Hello. AsimovLives here.
Today’s article is a review I wrote for the Talkbacker about the horror film The Butterfly Room. I found this movie quite interesting and wrote the review as a way to draw attention to it.
So, in the spirit of the Horror Month at Supernaughts, I decided to re-post my review for the movie in hope to create interest.
So, without further ado, here’s my article review of the film.
Of Mothers And Their Butterflies.
Title: The Butterfly Room
Running time: 87 minutes
Country: Italy, USA
Director: Jonathan Zarantonello
Writers: Jonathan Zarantonello (based on his novel Alice dalle 4 alle 5), Paolo Guerrieri, Juigi Sardiello
Music: Pivio and Aldo de Scalzi
Cinematography: Andrew Starhorn
Editor: Clelio Benevento
Starring: Barbara Steele, Julia Putnam, Ellery Sprayberry, Heather Langenkamp, Erica Leerhsen, Adrienne King, Camille Keaton, P.J. Soles, Ray Wise, James Karen, Joseph H. Jonhson Jr, Joe Dante
Ann (Barbara Steele) is an elegant elderly lady who lives a private life dedicated to her butterfly collection. She has anger issues, barely concealed under a facade of stern politeness which her fellow neighbours mistake for old-fashioned manners. She takes an interest in Julie (Ellery Sprayberry), the daughter of her next door neighbour Claudia (Erica Leerhsen). The two have an uneasy relationship, as Claudia is a single mother who is so desperate to get into a new marriage with her boyfriend, who is also her boss, that she returns late every day from work.
Sensitive to Julie’s loneliness, Ann develops a motherly bond with her by sharing her hobby of collecting butterflies, which she offers to teach her. Ann is stern with Julie, which the latter prefers over her mother’s neglect. Claudia plans on going for a romantic weekend with her boyfriend in an attempt to have him ask her for marriage and using her secret pregnancy as motivator. She asks Ann to take care of Julie in her absence, which Ann enthusiastically agrees to, even if she disapproves of Claudia’s plans. Ann uses this situation to alienate Julie from Claudia, playing on her lies to her daughter and the constant abandonment.
Claudia mentions to Ann about a pounding noise that comes from her apartment, which Ann denies ever hearing, yet the noise went not unnoticed by the building administration who sends her a desist notice for any unauthorised modifications. As it turns out, Ann is indeed responsible for the noises, which occur when she is opening a hole in one of the walls of her butterfly room.
Ann visits a taxidermist (James Karen), her supplier of materials for her butterfly collection, and she buys a great amount of mothballs, chloroform and an oxygen bottle sized container of acid that prevents decomposition, saying she is expanding her butterfly collection, which the taxidermist doesn’t question.
Ann enters another apartment and there she takes away some girl clothes. In the elevator she opens the access door from the floor and sprays the acid on the remains of a human body found in the bottom of the elevator pit.
Chris (Joseph H. Jonhson Jr), the employee of the building’s repair supervisor Nick (Ray Wise), goes to Ann’s building to repair a broken window and also to apologize for his earlier suspicion that Ann had caused an accident, which she actually did, yet it was dismissed by Nick due to her great standing with the whole building. The casual conversation veers to Chris telling Ann he once saw her having a fight with a girl some weeks ago, which Ann angrily denies. Noticing that Chris is perplexed and is refusing to drop the subject, she asks him to help repair something in her private butterfly room, which no man has ever entered before. But Chris doesn’t enter the room either.
Flashback to one month before, when Ann first met Alice (Julia Putnam), who is the girl that Chris saw arguing with Ann. They met in a mall where Ann bought her a doll after she had the money her disabled mother gave her stolen by bullies. Promising to pay Ann back, she gets her phone number. Later in the day, Alice phones Ann and asks to visit her. Alice wants to pay back the doll but Ann refuses, so Alice proposed to hold the money as an allowance, and the conversation segues to Alice’s problems in French class, ending with Ann agreeing to be her tutor. Soon Ann takes her relationship with Alice into a more serious maternal direction, with Alice as a willing surrogate daughter, replacing Ann’s own daughter, whom she confides has “gone to heaven”. Ann is stern and dominating, including taking disciplinary actions like forcing the left-handed Alice to write with the right, but she takes it in stride for Ann’s motherly attentions and the payment of allowance each time she visits.
Soon, it’s revealed that Alice is really a grifter. She targets lonely elderly ladies, manipulates them into a surrogate mother-daughter relationship that the ladies become emotionally dependent on, to get money from the “allowances” they are willing to pay her. Ann is just one of Alice’s marks, which she later discovers much to her shock when she see Alice in the mall with another elderly woman. Ann confronts Alice, but she tries to avoid Ann’s questioning with emotional manipulation.
But Ann is too smart to fall for that again and follows Alice to her condo, seen earlier. There she sees Alice getting picked up by a rich elderly lady in a limousine. Ann goes to Alice’s home, where her mother mistakes Ann for Olga, the rich lady. Ann plays along with the charade and through the conversation with the mother she discovers that she is well aware and supportive of her daughter’s grafts, which she benefits from. Also, as an amputee, she works as a prostitute who has a specialized clientele with an amputee fetish, which was proposed by Alice when she discovered it on the internet. Ann also learns that Alice and Olga have a contract for the latter to take her in case something happens to the mother, with the implication that the relationship between Alice and Olga is not merely the surrogate mother-daughter that she has with Ann, but also of a sexual nature as well.
Ann is shocked by these revelations but thinking that all of Alice’s troubling criminal behaviours are the fault of her mother, she takes measures to be the only important person in Alice’s life. Ann urges Alice on the phone to return to their arrangement, but Alice is no longer interested, saying she wants to leave town to go live with her uncle. Ann goads Alice to visit her one more time by paying triple her usual “allowance”. In the last visit, Ann teaches Alice how to pin butterflies to put them in frames, while telling her that Alice’s mother was an exploiting prostitute unable to love her as she would. Ann takes the opportunity to gain Alice into her life forever.
Back to the present day. Ann is parenting Julie in Claudia’s absence. Ann is taking Julie to school, and the latter asks to go to the butterfly room, which Ann forbids, claiming that the instruments for preserving butterfly could harm her. After dropping Julie at school, a kid starts a conversation with Ann over her vintage 1960s Cadillac, but the kid’s mother intervenes and shouts at Ann to leave her son alone to a shocked Ann. Later when Ann picks up Julie after school, the kid’s mother follows them. After Ann and Julie arrive home from a theatre show, the kid’s mother surprises them both. Turns out that she is Dorothy (Heather Langenkamp), Ann’s daughter, who is alive after all. Dorothy and Ann have an emotionally charged tense conversation, where Dorothy breaks Ann’s attempt at polite conversation by accusing her of giving her a traumatic experience which necessitated many years of therapy and an emotional inability to have a meaningful relationship with anybody. Julie, scared by the discussion, hides in a wardrobe which Ann had convinced Nick to move in front of the butterfly room’s door. Julie by mistake breaks the weak plywood back of the wardrobe, and opens the door, and is shocked to see what’s inside the butterfly room. She tries to tell others what’s in the room, including her own mother, but everyone dismisses it as merely the imagination of a child who created an imaginary friend.
Soon, events start to pile up, revelations about the characters are disclosed and Ann takes more and more desperate measures to protect her newly created family.
If there is such a thing as a “Neo-Giallo”, this might just be one. There’s the Italian-American origin of the film, there are the typical elements of suspense mixed with graphic violence, the willingness to have more realistic portraits of the characters living unglorified versions their lives, characters with psychosis and deep emotional problems caused by Freudian traumata, and last but not least, we have the “Grand Dame of Horror” Barbara Steele playing the protagonist.
But if this is a “Neo-Giallo”, it’s an atypical one. Also atypical is the depiction of a film Femme Fatale, for the film depicts two of the most unlikely femme fatales in cinema in the characters of Ann and Alice. What’s atypical in this film in regard to its two femme fatales has also to do with the way it’s also an atypical neo-giallo and that’s the absence of any emphasis of sex as a plot device. What little the movie makes mention of sex is left as a minor detail in the story. Also, while the giallos usually focus on their female characters as either victims or sexual lures, and very often both, here everything is about female themes to the point that the males in this story are at best mere annoyances to shoo away, or as a tertiary element to be used by a female character for ulterior motives other than desire for sex.
This is a story told in a completely female perspective, and the perspective is dominated by two mutually related themes: motherhood and the mother-daughter relationship.
One interesting thing to notice in this film is that there is a complete lack of a happy family to provide any sort of emotional guide to contrast with the disturbed portraits of failed motherhood. There are no such easy tricks here. All mothers portrayed in the film are very flawed, and the film resists portraying motherhood as saintly by nature. We have mothers struggling to deal with their children and failing to understand them, a failure that is repeated over generations. We have flawed mothers appalled by the wrong actions of other mothers but failing to see their own errors and shortcomings. There is an emphasis on a type of arrogance that mothers can have in that they alone know what is best for children, theirs or others, to the detriment of others. This is motherhood gone wrong.
Motherhood is also the source of emotional fragility. The mothers in the film are irritated by the strains of their dealings with their children, but also completely emotionally dependent on their children as well. They project this onto their children, in a way that often looks less like motherly selflessness but as a disguised form of selfishness. Motherhood becomes a projection of one own’s ego.
The daughters don’t fare much better. They are instinctively rebellious and suspicious of their mothers or they lure their mothers into actions beyond their own influence. Children rebel or manipulate adult women into emotional dependency. It’s motherhood and mother-daughter relationships gone mad.
Surprisingly, despite all that, there is not one instance where the movie gives off a misogynist vibe. It’s all played as a sad, unavoidable, almost Shakespearean-like tragedy that nobody is able to escape from. There is an element of “Generation Xero”, where the sins of the mother pass to the daughter who becomes a mother in the image of her own.
The casting of this film with Barbara Steele, Heather Langenkamp, Erica Leerhsen, Adrienne King, Camille Keaton and P.J. Soles is a veritable who’s who of the ladies of the horror genre. It sounds like stunt casting to have all these horror legends in one film, and while it’s extremely fun to see all of them, the movie doesn’t take them for granted and parade them as some sort of film in-joke. Oh no, the movie wants them to act, to be characters besides their horror affiliation, and by golly, it succeeds. Beyond being horror legends cast for their iconic status, these are actresses playing roles with a conviction beyond the genre.
Newcomers Julia Putnam and Ellery Sprayberry give as much as their veteran counterparts. This is one of the best inter-generation female casts I have seen in a long time.
Heather Langenkamp as Ann’s long suffering daughter Dorothy, Erica Leerhsen and Ellery Sprayberry have quite a bit of screen time devoted to them as the more important secondary characters in the film. Langenkamp, best known for A Nightmare on Elm Street, again proves she is an engaging screen presence and with little previous characterization, she is able to construct a character whom we feel engaged with and we comprehend her motivations. I have always felt that Langenkamp should have had a bigger career and greater fame beyond the horror genre.
Erica Leerhsen, as Julie’s neglectful mother Claudia, is able to juggle a character of some complexity. On one hand, she is not an ideal mother, but on the other, you believe she genuinely loves her daughter but has a poor understanding of what to do as a mother. Ellery Spayberry as the daughter Julie was able to create immediate sympathy and empathy for her character, in a very realistic portrait of a child her age in which the usual cute kid cliches are not used. Her portrayal is of a child who is like every other, both lovable and irritatingly annoying in their petty defiances to authority. It’s easy to see why anybody would love her as a child, but at the same time not see her as an ideal child.
However, the film is completely dominated by two actress: Barbara Steele as Ann and Julia Putnam as Alice. Two actresses, each on the opposite side of the scales of age and yet with one thing in common, for they are the femme fatales of the story, but of a different kind. If a femme fatale can be defined as a female character whose personal egotistical interests have a criminal nature, who exploits her feminine wiles and emotionally manipulate others, then both Ann and Alice fit into the archetype. The difference is that instead of exploiting other’s love based on a sexual or romantic nature, the variety of love they exploit is maternal love.
Alice lures in older women by exploiting their maternal instinct for monetary gain and also, it’s implied, for the joy of manipulating others to her will. Meanwhile, Ann, after suffering from the manipulations of Alice, turns her own brand of emotional manipulation toward Julie to seduce her away from her own mother and to fulfil her own feelings of unresolved motherhood. As typical for a femme fatale, their gains are other people’s great loss.
Julia Putnam (Alice) is superb although her time on screen is rather limited, but the impact of her character is the motivator for the plot and the catalyst for the changes in Ann’s character. She plays her both sides to perfection , the one she presents to her “victims”, an angelic beautiful child in need of a strong maternal protective figure, and her true side, an already too weary for her age street-smart kid, who uses her natural intelligence for unscrupulous schemes, preying mercilessly on the emotional frailty of lonely old women. Yet, in many scenes, she manages to convey that, monetarily profitable as her schemes are, she is very uncomfortable in dealing with it, and she would rather be doing something else. She lives in near squalor at home, the desperation of poverty mixed with lack of scruples leading her to actions so shocking for a child her age. Basically, she is a cynical weary adult in the body of a child. Such a complex and demanding role for a child actress of her age is no mean feat. Hopefully, this role will harbinger great things to come from this young actress.
Then there’s Barbara Steele as Ann, the protagonist of the story and the owner of the titular butterfly room. Steele is a legend, but even for such a long career, this is a remarkable role and one of her best. That fate was generous to send her this rich and interesting character must not have been lost on her, and Steele plays the part for all it’s worth like the ultimate veteran professional she is. Steele is in nearly all scenes in the film, and she carries the burden effortlessly. Steele exudes such a natural charisma that makes it looks easy. The camera loves her, and it’s impossible to take our eyes from her. By turns vulnerable and scary, fragile and strong, assertive and confused, it’s a very multidimensional character that few actresses can play. As the story progresses, one sees the layers of her character peel away, leaving in the end a fully formed person whose motivations we understand, even if we can’t agree with her actions. Ann’s desperation to mother another child, after her failure with her real child, first marks her emotional dependence to the scheming Alice and after learning of the latter’s betrayal, turns her attention to the neglected Julie. One feels like Ann could reasonably be a better mother to Julie, as the film first shows her own mother’s flaws.
But Ann is an anachronism in dealing with the young ladies of today. Her stern educational ideas are behind the times, and already were when her own daughter was a child. Her stern and imposing attention she gives to Julie at first seemed like proper maternal interest, compared to the neglect she had suffered, but after a while it gets too much and Julie rebels. Ann is so caught up with her own vision of motherhood, she fails to see beyond her own needs and desire to control the children in her life, like human dolls, or more importantly, as the movie uses as symbolic juxtaposition, as collected butterflies.
Daughters as collected butterflies is the strongest imagery depicted in the film. More then once, a character complains that their children have turned difficult, and how much easier they were when younger, and they lament that their daughters had to grow up. In effect, they wish their daughters were frozen in time like captured butterflies in a collection, forever to be adored in an imagined state of childhood perfection. The imagery is potent and thought provoking for all those who are or want to be parents.
As mentioned before, the movie is told completely from a female perspective. The story is about mothers and daughters, and in particular, about mothers who failed at motherhood, ending up being rejected by their daughters and about (false) second chances for those who just wouldn’t quit on their futile attempts to be a mother. Mothers, daughters, and butterflies are the true symbols of beauty and good turned into horror.
I should also mention the movie is very effective in displaying complex ideas and characters in a mere 87 minute running time in an editing style that is never rushed. The visual style of the film is quite lush, with sophisticated framing and compositions creating a deceptively simple, yet rich film. The film score is an interesting experiment in what would sound like an old giallo with today’s music, complementing the rich visual style, effective editing and performances of the actors.
The Butterfly Room is a little gem of an horror film that manages to be both an efficient engaging horror film and thought provoking in regards to one of the most important subjects of human life.
As always, thank you for reading.
This is Asimovlives, signing off. Be well.