A strange mix of hypnotic mood piece and all-out zombie movie from the people later responsible for Howard the Duck, this has long been a staple of public domain collections and early streaming sites. This review is based on the revalatory DVD from Code Red, which restores a film which relies on careful composition to its proper ratio.
A young woman travels to a remote town in search of her artist father, whose letters to her have become increasingly deranged. Arriving at his deserted beachside house, she sets off on a search which brings her into contact with an aristocratic drifter and his two female companions, the suspicious and aloof townfolk and constant reminders of her father and the bizarre circumstances of his disappearance.
This is a film dominated by a central location – the home of the missing father is a cavernous mansion which is both sparsely furnished and claustrophobically-decorated with a large number of murals. These paintings – several of which contain threatening figures which peer out at the viewer – play with the geometry of the locations in a Caligari-esque way, with characters passing through impossible spaces and threatening to become lost in the mise-en-scene.
These early scenes are possessed of a dream-like, deliberately-paced atmosphere which recalls similar lost-girl genre films such as Carnival of Souls. However, once Arletty encounters the drifter Thom and his two female familiars, the film encounters a series of set-pieces as the true nature of the townsfolk is revealed. Firstly, in perhaps the films most famous scene, Anitra Ford is hunted by raw meat-devouring townies in a late-night grocery store – a nightmareish scene which uses the bright, familiar setting as a spectacular counterpoint to the horror.
Then, the boyish Joy Bang is stranded in a cinema which gradually fills with the zombie-like denizens, who sit silently watching the film or turn to look at her with bleeding eyeballs. Both of these scenes stand alone from the main narrative and, indeed, the almost hermetically-sealed atmosphere of the mansion. The character’s are almost literally trapped in this central location and leaving it can only trigger death – or at least a living death. Arletty’s father eventually returns to tie-up the casually-developed plt strands and threaten an act of infanticide, following a bizarre scene which sees the artist smear himself in blue and red paint.
Surrounded by the portentous monochromatic figures in the murals the father staggers towards Arletty as a multicoloured aberration, before she despatches him in a burst of flame. Shortly after, she mistakes Thom for one of the townspeople and stabs him in the arm – an act which dooms him to drown in the ocean as the frantically swim for safety from the rampaging population. Arletty herself is saved and delivered to the asylum from which she has told the tale in flashback. As the film ends she warns the people of the cities that the contagion is spreading as she paints in the sunshine of the asylum garden.