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Bait (1975)
Director: Mario Schiess

review by Paul Higson
Spoiler alert!
Goodbye video collection! You offer us nothing anymore, or so we are told. All those old titles are spilling out onto disc, eventually, or soon enough, if they are worth rescuing. It sounds like I am setting it up for a bite in the ass but though there is nothing so rare in my private collection as Mario Schiess' Bait; the film doesn't really make the argument. Interesting, it is, good it isn't. Lost, well nearly, or almost. Even its UK Rainbow Video release is misapplied as and mistaken for the 1954 Hugo Hass gold-mining yarn. Should nobody else ever review this film it may do us well to be as thorough as possible on this occasion. Let the blurb on the luridly coloured sleeve set the ball rolling for us...
A murderer has strangled four pretty girls. Joan Nicholls and her police officer fiancé discuss the case and both feel that the man now in custody is the wrong man. Joan's cousin Carla is a medium who in a 'vision' sees the face of the murderer, and they are startled to see it is a man they all know. The problem is to set a trap to catch the murderer but the best-laid plans can go awry. Tense and chilling with a dramatic twist in its tail."
   Thanks for that, I might only have tried to put more detail into it when it is a simple story. And yet there is more to it. Joan and Carla have an uncle dying from cancer, a former police detective, seemingly condemned to a hospital bed for the remaining six months of his life, and with that you have the key players accounted for. It should also be included who the familiar face is. It's the locum consultant Doctor Martin, played by Marius Weyers, then, proudly advertising himself as a member of P.A.C.T, now a reliable character actor and under representation by Moonyeenn Lee. Though the names of the cast and crew sound of Swahili and the Teutonic everyone speaks with clipped English inflections making for a jarring impression, to think the impossible, that this might be a film made in Rhodesia (as Zimbabwe would still have been named at the time). But this is a very South African film, shot in Johannesburg, though one that reeks of separatism. The only local black citizens seen are puzzled passers by in the one rare daytime street scene. It is incredibly sad that even when one couple traces another to Zoo Lake there are no blacks sighted. Zoo Lake, since its creation in the very early part of the 20th century, even through apartheid, was the only place, and symbolically so, in South Africa that was, by an old rule, open to all races.
   An ordinary story it may be in the most, let down largely by performances of rank amateurism or soap theatricality, no movie capital in the day, employing players perhaps more familiar with the stage, unable to lower their voices, go for something more subtle. When Joan and Carla are disputing the date the former had with a man it has already been decided resembles the artiste's impression of the killer (taken from the psychic visions of the latter), though both are aware he's at the foot of the stairs they are walking down, they are veritably shouting their concerns as they descend. Not only are some of them unused to speaking before a camera, Carla is not even used to moving quickly, and seems to have difficulty walking alongside one fellow actor.
   The characters are odd, are best described as infantile Jungian theoreticians. They fret, sulk, churl, don't listen to reason, behave like reckless Enid Blyton detectives. Joan endangers herself stupidly, won over by the Aryan Dr Martin's moustache (retained to this day). The foreboding synchronistic with his threatening and pretentious musings, nor his taking her to a stage production of Ionesco's The Lesson featuring a closing stabbing of an unworldly, pretty young woman, simply do not penetrate her bonehead. The story requires that she returns with him to his flat for the showdown, a race against time for concerned parties, with telephone calls unmade, cars breaking down and the terminal old man sneaking out of the hospital in order that all the key players are there for the final messiest of situations. Fair do, there are some twists for which we can be grateful. Spoiler alert is necessary, though chances are you will never see the film, this being as rare as it is. Uncle arrives first, weak behind the gun, life failing him, Judy and the doctor in a struggle as he enters firing. Judy is hit in the chest with one bullet, Dr Martin finished with another, the Uncle collapsing into what is generally assumed to be his death as no-one arriving in the immediate aftermath thinks to check his body for signs of life. Then the police captain arrives to trump them all with the news that the serial killer had struck again while they were completely keystone kop on the wrong man.
   The film offers complete credits for the cast but fails to align them with the characters. Beyond Weyers, the only likely cast member a guess can be safely hazarded on is Richard Loring who played the young lead police officer, tying him to other young male lead around the time. Clive Scott and Pat Kaplan effectively play themselves as they are credited not only on the opening credits but also on the poster for The Lesson, the Ionescu play seen performed in the film. To put a year on the film Loring, Scott, Dianne Ridler and Norman Coombes all appeared in Emil Nofal and Roy Sargent's 1974 classic of South African cinema The Winners, while two years later Weyers and Loring would re-team on Und Dei Nacht Kennt Kein Erbarmen. Additionally to this, Boorman's Deliverance is promoted at the cinema, while the film that is the subject of the charity premiere attended by several characters within the film is Percival Rubin's Mr Kingstreet's War starring John Saxon, which was produced by Thys Heyns, the co-producer of Bait. Though looking a little washed out and scratchy that film had only been made in 1973. An educated surmise on the year therefore would be 1975. As if the clothes weren't the biggest giveaway.
   It was an odd film for Heyns to be involved in, made as it was in the middle of a period when he was otherwise concentrating on rock solid action flicks that made the exploitative most of the indigenous landscape. It is possible this lower-budgeted subject was brought to him by one of his fellow producers, Alan L. Girney. Girney is associated with smaller, concentrated productions and would later become connected with a British film, directed by Norman J. Warren, operating on the lowest of budgets for his 1978 sci-fi sex comedy The Outer Touch. Norman however never met Girney and credits Peter Schlesinger with all the hard work.
   Writer and director Mario Scheiss is an unusual subject to oversee a minor Hitchcockian-style film thriller, a Jungian philosopher and playwright who died in 1998 at the age of 64 (apparently days following the speed-writing of his final work, Last Tango In Heaven). Though there is nothing impressive in Scheiss' attempt to dress up a simplistic thriller with supercilious dialogue and heavy referencing to his likes in the world of absurd theatrics had he continued it could have made of him an eccentric filmmaker worthy of some attention from the followers of the incredibly strange, at the very least. Scheiss cannot help but to give childish digs at counter philosophies. "I read Freud once and that was enough," comments the doctor. Martin and Judy begin impenetrable conversations that mean nothing. Beauvoir is misread by way of a stultifying a knife blade metaphor. Crap is spoken about thoughts being touch and there is insipid discourse on delusions of grandeur.
   On top of the excerpted performance from Ionesco's one-act play there are juvenile references to the playwright. Berenger, the female psychologist invited to profile the killer, takes her morbido to the dying detective and unabashedly asks if he will record his thoughts leading up to his death, inanely claiming that there is an afterlife because there is no scientific probity to there not being one. According to Berenger, "Science is a beautiful world of logic!" Her name is Berenger and she mocks death, stands over it, is superior to it, just as her namesake considers himself to be in Ionescu's Tuere sans gages (of 1959) and Rhinoceros (1960). In the former play he attacks death portrayed as a dwarf. (Earlier this year I reviewed Manoel De Oliveira's I'm Going Home for VideoVista, a film that included a large chunk of Ionesco's Le Roi se meurt; maybe I should use films that fawn over Ionesco as a marker for those to avoid).
   The profiler Berenger compares the killer's rolling of his victims into the water as an act of cleansing. That is, almost cleverly, tied in with Martin's sudden comparison of Judy to Ondine the water nymph (and very pretty by the swimming pool in an earlier scene she is too). Not having seen her in a bikini or in the rain how he comes to that conclusion is unclear unless he is seeing her through the contents of her glass as she giddily and drunkenly makes her own comparison of herself to a Hitchcock heroine. "He's my dearest buddy, I'm every one of his heroines." Scheiss wants to be both Hitchcock and Ionesco, though I doubt Hitchcock would have enjoyed being Ionesco or vice versa. Cultural responsibilities in France saw Ionesco desert playwriting in 1971 and if this was Scheiss' attempt to encourage him back to the stage then it made no impression on his idol, as Ionesco was not to find time to write a play again until 1990.
   Neither would it help putting a song like Girl In The Shadows on the soundtrack sung by one Roy Bulkin, the sinking woman's Tony Monopoly. It is pop excitement of period Eurovision and Jonathon King style tumescence, with lyrics themed to Carla's psychic abilities: "Girl in the shadows, you can see but to what doesn't exist, though I know you just want to be kissed." Doing Ionesco proud, I'm sure! "Girl in the shadows, we can never be sure who you are, from the land where the mind reaches far, into time into space." Hitchcock hired Herrmann!
   It isn't utterly terrible and there are some nice touches. When the young detective brings a magazine to the ward bed, the old man remarks, "Everybody brings me magazines, they think there won't be time to finish a book." It is such a good line it hits the viewer hard, and even the young actors seem to feel it some. There is technical support from editor Malcolm Burns-Errington and cinematography by Rod Stewart, noted professionals of South African film, the latter bringing something bright and next room to the imagery. The opening titles of Connie Botha remind one of The Sweeney closing titles sequence with its procession of coloured stills, and, sorry to bring Norman back into this, but the opening titles of his 1978 film Terror.
   The South African writer-director's fondness for the absurd is no more than an excuse for no real understanding of how people tick and how the real world functions. At the scene of a murder the body is removed and the young detective picks up a scarf from under the body and takes it home. From there he gives it to the girlfriend on the off-chance that her psychic cousin might handle it, which she does. Scheiss went back to his lecturing and avoided wider exposure for the bogus thinker that he was. Bait seems to be his only feature film and though inadequate it still provides curiosity value.
Bait on VHS

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Bait artwork

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