Years ago, when I was writing (and later editing) Nerve.com’s now-defunct film blog The Screengrab, I introduced a regular feature that proved to be quite popular, focusing on films that were, for one reason or another, forgotten – that is to say, unseen, under-discussed, under-appreciated. Happily, some of the films I featured in the series have since become significantly more appreciated. I did a huge piece on Alex Cox’s Walker in mid-2006, and even Cox himself seemed surprised at the time that there were people out there who remembered his film and considered it a masterpiece; now, the film is available in a lovely Criterion edition, go figure.
Screengrab is long gone; not even its leaf-strewn sarcophagus appears to be cached anymore. So I hope the Nerve folks won’t mind if I reinstate that feature here and, to kick things off, revisit one of the forgotten films I felt most strongly about, Jack Clayton’s masterpiece, Our Mother’s House, since it is among my absolute favorite films of all time and is still very, very hard to find. (Ahem, Criterion…or, really, anybody.) So here goes nothing.
First, though, a few words about the director. Most people, if they’ve heard of Jack Clayton, probably know him as the guy behind the great, twisted 1961 Turn of the Screw adaptation The Innocents. But he's one of the great unsung masters of English-speaking cinema. He had served as an assistant director for Alexander Korda and an associate producer for John Huston before branching out on his own as a director. Indeed, he had won an Oscar before his very first feature, for the short 1956 Gogol adaptation The Bespoke Overcoat. His debut feature Room at the Top (1959) was something of a phenomenon in its day. So was the aforementioned Innocents. And 1964's The Pumpkin Eater, scripted by one Harold Pinter and which won Anne Bancroft a slew of well-deserved awards, including Best Actress at Cannes and an Oscar nomination, was nothing to sneeze at either.
|Jack Clayton directs Deborah Kerr on the set of The Innocents (1961)|
Our Mother’s House’s curious blending of genres likely proved problematic in 1967, preventing it from finding an audience; it was somehow both too old-fashioned and too weird. (Not to mention dark, dark, dark – Jesus is this movie dark.) But I remain awestruck to this day by its effortless blending of gothic unease and touching lyricism, by its ability to work both as a meditation on repression and a sharply drawn character study.
Adapted from Julian Gloag’s novel, the film bears some initial similarities to The Lord of the Flies. It begins with the death of Mother (Annette Carell), an invalid living in a rambling Gothic mansion with her seven kids, the oldest in their mid-teens. The children, profoundly devoted to their loving and deeply religious parent (who has decorated the musty, darkened place with crosses and Biblical passages) and suspicious of the outside world, are afraid they’ll be sent to an orphanage if her death is discovered. So they decide to bury Mother in the garden and act as if nothing has happened. They go to school and come right back home, making sure not to share anything with their teachers or their friends.
They soon have the run of the house, occasionally arranging for candlelit séances where their eldest, Elsa (Margaret Brooks), rocks in a chair channeling the spirit of their dead mother. Needless to say, being children, their activities range from carefree, to inspired, to cruel, and Clayton switches registers with uncanny ease. The free-spirited, handheld camera follows the kids playing in the yard one minute, then cuts into the dusty, dim tomblike house the next, the interiors' baroque shadows and expressionist unease clearly the mark of someone who came of age in the 30s and 40s.
But Our Mother’s House is not just a movie about kids running wild. Into this unholy idyll one day walks a strange man: Charlie Hook (Dirk Bogarde), these kids’ father – or, more appropriately, Mother’s husband. The kids decide to let Charlie in on their secret, and he begins living with them. But the exceedingly likable Charlie also turns out to be a generally unreliable deadbeat. He tears up Mother’s will, and cons one of the kids into forging her signature so he can raid the family savings account. He also brings an assortment of loose women into the house, introducing these repressed children to the wonders of pot, gambling, promiscuous sex, and pop music. Mother left the children a rigid, timeless world of absolutes. With Charlie and the rest of the world come a thousand questions about the very nature of reality. I’m sure nobody intended it that way (especially given when it was made), but right here in Our Mother’s House is the entire Sixties experience in miniature.
That makes the film sound like a portentous, Big Theme picture, but it’s quite a bit more than that. Clayton was a master not just of mood, but also of shifts in mood. Early on, when the impossibly adorable and energetic 8-year-old Gerty (Sarah Nicholls), takes an enthusiastic ride on a stranger’s motorcycle, she provokes the ire of the older kids, and the sight of them chastising their young sibling feels like a comic allegory at first. (“Harlot!” screams one.) Then, however, Mother is summoned from the dead to “punish the sinful daughter” and the penalty is decided upon – to take away Gertie’s comb (which she took from Mother after her death) and cut off her hair – and the scene becomes ever more macabre. As Gertie’s hair is hacked off, amid her piercing shrieks, we witness the unbearable pain of being a child in a vengeful world whose rules have gone haywire. Clayton calibrates his tone so smoothly, we don’t even realize we’re watching a horror film until it’s too late. But what makes this particular horror film so scary is that all of these characters are so recognizably, heartbreakingly human.
I also need to put in a word for Georges Delerue’s magnificent and haunting score (hear a bit of it here), and for the way Larry Pizer's camera stalks through the narrow rooms and corridors of this fairy tale house. And of course, for the remarkably naturalistic performances of the kids, most of them acting for the first time in a film. Clayton was always known for his strong direction of actors, but his easygoing patience was reportedly instrumental in getting these children to perform so well, especially given that this was material most of them didn’t even understand.
Despite its obscurity, Our Mother’s House is a surprisingly influential little film. Bogarde’s performance here reportedly inspired Luchino Visconti to cast him in The Damned and Death in Venice. Apparently, Steven Spielberg was such a fan that he advised Quincy Jones to use Georges Delerue’s score as a guide when making The Color Purple. And it was mainly due to his performance here that 8-year-old Mark Lester was cast the following year in Carol Reed’s hit musical Oliver!
I first got to see Our Mother’s House in a pristine new print in the Summer of 1995, a few months after Clayton’s death, when the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, did a full retrospective of his films. Sadly, I don’t think that retro traveled much further. As far as I can tell, there are no foreign DVDs of the film floating around, nor was there ever even a VHS release. It does pop up on Turner Classic Movies now and then – often at odd hours of the day – so you might still be able to catch it. More importantly, it means a decent transfer of the film exists out there, which could be used for an eventual home video release.
Still, in some odd way, it feels strangely appropriate that Our Mother's House would be tucked away in a dark corner somewhere. Because it’s all about dark corners and things that rarely see the light of day, both figuratively and literally. It’s a creepy, poignant, sad little film, and pretty much perfect in every way. And until you can see it, you'll just have to take my word for it.