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CampBlood Reviews: Senseless Rants from a Picky Sissy

 

The Last of Sheila Herbert Ross 1973

Mister Green, on the Poop Deck, with the Pool Boy

I once read John Waters say in an interview that he didn't really consider his movies "camp"; to him, camp is two elderly bachelors discussing an aging Hollywood starlet as they install a new chandelier, not a fat drag queen eating poop.

Ladies and gentlemen, THIS is camp.

The Last of Sheila probably stands as the queerest major release movie I have ever seen. Written by Stephen Sondheim (yes, THE Stephen Sondheim) and Anthony Perkins (Psycho's Norman Bates) and costumed by Joel Schumacher (who would later direct The Lost Boys), the film's horror pedigree is as strong as its wrists are limp -- and this is only the credits. If you can bear the atrocious acting of Raquel "Myra Breckenridge" Welch and stand the sight of James Coburn's Critters-like teeth, it's also great fun to watch.

I'll take a moment here to acknowledge that this is really not a horror movie, per se -- it's one of a long tradition of "Whodunits" that had a Hollywood boom in the seventies. The genre unfortunately died out once shows like "Murder, She Wrote" effectively condemned mystery plots to television forever (save the earnest comedy throwback Clue, which is SADLY underappreciated). During its heyday, the genre produced such hits as Sleuth and Deathtrap, not to mention a dozen big-star Agatha Christie remakes and the parody Murder By Death (director Herbert Ross would go on to direct a Sherlock Holmes-based comedy, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution). But nostalgia waxing aside, the whodunit is truly a lost art form these days, when forensic shows like CSI have abandoned old-fashioned deduction for scientific smoke and mirrors. Did Hercule Poirot need DNA testing? I think not.

Anyway, The Last of Sheila is a fine example of how well this type of film could work under ideal circumstances: a great cast (Dyan Cannon, James Mason, Richard Benjamin), a gorgeous location (the south of France), a dirty subject (murder, among many others), and some very clever writing and direction. Perhaps a bit too long and maybe a bit too clever at times, the film nonetheless is fascinating in that it somehow gets you involved in the lives of people who you probably wouldn't push out of the path of a speeding bus if it meant spilling your coffee. Almost uniformly deplorable, these people are nasty, ruthless, shallow, and vile -- and yet somehow quite lovable. Let's meet our cast of miscreants, shall we?

James Coburn plays Clinton, a pickled old bitch of a movie producer whose wife Sheila was killed by a hit-and-run driver on the streets of Bel Air one year ago. He invites a group of industry friends on to his yacht (also called Sheila -- strange!) to supposedly talk about his new project, but we at home know that there are more dastardly games afoot. When the group -- consisting of an agent, a starlet, her handler, a director, a writer and his wife -- arrive, their photo is snapped in front of the yacht, and the clues begin to drop like tissues in a peepshow booth. What ever could this death's mask of an eccentric old coot be up to?

Well, it's easy to tell from the get-go that these aren't exactly the most virtous bunch. Cannon's Christine is a sex-as-a-weapon hootchie who has more interest in the ship's hunky italian crewmen than the trip itself (one can only imagine the screenwriters sharing her distraction); Benjamin's Tom is an out-of-luck scribe whose propensity to dress like an Italian photographer and wear a Freddy Mercury-style moustache seems to go unnoticed by all -- including his wife; Joan Hackett's Lee is a boozer; Welch's Alice is a breathy, stupid cow; Ian McShane's Anthony is a dime-store hustler; even Mason's Philip seems to have something up his sleeve other than standard Hollywood shallowness. But when Alpha Bitch Clinton passes out the "game cards" to the guests, we begin to suspect that there are even greater vices at stake here, including pedophilia, thievery, and -- gasp -- homosexuality! As the game's needlessly complicated play begins, we learn that the real goal here is to determine Sheila's lead-footed killer. As the screws are slowly turned, it becomes clear that someone already knows the answer and no one on the boat is safe. Of course, to tell you who and whom would ruin the movie, so I'll have to stop there -- but not before revealing the best line of the film: "Tom, do you really think that there could be a homosexual on board the yacht?"

Honey, sounds to me like there were a dozen. Despite having a remarkable amount of actual gay content (several of the characters are revealed to have "gay pasts", much in the way that I had a "Catholic Upbringing", and queer suspicion is basically shed upon everyone), the camp factor is cranked to eleven: booze and cigarettes everywhere, and the men are just as catty as the women -- think the Fire Island Pines on an open weekend. Period details are priceless, including the decor and various props (the board game Probe, also prominently featured in The Gayest Horror Film of All Time, A Nightmare On Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge, also makes an appearance here), and Schumacher really outdoes himself with the Peter-Allen-on-the-Riviera wardrobe collection. And was there really a time when rich people smoked Newports?

Despite all the fabulousness and frivolity, there are some excellently creepy scenes and genuinely scary moments (the sequence in the old castle monastery is super-spooky), and that's why I'm including it here. Should I really care if the cunty Christine gets chewed up by the boat's propellor? No. But yet she's so deliciously nasty that I really root for her to survive. Mason's Philip is similarly lovable -- he's an old perv, to be sure, but such twinkling, merry eyes! The writing is so alive and catty that you keep hanging on for more, and only in the more tedious, plot-driven scenes to things lag a bit. If you're looking for a night of fashion-forward bitchy fun with a few creepy moments and a lot of twists, forget What Not to Wear and pop this one in instead.

Rating (out of 5):