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Master of political outrage, fearless speaker of (maybe) truth to power, Oliver Stone has found a special spot for himself in recent film history. I personally don't find him radical, just sometimes a little overly enthusiastic. I still recommend Stone's Untold History of the United States, a docu miniseries that causes liberals to discover just how liberal they really are.
Few people know that Stone's first feature film was so politically extreme that it had to be filmed in Canada. It was immediately recognized by millions as a barely disguised allegory of the Watergate scandal. G. Gordon Liddy is represented by a black executioner with a medieval axe, the fashion-conscious John Erlichman is a cadaverous woman in a revealing dress, and Richard Nixon is perfectly envisioned as a malignant dwarf with a dagger, whose speech is incomprehensible. Watergate was really a writer's bad dream, see....
Forget the previous paragraph. Oliver Stone's Seizure is actually a low-budget horror picture, one of many interesting efforts that came about as a result of Canadian tax shelter opportunities the early 1970s. The articulate, ambitious and persistent Oliver Stone surely bulled the project through as strongly as did his producers. Although put together for almost nothing, the movie can boast marketable stars to distinguish it from the competition. And although his first-time-out direction is shaky, Stone aquits himself more than well enough to stay in the game. After one much bigger (and less interesting) horror offering, Stone wouldn't get his real directing career going for another ten years, with his politically oriented Salvador.
Seizure is a shrewdly concocted item tailored to showcase a newly arrived writer-director. Author Edmund Blackstone (Jonathan Frid of TV's Dark Shadows) is having trouble writing because of recurrent nightmares. A disparate group of friends are spending the weekend at his country cabin, and even before they arrive Edmund becomes convinced that his nightmares are crossing the line into reality. Neither his son Jason (Timothy Ousey) nor his wife Nicole (Christina Pickles) can reassure him. When Nicole naps she dreams about the creepy characters from one of her husband's books. Edmund finds Jason's dog hanging from a tree. The various guests bicker, amuse themselves and even switch bed partners. Edmund's fears are realized when three horror figures arrive in the flesh. The masked executioner Jackal (Henry Baker) and a demonic dwarf called 'The Spider' (Hervé Villechaize) are controlled by the beautiful but evil Queen (Martine Beswick). The supernatural home invaders force the terrorized guests to play murderous games.
Stone's ambition certainly comes through in this brave stab at horror greatness. As a director he often finds good camera angles and keeps most of his actors under control, but the show has weaknesses, and is compromised by inadequate camerawork. The lighting is dank rather then dark and the rushed circumstances even result in shots with faulty focus. It also looks as if Mr. Stone left his horror scenes to be filmed last, because they're rushed and confusing. Although the film's trio of spook villains looks good (and surely made the picture commercial), Stone doesn't give them good entrance scenes or any kind of stylistic emphasis. Cult swoon-bait Martine Beswick comes off best as an iconic death figure, and at least her shots have been given enough artistic attention to pass. But Henry Baker has very little to do. The talented Villechaize seems merely unhappy and most of his dialogue is indecipherable. It's a backhanded compliment, but at least Villechaize never seems foolish-looking.
The spirited cast raises our interest. As the craze to make all horror movies involve sexually precocious teens was still a few years away, only the kitchen helper Betsy (Lucy Bingham) is under thirty. Anne Meachum seems an obvious early victim, but she looks pretty scary in her horror scene, which provided a frequently printed film still for the movie. Equally sympathetic is Christina Pickles as the wife who keeps a good house but can't help her conflicted husband. Wise old coot Roger De Koven has a haunted look on his face, while as an obnoxious loudmouth, Joseph Sirola is the only player Stone allows to overact. Richard Cox has a clumsily abbreviated role as an outspoken young man; he later gained notoriety with a big part in William Friedkin's Cruising. Totally unexpected is Troy Donahue, who drifts into the movie as if he were playing the ghost of his overhyped screen image in those earlier Delmer Daves movies. Donahue gets an intro, is seen languishing in the bed of another guest, and makes an early exit. His relaxed manner is a welcome contrast to the other nervous and fearful male characters; we wish his character could have hung around longer.
Jonathan Frid's familiar face is welcome but he's mostly a passive, haunted hero. Stealing the movie without really trying is 9th billed Mary Woronov, the former Andy Warhol Factory actress just then making a name for herself in genre pictures. Woronov plays Mikki, the "sexually active female victim". Her main contribution is to run for her life down a dark road in her underwear, and to fight another guest with a knife. Yet we like Mikki's tough attitude.
Stone's camera direction is not the best, so it's good that his story is structurally sound. Stone also makes it personal -- being that the writer Edmund is burdened by his own horrible story creations, which break out to cause havoc. As a horror trio they're certainly nightmare-worthy. The dwarf Spider almost overcomes a healthy full-sized opponent. In his best scenes he torments an unstable middle-aged woman by giving her a dream memory of youth and then confronting her with a vision of death. The menacing Jackal does indeed use his axe. He also rapes a young woman, conjuring up unpleasant racist associations. Martine Beswick is properly imperious at all times as she tells her victims what they must to if they want to survive the night. As expected, the games spare no one. An old man with a cane is forced to run a race, knowing that the loser will die. Characters give up, reject each other, and commit suicide. Some of these events are not very clearly presented. We wonder if some of the jarring cutting in violent scenes is Stone's attempt to hide the lack of good coverage -- he takes another credit as second editor.
The pre-dawn action sees Edmund trying in vain to cheat The Queen of her evil victory. Things wrap up as a recurring nightmare, that at first seems like a rip-off of the gimmick of the classic Ealing horror picture Dead of Night. But then Stone adds another twist, and then another. It's too bad that production grief and inexperience kept Stone from perfecting his direction, for he doesn't exploit the visual or expressive opportunities in the story's final, scary reversals. The film's theme pays off satisfactorily, but not its visuals.
Seizure accomplishes what it was meant to do -- put Oliver Stone's name on the books as the director of a competent movie. Perhaps wisely, he concentrated on writing and four years later broke through with his script for Midnight Express. 1
After being written up in an early issue of Cinefantastique, Stone's Seizure became fairly hard to see; I remember that real interest in it was re-ignited only twenty years later, with a VHS review in Video Watchdog. As a fan I'm fascinated by horror movies made by young and ambitious directors of the '70s, who more often than not were simply trying to put across a good idea with little support or resources. It's impressive how many worthwhile pictures were made by inexperienced talent -- Bob Clark, Willard Huyck & Gloria Katz, Richard Blackburn.
Distributed by Kino Lorber, the Scorpion Blu-ray of Seizure is a very welcome, reasonably polished HD transfer of this former rarity. A good transfer makes the most of the film's indifferent cinematography. Scorpion accessed original elements for their widescreen transfer; the word I have is that the element was a Color Reversal Internegative (CRI). A DVD release is available as well.
The original trailer isn't particularly memorable but the disc includes two substantial star interviews. Richard Cox rambles on forever about his lengthy acting career, repeating ad infinitum that so-and-so "was great" and that each of his exploitation films "was a lot of fun." Mary Woronov's interview is a complete delight -- she's such a positive and sensible person that we feel like inviting her over to chat. Woronov takes an amused attitude to her impressive career without being self-deprecating or slamming her collaborators. She remembers the cast of Seizure better than she does Oliver Stone, and has an entertaining anecdote for all of them. Every fan of racy horror fare has seen interviews with actresses that either ignore the tasteless sex scenes they performed or make excuses for them. When addressing the very mild sex content of Seizure, where she was asked to strip to her underwear and run in terror down a freezing nighttime road, Woronov just smiles and raises an eyebrow: "We know what that was all about." It's a very pleasing interview.
Good stills for Seizure are pretty rare online; these are the best I could find and they aren't even in color. An observant writer on another site joked that all the official stills from the film seem to be from a low angle ... and the credited still photographer is Hervé Villechaize.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Seizure Blu-ray rates:
"Could be a quicky release, I have no idea. The film was my first brutal experience of filmmaking-call it a baptism by fire, it was as adventurous in its French-Canadian production as Salvador 13 years later in Mexico."
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T'was Ever Thus.