The Surrogate (1984): Unhappily Married

Matty rewinds for a quick look at the first erotic thriller the subgenre’s queen, Shannon Tweed, ever starred in.

After repeatedly butting heads with helmer Lamont Johnson on the set of his 3D sci-fi epic Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone (1983), producer Don Carmody elected to direct his next project for iconic Canadian company Cinepix so, as Carmody went on to tell Fangoria, he’d “never have to work with a jerk like Johnson again” [1]. However, Carmody’s transition to directing wasn’t as smooth as he believed it would be. In fact, his entire experience shepherding THE SURROGATE was so stressful that Carmody has steered clear of the bullhorn ever since. 

“Directors think differently to producers and writers,” Carmody sighed. “They think in images, and I never could. I think in words, or literally. [My old production partner Ivan Reitman] is a rare bird who can do both very well. I believe The Surrogate to be a competent film, but it’s not great. What the experience actually did was make me a better producer, and since then I’ve been much nicer to directors!” [2]

Of course, with that in mind, those who create the art are always going to judge it more harshly than even the most scathing of critics. And while Carmody’s struggles behind the scenes shouldn’t be dismissed outright (‘the director had a nervous breakdown’ is a solid defence for a film’s shortcomings, no?), his less than happy memories of The Surrogate’s assembly almost certainly cloud his overall judgment. To slightly echo what the Canuxploitation maven turned Hollywood player (his later credits include Chicago (2003), Lucky Number Slevin (2006), and a few Resident Evil sequels) has already said, The Surrogate might not be great — but it’s an interesting and eminently watchable erotic thriller. 

Chief among its pluses are the two central performances from Art Hindle and the future queen of the subgenre’s DTV division, ex Playmate Shannon Tweed, as Frank and Lee Waite: a relatively young couple trapped in a disintegrating marriage. On the surface they appear to have everything: Frank is the handsome owner of a Porsche dealership, Lee is a leggy, gorgeous blonde who comes from money, and their palatial Montreal apartment is littered with all the gadgets, gizmos, and excesses a pair of yuppies could ask for, from neon lights to a newfangled stereo system. Alas, beneath this perfect veneer, Frank is a perma angry chain-smoker whose rage has rendered him impotent, and the equally emotionally immature Lee swings from compassion to sex-starved mockery.

Both Hindle and Tweed are excellent. Despite their characters being rather cold and unpleasant for the bulk of The Surrogate, they attack their roles with aplomb and make it very clear that the name-calling and tantrums are more coping mechanisms than anything, with Hindle in particular painting a vivid picture of a man who doesn’t like himself, let alone his wife. There is, though, the occasional glimmer of sweetness, and for as aggy and snarky as they get, Hindle and Tweed’s mannerisms and glances do betray a convincing sense of people who, deep down, still love one another.

Said dormant feelings come in handy during the main thrust of the film, when Carmody and co-scripter Robert Geoffrion push Frank and Lee to seek the help of the raven-haired Anouk Vanderlin: a slinky sexual response therapist played with relish by Quebecois music and screen royalty Carole Laure. Essentially laying the foundation for erotic thrillerdom’s subsequent depictions of such therapies, Vanderlin’s crotch-twitching methods are, naturally, extremely unorthodox — soon, she’s fondling Lee; goading a rejuvenated Frank to hate-shag her instead (which presumably explains the strange and misleading title); and increasing the divide in their already strained relationship with her weird sex games and fantasy-tapping scenarios… 

A tad tame and skinless by successive standards (cf. Tweed’s ‘90s output), The Surrogate passes muster thanks to Carmody’s surprisingly assured ability to balance the domestic drama with the film’s authentic air of simmering sexual tension. Aided by sturdy tech credentials, Carmody only falters when he becomes too preoccupied with a hokey and predictable murder-mystery subplot (investigated by a sadly ineffective Michael Ironside) that somehow manages to be undercooked and overwrought at the same time. The strand isn’t a killing blow by any means, but it does stifle The Surrogate’s momentum a touch towards the back end, especially as Carmody doesn’t seem to know how to pull it together, and it’s annoyingly reliant on a string of screamingly obvious red-herrings. Without doubt, the worst is Frank and Lee’s cartoonish crossdressing neighbour, Eric (legendary female impersonator Jim Bailey). It’s an awful part and a dreadful turn from Bailey, who shoehorns in a Bette Davis routine from his act and squawks the rest of his stiltedly delivered lines from a cue card.

Can ● 1984 ● Erotic Thriller ● 96mins

Art Hindle, Shannon Tweed, Carole Laure ● Dir. Don Carmody Wri. Don Carmody, Robert Geoffrion

[1],[2] Carmody’s Can-Con Carnage by Chris Alexander, Fangoria #309, January 2012

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