Gone With the Wind (1939)

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What a woman.  The life of petulant southern belle Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), from her idyllic youth on a sprawling plantation, through her survival through the tragic history of the South during the Civil War and Reconstruction, and her tangled love affairs with Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) who marries his cousin Melanie (Olivia de Havilland); and roguish Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) who wants her for himself and makes money as a blockade runner while Ashley goes to warLand’s the only thing that matters, the only thing that lasts. The drama of David O.Selznick’s search for Scarlett is well known, so too the issues with the directors (George Cukor was replaced by Victor Fleming, who was replaced for a spell by Sam Wood) but it’s the antebellum grandeur and the personalities of this epic historical romance set against the Civil War that continue to enthrall.  The beauty of plantation life is contrasted with the vivid scenes of Atlanta in flames;  the picture perfect homes and life embroidering and dancing and romancing are juxtaposed with the screams of the dying soldiers. Scarlett’s deceitful delusions about Ashley are dissipated by the reality of his cowardice. And there are the unexpected mini-dramas too:  that Scarlett becomes a can-do woman and saves Tara as her family cry bullying; when Rhett drunkenly asserts his droit de seigneur over Scarlett, she wakes up the next day as pleased with herself as the cat that got the cream. This image still has the capacity to shock (if not entirely surprise). That the screenplay and the performances effortlessly manage the extremes of humanity is a tribute to the talent behind the scenes and in front of camera. Gable is magnificent, but so too is de Havilland as Melanie, the kindest woman ever, who has the breadth of compassion to handle everything put her way and unexpectedly expresses delight when Scarlett kills a Yankee soldier. However it is Leigh’s film:  she is simply perfect as the selfish coquette who becomes brave when everyone around her is falling to pieces and she lives a wholly ironic life as a result. They say great characters make great books and I read it when I was fourteen, a great age to appreciate the feeling that Margaret Mitchell gives to these fully developed people living through the worst of times and trying in their own particular way to survive it. Expertly adapted by Sidney Howard. Wonderful. Tomorrow is another day

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Ludwig (1973)

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Ludwig. He loved women. He loved men. He lived as controversially as he ruled. But he did not care what the world thought. He was the world. Munich 1864. Young Ludwig (Helmut Berger) is crowned King of Bavaria and sets up financing his composer friend Richard Wagner (Trevor Howard) whom he hopes will be his intimate friend. When Wagner betrays him with married Cosima von Bülow (Silvana Mangano) he leaves Munich but Ludwig continues to support him. Ludwig’s cousin Empress Elisabeth of Austria (Romy Schneider) wants to set him up with her sister Sophie (Sonia Petrovna) but it’s Elisabeth that Ludwig wants. He retreats into the world of imagination, soundtracked to Wagner’s compositions, even when the 1866 Austro-Prussian war happens and his brother Otto (John Moulder-Brown) and cabinet cannot persuade him to take a side. Despite his burgeoning homosexuality he is persuaded to marry Sophie by his advisor Count Durckheim (Helmut Griem). Following the Franco-Prussian war of 1871 when Bavaria loses a deal of sovereignty to Prussia, Otto is hospitalised to treat his declining mental health. Ludwig is absorbed by his extravagant building projects including Neuschwanstein Castle and becomes involved with actor Josef Kainz (Folker Bohnet) and starts hosting orgies. He ignores Elisabeth. Word of his behaviour spreads to the Bavarian cabinet so that by 1886 it’s time to draft in the doctors … Mad, bad and dangerous, that was Ludwig’s reputation and Luchino Visconti’s lush, beautiful account doesn’t exactly clarify matters about his decline and mysterious demise even though it creates a fully fleshed world, dictated by the preferences of the protagonist himself. Partly the confusion has to do with what version you have the opportunity to watch. With five different cuts varying from two to four hours in length (I have watched two, the latest being the 226 minutes version as Visconti intended) this is something of a frustration in anyone’s language;  and, at the point in Visconti’s career where decoration was slowly supplanting dramatic tension, the joy in seeing Berger and Schneider exchanging sweet nothingness is replaced by a kind of exhaustion. Beauty can do that to a person. Breathtaking? It’s all that. And less, and less, if you see the shorter cuts with some of the gay stuff removed for censorship reasons. To the detriment too of dramatic logic. Yet this is quite a rounded vision of Germany’s intellectual and cultural aspects in the latter half of the nineteenth century, bristling through a nation-state’s growing political personality as a kind of warped belle époque happens. Visconti had a stroke after filming which led to all manner of issues for a production that happened when his long-cherished Proust project failed to come to fruition.  It’s a tribute to his protegé Berger really, who totally inhabits the role from boy to man with remarkable, emotive physicality in this inscription to a sorrowful life (the Italian dub is voiced by Giancarlo Giannini); while Schneider was returning to the role of Sissi (which had made her famous throughout Europe in a series of much-loved films) as a favour to the director.  Written by Visconti with Enrico Medioli and Suso Cecchi d’Amico, this was shot on the original locations, which adds immensely to the overwhelming spectacle, a great immersion into big characters and the way they made their lives matter.

Rocco and his Brothers (1960)

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Tomorrow? Tomorrow? There is no tomorrow.  Widowed Rosaria Parondi (Katina Paxinou), an impoverished Italian mother, moves north to Milan with her close-knit family of five sons to find opportunity in the big city where oldest son Vincenzo (Spiros Focas) is getting engaged to the lovely Ginetta (Claudia Cardinale). But the two mothers dislike each other and the marriage is off.  A heated rivalry begins when two of Rosaria’s boys, soft-spoken Rocco (Alain Delon) and brutal Simone (Renato Salvatori), fall for Nadia (Annie Girardot), a beautiful prostitute with whom each has an affair. As each pursues Nadia, tension between them threatens to tear the family apart … Always at the movies! He lives on bread and movies. In a stunningly stylish and tragic epic portrait of Italian society after the boom, Luchino Visconti brings his preoccupations together – visually operatic, violent romanticism, literary and post-war realism, with brilliantly conceived characters finding their destiny against a backdrop of poverty and desperation. Time flies when every day’s the same. Wouldn’t seem so, but it’s true.  Written by Visconti with Suso Cecchi d’Amico, Pasquale Festa Campanile, Enrico Medioli and Massimo Franciosa, from a story by Visconti, d’Amico and Vasco Pratolini, inspired by Giovanni Testori’s novel Il ponte della Ghisolfa, this is an intense, overwhelming masterpiece, beautifully performed. See it and believe in cinema. What was beautiful and right has become wrong

Halloween (1978)

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Every kid in Haddonfield thinks this place is haunted. On a cold Halloween night in 1963, six year old Michael Myers brutally murdered his 17-year-old sister, Judith. He was sentenced and locked away for 15 years in a sanitarium for the childhood murder of his older sister Judith. Now it’s October 30, 1978 and while being transferred for a court date 21-year-old Michael (Nick Castle) steals a car and escapes Smith’s Grove. He returns to his quiet hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois, where he looks for his next victims, stalking and killing promiscuous teenage babysitters on Halloween night. He targets Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) while being hunted down by his psychiatrist Samuel Loomis (Donald Pleasence) … I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up, because I realized that what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply… evil.  John Carpenter and Debra Hill’s cunning screenplay dissects and reconstructs the slasher movie and places it in the suburbs where carefree teens drink and drug and play around unaware that their grisly deaths are imminent as light briefly illuminates the dangerous darkness. The movies’ first properly famous virginal Final Girl is immortalised by Curtis in her screen debut, cast in her mother Janet’s immense Psycho shadow. On the one hand this is a clever homage and pastiche of feminist and misogynistic tropes;  on the other it’s a towering work of terror and one of the greatest horror films ever made, the granddaddy of them all.  Dazzling. You’ve fooled them, haven’t you, Michael? But not me

Jane Fonda in Five Acts (2018)

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I grew up in the shadow of a national monument.  It seems odd to think that the most important woman of her time, the one who showed what it was to be female in the late twentieth century, the vector for a society’s emotional, cultural and political spectrum, should have lived her life through men. Henry.  Roger.  Tom.  Ted.  They directed how Jane Fonda lived and Susan Lacy’s film feels like an extended therapy session, recalling the one Fonda improvised in Klute. I wanted someone to mould me, she says to camera. And after her mother’s suicide, which she found out about in a fan magazine, her father married again (not for the last time) to a much younger woman, and Jane learned how to be bulimic at boarding school, a reaction to his criticism of her puppy fat. She attended Lee Strasberg’s classes and financed her acting in New York by becoming a photographic model before leaving for France where she was greeted as a mix of Bardot and Moreau.  There she fell under the spell of Roger Vadim who turned her into sex kitten Barbarella. She admits to a hedonistic lifestyle in their marriage but became politicised particularly under the guidance of Simone Signoret and was stunned when director Sydney Pollack asked her what she thought of the script for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? the film she credits with turning her into an actress. Nobody had ever asked her what she thought of her work before: The first time I ever made a movie that was about something.  That, she says was when I had my first hair epiphany. Hence the influential look in Klute. Even that was decided by a male hairdresser. Her anti-Vietnam War politics  became a wholly immersive activity (although, oddly perhaps, the vital relationship with Donald Sutherland is not explored: it was his wife who introduced her to the world of radical chic. Then she and Sutherland had an affair.) Her activism led her to encounter Tom Hayden, of the Chicago Seven and she declared of her feelings about her next husband, If I’m not with Tom Hayden then I’m nobody. Her daughter by Vadim suffered while her son with Hayden travelled everywhere:  actor Troy Garrity (his parents decided their surnames would burden him) is interviewed and is quite vivid about the family setup and the time they stayed with IRA terrorists in Belfast. Not your average reminiscence. They lived in a terrible house at the beach with no modern appliances and homeless people living in the garden. She produced her own films, including Coming Home. They went to the Oscars in a station wagon. The couple’s organisation Campaign for Economic Democracy needed money so she decided to make a workout video and write a book and donate all the profits:  the book went to the top of the bestseller list for two years and The Jane Fonda Workout singlehandedly created the video industry, remaining the biggest seller of all time. Hayden responded by having affairs. Two photographs dominate the archival exploration:  one is a publicity shot, a posed childhood family tableau with neither Henry nor Frances Seymour Fonda engaging with each other or Jane or her brother Peter. This image clearly haunts Fonda:  these are four people utterly untethered from each other. Interestingly, Peter and Jane both think the other sibling had it worse in terms of a relationship with Henry, the famously distant man who could only express emotion on camera and with whom Jane attempted a rapprochement in On Golden Pond. She remembers that she touched his arm in an unscripted moment and she swears she could see tears in his eyes:  what a horrible, horrible thing to have to hold onto, that your father’s only display of anything other than total indifference towards you came in a movie you made for him. He won the Oscar for Best Actor. Then he died. Home movie footage shows a cute little blonde pigtailed girl dressed in buckskin, determinedly striding the wild garden of her 1940s home, wanting to be Tonto. Alone. The other photograph referenced is the famous shot of Hanoi Jane which went around the world when she posed on a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun. Hayden wearily explains that he tried to tell Fonda that she was dealing with the media. She set off for Vietnam not having known where it was on the map two years earlier as she told Dick Cavett, who says here her actions must have been a combination of bravado and naiveté. It’s not an argument that is fully explored but I would like to recommend a 2005 book which excavates the extent to which Fonda was framed (in every sense that this term implies) both by the media and the then government: Mary Hershberger’s Jane Fonda:  A Political Biography of an Antiwar Icon – even hawks might be shocked at how this young woman was hounded and intimidated. She cannot apologise enough and those who hate her will never accept that she was duped or that she is truly sorry. I wanted my life to have meaning. Her marriage to Ted Turner (predicted by a psychic) led to her retirement from acting because he couldn’t bear to be alone. Yet she grew as a feminist and left him after a decade which she describes as probably the most profound turning point of my life. She observes that she looked different for every man and the photos of each marriage exhibit this rather shockingly, fashion and age notwithstanding:  she was always playing a role dictated by others. She says that she is only ever her true self with female friends and her romantic relationships are now democratic.  She has become a brilliant memoirist and is in a female-centred hit web TV show (Grace and Frankie) with Nine to Five co-star Lily Tomlin at what she calls the beginning of her final act. So, finally, Jane.  She researched her mother’s life and found that Seymour had been sexually abused as a child. This she discovered in a note her mother wrote in a mental institution. It took her until her seventies, but Fonda finally absolved herself of the guilt she felt her entire life about her mother’s violent death, a situation that created a kind of stasis leading her to believe she was unlovable. A film fan would have liked more analysis of her acting, and only the late Pollack and Alan J. Pakula are interviewed, but, as she says,  Good enough is good enough

The Greengage Summer (1961)

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Aka The Loss of Innocence. Tinker tailor soldier sailor rich man poor man beggar man thief.  Left alone because of their mother’s sudden hospitalisation at the start of a family holiday in France, four British children have to fend for themselves. They stay at an elegant hotel booked by their mother in advance, where, despite the reticence of owner Madame Zisi (Danielle Darrieux), they are befriended by her English lover, the mysterious Eliot (Kenneth More).  Sixteen-year old Joss (Susannah York), the eldest of the children, runs afoul of Madame Zisi, who thinks Eliot is spending too much time with her and causes a scene. Thirteen-year old Hester (Jane Asher) is shocked when Eliot reacts violently as she attempts to take his photo while he takes them sightseeing.  He is forced to abandon early their trip to the caves at Champagne when France’s best policeman M. Renard (Raymond Jérome) shows up. As Joss deals with her burgeoning attraction to Eliot, handyman Paul (David Saire) becomes attracted to her. When Zisi lashes out at young Joss, whom she believes Eliot loves, Paul takes advantage of the situation and gets Joss drunk and the aftermath unleashes her own jealousy …  If this is how grown ups feel they’re worse pigs than I thought Sensitively adapted by Howard Koch from Rumer Godden’s novel, this is a lovely portrait of adolescence, with the gorgeous young York very convincing and blossoming as an actress right before our eyes in a nicely mounted production whose sole flaw is rather fatal – the miscasting of More, nobody’s idea of a romantic enigma, still less a jewel thief of some renown. This is such an interesting story typical of Godden’s work – of the different worlds occupied by children and adults, of jealousy, of misunderstandings:  when Paul tries to explain to Hester that hotel manager Madame Corbet (Claude Nollier) is also jealous of Eliot’s relationship with Zisi he realises she does not understand Lesbianism;  Joss deeply resents Eliot calling her a child and it is that which triggers the disastrous conclusion;  the final shots, which imply that even now, after her sudden transition into womanhood, Joss doesn’t fully comprehend what she has done.  Everyone seemed to agree that the role of Eliot should really have been played by Dirk Bogarde, but it wasn’t and More wanted it desperately and he’s all wrong. His scenes with York are uncomfortable. Still, there are other pleasures to be had in this atmospheric depiction of a heavy summer, not least seeing Bessie Love, the great silent star, in a small role as an American tourist. Directed by Lewis Gilbert.

Searching (2018)

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I didn’t know her. I didn’t know my daughter. David Kim (John Cho) becomes desperate when his 16-year-old daughter Margot (Michelle La) disappears. He decides to search Margot’s laptop. He traces her digital footprints and contacts her friends and looks at photos and videos for any possible clues to her whereabouts and when he realises his daughter was essentially friendless and put all her piano tuition in a bank account which is now empty, he contacts the police who assign Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) to the case … Small screens on a big screen. Smartphones. Technology. Icons. Lists. Photos. Typing. Skyping. I don’t care, I want fresh air. It’s not me, it’s you. Reader, I abandoned this after a half hour. Modern life is rubbish. Bring me my quill. Directed by Aneesh Chaganty who co-wrote this with Sev Ohanian.

Gumshoe (1971)

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Don’t be embarrassed when we’re out together – I could walk behind you.  Eddie Ginley (Albert Finney) works at a bingo hall in Liverpool, England, but dreams of becoming a stylish private investigator like those he has read about and seen in films – he’s entranced by Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon. After finally placing an advertisement in a local newspaper announcing his detective services, he receives a mysterious offer from a fat man who sends him a brown paper package containing a gun and he asks him to find a girl called Alison (Carolyn Seymour). His usually estranged brother William (Frank Finlay) offers him money to stop his investigation. He hangs out with his nice sister-in-law Ellen (Billie Whitelaw) but when he’s approached by the mysterious American Mrs Blankerson (Janice Rule) he’s soon in over his head. Even though Eddie is inexperienced and clueless at certain aspects of investigating he realises that he is entangled in a serious case involving drugs, murder and his own family… I sometimes hit below the belt.  Co-produced by Finney with Michael Medwin, this is an oddly charming piece of work, an homage to Dashiell Hammett’s private eye in the North of England with a man trying desperately to be Bogie in a trenchcoat but actually working in a Manchester bingo hall. The initially discomfiting narration in Eddie’s real voice is soon forgotten, aided immeasurably by a decent cast, a good level of mystery and a superbly witty score by Andrew Lloyd Webber whose flair and flourishes are laugh out loud enjoyable (he would re-use some of it for Sunset Boulevard). Finney makes a very game PI, a fish out of water in this dullsville backwater where the biggest crooks are members of his own family hoodwinking the poor putz.  Writer and actor Neville Smith adapted his own novel and it was directed by Stephen Frears, making his debut and the nicely lit location photography is by Chris Menges, sometimes shooting in a Liverpool no longer there.   Keep your guard up, don’t lead with your chin, and keep throwing out those lefts

A Star is Born (2018)

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Music is essentially 12 notes between any octave – 12 notes and the octave repeat. It’s the same story told over and over, forever. All any artist can offer this world is how they see those 12 notes. That’s it. Seasoned musician country rocker Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) discovers and falls in love with struggling singer/songwriter Ally (Lady Gaga) when she performs in a drag bar. She has just about given up on her dream to make it big as a singer until Jackson coaxes her into the spotlight, bringing her on stage at one of his gigs to perform a song she’s written and he has arranged. He feels sorry for her when she tells him she is constantly told, You sound great, but you don’t look so great. Jackson is playing better than ever despite his crippling tinnitus which means his ears buzz every time he’s onstage and his hearing is diminishing, while Ally shines in the light of his stardom. As Ally’s career takes off when she’s taken under his wing and then makes a deal with the help of her nasty manager Rez (Rafi Gavron) the personal side of their relationship is breaking down. The self-sabotaging Jackson fights an ongoing battle with his own internal demons, drinking, drugging, fighting with his older brother and caretaker Bobby (Sam Elliott) who taught him everything he knew while Ally performs to adoring fans and he struggles with his hearing problem … Look, talent comes everywhere, but having something to say and a way to say it so that people listen to it, that’s a whole other bag. And unless you get out and you try to do it, you’ll never know. That’s just the truth. The fourth incarnation of this story under this title and a remake of the 1976 pop star version, this is an adaptation of a story that first came to the screen under the title What Price Hollywood? a cautionary tale about movie stardom. Electrifying and enervating by turns, I changed my mind about this film probably three times while viewing it. It hits all the screenwriting marks – one hour into running time, things begin to change and at minute sixty-five Ally is taking over and the last hour is rife with issues. A lot of the problems are summed up by the term naturalistic – something that could be described as a substitute for acting technique by one half of the duo at the story’s centre:  scenes are too long and you long for some reaction shots. Jackson’s earthiness is juxtaposed with the savvy pop Ally manufactures at her manager’s behest.  These people are performing for very different audiences but the film is truly at its height when they are duetting despite their contrasting aesthetics. The last seventy-five minutes drag rather repetitively with the suicide scene and its inevitability triggered by Jack’s admission to the psychiatrist that he first attempted it aged 13 which just indicates what we already know. The Saturday Night Live performance scene is poorly judged. The downward spiral needed one more story beat – to show that Jackson had some will to live:  the appeal of this Evergreen story lies in the will to power transformation of the ugly duckling into the swan while her progenitor dies to make way for her celebrity. It seems too easy for one talent to surrender to another. It gains traction however from the powerful songs which were largely co-written by the stars (with other writers including Lukas Nelson, Willie’s son) and their performance in live settings as they tell the story of the relationship and the diverging destinations of the protagonists. It’s all about her really – as we see from the clever titles in blood red echoing Garland and the final shot, a massive close up on Ally’s jolie laide face. It’s more than forty years since the last incarnation which means we missed the Nineties version and one of the issues here which is lightly touched upon is how the nature of celebrity has altered through social media and paparazzi in an entirely new century – it’s handled just enough to remain cinematic without horrible phone screens and irritating typage appearing (thank you to the debutant director for this mercy). Their differing styles are heightened as he looks from his old school perspective at the dancers Rez has deployed to give Ally mass marketability onstage:  it’s not just popularity she wants, it’s world pop domination. What we know about the woman for whom the story now exists is inscribed in the screenplay: Lady Gaga’s own physical attributes – the nose job was covered, oh, a decade ago?! in her real life and it of course alludes to Streisand in the same role; while she (sort of) protests about photos that don’t even look like me and we have seen for ourselves Gaga’s gradually altering appearance offscreen, meat dresses notwithstanding; and her appeal to Little Monsters is managed through her association with drag queens and her makeover with icky red hair (she objects to the suggestion that she turn blonde – why?) and the content of her lyrics; while her voracious desire for multi-platform fame is given a cover by bringing on a vicious British manager to be the bad guy. The central mismatched lovers find their balance in their family issues – with Andrew Dice Clay coming off like a nice version of Amy Winehouse’s dad complete with his delusions of Sinatra-style infamy. Cooper’s problematically deep speaking voice for the role is actually addressed in the script when he tells big brother Sam Elliott I stole your voice which is both an in-joke and a nod to the audience’s familiarity with the western star’s growl;  Cooper’s self-effacing performance – which of course makes Gaga’s star shine brighter – makes this hard to endure since his alcoholic demise is hard-wired into our cultural DNA and sometimes it’s quite impossible to understand what he’s trying to say – ironically, since, his message here is, you need to make your voice heard. It’s well played because the pair are playing off each other’s inspiring talent albeit the vampirism quickly feels one-sided.  Still, it’s quite a double act, no matter how you feel about them. An imperfect but striking piece of work. Written by Eric Roth and Bradley Cooper & Will Fetters (who says he was inspired by what happened to Kurt Cobain), adapted from Moss Hart’s 1954 screenplay which was an inspiration for the 1976 screenplay by John Gregory Dunne & Joan Didion and Frank Pierson.  The 1937 screenplay was by William Wellman and Robert Carson while the original screenplay about star-crossed lovers colliding, What Price Hollywood?, was written by Adela Rogers St Johns and Louis Stevens. Directed by Bradley Cooper.  Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die

See No Evil (1971)

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Aka Blind TerrorHelp! Sarah Rexton (Mia Farrow) has recently been blinded in a horse riding accident.  She  moves in with her uncle George (Robin Alison), his wife Betty (Dorothy Alison) and her cousin Sandy (Diane Grayson), who live in a big house in the English countryside.  She adjusts to her new condition, unaware that a killer stalks the family. After her former boyfriend Steve (Norman Eshley) presents her with a new horse and suggests they resume their romance, she returns home after their date and doesn’t realise that her family’s bodies are left in various locations around the house. She gradually discovers her murdered relatives. A cat and mouse game commences as the sightless woman evades the killer while trying to learn his identity and she flees the house on her chestnut horse, the man’s bracelet in her grasp… Brian Clemens’ screenplay was written on spec and once Farrow liked it, it got the greenlight. It’s an enormously effective psychological thriller because the dice are so loaded against the heroine and we can see what she cannot – albeit the killer isn’t revealed until the last possible moment:  we just see low angle shots of his distinctive boots. Confining our knowledge of the scene evens up the odds somewhat for Farrow’s performing of her role which is relentlessly realistic and you might even find yourself squirming as Sarah deals so ably with the limitations of her new life and outmanoeuvres the killer in the one way she knows how – using a horse. Farrow is vastly impressive as the part requires her to be both visually impaired and physically resourceful and doing both without seeking pity.  Director Richard Fleischer paradoxically creates an uncanny physical and narrative structure which requires that we remember which door leads where in the house – compensating for Sarah’s lack of vision. We are also restricted in what we are shown and how the gruesome situation is revealed in the middle third is particularly impressive. We were here before to an extent in Wait Until Dark but the setting, the use of landscape and the relentless grip of the pacy storytelling all combine to make this a compelling suspenser.