The Legend of Hell House (1973)

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This house – it knows we’re here. Elderly millionaire Rudolf Deutsch (Roland Culver) is obsessed with the afterlife and hires sceptical scientist Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill) and his wife Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt) to lead a team into the infamous Belasco House, supposedly haunted by the victims of its late owner, a notorious six-foot five serial killer. Though the rational Barrett does not believe in ghosts, the other members of his group ding, including devout spiritualist Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin) and psychic medium Benjamin Fischer (Roddy McDowall), who has been in Belasco House before and is the only survivor of a previous visit and has therefore seen what horrors can befall those who enter it...  The house tried to kill me – it almost succeeded. Fabled novelist and screenwriter Richard Matheson adapted his own Hell House and transposed it from New England to the old country for financial reasons where it was directed by John Hough (who would also direct the cult Disney horror Watcher in the Woods there a half-dozen years later). This pits science and the rational against the paranormal, with fascinating excursions into the psychosexual – it ain’t too often you see a ghost having its way with a young lady. And Franklin’s presence, a dozen years after that spectacular classic of a haunting, The Innocents, is a guarantee of this film’s integrity and she rewards us with a dazzling performance. Hunnicutt is no less effective although her eroticism is literally in another kind of dimension. Frankly any film that commences with the following statement has me at hello:  Although the story of this film is fictitious, the events depicted involving psychic phenomena are not only very much within the bounds of possibility, but could well be true (Tom Corbett, Clairvoyant and Psychic Consultant to European Royalty). The building’s negative energy has amazing repercussions for these investigators and McDowall has one of his best roles as an unlikely hero, with an unbilled cameo by one of Brit horror/exploitation’s key actors rounding things out as things end rather explosively but paradoxically, giving this a very human affect in a story of things unseen and the detritus of perversion. One of the very best horror films of the Seventies, probably inspired by Aleister Crowley. Shot at Bolney, West Sussex, Blenheim Palace and Elstree Studios. If you’re that clever why are you still a prisoner in this house?

Tormented (1960)

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No one will ever have you! Jazz pianist Tom Stewart (Richard Carlson) lives on the beach in Cape Cod and is preparing to marry Meg Hubbard (Lugene Sanders) when old flame Vi Mason (Juli Reding) turns up to stop him and falls to her death from the local lighthouse when he refuses to lend her a hand as the railing breaks.  Wet footprints turn up on his mat, a hand reaches out to him, Vi’s voice haunts him and he starts behaving strangely particularly in front of Meg’s little sister Sandy (Susan Gordon).  Blind landlady Mrs Ellis (Lillian Adams) explains to him that similarly supernatural stuff happened when someone else died in the area. Then the beatnik ferry captain Nick (Joe Turkel)  who took Vi to the island to see Tom appears and starts getting suspicious that she never returned particularly when wedding bells are in the air … I’m going to live my life again and stop running. With a pedigree crew – director Bert I. Gordon co-wrote with regular collaborator George Worthing Yates – who did the screenplays for some great pirate movies and sci fis including Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers, which starred Hugh Marlowe, frequently mistaken for Richard Carlson – you’d be expecting a class act. And it’s a good story hampered by a minuscule budget which gives off a different kind of aroma. The effects are hilarious – particularly good is some woman’s hand entering frame when Tom is in young Sandy’s company and he hits it and runs off.  Sandy sees nothing, of course. My favourite moment is when Vi’s disembodied head appears and Tom reaches out and enjoys a tussle with a blonde wig which he then wraps in paper and throws down a step only to have it picked up by his blackmailer and opens it only to find dead flowers. Despite Carlson’s character mutating into a murderous beast and his ex spinning a Monroe-esque vibe, and the hilarious hey-daddy-o exchanges with the beatnik boatman (whom you’ll recognise as Lloyd the bartender in The Shining), by far the most complex performance comes from young Gordon (the director’s wonderfully talented daughter). The ending is satisfying indeed if you like really proper ghost stories. However if you think you’re going to hear some decent jazz, well, it’s hardly a priority in a camp outing such as this. This was Sanders’ last film in a strangely brief career.  She’s a perfume, she’s a footprint, she’s a hand, she’s a space in a picture

Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974)

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Aka Phantom Ladies Over Paris. Usually, it started like this. When stage magician Céline (Juliet Berto) goes traipsing across a Parisian park, she unwittingly drops first a scarf, then other objects which librarian Julie (Dominique Labourier) cannot help but pick up. So begins a fanciful and obsessive relationship between the two, which soon sees Céline sharing Julie’s apartment and each of them playfully switching identities in their daily lives. As they increasingly indulge their fantasies, they find themselves trying to rescue a young girl Madlyn (Nathalie Asnar) from a supposedly haunted house that Julie worked in and Céline lived next to as a child.  Now it appears to be filled with ghosts (Barbet Schroeder, Marie-France Pisier, Bulle Ogier) …So, my future is in the present.  One of the greatest films ever made, Jacques Rivette’s fragmented narrative of two feisty young women started with two stories by Henry James (The Other House;  The Romance of Certain Old Clothes), giving him a bit of a head start, then he liberally sprinkled some Alice in Wonderland into the mix, created a drama of identity, a rescue fantasy, a story about storytelling, a movie about the cinema, sometimes speeding up and sometimes slowing down, a fiction about fictional creation (because ‘to go boating’ means to take a trip), and came up with a fantasy that adult life could always be as good as your childhood dreams. This is a woman’s film in the very best sense that we can imagine and is of course the source of Desperately Seeking Susan. Devised by Rivette and the stars with input from Ogier and Pisier,and Eduardo de Gregorio, this is a remarkable film of disarming charm, once seen never forgotten, especially with its 194 minute running time. A female buddy film like no other. It doesn’t hurt to fall off the moon!

Winchester (2018)

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Aka The 13th Hour. A house in permanent construction on the orders of a grieving woman. In 1906 the board of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company solicit the services of widowed and dissolute laudanum-addicted Dr Eric Price (Jason Clarke) to assess the mental health of Sarah Lockwood Winchester (Helen Mirren) heiress to the Winchester fortune.  She is in the middle of a neverending building project that stands seven stories tall and contains hundreds of rooms. To an outsider, it looks like a monstrous monument to her unravelling mind but for her it is an asylum for hundreds of vengeful ghosts – and the most terrifying among them have a score to settle with the Winchesters and her niece Marion’s (Sarah Snook) son Henry (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey) seems to be the vehicle for revenge… Instruments of death have a powerful connection with the afterlife. Tom Vaughan and directors the Spierig Brothers write a not very scary supernatural horror that excavates the legend of America’s most haunted house via the ghosts of the Civil War, killed by the rifle that won it for the Union. Clarke is more sympathetic than usual while the great Mirren in her widow’s weeds isn’t given much space in a narrative that has an interesting focus on what happens in life involving the afterlife and ghosts with PTSD but seems to lose the plot. It’s lavish but I wouldn’t call it home. Do you know who the most terrifying monster is? The one you invite in

The Little Stranger (2018)

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What this house needs is a big dose of happiness. During the long, hot summer of 1948, Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) travels to Hundreds Hall in Warwickshire, home to the Ayres family for more than two centuries. The Hall is now in decline, and its inhabitants – mother (Charlotte Rampling), scarred and crippled son Roderick (Will Poulter) suffering after serving as a pilot in the war and daughter Caroline (Ruth Wilson) – remain haunted by something more ominous than just a dying way of life. When Faraday takes on a new patient there, he has no idea how closely the family’s story is about to become entwined with his own as it transpires he spent time there as a child with his mother who was a housemaid to the family in the aftermath of WWI...  I’m afraid I was horribly jealous of her. She seemed to have such a charmed existence. Adapted from the Sarah Waters novel by Lucinda Coxon, this quasi-Gothic outing has the veneer of sociopolitical critique but is basically a haunted house story with a personal mystery at its core. That mystery is embodied in the doctor – in a case perhaps of Physician, heal thyself, the problems of childhood experience writ large. It’s a sinister and rather elegant exercise but the destiny of the largely unattractive cast seems prefigured in the mouldy decay of the house itself and doesn’t really add up to a hill of beans, complicated by Gleeson’s opacity and the ending, which is true to the obscure conclusion of Waters’ novel. Is this England? Directed by Lenny Abrahamson. Where will it all end?

Sleepy Hollow (1999)

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Villainy wears many masks, none so dangerous as the mask of virtue. in 1799 New York Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) is an annoyingly methodical policeman sent to Sleepy Hollow to investigate the decapitations of three people, with the culprit being the legendary apparition, The Headless Horseman. He finds himself completely out of his depth in the New England town where the supernatural competes with real-life wickedness as Baltus Van Tassel (Michael Gambon) tries to divert the earnest interloper’s scientific approach elsewhere yet his daughter Katrina (Christina Ricci) takes a fancy to Ichabod and tries to interest him in spells … It is truth, but truth is not always appearance. Depp makes for a wonderfully squeamish Crane as he bumbles through an assortment of seedy pantomime characters (Richard Griffiths, Ian McDiarmid, Jeffrey Jones and a one-eyed Michael Gough) decorating Andrew Kevin Walker’s adaptation of the Washington Irving classic.  Director Tim Burton has a whale of a time in this dank Gothic landscape devising more ways to behead the victims. Not scary at all! Will you take nothing from Sleepy Hollow that was worth the coming here?

Angelica (2017)

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You pursue your own desire at your family’s expense. In the Victorian era, a young wife Constance (Jena Malone) and her husband Dr Joseph Barton (Ed Stoppard) go through a difficult time in their marriage after the arrival of their baby Angelica,  heightened by a mysterious ghost that enters their house. They have been advised to stop having sex following a traumatic birth and Barton is wholly frustrated by his wife bringing their daughter into the marital bed and eventually insists Angelica have her own room. When he resumes sex with Constance little Angelica experiences shared visions with her mother which become dangerously physical – but only in the child’s room.  When Constance pays a visit to Barton’s workplace she discovers he is carrying out horrific animal experiments.  Housekeeper Nora (Tovah Feldshuh) advises Constance to consult her spiritualist friend Anne Montague (Janet McTeer) whose intervention gives her small respite. Then Barton finds his daughter’s bed on fire and believes his wife is mad … My child suffers pain the precise moment I am submissive to my husband. Adapted from Arthur Philips’ titular novel, this is a precisely nuanced treatise on sexual repression in the Victorian era. Told in the form of an extended flashback from the sick bed of Angelica’s mother (with Malone playing the grown up Angelica) where she wants to explain the disappearance of Barton when Angelica was young, it utilises every trope from Gothic literature to dramatise the horrors of desire unleashed.  An exquisitely beautiful, rather mysterious film about women’s power that is let down only by the rather underpowered acting of the leads. Written and directed by Mitchell Lichtenstein, whose father is fabled Pop Art legend Roy, with mesmerising production design by Luciana Arrighi. The mother’s confession has a suitably ironic (actual) climax.  Find your pleasure elsewhere

 

John Carpenter’s The Ward (2010)

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Nobody ever gets out. In North Bend Psychiatric Hospital in rural Oregon, 1966 a patient called Tammy dies in strange and violent circumstances. Kristen (Amber Heard) is committed there after she burns down a house. She is suffering from amnaesia.  It seems an angry spirit of a former patient is haunting the girls (Mamie Gummer, Laura-Leigh, Lyndsy Fonseca, Danielle Panabaker) who are being treated on her ward and they are disappearing one by one. Dr Gerald Springer (Jared Harris) pays Kristen no heed and in fact subjects her to terrible medical treatment when she warns of the girl called Alice Hudson who was a former inmate and whose ghost stalks the corridors. What did the others do to her to make her swear revenge? And why is she included? Kristen makes desperate escape attempts after the staff ignore her fear of losing her life to the spirit… You stay locked up long enough and you start to believe that you’re nuts. You’ll recognise some visual references to other films here – and what else would you expect from the maestro John Carpenter? This is a small-scale exercise in tropes from the medical horror sub-genre with an attractive cast playing it for real, even if there’s something of a tribute to Nurse Ratched by Susanna Burney in this Sixties-set Snake Pit. It may turn on the most rudimentary issues and beliefs of psychiatry and ideas about how a personality might take steps to insulate against past traumas but it’s probably true to the era. In the midst of the Mean Girls scenario are some observations about how people deal with being institutionalised in physically violent and threatening environments. However it’s fast and fun and efficiently dramatised by the great Carpenter. Written by Michael Rasmussen and Shawn Rasmussen. Sleep tight, sugar!

Poltergeist (1982)

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Look, Dr. Lesh. We don’t care about the disturbances, the pounding and the flashing, the screaming, the music. We just want you to find our little girl. Steve Freeling (Craig T. Nelson) and his wife Diane (JoBeth Williams) live a quiet life in an Orange County, California planned community called Cuesta Verde, where Steven is a successful real estate developer and Diane looks after their children Dana (Dominique Dunne), Robbie (Oliver Robins) and little Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke). Carol Anne awakens one night and begins conversing with the family’s television set, which is displaying static following a sign-off. The following night, while the Freelings sleep, Carol Anne fixates on the television set as it transmits static again. Suddenly, a ghostly white hand emerges from the television, followed by a violent earthquake. As the shaking subsides, Carol Anne announces They’re here. Soon she disappears and the family fall apart as it becomes clear the house is being haunted.  An exhausted Steven appeals to parapsychologists (Beatrice Straight, Richard Lawson and Martin Casella) at UC Irvine to find out where his daughter is while she calls out from inside the family’s TV. They arrive to a house turned into a maelstrom of chaos. When their intervention doesn’t work it’s time to bring in Tangina the exorcist (Zelda Rubinstein) … Carol Anne is not like those she’s with. She is a living presence in their spiritual earthbound plane. They are attracted to the one thing about her that is different from themselves – her life-force.  Brilliant, hilarious and terrifying all at once, this is one of the outstanding memories of my childhood and on an autumnal morning approaching Halloween it doesn’t lose its bewitching power. The story of a family unwittingly haunted by the ghosts of people whose remains were left in their resting place while houses were built above them with their headstones moved operates as a caustic commentary on how the west was really won; while the dangers of television and other addictive communication devices hardly need laying bare. There’s great humour here amid the restrained playing out of the horror theme and it really makes it work:  when the parapsychologists first arrive in the house and Steven refuses to accompany them to Carol Anne’s bedroom their faces are a classic picture of stunned astonishment as the objects fly at them, giggling. The leads are great as the parents – Nelson is marvellous as the determined dad while Williams is a joy as the deadpan, driven mom. And you will never forget Zelda Rubinstein! The little demon fighter that could. It’s an incredible portrait of life in the ‘burbs, beautifully shot by Matthew F. Leonetti with an atmospheric score by Jerry Goldsmith. Produced by Steven Spielberg and co-written by him with Michael Grais and Mark Victor, this was directed by Tobe Hooper.

 

A Ghost Story (2017)

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When I was little and we would move all the time I would write these notes and I would hide them in different places so that if I ever wanted to go back there’d be a piece of me there waiting. Recently deceased composer C (Casey Affleck) returns as a ghost, clad in a large white sheet from his mortuary gurney, to his suburban home to console his bereft wife M (Rooney Mara) after he has died in a car crash only to find that he is unstuck in time, forced to watch passively as the life he knew and the woman he loves slowly slip away.  He observes her through the stages of grief, listening to music, packing boxes, then driving away from their home. He befriends another ghost in a neighbouring house. He watches and scares off a young mother with her two children. He is at a party where a guest (Will Oldham) conducts a discourse on death. The house is knocked and becomes a futuristic skyscraper. Then it’s years earlier when the first settlers arrived. And then, finally, he sees himself with M once more in the house, dislodges from a crack in a wall a note left there for him by her, and dissolves … ‘Whatever hour you woke there was a door shunting.’ Simultaneously ridiculous, laughable and intensely moving, this is not like another ghost story. We move through the stages of grief as obviously as though we were ourselves bereaved:  but here it is C who cannot move on, in a place but moving back and forth through time, decades, centuries, backwards, forwards, mute, alone, watching. David Lowery directed Pete’s Dragon and he has written and directed this and I cried at both films:  radically different in form and content and exposition yet they have something ineffable about them.  When M puts in her earphones to listen to a song C has composed, he’s with her, alive, but when he’s gone and she does it, he’s just out of reach as she lies on the floor and her fingers almost touch the frayed edges of his sheet, standing, watching:  it’s unbearable. The song is Daniel Hart’s I Get Overwhelmed, performed by Dark Rooms. When C is then framed in the window with the reflection of the U-Haul driving off it’s shattering. The sequence is conducted as a musical episode, the images carefully constructed to affect a sonorous swirl of feelings. The scene where M eats a pie, starting on the dining table, finishing it in its entirety while sitting on the floor, propped against the kitchen cupboards, is shot in real time. Then she runs to purge.  It feels like grief. The elliptical editing through hard cuts makes you think that Alain Resnais has been put in a blender with Casper the Friendly Ghost. Mara and Affleck are reunited from Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and it’s their unclassifiability, their distance, their lack of expressivity, that paradoxically makes this so intense. That and the fact that Affleck is in a bed sheet for most of the story, a child’s idea of a Hallowe’en costume with blank eyes that make you shift uneasily:  he can see you but can you see what he’s looking at? This is unsettling, emotional, and a reminder that we all die, all stories are about death and that we are living with this knowledge but what do we do with it? Lowery made this on a shoestring budget, in secret. I am so glad that he did. Utterly original, absolutely compelling. You do what you can to ensure you’re still around after you’re gone