Sunday, July 25, 2010

September 2, 2009: The Lost World: Roman Polanski’s 3-D Horror Movie

Developing a movie project is such a convoluted process that it’s amazing any films ever get made at all. There are the budgetary problems, and the casting difficulties, and the conflicts between directors and producers that have caused more than a few projects to be aborted before reaching term. In this on-going series I’ve dubbed “The Lost World”, I’ll be looking at some of these sweet abortions.

Roman Polanski’s 3-D Horror Movie

“Polanski has said that his filmmaking ideal has always been to involve audiences so deeply that they see that their visual experience approximates living reality.”

-Professor Richard L. Gregory

Say what you will about his infamously unsavory personal behavior, there’s no question that Roman Polanski was one of the greatest horror filmmakers of the ‘60s and ‘70s. His first excursion into the genre was Repulsion (1965), a psychological nightmare in which virginal Carol Ledoux’s (Catherine Deneuve) terror of sex explodes into murderous fits. The film had much in common with Hitchcock’s Psycho and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (both 1960) as its goal was to cause the viewer to empathize with the killer rather than the victims. This spin would be integral to the slasher films that proliferated drive-ins during the ‘70s, but those films handled it more crudely than these works by Hitchcock, Powell, and Polanski.

Polanski and Deneuve on the set of Repulsion

Polanski achieves this empathy in Repulsion by focusing intensely on the killer’s personal life and with his use of short focal lenses, which allow the camera to get incredibly close to its subject, while creating a distorted, fish-eye image. The result makes the viewer feel as though she/he is huddled right on top of Carol. Still, Polanski yearned to ratchet up the horror much more than such lenses allowed, especially after he’d experienced his own personal horror on August 9, 1969. That of course was the date that Charles Manson’s “family” of psychopaths brutally murdered Polanski’s wife, Sharon Tate, and their unborn child. Polanski was emotionally ravaged by the incident. This is evident in the self-destructiveness and nihilism he exhibited throughout the subsequent decade, which culminated in his rape of a 13-year old girl in 1977. It’s also evident in the films he made, especially his excellent, extremely violent adaptation of MacBeth (1971), in which he graphically depicts the murder of Lady MacDuff and her family—an obvious mirror of his own wife’s murder.

Polanski’s madness not only found him recreating one of the most traumatic experiences of his life (I say “one of”, because he also lived through the Holocaust, in which his mother was killed), but also had him scheming (perhaps sadistically) to devise ways to force the audience to experience horror in a more intimate and intense way than they ever had before. Fascinatingly, the method he chose to employ was 3-D, a film technique generally used in exploitative, gimmicky ways.

Roman Polanski’s ride toward creating a 3-D horror film began with his discovery of Eye and Brain (1966) by British psychologist Richard L. Gregory. The book explains how the human eye perceives “brightness, movement, color, and objects,” and how such elements impact the psyche. According to Gregory, Polanski started toting around the book as his personal Bible. He sought out the psychologist, and recruited him to drive around London in search of 3-D projection facilities. Polanski’s mission was to find a 3-D-system that utilized a single projector rather than the standard dual-projector, which transmitted two images simultaneously, creating the depth illusion when viewed with those groovy red/blue polarized glasses.

Polanski wanted to find a single projector system because the vast majority of theaters were only equipped with single projectors, thus allowing wider distribution for his film, and because of the difficulties of synching up dual projectors. If improperly calibrated, 3-D projectors created bad, blurry images, a problem that plagued showings of earlier 3-D films like The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954).

Unfortunately, the project only got as far as the planning stages because Polanski couldn’t stir up industry interest in the project. There is no account of a script or even an outline of the story. Polanski only made one horror film in the ‘70s, The Tenant (1976), but there is no evidence that this was the film he planned to shoot in 3-D. Gregory said that he and the filmmaker made a series of tests in the early ‘70s with the intention of filming an erotic 3-D picture, but this provocative concept never came to fruition either. With today’s superior 3-D technology (if you haven’t seen it and can still find it in a theater somewhere, please, please, please check out the animated film Coraline to discover how brilliantly effective the technique has become), it would be pretty fascinating to see Polanski finally bring his 3-D horror vision to the screen. Until then, it will continue to reside in the Lost World.
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