24 Days ’til Halloween, 2016: MORBO (1972)

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Wow…just…wow. Not all the movies I post are movies that I’ve long been familiar with and have “always” loved. Most of them are, but some of them I come across and watch for the first time while putting together my list for making this blog. This is one of those movies. Sure, I’d seen the name before and read brief descriptions of the film. It sounded more like one of those slow, vaseline lensed romantic sexploitation thrillers typical of Eurosleaze cinema as opposed to something easily categorized as horror. I love those kind of pseudo-Emanuelle Skinemax flicks in their own right so I always planned on checking it out, but I put off watching it until just now. I can’t believe it. I’ve just had one of those experiences that film lovers live for: that moment of being completely absorbed in a film, overcome by associations and feelings and not knowing why, having absolutely no idea what’s coming next, and absolutely thrilled by it.

Today was going to be a themed posting. One of my oldest friends, Jeremy, and a newer friend, April (who actually helped me start this blog to begin with), are getting married this month and I wanted to post some marriage or honeymoon themed horror movies in their honor as, unfortunately, I am unable to make it to their wedding. I had some particularly schlocky examples in mind as opposed to the obvious classics like THE HONEYMOON KILLERS or HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON, but I decided to watch MORBO in case I could add it to the list. Now it’s all about MORBO!

I don’t know how much of the plot I should give away although the tense mood created by the movie would probably do its work even when preceded by plot spoilers. I supposed I should maybe describe some of my responses going in and how they developed as I was seduced. That might be one way to approach writing about it.

The movie opens with a voiceover dialogue between a married woman and man. Apparently the woman was scarred in a fire and the man takes care of her in some abandoned house (which we get to see in all its decrepit glory). The woman wants to die because she is no longer desirable to men. “Great,” I thought, “we’re off to a nice sexist start”. I mean…not that the character’s emotions couldn’t be realistic…it’s just that it’s such a pathetic sentiment and I was already, in the first minute of the movie, disappointed about this possibly being set up as the justification for a mad woman’s murder rampage or some such nonsense. It’s kind of like seeing a movie from 1972 about a repressed homosexual killing women. It’s not necessarily psychologically unjustified and the movie itself might not be considered homophobic were it made today, but the meaning of the scenario, as a trope, within the cultural/historical context of the film would be too…loaded…to be a comfortable watch. Also, both April and Jeremy are pretty progressive folks and I didn’t want to post something patently offensive to celebrate their wedding…unless I was doing it on purpose and they knew it. I mean, they are friends…it’s not like they wouldn’t get it…

Anyway, I wasn’t too reassured when the next scene introduces us to a young newly married couple who are set up as “modern” and “liberated” by having the bride strip out of her wedding dress into a bikini in front of a horny gas station attendant and the husband refer to his ex-girlfriend as frigid. However, I was encouraged by the scrolling title in the opening credits and the artsy little boxes around the surnames in the actors credits. They seemed unusually graphically modern and kind of classy for a European horror film from 1972.

Apart from that, the movie seemed to be following Euro-horror cliches to the letter so I was expecting some wildly irrational and unrealistic behavior from stock characters and, at best, was hoping for some psychologically complex subtext and great imagery. It’s almost as if the director knew exactly what I was expecting because the characters both have moments of irrational and unrealistic behavior almost right off the bat. Still…the dialogue seemed very natural. In fact, though their behavior was a little strange, it didn’t feel like…unrealistically strange irrationality. Though neurotic, these characters felt like they may be…normal neurotic people being normally strange and irrational: the way we all might look on camera to someone who didn’t know us and our unique quirks very intimately. But normal people don’t end up in 1970s European horror movies, do they?

There was a moment when I realized this movie was going to be something more. The actress playing the bride has a long monologue in which she describes her fantasy house that she and her husband may some day move into. She wants the house to have lots of mirrors and she explains why. The camera stays on her face for the entire monologue and I thought to myself, “Huh…she’s a good actor. And to keep the camera on her face through that whole monologue…such a gutsy move.” I was reminded of the scene in Ingmar Bergman’s PERSONA when one of the actors tells a long story about a past sexual experience. It’s one of the most riveting moments in cinema that I can think of. The fact I was reminded of it threw me off. I rewound MORBO and rewatched the monologue so I could see the actor’s expression as she delivered her lines. Yes…she was good…very good…so was the long held shot, the slow zoom, and the edit that ends the monologue with chilling ambiguity. This was not a normal Eurohorror film! It looked like I’d stumbled across some art!

Art is great and I was excited, but was it art and horror? Both are common but the combo is to be prized. I soon found out. MORBO builds its tension slowly, almost imperceptibly, through the development of the young couples’ character and relationship as well as their response to events that don’t seem particularly horrifying. If I described them to you they would not seem so scary. At the same time, while I was watching, I realized I had my forehead wrinkled up and was holding my breath in expectation. I was reminded of the first time I watched THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and had this feeling…this morbid feeling of dread…while watching the young soon-to-be-slaughtered characters wandering through Texas landscapes that seemed so familiar and nostalgic that I could practically feel the temperature of the air, the scratching of dry weeds against my skin, and the sweat in the armpits of my polyester shirt. That atmosphere vibrated with the anticipation of horror and I knew it like I had been there before. MORBO feels the same to me: the leaves roaring in the trees, an orange 70s curtain waving gently as someone rests on the bed inside a camper, the insects in the bushes, and even the surreal juxtaposition of primary colored inflatable chairs against the brown and green brush and mud that is the film’s primary location: a setting that is as sparse and yet as loaded with implications as the ritual spaces in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s EL TOPO.

And it is not just the visuals that seduced me. It became clear, very quickly, that the relationship between the two leads was not going to be the superficial sexist male/female dichotomy one might expect (and which the viewer is encouraged to expect). This couple actually tries to have balance and depth with each other: something real outside of the social roles their culture expects of them. In fact, that premise is fundamental to the film. But is it real?

And then, when the bride takes a shower or luxuriates in the feel of the sun or the wind on her body, there isn’t any nudity to distract the viewer from experiencing the moment with her. One may identify with her subjective sensations in a truly empathetic way but it is troubled by the absence of nudity one might normally expect from such a scene in this kind of movie. It almost makes it more disturbing – makes her feel more exposed – than if she were topless. That is disturbing in so many ways…

The director of MORBO, Gonzalo Suárez, quite clearly knew the tropes of European horror and knew how to exploit them in such a way as to play with audience’s expectations.

As would be expected, the young couple have secrets they are hiding from each other. And yet, the revelation of these secrets has a different emotional impact and different feelings of dread and horror associated with them than most other horror films I’ve seen. MORBO is most similar, in a way, to films like Roman Polanski’s REPULSION or other films of that ilk that depict the slow mental unraveling of one woman or man. In this case, however, it is the unraveling of a couple…only they aren’t insane and they do not unravel…or do they?

There is a scene involving a wedding dress later in the film. I don’t want to give it away, but there is nothing particularly horrifying about the scene and yet I had chills go up and down my back and my mouth dropped open while watching it as if I had just witnessed a shocking twist ending. I still have no idea why I emotionally responded in that way to a fairly innocuous moving image. MORBO is just that good!

I should add, finally, that when researching the film I found out that the actors who play the couple in MORBO fell in love while making the film, got married, and are still together today. I really didn’t need to know anything else about it. That’s what sealed the deal for me: a perfect tribute to Jeremy and April! I hope you two have a wonderful wedding day and a haunted honeymoon!

– Love, Nathan

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