Oct 10, 2011

Keep My Grave Open (1976)

Director: S.F. Brownrigg
Writer: F. Amos Powell
Wells Company; 79 min; color

Camilla Carr (Lesley Fontaine), Gene Ross (Dr. Emerson), Stephen Tobolowsky (Robert), Ann Stafford (Suzie), Sharon Bunn (Twinkle), Chelcie Ross (Kevin), Annabelle Weenick (Clara), Bill Thurman (Hitchhiker)

Of the four horror/exploitation pictures made by Texan S.F. Brownrigg, he considers Keep My Grave Open to be his favourite, and I share his opinion, perhaps because this was the first of his work I had seen (and therefore this was the film where his distinct style impressed upon me), but it is also his most satisfying. His quartet of films is remarkable for the “you are there” atmosphere, unusual camerawork and melodramatic acting, in addition to the helpings of gore and violence to sell tickets. Although these pictures had different screenwriters, similar themes of madness, dysfunctional familes and sexual tension play into all of these scenarios, best described as macabre mélanges of Tennessee Williams and Erskine Caldwell.

Brownrigg’s films also employed a regular stock company of actors and technicians. (In fact, sometimes the actors would perform a double duty and take on various production roles.) The cinematography of Robert Alcott, which is by turns claustrophobic and dreamlike, and the haunting music by Robert Farrar (whose unusual instrumentation of flutes and harpsichords add a strange texture) contribute to the mise en scene of Brownrigg’s worlds. These cinematic landscapes are populated with his recurrent stars such as the pock-marked, burly and intense Gene Ross, the bird-like and weirdly alluring Camilla Carr, the country girl next door Ann Stafford, and the raven-eyed Annabelle Weenick.

But for all of the savagery onscreen, there is also a leisurely, perhaps poetic side to this work. These pictures move as slowly as life traditionally does in their remote rural settings. In the mesmerizing opening of this film, we see a hobo on the back of a flatbed truck, as seen through the rear window of the cab. It is a shot that is so simple yet so layered. And like most compositions in this film, the sequence plays longer than one expects. For a film full of murders and madness, it is strangely serene. The hobo (played by Larry Buchanan regular Bill Thurman) gets off the truck and wanders onto the Fontaine estate, which boasts the sign: “Keep out- not responsible for any accidents.” The tramp gets into the house, raids the refrigerator for food, swaps his rotgut for the good wine, and then heads back outside for a cookout. And then, he is hacked to death beside his campfire. This is nine minutes of a movie that is barely eighty minutes long! This sequence is representative of what I love about Brownrigg’s films. The narratives take their time to unfold, as the emphasis is more on atmosphere and quirky characters.

Ultimately, this movie is a haunted love story that spends most of its running time in the mind of Lesley Fontaine (Camilla Carr, in her most substantial role). Her doctor (Gene Ross) is worried about her current mental state and suggests that perhaps she needs go back to the hospital. “This bond between you and Kevin… is unhealthy,” he warns. The doctor even offers to speak to Kevin about her condition, and she refuses. The viewer has already seen more of this strange relationship than her physician. “Kevin” is never seen on camera. Lesley is always yelling offscreen, at him, usually about her unrequited love. One scene, which plays for a few minutes in a single take, features Lesley in bed being seduced by Kevin, shot from his POV. The viewer is put into an awkward position of vicariously making love to Camilla Carr, but this sequence is far more creepy than sensual. As quickly as the camera assumes the missionary position, it moves away from Lesley, unfulfilling her desires (or her fantasy?).

There is a younger couple in the story whose similar unfulfilled desires parallel the relationship between Lesley and Kevin, albeit not to such a demented degree. Fontaine’s stablehand Robert (Stephen Tobolowsky, in his first film) has a blossoming relationship with young Suzie (Ann Stafford). Tellingly, she is killed just prior to a sexual rendezvous. Later in the film, in the next scene after the point-of-view shot, Lesley attempts to seduce Robert out of her frustration with Kevin. This play is also a piece of sexual blackmail, so Robert will be allowed to enter a horse in a championship. But before the act is committed, Robert becomes the next murder victim.

Lesley then brings home a prostitute in another effort to please Kevin, and in an elaborately shot sequence, the woman is pursued around the estate by her killer, and attempts to hide in a car, only to find that all of the previous victims have been left there.

Fans who are in any way familiar with horror film conventions of the past 50 years would likely be telling themselves what the surprise revelation would be in this story. But this narrative is not as easy to decipher as one would assume. Despite that there are so few main characters in the movie, when we expect things to wrap up, the narrative just gets cloudier. One’s assumptions about this “relationship” between Lesley and Kevin are subverted.

In this movie, Brownrigg cleverly uses the camera not just as a device for this offscreen “Kevin” figure, but to make the film a visceral experience. Rather than to solve the identity of the murderer, we are beckoned to vicariously live within the damaged mind of Lesley Fontaine.

As always, Brownrigg’s film is a feast of inventive visual ideas to compliment this mood. There are oblique angles even in the most surprisingly mundane scenes like in making coffee, or creative framing devices like shooting from inside a cupboard. All of these touches serve to make the familiar seem otherworldly and mysterious to us. This makes sense in a story that constantly makes us question what we’re seeing.

While Keep My Grave Open has scenes with shocking bursts of violence, one more remembers the quiet touches, like the pastoral opening and the dissolves within the same shot showing progressions of time. These add to the dreamlike feel of this narrative. What makes Brownrigg’s films even special today are their visual ideas, their unusual atmosphere and strong mood. If we perhaps are let down in their stories, that do not tidily follow the three-act convention, then we are likely watching these movies for the wrong reasons. The narratives are actually as hazy as the disoriented minds of their protagonists- appropriately so.

After Keep My Grave Open, Brownrigg left the movies for a more economically stable occupation. His departure from the film industry is synonymous with the time in which most regional cinema was coming to a close. The drive-ins that hosted such fare were being closed and remodeled for strip plazas. By and large the movie industry was changing from interesting niche markets into products for mass consumption by the greatest majority. It would be difficult to imagine S.F. Brownrigg working in a time when one would made a career out of churning out generic films for the direct-to-video market. It’s not that he wouldn’t have had a place in the new industry- one senses that he would have had to compromise his vision more for accessibility to the masses. And indirectly, perhaps we saw evidence of that with his one return to cinema: a dreadful teen comedy, Thinkin’ Big (1986). Sadly, that film would complete his filmography. Brownrigg passed away in 1996, at the age of 58, leaving the world without realizing his dream project: a sequel to Tod Browning's Freaks! Keeping in mind his distinctive visual style, that would have been a hell of a movie.

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