Two very different classic horror films from Northern Europe today. You can see they both came out in the same year. The late 50s were apparently a very good time for horror/thrillers in Sweden and Norway.
The Norwegian film LAKE OF THE DEAD (1958) is famous in Norway. It was recently listed by Norwegian critics as one of the best five films to be produced in that country and it has a reputation as a horror film similar, I suppose, to what PSYCHO might have in the United States. In style it is much more like the eery, subtle horror of Jacques Tourneur’s THE CAT PEOPLE or I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE. Like those movies, the black and white photography is pushed to its expressive limits depicting ominous, mysterious threats in apparently benign locales.
Like THE CAT PEOPLE, LAKE OF THE DEAD is heavily laden with references to Freudian psychology. The novel it was based upon was one in a series featuring the same amateur detective whose peculiar sleuthing style was founded entirely upon psychology. You could say it was a forerunner to the popular “criminal profiler” trend we’ve seen in contemporary film and TV since THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS made it such a big success. This sleuth, by profession a Freudian analyst, often finds himself at odds with more overtly rational, Sherlock Holmes-style detectives and beats them at their own game. It is interesting to see this popular image of psychology from the 1950s in opposition to rationality. That dichotomy hasn’t necessarily endured in popular culture, but it was certainly still alive and well in the late 50s. Perhaps it was the work of Jung that helped to associate psychology with the occult, ghosts, psychic powers and the like, but the association took on a life of its own and in many classic genre films from around the world, well into the 70s, psychology is often presented as indistinguishable from what is now, charitably, called “parapsychology.”
Because the issues that Freud and psychology dealt with were taboo in polite society, there was also an exploitative aspect to referencing psychology in genre movies and novels. By the 60s, especially in Europe, psychological neurosis and illness as understood by Freud – often related to childhood traumas – were central themes in what seemed like the vast majority of well regarded horror films. This gave a certain amount of legitimacy and gravity when the main goal is to show crazy people going on killing sprees, but it also sometimes led to more mature, sophisticated approaches to narrative and characterization than horror films may have previously attempted. Sexual or moral issues that would have otherwise been off the table for a popular film, some of them central to the plot in LAKE OF THE DEAD, could now be explored more fully and, at times, contribute to much needed public conversations.
The maturity and intelligence of the characters in LAKE OF THE DEAD, even when confronted with extraordinary events, is in stark contrast to the stock characters one might see in similar American films from the time. The women are on equal footing with the men, it seems, and their relationships reflect a culture that respects “sensible” understanding and mutual respect…even in the midst of conflict. At first I felt as if the characters were talking an awful lot and this was going to be a “talky” theatrical film, but then I realized the movie was progressing at the same speed as most visually-oriented films and that this was actually just a realistic portrayal of how intelligent people of the time might have actually spoken. It’s nice to see intelligent, strong people in movies that actually have something to say…especially since most contemporary horror films seem to feature immature, self-defeating idiots lovable only for their artificial peculiarities if they’re not just vapid, featureless, avatars for a video game injured audience. (Yes…I enjoy being condescendingly disdainful. My blood is black as pitch.)
MANNEQUIN IN RED, from Sweden, is also based on a best-selling mystery novel. This series of novels featured a husband and wife crime-solving team with a dynamic similar to Emma Peele and Steed in the popular TV show THE AVENGERS. By this I mean that they are equally intelligent and capable (with the female half of the team being somewhat more intelligent) but, working undercover, the woman is able to get important inside info by playing roles that exclude men: secretary, nun, the scientist daughter of a visiting ambassador…or whatever. In the case of MANNEQUIN IN RED, our lady detective takes on the role of a fashion model in order to infiltrate the female-dominated studio of a high-fashion dress designer where the expected back-stabbing has gotten way out of hand.
The comparison with THE AVENGERS extends past the relationship of the main characters. MANNEQUIN IN RED has the same mix of quirky humor, strange imagery, and eccentric characters that made THE AVENGERS so popular. It is certainly not as serious as LAKE OF THE DEAD, but it has some nail-biting moments and startling imagery. The color and locations are beautiful. I’m sure it’s not technicolor, but it has that wonderful 1950s Alfred Hitchcock style flatness to the coloring that is so evocative and romantic to someone like me (who wasn’t alive then). The wonderful examples of high-fashion clothing and modern interior design helps. It’s Agatha Christie / Edgar Wallace meets FUNNY FACE…and that’s a helluva lot of fun. There’s even a musical sequence in which a hiply dressed chanteuse sings while making her way through a nightclub so packed with socialites and potted plants that it looks like a Surrealist exhibition. All it’s missing are live snails and an indoor rainstorm.
Historically, when it comes to horror, MANNEQUIN IN RED is significant for being a possible inspiration for Mario Bava’s more famous fashion-themed murder mystery BLOOD AND BLACK LACE. That film set the mold for visual audaciousness and mounting body count that would be imitated and developed throughout the 60s and 70s in Italy’s most famous horror films. It is also sometimes referred to as the first “slasher film” (although that honor is also sometimes given to another film by Mario Bava, A BAY OF BLOOD.)
That would make MANNEQUIN IN RED the first “proto-slasher”(I’m poking fun at a meaningless horror fan term there,) although really it’s nothing of the sort. It’s just a good, old-fashioned, twisty-turny, super-fun murder mystery that I think you’ll enjoy…
LAKE OF THE DEAD (1958)
MANNEQUIN IN RED (1958)