The Wikipedia entry for Strawberry Mansion describes it as “an American surrealist science fiction adventure romantic comedy film” – a genre pile-on by any standards. Whoever wrote that missed one – the fairy tale.
For the strawberry mansion of the title read gingerbread house and you’ve about got the flavour of this strange surrealist (etc etc) film written and directed by two of its stars, Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney.
After a strange preamble in which James Preble (Audley) finds himself trapped inside a strawberry coloured room, the action proper gets going with a segueway to Preble knocking on the door of a kindly old lady. He’s a tax inspector, he says, come to audit her dreams, which she’s been hiding from the authorities, in a big room piled high with what look like VHS tapes. And probably are VHS tapes – one of the charms of this very charming film is that it’s done on the make-do-and-mend principle, on a budget that must be ultra low if not lower.
But back to the audit. Donning a headset made of what looks like a breakfast cereal box, old paper coffee cups and the hose from a vacuum cleaner, Preble enters a VR world where the dreams of lovely old Bella (Penny Fuller) are lining up, waiting to be audited, indexed and priced. So much tax paid on a hot air balloon, a different sum for a maple tree or a buffalo, and so on.
Out in the real world, between exhausting audits, Bella feeds Preble and tries to charm him into giving her an easy ride, though he maintains a professional froideur at all times and is entirely unimpressed by her assertion that “they” are secretly piping advertisements into the realm of dreams, in order to monetise it. But back in the dream world Preble lets his professional guard slip by falling for a dream version of Bella, much younger and dressed in white (and now played by Grace Glowicki).
Beware, says a talking spider, run away from this house, it’s dangerous, it squeaks on, just before a frog playing a saxophone appears. Later, Preble somehow becomes captain of a ship crewed by giant rats. He catches fire. He and Bella are transformed temporarily into beets. Beets – that’s not a typo.
Hansel and Gretel on acid? A mash-up of Guy Maddin, David Lynch and that bizarre Canadian film The 20th Century? All of the above, with perhaps a hint of the work of Larry Blamire, whose films like The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra and Trail of the Screaming Forehead are more overtly camp but working the same bizarro territory.
It could all, very very easily, become incredibly annoying, and Strawberry Mansion does hover on the edge of slappability. But it’s got a colourful energy that saves it from itself. Instead of presenting something weird and then standing back to soak up the applause (or boos), it hurtles on to the next absurdity, and the performances stay away from knowing, which is another blessing.
And there is something going on in here. A critique of the commodification of everything, even the private realm, for example. See social media for a read-across to our world. And in the relentless juxtaposing of young Bella (hot) with old Bella (not), it’s also saying something about age and perceptions of female beauty.
Perhaps best of all, it does all in the end start to make a kind of loony sense, as threads are tied up and story arcs come to satisfying conclusions. Perhaps Hansel and Gretel isn’t quite right. This is more an Alice in Wonderland story of a topsy-turvy world of riddlesome meetings with strange creatures.
The narrative string holding all these absurd characters and dreamlike situations together may be fragile but it does hold.
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© Steve Morrissey 2022