Craig Lahiff’s Aussie Hitchcockian Double Bill (Part One)

*contains spoilers

Coda (1987) aka Symphony of Evil aka Deadly Possession and Strangers (1991) are two films directed by South Australian director Craig Lahiff (1947-2014). The titles of his movies were often one word and the pair of movies are often described by critics as sub-Hitchcock. I think they deserve more praise than that, considering their low budgets and homages to The Master. Not to mention the general ingeniousness of their production.

Hitch appears in Strangers on a Train

Coda starts off poetically with an iambic pentameter and the sound of Frank Strangio’s (no info) sometimes classical synth score. It is set in the world of music and this is the key to the movie.

Also, as we start off, we see that Lahiff seems to have a kink for lesbianism, as one of the main characters gets kissed goodnight by her girlfriend in the car once the credits are finished. Note her reaction to the kiss. There are also lesbian characters in the second Lahiff film Strangers. I guess it is just an exotic bent for Lahiff and as some graffiti I saw the other day: “Lesbians are Everywhere”. But in Lahiff’s HItchcockian film universe it seems to be a pastime of the rich and well educated in particular.

Spanish VHS cover for Coda

Was it Edith Massey (1918-1984 lymphoma and diabetes) who said in a John Waters (1946-) movie: “If they’re dumb, they’re straight. If they’re smart, they’re queer!”? I don’t know, I thought I’d throw that broad line in!! It’s typical of the Prince of Puke.

Anyway, the girl from the car is attacked in her apartment by a masked intruder and thrown out of her window from a great height, the blood splattering from her body onto a white rose in full bloom. Usually a symbol of purity, it is also a wedding flower, so it is not surprising that this attack on an “innocent” girl in the apartment should be witnessed by the estranged husband of another tenant of the apartment – the heroine of the piece – played by Penny Cook (1957-2018 cancer).

“She’s obsessed with music. She’s the best at the conservatorium. Why would anyone try to kill her?,” Penny asks the police when taken to the station for questioning.

A classic Australian poster for Coda aka Symphony of Evil

The last person to see her before the attack was the woman in the car, the girl’s music teacher and apparent lover, Dr Steiner, played by Arna-Maria Winchester (1949-2008 cancer). In fact, the detective in charge of the investigation is a woman too, actress Olivia Hamnett (1943-2001 brain tumour). And there is another main female character introduced later played by Liddy Clark (1953-).

In fact, it is a rare thriller, or slasher, if you like, despite little gore, that has its four main leads all played by women.

Meanwhile the only nominal male character is on the run with a key the attacker has left behind….

Later, Steiner – I guess the name is cribbed from the fact that Steinway grand pianos are rather famous – and Penny go and visit the girl on life support in hospital… and afterwards Steiner makes a pass at Penny, who gracefully refuses.

So who is the attacker? The girl in the hospital is later murdered.

This famous scene from Strangers on a Train is recreated in Coda

Meanwhile Penny’s useless husband drops the key down a drain. This leads to a scene that recreates one from Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, where fingers reach down through a grate to try and retrieve it. It was an all-important lighter in Hitch’s film.

Penny’s husband is finally arrested and it is up to her to help prove his innocence… the attacker he saw was wearing a mask we think… Penny starts looking into the life of Steiner, stealing a similar key from her key-ring and visiting Steiner’s remote windswept seaside mansion in the hope of more clues. The key doesn’t fit the mansion’s front door. And there is a dead seagull referencing The Birds (1963) as there is a dead bird on Annie Hayworth’s porch, another, we suspect, lesbian character in that film. Steiner’s first name is Leslie, which is the spelling used in the United Kingdom for boys. Lesley for girls.

Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) trailer

There is a scene in a lecture theatre at the conservatorium where opera is played, which echoes Dario Argento’s Inferno (1979) as in an earlier scene there are camera acrobatics around the old apartment building like Argento’s Tenebrae (1982). In that film the house belonged to a lesbian couple.

There isn’t a red herring in sight so far in the movie, so it is probably easy to guess that Steiner is the masked villain a la Halloween – even Phantom of the Opera! If it is, then Penny is possibly in danger as Steiner is present and likes her classical piano recital at the university. Coda uses the work of composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976 heart failure) in its soundtrack, whose works were often about the corruption of innocence. He also had a reported sexless attachment to teenage boys. Apart from his compositions he was also a celebrated pianist. There is also that sexlessness again, or no sexual definition in terms of music, as Penny plays a piece composed by a man. I wish I could go into the musical aspects more fully but I am not a musicologist! Not even a musician.

Another unhappy ending in Dario Argento’s Tenebrae (1982)

But it is during the lecture scene that Steiner explains Britten’s opera as being about “a bed of crimson joy” and “a dark secret love”. More on that later! And don’t forget the rose is a symbol of spiritual love!!

“You know you played beautifully… and the way you ended with the coda… so delicate… beauty,” says Steiner to Penny as they walk through the conservatorium together.  The sexual overtones of Penny playing perhaps a Steinway/Steiner instrument/body not lost. The instrument being touched lovingly and perfectly by Penny’s fingers! This is the world of classical music. And Steiner is after a bit of tail, which is the Italian word from which coda is taken.

Deneuve’s and Winchester’s hairstyles are similar. Coincidence?

Seduction using a piano was used in reverse in Tony Scott’s excellent The Hunger (1983), with Catherine Deneuve (1943-) relating an apparently erotic lesbian story while playing an operatic piece by Leo Delibes (1836-91). But that is opera. Steiner does have a hairstyle similar to Deneuve’s though and both were musicians. Pure coincidence?

There is great use of location in CODA with Flinders University being utilised as the conservatorium – Lahiff studied there, so did I – and Flinders Medical Centre, a nearby hospital, used for the hospital scenes. As a kid, visiting family in the hospital at night, I always thought its empty corridors were freaky, lecture theatres and all. Then they brought out Coma (1978), which only supported my theory.

Coma (1978) contained all my childhood fears about empty hospitals at night

There is also a great operatic detour in Coda filmed at the Adelaide Festival Theatre, where the masked villain stalks Penny during a production. For such a low-budget movie – it was shot on 16mm – Lahiff has worked wonders. At the opera, there is an appearance by Hedley Cullen (1915-1994) in a bad toupee as an old man in the balcony section. He was well known in Adelaide for his Aweful Movies with Deadly Earnest as the presenter ‘Earnest’ who was kind of a local version of Vampira or Elvira, presenting bad horror movies late at night before retiring to his coffin at the end of the show.

Hedley Cullen as late night horror host Deadly Earnest just before retiring to his coffin

By now we have been introduced to Liddy Clark’s character, who is Penny’s new neighbour. Penny and Liddy flee the Festival Theatre and its carpark in a car chase by the masked figure.

Before that, Penny’s car was stolen and returned with the opera tickets.

By now we know that Steiner had/has a brother who was a failed composer who could also be the attacker.

There is another great sequence when Penny returns home to her apartment and puts on a recording of Joan Sutherland (1926-2010 heart failure) performing Vincenzo Bellini’s (1801-35 colon inflammation) Norma. While it plays, Penny studies herself deeply in the mirror and then in bed she ponders an open window. The shot moves through the window and segues downstairs outside where the mystery killer squeezes the life out of a red rose. A symbol of frustrated true love, no doubt. Is it the “priestess” of musicology or her composer brother, once so young and talented? It is perhaps interesting that Bellini was known for his Romanticism, died relatively young, and has been a hotly debated critical topic over the years among musicologists.

Penny Cook as the plucky heroine in Coda

Lahiff knows how to build suspense, create likeable characters and frame a shot. There is one beautiful shot of Steiner peering through her mansion window with a grand piano in the background and the vista reflected in the window.

But it is Strangio’s haunting and atmospheric score that complements the film and rounds it off fully. And as music is the key… like a piano key… And as music is composed in different keys, usually on a keyboard, you could say that Lahiff has composed something very special in terms of the movie. I am told that Lahiff was a very accomplished pianist as well and that he had an astonishing collection of classical music. He was very passionate about Mahler and Wagner.

Winchester on left with Deneuve hairstyle with Penny and detective

There is another well-directed sequence with the police detective going through Steiner’s conservatorium office at night… where she discovers a music composition book, which is empty… Steiner’s brother’s book perhaps… and the masked figure slashes to death the detective with a sword. A curious choice.

He/she dumps the sword and the body in a pond on the campus grounds. And the “key”, as the sword sinks to the bottom of the pond, is when the killer turns directly to the camera and the mask is finally revealed head-on as sexless – like the possible relationship between the Steiner brother and sister. In fact as we get to know the mask and the wig, it could be a man and it could even be Penny’s twin brother! Like Steiner and her brother. Penny has sexless boyish short hair like the killer.

The masked killer in Coda could be Penny’s sexless twin brother

Coda’s celebration of the sexlessness of classical piano music – opera as a vocal detour with male and female vocals – along with Strangio’s score is evident. A piano has no sexuality. Except perhaps to fetishists. The music has no sexuality in itself, as it is more about listening, concentrating, feeling and sharing with the musician, as in the case of Penny with her fingers on the keys. It is as close Steiner will get to having sex with Penny without actually having sex or making love – and so it is extremely beautiful to her. Steiner as a lesbian may ultimately be seeking herself, someone who uses her fingers to create something that feels beautiful. Same sex politics aside – music maybe sensual, but not necessarily sexual.

Deneuve seduced Sarandon using a piano… and a little wine

You can add an erotic storyline, like in The Hunger, but it won’t touch you physically! Tony Scott’s seduction scene is more complex in that movie. I guess there are the lucky few whom are brought to orgasm by mere music! We’re not talking masturbation here. If there is a sexuality to classical piano music, it is universal, or not at all. It is all in the eye and/or ear of the performer and beholder. The instrument is given life. Let the critics ponder… like Penny in the mirror or the world beyond the open window… Steiner is trapped behind the window with her piano in her palatial mansion alone as evidenced by that mise en scene… She cannot touch Penny… or her own brother! How frustrating.

Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder (1954) trailer

“We shared everything,” says Steiner about her composer brother whose work failed. “The critics, they destroyed his music. They crucified his soul.”

That the detective found an empty composition book with Steiner written on the cover, is another clue to a life without music/sex, not being one worth living – others too, they must die, it would seem. The detective now murdered. What is going on between brother and sister? Is it sexless? Or is there more to it?

Is everything I’ve been talking about a red herring?

Director Craig Lahiff

The sexless mask of Coda and the mask of respectability of academia and musicology hide something very twisted and sinister. This is the basic slasher formula coming into play now.

Penny meanwhile can’t stop poking around and finds several rats as well as a body in a freezer of a building where Steiner “meets” and possibly kills someone… Just before this, Penny’s neighbour Libby looks as though she’s strangled by the killer with a public phone cord, when he/she returns unexpectedly while Libby’s on the phone, in a scene nodding to Rear Window and Dial M for Murder.

But it is the final sequence that is the most suspenseful. Set in the university campus at night, the stars are aligning for Penny – plucky heroine that she is – to finally meet the murderer face to mask. Eventually the mask will be removed!

Read more about this movie and the accompanying Strangers in PART TWO.

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