The Day of the Locust is Unmitigated Insanity of the Highest Sort

It’s no secret that I’ve a penchant for movies that movies that are curious and over the top.  I’m an ardent obsessive of camp, and I revel in movies that flaunt their mad visions and embrace their craziest whims.  I love the movies that have never said “no” to a bad idea or considered that they might be crossing a line.  Hell, I’ve practically made it my quest to mine the coal of film’s expansive history in order to find the most glittering diamonds of batshit insanity.  Well, ladies and gentleman, I’ve already found what may the Hope Diamond of this journey.  I give you The Day of the Locust, a movie somehow far stranger than this surreal, French poster for the film:



Oh, and it’s infinitely more garish than the America poster would imply:


Still unconvinced?  Let me just give you a taste of the craze.  Let’s go watch aspiring starlet Faye Greener (Karen Black) get in a fight with her sickly father (Burgess Meredith):

I don’t know whether to laugh at the garish campiness of the performances or have nightmares for the rest of my life, but it’s captivatingly bizarre no matter your reaction, and believe me when I say that this scene is merely the tip of iceberge that is John Schlessinger’s epic, gonzo vision of Hollywood as the festering epicenter of failed dreams and a society in rapid decline.  There’s also (for example, yet impressively enough not limited to) the sublimely grotesque yet perversely compelling pleasures of Burgess Meredith’s heart attack at Donald Sutherland’s house, the church scene, Karen Black doing tequila shots (itself one of the profoundly ridiculous moments in cinema), and the cock fighting scene.  Seriously, I don’t know why you’d even bother finishing this reviews before putting it at the top of your Netflix queue.  Trust me.

Anyways, The Day of the Locust is the 1975 adaptation of Nathaneal West’s 1938 novel of the same name.  It stars William Atherton as Tod Hackett, an aspiring art director in the 1930s who movies to Hollywood with hopes of making it in the studio system.  His neighbor, Faye Greener (Black), lives with her washed-up-clown-turned-door-to-door-peddler father (Meredith) and has her own dreams of being a star.  Tod falls hard for her, but she avoids his advances while using him (and every other man she encounters) to get everything from ice cream cones to credit accounts at clothing stores.  Among the other men she has wrapped around her finger is an accountant named Homer Simpson (Donald Sutherland) whose immense repression springs from his religious faith.

The performances, particularly those of Sutherland and Black, are fascinating blends of absurd and kitschy camp stylings with a more traditional, “straighter” style of acting.  The effect is quite interesting; it forges characters that seem–in one way or another–to have been set adrift from their humanity, as if this quality were a symptom of or necessity for working in the film industry.  Added to that, Schlesinger (along with the assistance of cinematographer Conrad Hall) frequently films scenes in a way that inflates these characters’ pitiable hopes into something grotesque and monstrous.  The Day of the Locust is a geek show of desperation, but–like all good geek shows–it taps the salacious thrill of the abject.  It’s not a train wreck or camp trash; it’s art in the vein of Francis Bacon: agonized and horrible, while also compelling and beautiful.

And don’t forget that it’s insane.  Like, totally fucking insane, y’all.

To really show you what I’m talking about, I’ve decided to post the climactic riot sequence to give you a sense of how unhinged this movie gets from traditional narrative endings.  It obviously contains spoilers (duh), but it also does contain some pretty graphic violence, so spoilerphobes and the weak of heart/stomach should probably avoid watching this:

Let’s just hold hands and go through this slowly.  There’s an androgynous young Jackie Earle Haley being stomped to death by a clearly out-of-his-damn-mind Donald Sutherland.  There’s Dick Powell Jr. playing his classic Hollywood-musical-star father, Dick Powell.   There’s what easily constitutes as one of the more disturbing scenes of mob violence committed to film, which seems to possibly involve a man being physically torn apart by the raging masses.  So far, so nutso.

Then, though, around the 6-minute mark, when the music kicks in, the sequence relinquishes the film’s last tenuous ties to sanity and simply lunges straight off the deep end.  There are flaming trees and telephone poles, William Atherton’s crazy-faced screeching, ghoulish hordes , and gigantic explosions.  Apparently The Day of the Locust doesn’t so much end in a riot as the FREAKIN’ APOCALYPSE.  

I recognize that the final minutes are seen through the eyes of a man who’s at best having a shock-related hallucination and at worst completely off his rocker, and I get that the end is a metaphor for the spiritual apocalypse brought about by Hollywood’s perpetuation of a dream (stardom and success) that few will ever actually achieve.  But I call it as I see it, y’all, and I’m calling this ending certifiably insane.

In making The Day of the Locust, John Schlesinger hasn’t gone for broke, y’all.  He’s gone for absolutely batshit; and, once you’ve seen his masterpiece, you’re a little better for it.

3 Responses

  1. This is a movie based off of the Nathanael West book? This is one of the best books I’ve ever read… So good. I’m linking this blog to the class in which I read this book.


    • And trust me, this is an incredible (albeit totally insane) movie. I’m dying to read the book.


  2. […] album itself), I had a revelation, and that revelation was that Christina Aguilera and I both share a love of Karen Black in The Day of the Locust.  Here’s Karen Black on the poster for The Day of the […]


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