Thursday, 10 September 2015

The Fourth Man



Some consider me well read, but I've learned in nearly fifty years of reading that I'm woefully ignorant of the works of many fine writers. The same goes for film - I keep discovering gems of supernatural cinema that I should really have known about. For instance, Paul Verhoeven's 1983 film The Fourth Man should have been on my radar for years, as it was released on DVD in 2005, but I just stumbled across it the other day.

Mind you, apart from describing it as a cult thriller, none of the summaries give you much idea what's on offer. IMDb says: 'A writer (Jeroen Krabbe) suspects that his lover (Renée Soutendijk), a woman widowed three times, may be responsible for her husbands' deaths.' True, but that sounds more improbable than fascinating. 

Meanwhile, on Wikipedia we learn: 'The title refers to Krabbé's position as the fourth man whom Soutendijk seduces, after she presumably has dispatched her first three husbands. The film is sexually explicit and, like many of Verhoeven's other films, shows graphic violence and gore.' Better, but again it misses the point.

Rotten Tomatoes, can you help? 'This stylish erotic thriller gained a cult following for its frank treatment of bisexuality, bizarre visuals, and an extremely sexy performance by Renee Soutendijk as a woman who may or may not have killed her three previous husbands.'

Hmm. Well, let's get one thing clear - The Fourth Man is a clever supernatural horror film that manages by turns to be disturbing, intriguing, and downright funny. Well, I laughed. There are indeed sexy and gory scenes, not least one moment (in a dream sequence) where a pair of scissors are deployed to horrific effect. 

But what really needs saying is that the core of  this drama is pure Gothic, complete with sudden bolts of lightning, key scenes played out in graveyards, and a locked closet revealing a terrible secret. As if to underline the point, the opening credits are almost a straight lift from Roger Corman's The Haunted Palace. If you haven't seen the latter, it means arachnophobes should steer clear. The idea of a spider devouring her mate is carefully-placed, along with the witch's mark, and the very familiar concept of prophetic dreams warning the protagonist. 

The film's plot is refreshingly simple, albeit with murky undertones. A Dutch writer, Gerard Reve, travels from Amsterdam to Flushing to deliver a talk. He is, like most professional writers, skint. He is also a boozer who lives with a younger man. Gerard is not a nice person; at the station he tries to pick up a hunk who is openly perusing porn in the newsagent (remember, it's Amsterdam). The young man evades Gerard and vanished on a train to Cologne, leaving our not-much-of-a-hero to embark for the coast.

The train journey is marred by the arrival of a young mother of a somewhat fractious baby, who has an accident that interrupts Gerard's reverie about a picture on the carriage wall. Arriving at the station he looks about for someone who is supposed to meet him, but instead encounters a funeral. For a disturbing moment he thinks the deceased has his name, but is (apparently) mistaken. Arriving at the venue he encounters Christine, a young woman who films him for the local literary society, and then offers him a bed for the night. 

Thus begins a relationship that is driven by selfishness and dishonesty of Gerard's part, and fuelled by a key coincidence (no spoilers) that would be absurd in a Hollywood thriller but works rather well here. Gerard, a boozy and boorish individual, is an improbable hero, and for much of the movie it seems Christine is just what she seems - an attractive, intelligent, but rather vulnerable businesswoman who's been unlucky in love.

When Gerard discovers Christine's stash of home movies things become more complex. Christine has been married three times, and each of her husbands died in very unfortunate mishaps. If I mention fishing, parachuting, and a visit to a safari park you'll get some idea of how unlikely these deaths are, and there's more than a touch of dark humour - fans of The League of Gentlemen and Psychoville will chuckle, I'm sure. Gerard becomes convinced that Christine is a witch who destroys men, but as he's a drunken liar this doesn't get a lot of traction with the locals. 

All the various threads and images are gathered up in a climax that is indeed gory (and may well have influenced the makers of the British horror film The Descent). As in the film's sexual imagery (gay and straight) Verhoeven doesn't pull punches, and this seems appropriate given the subject matter. The film tackles the basic premise that witches not only exist, but can only be thwarted by traditional faith. In this case Gerard, a professed Catholic, gets a lot of help from head office, so to speak.

Overall, I'd recommend The Fourth Man to anyone who wants something a little different in the supernatural horror line. While you may not love it, you definitely won't have seen a dozen other horror films like it.

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