Monday, February 9, 2015

Emma, puertas oscuras (1974)

One of the most fascinating things about watching the work of a cinematic auteur is witnessing the gradual creation of a self-contained cinematic universe. Not only is it fascinating but rewarding also when the films are viewed in chronological order, being able to see the beginning of both narrative and visual motifs, said motifs being expanded on and eventually perfected, noticing how one film relates to another, things of that nature. José Ramón Larraz was one such auteur who unquestionably created a highly personal universe. Larraz is a particularly interesting case in that with his first film Whirlpool (1970) he essentially laid all his calling cards out on the table, the isolated countryside setting, shady and hedonistic characters clearly hiding some form of ulterior motive, a prevailing sense of mystery and an approach to sexuality that was both visceral and psychological. What’s incredible is that even with Whirlpool being his first film Larraz clearly had a pretty good handle on all these things and would continue to expand upon them with subsequent films like Deviation (1971), Scream and Die (1973) and Symptoms (1974) , which for all intensive purposes is the culmination of everything Larraz began with Whirlpool. Somewhat lost in the shuffle of all those films is Emma, puertas oscuras, a transitional piece that found Larraz again expanding on his obsessions while also adding some new elements making for one curious little film.

Emma, a young woman is seriously injured in a hit an run accident. Silvia, a psychiatrist who witnessed the accident gets to know Emma at the hospital where Emma is recovering and the two became very close. So close in fact that Silvia offers to become Emma’s legal guardian and adopt her upon her release from the hospital as Emma has no known family. The accident however has changed Emma, leaving her with severe abandonment issues  causing her behavior to become erratic and violent and Silvia’s threats of sending Emma back to the hospital push Emma, razor in hand, over the edge and out into the country on her own.

Sandwiched in between Scream and Die and Symptoms, Emma, puertas oscuras (Emma, Dark Doors) is the logical bridge between the two films utilizing the slasher components of the former while flirting with the psychology of the later. While the film isn’t nearly as psychologically sophisticated as Symptoms its nonetheless a precursor in the way it explores Emma’s separation anxiety and her fear of abandonment which leads to violence. The majority of the first half of the film is made up of Larraz’s focusing on the loving yet somewhat contentious relationship between Emma and Silvia and as always with Larraz nothing is ever spelled out entirely making the nature of their relationship all the more fascinating. Although its not as overt as in Symptoms there are some clear hints of lesbianism and sexual tention between the two which Larraz perverts with the fact that Silvia is technically Emma’s adopted mother. Per usual Larraz tells the story in a leisurely fashion only to give a nice jolt by way of Emma’s nasty scissor and razor attacks and a bizarre dream sequence. Its during the third act where the films slasher side takes over and where it really begins to recall Scream and Die with Emma’s survival (predatory) instincts kicking in and Larraz brilliantly setting the action in an abandoned hotel. The perfect setting for Larraz’s trademark atmospherics to make an appearance which give these moments a classical, gothic feel, a technique Larraz would return to in future films like Stigma (1980) and Deadly Manor (1990).

One of the most interesting things about Emma, puertas oscuras is that it was a Spanish production made right in the middle of Larraz’s British period. The locations and vehicles seen all throughout the film make it clear that it was shot in England, at least the overwhelming majority of it was so its interesting that the film was funded with Spanish money especially considering Larraz having left Spain years before due to censorship. Another fun fact is that two years prior lead actress Susanna East (who by the way is excellent in the titular role of Emma) appeared in Ken Russell’s Savage Messiah (1972). Larraz fanatics will no doubt instantly recognize red headed actor Andrew Grant in the role of a hippy that makes the mistake of trying to take advantage of Emma late in the film. Grant of course played Tom, Karl Lanchbury’s accomplice in rape and voyeurism in Whirlpool. Emma, puertas oscuras is another one of Larraz’s films that remained elusive for some time having been (presumably) only released on Spanish VHS until it began to pop up online in recent years much like Larraz’s La muerte incierta (1977). English subtitled discs are now out there, sourced from that Spanish VHS tape and its a film that Larraz fans would benefit from seeing as its ultimately a film that would end up becoming a fitting piece in Larraz’s cinematic puzzle.

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