Ken Russell’s masterpiece of sex and insanity comes to Blu-ray
The late, great film critic Roger Ebert said this of director Ken Russell’s virtually un-classifiable 1984 erotic thriller/sex drama/horror film Crimes of Passion when reviewing it in the Chicago Sun Times on the eve of its release:
“Sex is an activity of great and serious importance to its participants, but as a spectator sport it has a strange way of turning into comedy. Look, for example, at Ken Russell’s overwrought film “Crimes of Passion”, in which good performances and an interesting idea are metamorphosed into one of the silliest movies in a long time.”
Now we love that quote. And we love(d) Roger Ebert. But respectfully to Roger’s memory, his take on Russell’s masterpiece is not only way off base…it’s a crock of shit.
Because 32 years later, Crimes still packs a wallop.
Perhaps, in the way that Russell’s style from Women in Love to The Devils to Tommy to Lisztomania to Lair of the White Worm is eccentric, over the top, fetizhized and stylishly overwrought. Russell’s best films are cartoonish on the surface, with actors pushing emotions to 11 and Russell’s lens diving into the strangest places to create a sort of fevered hysteria that few filmmakers could or will ever equal.
No, Crimes of Passion is not silly. Underneath the endless transgressive sex, jacked-up performances and maniacal electronic Rick Wakeman score, lurks a devastating portrait of an empty marriage and a musing on how the day-to-day doldrums of human existence can often irrevocably – and tragically – alienate us from our most natural instinct: the urge to connect sexually with another human being. The trauma of that sexual disconnect is what propels the characters in Crimes of Passion forward, for better or worse, towards their destinies.
Kathleen Turner was at the peak of her career when she signed on to star as Joanna, a posh fashion designer by day and a street hooker specializing in fetishes by night. Under her “stage name” China Blue, Turner entertains all manner of rough trade in her fleapit apartment, among them the manic street preacher (Anthony Perkins) who has tried in vain to bury his sexuality, so much so that it has driven him insane. As the preacher, Perkins gives one of his greatest post-Psycho performances, sweating and twitching and preaching Hellfire even while masturbating at peep shows and spying on China Blue’s endless antics. The preacher tries to “save” her, mumbling about salvation with his face buried between Turner’s legs, as she laughs maniacally at his reptilian hypocrisy.
Meanwhile, across town, a decent family man named Bobby (John Laughlin) keeps trying to connect with his perpetually cold, increasingly de-sexed, detached and unhappy wife (Annie Potts). He tries to tell his friends and himself that everything is okay, pathetically accepting crumbs that drop from the table and pretending that they’re meals. It’s a sensitive and sad side narrative and one you don’t see very often in mainstream cinema, of a man trying his best to connect with his wife, to keep the passion alive and then living in quiet misery when he’s endlessly rebuked without explanation.
When Bobby gets a part-time job as an amateur private eye, he stumbles into the twilight world of China Blue and, after an unplanned and unexpectedly tender sexual encounter, begins a sort of friendship-cum-romance with her, something the Preacher doesn’t like one bit.
But the Preacher has a plan, one that involves a gigantic vibrator that also functions as metal stake. Much penetration ensues…
When New World Pictures released Crimes of Passion in 1984, they effectively neutered it, shaving down much of the sex which is ludicrous as sex, the need for it, the longing for it and the consequences of it, is the point of the film. Because of this, Ebert’s wasn’t the only negative critical response. Thankfully, New World released the full unrated version on home video (in a red VHS box, with the R-rated version packaged in a blue box) and that has since become the only version released.
Arrow Video‘s new Blu-ray package gives us that cut (a 2K restoration from the 35mm interpositive) as well as the longer “director’s cut” that has not only more sex, but much more dialogue, including more of Bobby’s sour domestic life which adds considerably to the drama. That version is a patchwork, with some footage ported over from the R rated cut and other sources, resulting in dips in visual quality. But oddly, I barely noticed.
Extras on the release include the witty Russell commentary ported over from a previous release and new features like an interview with writer Bary Sandler (Making Love) and, best of all, an absolutely essential chat with Wakeman. The pair had worked together on Russell’s Lisztomania and the insight he offers into Russell the man and Russell the filmmaker is invaluable and entertaining.
The release is rounded out with a booklet including a nifty Paul Sutton-penned essay and letter from Russell to Kathleen Turner, virtually begging her to star in a proposed version of Alice in Wonderland, a musical that sadly never came to pass.
Crimes of Passion is pure Russell, a filmmaker who broke rules and defied the mainstream using perversion to obscure the tenderness that often lurked beyond the surface. He forever flipped the bird to lazy, unimaginative puritans everywhere who refused to work a bit harder to see the beauty and truth that was nestled within and while those antics may have eventually isolated him from Hollywood, they resulted in an enduring and beautiful filmography.
And Crimes of Passion sits high on that list.