Monday, June 06, 2011

Daalder at AFA: Hysteria

Patrick McGoohan will always be best remembered for championing the cause of individualism as Number Six in The Prisoner. Decades later he spearheaded the collective group-mind. Former Russ Meyer protégé Rene Daalder facilitated his defection in the strange psycho-thriller Hysteria, which screens during the Anthology Film Archives upcoming Daalder retrospective.

Dr. Samuel Fry likes to think he is still an idealist, yet he seems to have an unhealthy attachment to his patient Veronica Bloom, sound of body but not of mind. When economic difficulties close his sanitarium, he takes her with him to his next gig at Dr. Harvey Langston’s unconventional mental clinic. Unfortunately, not only is Langston rather insane himself, he has created a sort of networked consciousness with his patients.

As an aging mad scientist, Langston hopes Fry will succeed him as lunatic-in-chief. Even with the X-Files-style implant in his head, Fry tries to fight the power and maintain his individual sense of self. He has a glaring weakness though: Bloom.

Daalder has a talent for subverting exploitation genres while scrupulously maintaining their outward conventions. Again, there are enough bare breasts in Hysteria to satisfy the demands of late night cable. However, his story has considerable intellectual heft and a number of clever wrinkles. Down the stretch, it even approaches the surreal, which is not atypical of Daalder’s filmography.

Memorably playing against his Prisoner image, McGoohan (post-Braveheart) projects the perfect arrogantly erudite presence as Langston. As Myrna Malloy, the first-among-equals inmate, Amanda Plummer (post-Pulp Fiction) effectively keeps viewers off balance. Though his character is tad slow with his suspicions, Michael Maloney (post-Branagh’s Hamlet), nicely conveys Fry’s do-gooder superciliousness and self-delusions.

Though Hysteria was obviously a shoe-string production, it is far smarter than ninety-five percent of Hollywood tent-poles. While it periodically descends into gleeful madness, the meta-story is quite well conceived. Conversely, though Daalder’s Habitat from 1997 looks like a far more technically polished production, all the inventiveness seems to be reserved for the film’s CGI effects. Still, Daalder and frequent cinematographer Jean Lépine create a compelling nearly apocalyptic environment as well as a sense of ominous potential reminiscent of some of David Lynhc’s more grounded films. Highly recommended for cult movie enthusiasts, Hysteria screens this Friday (6/10) during AFA’s Daalder retrospective. For Daalder fans, Habitat also screens this Thursday (6/9).