I’ve covered two types of debuts on (Not-So) Famous Firsts. The first is the type of debut that, while embarrassing, allows the director in question to point to his roots and the fact they (although, to be unfortunately more realistic, he) started on the bottom and worked their way up. Think of Caged Heat or Dementia 13. The directors clearly don’t want to be remembered for them but were more than happy to mention them as an important chapter of their careers. “One minute I’m making a Pyscho knock-off for Roger Corman, the next I’m making one of the most popular films ever made!”
The other is the type of debut that the director wanted completely removed from their filmography. They wanted to start the discussion of their legacy with their successes and ignore the stepping stones on the journey. Think Fear and Desire (Stanley Kubrick deliberately kept it out of circulation because he was so embarrassed by the end result) or The Colossus of Rhodes (practically every biography of Sergio Leone mentions it in passing before going right into a discussion of A Fistful of Dollars and has barely been rereleased because it’s so different from the rest of his filmography).
Today, we’re looking at someone who tried to find a middle ground between the two extremes, Oliver Stone.
For about ten years or so, Stone was the ultimate “bad boy” director. His films were enormously controversial but equally lauded. He’s been nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won three. His films were endlessly discussed when they were released, usually with critics taking the tone of a soccer mom in Iowa who’s just discovered there’s free pornography on the internet. Yet he gained many fans and audiences held their collective breath to see how his next film would change the perception of America and its history.
Those days are long gone. The flawed epic Alexander firmly pushed him off Hollywood’s priority list and, even by 1997, his days as a cinematic trendsetter were over. He stills works today and some of his films have been good. But they have a more old-fashioned sensibility to them now and, when he talks about current events like in Snowden, no one cares.
Still, when Stone broke through in Hollywood with his one-two punch Salvador and Platoon, he tried to present himself as someone who paid his dues to get on the A-list. He had been a screenwriter since the mid-1970s and wrote such diverse films as Brian de Palma’s Scarface remake, Conan the Barbarian, and Michael Cimino’s failed comeback Year of the Dragon. (He also won his first Oscar for writing Midnight Express.) His “official” debut, Salvador, was a box office flop that was only saved by cable and it took more than a decade for the autobiographical Platoon to reach theaters. Stone has always been more than happy to tell that story of his career.
Yet before that, there were two films Stone directed – 1981’s The Hand, featuring Michael Caine as a comics artist haunted of visions by his own dismembered hand, and 1974’s thriller Seizure. Stone has little regard for his debut. After being rereleased on in the independent video label circuit throughout the 1980s, it seemingly disappeared until 2014 when it was reissued on Blu-ray. Stone apparently had no idea it was even being prepped for Blu-ray and has described its production as “baptism by fire.”
Seizure is a very weird film. I have no idea what to compare it to that would accurately describe it. I would say the technique is very reminiscent of Brian de Palma but he had only been around for a few years and was still plugging away at the fringes. I’d say the plot was reminiscent of the standard Stephen King novel, but King wasn’t really a mainstream figure yet either and wouldn’t publish his first “struggling writer slowly driven mad” novel until three years after Seizure was released.
So, I’ll merely say this – Herve Villechaize is not only in the movie but spends the entire time in tights. That’s really all you need to know.
The film is about a struggling horror writer named Edmund Blackstone (Johnathan Frid of Dark Shadows fame) who is plagued by writer’s block as he struggles to come up with an ending to his latest novel and the same recurring nightmare in which people break into his home and murder his friends and family. As a random coincidence, he’s hosting a weekend get together with some of his friends. Yet in the middle of the evening, his home is broken into by three people who announce they are there to kill for amusement and that, by dawn, only one person will be left alive. Over the course of the evening the intruders psychologically torture the Blackstone as they kill his guests.
Now, that basic plot has been used to great effect by other artists. The tortured horror writer trope is what Stephen King built his very successful career on and a lot of the villains’ dialogue reminded me of Peter and Paul’s dialogue in Michael Haneke’s terrifying classic Funny Games. But horror only works when there’s some basis in reality. I need to feel like real people are in immediate danger.
That’s not what happens in Seizure. The villains are all melodramatic symbols of Blackstone’s internal struggles. This could also work if they didn’t have names like the Queen of Evil (yes, really), Spider, and Jackal. At that point I knew I was watching fantasy and that there wasn’t any real danger present. YOU try looking at Herve Villechaize in a costume he borrowed from his buddy at the Renaissance Festival and feel scared.
There are some Stone trademarks present. The break-in scene demonstrates Stone’s obsession with quick edits to build tension and chaos. It’s probably the best scene in the film, even if it’s underscored by public domain music. That same sequence features a moment where a character is shot and falls in slow-motion. This is where I saw Stone the technician esstablish his style.
One of the characters, Charlie Hughes, also shows Stone’s obsession with the needlessly sadistic upper class and how they’ll eventually be punished for their hubris. Hughes and his wife Mikki (played by Warhol superstar/Paul Bartel muse Mary Woronov) are introduced berating a local gas station attendant. Hughes tells the manager he has the power to shut the gas station down because he owns a tiny percent of “his sign.” The manager ends the scene flipping Charles the bird and Mikki clearly hates her marriage to him.
It’s amusing and it’s obvious what Stone wants to say about the wealthy. It’s a shame the film is not the appropriate forum for that message. Horror films have to make you care about any character’s fate. I couldn’t wait to see Charlie die. He attempts to buy his own life by offering The Queen of Evil and Spider cash. It obviously doesn’t make the villains sympathize with him, but the moment didn’t work for me either. I understood what Stone was trying to say – money is worthless in matters of life and death – but there was no suspense because I knew how this situation would end. Besides, why should I care if Hughes is murdered? True horror isn’t about catharsis and I’m not supposed to ever agree with the villains.
Yet the biggest problem with this movie is that it’s so pathetically boring. JFK and Nixon are phrenetic in their pacing and editing. It makes for a viewing experience that simultaneously feels much shorter than it really is and makes me feel like Stone relayed all the information I needed to know about a character in a manner of seconds. That’s not the case in Seizure. Despite the danger the intruders represent.
The film ends with one of the dumbest cop-outs a story can use – that it was all a dream. The same dream, in fact, that plagued Blackstone at the start of the film. And THEN Stone reveals that’s also not the real ending. (I won’t spoil it but I’m sure you can guess what the last shot of the film is.)
Seizure is one of the oddest debuts I’ve ever seen. There’s really nothing else like it in Stone’s filmography. Now, this isn’t itself unusual – we’ve had other directors who start out in wildly different genres from what they’re more famous for. But in those cases, it’s clear what inspired the film. The producer wanted to make a knock off of something popular for a quick buck and the director knew, no matter what, he or she could use the film as a way to establish credibility and hopefully move on to more ambitious projects. I get why Stone would make a horror movie, especially considering how ambitious his later films are and how utterly impossible they would have been for a first-time director to make. No, the oddest thing about this is how unlike anything Seizure is at the time. It’s not responding to any popular trends and, even if it manages to predict Stephen King’s career, it’s a moot point because the film is completely ineffective as a horror movie. I understand why Stone’s scripts did a complete 180 degree turn from this surrealist oddity. Stone felt the America of his day was capable of far scarier things than sending Herve Villechaize to terrorize rich jerks.