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Last Caress

A Review of 'Kissed' (1996)

The weirdly beautiful and melancholy MOLLY PARKER plays a troubled young woman with a rather repellent "taste for corpses" in director Lynn Stopkewitch's 1996 morbid little art house gem Kissed. 

Necrophilia, like incest, cannibalism and other taboo practices, is a subject both forbidden and tawdry—attracting those low spirits who wish to be titillated by the morbid and revolting excesses of the mentally deranged. Alternately, it is the paen Poe and other poetasters of a melancholy and sepulchral countenance paid to the Final Howl of Love: a searing, grave-defiant passionate embrace of the sacred form, the illusion; the fast-decaying image, or shell. Is there a yolk within the egg? That is what religion and even science asks; or rather, what religion propounds while science investigates the possibility.

The serial killer or sadist does not quite fit here: Ted Bundy screwing corpses at his mountain retreat is not in quite the same league as Count von Cosel, who stole the corpse of the beautiful, doomed Elena Milagro de Hoyas to painstakingly, over a period of years, reconstruct her, bit by rotting bit, with paraffin and silk and waxen rags. There was no sadism there, only... love, pure and passionate and patient. Likewise with Henri Blot, Joan of Castile, perhaps even Victor Ardisson, the "Vampire of Muy," who used to line the heads of corpses up and kiss them, talk to them, call them "sweetie." (He was genuinely confused when they failed to answer him.)

In modern times, we have the example of Karen Greenlee, presented in an article by Jim Morton, (published in the late maverick publisher Adam Parfrey's book of seminal counter cultural outrages, Apocalypse Culture), as an "Unrepentant Necrophile," a woman who worked in the funeral industry, stole into mortuaries at night, molested the corpses of young, desirable men (who, she admits, at the time where often gay men that had died, tragically, of AIDS).

Greenlee, describing herself as a "morgue rat," and lamenting that this life may be her "rat hole, possibly my tomb," stole the corpse of a man named John Mercure and was apprehended later with her suicide note. She had apparently fallen in love with Mercure—or, at last, what was left of him.

That was in 1978. Greenlee became, eventually, fast friends with Leilah Wendell, of the "New Orleans Death Museum," which I take it is now called the "Westgate." Leilah, an authoress who has written a book for ritualistically invoking the literal "Angel of Death" ("Azrael" in Hebrew lore),  collects and exhibits necrophilia art, as well as having previously published fairly extensively on her personal relationship with the death energy, or force.

I remember in the late Nineties or early Two-Thousands, coming across an Internet 1.0 page featuring a collection of macabre memento mori-type photos and postmortem pics, some authentic, a few, such as that of the plastic-shrouded Laura Palmer from the old television show Twin Peaks, obviously staged. The author of the page extolled the virtues of a world of "necro brothels," in which pederasts and other psychotics could indulge sadistic and illegal fantasies on inert, unfeeling, decaying dead. Society would be spared the fallout from the hideous crimes committed by such individuals; who, presumably, would have their sadistic and repellent needs sated. And thus would everyone benefit, by the author's logic.

As for myself, the subject has called me home numerous times. The necrophiliac history of "Count von Cosel" inspired my first long novel Buried (2007), as well as the short, curiously as-of-yet unfinished monograph The Men Who Loved the Dead (2015)—and numerous other short articles, written for Vocal, primarily.

My attraction is not with corpse-fucking; no. If that were the case, I would find the actions of individuals such as Bundy and Dahmer to be of equal interest as those of Count von Cosel or Sergeant Bertrand. I do not, and do not write about them in the same context. My interest is only for those who share a special kinship with the dead, born of fantasy or affinity, or the imbuing of a desired object with a new, fantastic half-life; the "living doll," the desired object of affection that drove Hans Bellmer to craft representations of the flesh he could imbue with persona; that compels some men to fuck a blow-up imitation that they take as fantasy mates; that undeniable and very real faculty of the male (sometimes female) mind to animate, spiritually, that which is most certainly "dead in the flesh."

To that end, we wanted to see the movie Kissed for many years, it taking on the same weird, near-legendary status as Eraserhead or Heartbeat in the Brain did in the years before the internet made everything readily available, at least in the sense of visual media or recordings. While, upon first seeing it, we found ourselves to be slightly underwhelmed, upon repeated viewings we've found that the film starts to grow on you—like mold on a casket lid.

Sandra Larson (the pale, waif-like, weirdly alluring Canadian actress Molly Parker) is presented, in scenes from her childhood, as a strange young girl (played by Natasha Morley) obsessed with ritualistically chanting over her dead pets before casting them out the window by moonlight. Chanting, dancing, and acting, perhaps, as a "psycho pomp" or even midwife to the incorporeal essence of the inert flesh; but the flesh, we see, she rubs against her childhood skin, sometimes leaving streaks of blood.

A weirdly Lolita-like scene has Sandra and her friend Carol (Jessie Winter Mudie) burying dead chipmunks at an impromptu pet cemetery, before stripping down to their skivvies and whirling like dervishes. Earlier, we see Sandra chanting "I shroud the body, shroud the body, shroud the body..." before hiking at night into the woods with candles, to strip, whirl, and bury a bird in a jewelry box.

Needless to say, her friendship with Carol (who claims "she can see in the dark, and talk to ghosts and spirits") is not long-lived, and we next are presented with a grown-up Sandra, a seemingly shy, introverted and strange young woman who goes from working at a flower shop to a funeral home. Finally, she asks the mortician, the portly Mr. Wallis (Jay Brazeau) if he will teach her to be an embalmer.

He agrees, demonstrating the proper use of a trocar ("It's called the 'Mortician's Sword!'" he informs her), and warning her of the unpleasant odor of rotting cadavers. Regardless, it is an odor she likes. (Karen Greenlee, the real-life inspiration here, was quoted as saying, "Well, there are death odors, and then there are death odors!" She goes on to say that a body "that has been floating for three days" doesn't appeal to her, because of the overwhelming putrescent stench of a corpse in that condition.)

Sandra takes to her new avocation very well. She goes to college to study being a mortician, but we are also presented with scenes of her alone in the prep room, stripped down to her underwear, whirling about once again in a kind of mystical ecstasy, invoking some infernal cone of power before climbing atop the inert corpse.

The camera relishes her long thin fingers, caressing the cadaver's hair, giving bright, almost harsh close-up images of the texture of death behind sodium arc lights that illuminate in white, spiritualistic detail; the stand-in for the sacred, fabled tunnel Sandra stands at the portal of, midwifing the dead from their vacated husks to that other side, that pure energy that is all its own.

"When you die, your life... flashes, and you disintegrate, radiating energy. When a thing turns into its opposite, when love becomes hate, there are always sparks. But when life turns into death, it's explosive. There are streaks of light, magical, and electrifying. Everyone senses something, some energy, some spirit, some sort of illumination, But I see it. I've seen bodies shining like stars." — Kissed

She has occasional conversations, casket-side, with the intensely creepy janitor played by James Timmons. He has previously, upon introduction, kissed her hand. He confesses that he has had occasion to walk in on Mr. Wallis in flagrante delicto with a young male cadaver. "Mr. Wallis is a troubled man," says Jan, in a pathetic understatement. The audience already knows Sandra understands, quite well.

Central to the plot of Kissed is the romance between Sandra, the reserved and seemingly emotionally frigid young woman, an odd loner, and Matt (Peter Outerbridge), an emotionally troubled young fellow college student who lives in a basement.

Smitten with the pale, lovely young woman, he makes of her a present of a particular anatomy text, and the two begin dating. One could easily see Matt among a million lost and desperate young men; indeed, he reminds me, vaguely, of young fellows I went to college with. His increasing emotional instability could have, at its root, any number of mitigating factors. Here, he has fixated on a young woman who is fascinating because, in the same stroke, she represents a transgressor or "other," some new possibility he can attain, some new gateway promising a thrill society, conventional society, cannot afford him, even in the form of drugs. Their sex, of course, lacks the intimacy Sandra feels with a young male cadaver. She confesses to Matt that she "makes love" to the dead.

There is not much more to Kissed, really. Matt becomes increasingly unhinged, realizing that he can never, in a sense, fulfill the place that death, that the dead, have for Sandra; whose love or erotic fixation seems rooted partly in the mystical. She seems a sort of way-shower or liaison between the dearly-departed, and the infinity beyond. Matt, realizing he can never be a part of that, realizing that she has a world, in the most literal sense "all her own," tries to simulate the death he believes she desires, the deep truth about human mortality and the nature of life and existence that he believes she somehow possesses.

But does she? We are never quite, as an audience, certain she is anything more than a psychologically distorted young woman; not a death-mystic, perhaps simply a mental case. Matt begins to make copious notes of her every action. He puts on corpse makeup to simulate death. We see the edges of his surface begin to shatter.

He tells her: "I know I have to do it now. Fuck a corpse." To which she replies, "I don't fuck everything that's dead." If it is a religious experience for Sandra, in the inverse proportion that one usually uses religion as a celebration (or, at the very least, a sanctification) of life, then, quite obviously, Matt will never realize anything similar. Unless he is "converted."

He does this by his own hand. In the final act, we see him in his basement room, atop a chair, nude, ready to hang himself. Sandra walks in to try and stop him, but is unable to do so before he takes the plunge. Thus, he becomes one of "them;" he joins the dead.

The final scene shows the extreme, harsh, brightly-lit closeup of Sandra running her fingers through a cadaver's hair, confessing that the exploding "death energy" that shines like a burning sun is a place where she now sees Matt.

We see the image of our dead, haunting us. Forever young and forever old, they play through the shadow-show of our consciousness. The bright white light scenes that bookend Kissed, of course, are stand-ins for the afterlife experience, the famed "tunnel" we are said to travel down as the soul departs the body.

An audio book on the occult, ripped from YouTube, naturally, assures the listener that "death energy" is real and vital, is grey, can be acquired (one supposes like a charging battery) at cemeteries and funeral parlors, to be used in malicious spells for black magic purposes. Death DOES have its own energy; but, in an extraordinary sense of absence. It's a cold, hollow, inert feeling; an energy that suffocates and declines.

Don't Fear the Reaper

The Hindus believe in the cyclic nature of all things: age follows upon age, in a succession of endless TIME, wherein even Brahma sleeps at the "breathing-in" of the universe. Death is a part of the cycle of all things, but Krishna reminds us that the "End of death is birth." Men do not escape the succession of births and death and rebirths, but first must do their sacred duty, find Moksha, or dissolution of the material body, and rejoin "The Supreme Personality of Godhead."

Vishnu, the "World Sustaining" is joined by Shiva, the Lord of Time and Decay, dissolution; "I am become Shiva, destroyer of worlds," said Robert Oppenheimer at Trinity nuclear testing site, somewhat incorrectly quoting verse 11:32 of the Bhagavad-gita. Religion endlessly reminds us of the cyclic nature of life and time, how death precedes rebirth; until "Divine Enlightenment" or rapture releases the soul from the endless cycle of imprisonment. At least, this is what some religion teaches us.

Another example: Tibetan monks feed the carcasses of their dead to seagulls, to propitiate the life-cycle; giving their bodies back to the sacred grasp of all-consuming Nature,

Western minds perceive scientifically that the body, upon dissolution, extinguishes the consciousness, which is simply an electrical process borne of chemicals in the lump of grey matter affixed between the ears; our stories of ghosts and our investigations into parapsychology and the paranormal notwithstanding.

I recently have become more intimately familiar with Mr. Death than in any other time than I can closely remember. Both of my grandparents died within seventy-two hours of each other, one from massive cardiac arrest. I was with him at the hospital, along with the rest of my virtually estranged family, until he died at around six o'clock the following morning.

His outer shell was a hideous thing, sustained by an oxygen mask, but with a directive that they were NOT to attempt resuscitation. So it was simply a waiting game. I sat, hour after hour, suddenly brooding about the finality of these moments. Where was the consciousness? Trapped inside that husk, somewhere, unable to reach out, to communicate? The doctor assured us he could hear us gathered around him, speaking. He would never again be able to speak to us with human lips.

Where, I wondered, was the brass band? Where were the special honors for being "John Q Goodcitizen?" Seemingly, none of it mattered. You died, and that was that; they zipped you into this body bag, and wheeled you away, whether or not you bothered to vote, kept your lawn cared for, or went to church every Easter. Was it all a sad joke, a conscious form of self-deception?; to stave off the cold, black, terminal chill of the grave; the abyss, from which stares back at us? What? Nothing, perhaps. But, in the ideas of the mystics and psychopomps and death workers, perhaps, something.

When my grandmother died, a few days later, I was inured, at that point, to the empty, frozen face of inanimate shock that permeates the visage of them... and them is, exactly, what they become. An Other; an alien. Whitley Strieber, in Communion, theorized that his ubiquitous "Grey Aliens" might, in point of fact, be OUR dead, come back from some eternal place, some other dimension, some place, as Poe might have put it, "Out of Space--Out of Time."

(Aside: As I walked into the nursing home to find my grandmother dead, the Gene Kauer theme from Faces of Death (1978), titled on the soundtrack album as "L.A. County Morgue," was playing in my head. It's a gentle, melancholy, poignant piece of elevator or lounge music, but with just a tinge of macabre dissonant creep, enough to mark it as the theme created for the movie it helped make infamous.)

'Kissed' (1996) Trailer

It was a solemn moment, but one that brought a sense of completion, of finality. Then, a double funeral. The pale, artificial mockery of the embalmed stiffs, the cloying stench of roses; hugs and kisses; hours and days fold back into the curtain of memory.

My own brush with death, most recent, happened when I had a heart stent placed in the Lower Anterior Descending artery of my heart, due to an eighty percent blockage. If I had not had had ordered a heart cath due to getting checked out for an unrelated operation, this would never have been discovered. Most likely, I would have had the "widow maker" heart attack, and would not be here to write these words to you.

That was all well and good, the surgeon assured me. I was fine now. Correct? Well, a month later, I began to have the same symptoms. Dizziness, shortness of breath, chest pain, weird sensations in my arms and legs. Heart palpitations.

I went through a week of hell, a week where I thought I was literally on the verge of a massive heart attack or stroke. I started thinking of my life in terms of weeks, possibly days. I slept on my mother's couch, popped nitroglycerin and pain pills and nerve pills, and took several ambulance rides to emergency.

A ride to St. Joseph's hospital in Ft. Wayne was diverted when my heart rate became dangerously high. The female EMT panicked, pronounced me "too unstable" to make it to St. Joseph's, and diverted the ambulance to Lutheran hospital instead. As we plunged through the night, with the sirens blaring, I'll never forget the female EMT sticking the inflatable electric shock pads to my chest and telling me, "I'm getting ready for you." Her words now have an ominous ring to them, as if she were not simply stating a fact of what actions she would take in the corporeal world, but was stating, in much the same way as Sandra Larson in Kissed, that she was going to lead me through the Gates of Death, into that other world, in the same manner as Virgil lead Dante.

I was feverishly chanting the Maha Mantra, my fingers white-knuckling the rail of the gurney I was on. At no time did any of my accomplishments, or lack thereof, enter into my mind. I no more cared about what books I had authored, or failed to, what art I had created or music I had recorded, than I cared about the man in the moon. I was conscious only that, should I lose consciousness, I would find myself outside the body and traveling to a new, terrifying and mystifying Unknown Realm, where "Once borne, no traveler returns." Shakespeare's "Undiscovered Country," in other words.

But I did not die. Not then, at any rate. (Another catheter operation showed that everything was "fine." I am assured it was all due to "generalized anxiety disorder." But, could it be?)

Last night, I dreamed I was holding the withered bones of an estranged relative in my arms, she being wound in her shroud. My mother begged me not to hold her thus, but I lie with her there, hearing her murmur, though she were dead.

Getting up, after the act of love, I put a cloth across her face.

"Angels see thee to thy rest."

I had drained the life from this one, for, years ago, draining me. I had loved her till death.

This short essay has gone far afield of the mere movie that I wanted to review. Kissed is less about necrophilia than necromancy. Sandra Larson is the angel midwife "soul rescue," helping to shuttle the departed into that happy place, "into the light." But, for some, there must be darkness.

Havelock-Ellis, quoted in Dr. Anil Aggrawal's excellent text Necrophilia: Forensic and Medico-Legal Aspects (CRC Press, 2010), quotes the case of a grave digger turned necrophile who said:

"As living women felt nothing but repulsion for me, it was quit natural I should turn to the dead, who have never repulsed me. I use to say tender things to them like, 'My beautiful. My love. I love you."

And herein lies the secret of the common necrophile: they are simply transferring feelings of powerlessness and inadequacy, lust and a desire to control, over an object they can imbue with significance, with persona, with LIFE. One that cannot reject these "little men," these outcasts; these cyphers.

(In our own, necrophiliac culture of death-obsession, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe, Elvis and any other number of stars are kept in a kind of vicarious "ever sexy and still alive" netherworld by electronic media and kitsch consumables: t-shirts, coffee mugs, even full-body, full-blown performing "lookalikes.")

Not like Count von Cosel, who, truly, loved and was infatuated with his Elena. And not like Sandra Larson, who is the Midwife of the Mouldering, the Death Angel energy-bearer, bringing forth the radiance of the dying flame, to impart the deeper truth beyond life. And death.

To quote a popular punk rock song from my wayward youth, hers is just one "last caress."

Note. Dr. Aggarwal further notes that ten percent of all cases of necrophilia involve female perpetrators, the Joan of Castile's and  Cristina Belgiojoso of our day. C'est la vie! 

'Buried' by Tom Baker