Review: The Corpse (1971)

The Corpse
aka Crucible of Horror

Directed by Viktors Ritelis
Starring Michael Gough, Yvonne Mitchell, Sharon Gurney

Jane hops off her bike and runs to her room. Her father watches her as she leaps up the stairs.

“Jane, you’re late. Where have you been?” he asks.

“Out!” Jane yells back.

Her father walks outside and squeezes the still-warm seat of her bike. He reenters the house and washes his hands.

The Corpse isn’t so much a horror movie as it is a study of traditional British family structure: The father is the patriarch, his son is his heir, and his wife and daughter are his subjects. The first half of the movie is unsettling. Father walks around the house looking for evidence of wrongdoing while Mother and Daughter lock themselves in their rooms, painting, changing clothes, hoping that Father will leave them alone. Jane tries on a wig. Her mother adds the finishing touches to a menacing portrait of her husband. During dinner, it is revealed that Jane stole money from a country club. After dinner, her father beats her. She curls up on her bed, crying and bleeding. Her father exits and continues to roam his kingdom.

Major events are few and far-between. The suspense ebbs and flows. Director Viktors Ritelis frames hands and faces tightly, squeezing every ounce of emotion out of the cast’s subdued performances. Michael Gough, as the father, oozes silent menace. Yvonne Mitchell, as the mother, is oppressed into constant weariness. Sharon Gurney, as Jane, uses only her eyes to communicate playfulness, hope, and despair. One morning, she shows her mother a cut from her beating. Her mother looks at her and says simply, “Let’s kill him.”

Throughout the film, Ritelis tries his hand at symbolism. Jane and her father stare at themselves in mirrors for extended periods of time. Wigs, masks, and gloves are used. The father stays in a cabin to hunt. We see the cabin reflected in a pond. Jane and her mother enter the cabin with a rifle. A ripple appears in the water, obscuring the cabin’s image.

Inside the cabin, Jane and her mother take turns locking doors and windows, unplugging phones, refilling father’s drink, and keeping the rifle hidden from him. Finally, Jane’s mother stands up and points the rifle at her husband. “I want to talk to you,” she says, calmly. Whether or not Jane and her mother succeed in killing him is left a mystery. The film slows down in the last half-hour and the sequence of events becomes confusing. However, the plot has little to do with the film’s effectiveness, because it’s the little things that we remember: Jane sucking her thumb while she sleeps, her mother dreaming of drowning, her father obsessively washing his hands.

In the end, it’s unclear what The Corpse is, exactly. It could be an allegory for the ineffectiveness of rebellion. It could be an above-average potboiler with a botched ending. It could merely be what it seems: A cracked portrait of a cracked family.

Near the end of the film, Jane and her mother are alone in the house. Jane sits at the kitchen table. Her mother leans against the sink.

“I’d like to go back to school,” she says.

“School?” asks Jane.

“Start again …” her mother replies halfheartedly, as if she knows she’ll never be able to escape.

Links:

Amazon – The Corpse DVD
Amazon – The Corpse VHS
Amazon – “Pure Terror – 50 Movie Pack” (Includes The Corpse)
The New York Times – Original 1971 Review of The Corpse

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Comments
2 Responses to “Review: The Corpse (1971)”
  1. greglafata says:

    Have you ever seen Crucible of Terror 1971? Besides the near identical title, It’s very similar thematically. I wonder if they’re both based on a common book or story.

    • William Tuttle says:

      If you mean “Crucible of Horror,” “The Corpse” is just the original title. But there is a 1971 movie named “Crucible of Terror” that I have not seen, It’s about a murderous sculptor. Is this the one you mean?

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