Eubanks (2009))—a poor little lad who has been forced to live as a girl—accidentally tears a brand new dress he is wearing after falling from a tree upon being called to come inside by his supposed mother (Dorothea Griffin), henceforth leading to horrific consequence for the protagonist where he must learn a lesson about the impossibility mending. Naturally as a crazed cunt that wants to brainwash her son into becoming a girl, Ursula’s mother—a woman that is clearly too old to be his biological progenitor—is extra irked when he dares to do such a boyish thing as tearing his clothing whilst playing outside. After bitching to him like a sexually repressed witch on the rag, “Oh, you ungrateful child! Look at yourself – destroying your finery. Such a pity. It can never be replaced,” Ursula’s mother declares in a calmer yet all the more sadistic fashion, “Let’s play a little game about mending things, shall we?” and then demands that he go fetch his beloved pet parakeet. Although just a young and vulnerable child, Ursula realizes that his malevolent mommy has seriously unsavory intentions with his pet as he apologizes in advance to his bird by stating “I’m sorry little bird. I’m sorry” as if he already knows what will happen to it. Needless to say, Ursula’s mother slaughters the bird and even makes the boy protagonist hand her the knife that she uses to kill it with. In a scene that demonstrates Ursula’s seething hatred for his mother, Ursula thinks to himself “I hate you” while staring at her immediately after she kills parakeet. After killing the bird, Ursula’s sadistic mother hands the boy the bird’s dismembered body parts and states in a fashion that makes her sound like an old spinster school teacher who has devoted her life to gaining pleasure from covertly browbeating small and impressionable school children, “Take her in your hand. Do not forget her wings. Now then, shall we mend the tiny bird? Shall we put her together again? Glue her pretty little wing back?,” to which he sadly replies, “No. Nothing can be mended.” Of course, the emotional and psychological damage that Ursula’s mother has done to him also cannot be mended as the fittingly creepy conclusion of the film ultimately demonstrates. 

 After suffering the trauma of witnessing the senseless slaughter of his most beloved pet by a wicked woman that is supposed to love and protect him, Ursula naturally suffers from severe nightmares that night involving swarms of screeching birds, sinister large gnomes, an ominously luminous moon, swinging gothic chandeliers, a desolate beach, and his mother calling his name and laughing in a maniacal fashion. In fact, Ursula's nightmare is so long, consuming, and intricately horrendous that he has to be physically awaken by his mother, who yells in his face while attempting to force him out of bed, “You have missed lunch. You were told to be downstairs prominently at 12:30 and instead I find you resting, like a lady of great leisure.” After his rather rude maternal awakening, Ursula hangs out by a creek near his house where he discovers a frog that he makes his new but hardly improved pet. As demonstrated by his remark, “Ugly frog. Let’s play a little game, shall we? Mommy will teach you how,” Ursula fully realizes he will not have his new green buddy for long as he plans to sacrifice him to accomplish his own matricidal fantasies. 

 When Ursula shows off his new pet his mother, she predictably hatefully shouts in his face while grabbing him by the collar, “Really, you have surpassed yourself in wickedness” and then grabs a large dagger-like knife from a dilapidated cabinet with a broken glass window. When the gender-challenged boy protagonist reveals that he named the frog “Ursula,” his mother remarks in a bitchy bourgeois fashion while brandishing the knife in a somewhat sensual manner, “Really?! …But how very appropriate,” thus underscoring her sick and seemingly insatiable sense of sadistic glee. While his mother is admiring the poor frog that she has just so senselessly slaughtered, Ursula quietly goes to the cabinet and grabs the knife that was just used to slaughter his green friend. Just as his mother drops the dead frog on the floor that she just killed while maintaining a facial expression of abject disgust, Ursula says “mother” and then kills her off-screen by brutally stabbing her to death (the only thing the viewer hears is her echoing scream which, as one reviewer already noted, anticipates the scene in George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) where Mrs. Cooper is stabbed in the cellar by her zombie daughter). In the end after the rather climatic scene of Schadenfreude inducing matricide, Ursula, who is now all alone and psychosis-ridden, rocks back and forth with his hands wrapped around legs while in a fetal position as he repeats to himself his dead mommy's words: “Wicked girl. Bad girl punished. Must be punished. Bad girl…punished. Must be punished.” As the disturbing final scene reveals, the titular boy transvestite’s mind cannot be mended.  In that sense, Ursula almost feels like a kaleidoscopic avant-garde prequel to Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) where one learns how Norman Bates developed his mommy issues, cross-dressing tendencies, and fetish for carving up crazy cunts with knives.  Thankfully, unlike later films featuring sexually deranged cross-dressing killers like Russ Meyer's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) and Paul Bartel's Private Parts (1972), Williams' film never succumbs to trashy campy humor or cheap sexual innuendos.

 Undoubtedly Ursula is a film that cannot be fully appreciated unless one considers its particular historical context. Indeed, the film was made at a time when most America gays were still in the closest and thus queer filmmakers oftentimes sought more esoteric means to express themselves, hence why there is probably so few great fag experimental filmmakers nowadays. Additionally, considering the taboo nature of cocksucking at that time, it should be no surprise that many of the queer experimental filmmakers of the 1950s and early 1960s made films about internally tortured, troubled, and/or otherwise mentally unsound individuals as the early films of both Gregory J. Markopoulos and Kenneth Anger clearly reveal. Notably, in the handful of reviews that I found on Williams’ film, about half of the reviewers did not even realize that the titular character was a boy, thus underscoring the film’s quixotically queer essence. Certainly, it is dubious as to whether such a hermetically homosexual film where fagdom is a source of painful fear and loathing would be made nowadays, especially considering both the mainstream media and public schools are absurdly attempting to brainwash kids into thinking that trannys are normal and getting your dick chopped off is a normal medical procedure. Indeed, one could argue that Ursula is packed with the perturbed pathos of generations upon generations of raging closet queens. Incidentally, although the source story, Miss Gentilbelle is somewhat autobiographical in the sense that the author’s mother used to punish him by making him wear a dress and even threatened to kill his pets, Beaumont was a rampantly heterosexual man and he even once wrote a short story entitled The Crooked Man that was published in Playboy in 1955 about a morally and sexually inverted dystopian world where heterosexuals are a minority that are actively persecuted by homos. Considering the rampant homo-approved language policing of the American public by the mainstream media and government institutions, bullying of bakeries and other private businesses and groups that do not comply with the softcore authoritarian aberrosexual agenda, and defiling of the American legal system via gay marriage and other patent absurdities that make a mockery of law and Western Civilization, it seems that Beaumont’s story is not so far-fetched as the pink NKVD, like their Zionist compatriots, hold a preposterous amount of power in the United States, but I digress.  Of course, if Ursula demonstrates anything about homos and their place in a supposedly homophobic Western society, it is that gay artists created more nuanced and enigmatic works before being gay become something to be ostensibly proud of.

 As largely the result of being included as one of the films in the Other Cinema DVD compilation Experiments in Terror (2003) alongside vaguely similarly themed experimental horror shorts ranging from Peter Tscherkassky’s The Entity (1982) revamping Outer Space (1999) to Damon Packard’s ridiculously spasmodic avant-splatter piece Dawn of an Evil Millennium (1988), Ursula is undoubtedly Williams’ easiest to find film. Notably, Miss Gentilbelle was later adapted by Alfred Hitchcock Presents director Robert Stevens under the titled ‘Miss Belle’ in 1968 for the Hammer Films TV show Journey to the Unknown. Additionally, a Hebrewess hack named Tara Miele, who recently created a stupidly sentimental  and distinctly disingenuous anti-Trump agitprop PSA entitled Meet a Muslim (2016) for a rather dubious quasi-commie Jewish-Muslim propaganda outfit, directed a patently pointless version of the story entitled Miss Gentilbelle (2000). Needless to say, Williams’ version is the greatest adaptation of Beaumont’s story as the sort of film that makes the viewer fantasize about what the auteur could have done with the material of a horror literary maestro like H.P. Lovecraft had he had the budget and means to make an actual feature-length film with professional actors and a decent composer.  Indeed, Ursula is the rare sort of cinematic work that makes me long for an organic American experimental horror cinema that unfortunately does not really exist, as it feels like a filmic tease from a movement that died in its infancy.  While I have watched the film a number of times, it leaves me hungry for more ever single time in that sense that it is rather apparent that the Williams had the capacity to create so much more. 

I almost must confess that every time I watch Ursula, I am reminded about virtually every single serial killer that I have ever read about it.  After all, it could be argued that the eponymous little boy is just as much the monster of the film as his loathsome mother, as he completely transcends her transgressions and graduates on to matricidal murder before he even reaches puberty.  In that sense, the film is like a sort of anti-nostalgic coming-of-age film for serial killers as Henry Lee Lucas, Richard Chase, Gary Ridgway, Edmund Kemper, Bobbie Joe Long, and countless other real-life serial killers experienced childhoods involving maternal abuse similar to that of Ursula.  Arguably more importantly, Ursula is, in terms of brutality and aesthetics, the closest thing to a fag filmic equivalent to a Brothers Grimm fairytale. Indeed, forget Larry Yust's Shirley Jackson adaptation The Lottery (1969)—a 20-minute horror short that is well known for scaring generations of American school children who were forced to watch it in their English classes—Williams' short should be mandatory viewing in public schools lest the United States be condemned with another generation of deluded fatherless youth who believe that cross-dressing is the height of cultivation.

-Ty E

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