Secretly Scary: 1975’s THE DAY OF THE LOCUST

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

“Jeepers Creepers, where’d you get those peepers? Jeepers Creepers, where’d you get those eyes?”
– Adore (Jackie Hayley) and  Faye Greener (Karen Black)

There’s a line in Mart Crowley’s controversial play THE BOYS IN THE BAND belonging to the protagonist Michael that reads: “Hollywood. Which is not in Europe nor does it have anything to do with California whatsoever.” What Michael is saying is that Hollywood is a place unto itself, a detached institution spewing out a fabricated reality, and in the nightmarish John Schlesinger film THE DAY OF THE LOCUST, Hollywood is also presented as a dystopia built upon hidden agendas and a playground for the fragile, distressed and unstable. It is presented in a garish and cynical light, and a melting pot made up of the deranged, desperate, deluded and damaged. This is most certainly a horror film painted up in a striking bronze sheen that suggests the ugly side of the “golden age” while savagely delivering it’s populous (the locust) with the same degree of nastiness, brutality, sadness and struggle.

Telling the story of a young ambitious art director who gets a job on a film about the battle of Waterloo, THE DAY OF THE LOCUST invites it’s audience to bear witness to some of the most disturbing set pieces that comment on the nature of the industry, the darkness of the human heart and the grotesque monstrousness of opportunism and drive.

When Todd (William Atherton) comes across the dilapidated San Bernadino Arms he is thoroughly seduced by a complicated but talentless starlet wannabe, Faye Greener (Karen Black) who is saddled with the burden of caring for her ageing father (Burgess Meredith), a left-over of the vaudeville circuit who is now a gasping and coughing door-to-door salesman. The other residents at the San Bernadino Arms include an androgynous child named Adore (Jackie Hayley) who is modelled after Shirley Temple and hideously mimics Mae West, her overbearing and abusive show business mother and the legendary pintsized star Billy Barty as a cantankerous actor who is constantly fighting with his oafish wife. Driven to prostitution, Faye eventually meets the sexually repressed accountant Homer Simpson (Donald Sutherland) who slowly slips into a violent rage by the end of the film, when the allegorical locust finally have their day.

From the title card that sits upon a sound stage door, right through to the terrifying blood soaked finale at the iconic Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, THE DAY OF THE LOCUST not only reveals the sordid underbelly of Hollywood, but it also paints a grim portrait of the terror that lives just under the surface. It violently and vividly dissects the emotional distress of established artists and aspiring artists who are trampled upon and destroyed by the film industry, and with it’s oppressive and unnerving phony golden hue, the film is a mesmerizing nightmare that seduces and promises, but then lies, steals and rapes its audience.

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Karen Black is pitch-perfect in what truly is a terrifying performance. She loses herself in a depressingly unsympathetic portrayal of a woman drowning in delusion. This mess of a woman is driven insane by the cult of celebrity and the relentless desire to be adored, honored, loved and worshiped. Her childlike bravado early on sets her up as a flirtatious kook, and even the way she laps up her ice-cream adds to an almost sickly nymphette mystique that is easily shattered and can be treated as throwaway. Later when she downs tequila and slips chunks of roasted quail down her throat by a bonfire, her sexuality is surprisingly earthy and dense, while her hysterical reactions to the oppressive Homer Simpson is presented as maniacal and downright horrific.

Donald Sutherland as the tortured Homer is also just as outstanding. He is a broken man, all twisted up inside and ruined by situation, environment, lovelessness and crippling anguish. Homer Simpson is one of those literary characters who sits exposed to the blistering heat of the sun like a lizard soaking up the heat who will eventually move – and with this sudden movement will come aggression and violence. Sutherland’s superb handling of the depressing Homer is countered by the lithe and nimble William Atherton who knocks out his performance with a sturdy realism – his sexual prowess is kept anchored and measured – and his physicality matches his character’s eye for detail and artistic brilliance. The terrifying reality that stabs through the sheen is first spotted by Atherton’s Todd when he notices the crack in his apartment wall – an embodiment of dreams distorted by naturalism and the reminder of the inevitable permanent void.

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Along with these three phenomenal performances, are some inspired casting choices such as horror showman director and producer William Castle in a fantastic cameo as one of the studio’s greatest directors who is at the reins of the Waterloo movie. While shooting the film, the actual sets collapse and actors and crew are injured; bleeding while the film about the infamous historical battle is being shot. Much like Bob Fosse’s CABARET (1972) (yet another dark, bleak and sinister excursion into art as an expression of realized violence and hate) here, THE DAY OF THE LOCUST uses real violence as a harrowing monstrosity made all the more terrifying when commerce and art are used to comment on the evils of industry and studio politics. The horrific cockfight sequence is another brutal illustration of indifference, societal imbalance, character assassination and spiritual death that matches the visceral evils that permeate confronting but important films such as CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980) complete with the grisly image of Billy Barty licking the bloodied beak of his rooster.

A tourist guide hollers about the suicide of an actress who threw herself off the letter “H” on the Hollywood sign, while a lengthy scene has Natalie Schafer (best known for playing Lovey Howell on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND) presents stag movies at her brothel, entertaining her guests with this early pornography and having her girls embody the blur between actress and prostitute. The malicious menace of Hollywood and it’s misfit freaks jumps from Burgess Meredith as the decrepit and mentally unstable salesman and showman spewing out hateful anti-Semitic remarks and escalates to the shocking and brutally violent ending which has to be one of the most harrowing experiences ever put to film. When Homer Simpson cuts his hand from pouring a glass of milk, his literal bloodletting (a commentary on his own stunted social and spiritual self forced to bleed out) sets up a symbolic pathway towards the frantic ending where he stomps on the child actor/actress Adore, crushing him/her to death, before he is mobbed by the swarm of masses at a Hollywood premiere who then proceed to tear him to shreds – his bloodied, slashed body lifted above the heads of the crowds, bleeding to death as Los Angeles tears itself up in a violent fury. Along with such vicious imagery, there are unsettling quiet moments such as the beautifully photographed images of cacti and a sleepy lizard, summer fruit falling from a tree and the image of elderly people looking vacantly into space – of course all of these come to reflect Homer Simpson’s sadness and alienation while the frenetic images comment on the disparate group of Hollywood hopefuls all completely under the spell of aspiration and desire. Faye’s reaction to her father possibly dying is maddening showcasing the horrors of the human condition and the monstrousness of fake despair, while the song “Jeepers Creepers” is used to highlight the ugliness of commodity. With a frenzied Aimee Semple McPherson-type monster in Big Sister played with delicious gratuitous grotesqueness by Gerladine Page, a sleazy moment where Faye is nearly raped in a sequence lit and shot like a sixties Spaghetti western and frightening images depicting screaming faces that look like art department sketches from our imperfect protagonist Todd, THE DAY OF THE LOCUST is a genuinely terrifying venture into the dark recesses of not only an industry that eats its product, vomits it back up and scoffs it down again, but a wonderful critique on human ugliness and desolation.