While younger audiences know about Richard C. Serafian mostly for the over abused Vanishing Point citations in Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof; the elders were deeply saddened by the superficial and annoying aspect of the mentioned lines, reducing VP to a mere cat and mouse chase with cool cars. There’s no doubt VP featured amazing action sequences, but at the same time with Easy Rider and few others was part of a manifesto of the New Hollywood, being an element of the new wave of counter culture films that were changing the way of how to make a movie forever. In a string of few years, Richard C. Serafian delivered his best with a common theme tightening his opus, all of his films being about a journey.
In the The Man who loved Cat Dancing and Man in the wilderness, the wild West, shown at his most anti heroic peak, is crossed by losers looking for revenge or for a way out. These pale, unforgettable, figures in a landscape (like Joseph Losey’s film, about a journey as well) are travelling in the wild nature and in their own self at the same time. So does Kowalski in VP. The journey from one place to another (Walter Hill once said it’s the basis of Senofonte’s Anabasi, the mother of all plots) it is both physical and symbolic. It transcends space, with his characters suspended in their own destiny, the time diluted at the speed of 24 fps lies. Their trip leads nowhere, there’s no hope for them, just the surrogated dream to succeed that in the very end will collide with reality, when to survive is not going to be any better. But in 1970 Richard C. Serafian had already explored this topic with the seminal “giallo” Fragment of fear.
David Hemmings is a successful writer, whose ant dies in Pompei while he’s paying her a visit. A former addict still recovering, the young man is not convinced of the strange dynamic of the fact, and while everybody is calling it accident, including the Police, he’s more and more persuaded that someone killed her. Going back to his girlfriend in London, who’ll soon marry him, the author plunges in a spiral of events leading him to believe a whole conspiracy against his investigation has been set up.
Fragment of fear is an exploration of paranoia whose classic “who done it?” plot soon develops in a conspiracy theory device used to explore the perception of reality, of both the main character and us, as viewers. Everything in the movie has been fragmented and regurgitated into something else. From the pretending to be a thriller excellent script by Academy Award winner Paul Dehn (Seven days to noon), to the editing whose jump cuts, back and forth, create an uneasy sense of misplaced reality for the main character, confounding him and bringing him to edge of sanity. It’s an amazing trip into a story that we believe to be true until the very end, when our discernment has been influenced by the many twists, turns and “cinematic lies” well put together by the director with the help of another Academy Award winner legendary director of photography Oswald Morris.
Funny thought the movie really looks like an Italian “giallo” having very much in common with Dario Argento’s 1970 sleeper hit The bird with crystal plumage, in both style and scary situations.
Released just few months later than TBWCP, I believe none of the two have been influenced by the other, but both from Mario Bava’s The girl who knew too much, a mile stone defining the innovative approach of Italian “thrilling” (as they were called then) films. But another source of inspiration (for both Argento and Serafian) it was clearly Michelangelo Antonioni’s masterpiece Blow Up, from which FOF gets both plot and casting ideas, having David Hemmings starred in the main role of a photographer who cannot distinct what he saw from what he shot with his camera, and cannot figure out which of the two is real.
While Argento’s film, even being still great, has not aged so well; Serafian’s one it’s still a terrific experience being much more than a simple scare: an analysis of reality saw trough a cinematic lens, the peephole that distorts and tilts truth, impressing it on celluloid; transforming it into a parallel one, alternative but real at the same time, like its primary source.
The influence of FOF on later films is evident, specially in recent years, Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s ladder above all.
The movie is available first time on DVD, in the new Columbia Classics by Request program. The image is clear enough and original materials were used to re-master and restore. Framed at 1.85:1, 16X9 enhanced the film looks fine, even with difficult int./ext. night sequences to render and for typical Morris’ cinematography so hard to be transferred to video. The support, being on demand, it’s a DVD-R burned in house, NTSC region free disc.
Richard C. Serafian went on to direct the mentioned westerns and VP. After those achievements, he lost his touch little by little, his later films are forgettable failures both in commercial and cinematic terms; his career ended up shooting episodes of TV series, going back where he started. But if it was only for those films and FOF, he should be remembered for his innovative contributions to American cinema of the 70’s.
Film mass is ended you may go in peace