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

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Jacob’s Ladder (1990)

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This isn’t happening. After returning home from the Vietnam War, veteran Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) struggles to maintain his sanity. Plagued by hallucinations and flashbacks, convinced he is in Hell when he travels on the subway, Singer rapidly falls apart as the world and people around him morph and twist into disturbing images. Girlfriend Jezzie (Elizabeth Peña) and ex-wife, Sarah (Patricia Kalember), try to help, but to little avail. Even Singer’s chiropractor friend Louis (Danny Aiello), fails to reach him as he appears to descend into madness… There is no out of here. You’ve been killed, don’t you remember? Bruce Joel (Ghost) Rubin’s impressionistic screenplay about life and death gets a hallucinatory treatment by director Adrian Lyne in an unforgettable psychological portrait that seems to be about PTSD but morphs into something else entirely, a metaphysical enquiry about perception. If you’re frightened of dying and you’re holding on, you’ll see devils tearing your life away. But if you’ve made your peace, then the devils are really angels freeing you from the earth. Better seen than explained, this leaves its audience in emotional distress, occupying a hellish reality where demons seem to pursue you in the subway. Robbins and the late Peña are wonderful playing out this magnificent fever dream, while Maurice Jarre’s score is a lament for the ages. See. According to this, you’re already dead

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

 

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

 

Black Swan (2010)

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The only person standing in your way is you.  Featured dancer Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a young NYC ballerina whose passion for the dance rules every facet of her life which is rigidly controlled at home by her disappointed domineering single mother Erica (Barbara Hershey) who says she gave up everything to have Nina (but she never made it out of the corps). When the company’s artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) decides to replace prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder) for their opening production of Swan Lake, Nina is his first choice, perfect for the role of the White Swan. She has competition in newcomer Lily (Mila Kunis) however:  she personifies the Black Swan – her look, her clothing, her behaviour are literally delicate Nina’s polar opposite. As rivalry between the two dancers transforms into a twisted friendship and then into a fiercer rivalry as Lily is cast as Nina’s alternate, Nina’s dark side gradually emerges … Darren Aronofsky’s ballet film states its themes in the first frames:  a battle to the death onstage and then a hallucinatory trip tunnelling into the dark underground of New York City’s underbelly on the subway – a kind of diabolism seems writ large from the off. This psychological horror’s most recent comparator is probably Jacob’s Ladder and that’s three decades old.  But it’s really a film about femininity. The sheer repulsive physicality of it is offputting and not for the squeamish:  the bulimic purging; the bloodied squashed misshapen feet; ripping off of cuticles; continuous self-harming – Nina’s long nails tear at her shoulder and then she sees feathers sprouting in the holes; licking a spot of cake frosting constitutes a meal;  and when Beth takes the knife Nina has returned and stabs herself in the face. The sheer proliferation of close ups of skin is revolting. It’s also in the little things – Nina thinking everyone is talking about her (they are); the lights being switched off when she needs to rehearse;  the piano accompanist refusing to stay late; the need to please the director – when he asks her about her sexual experience and tells her to masturbate and she wakes up and does it in her bed only to find Mom in the chair beside her … Now that’s horrifying! The truth is when I look at you all I see is the white swan. Yes you’re beautiful, fearful, and fragile. Ideal casting. But the black swan? It’s a hard fucking job to dance both  Nina’s fragile mind is devastated by the pressure to perform with feeling rather than mere technical skill and first she thinks she sees herself everywhere in the form of a double – behind her own reflection, walking towards her in the subway – and her mind becomes fragmented in her own image. Then she sees … Lily. Lily the Black Swan. Lily who smokes, drinks, takes drugs and then goes down on her. Or does she?  The lines between dream and reality are blurred. Portman is great as the ingenue who needs to please and we are reminded of The Red Shoes, that classic balletomane’s film, and there are echoes of that madness and drive for perfection everywhere. Hershey, Kunis and Ryder are no less good in their supporting roles, buffeting the central thematic, the narrative’s corps de ballet. This is about obsession and we follow Nina right over the other side and into out and out madness and disbelief.  The climax brings everything together in the most devastating, logical fashion. Performance is all.  Mad, crazed and melodramatic, this is absolutely on the money when it comes to female (and mother-daughter) rivalry and is literally a danse macabre.  Written by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John J. McLaughlin.

The Others (2001)

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Mummy you’re letting the light in. Grace (Nicole Kidman) is the devoutly religious mother of Anne (Alakina Mann) and Nicholas (James Bentley). She moves her family to the Channel Islands in 1945. She awaits word on her husband who’s gone missing in WW2 while protecting the children from a rare photosensitivity disease that causes the sun to harm them. Curtains shroud the windows throughout the huge house.  Three new servants arrive, stating that they are very familiar with the place as they worked there years before: Bertha Mills (Fionnula Flanagan), Edmund Tuttle (Eric Sykes) and mute girl Lydia (Elaine Cassidy).  When Anne claims she sees ghosts, Grace initially thinks that the servants are playing tricks but chilling events and visions make her believe something supernatural has occurred and Bertha warns of intruders returning … Owing something of its origins to James’ The Turn of the Screw (which was previously directly adapted as the brilliant The Innocents) this original work by Spanish writer/director Alejandro Amenabar was undoubtedly inspired by the success of The Sixth Sense, another example of visual and narrative sleight of hand but nonetheless has its own particular brand of the uncanny. Unless you’re looking for particular breadcrumbs to follow you don’t see them until you work backwards after the twist ending which is carefully built:  this is a masterclass in control. From the Gothic concept, the empty rooms, the lack of food, the nature of the interactions, the fog encasing the mansion, the graveyard, the clues are there, but Grace is wilfully ignoring them until an unexpected intervention that includes a boy called Victor. Kidman’s performance really holds us in the suspension of disbelief that the story requires – tearful, gutsy, protective, guilty, scared, she plays a gamut of emotions while being terrified in this spooky house where she locks every single door to keep her children safe.  This is a very satisfying thriller with there being no question of feeling conned because the mood is perfectly sustained … No one can make us leave this house.

Don’t Look Now (1973)

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Nothing is what it seems. Grieving over the accidental death of their daughter, Christine (Sharon Williams), John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura Baxter (Julie Christie) leave their young son Johnny in an English boarding school and head to Venice where John’s been commissioned to restore a church. There Laura meets two ageing sisters (Hilary Mason, Clelia Matania) who claim to be in touch with Christine’s spirit. Laura takes them seriously, but John scoffs until he himself catches a glimpse of what looks like Christine running through the streets of Venice. Unbeknownst to himself, he has precognitive abilities (which might even be figured in the book he’s written, Beyond the Fragile Geometry of Space) and the figure of local Bishop Barrigo (Massimo Serato) seems to be a harbinger of doom rather than a portent of hope.  Meanwhile, another body is fished out of the canal with a serial killer on the prowl …  Director Nicolas Roeg made one masterpiece after another in the early 1970s and this enjoyed a scandalous reputation because of the notorious sex scene between Christie and Sutherland which was edited along the lines of a film that Roeg had photographed for Richard Lester, Petulia, some years earlier. The clever cross-cutting with the post-coital scene of the couple dressing to go out for dinner persuaded people that they had watched something forbidden. That aside, the adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s short story by Allan Scott and Chris Bryant is a clever mix of horror, mystery, enigmatic serial killer thriller and a meditation on grief. All of that is meshed within a repetitive visual matrix of the colour red, broken glass and water. None of that would matter were it not for the intensely felt characterisation of a couple in mourning, with Christie’s satisfaction at her dead daughter’s supposed happiness opposed to Sutherland’s desire to shake off the image of the child’s shiny red mackintosh – the very thing that leads him to his terrible fate. Some of the editing is downright disturbing – particularly a cut to the old ladies busting a gut laughing whilst holding photographs, apparently of their own family members. John’s misunderstanding of his visions coupled with the literal crossed telephone line from England creates a cacophony of dread, with Pino Donaggio’s score and Anthony Richmond’s limpid shots of Venice in winter compounding the tender horror constructed as elegiac mosaic by editor Graeme Clifford. A heartbreaking work of staggering genius? Probably. I couldn’t possibly comment.  I never minded being lost in Venice.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)

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Probably Roger Moore’s favourite of his non-Bond outings, this is a fascinating and underrated cult offering from a weird time in cinema. Basil Dearden adapted Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham with Armstrong and Bryan Forbes, who was newly running EMI Films and gave this the greenlight. It was part of a clutch of films starring big names they were planning to shoot on middling budgets – but they didn’t market this correctly and so it got left behind somewhere in cultdom. Moore is a City worker who has a terrible car crash (is it on the Westway?!) in his Rover (whatcha expect?!) and ‘dies’ in hospital where he suddenly has two heartbeats. Resuming his life he appears to be … someone else. He has a doppelganger and this Saintly family man now has a mistress (played by Olga Georges-Picot, to add to the Resnais-ishness of the time scheme) and has agreed to a marine technology deal to which he was previously opposed and he’s being followed by a silver Lamborghini Islero (super wows!). This conservative man suddenly has a more exciting other self … We are in the realm of ego and id, straddling traditional British horror haunting tropes in a very well-tuned drama, and the obliqueness of contemporary London makes it all the more unsettling. The final face-off in his own house where his wife and kids want him gone!! is pretty satisfying, leading to a brilliant car chase, fatal for one of the two Pelhams. Proof, if it were needed, that all film titles beginning The Man Who are pretty darned great actually. In horribly meta fashion and with a great dollop of strange karma, Dearden himself had a terrible car crash in west London a year later (this was his last film…) and died in a hellhole called Hillingdon Hospital where I myself had a very narrow escape but still bare the scars – which bizarrely caused me another injury today before I watched this again. You couldn’t make it up. Chin chin!