Groovy & Wild Films from Around the World

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

The Escapees: or, a women-in-a-mental-asylum triple-feature

It all started a few months ago when I had the opportunity to watch John Carpenter's new flick The Ward and it has come around to a little-known (to me, anyway) Jean Rollin flick called The Escapees, when I came across the Salvation UK DVD quite unintentionally in a little place off of Charing Cross Road in London. Not only was I not looking for this particular DVD, I actually had no idea the film even existed. I was intrigued, but not quite enough to delve into a blind purchase. Well, not immediately, anyway.

It was early this November when I saw Carpenter's The Ward, and it was a decent enough experience. After the disappointing Ghosts of Mars (his last actual feature film) and the completely unrecognizable-as-Carpenter Pro-Life, I went into The Ward with an understandable amount of trepidation. What was interesting, right off the bat, is that this is the first John Carpenter flick I can remember seeing that wasn't shot in Cinemascope. Nope, this sucker was 1.85:1. That seemed alright to me because the last thing of Carpenter's I'd seen and enjoyed was his Masters of Horror television episode Cigarette Burns, and what the opening scenes of The Ward felt like to me was that he was capturing the more intimate, smaller-aspect feeling of Masters of Horror. However, it did not end there... The story of The Ward is basically about a young woman (Amber Heard) who is committed to an insane asylum where some pretty strange goings-ons are transpiring amidst an alarmingly lengthening list of missing female patients. Set-up as a horror mystery, this turns out to be one of Carpenter's best films of recent times – certainly since the killer In the Mouth of Madness (which is, oddly enough, another flick about people going insane). There are some truly inspired scenes in The Ward, even evoking such Carpenter classics as The Thing and Halloween. However, before I get too carried away, The Ward won't be for everyone. Even as it evokes classic Carpenter is isn't classic Carpenter, it's an amiable enough effort that some people (myself excluded) might find predictable and somewhat by-the-numbers. I thought it was a good take on a classic Ten Little Indians scenario. Of course, the sub-plot of the film is leading lady Amber Heard trying to get the fuck out of there. Much like the opening premise of Jean Rollin's The Escapees...

And this is basically the only plot-thrust in Zack Snyder's otherwise completely plotless Sucker Punch, which I had the pleasure of viewing just this December. After reading some horrendous reviews of his first self-penned directorial effort, I steered clear of this sucker for ages. So what changed my mind? Well, that was thanks to discovering the existence of The Escapees, of course. I couldn't get it out of my head that this overblown Hollywood mega-budgeted film had essentially lifted the plot from a little old Jean Rollin flick from the early eighties. I'd say Snyder's flick is even more exploitive than Rollin's, at least Rollins has a gorgeous dreamlike narrative that swings it into the usual realm of arthouse fantasy. Snyder's film, for all its cold awesomeness, is pure exploitation fantasy as a handful of forgettably-written young female characters spend the entire film swinging from one reality to the next in order to ultimately escape the mental asylum they've all been committed to. It's a non-linear symphony of war machines, burlesque performances and fetishistic Bedlam narratives, intertwined with no real purpose other than eye candy. The film exists as a video-game puzzle, and while it is mostly cool to sit through, it's a puzzle that exists only because it is a puzzle (with eye candy), with no satisfying characters, plot or conclusion. In fact, the conclusion not only does not make sense, but it fails to justify the entire film. Still, I might give this one a second chance in the future. In the meantime, there area better things to experience...

Like Rollin's film, where two girls committed to an asylum decide to escape. This actually happens pretty much immediately, so this isn't quite the girls-trapped-in-a-mental-asylum adventure I had been expecting. However, much like Rollin's earlier (and highly awesome) Requiem for a Vampire, this is a two-girls-on-the-run odyssey. After fleeing the asylum, they hook up with a band of traveling musicians/strippers who put on stripping road-shows behind railroad tracks. They eventually befriend some of the biker audience members, and the two girls, whose personalities clash and are extremely at odds when the road adventure begins, become friends. That's really it, there's not much more to say about this subtle, mature and surprisingly sweet story. The Escapees is not bizarre like Requiem for a Vampire, it's actually a straight-ahead road story about the two girls' growing friendship. In fact, there's barely even any nudity in this Rollin picture, and the brief scenes of sex are mild and non-exploitative, serving to contribute to the characters and the story. And in fact, this might be Rollin's best work. It's an engaging film and wonderfully shot. At nearly an hour and fifty minutes, one of Rollin's longer flicks (ignore the printed running time on the back of the Redemption DVD box 'cause it's wrong), the time really just flew by as I wallowed in the lushness of the movie. At the end, in true Rollin genre style, it does get wacky as a botched lesbian rape attempt (featuring Rollin regular babe Brigitte Lahaie) turns into an all out machine-gun shoot-out with an army of cops, and somehow, winds up with the two girls walking into the sunset. I'd have to say that this is probably the best acting I've ever seen in one of Rollin's films as well. I'd like to call The Escapees a minor gem, but to me, it's much more than minor. A hidden gem, or a criminally neglected gem, seemingly forgotten about in Rollin's usual catalogue of the fantastique. But a real gem. I urge Rollin fans to check it out.