Sarah: It’s like a tangled ouroboros made of 35mm film and conspiracy theories.
Mike: Welcome to You’re Wrong About, the podcast that dissects urban legends. And movies. And urban legends about movies.
Sarah: That was a surprisingly appropriate tagline.
Mike: I was trying to be understated since I know so little about the subject of today’s episode, almost anything I said beyond that was probably going to be wrong.
Sarah: Which is okay. It’s okay to be wrong.
Mike: As long as what you’re wrong about doesn’t lead you to throw an innocent woman in jail because you trusted a dingo spit expert from London. Hi, I’m Michael Hobbes and I'm a reporter from The Huffington Post.
Sarah: I’m Sarah Marshall and I’m working on a book about the Satanic panic. So Mike, what do you know about the movie Misericorde?
Mike: Very little. It’s supposedly a horror movie from the 70s that appears on late-night TV, or at least that was where it appeared when I was a kid. Nowadays it’s moved to YouTube.
Sarah: Like fascists. And people selling you $19.99 girdles that vibrate fat out of your belly.
Mike: I always wondered where the fat went after it got vibrated out. Did it melt into your blood and clog your arteries? Or was it supposed to be transported to more aesthetically appealing locations?
Sarah: Maybe it turned into tiny little waddling Stay-Puft marshmallow men, like in that episode of Doctor Who.
Mike: We mentioned that in our episode on obesity myths, didn’t we?
Sarah: If we didn’t, we should have.
Mike: But back to Misericorde, it seems like a regular horror movie that shows up on your TV or laptop, or phone I guess, but it’s actually a CIA psy-op. It’s full of subliminal messages and if you watch it, it’ll reprogram your brain.
Sarah: To do what?
Mike: Be a good little conformist consumer and always vote Republican?
Sarah: That would definitely be on-brand.
Mike: No, wait, I think it was more sinister than that. Supposedly it was an experimental psy-op meant to explore the limits of what you could do with subliminal messaging, and if you watched it, you’d go crazy and leap out a window or murder some random person or something. I guess that’s actually just equally sinister.
Mike: Though now that I’m describing it, it sounds so similar to urban legends about what happens if you do drugs that maybe I’m really just remembering that. Or maybe I’m back-remembering our episode on urban legends and applying it to Misericorde. Is that a word?
Sarah: Back-remembering, or misericorde?
Mike: I meant back-remembering, but now that I’ve repeated it I’m sure I made it up, so misericorde.
Sarah: What do you think it means? If anything.
Mike: A… cord… made out of misery?
Sarah: Which is absolutely a standard material for cords. It’s actually a type of dagger. It’s from the Latin for “act of mercy,” and was supposedly used to mercy-kill dying knights. It’s long and thin so it can get through the visor to stab you in the brain.
Mike: The Middle Ages were miserable, all right. Anyway, you now know the sum total of my knowledge about Misericorde.
Sarah: But was it a real movie that actually existed?
Mike: No, it can’t be. It would ruin the urban legend if you could rent it on Netflix and go over it frame-by-frame looking for subliminals.
Sarah: OR, the urban legend could persist if it was a real movie which no one can watch because all the copies have been lost or destroyed.
Mike: Ohhh. Oh, wow. You don’t hear much about that happening in modern times. I know it wasn’t uncommon for very early movies to be lost.
Sarah: They were often shot on nitrate, which was so flammable that it could be used as a substitute for gunpowder.
Mike: Which makes it a perfect substance to use for your priceless works of art which will also be displayed in crowded rooms before there were any fire safety regulations.
Sarah: There’s a Navy safety film showing a nitrate film reel burning underwater.
Mike: Was the safety film also shot on nitrate?
Sarah: [laughs] Probably. Cinema fires weren’t uncommon. People died in them. Even when nitrate film was just sitting in boxes, it would sometimes spontaneously combust. Kodak started making acetate film, which didn’t burst into flames, but Hollywood kept on using nitrate because it was cheaper.
Mike: Why pay extra for the piddly little benefit of not getting burned to death? Oh, wait. We’re talking about the country that made the Ford Pinto.
Sarah: But even after the switch to non-flamey film stock, movies still do occasionally get destroyed. It’s more common in the pre-digital era, of course. Quentin Tarantino’s first movie was shot on film, and the only copy was destroyed in a lab accident when he sent it to be developed.
Mike: I’m impressed that he didn’t crawl into a hole and never make another movie.
Sarah: An insane degree of persistence is very helpful if you’re trying to make it in Hollywood. Also, being a white dude.
Mike: Like making it anywhere.
Sarah: Misericorde, which was not made by white dudes, is an urban legend, but it’s also a real movie. In fact it’s several urban legends. You heard the one about the movie being an experimental psy-op. But there’s a different one too, which says the movie was cursed and everyone who appeared in it died horribly.
Mike: Like Poltergeist.
Sarah: Yes. All the way down to the tragic death of a child star.
Mike: Oh no. So, wait. People who worked on Misericorde really did die?
Sarah: Yeah, but movies involve a lot of people, some of them die afterward…
Mike: Because everyone dies eventually.
Sarah: Right. And if one of the deaths is of someone young, like Heather O’Rourke from Poltergeist, or if they were especially horrifying, like the on-set helicopter accident on Twilight Zone: The Movie that decapitated—
Mike: I’ve read about that and I wish I hadn’t. If you repeat the details, I’ll probably pass out.
Sarah: Well, if something shocking and gory happens on a movie set, or even just to someone who worked on a movie a while ago, then people start tracking down everyone involved in the movie to see if they can spot a curse.
Mike: “Oh, so-and-so was a prop guy on that movie, and he died! It’s cursed!” Of course the prop guy did a million movies and had a heart attack at age 80. But the curse of that one movie definitely was what killed him.
Sarah: And when someone does die or is seriously injured on a set, it’s almost always because safety regulations designed to prevent horrifying deaths weren’t followed. Usually to save money or time, which is also money, because that’s what happens in a late capitalist society. Who cares if human beings are decapitated by helicopter, so long as the movie comes in on time and under budget?
Mike: Ah-ha, so that’s why you wanted to do an episode on Misericorde!
Sarah: Weeeell, not exactly. It does involve some elements of capitalism being the worst because it is, but it’s not like Twilight Zone: The Movie. It’s a much stranger story than that. And to explain it, I need to start with some background on the film scene in 1970s America.
Misericorde was shot in 1978. The 70s were a time of upheaval and experimentation in the American movie industry, a decade that launched the careers of men like Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg.
I say “men” deliberately, because it was a terrible decade to be a woman involved in movie-making. Even the actresses, who were the only women who achieved stardom, were horribly treated, on-set and off. Women who worked behind the scenes were not only harassed and condescended to, they often never even got credit for their work—figuratively and literally.
Polly Platt was a producer, screenwriter, production designer, costume designer—
Mike: That’s like an EGOT, but more so.
Sarah: And minus the actual awards. She was also a stunt double for Nancy Sinatra, but like much of her work, it was uncredited. Unfortunately for Polly, she was married to the director Peter Bogdanovitch, and worked uncredited on a number of his films. They got divorced after he cheated on her with Cybill Shepherd. Polly was amazing. The podcast You Must Remember This has a six-part series on her.
Mike: Oh, I’ll definitely catch up on that. I love You Must Remember This.
Sarah: Me too. My favorite series is on—
Mike: Charles Manson?
Sarah: How did you guess?
Mike: Sarah. You have a dead baby Google alert.
Sarah: There is that. So, while Polly Platt was doing brilliant work and men were getting all the credit, a bunch of directors got fed up with the studio system and started their own studios. One of them was her husband Peter Bogdanovitch, who formed the Directors Company with Francis Ford Coppola and William Friedkin. It broke up in a flurry of infighting over the failure of Bogdanovitch’s film of Daisy Miller, which everyone blamed on its star, who was none other than… Cybill Shepherd!
Mike: Something went wrong? Must be a woman’s fault!
Sarah: Here’s Bogdanovitch on Cybill Shepherd: “Cybill started out as a whim, an instinct, a little voice in my ear that I listened to. I had an itch, and I scratched it. She’s very malleable. You can bend her in any direction. She does what she’s told.”
Mike: Ugh ugh ugh. UUUUGGGGHHHHH.
Sarah: That was typical of how male directors, writers, actors—male everyone—talked about the women in the business. And you know, obviously we’ve done episodes where women are murdered, women go to jail for crimes they didn’t commit, and so forth, but reading quote after quote after quote like that, I got so angry. I guess I’m still not numb to it.
Mike: Which is good. We need to not be numb.
Sarah: And not all the women at the time were numb, either. Two of them decided to set up their own studio.
Julia Weinstock was a producer who got started in industrial films, stuff like “How To Not Get Killed Operating A Drill Press.”
Here’s a description of her from a grip who worked on the movies she made for Chrysler factories: “She had flaming red hair and muscles like a longshoreman, and when she raised her voice, people ran for their lives. She was like a Sherman tank with tits.”
Mike: Why are men like this?
Sarah: Other than the toxic masculinity they live and breathe in, like clones floating in jars in a mad scientist’s lab?
Mike: [laughs] Other than that.
Sarah: At a guess, I’d say the 1970s. Weinstock got bored with making movies about machinery, and went to work with Roger Corman. That’s how she met a director, Stephanie Rothman, who also worked with Corman.
Rothman started out as an associate producer on Beach Ball, Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet, and Queen of Blood. Her directorial debut with Corman was It’s a Bikini World which was exactly what it sounds like.
Mike: All these movies sound like they’re exactly what they sound like.
Sarah: Rothman said, “I became very depressed after making It's a Bikini World. I had very ambivalent feelings about continuing to be a director if that was all I was going to be able to do.”
She wrote subplots about abortion and revolution into her next movie, The Student Nurses, and centered female desire in Group Marriage.
Mike: I love her. Weinstock too.
Sarah: Me too! They’re great. Rothman was sick of working within the constraints of the exploitation genre, where she had to put in nude scenes and violent scenes whether the story called for it or not. She and Weinstock decided to create their own studio, where they could do more ambitious work. They combined their names to call it Rothstock Productions.
Their first project was an adaptation of The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers, a book of connected horror stories published in 1895. That never got off the ground. It’s not clear why but given what happened later my guess is they had problems writing the screenplay. Their second was Misericorde.
Sarah: Now I have to tell you what Misericorde was about. This is a little difficult as like I said, the film has been lost, so all we have to go on are a handful of reviews plus interviews with people who worked on it or saw it.
Mike: And the screenplay, right?
Sarah: We don’t have the screenplay.
Mike: It was sucked up by the same tornado that transported all the copies of the movie to Oz?
Sarah: [laughs] You’re surprisingly close. Some copies of the screenplay, such as it was, were destroyed in the same incident in which we lost the film.
Mike: Can I just say that I love how coy you’re being about exactly how the movie was destroyed? I’m sitting here with my chin on my hands, like you’re a voiceover narration saying, “That was the last time anyone saw her alive.”
Sarah: “Her body would not be found for several days, and by the least likely person imaginable.” The other issue with the screenplay was that there wasn’t one.
Rothman wrote a first draft, and then a series of writers got hired to do rewrites and polishes, including Melissa Mathieson, who wrote E.T., Robin Hardy, who directed The Wicker Man, and the inevitable William Goldman.
The screenplay was still getting rewritten all the way through production. Actors got one scene at a time. No one knew what the ending was going to be. They didn’t even have a title until the movie was finished. The whole time it was shooting, they were still using its label from their internal coding system. I couldn't find any explanation of how the numbers were assigned, but The King in Yellow had been “Project 116,” and the movie that was eventually named Misericorde was “Project 345.”
Mike: I really want this movie to succeed, because Weinstock and Rothman sound great and they were fighting against the odds, but even if I didn’t already know it was doomed, I’ve have to say that those sorts of screenplay issues typically don’t bode well.
Sarah: It also accounts for a lot of the confusion over what actually happens in the movie. Different people literally saw different stories. So what I’m going to tell you is the part that everyone agrees on. It’s also what’s described in the reviews, so we know that’s what made it to theatres.
A family lives in a big, cluttered Gothic house. There’s a grandmother and grandfather, a father and mother, and a young son of eight or nine. We see them going about their business in the house, eating dinner, talking, playing cards, having family conflicts and loving moments and individual dilemmas and so forth.
Sarah: Another family also lives in that same house. There’s a grandmother and grandfather, a father and mother, and a young son of eight or nine. We also see them going about their business in the house, eating dinner, talking, playing cards, having family conflicts and loving moments and individual dilemmas and so forth.
Sarah: The families live in the same space, but they don’t see each other. It’s like they’re haunting each other, but you can’t tell which of them are the ghosts.
Sarah: One set of them can be eating dinner, and the other set will be cooking, and they walk back and forth barely missing each other. One set sits down to eat just as the other finishes clearing the dishes. Sometimes two people will be lying in the same bed, each unaware of the other’s presence.
Mike: Ooh. I just got shivers.
Sarah: Right? It’s such an eerie premise. And that’s not all. Gradually, their actions start impinging on each other. One of them will move a chair, and another will notice that it’s out of place.
We can sometimes see both the families at the same time, but sometimes we’re in the point of view of just one of the families, and see things changing around them without knowing who’s doing it or why. The camera cuts away, and when it cuts back, things are in different places.
It’s a very simple technique—they’re just moving things between shots—but people who saw the movie said it was incredibly effective. Especially since people who saw it in theatres couldn’t rewind, so sometimes they couldn’t tell if anything had changed or not.
Mike: That seems like it would make people get incredibly paranoid and imagine that things were moving around even if they’re not.
Sarah: Audiences had exactly that reaction. But on the set, it was much less clear what the finished movie would be like.
I’ll go through the cast by family. The first is the Austur family, which means “east” in Icelandic.
Mike: Unless the other family is named “west” in Icelandic, I feel like you may be fishing.
Sarah: The other family is named Marav, which means “west” in Hebrew if you’re not a stickler for exact pronunciation.
Mike: Fish away, they’re biting today.
Sarah: In the Austur family, the grandmother was played by Olivia de Havilland and the grandfather was played by Peter Cushing. Their characters were very urbane and funny, with a kind of aging Nick and Nora Charles energy.
Mike: Golden Age of Hollywood represent!
Sarah: The Austur family mother was played by Cybill Shepherd. She was nervous about returning to acting after everyone blamed the failure of Daisy Miller and the end of The Directors Company on her. To make it even more complicated for her, Polly Platt was doing the costume and production design for Misericorde. Polly refused to go on the set when Cybill was there, so they had to be scheduled around each other.
Sarah: They should have joined forces to destroy Peter Bogdanovitch instead of letting themselves get pitted against each other. He was a real piece of work.
Mike: Please tell me Cybill Shepherd dumped him.
Sarah: She did! Right before the shooting started, which I’m sure must have added to her stress. The actor who played the Austur father, opposite Cybill, was a veteran character actor in his fifties, who’d acted with Paul Newman and Al Pacino, but never made it to the big time. His name was… [dramatic pause] Harry Dean Stanton!
Mike: He still wasn’t in the big time when he was in his fifties?
Sarah: Yeah, his breakout role in Alien came right after this. He was much older than Cybill Shepherd, but their relationship in Misericorde wasn’t the usual older man/younger woman romance you’d expect from the time. He’d just lost his job and she was blooming in a new one. But instead of taking it out on her, he seems quietly resigned that the best years of her life are ahead of her and his are behind him.
Mike: Harry Dean Stanton gives good quiet resignation.
Sarah: And they have a young son, played by—get this—Ethan Hawke, age eight, in his first film role!
Mike: No way!
Sarah: Way. So, very impressive cast. And so was the cast for the other family, the Maravs. The actors who played the Maravs aren't as well-known as the ones who played the Austurs, so I'll give you a little more background on them.
Mike: Was that a deliberate choice?
Sarah: It's really hard to tell. With the grandparents and mothers, one set was already more famous than the other. But at the time of shooting, Harry Dean Stanton had been a marginally known character actor for thirty years. And it was Ethan Hawke's first role.
For grandfather and grandmother Marav, we have Charles Lyman and June Crowley. Lyman mostly appeared in horror anthology movies from the UK, films like Dr. Terror’s House of Horror, Torture Garden, The House That Dripped Blood, that sort of thing.
Mike: Were they exactly what they sound like?
Sarah: Exactly. Charles Lyman and Peter Cushing had acted together before. In fact, Cushing only took the role in Misericorde because Lyman talked him into it. They were friends and wanted to hang out on the set.
June Crowley was primarily a stage actress, but she’d had supporting roles in Stage Door and Lady in a Jam. She and Lyman played their parts in Misericorde as brittle, fading aristocrats disappointed in life.
Helen Burson played the Marav mother. She was an early American champion of Truffaut and Godard, and since she was fluent in French, she wound up working in France. The other reason was that she was a lesbian. She came back into the States occasionally to work, but stayed off the big studios’ radar by doing off-beat projects. She was close friends with Jean Seberg, or lovers if you believe the tabloids.
Mike: I want to believe.
Sarah: So say we all. Burson has a French accent in Misericorde, and she and her husband are having marital problems based on them coming from extremely different backgrounds.
The Marav father was played by Ron Schneider. He was a Method actor from Tennessee, and he had enough of an accent that he tended to get typecast as a hillbilly. That peaked when he was cast in Deliverance, and he refused to take any more of those roles after that. He got a Golden Globe nomination for his starring role in Larry and Bobo, about a lonely man who moves into a house already occupied by a stray cat.
Because his character couldn’t see the Austur family, Schneider refused to acknowledge any of the actors playing them. All he ever talked about to the people he was willing to talk to was how much he’d hated the cat in Larry and Bobo. At one point he dropped his pants on-set to show off a cat-inflicted testicle scar.
Mike: My progressive metalcore band will be called Cat-Inflicted Testicle Scar.
Sarah: Finally, we have a second child actor, Ocean Jackson—hippie parents. He was ten years old but looked younger. Everyone on-set thought he was destined for stardom.
Mike: Ocean Jackson, not Ethan Hawke?
Sarah: Kiddie Ethan apparently didn’t make much of an impression except that he sometimes got bored and played with the props, which annoyed everyone as tracking where the props were was incredibly important.
Which brings us to the final person on the set who you need to know about, Elspeth Drinkwater. She did the special effects. Drinkwater was a visual artist from Yorkshire who had never worked on a movie set before, but Weinstock had seen an exhibition of her work that included a video installation using stop-motion, and she decided to hire her. Unfortunately I couldn’t find any clips from the video, but I’m sending you a link with some photos of her art from that exhibition.
Mike: Okay, I’m looking at photographs of dollhouses or dioramas. I’m not sure if she sculpted all of it or if some of it’s toys and dolls she found.
Sarah: It’s a mixture. The dolls are all vintage dolls.
Mike: These very innocent-looking, old-fashioned dolls are wandering through these incredibly detailed houses and landscapes. At first glance they look ordinary, but the second glance reveals creepy details. A kitchen has blood oozing out from under the stove and a shadowy face peering out from a half-open cupboard behind a doll eating breakfast. There’s a country fair with a pig that’s too bony, almost skeletal, a chicken with a lizard’s tail, a horse with human hands instead of hooves—that one is pure nightmare fuel. Oh and one of the dolls is eating an eyeball on a stick. That’s nice.
It’s like a cross between Frances Glessner Lee’s “The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death” and Hieronymus Bosch.
Sarah: Elspeth Drinkwater worked closely with Polly Platt and Stephanie Rothman to create the visual atmosphere of the movie. Drinkwater was an unusual figure on the set—a middle-aged woman with a long gray braid and a strong Yorkshire accent. She didn’t know film terminology and people who worked on the set said she came across like a farmer. She and Charles Lyman and Peter Cushing and Helen Burson used to go drinking at the local bar after a day’s shooting. They called it “our pub away from home.”
Mike: That’s adorable.
Sarah: Kiddie Ethan Hawke was terrified of her. In an interview many years later, he said, “I thought she was a witch. It was my first movie and we were shooting for hours and hours, and I’d get bored and fiddle with the props. One day she caught me moving a glass of water, and she said…” I’m going to give my best shot at Ethan Hawke doing a middle-aged Yorkshire woman… "'Imagine if you turned into glass, so if you bumped into anything hard, pieces of you would chip off, and if you fell, you’d shatter.’ The way she said it, I was convinced that she could make it happen. That was the last time I ever touched a prop without permission.”
Mike: Props for your Ethan Hawke-as-Yorkshire-prop-witch impression.
Sarah: Ha, ha. So, remember that it wasn’t entirely clear to the actors exactly what she and Platt and Rothman were doing in terms of effects. But people who saw the finished movie say that as Misericorde goes on, it gets eerier and eerier.
At one point Cybill Shepherd goes to take a bath, and Helen Burson is already lying in the tub in shallow water. As Shepherd fills the tub, the water level rises until it covers Burson’s face.
The characters start seeing things moving out of the corners of their eyes. Objects start transforming, becoming subtly wrong. Olivia de Havilland pours herself a cup of coffee, and it overflows immediately even though the cup is empty. Harry Dean Stanton looks in the mirror, and his reflection smiles while his face stays still.
Mike: Brrr. So how does it end?
Sarah: So, here’s where it starts getting weird. Weirder. The reviews don’t explicitly state what happens in the ending, but they variously describe it as “strange,” “haunting,” “dreamlike,” “cryptic,” “bizarre,” “ridiculous,” “incoherent,” “thought-provoking,” “satisfying,” and “trippy.”
Mike: I mean, this is the 70s. It’s the age of weird, trippy, incoherent, “like, far-out, man” endings. 2001 ends with a light-show and then the protagonist turning into a giant space fetus. But at least with that, we might not know why a giant space fetus, but we know there’s aliens involved. Is there any explanation at all of what was going on in Misericorde?
Sarah: There’s a number of explanations. Some people who saw it say that the ending is very clear. I’ll quote you some comments from the Reddit board for the movie:
Fangsforthememories912 commented, “The families are occupying the same house in different time periods. This is made clear by the ending, when for the first time we see anything beyond the house and its immediate surroundings. A montage intercuts Mr. Austur getting in his car—a 1946 Studebaker—with Mr. Marav getting in his—a 1977 Ford Thunderbird. The Austurs are living in the 1940s and haunted by ghosts of the future, and the Maravs are living in the 1970s and haunted by ghosts of the past.”
Mike: That makes sense…
Sarah: It did for ten seconds, until I read the reply that said that Fangsforthememories912 had mixed up the families and it was the Austurs who were in the 1970s and the Maravs who were in the 1940s. That devolved into a 300-comment argument that resolved nothing.
Mike: But who was in which period is a minor point, right? The important thing is that the families were on two different timelines.
Sarah: That’s_Ms__Potatohead_To_You wrote, “There was only ever one family. This is made clear in the ending, in which they begin moving more and more in sync until they overlap, and then merge. If you think back on the psychological dynamics of both families, the Maravs represent the subconscious desires and fears of the Austurs—they’re the people they either want to be or fear becoming.”
Mike: Let me guess: someone else has the same argument, but with the families reversed.
Sarah: You’re so smart. There’s also a small minority of people who remember a final scene revealing that both families are real, and are Russian spies in training to infiltrate America.
Sarah: There’s three people on the Reddit forum who have vivid memories of it! One of them can even quote dialogue! [heavy Russian accent] “You are now ready to take your places in the heartland… comrade.”
Mike: That can’t be right. It’s completely antithetical to everything you’ve told me about the movie.
Sarah: Ethan Hawke’s recollection is that at the end of the movie, the house eats them.
Mike: Honestly that sounds more plausible.
Sarah: And he has a couple people on Reddit backing him up.
Mike: Unless they’re his socks.
Sarah: On the internet, no one knows if you’re Ethan Hawke’s sock.
Mike: But Rothman knew what really happened in the movie—she made it. What did she say?
Sarah: She said the movie was its own statement and she wasn’t going to interpret it for anyone.
Mike: I can respect that. But tell me about the curse. Did someone die on set?
Sarah: No, the shoot itself seemed pretty peaceful, except that some crew members got fired and replaced. There’s two stories about this. One is that some of the crew had a problem with a female director and Rothman would fire them if they gave her any trouble. The other… Want to guess?
Mike: She was a raging bitch. Obviously. How dare a woman expect to be the boss just because she’s the boss?
Sarah: Right. Now just for comparison, on other movie sets at around the same time, actors were regularly getting injured on unsafe stunts, directors would show up drunk and high, budgets spun out of control... 70s movie shoots were wild. One director got so depressed on a location shoot that he stuffed celery into his pillow because the smell comforted him.
Mike: Who was the celery pillow guy?
Sarah: Steven Spielberg. Now to be forever known as the celery pillow guy. My point is, firing a couple crew members and having a script that got rewritten up to the last minute were pretty small potatoes.
Mike: Did anyone have any affairs?
Sarah: Supposedly Helen Burson and Elspeth Drinkwater, and definitely Ron Schneider and the makeup artist. They got married two months after the shoot finished, and got divorced a month after that.
Mike: Dump his cat-clawed ass, makeup artist!
Sarah: It was after the shooting stopped that the deaths began.
Mike: DUM DUM DA DUM!
Sarah: I waited this long to deploy that line. Please congratulate me.
Mike: Congratulations, you showed great restraint. Now tell me all about the deaths.
Sarah: Three people got in a car to deliver the finished film to the lab. They were the cinematographer, his assistant, and a gaffer who was just catching a ride. They were three blocks from the lab when they got T-boned by a man driving forty miles over the speed limit.
Sarah: It was a residential area and the limit was thirty-five. Everyone involved was killed instantly, except for the gaffer who was pronounced dead at the hospital. The film was unharmed. If a person had been sitting where it was, they’d probably have been okay.
Mike: Okay, I see how this curse thing got started.
Sarah: It gets better. To this day, no one has any idea why the accident happened. The man who hit them tested negative for drugs and alcohol. He wasn’t depressed that anyone knew of, and he had a perfect driving record. The police report says, “Possible stinging insect in vehicle may have caused driver to step on the accelerator instead of the brake.”
Mike: What is a possible stinging insect? Is this some kind of Schrodinger’s bug joke?
Sarah: There was no insect found inside the car, stinging or otherwise, and no particular reason to believe the driver accidentally stepped on the gas instead of the brake. But it could have happened that way. Maybe.
Mike: Or he could have passed out at the wheel for some reason that didn’t turn up on the autopsy. Or he was depressed and hid it and it was a suicide. He could have been speeding to escape a car full of homicidal robots from the future. It could be any reason at all!
Sarah: Right, right. So someone fetched the film from the police or the wrecked car or something—I couldn’t find any details on that, but presumably it happened—
Mike: World’s worst errand.
Sarah: Right? So the film was finished and edited. The day before it was screened for distributors, Charles Lyman had a heart attack and died.
Mike: How old was he?
Sarah: Seventy-two. Not an unusual age for a man to have a heart attack. But Misericorde’s problems are only beginning. The screening was a disaster. The distributors absolutely hated it. They were a bunch of conservative old white men, and it was way too weird for them. Stephanie Rothman said, “I heard one of them say, 'Who had the bright idea of giving that broad a camera?'”
Sarah: It got very limited distribution, and might not have gotten any at all except it did have some star power. It appeared in a handful of theatres, and then it vanished. The most significant critic who saw it was Roger Ebert, who reviewed it for The Chicago Sun-Times.
He wrote, "Misericorde is a horror masterpiece, working not with fright, which is easy, but with dread, confusion, and apprehension. Rothman and her visual designers, Polly Platt and Elspeth Drinkwater, create one unsettling image after another.
It is a brilliant work of physical filmmaking, in the way the photography evokes mood and the editing underlines it with uncertainty. The admitted weakness of the denouement is beside the point. It is the film’s visual style, acting, and mood that evoke its uncanny power.”
Mike: This is why we love Roger Ebert.
Sarah: Unfortunately, he wasn’t enough to save it. Pauline Kael might have been, but she never reviewed it. It’s the one case in this entire episode in which a woman has more power than a man, and it doesn’t work to our heroes’ advantage.
Misericorde was a flop, financially speaking. Now, lots of other filmmakers made flops. Bogdanovitch made Daisy Miller, At Long Last Love and Nickelodeon, all three of which were of which were giant flops. He even wrote an open letter to the Hollywood Reporter to apologize for inflicting Nickelodeon upon the world. But none of that ruined his career.
Mike: Of course not. Men are allowed to fail.
Sarah: A man who made a movie that didn’t succeed at the box office but which Roger Ebert called a masterpiece probably would have gotten another chance. Or three. But Rothstock Productions couldn’t get anyone to invest in its next movie. The company folded just six months after the release of Misericorde.
Mike: Oh no.
Sarah: Stephanie Rothman went back to exploitation films. She did eventually get recognized for her work, not as much as she deserved, but she got a retrospective at the Vienna International Film Festival in 2007.
Julia Weinstock continued working as an independent producer. She couldn’t get Misericorde a video release, but she did manage to sell television rights. It started showing up as a late-night movie by 1979. There wasn’t a ton of late-night material at that time, let alone movies, so it got shown a lot. And this is where things start getting weird.
Sarah: June Crowley died in her sleep around the time that Rothman Productions went bust. She was sixty-nine and had some heart issues, so it wasn’t unexpected.
Mike: That’s five people associated with the movie though, in a short time span and with one set of weird circumstances. Plus they happened at the same time as important events for the movie. Or vaguely around the same time, anyway. That should be plenty to start rumors.
Sarah: Yes, but the actors’ deaths weren’t shocking, and the shocking deaths weren’t of anyone famous. But that would soon change.
Mike: My hands are grafted to my chin.
Sarah: Ron Schneider was found naked and dead in his closet with a dog leash wrapped around his neck. [pause] He didn’t own a dog.
Mike: Now you’re talking! This is the classy content I’m here for.
Sarah: There’s theories that it was murder because of course there are, but blood analysis revealed the presence of [deep breath] Valium, diet pills which are basically speed, cocaine, Quaaludes, Benzedrine, alcohol, cough syrup, prescription asthma medication, and sleeping pills.
Mike: And the dog leash? Auto-erotic asphyxiation, right? Or if you’re on that many drugs, does it just seem like the most fun ever to buy a dog leash and get naked with it in a closet?
Sarah: A sex worker sold a story to the tabloids that he regularly hired her and her friends to play a game he called “walking the pooch.” Do it by yourself and on nine different drugs, and you end up naked and dead in a closet.
Mike: So the same guy had a cat-inflicted testicle scar and a dog-related erotic death? Was this Bobo's revenge?
Sarah: If it was, I sure wouldn't ever want to cross that cat.
This is the point when the “Misericorde is cursed and everyone involved with it died horribly” story starts circulating. And by that I mean that stories started appearing in tabloids. I’m not sure it had much organic growth.
But meanwhile, another story is spreading, and that one was completely person-to-person. It’s the one about Misericorde being a psy-op, and as far as I can tell, it was one hundred percent caused by people seeing the movie on TV and thinking it was too weird to be a normal movie.
Mike: Which is saying something, given the time period. On the other hand, wasn’t that about the time that we found out about MKUltra?
Sarah: Yeah, that happened a couple years before. People already knew for a fact that the CIA had been doing experiments with mind control, and they knew those experiments had involved dosing people with hallucinogens without their consent. It wasn’t hard to believe that the CIA might be trying something along those lines again.
Mike: And the CIA really did look into subliminal messaging. It’s junk science, but a lot of people thought it worked. It’s nowhere near as big a stretch to think the CIA might put subliminal messages into a movie than to think Judas Priest put them into a song.
Sarah: And think about the circumstances under which people saw Misericorde. They’re up late, maybe half-asleep, watching a movie guaranteed to make you feel paranoid and look for little things out of place…
Mike: Darkness outside, the house completely quiet except for the occasional creepy noise…
Sarah: And then if they try to do some research about the movie, they discover that it was also known as Project 345. Doesn’t that sound like a CIA project?
Mike: YES. Hey… why was the movie called Misericorde? Did it involve a dagger? Or someone getting stabbed in the brain?
Sarah: Nope, and nope. As far as I can tell, it’s entirely because it sounded cool.
Mike: [laughs] That doesn’t help, does it? “So this totally normal horror movie was referred to as Project 345 all the way through shooting, and then at the last minute someone slaps on a title that has literally nothing to do with anything? Yeah right!”
Sarah: So, MKUltra was specifically giving people hallucinogens. Want to hear me attempt to pronounce the ridiculously long name of a chemical substance?
Mike: Sarah, I’m always up for that.
Mike: Walter White couldn’t do better. It’s meth, right?
Sarah: Close. It’s mescaline. Project 345 was supposed to induce a mescaline-like state in viewers via subliminal messaging and hypnotic images.
Sarah: The two urban legends stayed separate until… Remember Ocean Jackson, the child star to be?
Mike: You’re about to tell me why I’d never heard of him when everyone thought he was so brilliant, right?
Sarah: His father had a private plane and liked to take the entire family flying.
Mike: Oh no.
Sarah: Ocean, his father, his mother, his two older sisters, and his younger brother were last seen taking off for a flight on a beautiful sunny day. The final radio contact was completely routine. But Jeff, Kathy, Ocean, Savannah, Forest, and Lake Jackson were never seen again.
Mike: Is that the point when the stories about the cursed movie started spreading person to person?
Sarah: It seems like it. It’s also when the two urban legends started to cross-pollinate. The curse story started overlapping with the psy-op story, and rumors spread that the deaths were actually CIA assassinations of people who were going to tell the Truth.
Mike: The capital-T truth.
Sarah: It’s out there. After Ocean’s plane vanished over the ocean, the networks pulled the movie and stopped showing it.
Mike: Which is definitely not going to make everyone believe there’s a coverup.
Sarah: Oh, no, not at all! People would certainly not believe that the Jackson family was still alive in a CIA facility, being interrogated and dosed with mind-control drugs that were actually giving them psychic powers!
Mike: Could that have been the inspiration for Firestarter?
Sarah: Normally I’d say no because of the lag time between when you get the idea for a book and how long it takes to actually write and then publish it. Firestarter came out in 1980, and Ocean’s plane went down in 1979. It’s a pretty tight timeline. But Stephen King can write incredibly fast, so maybe.
And then came the final touch to launch Misericorde into the realm of permanent urban legend: the Hollywood storage facility where Julia Weinstock had been keeping the film burned down, destroying the original and all extant copies.
Mike: I knew something like this was coming, but it’s still so sad.
Sarah: It’s absolutely heartbreaking. And of course, that just fed the coverup and curse rumors.
Mike: I feel so bad for Rothman and Weinstock. Their movie literally went up in smoke, leaving nothing behind but a bunch of wild rumors that had absolutely nothing to do with their actual work.
Sarah: And the one about the CIA attributes a movie made by women who were being rebellious and independent and original to an incredibly patriarchal, repressive, conservative institution.
Mike: Is there really nothing left of it? Not even a clip?
Sarah: There is some extant footage… Maybe.
Mike: I knew there would be a maybe.
Sarah: It’s a twelve-second clip, and it’s from a montage in 100 Years of Horror, which was a show on the history of horror hosted by Christopher Lee. It’s debated whether it’s actually from Misericorde or not, but if it isn’t, what movie it is from has never been identified. I’ve sent you a YouTube link to it.
Mike: This isn’t going to be gory, is it?
Sarah: No. There’s zero gore in the movie. It’s eerie, not bloody.
Mike: Okay, clicking. Picture quality’s surprisingly good. The camera’s steady on a boy in a field. There’s a very faint sound in the distance, like windchimes or maybe… Oh my God!
Mike: Thank you very much, that is going to join the clip show of horror that haunts my dreams.
Okay, let me try to describe that clip. We see a boy lying on his stomach in a field of grass. He’s propped up on his elbows, with his feet up. It’s a very idyllic pose, very Norman Rockwell sunlit pastoral. He’s wearing blue jeans and a white shirt and sneakers. We can’t see his face, but I guess it could be little Ethan Hawke.
I was expecting some kind of jump scare, or for him to turn around and his face would be monstrous, but he just lies there, moving his feet back and forth a bit, and then… This is really hard to describe, especially because I’m not sure if it was always there and it took me a moment to notice, or if it was a really subtle cut…
Sarah: You could play it again, get a better look at it.
Mike: Fuck no.
Mike: His shirt… isn’t. It’s his skin. It’s baggy and tattered and folds are lying on the grass. It’s like he’s wearing a skin-suit, but it’s his own skin. I’m not sure I’m doing a good job of explaining how utterly horrifying this was.
Sarah: I think you got it across.
Mike: What was the context? Is it a dream sequence? Is it from the ending? Does it mean he’s been dead all along?
Sarah: Most people who saw the movie don’t remember this scene.
Mike: If the rest of the movie makes that bit unmemorable, I can see how it got its reputation.
Sarah: No, like they literally never saw it. This is why it’s debated whether it even comes from Misericorde. The strongest evidence that it does is that the one person who did remember it was Christopher Lee.
Mike: If you can’t trust Christopher Lee, you can’t trust anyone.
Sarah: Absolutely. He was friends with Peter Cushing, who got him in to see an early cut of the film. They would sometimes give each other scraps of film from cutting room floors as souvenirs, and that was how Christopher Lee had it.
Mike: That’s adorable. And that makes sense. That scene must’ve been edited out of the final cut. It’s too bad he didn’t sneak more. And that no one ever taped the movie.
Sarah: Let me read you an excerpt from an interview with Julia Weinstock. This is very recent—it’s what gave me the idea to do this episode.
Mike: I’m all ears. But not in the creepy literal way like an Elspeth Drinkwater mutant cat.
Sarah: Julia Weinstock says, "I find it hard to believe that all copies really have been lost. It played in theatres. It was broadcast on television. After the storage facility burned, I contacted everyone who should have had copies of the film. Several of them even told me they did have them and they’d get them to me. But they never did.
People can be very careless and absent-minded, and I don’t exclude myself. Obviously. But maybe that exact factor that doomed Misericorde will someday rescue it, when someone opens a forgotten box or decides to play a mislabeled tape.
Lost movies have been found before. The year we shot Misericorde, a bunch of lost nitrate films were discovered in Alaska, buried under a hockey rink. Nitrate is very flammable, but the permafrost preserved it. So you never know. A copy of Misericorde might still turn up somewhere."
The interviewer jokingly says, "Maybe there’s a copy in a CIA vault."
Julia Weinstock laughs and says, "Yes, someone should file a FOIA request."
Mike: That’s actually not a bad idea. The movie wasn’t made by the CIA, of course, but they might have gotten interested in it because of the rumors that it had subliminals. And the rumors were circulating before the movie was lost. Oh, but someone must’ve filed a request already… right?
Sarah: You’d think, but all I can find records of are a bunch of requests for “Project 345,” described as a CIA project to make a movie. That never existed, so it’s not surprising that the requests are all answered with a note to that effect.
Mike: So no one’s ever filed a FOIA requesting a copy of the movie Misericorde?
Sarah: They have now.
Mike: [laughs] Sarah! You sly dog, you!
Sarah: And that’s it for today’s episode. Hopefully we’ll do a sequel!
Mike: And if you still have boxes of old VHS tape with handwritten labels, pop them in your VHS player if you still have one. You never know what might really be on the tape labeled Death Car on the Freeway.