Forget Dracula and Frankenstein, Ken Russell’s Crimes of Passion is a real horror film, about horrors of the human mind that drive people to the depths of degradation before they can find the true nature of their own humanity.
It is shocking, brutal, repellent and sexually graphic. But it’s like being in the same room with a poisonous snake – You can’t bear to look, but you wouldn’t dare close your eyes for a single second. You’re afraid of what it might do next.
Crimes of Passion was slaughtered by most critics and dismissed by many filmgoers as just another slice of raunch and sleaze.
Some bypassed it as just another Tony Perkins psycho flick. It is all of those things, but a great deal more and at the heart of it is a titanic performance by Kathleen Turner that is positively staggering.
What is it about? That’s the hard part. On the surface, it seems conventional enough.
An attractive sportswear designer by day, Joanna Crane (Kathleen Turner) is a stylish, chic, compulsive, ambitious career girl. By night, she’s China Blue, a gaudy, peroxide-wigged, kewpie doll prostitute – A human garbage receptacle for all the problems and sicknesses of a neurotic world.
“How low can you get?” asks one of her slimy clients. “As low as you can afford,” she snaps.
Through plot contrivances too irrelevant to go into, Joanna’s double life is observed by Bobby Grady (John Laughlin), an unhappy square married to a drudge of a wife, and the Reverend Shayne (Tony Perkins), a mad religious street comer zealot who makes her his own personal target for execution in order to cleanse his soul of sin.
Distraught over his own loveless marriage and desperate for the kind of sexual relationship he’s never known, Bobby plunges into a world of Quaaludes, kinky fantasies, and sex toys, while the preacher goes berserk.
It’s the killer-stalks-prostitute subplot that turns Crimes of Passion into ‘Psycho Goes to Church’ and eventually reduces the movie to the level of a conventional thriller.
But Crimes of Passion has a lot more on its mind. Here is a girl who submerges herself in a midnight world of self-deprecation because she can’t find fulfilment or trust or compassion in the reality of a normal life.
Here is a man who has been living a lie, thinking his marital relations were safe and satisfying, who finds the sexual happiness he lacks in a girl who deals in fantasy.
How these two people find love by stripping away their protective veneers and doing something with and for each other instead of to each other in bed is the part of the film that moves people.
No other film has dealt so honestly with the effect of pornography and sexual permissiveness on society: Why are we drowning in pornography on every street corner? Why are more housewives becoming part-time prostitutes? Why are singles bars so popular? Why are child abuse and kiddie porn the leading news topics of the day? Why are more kids turning to drugs?
For the answers, you must face some unpleasant facts about the lives we live today in a frenetic society that often seems to be going insane all around us.
The people who made this film must have known going in that it would never appeal to a broad or universal audience. In that respect, it is courageous and destined for controversy. It’s not the kind of picture you can recommend easily or even discuss at polite dinner parties.
But it’s an amazing film. In many ways, it’s revolutionary, too, forcing us to face repellent facts about sex the way A Clockwork Orange (1971) forced us to face our own feelings about violence.
The actors are first-rate, but you will always remember Kathleen Turner. There is probably no other actress with the range, ability, and emotional depth to carry it off.
At Kathleen’s toughest, a loving wife pays her to bring one last bit of satisfaction to her sick and crippled husband, who is dying of cancer.
The poor man collapses in the prostitute’s arms in tears, and the mixture of human suffering, compassion and terror in her face is unforgettable. She’s gorgeous, vulnerable, funny, both dream girl and slut of sluts – Often all at the same time.
To defend Crimes of Passion is to invite ridicule, but its powerful message (that it’s all right to be afraid if you can learn to share your fears with someone else instead of losing yourself in fantasy) is one to applaud.
Despite the wacko subplot and Ken Russell’s hysterical direction (subtlety is not his strength and never has been), it’s a movie that, for all its flaws, is about the way we live now.
To avoid it just because you’ve got a weak stomach is like avoiding the six o’clock news because you might hear something nasty.
Joanna Crane/China Blue
Reverend Peter Shayne