“(Freud) believed that we are all inclined – many of us are doomed – to repeat, and what we repeat is disaster” - Mark Edmunson on Freud and Beyond the Pleasure Principle.
There are many films that played on the deuce (the main artery of filth that ran through the pulsating abscess of 42nd street) that assaulted audiences with their graphic depictions of nasty violence and lusty sex. Films like ‘Forced Entry’, ‘Rape Squad’, Black Gestapo’ and ‘I Drink Your Blood’ stained the marquis like the vagrant seamen moulding on the seats within. The phrase “Character-Driven” really doesn’t come to mind when looking at the colourful peacock's tail of films that lit up the deuce. But there are exceptions to the rule; one of them perhaps is the most enigmatic of the bunch.
Love Me Deadly (1972), a film by one time (not one hit wonder) Jacques Lacerte, is one of those genre oddities that could easily fall into the category of Sirkian melodrama if not for the obvious display of shocking violence and taboo subject.
‘Deadly’ follows the sexual explorations of Lindsay Finch – played excellently by a frigid, delicate and sometimes animated performance by Mary Charlotte Wilcox - who was mostly known for playing the quiet, demure virgin in TV and film. There are shades of this energy in Wilcox performance here, but her dedication to the role quite spectacularly saves the film from falling completely into sappy melodrama (which it often does).
Lindsay, an independent young woman living on the inherited fortune of her deceased parents, roams from funeral to funeral, indulging in trysts of necrophilia. The opening of the film shows a solemn procession of mourners, with Lyndsay in stark contrast, beaming like a little girl in the back row waiting for the mourners to leave. As they exit, Lyndsay approaches the coffin to see a deceased middle-aged man, and before you know it, she’s laying one on him, tongue and all- as the titles SCREAM across the screen in true grindhouse fashion: LOVE ME DEADLY.
The next scene shows Lindsay at the centre of a truly swinging socialite party. Moving from group to group, Lindsay brushes off the attention of eager male admirers, drawing the attention of a playboy wolf, called Alex portrayed by Christopher Stone (of Cujo, Howling and Lassie fame), who follows Lindsay in an effort to brutally seduce her. Lindsay scratches his face to ward off his aggressive groping's and Alex leaves infuriated, his face red and balls blue. In a near catatonic state, Lindsay instantly regresses into a childlike trance, gripping at an old teddy bear that she holds to her chest as sepia-toned childhood images of Lindsay and her handsome father frolic suggestively together in various situations. The images pass by in a sentimental yet uncomfortable Proustian rush, with Lindsay as a child falling off a swing, only to have her father run to her aside to gently caress the bruise on her shoulder. Cut to: Lindsay in bed, her father presenting her (and there it is) a brand-new teddy bear that child Lindsay hugs to her chest lovingly as her father brushes her hair and arms with uncomfortable lurid strokes.
This is where ‘Deadly’ transforms into the outré entry that transcends its ranks amongst the shocks and thrills of the 70s exploitation film. Lindsay is a character permanently stunted in the psychology of a child. While never explicitly stated, Lindsay’s affection for the male corpse is portrayed as a processing technique to cope with the disturbing Elektra complex inherited by the devastating sexual assault at the hands of her father. ‘Deadly’s’ narrative becomes progressively more uncomfortable when Lindsay crosses path with a dangerous serial killer/necrophile called Fred (played with psychotic understatement by Fred McSweeney), who picks up male hustlers and embalms them alive in a rundown mortuary.
Visually, ‘Deadly’ is a pretty bland film – flat lighting, awkward staging and misguided scene direction (not to mention some excruciating moments of dialogue, some of which has been awkwardly obscured by a blaringly sappy soundtrack) make the film excruciatingly amateur at times, but it does showcase some of the most thrilling and garish set-pieces I’ve seen in an exploitation film. One time director Jacques Lacerte (one awkward non-de-plume of a stage name) certainly shows inexperience behind the camera, but certain sequences have a raw power and uncomfortable stillness in relation to the violence portrayed on-screen.
One of the first shocking sequences of the film sees Fred McSweeney’s aberrant necrophile leading a male hustler into the basement level of a mortuary where he is tied down in the nude to a surgical table with leather straps. The soundtrack drops into diegetic horror, the camera is observant and still and the sequence is masterfully constructed to show just enough of our midnight cowboy being stuck, violated and slashed with embalming equipment. He screams: “Oh my BLOOD! Oh, my BLOOD!”, as jets of blood stream from his carotid artery. Bill Landis of Sleazoid Express comments on the films, “The exsanguination torture killing sequence is an unconsenting shock, as powerful as academician Stan Brakhage’s autopsy documentary, The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes.”
And indeed, he is right, ‘Deadly’ features violence and depravity in an observational light that can stand in comfortable contrast to the same rawness of the 'Mondo-American’ films such as The Killing of America or Violence USA. This is not to imply that Deadly has any loftier inspirations than its more perverted brethren on the strip, with the film in producer Buck Henry’s words simply being “a means to an end” to secure the credit of having a finished film. This isn’t a passion project or auterist piece at all, but the bizarre melding pot of elements does show flashes of originality.
Lindsay eventually falls for a handsome gallery owner named Alex who looks uncannily like her father. As their relationship develops, it becomes increasingly clear that Alex is simply just a stand-in for Lindsay’s unconscious desires to continue the sexual relationship with the paternal archetype, and yet, Lindsay pulls away from any sexual contact with Alex as she attempts to maintain the boundaries between the hermetic inner life of her childlike fantasy and the frustrated sexual needs of her new partner.
Lyndsay finds no sexual release in the warm-blooded needs of the living, instead she projects her incestuous fantasies onto the dead – cold, unresponsive, sexually bereft beings that allow her to maintain the comfort of her fantasy. As Lindsey falls prey to the excessive and perverse necrophiliac orgies held by the sadistic Fred, she is driven more and more into the fantasy realm of her dangerous inner life, eventually pushing away Alex and the comforts of her domestic life to routinely visit the mortuary. A late-night visit to one of the orgies shows playboy rake Alex brutally murdered, strung up and corpse molested by the fiendish gatherers – all of this set to György Ligeti’s Atmosphere’s, in another of the films harrowingly uncomfortable set-pieces
Alex, becoming more concerned for Lindsay, begins to tail her around the city – he confronts Lindsay at the grave of her Father, her hair tied up in pig tails, dressed in girlish clothes, dancing In front of the headstone like a Dionysian worshipper. Hysteric at the intrusion, Lindsay runs off and Alex (a fool for love) indulges Lindsay’s neurosis, not knowing the true extent of her trauma. After she avoids a dinner date with his parents, Alex trails Lindsay to the mortuary where he finds her starkers and straddling the dead corpse of a man surrounded by the necrophiles. Alex is gutted, both figuratively and literally. His corpse is dragged off and Lindsay – psychological bow finally broken– is sent into a delirious psychosis and this is where the complete mythology of Lindsay’s Elektra complex is finally revealed in a kaleidoscopic series of images. Her Father, a gun, a shot, her father bloody and dead with Lyndsay holding the gun. Whether or not the act was a consciously meditated act of retribution on Lindsay’s behalf remains unclear, but the wracking guilt, the psychosexual trauma and powerful image of the dead patriarch remains the primary locus of control in Lindsay’s psychopathology. Lindsay’s transgressive acts of sex and depravity transcend the psychosexual need, instead become powerful acts of symbolic repetition and processing, a way of ‘working through’ the overwhelming guilt of patricide. The climax of the film sees Lindsay murder cult leader Fred – who has been raking the flesh of dead Alex with his nails in the bed of their own home. Lindsay, driven over the edge and in full psychosis, climbs into bed with mutilated Alex, pulling the sheets over them both, finally consummating the union of husband and wife in revolting parody. This is no happy ending, and like many films on 42nd street, ‘Deadly’ caters to the nihilism of the era. There is no hope to strive for, no revelation or psychological retribution for doomed Lindsay, the cycle of abuse comes full circle in her mind, devouring the last piece of her as she succumbs to madness.
What makes deadly a unique film is that it taps into the vulnerability behind sexual perversity that cannot be full reconciled by the person it drives – for what is a human being if not an entity driven by impulse and sexuality. Our very identities are inextricably linked into the excitation of imagery, fetishism and ritual, with the bodies these images possess being powerful and dangerous archetypes of human destruction. Father/Mother - Cartesian figments of our morality and the locus of experience. Our parents instil in us law, control and guiding principles of abidance that allow us to operate in society with relative stability. Lindsay is a woman unable to move past the trauma of sexual assault by the father, a thing she clearly equates with concepts of purity and love. Her obsessive desire to lie with the dead is a way to expunge guilt - all the while stunting the limits of her psychological growth by isolating in increasingly hostile fantasy.
‘Love Me Deadly’ fell into obscurity right out of the gate, with only a 4-day cinematic run on the deuce and its profits smashed by pioneering hard-core porno, ‘Deep Throat’, which was released the same week and unluckily, just across the street from ‘Love Me Deadly'. ‘Deadly’ however, holds a special place in my heart as a film that embodies one of many gems to be found and explored from the exploitation craze that permeated the 70s and 80s. Grimmey, unrelenting and offensive aside, films like ‘Deadly’ still have the ability to shock through the raw portrayal of violence and decadence that most contemporary films would shy away from. I would recommend ‘Love Me Deadly' to only the most hardened horror fans, and event then prepare for nausea and aberrant thrills like only the primal rush a 42nd street film can give you.