To many, Jane Asher is either Paul McCartney’s former girlfriend, the purveyor of fine cakes or ambassador to numerous worthwhile charities, but to me she will always be Francesca, the devout peasant girl in Roger Corman’s 1964 classic Masque of the Red Death. John Moulder-Brown, on the other hand, will always be Lilli Palmer’s disturbed son Luis in the 1969 Spanish horror La Residencia (well overdue a re-release).
So the idea of seeing these two together in Deep End, an obscure drama from 1970 that has been unearthed and restored by those astute people at BFI Flipside, I had to check it out for myself. And I’m glad I did, as this really is a lost cult classic filled with the kind of offbeat bizarreness that I just crave in my movies.
In a nutshell, it’s a surreal hybrid of coming-of-age drama, psychological thriller and black comedy satire about the fears and fantasies of the adolescent male, treading water with regards to his sexual frustrations. It’s quite fascinating, and a real snapshot of the era it’s set in.
Set in 1960s London, Deep End opens with naïve 15-year-old school leaver Mike (Moulder-Brown) taking up a job at some local swimming baths, where he meets engaged twenty-something Susan (Asher). After developing an obsessive crush on the girl, Mike starts stalking her – first at an X-rated film, then outside a Soho nightclub. Believing Susan is cheating on her sleazeball of a fiancé, Mike confronts her. But when Susan looses her diamond engagement ring in the snow, Mike comes up with an ingenious plan to recover it. But his plan has tragic results.
To be honest, I had never heard of the film’s Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski before seeing this film. But reading the very informative booklet that accompanies this release, I got a real insight into the man who started out working alongside Polanksi (writing 1962’s A Knife In the Water) before going off to do his own thing and getting a Golden Bear award at the Berlin Film Festival in the process (for Le Départ in 1967). But viewing this has made me want to seek out his other films.
On the surface, Deep End looks like you typical coming-of-age film, but beneath the surface it’s much deeper (pardon the pun) and much darker – thanks, in part, to the superb performances of Moulder-Brown and Asher. You can see some real professionalism here. Asher’s Susan is so much more mature than any of the male characters present, while Moulder-Brown’s sexually naïve Mike proves how stupid men can be when their hormones take over.
While men are portrayed as rather weak, director Skolimowski paints his women as manipulative, permissive and predatory. This is best displayed by Diana Dors (in a brilliant, but all too brief, cameo) as the lecherous older woman at the baths who tries to seduce Mike with some corny lines about football hero George Best. The former 1950s sex symbol would again appear wrapped in nothing but a towel in Theatre of Blood and Steaming (her final film; I must see that now).
Deep End is beautifully photographed, especially the tender love scene, which is shown in extreme close-ups of eyes and lips. And I was surprised to learn that most of the film was shot in a studio in Munich. You really cannot tell which is the real location – the old Cathall baths in Leytonstone (now demolished) and Walker’s Court in Soho – and which isn’t.
It may not have done well on its original release (it only got a brief stint in arthouse cinemas before behind pulled), but as a nostalgia piece it has some powerful set pieces that really stay with you – especially, Mike eating one hot dog after another while stalking Susan, or the cheery prostitute with a leg in a cast that he encounters. It’s this mix of the sleazy, the mundane and the surreal that gives it its edge.
Digitally re-mastered to HD, the BFI Flipside release comes as standard Dual Format or as a 3-disc Collector’s edition, and includes a feature-length documentary containing interviews with Asher, Moulder-Brown and Skolimowski, as well as a rare (and very disturbing) short film from 1977 featuring Asher, plus deleted scenes and illustrated booklet. Unfortunately, however, it doesn’t come with the life size cardboard cut-out of Asher’s character Susan, that features in the film.