The Ruling Class (1972, Peter Medak)

“It’s your negative insinuendo!”

Whoops, I accidentally watched two bizarro hyperactive cult movies in a row from the criterion collection (Mr. Freedom and now this). In their words: “Based on Peter Barnes’ irreverent play, this darkly comic indictment of Britain’s class system peers behind the closed doors of English aristocracy. Insanity, sadistic sarcasm, and black comedy—with just a touch of the Hollywood musical—are all featured in this beloved cult classic.”

If there’s one thing you remember about The Ruling Class, it should be to not watch it again. It feels too much like other cult classics: loud, overlong, and funny but in a pained sort of way. O’Toole has a powerful character though and a wildly good performance. He’s Jesus for more than half the movie, then becomes much more dangerous when he starts appearing to be normal.

“How do you know you’re God?”
“It’s simple; when I pray to him I find I’m talking to myself.”

Definitely doesn’t count as a musical, though it has three or four scenes of Dennis Potter-style singalong. Might actually count as a horror. Gets more terrible and less funny as it progresses, closing with a shrill and mighty scream. Kind of good as political satire in that respect… the ol’ Catch-22 approach of drawing ’em in with humor and then unleashing the message, that these are very bad people in important positions of power and they should be stopped.

Lindsay Anderson fave Arthur Lowe is the only actor here who also worked on “Kind Hearts and Coronets”. He’s hilarious as the butler who inherits a fortune from the old Earl, then keeps his job but openly mocks everyone he works for.

I won’t make fun of “Species II” director Medak for this one, since he seems like a good sport, although now I realize he also made that dismal Masters of Horror episode “The Washingtonians”, another way over-the-top, shrill political piece.

Ian Christie:
“In revolting against naturalism, we should not forget that Medak (a refugee from Hungary) and Barnes were in good company. Roeg and Cammel’s Performance (1970) had plunged fearlessly into bravura fantasy… while such otherwise very different filmmakers as Kubrick and Anderson had also forsaken realism in their two great “state of the nation” films of the same period: A Clockwork Orange (1971) and O Lucky Man! (1973). And Medak’s fellow countryman, Peter Sasdy, was leading Britain’s horror specialist Hammer into post-Freudian terrain with Hands of the Ripper (1971), another tribute to the enduring fascination with the Whitechapel murderer.

“There are also some remarkable purely filmic inventions. The image of Dr. Herder embracing the police cut-out silhouette of Lady Claire has an eerie pathos, and the chilling final scream that rings out over the brooding exterior of the Gurney mansion after Jack has stabbed his wife, flushed with his acclaim in the House of Lords, seems to unite the bloody poetry that Hammer aspired to with a real protest against Britain’s decaying aristocratic tradition.

And an interesting connection to “The Trap”, which I’m in the middle of watching, also via Christie:

“R. D. Laing’s account of schizophrenia as essentially family-induced—a logical response to irrational pressures—was proving influential as a counter argument against advocates of ECT and drug treatment; and this is the backdrop to The Ruling Class’ elaborate staging of Jack’s madness and its “cure,” through a surreal confrontation with his opposite, the “electric messiah.”