Portrait of a Lady On Fire (2019)

Portrait of a Lady On Fire

Aka Portrait de la jenue fille en feu. Will you be able to paint her? Painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is instructing a class of art students in Paris. They ask her about the origins of a painting and she reminisces: France, 1770. Marianne is commissioned to do the wedding portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) a young woman who has just left the convent and is at home on a remote island off the coast of Brittany. She is a reluctant bride to be and her mother the countess (Valeria Golino) wants Marianne to paint her portrait in secret for an arranged marriage to a nobleman suitor in Milan whose visual approval is required. The last male artist failed in his mission and Marianne must study Héloïse without her knowing. Marianne accompanies her on her daily walk under the pretence of being her companion but observes her carefully and paints her secretly. Is that how you see me? When she reveals her identity and Héloïse dislikes the portrait Marianne destroys it, to the rage of the countess who goes away for a while as long as Marianne agrees to do another portrait, this time with her subject’s full co-operation. He doesn’t make the lover’s choice, but the poet’s. The women fall in love and Héloïse reads Orpheus and Eurydice by firelight to Marianne and Héloïse’s servant, Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) whose pregnancy the women help to end. As Marianne finishes the portrait and the countess is returning they must accept what happens next … Your presence is made up of fleeting moments that may lack truth. French writer/director Céline Sciamma’s historical romance is stately, elegant and well framed:  this is a picture of female solidarity and love, grounded in the most obvious of ideas – the female gaze in a patriarchal world – in a film about looking and perception. We are going to paint. This is about turning around and acknowledging and engaging with what you see – and making a choice. The performers look and watch and are passive aggressive as society dictates they must be with their taboo affair, illuminating each other’s lives in secret. How people see each other has rarely been so truthfully portrayed. A profound, at times magical, meditation on what it means to be a woman, this is beautifully and carefully staged, with nothing excessive or ornamental and driven by stunning performances. The digital cinematography by Claire Mathon is so exquisite there are candlelit scenes you will want to reach out and touch and hang on your wall. This show and tell is far from still life. If you look at me, who do I look at?

A Man About the House (1947)

A Man About the House 1947

It may be an advantage to have a man about the house. The unmarried British Isit sisters Agnes (Margaret Johnston) and Ellen (Dulcie Gray) unexpectedly inherit their uncle’s Italian villa and have to deal with his sinister major-domo Salvatore (Kieron Moore) who manages the villa and vineyard. Agnes is overwhelmed by him and they marry, so he ends up owning the estate that once belonged to his family, believing Agnes to be the sole inheritor. Ellen’s suspicions are aroused when Agnes’s health begins to deteriorate and she consults Agnes’s former fiancé, visiting English doctor Benjamin Dench (Guy Middleton) …  Spinsters aren’t safe with such a man. A fun Gothic melodrama with an early opportunity to see Gina Lollobrigida in English-language cinema the year she came third in the Miss Italia pageant. Moore had played Salvatore in the theatre production of Francis Brett Young’s 1942 novel (which is adapted here by J.B. Williams) and he relishes his badness here – his speechifying about the differences between dried up Italian women and young unmarried Englishwomen has to be heard to be believed. Watching the sisters’ emotional unfurling as the vines are harvested is well done, their suppressed instincts vividly described against the emotional Italians nicely gauged in montages and changes of hair and costume.  It’s supremely ironic that it’s the stiff upper lipped older sister played by (the frankly weird) Johnston who succumbs to the determinedly sexual lure of the sleazy butler with murder in mind. Directed by Leslie Arliss. It is our duty as Englishwomen to set an example and not succumb to their lax foreign ways

 

 

Happy 60th Birthday Psycho (1960) 16th June 2020!

Psycho theatricalJanet Leigh in PsychoPSYCHO shower scene stills

The film that changed everything premiered on this day at the DeMille Theater in New York City sixty years ago. From its mordant premise to its stunning performances and exquisite mise-en-scène, the cod Freudianism and the cutting – culminating in the shower scene, that masterpiece of montage, this is Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest achievement. Happy birthday to Psycho!

The Hand of Night (1968)

The Hand of Night

Aka Beast of Morocco. I’m a harbinger of death and desolation. Paul Carver (William Sylvester) is a guilty widower grieving the deaths of his wife and children in a car accident when he takes an unusual and hazardous job accompanying archaeologist Otto Gunther (Edward Underdown) and his assistant Chantal (Diane Clare) on a North African tomb-hunting expedition. They learn of a legend involving a female Moorish vampire who haunts the tomb taking her revenge against men. Before long, Paul has succumbed to the seductive wiles of a mysterious Moroccan woman Marisa (Alizia Gur) whom he first encounters at Gunther’s party but who nobody else apparently saw. She begins to bend him to her will and he follows Omar (Terence de Marney) around the city looking for her, finding her in an apparently abandoned palace where her sirens dance for him. It is left to Chantal to come to his rescue, but her attempts place her in even greater jeopardy; ultimately it is Paul who has to break free of Marisa’s evil clutches and destroy her before she destroys him… I know that a man can misunderstand himself but surely not forever. Good looking cult item shot on location in Morocco in 1966 best seen as a moody piece of low budget work with an intermittently interesting score by Joan Shakespeare, blessed with omens and portents and second sight and a very alluring vampire. Strange to say the most appealing aspects are the rather realistic approach, blending the touristic filming style with local storytelling, Dracula, mummy myths, a vanishing castle and the opportunity to see stalwarts of British Bs in a very different setting. It fits in more with the European vampire films of the era than anything being made in the UK. It was British-Hungarian Clare’s last film and she’s very good indeed;  fans of the genre remember her for Witchcraft and The Plague of the Zombies. The stunningly beautiful Gur, who was a former Miss Israel, had appeared in From Russia With Love and after this she would only record five more screen credits, all for TV. (Weirdly, as the daughter of German Jewish emigrants who fled Nazi Germany, she married two men boasting the initials SS.) Sylvester would go on to greater things with 2001: A Space Odyssey. An Associated British-Pathé production written by Bruce (Timeslip) Stewart and directed by Frederic Goode who had made another archaeology-themed film in North Africa a few years earlier, Valley of the Kings. For fans of such esoterica it’s interesting to compare with The Velvet Vampire, made a few years later. You seek the road into the dark

 

Dark Shadows (2012)

Dark Shadows

I killed your parents, and every one of your lovers. They kept us apart. AD 1972.  Two hundred years after he’s been condemned to a living death as a vampire by Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green) a spurned servant who happens to be a witch, Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) is accidentally exhumed and vows to help his impoverished dysfunctional descendants while falling for his reincarnated lost love Victoria/Josette (Bella Heathcote). He returns to Collinwood where he hypnotises caretaker Willie (Jackie Earle Haley) into being his servant, introduces matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer) to the family’s treasure trove, ordering her to keep it secret from her nee’er do well brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), his eccentric little boy David (Gully McGrath) and her own rebellious teenage daughter Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz). They have a permanent houseguest in Dr Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), David’s hard-drinking psychiatrist. They also have a rival in the local fishing business in Angel Bay Cannery run by Angie Bouchard (Green) who is still alive and well and determined to finally win Barnabas for herself but he is still in love with Josette… She has the most fertile birthing hips I have ever laid eyes upon. Just your everyday story of immigrants to the New World who turn into vampires because of an ancestral curse, this is one of those Tim Burton films that seems to fall between two stools:  homage and nostalgia, in this earnest adaptation/pastiche of a TV daytime drama hitherto unknown to me but certainly filed nowadays under the heading of Cult. The screenplay by Seth Grahame-Smith is from a story credited to him and John August and adapted from Dan Curtis’ original show and was reportedly being regularly rewritten on set which is not unusual. It might account for the strangely disconnected feel of the production, which however looks incredible thanks to the designer Rick Heinrichs. At its heart it’s a morality tale about family:  Family is the only real wealth. While the plot’s construction is of the laborious join the dots variety, there are some cute generation gap and proto feminist threads, good time shift moments, like Barnabas’ shocked reaction to television (What sorcery is this?), rock star Alice Cooper (who else?!) performing a concert and of course Depp, who gives a superbly physical Max Schreck-like performance and has very amusing sparring exchanges with all concerned. Not really sure if it wants to be a straight-up horror or a campy comedy and falls between both stools. Luckily Christopher Lee shows up as the king of the fishermen. Green would go on to replace Bonham Carter as Burton’s long term companion. Okay. If you wanna get with her, you’re gonna have to change your approach. Drop the whole weird Swinging London thing and hang out with a few normal people

How Awful About Allan (1970) (TVM)

How Awful About Allan

It’s not your ordinary family reunion. Years after being blamed for the fire that killed their father Raymond (Kent Smith) and suffering from psychosomatic blindness, Allan Colleigh (Anthony Perkins) is released from a mental hospital to stay with his disfigured sister Katherine (Julie Harris) and begins to hear voices when mysterious boarder Harold who has throat problems moves in. Meanwhile his ex-fiancée Olive (Joan Hackett) resumes contact and reports that Katherine’s ex-boyfriend Eric (Trent Dolan) is in town, something Katherine denies.  Allan believes Eric and Harold are one and the same …  The home and the property are both valuable and they’re half mine. We’re in true cult territory here with a collaboration between novelist Henry Farrell (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? etc) and director Curtis Harrington with Farrell adapting his 1963 novel which was complimented by none other than Dorothy B. Hughes in The Washington Post. Both men can be considered auteurs in their own right while Perkins of course gave one of the greatest performances in cinema under the direction of Hitchcock but arguably never escaped the shade of Psycho and in truth is replaying some of its more emotive notes here. The cinematography has not aged well but the individual elements and Perkins’ presence compensate in this rather sub-par suburban Gothic with his tape recording of his suspicions the inner voice that drives the narrative. Perkins and Hackett would be reunited three years laster for The Last of Sheila, an intricate shipboard parlour game mystery which he co-wrote with Stephen Sondheim. An ABC Movie of the Week from Aaron Spelling Productions.  We’ll have our afflictions in common, won’t we

Shock (1946)

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It’s hard for a doctor to make promises. We can only do our best. Psychiatrist Dr Cross (Vincent Price) is treating catatonic Janet Stewart (Anabel Shaw) after she has witnessed a man hit a woman with a candlestick causing her death. When she comes to realise that it was in fact Cross murdering his wife he commits her to a sanatorium where his nurse lover Elaine Jordan (Lynn Bari) persuades him to give Janet  an overdose of insulin but Cross finds getting away with murder a second time a difficult prospect … I’m neither a miracle man nor a prophet, Lieutenant. If medicine were an exact science, not an art, I might be able to tell you. This controversial post-war thriller is notable for being Price’s first starring role and for attracting criticism of its portrayal of psychiatry, a profession thought to be both unimpeachable and necessary for the treatment of returning WW2 vets. This is highlighted by the return of Janet’s husband Paul (Frank Latimore), in his soldier’s uniform, embodying a sociocultural crisis. The sense of jeopardy is well sustained, Bari is a superb femme fatale (she wasn’t known as The Woo Woo Girl for nothing) and the murderous Price’s own ethical crisis is nicely handled. Written by Eugene Ling and Albert DeMond (from his story) with additional dialogue by Martin Berkeley. There’s a highly effective score by David Buttolph and it’s well photographed by Joseph MacDonald and Glen MacWilliams, beautifully designed by Boris Leven and Lyle Wheeler,  with editing by Harmon Jones. Directed by Alfred L. Werker. Doctor, the important thing is – what can you do for her?  * In Celebration of the Centenary of Lynn Bari’s birth 18th December 2019 *

Ma (2019)

Ma.jpg

Sometimes you want something so badly and suddenly you don’t. Newly divorced Erica (Juliette Lewis) returns to her hometown in Mississippi and works in a casino while her 16-year old daughter Maggie (Diana Silvers) starts hanging out with the cool kids at high school led by Haley (McKaley Miller). Middle-aged veterinary assistant Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer) befriends them when they’re trying to score liquor at the store and decides to let them party in the basement of her home. But there are some house rules: One of the kids has to stay sober, don’t curse, and never go upstairs. They must also refer to her as Ma. But as her hospitality starts to curdle into obsession, Ma starts stalking the kids on social media and her place goes from the best place in town to the worst place on Earth as it is revealed that these are the offspring of the high school bullies who subjected her to terrible sexual humiliation and she has decided upon a path of bloody revenge decades later ...  How is it on the outside looking in? Director Tate Taylor established a kinship with acting (and producing) powerhouse Spencer on The Help so it’s logical that they would follow through on another collaboration. But a horror? Definitely not what one might anticipate and in spite of that mouthwatering prospect in an era which has upended that genre in many recent outings (with comments on race which are touched upon here), this is twisted in all the wrong ways and is poorly paced. It gives Allison Janney a cursory role as the veterinarian who gets hers; Luke Evans is the sex god from high school; and Taylor himself plays an unfortunate cop. Torture is the order of the day in this high school revenge story gone awry that never properly capitalises on its themes. A bizarre tale that takes a decided left turn for camp which surely means it is destined for that shelf designated Cult. Written by Scotty Landes. I am not weak.  I am not my mother!

 

 

The Return of Count Yorga (1971)

The Return of Count Yorga

Aka The Abominable Count Yorga. The most fragile emotion ever known has entered my life. Those brutal supernatural Santa Ana winds revive Count Yorga (Robert Quarry) and faithful manservant Brudah (Edward Walsh) and they follow little boy Tommy (Philip Frame) to his San Francisco orphanage home where Cynthia Nelson (Mariette Hartley) is helping run a costume party fundraiser. Lonely Yorga bites one of the guests Mitzi (Jesse Welles) and then becomes infatuated with Cynthia, whose family his female vampires feed upon, bringing the object of his affection to his ramshackle lair intending to make her his bride against the advice of his in-house witch. Cynthia’s mute maid Jennifer (Yvonne Wilder) and her fiance David (Roger Perry) become suspicious about her whereabouts…  Where are your fangs?/ Where are your  manners? The title (and the poster) say it all, really. That debonair bloodsucker sticks his hand up from the grassy knoll and enters the vicinity of entirely vulnerable people, tongue subtly planted in cheek even while his teeth are in their necks. It’s fun again, with the Count losing out in the Best Costume stakes in the opening party scenes to a pretend vampire. This is of course just another story of an arranged marriage with an army of vampiress enforcers with teased hair and tacky dresses enhancing their startling impact. Hartley is lovely, Quarry is lovelorn and the entire shebang looks and moves smoothly with writer/director Bob Kelljan at the helm (the screenplay is also credited to Yvonne Wilder) in a decent sequel concluding in the mandatory twisted ending to a tragic romance which openly pays tribute to Hammer’s The Vampire Lovers.  Perry is also back from the dead but in a different role and it’s good to see a young Craig T. Nelson as one of the sceptical investigating police officers. Wouldn’t it be nice to think that vampires do exist?

Count Yorga, Vampire (1970)

Count Yorga Vampire.jpg

Aka The Loves of Count Yorga, Vampire. Would you care now to see that which you don’t want to see? Conducting a seance at the home of his recently dead lover’s daughter Donna (Donna Anders), the suave Bulgarian emigré Count Yorga (Robert Quarry) is concealing a bloodthirsty secret at his secluded mansion. Unbeknownst to her husband Michael (producer Michael MacReady) and other guests, Donna succumbs to the vampire’s curse. Friends Paul (Michael Murphy) and Erica (Judith Lang) go to his house where they are eventually overcome – but not before enjoying a vigorous sex session in their VW camper van – and back at home Michael realises Donna is missing from their bed and he calls his friend Dr Jim Hayes (Roger Perry) a blood specialist and they undertake to rescue her from the man they believe is a vampire armed with broom handles and makeshift crucifixes … I’m the forty-seventh nut to report a vampire in the city in the past fourteen hours. Writer/director Bob Kelljan overcomes a low budget with a singularly stylish work which takes vampirism deadly seriously. From a nice overhead shot of a port in Southern California, where we presume this contemporary iteration of Count Dracula has entered the country in the manner of his predecessor at Whitby, we enter the suburban realm of a group of friends who just can’t behave themselves at a seance led by their suave guest. Once they figure out that Donna’s mom didn’t get pernicious anaemia by accident they reckon they’re onto something. And they think they can get the better of him. Thus begins a night of cat and mouse, but as he has to repeatedly tell them, vampires are more intelligent than humans. Long regarded as the epitome of the vampire cult movie, this has aged extremely well, as you would expect of the genus, with a really sincere performance by the witty Count. Its origins as a soft porn production are reflected in the undead lovelies who indulge an orgiastic bloodfeast with one unfortunate victim. The voiceover is by George Macready, father of producer and co-star Michael. If we do this we put our heads on the block