Review by Matt Bailey
Posted on 20 October 2004
Source Something Weird Video DVD
features: October: 31 Days of Horror
There are two tendencies in criticism of exploitation films. The first is to read films with a snarky “camp” sensibility—the “it’s so bad it’s good” approach. This posits a critic, in collusion with his readership, who sees exploitation film as something other than and apart from “real” films. What these “real” films are is neither explicitly addressed nor determined, but it is assumed that critic and audience have a generally agreed upon sense of taste. By poking fun at the limitations or conventions of exploitation films—”Oh, look at those crazy polyester clothes!” and “There’s the obligatory tit shot!”—the critic positions himself as above those who would watch the films in earnest, without irony. “Those poor schmucks wouldn’t know cinema if it bit them on the ass,” he supposes.
The second tendency is to treat all things cinematic as more or less equal and to regard every film as a potential masterpiece. Thus, any film by Ingmar Bergman might be as good as (or worse or better) any film by, say, William Rostler. This approach usually relies on an auteurism taken to extremes. Thus, if The Seventh Seal is a masterpiece, then all of Bergman’s work (even the soap commercials he apparently directed) is worth consideration because it is the same genius who orchestrated a chess game with death who arranged the bubbles on a bar of soap. If the same critic decides that, upon the basis of a close analysis of several films, William Rostler is also an auteur, anything is fair game—all measures of comparative worth are discarded. Because they are both auteurs, Bergman and Rostler are equals. Things become very murky when auteurists writing or speaking on exploitation film attempt to evaluate the relative worth of one auteur against another, so they usually avoid doing it. Suffice it to say that among this certain tendency, Mantis in Lace might be heralded as a masterpiece on the level with, or perhaps even surpassing, The Seventh Seal. Once again, it may be. My point here is not to make such a comparison but to point out these tendencies.
So when faced with a film like Asylum of Satan (written and directed by William Girdler, who would go on to Blaxploitation fame by writing and directing Abby [or Black Exorcist], The Zebra Killer, and Sheba, Baby), which is clearly a work made under severe limitations of budget and talent yet which provides such frissons as to make it repeatedly watchable, how does the conscientious critic approach it? Assuming I am the conscientious critic, do I riff on the cheap makeup effect? Do I scoff at the plaid pants of the hero? Such ridicule might make for a funny read, but what do I end up saying about the film? It might be dated and it might have been made for very little money, but does that mean that it is worthy of derision? At the same time, I can recognize that the film provides more than its share of thrills and interesting moments and that it has a plot both more interesting and more coherent than those of several recent Oscar winners. So, is it a masterpiece? Given his track record after this film, Girdler obviously showed a certain talent for exploitation filmmaking. If I feel I enjoyed watching this film as much as I enjoyed watching Citizen Kane, am I prepared to say that they are equals? Why couldn’t I say that, if I did actually enjoy them equally?
The cold, hard truth of the matter is that Asylum of Satan is a fun film to watch, wherever you fall on the critical spectrum. If you want to snicker at unfortunately poor acting, you can. If you want to marvel at the inventiveness and ambition of the film, you can. You can forget about it immediately after watching it, or you can spend an hour with your friends discussing the mind-bending climax of the film. You can call it a piece of garbage or you can call it a masterpiece. It is indeed worse in ways than many films, but it is also better in ways than many films, especially in the ways that count (enjoyability foremost among them). But if it is just a mediocre film, then why watch it? Well, there is the conundrum. It used to be that the stamp of approval of a certain critic was a veritable guarantee that a film was worthy of your attention. Now that even the venerable Roger Ebert gives his highest rating to any movie that exposes a breast, whose opinion can be trusted? When the comparatively sober Jonathan Rosenbaum vaults pallid, minor works like Samuel Fuller’s Park Row and Jean Renoir’s This Land is Mine into the upper echelons of the American film canon presumably on the basis of the names that precede the titles, who is to say that Asylum of Satan or, for that matter, Mantis in Lace are not masterpieces?
The answer to both questions is “You.” Sorry to say it, but critics are no longer to be trusted to provide clear guidelines for what is good and what is not. No one is a better judge of your opinions of quality and worth than you. You are the one who decides if William Girdler has made a shining work of genius or a fetid turd (or something in between). It is my job to urge you to watch it and to decide for yourself. And so I do.