Climate of the Hunter opens not with a voiceover (those will come later) nor with an authorised textual quotation, but with a yellow manila folder being opened to reveal a doctor’s report on the patient Alma Summers, and her “delusional disorder – somatic type – preceding a psychotic episode”. This text is important, not just for its promise of madness to come, but also for the date on the document, 1977. For this latest indie production from director Mickey Reece, co-written with John Selvidge, comes fully furnished in the stylings of both the Seventies and more specifically of that decade’s cinema.
This is a four-part melodrama (demarcated by numbered titles in Portuguese) in which Alma (Ginger Gilmartin) and her sister Elizabeth (Mary Buss) get together in their lakeside cabin for a reunion with their childhood friend Wesley (Ben Hall), who has been living in São Paulo and travelling the world for the last 20 years. With a silver fox to match his silver tongue, Wesley is a charming writer and womaniser whose wife of many years Genevieve (Laurie Cummings) has recently been committed to an institution, which makes these middle-aged sisters – one a divorcee, the other a spinster – see opportunity. The three old friends have several dinners together (with a female voiceover drily describing the oh-so-Seventies menu of each meal), joined one night by Wesley’s estranged son Percy (Sheridan McMichael) and another by Alma’s daughter Rose (Danielle Evon Ploeger). At first the Summers siblings vie for their guest’s attention – until Alma, conspiring with her local drug buddy BJ Beavers (Jacob Snovel) who has “learnt to trust [his] intuitions and [his] prejudices”, gets it into her head that Wesley might not be entirely human.
Climate of the Hunter is organised around a central question: is Wesley’s vampirism real, or in Alma’s head? Woven from this ambiguity are themes of birth, ageing, mortality and the infinite, and our place in an indifferent universe. There are also gothic hallucinations, a talking dog, a regurgitated tampon (in a ‘period picture’) and one character literally undressed with another’s eyes. All these unhinged elements are played totally straight, with a sincerity which only makes the film’s camp credentials all the more effective in their understatement. This quality derives from the irony of distance, as the film resurrects a by-gone (yet evidently undead) era with dazzling production and costume design, beautiful soft lensing and the odd crash zoom. Presented in rich Sirkian colours, and in Academy ratio as though made for TV, Climate of the Hunter exists in the dark shadows between soap opera and Euro-horror. It even boasts a climactic cameo from the sparkly dress made famous by Delphine Seyrig in Harry Kümel’s vampire classic Daughters of Darkness (1971).
Whether Wesley really is a living dead bloodsucker or not, nonetheless his abandonment of his wife and his simultaneous pursuit of Alma and Elizabeth (and perhaps of Rose too) mark him as a predatory monster of a different kind, blessed with all the privileges that patriarchy can afford. Alma may be delusional, but in her way she sees Wesley for exactly who he is – and pays for that second sight by being put away forever in the company of yet more eccentric, awkward women of the kind whom Climate of the Hunter, far from disparaging, centres and celebrates. For this is, from start to finish, all at once a ‘women’s picture’ and a wilfully strange retro trip into a damaged mind.
© Anton Bitel