Schizo (1976)

Viewed January 6th

The mysterious past of a young figure skater catches up with her in this Pete Walker film.

The title, Schizo, of course, references Hitchcock's Psycho. And there are other connections. For example, the iconic moment in Psycho when blood swirling down a shower drain dissolves into the victim's eye has an analogue in which the Schizo killer's scribbling of circles around a photo of his victim dissolves into the victim herself carving similarly rough circles in the ice as she spins around and around in her figure skates. Beyond that, there is a sense that Walker is using his camera in a more Hitchcockian mode to craft his cinematic story than he was in, say, Frightmare from two years earlier. The other major change is that the content in Schizo is more realistic and serious. Gone are the campy hysterics of Sheila Keith's wild middle-aged murderess in Frightmare. There is humor in Schizo but it's situated in a more realistic world; although, to be clear, by the time things wrap up, we are well outside any actual psychological or social reality.

This development in Walker's cinematic approach leads to a harder, more troubling edge to the violence he presents. However, unlike Frightmare (or, for that matter, Psycho)there's not a star performance to project a larger system of meaning or myth around this violence. As I have stated elsewhere in this blog, I refer to a "star" as a person whose inner life is sufficiently deep so that when they are photographed by a movie camera, that internal depth is externalized, particularly through their eyes, to project a certain mythos or modern "type." Anthony Perkins (and Janet Leigh) in Psycho are stars; so is Sheila Keith in Frightmare. They not only perform the role of their characters but by their mere presence add another layer of depth to the film. Stars are rare. Lynne Frederick in Schizo does a fine job and she's beautiful, but there's no sense of an inner life externalizing itself. A film, obviously, doesn't require a star to work, but by stripping away that quality from a horror film, there must be some other depth for the viewer to plumb. One option would be a critique of the modern world; you get that here to some extent (Walker is generally great at capturing, celebrating, and skewering British society), but it's a collateral effect rather than a main thrust of the film. Another option would be plotting a strong mystery in which the viewer plays detective, working in conjunction with the filmmaker to piece together clues so that, in their resolution, there's a satisfying aesthetic effect. But that, too, comes up short, as the twist is pretty obvious from the early scenes of the film. Finally, the film could push the formalism of violence into interesting territory the way DePalma does. But although the filmic techniques used in Schizo feel like an evolution for Walker, it would be a stretch to say that it was doing so in a boundary-pushing way. It adopts techniques, it doesn't necessarily evolve them. So it ends up as an interesting, but not great exploitation film in which the principal interest is the presentation of violence and nudity for its own sake--that is to say, exploit. And exploitation is, of course, where most exploitation films end up and that's part of the pleasure for fans of exploitation cinema--the embrace of the crude and the shocking. But on a deeper level, the pleasure of this brand of cinema, I think, goes beyond that to the moments when finding the gems transcend sheer exploitation. The pleasure is an extension, in a way, of finding clues to solve a mystery. The viewer of exploitation cinema sifts through the scat, looking for those overlooked gems that may offer some alternative meaning, or some clues, about how things were or are in a way that go under the radar of official culture, be it intellectual culture or mainstream culture.