Secretly Scary: 1962’s DAVID AND LISA

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Lee Gambin’s “Secretly Scary” column continues to look at non-horror films that are secretly horror films!

“Bunch of screwballs! Spoiling the town!”

-DAVID AND LISA               

By the early sixties, traditional gothic horror that audiences thrilled to, bench-marked by films such as Todd Browning’s DRACULA and James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, featured movie monsters that were otherworldly and supernatural such as bloodsucking vampires and man-made monstrosities that would wreak havoc on unsuspecting villagers. However, by 1962, the movie monster found his or her place in the realm of the innocuous and contemporary – completely human in every aspect, but just as terrifying.

However, these evil doers could have been considered more frightening than their predecessors because such sinister malevolent madmen and women were just as relatable and familiar as that young man who ran his mother’s hotel in suburban Arizona or that little old lady lost in the memory of her long gone days dancing on the vaudeville stage. No longer did these sixties monsters sport fangs or bolts emerging from either side of their necks, instead you would find them in sensible sweatshirts and slacks such as the mild mannered Norman Bates from PSYCHO or in frilly white dresses and with powdered poodle hair a la Baby Jane Hudson from WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?

The horror of the mentally disturbed had found its way in the national consciousness and this trend of the very human monster terrified audiences and enforced a microscopic lens on emotional fragility, the complexity of the human condition and the intricate power play between psychological damage and spiritual emptiness. The violent nature of humankind and humanist insanity personified and made a tangible reality and threat was something that horror cinema was truly invested in and dedicated to examine.  

A film that shares this devotion to tapping into the damaged psyche of characters completely torn apart by turbulent mental anguish is Frank Perry’s haunting and disturbing DAVID AND LISA.  

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Shot in bleak black and white which underlines the continually moody nature of the piece as well as the relentlessly (and rightfully) dour tone, the film is an extraordinary character study and a poignant lyrical masterpiece commenting on mental disturbance, the cry of the angry outsider, loneliness as self-prescribed motivator and the alienation and distancing of carer and social outcast. 

Opening with a striking image of dead branches contorting and in conflict with one another against a clouded sky, DAVID AND LISA automatically and systematically sets up this visual to make masterful commentary on the schizoid aspect of the characters we will soon meet who are twisted by mental illness, but ultimately reaching out to some kind of airy forgiveness. This gothic approach to a contemporary world is what makes director Frank Perry’s film an extension of something such as PSYCHO, in that he has a mental institution positioned just beneath the dead trees that resemble haunted and isolated tortured souls. He also uses contemporary art as a non-paradoxical description of his character’s insecurities, vulnerabilities and self-disabling despair. Perry’s anti-hero, David (Keir Dullea) is a branch of Alfred Hitchcock’s demented Norman Bates – here Perry delivers a damaged youth that comes to represent a potential psychotic; it is as if Norman Bates didn’t act on his violent urges but instead was committed to a treatment center, and that is what David Clemens purely is – someone on the verge of great violence and malice, but pushed into a forced normalcy.

Keir Dullea’s manic performance is magnetic and highly charged. He is completely brilliant in his quiet moments and his violent eruptions, a boy tormented by his own suffering and inability to connect to fellow humans. Taunted by his supposedly well-meaning mother, David’s psychosis is established from the opening where his P.O.V. of the institution and eventual spotting of Lisa (Janet Margolin) is set to a frenzied camera jolt that Frank Perry expertly handles. Animalistic Lisa who lurks like a wolf girl hiding behind the bannister of stairs is carefully positioned in her introduction – trapped by her environs and therefore trapped by her psychotic episodes and split personality. She shifts from persona to persona like a cinematic werewolf, crazed and nutty and then subdued and quietly tormented.

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When David is first touched by a fellow inmate he goes crazy – “You touched me! You want to kill me?” His fear of being touched is cemented in the idea that he has that if he is touched he will die. Along with his psychological scarring he has an obsession with clocks. He notices the large clock in the head psychiatrist’s office isn’t working and he has an overt disdain for the said psychiatrist’s wrist watch which sets off his strained relationship with the professional shrink. Also contributing to the internal horror is the fact that David has recurring nightmares and visions of killing people. This is where Perry shines as a filmmaker dedicated to upsetting an audience. He matches these confronting visuals with equally controversial dialogue and subject matter where David’s social climbing and superficial mothers claims “We never abused him” – protecting herself and her browbeaten husband from the very concept of sexual, physical or emotional abuse.

Frank Perry delivers the human monstrosities thick and fast and presents the inmates of the asylum as varied and very different facets of mental illness, all there to compliment and counter David’s violent eruptions. David is tightly wound up and always ready to blow up, and this is something that actor Keir Dullea handles so beautifully. Dullea would play a quiet but far more threatening menace in the D.H. Lawrence adaptation of THE FOX some years later in 1968 (another film destined for Secretly Scary coverage), and his take on a boy terrified of being touched is a testament to an actor devoted to tapping into those shadowy places of the heart.

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Janet Margolin as Lisa is just as superb. She carries the character’s split personality disorder with assured confidence and never lets the girl become a cartoon. Lisa is a complicated and incredibly sad loner, a girl perplexed by the outside world and never at peace. One personality can only speak in rhyme, while the other is mute and only communicates by scribbling on paper. The mentally disturbed young people that occupy the asylum, all at the narrative service of the relationship that gradually develops between David and Lisa, are violent reactions to a universe that has no use for them; alienated by torment and by overwhelming depression and distrust. However, director Perry never lets them live in a vacuum; he gives them all attributes that makes this dimensional psychotics.

David is good looking and a snappy dresser, two attributes that would work to his benefit, he is also incredibly intuitive and smart, but his obsessive compulsive disorder, his snappish intolerance for other people, his emotionless snobbery and his restless angst makes him incredibly hard to deal with. This kind of balancing act between socially acceptable neurosis and all-consuming manic madness makes for a wonderful interpersonal monster show. The moodiness of the piece – the numbing oppressive nature of the film where these doomed characters are destined for more trouble and despair, makes this film smell of a Hammer horror production without the grandiose operatics, but instead with a quiet unsettling underscore.

Lisa is a beautiful young girl, but consumed by her mental disturbance, and when she grows as the film moves on, we understand and feel for her vulnerable psyche. She is never cut a break, however hard she tries. In saying this, the romance that blossoms is quiet, understated and incredibly moving – there is nothing forced or false about David and Lisa’s connection and serene dedication to one another. The violence of character is what makes Frank Perry’s film terrifying, but the quaint peacefulness of assured rest and purely relaxed stability is what turns the film on it’s head, bringing the skewed dramatics home to a place of momentous magnetic maturity and surrender. “I’ll play with you, what would you like to play?” asks David, after he insults Lisa. This is what makes these characters tick – a brutality and unrecognized sociopathic edge. When David plays amateur psychiatrist (“Lisa has a very difficult time with authoritarian figures”) it is used as a undermining of the establishment and the unsettling dream logic of the film plays along with that sensibility. The nightmares where David plots his murders and kills people by chopping off their heads in his imagined clock where his victims are placed at certain hours on the face of the clock and bled to death by the swinging hands of time is an inventive concept. The clock execution dreams and the obsession with time, remarks on David’s intrusive thoughts about death and killing – he is someone that will eventually slay and rape and murder, but his repression and self-awareness is something holding him back. His final admission to let Lisa in, is what ultimately helps him – like the werewolf who represses his lycanthropic state in order to protect the fair maiden he loves.

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Eleanor Perry’s screenplay is loaded with pulsating menace and grimness – there is nothing remotely hopeful in her words, and she gives them to characters who are not permitted any moment of happiness. Not true, pure escapist happiness that is. However, because the film cares about the doomed teens who understand what they feel but simply react to it in staggering and jilted manners, there is a promise of some splice of calm, serenity, bitter sweet tenderness and a refuge from inherit loneliness. The film is also rapid in speed – the scenes come and go and pack a punch. There is no dilly dallying here and there is no unnecessary repetition which could be an easy trap for this kind of material, especially when working with characters with obsessive personalities.

Lisa’s mental instability is examined by David, who for the first time in his life, feels something – and this something is a devotion to Lisa, a desire to help the unfortunate girl, who unlike David, is completely trapped by her anguish and relentless madness. David seems to have a switch on and off to his psychosis, but Lisa (using the werewolf analogy again) is unable to control her maniacal manners. David’s fear of being touched anchors his character – much like Norman Bates and his desire for young women that “mother” disproves – and the fear of connecting reflects the oppressive nature of being alive. His shrink says “We take a chance when we open up and love another person”, and that is something that Frank Perry breathes into the bleakness of the picture.

The incredible scene where the mentally disturbed teenagers have an angry villager exclaim “You’re a bunch of screwballs! Spoiling the town!” is a poignant insertion. It harkens back to Todd Browning’s FREAKS where the circus performers chant “One of us!” The image of the psychotic teens chanting  back “Bunch of screwballs! Spoiling the town!” then breaking down into tears is powerful and confronting. These ruined fallen angels, flattened by personal instability and a society that cannot help them are a problem for the “civilised” and monsters in the eyes of the establishment. When they turn this attack around, it is a power play on who the real villains are in the piece. A horror film commenting on the instability and deceptive frailty of the haunted human spirit, DAVID AND LISA is a compelling statement and a responsible detailing of anguish, loss, attempted love and the damaged heart.