“Salome’s Last Dance”
Vestron Pictures, 1988
Starring: Stratford Johns, Imogen Millais-Scott, Nickolas Grace, Douglas Hodge, Glenda Jackson
Director: Ken Russell
The plot: Oscar Wilde (Grace), is surprised upon arriving at a London brothel to discover that a performance of his banned verse play, “Salome,” will be given in his honor, the roles taken by prostitutes, clients, and the brothel owner himself. In the staged play, King Herod (Johns) begs his young stepdaughter Salome (Millais-Scott) to perform an erotic dance for him, promising to give her anything she desires, much to the irritation of her mother, Queen Herodias (Jackson). Salome ignores him, choosing instead to seduce the newly captured John the Baptist (Hodge), who is Herod’s prisoner. John responds by literally spitting in her face, and condemning both Herod and Salome in the name of God. A vengeful Salome then agrees to dance for Herod — on the condition that she be given the head of John the Baptist on a platter. And then there’s a banana…
Why it’s good: Phantasmagoria is not too arcane a word to describe the atmosphere in most of Ken Russell’s films. A former still photographer married to a costume designer, Russell was devoted to all of the arts and utilized colors, forms, textures, sound, and perspective in his films to create moody whirlpools ranging from the truly horrific to the hallucinogenic to the sublime pastoral. In “Salome’s Last Dance,” he essentially stages Wilde’s complete verse play as a play-within-the-film. Russell uncannily brings Wilde’s often lugubrious lines to glorious life. Each actor plays two roles, one in the brothel and one in the play, and all are excellent. The two standouts are Stratford Johns and Imogen Millais-Scott. Johns is corpulent and jowly, but delves the depths of an aging sensualist’s enthusiasms. Millais-Scott was born with a host of severe, debilitating illnesses; when she leapt in front of the camera for this movie at age 18, she looked like an otherworldly androgyne with a svelte body and a face from an alternative Eurasia. Her over-the-top, highly athletic performance as the perverse, lustful, and spoiled-straight-to-hell Salome should have been a career-maker. Sadly, ongoing health problems derailed her brief time as an actor.
Should I watch it? Russell’s body of work belongs to an elite club that also includes those of Marlon Brando and Peter Sellers — the worst films they ever made are still worth watching. Russell had a meteoric rise from would-be dancer to photographer to filmmaker; his black and white biopics on classical composers for BBC-TV in the ’60s are mini-masterpieces. He wooed the swoony, good-taste critics with “The Music Lovers” and the Oscar-winning “Women in Love,” and outraged them with the blasphemies of “The Devils” and “Mahler.” He was cool and bankable enough to be hired for adaptations of The Who’s “Tommy” and Paddy Chayevsky’s “Altered States,” then settled into a cozy and creepy corner with sicko fantasies like “Crimes of Passion.” After one too many box-office turkeys, Russell holed up on his estate and wrote short, erotic novels about composers, an autobiography, and some astoundingly unwatchable digital film productions. An American DVD release of “Salome’s Last Dance” is in the works, but only the European Region 2 format is available now. The Vestron Video VHS cassette is cheap and plentiful.