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Secretly Scary: Endless Love (1981)

Secretly Scary is a celebration of movies that were not marketed as horror films, but read as horror films and are as harrowing, terrifying and unsettling as the most confronting horror movies ever made.

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“The love every parent fears”

In 1981, there were two young men named David who went through dramatic transformations on screen. David Kessler was a happy go-lucky Jewish student trekking it through Europe while David Axelrod was an intense, introspective and obsessive young man addicted to a doomed romance with the daughter of post-seventies libertines.

John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London, the much lauded horror/comedy hybrid boasting spectacular make-up effects from whiz Rick Baker, and Franco Zeffirelli’s unfairly critically panned Endless Love, a proudly lurid and devastating teen-centric melodrama, opened a month apart from the now defunct Polygram Films under the direction of Universal Pictures. Polygram Films decided to market these two films as a package when it came to theatrical runs as well as VHS home rentals.

Here in Australia, the Roadshow video release of Endless Love (a chunky clamshell) would proudly feature the poster art for An American Werewolf in London on the back cover, and vice versa. For this scribe who spent a lot of his childhood hunting the seemingly endless shelves of the local video store like a ghoul searching for new juicy material to sink his teeth into, these two films – Landis’s lycanthropic outing and Zeffirelli’s sensuous expression of human desire and torment –  would forever be linked. Incidentally, another Polygram film, Wes Craven’s Deadly Blessing was also released at the same time, and the artwork for that film also featured on the Endless Love/An American Werewolf in London clamshell, however, as time went by, that movie receded into the background as far as thematic exploration went.

Thinking about Endless Love and An American Werewolf in London in retrospect and from a film criticism perspective, these incredibly acute character studies on teen boys during a period of uncertainty for the American male (post-the influence of second wave feminism, the recession, Vietnam, the student protest movement, disenfranchisement and anti-establishment sentiment), both share incredibly similar narrative functions, devices, and methods of thematic examination. They both heavily rely on inner-turmoil, change, frustrated desire, desperation and isolation.

During the 1980s, teenage characters had no war to fight against nor did they have any civil liberties to fight for, instead they were struggling against authority or representations of authority, primarily embodied by their unsympathetic parents and by the trappings of school and societal responsibility. In Endless Love, David Axelrod is a perfect example of this – he is detached from his peers and distracted from his studies because of the overwhelming desire he has for Jade Butterfield, a sensitive nymphette who is equally consumed by the crushing longing to be loved. Endless Love represents a period for teenagers completely at the service of their carnal and bodily needs as well as their fragmented concept of towering romance that seems to be the most important thing in their suburban self-aware co-dependent existence. The body as a place of discovery and sexual awakening is photographed and choreographed so elegantly here in Zeffirelli’s film, that the sumptuous image of the very beautiful Brooke Shields and Martin Hewitt embracing, kissing and writhing against each other in desperate fits of longing and almost violent passion sets the mood, the tone and the preoccupation the film has with the soon-to-be unhealthy and demented desire. In An American Werewolf in London, David Kessler (David Naughton) changes from charming, intelligent student-on-a-holiday to bloodthirsty monster on the prowl slaughtering unsuspecting Londoners, whereas in Endless Love, David Axelrod goes from teenager infatuated to a complete distraught mess – denied, abused, rejected, committed to an asylum and ultimately ruined by circumstance, cultural difference, relentless neediness and spiritual emptiness. David Axelrod’s demise is a by-product of the cultural shift from seventies sensibilities into the mental and emotional anguish that plagued the teenager during the “Me-Gen” explosion of the eighties. Both Davids from the Zeffirelli and the Landis film experience displacement and disturbance, while also eventually becoming slaves to their bestial selves which leads to them being cornered, trapped and destroyed.

 

The body as a place of sexual conquest and also as a place of distress and emotional violence is something that Zeffirelli comments on here in Endless Love, which is something that becomes the fundamental core of slasher movies that would be the most financially successful motion pictures during the period of 1979 through to 1985. From the opening title sequence, where the maudlin, haunting music overlaps a distorted image of two lovers (already establishing the threat of sickly passions), Zeffirelli sets up the doomed romance as a stripped carcass – vulnerable, flayed and confronting. The opening image after the credits is that of an oversized model of the human heart on display for students. A teacher yells out “Now that you all have seen the human heart…” and they are ushered into the conservatorium looking at the stars, where Jade’s first line is uttered – she whispers to David “Scary isn’t it?” which is then followed by talk of death and dying.

Endless Love is heavily concerned with dramatic and operatic intention – it is clearly a derivative of Romeo and Juliet in that sense – and another reason that this film can be read as a horror film is that the violence and monstrousness that erupts is born from such depressing devotion these two lovebirds have for one another; that this oppressive addiction to each other is a demonic force, feeding off their self-made alienation from the outside world. In David and Jade’s grasp of reality, Chicago is incidental, parents are a nuisance and the stars that evoke images and thoughts of death and dying are a comfort – in their sexually charged relationship, death is a warm blanket that hangs over them harkening back to Dracula’s poignant comment “To die, to be really dead, that would be glorious”. Neither David or Jade die in the film, however their concept of “endless love” most certainly does and the human spirit definitely meets a defining demise for both – reality destroys and disturbs them, and for David it is a devastating exclusion from functional society.

Outside of the teens that populate the movie, the two sets of parents are polar opposites, and yet remarkably similar in their personal politics – that is, to trap their young and keep them as gentle reminders of a far more idealistic experience they once shared. Beatrice Straight (Poltergeist) plays David’s mother and her hardened exterior masks an even colder determination to subdue her son’s hunger, fury and angst – she rings similar to the unsympathetic mother as played by Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People (1980). When David angrily screams at her and her husband about the dangers of being committed to a mental asylum and shows an example of the repercussions by using a lobotomized teen boy as his visceral example, it is a desperate cry from the alien youth of the early ‘80s to “listen” and “understand” – something that horror films of the period will exercise with great fervour as endless teens would remind others that “there is a killer out there” or to “not go out alone at night!” and so forth.  

Shirley Knight is the stand out of the film as Ann Butterfield. She represents a bygone era of libertine sensibilities, artistic expression, flamboyance and fluttery desperation. She is a tragic figure, confused by her situation and, much like David who she attempts to seduce, is shattered by the insensitivities of the world.

I interviewed the fantastic Ms. Knight for this article:

GAMBIN: During the late 70s and early 80s movie teen boys were presented as disillusioned, tormented, angry and troubled and ruined by circumstance or environment. What are your personal thoughts on David from Endless Love in this regard as someone completely damaged and emotionally fragile and desperate for a different “family”?

KNIGHT: I think it was a very interesting book when I read it. You know, I thought they could have actually done a few more things from the book in the film. I think David as played by Martin Hewitt was just kind of lost, and had that kind of teenage angst. When people are teenagers they want to be very close and have sex and all of those things. And how unfortunate it was for him, I think, that he got caught up in this sort of crazy family! A very 60s kind of family and he really wasn’t able to cope with what was happening to him. Especially with the father who was so adamant about everything. They just weren’t able to deal with him. And the mother of course being a flirt and everything was very confusing for him, I think. The mother really – my role – really likes the young man, you know, so it was so sad. The whole thing was just sad, I thought. It’s kind of like The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1960) with that lovely young actor that played my boyfriend in that. And the horrible thing happening to him being Jewish and being treated differently and being harmed by his mother who was never present. It was very interesting to me because I am from Kansas. So, when I first got the role for The Dark at the Top of the Stairs and I met the writer William Inge, he looked at me and he said, “You look like you could be a girl from Kansas!” and I said, “I am a girl from Kansas!” So, it was kind of interesting. Of course, he was another man who was gay, in a time when it was very, very difficult, rather like Tennessee Williams. And Tennessee was one of my closest, closest friends. I did a great deal of work with him in the theatre. So there is sort of a theme of young men in my films (laughs). I thought in fact, that the film suffered a bit from a couple of the performances, but I think, for example that scene on the stairs is remarkable. And that is certainly Zeffirelli. You know, when I am watching them having sex, is, I think it’s a remarkable scene. That particular scene in the film. It was interesting because the film was not the success we were hoping for. It had a lot of people that were being very kind of rude about it. And it happens. Sometimes later on people understand. And it was quite a good film in its own ways. It was of its period.

GAMBIN: Anne is a libertine – she and her husband both are – smoking weed, drinking, initially having the pretence of being  one of the youth, or as Ann describes them “the troubled masses” – this is something that pops up in films of this period, parents as youthful left-overs of the jazz age…what are your thoughts on this and what was your take on this?

KNIGHT: I think she’s a woman that’s frustrated. In the sense. She obviously had so much passion. Her attraction to David was interesting. He (Martin Hewitt) was interesting. I thought he was limited as a young actor, you know. But I thought he was kind of right somehow for the part. But, if I’m really honest. Really honest, originally, Jodie Foster was supposed to play my daughter. I was cast first and they said that is who they thought they were going to use.  Franco Zeffirelli came on board and he went to a party shortly before things were going to be finalised and he met Brooke Shields and he decided to take her instead. Part of what I felt that was a great loss because I think it would have been much more a viable film. And I love Brooke by the way. I love her. She’s one of the sweetest, most wonderful people. And we had a great time together. Just in terms of acting. And then Martin Hewitt was chosen because Franco was at a restaurant, and he was a person who parks the cars. Obviously Franco, who’s gay, thought he was very cute and sort of picked him up or whatever. I think he was mistaken because Martin was not gay. So, I think he made a mistake by trying to come onto him (laughs). But that was how he was cast. And again, I think, they could have done better in terms of that role. And it would have been, I think, a little more viable – I say viable because it makes more sense, I think, to say that – in terms of its success. A lot of its reviews were very, you know, mean spirited. What is sad about his to me, is that you pick someone like Martin Hewitt, and bless his heart, you know he is very limited as an actor. And then the film comes out and it’s not a big success and he is not a big success and whatnot and his career his finished. You know, he is lost. He is absolutely lost as a person. And that is terribly unfair, I think. And I don’t really even know what happened to that young man. I had the same thing happen with the young man, a sweet young man from The Dark at the Top of the Stairs who committed suicide. And that had to do with many things. I think his father was the head of a church in the United States. There was a lot expected from him that he was able to do. Again, he didn’t work very much after. I don’t recall anything he ever did after that. And then he was just one of those lost young men who fall by the wayside. And it’s so tragic, isn’t it? It hurts your heart. I thought that was very sad.

GAMBIN: What was Franco Zeffirelli like as a director? What was the most valuable lesson you learnt from him, and what was the most valuable lesson he learned from you?

KNIGHT: I would say that the main thing that I felt about Franco is that he was such a visual artist. He really was. He was also had an incredible feeling about restraint in acting. Those two qualities, I thought, were really rather amazing! But in particular, like when we were talking about the scene when I am looking at them having sex, I thought he handled that with such a – it was such a beautiful moment. I think if one cuts the film up and just utilises that particular thing, I think, that is one of the most beautiful, sexual scenes with two beautiful people that one could ever see. And it was so beautifully photographed. It was a such a pity that the film as a whole was not up to the standard of some of the things in the film.

GAMBIN: Don Murray and you have such great chemistry – and for the most part you two butt heads – there is this electric animosity if you will, what was he like to work with and bounce off?

KNIGHT: Don, oh yes, I liked him very much! Franco did not like him as an actor. And that was odd because I thought he was perfect, especially because my character was such a sexual, kind of 60s gal, you know and he was very staid, so that you understood, I felt the way Don played the role, you understood my character more. Because if he had been a kind of sexual guy as well, it would have been a very different thing. But he wasn’t. I felt he was right. And from reading the book I felt that. I thought he (Murray) was dead on. A really nice person by the way.

GAMBIN: Mental illness in film and mental institutions is something that popped up a lot in the 80s. The idea of young people with nothing to fight against, no war, no major race concerns, more so an inner-turmoil and inner-struggle being “treated” for their “problems”. What are your thoughts here? 

KNIGHT: Oh, that is very interesting! I think that it is incredibly specific to that particular time. You know, we were in so kind of the teenage angst period where kids were not quite as  open as they fought to become in the 80s, because we had the 60s, the 70s and when the 80s happened – my daughter would be the person who could really tell you what it was like being a teenager in the 80s. And was much, much more wanting something to happen after the 60s, because the 70s were such a period of insanity and so many problems in the world, even after Vietnam, things got worse. But, I think it became a period where people started really thinking about themselves; you know, becoming very I’m gonna have my life! I don’t care what’s going on with the world and people. So, I’m gonna go and do with so on and so forth.

About Lee Gambin

Lee Gambin is a writer, author and film historian. He writes for Fangoria, Shock Till You Drop, Delirium, Warner Bros. and Scream Magazine. He has written the books Massacred By Mother Nature: Exploring the Natural Horror Film, We Can Be Who We Are: Movie Musicals of the 1970s and the soon to be released The Howling: Studies in the Horror Film. He runs Melbourne based film society Cinemaniacs and lectures on cinema studies, currently working on a lecture series called "Can You Dig It?: Tortured Young Men in Film from 1976-1986 while working on two new books - one on the Stephen King adaptation "Cujo" entitled Nope, Nothing Wrong Here: The Making of Cujo and another book with collaborator Cris Wilson called Tonight, On A Very Special Episode: A History of Sitcoms that Sometimes Got Serious.

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