Debates On The Edge Of The Park: Ruggero Deodato And Giovanni Lombardo Radice Respond - Interviews By Giovanni Memola
Rome, Italy. Mid-July 2013. It’s a sultry summer day like many others in the Italian capital. During this period of the year, most Romans are eager to leave the town whenever possible and head somewhere cool like seaside and countryside places. One such Roman is the Italian cult director Ruggero Deodato, whom I am going to meet for an exclusive interview in an ancient town of the Umbria region located on a foothill of the Apennines, 120 kilometres far from Rome.
I get embarrassed for disturbing Deodato in such a remote location, but he looks quite happy to hear about the development of the new Cine-Excess journal, following his participation as the Guest of Honour at the event in 2011. I was going to ask Deodato what he had been doing before my interruption, but he starts talking spontaneously, telling me of a script for a commercial on which he had been working until my appearance. I ask him whether he has other projects running in parallel to this one.
‘Of course! I always have projects in progress. But sadly enough, those which mean more to me don’t always have luck in making them to the screen.’
While the director illustrates his current projects, I learn of a couple of film scripts, too. ‘The most important thing is never stop working – never stop using fantasy, never stop being creative’, Deodato adds.
The director is very friendly, and shows a great deal of energy and dynamism. I got this same impression when I first met him at Cine-Excess two years ago. On that occasion, Deodato was given a special Lifetime Achievement Award for his much-celebrated cult film career. I remember he was particularly touched by the affection and attention that both the Cine-Excess delegates and the wider British audience had reserved to him.
I ask the director about The House on the Edge of the Park (1980), and about the lamented David Hess. As I expected, Deodato responds openly with a stream of answers and anecdotes.
‘The idea for the film came to Gianfranco Clerici, screenwriter of my previous film Cannibal Holocaust . He contacted me after watching Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972), a film dazzled him because of the performance of an American actor almost unknown to mainstream audiences: David Hess. On the top of that, Clerici was particularly impressed by the film’s narrative as whole. He told me: ‘You must see it, Ruggero. It’s amazing! Everyone in the US knows it. It’s been even screened in schools and colleges!’”
‘To make this long story short, Clerici’s idea was to get David Hess cast in a story of urban dismay and social squalor to be set in New York. He wanted to realise many of the crimes at night, as Hess moves across the city in his car, and you see some of this intent in the opening scene of the film.
As a matter of fact, Clerici’s intuition was crucial in giving Deodato and Hess the opportunity of meeting for the first time, a circumstance which marked the beginning of an active professional collaboration, as well as of a sincere friendship.
‘Prior to working with David, I was practically unheard of as a film director. My most important work until then had been Cannibal Holocaust, but the ban received by the film soon after its release made me more popular to judges and lawyers than to film-goers! Unlike myself, David, thanks to the popularity of Last House on the Left, could call himself a little star -- which he promptly made clear to the point of becoming a burden when the shooting of The House on the Edge of the Park had started.’
‘On the film set, David had his own say about any issue or detail, which inevitably led us to argue during each take. Notwithstanding his celebrity-like manners, I didn’t let him walk all over me, and, regardless of the many quarrels, the film shooting was completed without problems.’
‘The production lasted three weeks, and for the most part, we had to film at night. Subsequent to the completion of the whole shooting, David decided to move to Rome for a while, possibly because he wanted to help oversee the post-production of the film. In Rome, I started meeting him on a regular basis. Far from the tensions of the film set, he was a pleasant person to spend time with. Although I didn’t figure it out at the time, during his time in Italy we had become good friends.’
‘The following years, I was with David in a lot of places around the world. We've been to Venezuela, Costa Rica, Canary Islands, Africa... In more recent times, although we lived in different countries, David and I remained in touch. Last time I heard from him was just a few weeks before he passed away. He called on my home phone because he felt down in the dumps and knew that I could have made him laugh with my jokes and cheerful manners – this is exactly what he said. So I told him: ‘Why don't you come to Rome? You can be guest at my place, if you like?’ Unfortunately, he didn’t make it on time – I felt very sad when I heard from David's son that David had a flight ticket to Rome booked and ready for use.’
At this point, I inform Deodato that the American screenwriter Marc Sheffler, who was himself also a dear friend to David Hess, has revealed to Cine-Excess his own intention to dedicate a film to the memory of the deceased actor. Figuring out the extent of this project, Sheffler also requested to work with Deodato as a director for a possible sequel to The House of the Edge of the Park that he is currently scripting. Deodato warmly responds to this comment with the following:
‘I very much like the idea of paying homage to David with a new film. The House on the Edge of the Park, then, is a film I am particularly proud of. Speaking about a possible sequel, I reckon the original film’s ending easily lays the basis for a new revenge story.’ As Deodato continues, ‘We must also consider why the time might be right for such a sequel, and why people are still fascinated by this story of revenge. 'We must think about these aspects, otherwise we'll never get to the reasons why The House on the Edge of the Park is still so fresh. Locations, characters, soundtrack, and even clothes and props – everything in the film looks no older than yesterday!’
First banned, then largely cut, The House of the Edge of the Park is a film with a glorious cult status in the UK. Its reception was the subject of a passionate discussion slot at Cine-Excess V in 2011, when Deodato had the chance to have a public debate with both academics and a Senior Examiner from the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC). As we learned from the discussion, the BBFC reservations about Decorator’s film concerned the ambiguity with which violence is represented – an aspect which was particularly stressed when the panel discussion went on to focus on the film’s infamous rape scene, where a victimized woman looks appears to begin enjoying the kind of sexual violence forced on her by a captor.
Deodato listens very carefully to my reconstruction of the BBFC’s position, and as soon as I finish my speech, hesitates to reply. He’s probably choosing the best words to make sure he is understood as clearly as possible.
‘Censorship is perhaps the one thing which has affected my career most. It’s not by chance that I've been an unknown director for many years – my best films were either confiscated by order of the court or snipped so much as to make them different from the original product. In both cases, they were somehow concealed from the public.’
‘Also, film reviewers influenced by the prudery of the past, have contributed to the long oblivion of my work. By contrast, I’m very grateful to all my fans – their enthusiasm has given so much credibility to my films that even academic personalities have now become interested at what I did as a director, as we saw with the BBFC debate.’
‘The BBFC’s criticism to The House on the Edge of the Park doesn't seem to consider the symbolic arena into which violence bursts out. I’ve always been interested in class dynamics between the rich and the poor, as well as in the influence of factors such as power and education on people's behaviours and reactions. As for the scene with a victim seemingly satisfied while being abused – well, it responds to the extremes of hostage situations similar to the well-known Stockholm syndrome: however perverse, the victim and the torturer are in such a close relation that any distinction between right and wrong, between pleasure and pain becomes blurred.’
What Deodato has just clarified here may well be the key to interpreting the findings of a research project led by Professor Martin Barker into audience responses to The House on the Edge of the Park. Some of the findings of this research (reproduced in this journal edition) were part of a wider study commissioned by the BBFC in relation to films featuring an ‘unbearable’ degree of sexual violence. Barker’s finding revealed that viewers respond in a somewhat complex – and thus unpredictable way to the scenes of violence in The House on the Edge of the Park. This important finding challenges censorship of the film on the grounds of its totalising and arguably arbitrary motivations.
A surveying a sample of volunteer viewers composed of 122 males and 45 females, Barker found that the film’s audience tended to classify Deodato’s film as an ‘exploitation flick’, which implicitly establishes a clear degree of critical reading as well as a critical distance against the excess and violence contained within the film. However, the classification or tag of ‘exploitation’ does not produce a homogeneous viewing process or understanding of the film. Rather, as Barker argues, the audience appear to be distinguishing themselves into those groups of viewers either ‘refusers’ The House on the Edge of the Park for its ‘bad’ quality and its ‘disturbing’ outputs, and those ‘embracing’ it on the ground of cinematic values located in characterizations, music usage, and treatment of themes such as class divide and revenge. Where the opinions of both ‘refusers’ and ‘embracers’ appear to converge however, is their judgement of the most extreme scenes of the film as ‘appaling’, in particular the controversial rape scene I have previously referred to. As my time with Deodato is almost ended, I ask the Italian director for some final thoughts on these specific aspects outlined by Martin Barker’s research.
‘I remember having met Professor Barker in person when I attended the Cine-Excess conference, and am so delighted of the scholarly attention he reserved for The House on the Edge of the Park. I can say that after thirty-three years since The House on the Edge of the Park’s first release, viewers have become mature enough, not to say demanding in most cases, when they have to choose a film to watch. This because we all have gained a kind of film literacy over the years, generation after generation – a kind of literacy which starts with screen images and ends with us as individuals, with our needs and expectations. As a result, Barker’s findings are appropriate, as one’s own response to a given film may differ quite hugely from another person’s. But as as long as we all remain sane enough to get horrified by extreme violence, I can't understand why some films, that is fiction, keep on being demonized.’
‘Either you like the The House of the Edge of the Park or dislike it, we all understand that the type of psychological violence derived from class difference and mind manipulation is the key to understand the apparently irrational and over-the-top physical violence represented in the film. That kind of physical violence, that brutality, is not one you can find in a comedy or some other kind of film, yet it fits quite well in a story like the one unfolding in The House of the Edge of the Park. In this sense, all the sort of ambiguities related to how violence was depicted, were not accidental. Clerici and I had specifically discussed about this ‘dark side’ of the film. We wanted to challege the way viewers would take side of the characters. Fortunately, as Barker’s research shows, a significant part of the audience is happy with what we did.’
'If what we did, then, is seen by most people as ‘exploitation’ cinema, well, I must take much pride for my exploitation film’, concludes Deodato with a sly smile.
Giovanni Lombardo Radice
Alongside my discussion with Ruggero Deodato, I was also fortunate enough to interview Giovanni Lombardo Radice, one of the surviving lead actors from The House on the Edge of the Park, who was also keen to offer some general observations on the film in light of Martin Barker’s article. Although The House on the Edge of the Park was Radice’s first major film role, it established him as an icon of extreme cinema, and was quickly followed by appearances in other ‘notorious’ and much censored titles from the era that included City of the Living Dead (Lucio Fulci, 1980), Cannibal Apocalypse (AKA Apocalypse domani [Antonio Margheriti, 1980]) and Cannibal Ferox (Umberto Lenzi 1981). Many of these titles were completed under Radice’s popular cult pseudonym of ‘John Morghen’, and often featured the actor expiring in explicit and lavishly staged death scenes. As a performer so closely associated with both The House on the Edge of the Park and comparable Italian controversies, his comments provide an interesting second point of reflection on Martin Barker’s study of the film.
Why do you think that The House on the Edge of the Park remains so popular more than thirty years after it was made?
Undoubtedly, it’s a film which doesn’t age. It has a well-designed plot with great characters, so that it works particularly well as a thriller. On the top of that, it's manna from heaven for exploitation film lovers! Honestly, I find that the amount of graphic violence is sometimes excessive. But as I can see from the audience response, they like the way violence is accounted for; they like the class conflict background of the whole story.
Do you think The House on the Edge of the Park has been influential for later horror/thriller films?
I don’t know. I’m not a big fan of these genres. Moreover, I’m not updated about horror and thriller developments since The House on the Edge of the Park was released. However, I feel that nasty and amoral characters such as those played by David Hess and myself have clearly left a mark on some filmmakers’ minds.
The House on the Edge of the Park marked your debut as actor. How did you find working on the film?
I found myself very much at ease. As I was a complete beginner in the film industry, I received kind advice from David (Hess) and Ruggero (Deodato) alike. But acting wasn’t difficult at all. Due to the play-like structure of The House on the Edge of the Park, I had to act almost entirely in one room, as if I were on the stage. And because I had been working as a theatre actor before the production, I started with a great advantage. Professionally speaking, it was a great debut.
Were you free to develop your performances as Ricky? What kind of instructions did you receive from Deodato?
I was completely free. Once we had discussed Ricky’s profile during the pre-production stage, I was allowed to take care of Ricky’s expressions and gestures without intervention from the director. But I must add this kind of direction wasn't a form of mannerism by Ruggero. Like him, most Italian directors are used to giving little instruction to their actors. In my film career to date, Roberto Faenza and Luigi Magni have been the only Italian directors whom I worked with that are really concerned with acting.
One of the most controversial scenes in The House on the Edge of the Park is that of Cindy, the young girl being raped by Alex. What do you remember of this scene? Was it difficult to shoot?
I wouldn’t say it was difficult. Brigitte Petronio, the actress who played Cindy, was used to being naked before the camera. If I remember well, she had starred in some softcore flicks before acting in The House – so she knew already how to move for those kinds of shots. Then, there was the classic razor trick, which was very easy to create, in that the fake blood came out as you switched a small button on the blade. As a scene, it was less difficult to film than to watch! The final result was indeed very disturbing.
As you know, such scenes have contributed to get the film banned totally in the UK for a very long time. According to the films censors, there was a kind of aggravating charge for the representation of that particular sexual abuse – not only is the young Cindy sexually brutalised, but other female rape victims in the film looked like they were enjoying the kind of violence being inflicted on them. In other words, it was as if these scenes offered a titillating and exciting depiction of sexual violence.
This issue is a very controversial one. I recall we talked about this at the Cine-Excess conference alongside Ruggero a couple of years ago. To be honest, when I come across this much-maligned scene I can’t see Cindy or any other female characters in the film looking very satisfied with what’s happening to them. Certainly there are people who will think different, but we must make clear one point: censorship can’t take decisions for everybody. The risk of setting limitations and prohibitions is even more dangerous than banning what you think might titillate the spectator. In the digital age we live in, we must concentrate our efforts on reconsidering the role of censorship so as to fit our contemporary needs and priorities. The way people get access to content and images has changed completely. What was once only available on videotapes is now within everyone’s reach. If anything, we should find a way to prevent certain content and images ever being produced – for instance animal torture and child abuse. Obviously, I’m talking about a kind of moralization programme which involves the entire society, not just an elite taking decisions on behalf of everyone else. British censorship, on the contrary, has always given me the idea of façade of fake morality.
Another seemingly ambiguous aspect of the film concerns the friendship between Ricky and Alex. This turns out as a rather insane relationship, marked by psychological oppression and borderline homosexuality. Can you see the representation of their friendship as a factor far more disturbing than physical and heterosexual violence?
Alex’s psychological mastery is important, but I can’t see a homosexual element in the film. Some years ago, David and I were in Scotland, both guests of a film festival. As we were talking before the audience, a guy asked something similar about characters and homosexuality. David was about to answer, but I took the mic off him and improvised an outing: ‘Well, after so many years, I can confess this in public: David and I have been in love since we made The House on the Edge on the Park. We're still in a relationship, and we’ve recently planned to get married in Barcelona!’ The entire audience burst out laughing. What I wanted to say is that any great friendship has an erotic component in it – a component based on attraction. Of course, friendship doesn't necessarily imply sex. As for Ricky and Alex, their friendship is not that different from a love story. But in contrast with what may emerge from the surface of film’s story, the real gay character is Alex. While Ricky is a pure lover, a marginalized male who feels so much admiration to the point of falling in love with the only person he has been able to stay with, Alex acts in such a perverted way towards women that he certainly has some kind of sexual disorder. It’s as if Alex has an unutterable secret which he dispels through his violence towards women.
As you may recall from your participation to Cine-Excess in 2011, The House on the Edge on the Park has been subject of an academic study by Professor Martin Barker, which was conducted at the University of Aberystwyth. This study aimed to assess how viewers responded to the kind of violence represented in the film. In this respect, there are two interesting outcomes which I want you to comment upon. The first one is about audience composition – more than 1/3 of the viewers were female. Why The House on the Edge of the Park does attract a number so significant of female viewers? What do you think women can find of interest in a film a like that?
As far as I’m concerned, I could be a man from the 19th century – my idea about women is still close to that of ‘gentle ladies’, but it’s become clear that I live disconnected from the real world! Honestly, I don’t know how to answer that question. Perhaps, I’d know more about certain questions if I had a daughter. But as a matter of fact the later female generations are more than an enigma to me! I get caught by surprise when I discover how many women are fans of my films. Many people will argue that The House is not a film ‘for women’. I guess the kind of pleasure women can get from the film is to identify themselves with Alex – in other words, to take up a role of absolute domination. I’d really like to have more knowledge of such psychological/psychoanalytical dynamics because this topic is a very fascinating one.
One second point emerging from Barker’s study regards the homogeneity of the audience of The House on the Edge of the Park. Although the interviewees were aware of the exploitation characteristics of the film, there audience sample collected a range of different responses to the film’s depiction of violence. For example, one section of the audience found that particular violence as excessive and refused it by all means, while another share found it ‘right’ in relation to the themes of class violence and expressed appreciation for it. What do you think are the narrative elements to The House which produced this positive feedback for the second section of the audience?
Without a doubt, violence is the quintessential appreciation factor of the film. After all, we’re dealing with a film which tells of violence in the broadest sense of the word. Given such conditions, the recourse to violence is justified and shouldn’t be the subject of scandal. I’d like to recall that even A Clockword Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971) is very intense and uneasy-to-watch in respect of its violence. It stands to reason that we’re not talking of films produced for pupils! However, I still think the kind of violence represented in The House on the Edge of the Park is one particularly hard to digest. This is partly due to the brutal polarization of the class conflict. But it’s also due to a question of style, a certain mannerism that dominates key passages of the story. Style is extremely important when one wants to instill discomfort in the viewers. But to tell you the truth, the type of style I'm talking about is not only realised through razors! In Rocco and His Brothers (Luchino Visconti, 1960), there’s a shocking scene in which Simone (Renato Salvatori) rapes Nadia (Annie Girardot), complete with the victim’s panties being ripped off and thrown at Simone’s brother Rocco (Alain Delon), who is the helpless witness to the brutality. Some frames of this scene were banned, yet not even one square centimeter of skin was visible! The way violence is filmed is really central to audience reactions, particularly in a film like The House on the Edge of the Park.
What are your memories of David Hess? What kind of person was he, both professionally and in private life?
David was amazing – a larger-than-life person. He loved everything: to eat, to drink, to make love, to play music, to have conversations. Of course, he loved acting, too. In all things, he was energetic and overwhelming. I remember that Ruggero (Deodato) had to clamp him down because our timescale for filming was three weeks only, but David kept on suggesting new solutions, new gimmicks at every single take. It was his idea for the ‘Little Miss Muffet’ nursery rhyme when Alex
threatens Gloria (Lorraine de Selle) in the film for example. Behind his overwhelming energy was a very bright and intelligent person. Following our working for The House on the Edge of the Park, David and I became very good friend. When he was in Italy, I invited him many time to my place. He used to come with his wife and we often dined together. Whenever possible, he asked for pasta al forno (oven baked pasta)! In more recent times, we continued to stay in touch, as well as meeting at the several international film events to which we were both invited. Really, I retain wonderful memories of David.
How would you reply to the American screenwriter Marc Sheffler’s idea of creating a new version of The House of the Edge of the Park dedicated to the memory of David Hess?
Sheffler has revelead this in an exclusive interview for Cine-Excess, and also added that you and Ruggero would be the ideal partners to work with on a project like this...
I would be very happy to act in a film that pays homage to David. Of course, it’s crucial to read the script first – the story has to be at least as much well-plotted as the original one. I think highly of Marc Sheffler, and really hope to have the chance to hear from him as well as reading something very soon. I already have some ideas about who might be the Alex kind of character – someone who looks very much like David, and one who also knew him very well...
The author wishes to thank Ruggero Deodato and Giovanni Lombardo Radice for agreeing to be interviewed for this piece. Thanks also to Garwin Spencer-Davison, Valentina Sutto and Shameless Films for their assistance with providing the images from The House on the Edge of the Park to accompany this article.