Monday, March 19, 2018

"Remember Childhood Innocence and Freedom?" - Curse of the Headless Horseman (1972)

Even the most jaded critics must admit that one of the most artistically satisfying genres of film is the one that relies entirely on post-dubbed dialogue and sound. Such films remove the artifice of synchronized sound, allowing the filmmakers’ intentions to affect the audience directly. Leonard Kirtman/John Kirkland's Curse of the Headless Horseman (1972) is a fine example of this genre.

Not everyone appears to agree with my assessment, however. For example, on IMDB, reviewer Hitchcoc writes, "Whoever thought this up didn't know what he was doing. The acting is about as bad as you can get." Reviewer cameron-kills-it writes, "The dialogue is horrible, the acting even worse, and the thing doesn't even make any sense." Reviewer Chase_Witherspoon writes, "Amateurish and virtually incoherent with little sense, structure, plot development or solid narrative, there's very little to recommend."

Read on for a more sober appreciation of this clever film, which, contrary to the reviewers' "opinions," does make some amount of sense.

Over a dark screen, a narrator imitating Boris Karloff says, “It is beginning again. It is beginning again. It is beginning again. The story will be told but non-believers...are doomed.”

The darkness dissolves to shots of a young doctor in a lab coat, Mark, walking through a hospital. When he reaches the exit and steps outside, we realize his hospital is located inside Los Angeles City Hall.

Mark walks to a car while the narrator explains that Mark is planning to marry his fiancĂ© Brenda, but only if he has inherited “a sizeable estate” from his oddly named Uncle Callahan.

After the traditional pizza party at a flamenco bar in which pizza is called “nectar of the gods,” Mark (or perhaps someone else) gets into a fight with a hippie. Then he announces to the entire party that Uncle Callahan left him his ranch, but Mark must make the ranch profitable within six months or ownership transfers away from Mark to the caretaker Solomon. (It must be noted that Mark, played by Marland Proctor, is reminiscent simultaneously of Robert Reed, Oliver Reed, and Mark Hamill.)

As he and his friends drive to the ranch the next day, the narrator intones, “Remember childhood innocence and freedom? Remember it, for it is gone now.”

It turns out that the ranch is not in fact a ranch, but instead a ghost town tourist attraction, Callahan’s Old West. (The name thereby informing us that Mark’s Uncle Callahan was named Callahan Callahan.)

The narrator also lets us know, irrelevantly, there was a murder in the ghost town in 1928.

Mark and Brenda sit on the main street of the ghost town to watch the Saturday cowboy stunt show, which is very well attended. “You know, I don’t know how in the hell we’re gonna make a go of this place, honey,” despite the large crowds of people in attendance.

“Well,” Brenda replies logically, “I’m sure we can get some revenue or some business from it just by leaving it the way it is.”

Things take a horrific turn when one of the hippies, a white-shirted man who resembles Steven Spielberg, chases and then begins to rape another of the hippies. (This attempted rape might have something to do with the fight at the party earlier.)

The rape is witnessed by two more of the hippies, who do nothing but watch, and the filmmakers score the disturbing scene with a catchy folk rock song about being “down in the easy chair” (the song also mentions Genghis Khan).

Rapey Spielberg is soon forgotten, however, and the film returns to the main question of whether Mark and Brenda will ever be married. Brenda complains to her friend that the inheritance is a ranch and not money, and her friend offers to speak to the gods for her. “I often speak to the gods for my friends,” she says. “I’m part Indian you know.”

“Oh, well then it’s gotta work,” says Brenda. (We never hear about speaking to the gods again.)

Later, the hippies assemble at the ghost town’s auditorium to watch two men put on an improvisational show. (It is here that the film reveals its influence on another classic, Skullduggery from 1983.)

In the show, the two men pretend they are driving while sharing real marijuana. At the end of the routine, they pretend to see another car speeding and so reveal they are policemen in a patrol car.

The audience boos.

The improvisers are followed by a middle aged country singer performing a song about a “gal pal of mine.” In the audience, Brenda asks Mark, “What’s that expression they use when inflation sets in? Penny for your thoughts.”

Mark’s thoughts are about the man on stage and others like him, the last of the old cowpokes who have been coming to the ranch/ghost town for years and years. He wants to make a go of the place, but he doesn’t know if he can.

Meanwhile, the hippies (including Rapey Spielberg) realize they can save the town by performing their talents on stage, while also living at the ranch/ghost town (no mention is made of Mark’s medical residency in the city).

Suddenly, Solomon the caretaker arrives and bellows, “No!” Solomon’s threatening appearance makes it clear that this film was an influence on Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), as Solomon looks remarkably like crazy Jack Torrance from that film.

Solomon explains the problem with their plan: This is the time of the year when “he” rides, when “his” silver blade slashes the moonlight. “Eight men had planned his death, and eight men were doomed to die in return.”

As far as I can understand the complex backstory Solomon eloquently explains, a man was killed by eight gunfighters many years ago, but the ghost of the dead man returned to search the West for his eight killers. He found them in the ghost town, but the dead man mistook the stunt men for actual cowboys, and he killed them all by somehow putting real bullets in their guns. “Eight foolish men playing their wars,” Solomon says of the stuntmen, “were condemned to reality. They died in the manner of their pretense.”

At night, a laughing man on horseback splashes blood on one of the hippies, giving credence to Solomon’s ghost story.

The next morning, professional stuntman Sandy explains to the hippies that they should never point their guns at their stomachs or a man, only to the left or the right, even when the gun is loaded with blanks. However, when Sandy is challenged to draw, he shoots straight at the hippie that challenged him.

Shockingly, the bullet was real, as in the legendary ghost story, and the hippie falls down, his arm injured. After wrapping the wound, Mark has an existential crisis about reporting the gunshot wound to the authorities. His injured friend tells him the ghost town could do without such publicity. “Why?” Mark asks.

“What do you mean why? A real bullet gets put in one of the guns and is fired. Would you bring your wife and kids to a place that let that happen?”

“You got a point there,” Mark says, thinking it over.

The next morning brings customers. “Hey, everybody, there’s tourists!” calls one of the hippies. “Rich tourists!”

The other hippies cheer like the eager capitalists they are. The tourists—actually a woman wearing a Doctor Who scarf and carrying a Superman lunchbox—wander into the ghost town. Asked if she would like a tour, the tourist says, “Yes, I would love to see every inches of it.”

Like most tourists are wont to do, the woman asks a hippie, “Have you any lucky animals?” Unfortunately, the hippies do not have any lucky animals.

Later, the tourist, who identifies herself as Baroness Isabelle Collin Dufresne, summarizes the charm of the ghost town: “It reminds me of Pompeii. It has the same type of character.” She also admits to drinking blood for breakfast. Then she offers to buy the property before being frightened by Solomon peeking in through the window.

(It must be noted that Isabelle Collin Dufresne was an artist and actress, an associate of Andy Warhol, who used the stage name Ultra Violet.)

The baroness leaves without buying the ghost town, spooked by Solomon. After most of the hippies abandon the place for a bar, we watch as Rapey Spielberg smokes marijuana and discovers a tiny pebble of what he believes to be gold in the dirt.

At about the 50-minute mark in the film, the filmmakers recall the title of the film and present the titular headless horseman stalking one of the women. (In fact, “headless” is something of a misnomer, as the horseman carries a head in his hands. The horseman is not headless, though his head is not in the traditional configuration, i.e., attached to his neck.)

The woman dies, though not at the hands of the horseman: She runs screaming into the parking lot and is struck by a camper truck.

Chillingly, Mark decides he must file a report downtown. He tells the others to stay together inside while he leaves the property. Unfortunately, Rapey Spielberg gets rapey again, but this time his pursuit of a girl outside in the town is interrupted by the horseman’s attack on the girl. This attack is perhaps the most experimental segment of the film, as the girl is experiencing what might be an acid trip in the desert when the horseman assaults her by swinging his severed head toward her, spattering her with blood from the severed neck. She reacts orgasmically to this attack, until she rolls down a hill.

“Now she sleeps forever,” the narrator intones.

Her death is followed by an iconic shot, perhaps influenced by Bergman, of the horseman’s silhouette riding along a ridge.

The filmmakers next remind us of the narrator’s theme of lost childhood innocence as some of the hippies frolic around a tree, swinging back and forth from a noose.

As night falls, the hippies stake out the ghost town from various hiding places. We hear hoofbeats approaching, but the hippies are ready for the horseman. They surround him and quickly unmask him: It is Rapey Spielberg!

Despite everyone being armed with guns, he gets into a knife fight with Solomon the caretaker, stabbing the older man. However, he is subdued by an older stuntman with a whip.

With the culprit discovered and captured, Mark theorizes that the ghost town will become a more popular attraction because tourists will be interested in seeing where the victims were killed. Foreseeing financial success, he marries Brenda in the ghost town’s chapel to the haunting strains of organ music (though we see no organ, only a hippie playing a guitar).

Surprisingly, however, after the wedding, the hippies put two and two together and realize it is highly unlikely that Rapey Spielberg was the murderous headless horsemen. After all, there was no blood on him when he was captured.

The hippies confront Mark with evidence that Mark is actually the culprit. “Mark,” says one of them, “all these people have been splattered with real blood. Who but a doctor would have access to so much blood?” Such logic is incontrovertible; even a murderer or a supernatural force would have trouble acquiring actual blood in the middle of nowhere.

Mark admits to acting as the horseman in order to drive people away so he can take the gold ore from the ground, which he discovered as a child. (In a clever performance, Mark’s acting is questionable enough that the audience wonders whether the character is only being sarcastic in his admission, adding a subtle touch of ambiguity to the film.)

Mark starts killing all his friends with a gun loaded with real bullets.

In the end, Mark is taken down by Sandy the stuntman. The narrator leaves us with little hope for the future. “It may now begin again,” he says. “Mark will ride with the horseman, and the curse will begin again.”

We again see the silhouette of the horseman on the ridge, and we hear his ghostly laughter as the narrator repeats “It will begin again” many, many, many times.

The theme of Curse of the Headless Horseman, identified by the mysterious narrator, is the loss of childhood innocence. When all the pieces come together at the end, we realize that Mark's childhood discovery of gold has mutated into the murderous greed of an adult. Mark's greed is so overpowering that it forces him to dress as a mythical character to spray blood on people to chase them away from a tourist attraction that--had he attracted visitors instead of scaring them away--he would have owned in six months, along with the buried gold. His compatriots, much younger than Mark, treat everything like play until the end of the film, when Mark starts shooting them indiscriminately. Perhaps if Mark were younger, the end result would not have been so much hippie death.

The theme is reinforced by director Kirkland/Kirtman (the onscreen credit is John Kirkland, though as Leonard Kirtman he directed 1970's Carnival of Blood before moving on to directing adult movies), who appears to have structured scenes around his cast's improvisation. One of the film's greatest charms is its joyful spontaneity, the feeling that almost anything can happen from scene to scene. While the mystery is fairly tight (including the fact that Mark's appearances as the headless horseman coincide with realistically long periods in which he is absent from the ghost town), the interaction of the hippies is spontaneous and utterly believable.

In short, Curse of the Headless Horseman is a mixture of elements that could never occur again. For that, there is nothing we can do but celebrate it...and of course hope against hope that "It will begin again. It will begin again. It will begin again..."