The Wynorski Project Part Ten - "The Haunting of Morella"
I had intended for last week to be my final word on Sorority House Massacre II and Hard to Die, but in the midst of looking up something I remembered reading years ago in Maitland McDonagh’s Filmmaking On the Fringe regarding today’s subject I inadvertently came across Wynorski’s own description of the events that led to those films creation. In it he specifically answers many of the questions I brought up during the course of my past three posts, so it seemed only fair of me to bring them up here.
Though he does not address the issue directly, it would appear that the footage from Slumber Party Massacre was used because Roger Corman wasn’t sure if Warner Bros still held the rights to the original Sorority House Massacre. For that same reason the film Wynorski made was neither filmed or conceived as a straight sequel—its original filming title was Jim Wynorski’s House of Babes, which was changed to The Séance and Nightie Nightmare before the rights issue was resolved and it was released as Sorority House Massacre II.
According to Wynorski the script was written in three days and shot in seven on sets left over from Slumber Party Massacre III and was actually made behind Corman’s back at the behest of his wife Julie. When Corman finally caught wind of the project he was the one who suggested adding a scene in a strip club, which required adding in the cop characters into the movie.
Since the rights issue kept Corman from keeping all of the profits from SHMII, he requested the immediate remake so he could release essentially the same film without having to give anything away. Hard to Die was then shot as Tower of Terror in 10 days with a slightly larger budget with essentially the same script.
Now that I know this, does it change how I feel about the films?
In a word, no.
If anything what this information does is compel the interesting question of how much does marketing affect how we perceive a film product. Would my perception of SHMII have been different if I had watched Nightie Nightmare instead? Honestly, I don’t think so. All of the issues that I discussed at length in the previous three posts would still be the same, except for the film’s failure to address the original SHM. Beyond that, Wynorski’s use of footage from SPM would still be as relevant, as would the film’s ultimately nihilistic, misogynistic undertones.
‘Kay that’s enough about that!
Onto the main feature:
The Wynorski Project
The Haunting of Morella
Morella Winthrop (Nicole Eggert) has been tried and convicted as a witch who tried to find immortality through the murder of a serving girl and the attempted sacrifice of her own newborn daughter, Lenora. For her crime she is executed by having red-hot pokers jabbed into her eyes. Before she dies she promises to someday return in the body of her grown-up daughter. 17 years pass and Lenora (Eggert) is almost 18 and physically identical to her late mother. Unbeknownst to Lenora and her father (David McCallum), her tutor, Coel (Lana Clarkson), was once Morella’s acolyte and is ready to set in motion a murderous plan to resurrect the executed witch and help her find the immortality she craved at the cost of Lenora’s body and soul. Blood is shed, breasts are bared, stuff explodes and the film ends suggesting it has all only just begun.
Some people claim The Haunting of Morella is my best picture. I hate it. I think it’s my worst picture. It was tough making the picture and I wanted it to look classy, but the script was a little weak. It looks nice but it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
-Jim Wynorski as quoted in Filmmaking On the Fringe, page 12
When he’s right, he’s right. In fact, I’m tempted to be a smart ass and just stop the post right here, but I don’t want to establish a precedent I might fall back on like a crutch in the future, so 1000 reluctant words for The Haunting of Morella it is.
First off, I wanna know who these “some people” are. Have they never seen any of Wynorski’s other films? Have they never seen another film? Of all the words I would use to describe the film, “best” is not one that would ever enter my vocabulary under any circumstance beyond, “The Haunting of Morella is the best example thus far of Wynorski making a really terrible movie.”
Even though I ultimately had little good to say about Big Bad Mama II, Deathstalker II, Not of This Earth, SHMII and Hard to Die, I can honestly say that sitting through them didn’t represent a Herculean struggle on my part. The 80 minutes or so it took to get through them flew by quickly enough and I felt no worse off for the effort. The same cannot be said for THofM, which tried my will and patience throughout its entirety.
The central problem with THofM is that it strains for a credibility it never earns. Watching it made me rethink my proposal that a straight version of Deathstalker II would have been just as terrible as his comedic variation, but vastly more satisfying for the audience that actually wanted to see it. THofM is as straight as Wynorski has thus far gotten and after awhile even I couldn’t help but pray for one of his terrible fourth-wall breaking in-jokes.
A wannabe throwback to the classic Corman Poe pictures of the 60s, as well as Mario Bava’s gothic classic Black Sabbath, THofM suffers greatly in comparison. Despite his blaming the script for its failure, the truth is THofM is a flop for which everyone involved is to blame.
There’s a reason Corman remains best identified with the gothic classics he directed that were based (very) loosely on the work of Edgar Allen Poe, as they represent much of his best work as a filmmaker. The Masque of the Red Death, for example, is easily my personal favourite of his films and I regard it to be as much an art-house masterpiece as Bergman’s similar The Seventh Seal. In the case of that particular film, much of the credit has to go to cinematographer Nicholas Roeg, whose extraordinarily vibrant colours are a major factor in its success.
Despite Wynorski’s insistence that “it looks nice,” THofM by comparison is a drab, poorly shot effort that, unlike Corman or Bava’s films, completely fails to transcend its low budget. Morella’s crypt looks exactly like the Styrofoam it’s made out of, the costumes are bland and ill-fitting, the actresses’ underwear is laughably anachronistic, the thunder-flashes are the same stock footage Wynorski has used in all of his other films, and the mise en scene is often hilarious for all the wrong reasons—witness:
But the biggest problem the film has is its leading lady, Nicole Eggert, who had just left Charles in Charge and was about to go on to Baywatch when she took on the dual role of Morella and Lenora. Though slightly better as Morella, she is completely unconvincing in both roles, her blond California surfer girl demeanor completely at odds with the films gothic tone and atmosphere.
But the biggest distraction she brings to the picture came from her refusal to take her clothes off in front of the camera. This being a Wynorski production, there was no way her character’s nude scenes would ever get rewritten, so a body double was required. (According to the new commentary on the recent Shout Factory release of Not of This Earth, Traci Lords was originally offered the role, but declined because she was no longer willing to perform nude on film, which makes the decision to cast the similarly modest Eggert somewhat ironic).
As a rule I loathe body doubles, as they represent a tremendous insult to the audience and are invariably distracting no matter how well they are integrated into the picture. The insult comes from the idea that we’ll be just as happy with a pair of disembodied breasts as a pair that actually comes with a face, because tits are tits and who knows the difference, right? Wrong. By using a body double, nudity ceases to be fun and becomes obnoxiously exploitative—tits for the sake of tits for the sake of box office and foreign sales. And it doesn’t help that it is so rarely done well.
THofM is especially egregious in its use of body doubles. During her major sex scene, the editing cuts to shots of Eggert’s noticeably thinner and paler double writhing on her co-star while her badly-matched wig covers her face (which she helpfully keeps turned away from the camera), to close-ups of Eggert that—in the print I watched—are so poorly-framed you can see the bra she is wearing every time she moves up.
It’s even worse in this case, since even without Eggert’s participation the film would not lack for gratuitous nudity. Tragic blond starlet Lana Clarkson (who laughably towers over her tiny co-star) is nude throughout, as is Corman regular Maria Ford and Gail Harris, the star of Wynorski previous (and much-discussed) two films. Given this abundance of traditional skin, it’s ridiculous the lengths they went through to throw in a series of distracting and unnecessary additional naked shots.
Speaking of naked shots, next week I’ll be seeing a lot of them, since that’s when I’ll take a look at Wynorski’s first official collaboration with cinema soul mate Fred Olen Ray, Scream Queen Hot Tub Party—which features Wynorski regulars Monique Gabrielle and Kelli Maroney joining Roxanne Kernohan and Ray regulars Michelle Bauer and Brinke Stevens in a nearly plotless stripfest cobbled together using footage from their previous films.
Should be fun?
Scream Queen Hot Tub Party