“Repulsion” is today widely regarded as one of the greats of the British horror cinema of the 1960s but its origins were far less promising than its production pedigree would suggest to the modern viewer. Developed from a sixteen-page synopsis entitled “Lovlihead”, and written to order for producer Tony Tensor at Compton Tekli, by Polish wunderkind director Roman Polanski and his frequent collaborator Gérard Brach, the film only came about after Polanski and his producer Gene Gutowski had trawled around every other Wardour Street production office in Soho, failing to find backing for Polanski’s preferred project - a script entitled “If Katelbach Comes” which eventually got made by Compton as the troubled film “Cul-de-Sac”. Tensor had promised the pair that he would allow them free reign if they could produce a script in the horror genre while keeping the budget for it at a minimum. Compton had just produced the Gothic horror film “The Black Torment” and were expecting something else in that 'Hammer films' style. Tensor was perfectly happy with the scenario of “Repulsion” though, and soon gave the green light to the project. By this stage Polanski was desperate to make any film he could; even after the critical acclaim of his debut feature “Knife in the Water”, many producers and distributors still seemed wary of involving themselves with a foreign ‘art house’ director. Even Hammer Films turned down the chance to have Polanski work for them after Gutowski sent Michael Carreras a begging letter!
Tensor, though, had always been perfectly happy to have high quality craftsmen involved in Compton’s output: just so long as they were prepared to work within the constraints imposed by this small-time production company’s miniscule budgets, and were prepared to work quickly and efficiently, he had no qualms about hiring anyone. From Polanski’s point of view, “Repulsion” was purely and simply a means to an end; once he’d got his foot in the door at Compton, he was still hoping they would let him make “Cul-de-Sac” as well. In the event, his plan worked, although not without many trials and hiccups along the way.
The budget gradually began to look like it was getting wildly out of control, first of all after Polanski insisted on the casting of French actress Catherine Deneuve in the main role of Carol Ledoux, the Belgian Manicurist who withdraws into an increasingly paranoid world of social isolation and hallucinogenic sexual psychosis in order to escape her fear of interaction with the opposite sex. Tensor and Michael Klinger at Compton would have preferred to employ one of their ‘house starlets’ - Suzanna Leigh or Francesca Annis (both stars of the recently produced “The Pleasure Girls”) - but Polanski dismissed these two out of hand as totally unsuitable, and the Compton men eventually caved in. Deneuve demanded a much higher fee though, so the allocated budget was further reduced to make up for this. Not that that deterred Polanski: although everyone involved with the making of the film was apparently hugely impressed with Polanski’s work on set, his perfectionism and slow work rate quickly started to cause tensions with Tensor and Klinger, and although he resisted them as much as possible (often allegedly simply ignoring them when they attended the film set at Shepperton Studios), Polanski was forced to speed up the production and make compromises as the shooting progressed.
This is why the director is often somewhat dismissive of the film, citing it as by far his ‘shoddiest’ piece of work. On the commentary track, Polanski almost delights in pointing out examples of this supposed shoddiness, although they are barely discernable to the non-professional eye. During Carol’s Vérité-style walkabouts around the film’s South Kensington locations, for instance, he points out all the camera shadows; and during the restaurant scene with Carol’s ill-fated suitor, played by John Frazer, Polanski points out how some of Frazer’s lip movements do not synch up properly with the soundtrack because he had to re-record some of his dialogue. It’s amusing to note just how many passers-by in the background stare directly into the camera lens during many of the exterior shots around Sixties London, as well!
Shoddy is hardly the world for this master class in steadily-building atmosphere and unease, though. Deneuve’s performance is an astonishing and disturbing portrait of one person’s withdrawal into murderous psychosis and catatonia, incidentally capturing the detail of London life in the mid-sixties with more verisimilitude than many of the supposed ‘slice of life’ dramas of the period. Some of the filming took place in Vidal Sassoon’s then recently-opened trendy new beauty salon and, although entirely shot at Shepperton Studios, the set of Carol and her sister Helen’s (Yvonne Furneaux) flat captures a very strong flavour of everyday life for low-paid young women in this era.
As well as the more celebrated aspects of the visual ideas made use of by Polanski, like the movable walls of the flat which allow Carol’s sense of dislocation and disorientation to be experienced by the viewer as the flat appears to alter its dimensions in response to her mental deterioration; the disturbing hallucinations of night-time sexual assaults by random men that she’s seen during the day and the shock eruptions of grasping hands through the walls; as well as the rotting carcass of that infamous skinned rabbit - Polanski also manipulates sound to build atmosphere as expertly as he tinkers with the visual character of the film when employing the low camera angles and wide-angle lenses that distort Deneuve’s features: the insistent buzzing flies in the flat remind us of the worsening state of the rotting rabbit, even when it is not visible on screen; the far-off sounds of nuns playing handball in the church cloisters and someone badly practicing piano scales in one of the flats below gives us the sense of ordinary lives being lived far beyond Carol’s shrinking world of sexual disgust and schizoid torpor. Not to mention the disturbing sounds of the cracks she imagines as she hallucinates huge gaping wounds emerging spontaneously from the walls of the apartment.
Along with Deneuve’s taut performance under Polanski’s unflinching direction, the film benefits from a strong set of supporting performances, particularly Ian Hendry as the limping married boyfriend of Carol’s sister Helen, and Patrick Wymark as the couple’s sweating, sleazy landlord, who gets far more than he bargained for when he comes to collect the rent. The two central murder sequences, shot with a forceful, brutalist élan in stark black & white, are as powerful today as ever, despite not showing anywhere near as much as they appear to. The sight of John Frazer’s bludgeoned corpse sinking into the overflowing bath as a black bloom of blood spreads from his lips, is still as disquieting an image today as when the film was first released.
This Odeon Entertainment DVD re-release of Roman Polanski’s first ever British-made film, also marks the UK debut of a brand new high definition transfer - presumably the same one recently utilised for Criterion’s Blu-ray release. It looks stunning, with Gil Taylor’s evocative photography displaying even more of its shadowy mood and piercing clarity than ever before. But this release also comes with a great little cluster of extras, which turn out to provide much more exciting content than just the usual cursory DVD ephemera such as filmographies and trailers etc.
The most essential extra here is the inclusion of a forty-five minute 1984 film, shot for LWT, in which the author, critic and pundit Clive James meets and interviews the director in a plush Parisian restaurant, just before he was due to start shooting the film “Pirates”. James elicits some extremely revealing responses (perhaps more so than Polanski ever intended) to his tactful but persistent questioning on all the key topics and controversies surrounding Polanski’s life and career up to this point. The informal and relaxed setting, and James’s sympathetic and friendly tone characterised by his sometimes deceptively self-deprecating sense of humour, seems to set Polanski at ease and put him in a confident frame of mind, although when the scandal surrounding the director’s flight from the U.S. authorities on charges of engaging in sex with a minor is finally broached, he’s noticeably more nervous than when discussing issues such as the murder of his pregnant wife Sharon Tate, growing up in the Warsaw ghetto during the Second World War, or his notorious playboy lifestyle during the sixties. “I’m glad you waited until the coffee!” Polanski whispers unhappily; although, to be fair, at least he doesn’t get up and walk out - no small thanks to Clive James’s affable way of putting extremely probing questions.
Also included on this disc is a ten minute featurette in which Stanley A. Long talks about working with Polanski in the mid ‘60s. Long is most infamous these days for directing the smutty ‘70s “Adventures of a …” serious of British sex movies, but he was also an excellent cinematographer employed by Tony Tensor on several Compton-Tekli projects during the early sixties as well as the Tigon produced Michael Reeves film "The Sorcerers", and was given the task of taking over from Gil Taylor as director of photography on “Repulsion” after Polanski’s perfectionism sent the film over the allotted schedule and Taylor had to leave to work on another project he was already contractually obliged to photograph. Long tells of phoning Gil Taylor before accepting the job, just to make sure he wouldn't be offended; but instead this acclaimed director of photography gave him some simple hints on how to reproduce the look he’d developed on the film. It is indeed pretty much impossible to tell who shot what in the finished movie.
A featured commentary track with the separately recorded contributions of Catherine Deneuve and Roman Polanski is a most illuminating affair, and although it doesn't contain the repartee and relaxing atmosphere of more informal commentary tracks, it does feature plenty of interesting information and anecdotes by both parties and is well worth repeat listens.
A trailer and a photo gallery are also included on this excellent presentation of a sixties horror classic. It’s an important milestone in the development of Tony Tensor’s film production career, which brought Compton Tekli’s profile in the film industry into much sharper focus than this small-time producer and distributor of exploitation fare had ever previously been able to command. This is yet another very nice release by the UK's Odeon Entertainment.