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Classic Shit: ‘Through The Looking Glass’

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‘Classic Shit!’  is a column dedicated to films that were maligned upon release, and it is for films that are as entertaining as they are terrible. It is a home for cinema’s underdog.

If I say something is a classic, then take it with a grain of salt. If I call it shit, then I do it with love.

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Wow.

Remember in ‘Boogie Nights’ how all those people were swearing up and down that they were making honest-to-god movies and not just cheap nudie pictures? This is one of those little gems. No kidding.

Knowing that, let me assure you that this movie will definitely NOT be everyone’s cup o’ tea. This is very much an “art house”  horror film but it is also pornographic in its depiction of sex, though sex therein is treated as an extension of the psychological horror as opposed to the regular “wank”  material associated with the genre. Also, the sex, albeit explicit, does not feel as unwarranted as, say, the insert scenes included in ‘Caligula.’

One could – if they had the fortitude – make the argument that the hardcore sex is not pornographic but merely explicit. After all, pornographic material exists with the sole intention of sexually exciting the viewer. The sex in ‘Through The Looking Glass’ is nothing if not disturbing and it is completely integral to the plot, as well as to understanding the psychological state of its main character, Catherine.

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‘Through The Looking Glass’ also has the distinction of being one of the few hardcore films to be re-edited for mainstream release. It screened at New York’s World Theater, the same cinema where ‘Deep Throat’ had its premiere. Unfortunately, World Theater fell victim to the rising costs of land in the Big City and was torn down in 1987 to make way for a hotel. Another landmark destroyed in the name of gentrification. C’est la vie.

But I digress…

‘Through The Looking Glass’ was written, produced and directed by Jonas (aka Joseph) Middleton. His film is dead serious in its intentions and it is really ahead of its time. It is also a handsome production that is well shot, with impressive locations, sets and even has an effective special effect. How many “adult”  films from yesteryear can attest to that?

The film’s opening image is of a woman whose face is covered entirely by a white cosmetic mask, accompanied by a discordant score indicative of the film’s horrific intentions. The mask is slowly peeled off to reveal the face of our protagonist, Catherine (Catherine Burgess), a well-to-do and beautiful woman. Catherine’s peers openly chastise her for being cold and ineffectual. Her marriage, too, is coolly emotionless and certainly sexless. Even her young daughter is victim to her detached sensibilities.

Catherine regularly retreats to the attic of her opulent home, the same stately mansion she spent her youth, and here we have one of the film’s most important metaphors: Catherine is trapped, you see. She is a victim of incest, an act perpetrated by her father. Now, as an adult, she has refurnished her childhood home but she keeps the old furniture in an arrangement in the attic, specifically the ornate mirror that she associates with her deceased father.

The offense inflicted upon her in the past has robbed her of achieving pleasure in the present. She goes to the attic to be amongst her childhood things because she never really left her childhood. She is essentially retreating into herself, becoming insular, vain, a pitiful narcissist. Masturbating in front of the ornate mirror in the attic is the only physical release she is capable of. It is here, in this spider’s web of psychological damage, that the ghost – or demon – of her father manifests itself.

Her father, never given a proper name, is played by the prolific Jamie Gillis, of ‘Water Power’ fame/infamy. His first appearance is powerfully disturbing and it is foreshadowed by the sound of his voice intermixing with that of Catherine’s as she intones his sexual provocations towards her own reflection. He has literally tainted everything within her, as well as around her. When he appears inside of the mirror’s reflective surface, it is with an inhuman grunt of diabolical lust. He is visibly sweaty, nude and lit in a way as to suggest a terrifying sexual oppression. This is a mere glimpse of the sexual hell that awaits Catherine.

During that first appearance of Catherine’s father you’ll witness the most talked about camera trick in the entire film: a POV of Catherine’s father’s finger passing through the labia and into the vagina. Achieved, most likely, with a fiber optic camera, the shot is a jaw-dropper.

From there, the film dives headlong into Catherine’s damaged state of mind. There are several scenes depicting any number of sexual hang-ups, most of which are staged as brazenly disturbing and not the least bit arousing. After all, this is a film using sex to depict the deep emotional scars of incest. Nothing herein is depicted as straight copulation as much as it seems like the sex is consuming Catherine, causing her to turn inward, like a snake eating its own tail, a kind psychological cannibalism.

The ending is not positive, bordering on nihilistic, as Catherine gives into her fantasies and enters the looking glass with her “father.”  She emerges on the other side in a carnal wasteland, doomed to degradation and sexual ravishing with no pleasure and no reprieve. Worst of all, the closing scenes depict Catherine’s maligned daughter posing in front of the very same mirror, suggesting that the cycle of incest will continue.

A horror film, through and through.

Special mention should be made of the film’s effective and atmospheric score, which boasts two widely known composers: Arlon Ober and Harry Manfredini.

Ober’s last credit as composer was in 1994. Before that, he contributed to the ‘Robotech’ television series and subsequent 1986 feature, as well as Paul Bartel’s excellent black comedy ‘Eating Raoul.’ Alas, Ober died in 2004.

Manfredini is still kicking and still a very popular composer amongst fans of film scores. His signature theme for ‘Friday the 13th’  is now as instantly recognizable as Hermann’s ‘Psycho’ violins or William’s creeping tuba in ‘Jaws.’ Likewise, his score for ‘House’ remains a fan favorite.

Together, Ober and Manfredini combine their strengths and influences to infuse ‘Through The Looking Glass’ with impressive, foreboding music. It is another flourish of the production that takes the film and raises it above and beyond its contemporaries. One memorable piece sets the backdrop for a warped, orgiastic dinner party – wherein Catherine discovers she is the main course – one of many memorable fusions of avant-garde sensibilities and adult film promiscuity. The score reflects the audacious absurdities on display with a demented reworking of Strauss’s ‘Blue Danube’ waltz. Appropriately, the music helps define the tone of the scene and accentuate the vulgar incongruity of pretentious aristocracy and debased carnality.

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Jonas Middleton shows a ridiculous amount of promise with this film and it is worrisome that ‘…Looking Glass’ is his last directorial effort. He also served as producer on the film, which was supposedly at a budget near two hundred fifty thousand dollars, a considerable amount for that type of production and the era in which it was made. Unfortunately, there just aren’t a whole lot of people that are able to escape the XXX world and go on to mainstream success, not to imply that Middleton hasn’t tried. Hell, the guy even had a feature make it as a quarter-finalist in a screenplay competition as late as 2007. Hollywood is a fickle beast, regardless of talent and skill.

His last stab at a career in features resulted in another cult classic, 1981’s ‘Just Before Dawn,’ an early take on the backwoods “slasher”  film. Middleton’s involvement, however, was limited to story development and producing. The film was largely overlooked in the glut of early 80’s horror, though a recent DVD release rekindled interest in the movie.

Jonas Middleton… I can only hope the creative bug bites him hard enough to revisit feature filmmaking.

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His work in ‘Through The Looking Glass’ feels like a distant cousin to the works of Alejandro Jodorowsky or Federico Fellini and one or both of those auteurs undoubtedly inform the experience. Any faults within the film are slight and almost totally forgivable on the grounds of its own wild ambition. This isn’t Shakespeare, but for discerning fans of adult cinema, this motion picture is most certainly the zenith.

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Born in Illinois. Living in California. I contribute to this site, as well as Campus Circle.

6 Comments

  1. Tom Stockman

    February 28, 2009 at 3:01 pm

    This actually played at the Tivoli on Delmar in St. Louis around 1980. I saw it there double-featured with an even stranger film called S.O.S. which stood for SCREW ON SCREEN and was Al Goldstein’s attempt to make a movie of his notorious NY sex tabloid.

  2. Nick

    February 28, 2009 at 6:55 pm

    I would love to get my hands on a 35MM print of this. It would really benefit from a restoration.

    I’m familiar with S.O.S. but I’ve never seen it. That’s a hell of a double-feature, Stockman. Delmar in the 80s was the shit, albeit a little scarier than it is today. My old man was (is) a music fiend and I remember spending ample amounts of time in record stores down there.

    The Tivoli was the closest thing we had to 42nd Street.

  3. Scott

    February 28, 2009 at 9:54 pm

    dude, another freaking awesome column.

  4. Nick

    March 1, 2009 at 12:05 am

    Thanks, Scott!

  5. Benn

    April 16, 2011 at 9:03 am

    Nick, if this site is still functional, I’m wondering if this movie (Through the Looking Glass; a.k.a: Catherine Through the Looking Glass)is available on DVD anywhere besides Amazon for $65?
    I’m curious about “Deep Throat”, which I not seen having been trapped in a restricted environment at the time. Is it available on DVD anywhere?

    • dennis

      February 6, 2012 at 12:27 am

      I got it (Looking Glass) from Video Search of Miami, though gotta say it’s not a very good transfer at all. Maybe C quality.

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