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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Us (2019)

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Once upon a time, there was a girl and the girl had a shadow. The two were connected, tethered together. Accompanied by her husband Gabe (Winston Duke), son Jason (Evan Alex) and daughter Zora (Venus Williams lookalike Shahadi Wright Joseph), Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) returns to the lakeside home at Santa Cruz CA where she grew up. Haunted by a traumatic experience from 1986 when she entered the funhouse at the pier and encountered her doppelganger, subsequently becoming electively mute,  Addie grows increasingly concerned that something bad is going to happen but agrees to go to the beach where they meet their friends Josh Tyler (Tim Heidecker) and his wife Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) and their twin daughters. They have a better house, car and boat than the Wilsons. Jason wanders off at the beach and Addie grows frantic. Her fears soon become a reality when four masked strangers descend upon the house, forcing the Wilsons into a fight for survival. When the masks come off, the family is horrified to learn that each attacker takes the appearance of one of them and they have to fight to the death with Addie finally facing up to what happened thirty years ago … Who are you people?/ We’re Americans. Dontcha just hate it when the people who break into your home look exactly like you? This second outing for Jordan (Get Out) Peele gives the game away when it enters comedic territory for its second hour. And in the penultimate sequence, when Gabe says to the children Leave it to your mother, she’ll know what to do, we get a hint as to the final twist – and precisely what he may have known about his wife all along. You’ll probably figure it out from the poster. This take on – what? impostor syndrome? race relations? slavery? the Other? the base versus the superstructure? people who live underground in tunnels?! rich versus poor? Mexico?! –  wants to be so much more than it is. On the other hand, it nods towards horror tropes quite cleverly with Nyong’o being a very modern Final Girl – of a sort. It’s not remotely scary despite its publicity campaign. There are a lot of rabbits:  breeding like … I don’t know, people who want to make the US great again?! The tilt towards pantomime brings out some spectacularly bad acting – thank you, Ms Moss! – and rather rubs our faces in some crude rap to make a point about society and Reagan-era politics with a telling mention of South of the Border and then goes and robs the ending from the great Mad Men. What a cheek! It’s well set up and crafted but has some diffuse ideas about things that remain stubbornly unresolved so ultimately isn’t about anything at all, if you ask me. Sigh. Too many twins around here

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

The Love Witch (2016)

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Men are like children. They’re very easy to please as long as we give them what they want.  Elaine (Samantha Robinson), a beautiful young modern day witch, is determined to find a man to love her following the death of Jerry, the husband from whom she was divorced. She moves from San Francisco to Arcata California to rent from a friend and in her Gothic Victorian apartment she makes spells and potions, then picks up men and seduces them. Lecturer Wayne (Jeffrey Vincent Parise) is so overcome by their hallucinatory lovefest he dies and she buries him in the grounds of his cabin (actually a huge house). Her spells work too well, and she ends up with more hapless victims including Richard (Robert Seeley) the husband of interior decorator Trish (Laura Waddell). When she at last meets the man of her dreams, Griff (Gian Keys) the policeman sent to investigate Wayne’s death, her desperation to be loved drives her to the brink of insanity and murder... l’ll bet you like to spend time in the woods. ‘To say that this oozes style is to understate the affect of a fully-fleshed sexploitation homage from auteur Anna Billen – who not only writes and directs and edits but designs the costumes, painted the artwork, designed the production, composed the theme song and for all I know manufactured the lenses and served the crew gourmet lunches from the craft vehicle.  Clearly the woman can do just about everything. It’s fabulous – a wicca-feminist twist on a serial killing murdering witch who just wants to use sex magick for ultimate personal fulfillment but gosh darn it wouldn’t ya know it, men just never know what to do with their feelings after an amazing session in bed. Shot by M. David Mullen so that this beautiful out-of-time pastiche looks like it could have been made circa 1970 (only a cell phone conversation removes the impression), it works as a satire that goes full tilt boogie at the tropes of romantic melodrama while evoking sly commentary on what men really want from women, principally in the performing styles and an occasional internal monologue. At this rate, never the twain shall meet. If there’s anything wrong with this is it’s overlength:  at two hours it could lose 25 minutes without any fatal damage, probably from the police procedural subplot. But it’s quite incredible, a loony tunes essay on gender roles that’s drenched in sex, sensuality and humour, a pulpy delirium no matter how you look at it and the soundtrack culled from Ennio Morricone’s Italian giallo scores is to die for. Literally! According to the experts, men are very fragile. They can get crushed down if you assert yourself in any way

The Medusa Touch (1978)

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Talk about beating somebody’s brains out. French detective Brunel (Lino Ventura) working temporarily on assignment to Scotland Yard in London reconstructs the life of author John Morlar (Richard Burton) who is lying in hospital with severe head injuries following a brutal assault that has nearly killed him.  With the help of the man’s journals and psychiatrist Dr Zonfeld (Lee Remick) he realises that Morlar had powerful telekinetic abilities. His books make the link between evil and power and a pattern starts to emerge:  Brunel starts making uncanny connections with a series of disasters occurring in the outside world triggered initially perhaps by Morlar’s childhood brush with a terrible fire-breathing nanny (Frances Tomelty) whom he believes he willed to death …  If he believed himself involved in disasters he may have convinced someone else too. And they may have sought revenge. This oddly satisfying genre-splicing of psychological thriller/supernatural horror/disaster film/policier is aided immensely by Burton’s brilliant performance and Ventura’s charismatic presence, a real fish out of water navigating both a bizarre case and the politics of London policing. There are a number of significant alterations from the novel but the texture is enhanced by plugging into contemporary fears and layering them with cod-Freudianism to effectively channel several horror tropes and a heady dose of misanthropy. John Briley adapted Peter Van Greenaway’s source book and it was produced by the brilliant editor Anne V. Coates and shot by reliable veteran Arthur Ibbetson. Directed by Jack Gold.  I am the man with the power to create catastrophe

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?

Night and Fog (1955)

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Alain Resnais is unique in the French New Wave. He was the sole enquirer into the Holocaust. Every other filmmaker camouflaged and did away with political analysis in favour of winsome, humorous cinematic style and a rhetoric lacking in nerve. Perhaps it was due to the level of collaboration with the Nazi regime and the Vichy government that formed so much of the recent past.  This is not a pretty history. With a script by Mauthusen-Gusen survivor Jean Cayrol and Chris Marker, voiced by Michel Boquet, and a deceptively urgent score by Hanns Eisler, we are brought into the realm of German horror, a genocide manufactured at the behest of Amin al-Husseini. Integrating newsreel footage with contemporary colour film shot in Auschwitz and Majdanek in Poland by Ghislain Cloquet and Sacha Vierny this is a solemn narration of a true crime made all the more significant in a restive period of anti-semitism. This week alone saw the remains of six nameless victims of the concentration camps buried in England, given a dignity they never had in life;  and a cross-party coalition in the Irish Republic brought the Occupied Territories Bill before Parliament in a stark reminder that anti-semitism is overt, the territory of braggarts, and there are many in positions of power who would deny Jews their right to exist and the right of Israel to flourish.  A few years ago the Irish government voted to support the administration of Hamas – an Islamist extremist group whose constitution includes the admonition It is the duty of all Moslems to kill Jews on sight. Israel is rapidly becoming a safe haven for European Jews as Islam’s tentacles reach further afield. It is spreading in Europe courtesy not only of the pernicious Eastern Europeans assimilating in their millions in the British Isles but also because of the unstoppable immigration problem from North Africa and the Near East, with millions flooding in, urged on by a Germany that is constantly on the rise and currently in charge of Europe. Today is the 74th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Let us never forget. L’chaim.

Unsane (2018)

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As soon as the insurance runs out you’ll be cured. Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) is a troubled woman who moves 450 miles away from home to escape a stalker. She is still triggered by interactions with men as a result of her experiences and makes an appointment to attend a counsellor at Highland Creek Behavioral Center. She unwittingly signs a release voluntarily committing herself to a 24-hour stay. She calls the police but they do nothing when they see the signed release. After physical altercations with a patient and a staff member whom she recognises as her stalker David Strine (Joshua Leonard), Dr. Hawthorne says she is being kept for seven more days  during which fellow patient Nate Hoffman (Jay Pharoah) reveals the insurance scam lying behind her incarceration and which even her mother Angela (Amy Irving) cannot do anything to change when she calls her on Nate’s smuggled cellphone …You unlocked something inside me that day, something I didn’t even realize was there. And right then, I knew that nothing in my life was ever going to be the same. In that moment, I was transformed permanently. You did that. Written by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer.  Notable not just for being shot (and edited) pseudonymously by director Steven Soderbergh but because he did it on the iPhone Seven Plus and it sure ain’t purty. It’s a flawed but interesting genre piece, another thriller that’s actually an investigation of medical (non-)ethics (after Side Effects, and TV’s The Knick) providing further evidence that Soderbergh is happiest when making B movies, dramatising feisty female characters driven to the point of paranoia, generally hovering on the edges of commerciality and making films that verge on the experimental. The efforts to make TV star Foy a movie personality are interesting.  My job is to access and interpret data to produce analytical results. I did that job

What a Carve Up! (1961)

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Aka No Place Like Homicide. One thing is certain – this is only the start. When wealthy recluse Gabriel Broughton dies of fright his heirs are summoned to his isolated country mansion Blackshaw Towers for a reading of the will. Then they are killed off, one by one and the nearest telephone is in the village … If he thinks I’m going to wait here and wind up in a deckchair on the lawn he’s got another thing coming. Adapted from Frank King’s novel The Ghoul by eminent British farceur Ray Cooney and Tony Hilton (they had co-written The Hand the previous year), this is an opportunity for Carry On regulars Kenneth Connor and Sid James to essay a pleasing Laurel and Hardy act (including a shared bed) as proofreader Ernest (nephew of the deceased) and his bookmaker roommate Syd, attending as his legal advisor. They are accompanied by pretty Linda (Shirley Eaton) a nurse, whom Ernest fancies; Ernest’s cousin Guy Broughton (Dennis Price) an ex-Army officer with an alcohol problem; Guy’s grasping sister Janet (Valerie Taylor); their father Doctor Edward (Michael Gwynn); their batty aunt Emily (Esma Cannon); solicitor Everett Sloane (!!) (Donald Pleasence); and the butler, Fisk (Michael Gough). It plays with all the notions of the haunted house and might remind some of Clue but is mainly a showcase for some good slapstick and mild innuendo which might still raise eyebrows. Genial fun performed by a very game ensemble with pop star Adam Faith turning up in the final sequence, which is explicitly used by author Jonathan Coe in his titular satirical homage to the film. Produced by Robert S. Baker and Monty Baker and directed by the brilliant documentary maker Pat Jackson. Syd, look! French Impressionists – Rembrandt!

Suspiria (1977)

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You’re going to meet death now… the LIVING DEAD! Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) transfers to Germany to attend the Freiburg Tanzakademie, a prestigious ballet school. When she arrives, late on a stormy night, no one lets her in, and she sees Pat Hingle (Eva Axén), another student, fleeing from the school. When Pat reaches her apartment, she is murdered. The next day, Suzy arrives at her new school, where Miss Tanner (Alida Valli) introduces her to everyone, including the imperious Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett, in her final role) but has a difficult time settling in. She hears noises, and often feels ill, put on a special diet. As more people die, Suzy uncovers the terrifying secret history of the place and has to save herself from a witches’ coven …  I can see that once you make up your mind about something, nothing will change it for you. My compliments. Co-written by director Dario Argento with Daria Nicolodi (and vaguely based on the Thomas de Quincey essay Suspiria de Profundis), this is one of the classic giallos, a colourful, suspenseful exercise in paranoid conspiracy Gothic supernatural horror, with witches instead of politicians and a gutsy heroine who reigns supreme. There are several gorgeous set pieces, incredible cinematography (Luciano Tovoli) and production design (Giuseppe Bassan) and one of the all-time great scores by Goblin and Argento. And it wouldn’t be a Seventies Euro horror without Udo Kier! A delicious delirious dream of a film, every frame bearing the imprint of a master filmmaker. Crazy, sensational and utterly fabulous, this is peak Argento. Suzy, do you know anything about… witches?