Monday, December 25, 2017

"Curious and Curiouser, More and More, All the Time" - Dark Sanity (1982)

We now discuss yet another underrated film about murder, psychic visions, alcoholism, and developmentally delayed gardeners, director Martin Green's evocatively titled Dark Sanity (1982). This film, set in Los Angeles in the early 1980s, features the redoubtable Aldo Ray in a supporting role, and we all know Mr. Ray's presence is a mark of quality (see also Don't Go Near the Park, 1979 and Haunts, 1977).

As usual, some esteemed reviewers misunderstand the importance and quality of Dark Sanity. On IMDB, reviewer capkronos calls the film “slow moving, poorly made and pretty boring.” BA_Harrison writes, “A meandering mediocre mystery featuring very little gore and zero scares, Dark Sanity is humdrum stuff.” Brando5092 calls it “very low budget (as you can tell by the quality of the film and the way it looks like it was shot using less than standard film) and for the most part poorly acted.” I must disagree with each component of these terrible reviews (including the one about being shot using less than standard film), and again I am forced to counter the reviews with an in-depth discussion about the quality of the film in question. Please read on...

Dark Sanity opens with a woman in shorts named Karen strapped to a bed in a hospital having flashbacks about decapitation by axe. Therefore, it is an excellent film.

In a hospital corridor, Karen’s husband consults with an elderly doctor who bears a striking resemblance to Stan Lee. The doctor explains Karen is suffering the DTs, and her husband should not worry, despite the fact that her husband says he can’t take her screams much longer.

The body of the film itself begins in flashback, as Karen and her husband Alan drive up the West Coast to their new house in Los Angeles—or rather, their new mansion, complete with a wrought iron gate and what appear to be two separate driveways.

After carrying Karen over the threshold, Alan shows her the living room, with its gold curtains and orange shag carpeting. “What do you think, huh?” he says. “Good stuff?”

Then he reveals he paid $132,500 for the house, before he references his wife’s alcoholic past and phone numbers for AA meetings.

We soon learn, however, that alcoholism is not Karen’s only problem, as she beings having blue-tinted psychic visions of bloody pillows. Alan comforts her: “We’re going to be happy here. We’re not in San Diego anymore. We’re going to be happy.”

More trouble begins when Karen takes delivery of the furniture for the house. The moving men, one a large African-American gentleman, attempt to collect their fee. Karen says her husband will mail the moving company a check, but the mover says, a bit confusingly, “Hey, lady, don’t be cute. We got a whole army of attorneys with people who want to be cute.”

Karen stands up for herself in a way that today would be considered borderline racist: “The arrangements my husband made with you people—“

But she is interrupted by her neighbor Madge, a spunky woman who calls the mover “fat man” and threatens to check the weight of all the furniture.

When the men are chased away, Madge tells Karen she’s pretty cute. Karen is startled by the lesbian implication, but Madge replies, “Relax, I ain’t that liberated. I just meant you’re good lookin’.”

The women are interrupted by the Clint Howardesque gardener Benny who has come inside the house to use the bathroom. (Benny’s primary occupation as gardener is crawling through the front yard on his hands and knees, searching for snails and crushing them in his hands.)

In a Flintstonesian plot twist, Alan invites his boss and the boss’s wife to dinner, knowing that Karen will have only a day or two to get the newly furnished house ready.

After a quick vision of a severed hand lying on a bed, Karen prepares for the important dinner. In an amusing transition, the filmmakers cut from the simple-minded gardener Benny’s use of garden shears on a hedge to a sign in front of a grocery store: “Vons Slashes Prices.”

Karen carries a single bag of groceries from the store, her legs constrained by extremely tight pink pants.

 The pants are so tight that a middle-aged man, played by Aldo Ray, must help her retrieve a fallen grapefruit, as she cannot bend down. She responds suspiciously to his kindness, “What do you want?”

At the dinner party, as at most dinner parties, the two couples have a deep discussion about their favorite comedians, name dropping Jack Benny, Victor Borge, Cheech and Chong, and Shields and Yarnell. “Who’s your favorite comedian, Karen?” asks Alan’s boss.

“I don’t know,” she replies. “The Three Stooges?”

The boss’s wife explodes with laughter. “How quaint.”

They continue their conversation while Karen has another vision of a severed hand—and this time she identifies the hand as belonging to the boss’s wife.

“What was the fat one’s name?” asks the boss.

“Baldy,” replies his wife.

The dinner party goes further awry when Karen sees a man with a big hat attack her with an ax on the staircase. She screams, but the killer is revealed to be just another one of her visions.

As the dinner guests awkwardly let themselves out, Alan tells his boss somewhat confusingly, “I hope to see you again real soon.”

Of course, Alan is furious with his wife for ruining the dinner party. He accuses her of reverting in her alcoholism.

“Don’t be mad at me, baby,” she responds. “You’re my life. Give me another chance, please.”

That very night, Karen visits an Alcoholic Anonymous meeting and sees Aldo Ray again, but she runs away from him and drives into the night, straight from the AA meeting to a bar, where she orders straight scotch.

Meanwhile, neighbors Madge and Henry knock on Alan’s door while Karen is out. About Karen, Henry says, “She sure got a cute little caboose.”

Of course, Alan invites the neighbors inside to socialize.

At the bar, Karen is accosted by Aldo Ray’s character, former police sergeant Larry Craig. He stops her from taking a drink and convinces her to let him tell her a story. It’s about the house Karen and Alan have moved into. “I can still see it,” says Mr. Ray, “as if it were happening right now.”

And through the magic of cinema, it is happening before our eyes. A flashback shows a murder victim being carried on a stretcher toward not an ambulance but a convenient black hearse. One of the men carrying the stretcher—and wearing a pleasantly summery yellow shirt with white shoes—comments, “Haven’t found her head yet, but that don’t mean they haven’t been looking.” We find out later that the victim’s head was never found.

Disturbingly, Mr. Ray walks straight up to the camera and looks at us intently.

It seems Mr. Ray shares Karen’s penchant for visions, as in flashback he has a vision of his own in which a grinning man holds up a woman’s severed head.

Then Mr. Ray reveals the shocker: In his vision, the couple involved in the murder looked exactly like Karen and her husband. This is the filmmakers’ most impressive stroke of genius: Within Mr. Ray’s flashback to the past, his vision is potentially a flash-forward of the future!

Despite this revelation, Mr. Ray relates the rest of the murder case to Karen, and it does not involve her or her husband but a woman whose son killed her with an axe because of his “unnatural relationship” with his mother.

Not one to be one-upped by an ex-policeman, Karen admits she needs somebody to talk to, so she gets into Mr. Ray’s car and tells her story. “It was like a nightmare, and it happened there right in front of Alan’s boss and wife.” (Karen’s phrasing here is a bit awkward, because of course the embarrassing incident happened in front of Alan’s wife—i.e., Karen.) “As you can imagine, I’m afraid I got a little hysterical.”

“I don’t have to imagine, Karen,” says Mr. Ray, somewhat insultingly and more than a little sexistly.

Mr. Ray then sums up the central mystery of the film: “That house is, uh, curious and curiouser, more and more, all the time.”

Mr. Ray drops Karen off at her house while the neighbors, Madge and Henry, peer at them through the blinds from their home.

Karen and Mr. Ray attempt to explain the usefulness of their psychic visions in solving the earlier murder, but Alan will hear nothing of it. “Don’t let the door slam against your ass on the way out,” he tells Mr. Ray. And then, after Mr. Ray attempts to leave his phone number, Alan adds, perhaps suggestively, “The only thing you’re going to leave in this house is a bad taste in my mouth.”

The next day, Karen speaks with Madge, who reveals herself as the town gossip. She lets Karen know that not only was Mr. Ray kicked off the police force, but that he himself was having an affair with the murder victim and he was one of the prime suspects in the case! Curious and curiouser, indeed!

Soon afterward, Karen makes an important discovery behind a trapdoor in the back of her closet: the head of the murder victim!

Of course, Benny the gardener wants to take credit for the discovery of the head. He gives an interview to a local TV station in which he informs everyone proudly that he found the original body as well. And, less truthfully, that he is working undercover for the police.

Later, while Karen and Madge are reading on the patio while sitting on an inflatable red sofa, Karen asks Madge if she believes in ESP. Madge changes the subject, then excuses herself to watch her soap opera, The Young Surgeons. Alone outside, Karen is surprised when Aldo Ray arrives. (Cleverly, the filmmakers score this scene as if it were occurring during some particularly upbeat shenanigans committed by Wally and Beaver Cleaver.)

As would anyone, Karen agrees to get into Mr. Ray’s car and drive off with him to a mental institution. Their goal is to meet with the murder victim’s son, who is institutionalized for killing his mother.

“Please don’t let my surroundings fool you, Karen,” says the convicted murderer, Edward. “I’m quite sane.”

Mr. Ray asks Karen if Edward was the killer in her vision. She doesn’t think so. Edward grabs her arm, so Mr. Ray karate chops him and the two leave the mental institution.

Meanwhile, Alan, who has just been fired from his job, shows up to his house drunk, only to find Madge inside instead of Karen.

“You lousy pig-faced bitch!” Alan says.

“Hey,” replies Madge. She adds, not unreasonably, “I don’t like that kind of talk. Henry don’t go for it neither.”

Later, Karen returns home to find a drunk, angry Alan waiting for her. In a shocking portrayal of spousal abuse, he strikes her and verbally assaults her. “You better listen to me, and I wouldn’t want to listen either if I was to blame for ruining a man’s career, but you—you ruined my life! And I’m not gonna let you ruin it any more by proving me into something that’s going to net me a lot of years. A lot of years! Now can you dig that?”

Alan races out of the house to his car, ready to perform some drunk driving.

To make matters worse, the creepy neighbor Henry walks up to Karen on her front lawn and grabs her arm. When she pushes away, he says, “What’s the matter? You frigid or something?”

Then he adds. “Hey, you’re pretty. Did I mention you’re pretty?”

Fortunately for Karen, Henry’s awkward attempt at neighbor-rape is interrupted by Madge, who sends her husband home and checks on Karen.

Having been assaulted by two men, Karen circles a bottle of Jack Daniels and finally gives in to its sobriety-challenging pleasures.

Next—in what was clearly an inspiration for a young David Lynch—the filmmakers cut to a bar called One Eye Jack, where the simple-minded, Torgo-hatted gardener Benny is having a beer and bragging to the bartender about how many times he’s appeared in photographs and on TV.


When Benny is tossed out of the bar, the film barrels toward its climax. At his expansive house, Benny is confronted by none other than Aldo Ray. “You just close your face,” says Mr. Ray. “There’s only one thing I want to hear from you. I think you know what it is. A confession!”

Mr. Ray believes Benny killed the murder victim because Benny would do anything to be in the newspaper or on TV. Mr. Ray roughs Benny up, which of course triggers another blue-tinged psychic vision.

But Mr. Ray realizes, “The vision, it wasn’t a flashback. It’s happening now!” He realizes his visions saw the future, not the past, so he rushes to Karen’s house, where we see a black-gloved killer enter a gate.

Drunk Karen stumbles up the stairs in the house, having her own vision of a small rattlesnake for some reason.

She reaches the upstairs bathroom and screams when she sees blood in the toilet and a dead cat on the floor. The killer enters, axe held high.

The killer, however, turns out to be awkward and incompetent, so Karen passes the figure and runs down the stairs.

In no time, the killer’s hat comes off, revealing it to be Madge, the nosy neighbor.

Madge, it seems, is jealous of Karen, and was jealous of the previous owner as well.

Madge, it also seems, is particularly clumsy. She swings the axe around, overbalances, and falls through a window onto the front porch.

Karen laughs hysterically, apparently having been driven insane by the jealous neighbor’s incompetence.

In the thrilling denouement, Mr. Ray’s character is offered his police detective job back, despite the fact he thought the killer was Benny all along.

The last image, circling back to the opening, is that of Karen in a hospital room, wearing a strait-jacket and continuing to laugh maniacally.

While sharing much with the previously reviewed film Demon Seed (1982) from the same era, Dark Sanity includes far less nudity and supernatural goings-on. This is not to say Dark Sanity is inferior, however. For one thing, Dark Sanity has far more scenes of men in suits driving battleship-like 1970s cars too quickly into sloping driveways.

Dark Sanity also has the decided advantage that all the psychic visions it presents are incorrect, both in terms of the murderer and the murder victims. The film is thus a model of realism, as ousted detective Aldo Ray's psychic powers are revealed to be a sham and the culprit he believes to be the murderer based on his visions is revealed to be a red herring after all.

Director Martin Green's only other film was 1966's Footsteps in the Snow, a Canadian hippie film starring Veronica Lake in one of her last roles (four years before her final role in the Florida-set Nazi maggot movie Flesh Feast, 1970). One can only imagine, based on the diversity of his two directorial efforts, what additional genres he could have tackled after the hippie film and the women's thriller. Perhaps a Western, or a film noir, or even a Western noir. In any case, our universes are left with only two of his films, so we must be content to enjoy them for their unique visions of the human experience. We can only conclude with the immortal line: "What do you think, huh? Good stuff?" Yes, Alan, yes. Good stuff indeed.