BRING ME THE HEAD OF KEN RUSSELL! THE 1988 INTERVIEW

This interview was first published in the London listings magazine City Limits in 1988, shortly before the release of Salome’s Last Dance. Despite having directed Altered States, Crimes of Passion and Gothic in the 1980s, Ken Russell was pretty much regarded as a has-been in the mainstream press. He was good company, and I wish I’d had more time with him. (Apologies if I’ve inadvertently lifted someone’s screengrabs; let me know if you’d like me to remove it or add a link.)

But how great is it that City Limits let me add the Severed Heads in the Movies list?

Salome is all set to take over from Carmen as Everybody’s Favourite Femme Fatale. After Claude d’Anna’s film (which came, dropped its veils, and vanished last year) and much-publicised cases of full-frontal diva at both Covent Garden and the Coliseum, the quintessential severed head story has now got the Ken Russell treatment.

You’ve got to hand it to Russell. Preferably on a silver platter. While the rest of the British Film Industry continues to approach the Art of the Literary Adaptation with po-faced reverence, Russell twists his material into a zany fictional biopic with added banana-skin jokes. In Salome’s Last Dance, Oscar Wilde looks on as his banned play is performed by inmates of the local brothel. Richard Ellman this is not. Lord Alfred Douglas takes on the role of John the Baptist but it is Wilde’s head that rolls when the Victorian vice squad comes a-knocking. Salome, severed head fancier and striptease artiste, is played by the brothel’s resident  skivvy, who, in turn, is played by the pointy-faced Imogen Millais-Scott, descendant of the man who painted Bubbles. Russell found her in Spotlight.

“I bet someone I could make it for a million dollars and still make it look quite lavish,” he says. “I didn’t quite manage that but I did make it for one million, three hundred and fifty thousand dollars, which is peanuts. I shot it in three and a half weeks.”

Detective Chief Inspector Barlow from Z Cars watches Salome eat a banana.

As usual, he takes the most frightful liberties with his sources, but the play’s language is so ridiculously flamboyant, so cod Song-of-Solomon, that this amateur night production turns out to be the perfect approach. It is all festooned with endearing end-of-pier smuttiness. Glenda Jackson, as Salome’s mother, jumps into an ottoman for some rumpy-pumpy with the rough trade. And there is the director himself, in an uncredited cameo role, as a lewd photographer. In his recent ABC of Music for The South Bank Show, he dressed up as a sailor, a spaceman and a swami. “I had an offer the other day to do a Japanese cigarette commercial,” he says, but his extrovert streak, rather surprisingly, has so far gone untapped by other casting directors.

Russell’s early composer biopics were virtually blueprints for the pop video boom of the 1980s. He has produced opera on stage, but never in the UK: he was all set to do Tannhäuser for the ENO, but government cuts scuppered the production even before it hit the boards. Will we never see his Melbourne Madama Butterfly, set in a Nagasaki brothel and ending with an atomic explosion? Or his Vienna State Faust, with the orgies and the giant fruit machine?

When it came to Salome’s Dance of the Seven Veils, Russell didn’t use the music from Strauss’s opera. He used Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King instead: a piece which has always reminded me of the clunking sound made by an antique radiator shortly before it blows up. Russell fans have fond memories of his notorious Strauss film for TV’s Omnibus, in which the composer was shown humping Mrs Strauss and conducting Thus Spake Zarathustra at the same time. Strauss’s surviving relatives didn’t care for it. The BBC has reputedly kept a copy in the vaults all these years, but no-one is allowed to see it any more. That isn’t however, the reason Russell didn’t use the Strauss music this time around. “It would have been too expensive,” he says. “It’s a low budget film. You can’t afford to pay three thousand pounds a minute for music.”

Salome with the Honourable Member for Hampstead and Kilburn.

Russell once wrote a screenplay based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula. “I kept thinking he must get tired of the taste of blood over a thousand years or so, so I began to wonder why he would go on doing it.” The film company who commissioned the script wanted a pop star for the role.

“In particular they wanted Mick Fleetwood. He was desperate to do it. He said that while we were shooting, he would have a pint of blood drained away from his body every day so he would look the part.” (Fleetwood has since made his acting debut alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Running Man, and doesn’t look as though he needed any special make-up for his role as a venerable sage.)

Russell cooled on the project after the company went bust and Dracula started popping up all over the place. Then someone gave him Stoker’s last book: a farrago of Freudian vermicelli entitled The Lair of the White Worm. “It was an absolute shambles. I think he was going gaga when he wrote it. There are red herrings and false trails which I’m sure he didn’t intend. But there are good things in it and I’ve always liked that old Geordie folk song The Lampton Worm, about brave John Lampton riding out and slaying the dragon. And, when you cut a worm in two, of course, the two halves go on growing. And Roman coins found in Britain had a cross with a snake round it.”

This, then, is Russell’s next film. The worms are already in the can, and, on July 4, he will start shooting DH Lawrence’s The Rainbow.

SOME GREAT (AND NOT SO GREAT) SEVERED HEAD MOVIES OF OUR TIME

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia: You don’t actually see it because it’s wrapped in a cloth, but it attracts swarms of flies and Warren Oates’s expression suggests that it doesn’t smell too good.

Aguirre – Wrath of God: The head that goes on counting after it has been lopped off.

The Possession of Joel Delaney: The original severed head in the fridge movie. Also features a severed head dangling by its hear from an ornamental mobile. But the most shocking thing about this movie is that Shirley MacLaine is in it.

The Omen: David Warner is decapitated in spectacular fashion by a pane of glass after he messes with the Antichrist.

Theatre of Blood: Vincent Price, as a crazed Shakespearean actor, paints a dotted line around drama critic Arthur Lowe’s neck and severs his head with a surgical saw. The head fetches up on top of a milk bottle.

Re-Animator: A severed head which gets the hots for the heroine, kidnaps her and sticks its tongue in her ear (ETA: and does even more in the uncut version, but I didn’t get to see that in the 1980s thanks to the BBFC).

Android, Halloween III: Season of the Witch, Alien: Three examples of robot heads which continue to twitch, talk or slime after decapitation.

Evil Dead II: Demon’s head chomps its teeth into the hero’s hand and has to be removed with a chainsaw. Can also be glimpsed dancing in the woods with its own torso.

Macabre: The definitive severed head in the fridge, as kept there throughout the movie by a woman whose lover has been topped in an auto accident. Directed by Lamberto Bava, son of Mario.

The Silent Partner, He Knows You’re Alone, Terror Eyes: Three examples of the severed head in the fishtank.

House of Evil, Curtains: Two examples of the severed head in the toilet.

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5 thoughts on “BRING ME THE HEAD OF KEN RUSSELL! THE 1988 INTERVIEW

  1. Of course you may! Add as many severed heads as you like. I can think of lots more, including about a zillion examples since I wrote this article. One day soon I shall compile the ultimate Severed Head Movie List.

    But a Finnish wu xia action flick? I think I really need to see that.

  2. And then there's Eight Heads in a Duffel Bag; I've never seen it, because the script I read before release was so godawful, but it did have the eight heads singing harmony.

  3. Can barely remember a thing about it, other than Joe Pesci being less funny than he was in Goodfellas. When it came out, I wrote in the Sunday Telegraph, “I can therefore state, unequivocally, that 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag is the worst severed head movie of all time.”

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