Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Back to the Eighties: LIPSTICK AND BLOOD (1986)

In a room whose walls are gradually being taken up by pornographic pin-ups, a sickly looking, pigeon- chested man rises from his bed to contemplate his image in the mirror, a mirror with `whores hate their clients' scrawled onto it in red lipstick. Mediocre rock music on the soundtrack combines with the pinned up photos of Debee Ashby and Debbie Linden to clue you into the fact that you're watching a film from the Eighties. Computer generated credits –again a very 1980s touch- are juxtaposed with flash forward highlights of the film you are about to see. Names in the credits… `Kaleb King'….. `Robert Bauer'… all sound suspiciously like Lindsay Shonteff or various Shonteff family members hiding out under pseudonyms in order to make the film look like it had a larger crew than it probably did, a familiar trait of Shonteff's.

Lipstick and Blood marked a new, if rather brief, period in Shonteff's career that saw him shooting films on videotape. A medium generally frowned upon by industry veterans and mainly being the preserve of fledgling filmmakers and 1980s entrepreneurs. Maybe the appearance of these upstarts, and the likes of GBH, Suffer Little Children and Death Shock appearing in video rental shops convinced Shonteff that the British exploitation genre might get a second life as shot on video productions, but the `video nasties' furore, the advent of enforced video classification and prohibitively expensive costs of getting a video certificate meant that shot on video horror and exploitation would never really flourish here in the UK in the way that it would do in the States. Apparently dissatisfied with the look of video, Shonteff returned to shooting on film soon after, belatedly returning to video, albeit digital video for his final two films `Ice Cold in Phoenix' and `Angels, Devils and Men'.

Lipstick and Blood concerns the intertwining fates of Jennie (Jane Linter) a part time stripper who has only taken that job as a way of paying for her upcoming marriage, and Jay Preston (Joseph Peters) the porn obsessed man seen in the credits. A sweaty, delusional mess of a character, when Jay isn't murdering prostitutes or ranting at a blow-up doll ("you smell like plastic, rotten whore") Jay is being mesmerized by Jennie's turns at the local stripclub, building up a fantasy relationship between the two of them in his head. Attempts to make this relationship a reality unsurprisingly meet with zero success, "are you going to talk to her, or just sit here and play with yourself" he hisses at himself in his car, following a botched job of introducing himself to her. Constantly trailing Jennie inevitably leads Jay to discover her double life as a stripper/bride to be. The revelation that she has a boyfriend truly sending Jay over the edge, causing Jay to abduct her at gunpoint, repeatedly rape her and take her along with him on a killing spree.

The further you stroll through the Shonteff back catalogue the more two different types of films emerge, there are silly, sight gang ridden ones like Number One Gun and Licensed to Love and Kill, goodtime films designed to leave you with a goofy smile on your face and which don't take themselves or anything else in this world too seriously. Then there are the other Shonteff films, ones that are as dark as the other ones are light. The Fast Kill……..Night After Night, After Night……..Permissive, films full of blackhearted characters driven by dog eat dog agendas and destined for unhappy endings.

Shonteff films born out of his mind-set tend to exhibit a moths to the flame type fascination for misogynistic characters, consider Gilbert Wynne's roadie in Permissive, the chauvinistic and proud of it film producer of The Yes Girls, virtually every male character in Night After Night, After Night, and Kono, the evil pimp supervillian of Big Zapper. Lipstick and Blood represents the culmination of Shonteff's fixation for woman haters, elevating this reoccurring stock character of his from supporting creep to lead role. Echoes of Shonteff's earlier monsters are very evident in Jay Preston, like the judge and the weaselly clerk of Night After Night, After Night Jay is a man drawn to pornography for all the worse reasons, with the pornographic pin-ups he surrounds himself with fuelling his self-loathing and feelings of inadequacy and hostility. Shonteff also gives Jay, Kono's characteristic of wildly diverting away from a calm conversation into intense, fuming rants, shouted through gritted teeth, in a way that is alternately unnerving and amusing.

Unfortunately the first half of Lipstick and Blood is almost a total disaster, with casting and credibility issues being reoccurring problems with it. Jay's first victim for instance looks nothing like the jaded, aged prostitute she is meant to be, instead coming across as a clean cut, middle aged lady on her way home from a jolly Ann Summers party. Its also hard to ignore the absence of believably in scenes such as the one where Jay pulls a magnum on two men at the strip club, actions that mysteriously go unnoticed by any of the other punters or Jennie herself who is performing onstage and blatantly within view of all this madness. Worse still Shonteff's eye for location work, so strong in the 1970s, is notably absent here. The glimpses we get of Jennie's parent's home paint a picture of a cosy, middle class family whose offspring is unlikely to have to slum it as a stripper in order to get by. The strip club itself also appears to be located, slap bang in the middle of the same affluent neighbourhood, which in reality would surely never allow such a dubious venue (whose owners have a side-line in gun running!) to exist on their doorstep. Tellingly we only get to see the strip club from its back entrance, but even these fleeting appearances strike up the wrong note, looking more like the exterior of a swimming baths or library. There is none of the authentic sleaziness of say "Don't Open Till Christmas" on display here.

Just when you're about to give Lipstick and Blood up as a cinematic loser though the film finds a purpose to itself as Jay's motivation shifts from being perverse to being materialistic and a grotesque emulation of the yuppie aspirations of the time. He drools over a flash, gold coloured Lincoln Continental with an equal amount of desire that he'd previously lavished on Jennie, goes on to befriend and murder the car's American tourist owners in order to steal the vehicle, robs a petrol station, killing the owner in the process, then uses the cash from the robbery to hold up in a series of classy motels. By this stage Jay has acquired everything young men were meant to aim for at the time, the money, the big car, the glamorous trophy girlfriend/wife, but this upturn in his lifestyle fails to bring Jay any real pleasure or contentment. Scenes of him and Jennie hold up in the motel rooms could be mistaken for peeks into a rapidly deteriorating marriage, he idly flicks between TV channels, she stars into space, he unleashes a barrage of verbal abuse and control freak nit-picking, complaining she is terrible at sex and smells. "What’s the matter with you, we're driving a nice car, we've got money, why don't you cheer up" he whines at her. The irony is that for all his extreme actions Jay is in no better place than he was at the start of the film with his squalid flat and blow-up doll. He has merely traded in one sort of claustrophobic environment and non-responsive partner for another.

The entire kidnapping angle expires in a way that manages to be both surprising and utterly undramatic, leaving the final act of Lipstick and Blood to morph into a rape/revenge film. One that finds Jay continuing to pop up in Jennie's life and murder her loved ones, resulting in Jennie turning female vigilante in order to average their deaths and finally rid herself of the trouble making pervert. As far as rape/revenge films go Lipstick and Blood is an example of the genre that is outrageous in some respects and very restrained in others. Shonteff spares you no crude detail when it comes to Jay, from him sniffing a pair of Jennie's knickers during a murderous assault on a suburban couples home, to him blaming Jennie for his constipation trouble ("marvellous, I can't even shit, stomachs a mess… it’s your fault"). On the other hand Shonteff keeps the rapes off-screen and the violence is limited to bloody-but unexceptional- shootings and switchblade stabbings. Making you speculate if the backlash against violent films in 1980s Britain had caused Shonteff to lose his nerve and deliver a less savage film than he intended, or whether lead actress Jane Linter had had reservations over the film's content and Lipstick and Blood was toned down to accommodate her requirements. The film itself would edge you towards believing the latter as its especially well behaved around her character, giving the film a problem it shares with the British horror stinker `I Don't Want to be Born' and the more recent Lindsay Lohan vehicle `I Know Who Killed Me', of convincing the audience that its main female character has a successful career as a stripper even though she never takes her clothes off onstage. By far the strangest scene in this respect involves Jay forcing Jennie to take a shower while he watches, yet despite Jay already established as being a stone cold pervert he insists on her showering with all her clothes on! Close-ups of Linter's fully clothed chest during this scene feel like a desperate ploy to claw back some titillation aspect to the scene.

To add to the film's multitude of problems not only did Jane Linter appear to have had a non-nudity cause in her contract but a non-acting clause in it too, and this one movie wonder pretty much sleepwalks her way through the entire running time. Now admittedly there are points in Lipstick and Blood where her emotional detachment is cleverly utilised into being one of the film's strengths, especially during Jay's realisation that the woman he has built up in his head as sexy and vibrant is in fact a dull, non-entity in real life. Such moments however can't disguise the fact that Linter is the film's weak link, her bored facial expressions are a void where the film's heart and soul should be, and her pleas of `please let me go' and `please don't touch me' are unintentionally funny due to the lack of conviction they are delivered with.

Oddly –considering Jennie is meant to be the heroine of the piece- Shonteff continually puts space between the audience and this character by failing to depict scenes that would give the audience a chance to relate to or sympathise with her. Not only does Shonteff gloss over the rapes and there effect on her, but jumps from Jennie about to discover her parents have been murdered by Jay to nine months later when she has sufficiently recovered from the shock and the grieving process. Baffling, alienating, decisions that indicate Shonteff either lost interest in the character or lost confidence in his actress to deliver the emotional punches that these scenes required of her.

What could have been a spirited two hander then, ends up one long stare into Jay's rotten soul, and an unsympathetic attempt to work out what makes this character tick. As with all his other misogynistic characters, there is no evidence that Shonteff likes or is in awe of Jay, on the contrary there isn't a scene in the film that isn't deliberately calculated to turn the audience against this character. Its as if Shonteff wanted to pin down, study and rage against everything he felt was wrong with men and the inherently ruthless nature of the era though this one character, allowing Jay to damn himself and everything the character represented by giving him an entire film to behave in the cruellest, vilest manner possible.

Lipstick and Blood can certainly lay claim to uniqueness, after all there are very few British made examples of the rape/revenge film, in spite of the genre arguably having UK roots thanks to Sam Peckinpah and Straw Dogs. The satirical jibes at yuppie culture and the serial killer turned yuppie concept are also atypical touches, given that the 1980s British horror film was a largely apolitical beast, with only Saxon Logan's Sleepwalker (1984) and the borderline horrors of Britannia Hospital (1982) and Ray Davies' Return to Waterloo (1984) holding up a mirror to those turbulent times. Its a pity then that Lipstick and Blood's flaws conspire to bring it down, chalking it up as yet another 1980s Lindsay Shonteff film that has smart ideas and inspired moments but ultimately fails to fulfil its true potential.