Consenting to watch horror cinema is like entering a Faustian pact where you do not always get what you bargain for. Go into A Little More Flesh, for example, the latest low-budget feature to be written, directed, shot, edited and produced by critic Sam Ashurst, and you might be surprised to find yourself instead watching God’s Lonely Woman, a film made (and subsequently banned) in 1978. The word ‘watching’ must be stressed here – for replacing its dialogue and soundtrack is a retrospective audio commentary being recorded by its writer/director Stanley Durall (voiced by Ashurst) for a present-day, ‘very special edition’ Blu-ray from Deep Cut Videos.
In other words, this is to be the cinematic equivalent of Vladimir Nabokov’s 1962 novel Pale Fire: a fictive text within a text and a ‘poioumenon’ – or artwork that charts its own making – with a commentary that transforms the work under discussion into a crime scene. It is a sophisticated conceit, guaranteeing that even if much of the overexposed, soft-focus footage that we see comes across as a close parody of a certain Seventies soft-core sensibility, it conceals within its frame the ghost of a different kind of narrative.
God’s Lonely Woman – especially its final half hour – comes mired in controversy, not least because its two female stars, Isabella Dotterson (Elf Lyons) and 14-year-old Candice Embers (Hazel Townsend), both committed suicide, the latter mid-production, the former two days after the première. So the retrospective voice-over of Durall is as much apologia as commentary – except that Durall cannot help exposing himself and, despite his protestations that his actresses’ deaths were unrelated to the film, making it clear just how irresponsibly, indeed horrifically, they were treated on set by himself and his male cast and crew.
What is being laid bare here is the abusive objectification of women in the entertainment industry, with Isabella and Candice (who we know are long dead) haunting the footage like wronged, accusatory spectres. The film begins as a sort of trippy pastoral allegory of feminine emergence, but this idyll is quickly upset – and Paradise lost with it – as men enter the frame and the narrative devolves into a rapey porn shoot, with Durall, his DP, and a cast of unprofessional male actors (including a sex cult leader, a homeless wife killer who has escaped from jail, and an acid-fuelled drug dealer) subjecting Isabella to unscripted, increasingly forceful and entirely unwelcome assaults.
Ashurst’s film was also initially unscripted – perhaps one of the only word-heavy fictive films ever to have been entirely shot before any of its lines were actually written. Where the film offers a portrait of a woman visibly declining under the strain of deeply inappropriate on-set conduct, its voice-over represents a portrait of the (mostly) unseen speaker – the sort of narcissistic, misogynistic, racist monster, deluded enough about his own importance to liken himself (and the brand of subpar ‘erotic drama’ that he peddles) expressly to Christopher Nolan, Ridley Scott, David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick (whose Eyes Wide Shut he absurdly claims to have influenced), Béla Tarr, David Lean, Gaspar Noé, Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader and Quentin Tarantino (the last carefully chosen for his associations with serial abuser Harvey Weinstein, and for charges of having endangered a female cast member on set). Durall’s intellectual pretentiousness sits uneasily with his scoffing coarseness and the hatefulness and violence which he expresses towards women, people of colour and the working class.
The first image that we see of Isabella – although the last, according to Durall, that was shot – shows her dazed, rocking backwards and forwards in a small cage, in what is less a performance than a simple demonstration of the trauma that she has had to endure during the production. No matter how much Durall insists that the suicides of her and Candice had nothing to do with the production, the evidence of what went on during the shoot is there for all to see, and to hear in Durall’s biased but nonetheless revealing (and self-revealing) account. Deep Cut Videos’ version of the film, here being seen for the first time by Durall, intersperses behind-the-scenes footage and B-rolls, and removes, much to Durall’s irritation, almost all the hardcore material. There are also strange, often psychedelically colour-filtered inserts of Isabella and Candice approaching the camera or crouching with menace.
These disruptive scenes, which mysteriously Durall perceives only as a black screen, represent hints that the wronged women are trying to break out through the fourth wall, and from beyond the grave. For, even if Durall is unable to see it, this cut of God’s Lonely Woman is an unconscious j’accuse, and an act of revenge across time and the screen. Durall’s film may be made for a small audience of ogling, priapic males, but it also serves as a palimpsest for Ashurst’s own film, which though comprising the same footage, is instead designed very much for the unforgiving revisionist gaze of the #metoo generation, which will judge Durall less sympathetically than he might like, and will punish him for errant behaviour that he is too blind, too in denial and too unreconstructed even to recognise for its abhorrence.
At first the title A Little More Flesh seems to aIlude to Durall’s forceful directions to his female stars to expose more and more of themselves to the camera, despite nudity (not to mention sex) being neither in the script that they were originally shown, nor in their contract. Yet in the film’s closing, irrational scene, both this title and the name of Deep Cut Videos are grotesquely reoriented to turn the tables – and the camera – on the director himself (played by James Swanton, writer and star of Ashurst’s first feature Frankenstein’s Creature). In a sense, though, this climax merely gives graphically intense expression to the vengeful skewering that the entire film has in fact been perpetrating all along upon the person of its insufferable, sadistic self-styled ‘auteur’. For, like Weinstein and his ilk, this filmmaker is about to find that he must eventually pay for outrages that cannot remain hidden forever. Durall may have been the director, but now, decades after the event and her own passing, Isabella, grimly immortalised by his film, at last finds her own voice and gets her final cut.
© Anton Bitel