Starring: Jonathan Frid, Martine Beswick, Joseph Sirola, Hervé Villechaize, Christina Pickles, Mary Woronov, Troy Donahue, Richard Cox, Henry Judd Baker, Alexis Kirk
Directed by: Oliver Stone
Written by: Oliver Stone & Edward Mann
By Wallace McBride (@CousinBarnabas)
First the good news: Nobody has ever wasted their time watching Oliver Stone’s 1974 directorial debut Seizure, a distinction that’s not shared by many of his other films. To say they don’t make movies like Seizure anymore misses the point entirely, because they never made movies like this. Seizure is an anomaly and, like all anomalies, enduringly fascinating.
This is the part where the writer usually provides a thumbnail sketch of the movie’s plot, but we’ll get to that later. Seizure doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense, and it can wait while we talk about more important things … like the movie’s bonkers cast. In a case of art imitating life, Stone brought together performers with little-to-nothing in common, trapped them in a remote country estate in Quebec, and forced them to work almost exclusively at night. Among the ragtag band of actors were former daytime television vampire Jonathan Frid of Dark Shadows, Mary Woronov, who had been a part of Andy Warhol’s “Factory” gang and had been a dancer for the Velvet Underground’s live “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” performances, James Bond alumni Hervé Villechaize and Martine Beswick, former teen idol Troy Donahue, and Henry Judd Baker, who would go on to become a meme sensation 40 years later courtesy of a gif from his role William Friedkin 1980 thriller Cruising. There are more, but you probably get the picture.
Because of my role as the head honcho at The Collinsport Historical Society, a Dark Shadows blog I’ve been running since 2012, I’ve had the luxury/misfortune of having written about Seizure more than just about anybody. For a certain demographic, Seizure has an unsettling allure in that it marks Frid’s final speaking role in a film. It also likely hastened his flight from the industry. Frid had no interest in horror movies, but after playing Barnabas Collins for four years on television (and a feature film, 1970’s House of Dark Shadows), horror roles were the only roles being offered to him.
It’s not that he was a snob; his press often included the false descriptive that Frid was a “Shakespearean actor” when, in truth, he did as much comedy on stage as anything else. But he was financially secure and had no interest in playing variations of Barnabas Collins for the rest of his life. When Hollywood closed its doors to him, he happily opened a window, climbed out, and spent the next decade on holiday. His fans might lament his reluctance to appear in more horror movies, but I doubt he had any such feelings while sunning himself on the beaches of Mexico.
Frid wisely kept to himself on the set of Seizure, a production so fraught that even it’s press kit mentions that the French-Canadian crew became so frustrated that they tossed the producers into one of the many lakes in the Val-Morin municipality (where the film was shot.) In an interview accompanying the gorgeous 2014 home video restoration of Seizure by Scorpion Releasing, Woronov said she had so little interaction with the film’s leading man that she assumed Beswick the star. For a few years, Frid was arguably the biggest name on television, a living cultural touchstone who drew crowds at his public appearances that dwarfed that of the President. His face was on trading cards, board games, comic books, posters, records, and just about anything else that Dan Curtis Productions could attach his likeness. But, by 1974, he was done with all that bullshit. It’s hard not to read the huge reveal during the final moments of Seizure as an accidental commentary on his professional predicament.
I promised to get around to the story of Seizure, so here goes: Frid plays Edmund Blackstone, a writer entertaining a motley group of friends at his lake house for a weekend. Without exception, these are all horrible human beings – with Frid presented as a quiet everyman whose own charisma masks the deep flaws in his character. Haunted by a recurring nightmare, Blackstone puts on a brave face for his wife and child and does his best to entertain this group of A-holes. The festivities come to a halt when a trio of violent party crashers arrives on the scene: The Spider, The Jackal, and The Queen of Evil. This supergroup of psychological archetypes forces the party guests to compete against each other in a host of mundane blood sports, with the loser of each activity forfeiting their life. It goes to some dark, dark places.
The group of “friends” turn on each other within minutes to the surprise of nobody. For a while, Frid’s family seems to be immune from this behavior until a shocking turn of events near the movie’s climax. Rather than face the inevitable, Blackstone’s wife (played by future Eternian sorceress Christina Pickles) commits suicide. As the number of guests begins to dwindle, Blackstone comes to the conclusion that his own life is worth more to him than his own son’s and sells the lad out.
The movie is an experiment in trolling the audience and will probably leave you feeling vaguely dirty afterward. It’s an ugly, nihilistic film about humanity’s many shades of cowardice. Had it been in the hands of a more experienced director, its dense, cryptic rhythms might have attracted the kinds of conspiracy theorists that so love Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. As it stands, though, Seizure has to settle for being a fascinating mess.
Part of the problem is its opaque plot. I’m not entirely sure what the movie is really about, and even the cast had questions. “I think I’m still confused about it,” Frid told none other than Chris Claremont during a 1975 interview for Marvel’s “Monsters of the Movies” magazine. “I like to have hints as we go along, a little information now and then,” he went on to explain. “I felt for the first half-hour you don’t know how to make sense or anything.”
The back half of Seizure does little to bring these details into focus. The movie’s beautiful monsters seem to have sprung from Blackstone’s imagination, but we’re not given any clues as to why until moments before the credits roll. We learn that Blackstone is his generation’s Edgar Allan Poe, a famed horror writer who, I suppose, became trapped in one of his own fantasies. Maybe. Seizure is so intentionally cryptic that there might be a great many things buried in the script that could illuminate matters if you were inclined to dig. But Stone is a well-known fan of hallucinogenic drugs, so who the hell knows what his motivations were with the script.
Seizure is a weird movie, for sure. But the word “weird” doesn’t quite do this film’s oddball sensibilities justice. “Weird” is a word we use to describe the taste of that milk in the fridge that’s on the verge of spoiling but is still OK to drink if it means not having to make a trip to the grocery store. “Weird” is what you call that stand-up comic who pretends to have serious mental problems on stage, but seems well-enough after the show to pose for selfies with fans. “Weird” is just too tame of a word to use as a short-hand explanation of Seizure and its ill-fitting attributes. It has the kind of creepy, stoner vibe seen not often seen in American horror films, and is so bizarre and original as to be almost refreshing. It’s not a movie you’re going to fall in love with, but it’s an experience you’re never going to forget.