Curtis Harrington had one of the oddest careers in Hollywood history, beginning as an avant-garde filmmaker in the 1940s and 1950s, then migrating to low-budget thrillers in the 1960s and 1970s, then becoming a go-to director for trashy TV series like Charlie’s Angels and Dynasty. The DVD/Blu-ray combo set The Curtis Harrington Short Film Collection mostly covers the first phase of Harrington’s career, when he produced tense, surreal abstract art suffused with a queer sensibility. Like his friend Kenneth Anger, Harrington used the cinematic language of B-movies to express what it was like to be a gay man in America in the mid-20th century, grappling with the often-intertwined feelings of fear and desire.
Harrington’s first major work was also his most powerful. In 1946’s “Fragment Of Seeking,” Harrington plays a small, frail-looking young man in oversized grown-up clothes, walking through streets and corridors in an exotic city, following a beautiful woman, then having his head turned by a handsome gentleman. The soundtrack intensifies as the kid makes his way to a small room, where he waits for a knock on the door. The easiest interpretation of “Fragment Of Seeking” is that it’s an impressionistic depiction of cruising for sex, but the film runs deeper than that, using its suspenseful score and dreamlike imagery to suggest the pull of the unattainable, and the crippling self-absorption of the young.
Harrington carried that feeling over to 1948’s “Picnic,” which begins with a family having an outing on a gusty beach, then splits off to follow another young man in pursuit of a mysterious figure in the distance. The film builds to a stunning sequence in which the hero tries to rescue a maiden from a brute, but can’t make his way up a staircase that keeps getting steeper with every step. It’s an unsettling visual, but “Picnic” is off-kilter from the start, as the wind and sand whips about, while the picnickers pay it no mind. And the film ends with an ominous doorbell-ring, echoing the knock in “Fragment Of Seeking” and adding to the feeling that there are dark implications to the hero’s failure to get what he wants.
The remaining four films in the main program of The Curtis Harrington Short Film Collection aren’t as strong as the first two, but are notable hints at what might’ve been, had Harrington been able to pursue avant-garde filmmaking more. “On The Edge” (made in 1949) and “The Assignation” (1953) are short exercises in putting dreams on film, with the former featuring Harrington’s parents playing out a metaphor on the edge of a bubbling mud-pit, and the latter showing a masked man floating down the canals of Venice. Both are striking, but not as rich as “Fragment Of Seeking” or “Picnic.” Harrington had more to play with in 1955’s “The Wormwood Star,” a study of occult artist Marjorie Cameron that spends its first half showing her posing around her workspace, and its second half showing her work. It’s an example of how underground culture became more openly, defiantly unconventional in the 1950s, exploring all kinds of ways to live outside the mainstream, even if it meant “seeking the dark star.”
The last film in the program is the longest: “Usher,” from 2002, is a 40-minute adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Fall Of The House Of Usher,” a story Harrington first tried to film in 1942, when he was 16 years old, with himself playing both the sickly aesthete Roderick Usher and Roderick’s strange twin sister Madeline. Harrington attempts the double role again in “Usher,” with Sean Nepita playing a poet who visits the Ushers and witnesses the supernatural goings-on at their home. For most of its running time, “Usher” has more in common with Harrington’s TV work than his art films, until a bizarre masquerade party in which the guests bitch about other poets. From that moment on, “Usher” gets wilder, indulging in overt camp and playing up the similarities between creepy genre movies and vivid nightmares.
Harrington’s own creepy genre movies—such as 1971’s What’s The Matter With Helen? and 1972’s Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?—have a fervidity that connects them to his shorts, and his TV work has a straight-faced silliness that connects to his genre movies. So in a way, Harrington’s career arc does make sense (especially taking into account his best feature, 1961’s Dennis Hopper-starring Night Tide, which is like a Roger Corman adaptation of “Fragment Of Seeking” and “The Wormwood Star”). But the early work on this set shows such a command of pacing and visual style, all in service of bracingly personal visions, that it’s hard to look at the broken-down artist Harrington plays in “Usher” and not regret all the art he never got to make.
The footage for Harrington’s first stab at “Fall Of The House Of Usher” still exists—with no sound, in a crude transfer—and is included in this set, as is Harrington’s 1966 documentary “The Four Elements,” an educational film about power sources that’s rendered as a lyrical meditation on heat and vapor. Of particular note, though, are two interviews with Harrington—totaling an hour, and shot just a few years before his 2007 death—in which he expresses his admiration for the personal filmmaking of Josef von Sternberg and David Lynch, and talks about floating between the art world and Hollywood, attempting to bring some order to his chaotic filmography.