Murder By Death (1976)

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Locked, from the inside. That can only mean one thing. And I don’t know what it is. Five famous literary private eyes, including Sam Diamond (Peter Falk), Sidney Wang (Peter Sellers), Jessica Marbles (Elsa Lanchester), Milo Perrier (James Coco) and Dick and Dora Charleston (David Niven and Maggie Smith) are invited to the mysterious millionaire Lionel Twain’s (Truman Capote) castle for a dinner party despite none of them actually knowing him. There, they are told that Twain plans an unsolvable murder in the house at midnight and he will pay $1 million to the one who determines the killer. But when Twain’s blind butler, Bensonmum (Alec Guinness), dies long before the deadline, the stakes go up for the trapped sleuths and it takes a real detective to figure it out … The country house/locked room whodunnit gets a decent parody and a slew of stars indulge in high jinks and costumed fun. You may notice that certain names were altered for copyright reasons (Sam Spade, Charlie Chan, Miss Marple, Hercules Poirot, Nick and Nora et al) but otherwise the ‘satire’ from the pen of Neil Simon translates as smoothly to the screen as a whiskey down the gullet even with the famously incomprehensible ending and a one-off performance by Capote. There’s a built-in discourse on the tropes and flaws of the genre. An absurdist fun item that is now deserving of cult status with a ton of one-liners. Directed by Robert Moore.

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Hereditary (2018)

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All I do is worry and slave and defend you, and all I get back is that fucking face on your face! Miniaturist artist Annie Graham (Toni Collette) lives with her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), their teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff), and their strange looking 13-year-old daughter Charlie (Charlie Shapiro). At the funeral of her mother, Ellen, Annie’s eulogy explains their fraught relationship. When Steve is informed that the grave has been desecrated, he keeps it secret, while Annie thinks she sees Ellen in her workshop. At a bereavement support group she reveals that, growing up, the rest of her family including Ellen suffered from mental illness. Daughter Charlie, who likes decapitating birds, sees Ellen, to whom she was especially close, several times.  Ellen’s miniatures reveal that Ellen wanted to breastfeed the girl herself.  Following a terrible accident and another family death Ellen’s difficult relationship with Peter is revealed. She is approached by support group member Joan (Ann Dowd) who persuades her to join her in trying to contact lost loved ones. When Annie attempts to do so at the house she unleashes powerful forces which she knows signify a malign connection only she can stop but her husband just thinks she’s mentally ill …  Ari Aster’s debut feature as writer/director has given Toni Collette a return to the genre that made her world famous nineteen years ago in The Sixth Sense. That was another film about failing families and strange relations and her art works have a prophetic and odd quality which pervades the film itself using the family home as a kind of dollhouse where female power is entrapped.  (Feel free to add your own theatrical metaphor).  Collette doesn’t have all the operatic colours in her performance one is led to expect (although her weird trousers assist in her levitating) considering the importance attached to Greek mythology. At its heart this is about the mother from hell, trying to protect her family from terrible self-knowledge. It could have gone in another more troubling direction. Things are left unsaid, and that’s a good confident script, but it also means certain elements are simply not clarified:  is Steve a psychiatrist? Why is Charlie’s disfigurement not mentioned?  The trail towards the mystery’s solution is cleverly laid even if it’s a particularly slow burn. This is a film which has a split identity:  on the one hand it’s a maternal melo or psychodrama, crossing generations;  on the other it’s a horror homage owing a very large debt to Rosemary’s Baby in particular and therein lieth a problem for this viewer at least. When I finally figured out the plot hook – which actually made me laugh but also made me remember to always trust my prejudices – once the quiet stuff ended about 90 minutes in, I took umbrage at the slight at Roman Polanski which is tasteless if oblique, considering the weight one attaches to certain rumours spread about him in the wake of his wife’s murder. Meta? Yes. Clever? Not especially. But the admonition to Get Out obviously calls up another satirical family horror. This one doesn’t have that film’s sociopolitical critique but it does remind us that true horror resides right there in your family if you look hard enough. Right inside the dollhouse.

Chase a Crooked Shadow (1958)

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aka Sleep No More. Kimberley Prescott (Anne Baxter) is the heiress of a South African diamond company and grieving after her father’s recent suicide at the family’s villa outside Barcelona.  She is shocked by the arrival of a man (Richard Todd) claiming to be her brother Ward, believed to have died in a car accident in South Africa a year earlier. Kimberley had identified his body.  He insinuates his way into her home accompanied by a woman claiming to be a housekeeper, Elaine Whitman (Faith Brook) after giving the Spanish maid the weekend off.  Kimberley has trouble convincing her friends and family and the local police inspector Vargas (Herbert Lom) that a complete stranger has taken her deceased brother’s identity and appears to know events of their shared childhood and suspects he is after her father’s estate … Written by David D. Osborn and Charles Sinclair, this highly efficient B thriller is a convincing mix of the paranoid woman’s film and murder mystery, with an enormous stash of diamonds at the centre of the plot. Baxter offers a pleasingly vivid performance as the woman being driven to the edge of sanity with nice guy actor Todd playing it sinister and clearly enjoying himself.  The guitar score by Mátyás Seiber is performed by Julian Bream. Produced by Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and directed by Michael Anderson with cinematography by his usual collaborator, Erwin Hillier.

Personal Shopper (2016)

 

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So we made this oath… Whoever died first would send the other a sign. A young American in Paris Maureen Cartwright (Kristen Stewart) works as a personal shopper for a celebrity, Kyra (Nora von Waldstatten). She seems to have the ability to communicate with spirits, like her recently deceased twin brother Lewis. They share a congenital heart defect. She hangs around Paris near the villa where he lived hoping to receive a sign from him from the other side – he was a spiritualist. She indulges her interest in art by pursuing knowledge about a previously unknown Swedish female abstract artist.  She proclaims her distaste for her job to her boyfriend with whom she communicates via Skype in Muscat but is clearly tempted by its benefits. Soon, she starts to receive ambiguous text messages from an unknown source… Stewart always seemed to me to be pretty one-dimensional in her American films with a limited capacity to convey joy. But the issues of her expressivity are perfectly exploited by French auteur Olivier Assayas in their second collaboration even as he maintains a distance within a genre-touching exercise where emotion and excess are mostly avoided (imagine if Argento had made this!).  There is a great mood of sadness and mystery when it gets going (and it takes a while) and if Stewart isn’t this generation’s Jean Seberg she is evolving into a determinedly individualistic performer.  The enigmatic narrative has a fragility that occasionally bursts with the threat of violence real and imagined. Oddly compelling and stylish and proof that there is great potential for this American in Paris.

The Spiral Staircase (1945)

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Murderer, you killed them. You killed them all. It’s 1906. Helen is a young mute woman (Dorothy McGuire) working in a New England mansion as a domestic to bedridden Mrs Warren (Ethel Barrymore) who lives with her professor stepson Albert (gorgeous George Brent), a secretary Blanche (Rhonda Fleming) who used to be his girlfriend and is now romancing her newly returned son Steven (Gordon Oliver), verbally abused Nurse Barker (Sara Allgood), drunken housekeeper Mrs Oates (Elsa Lanchester) and her husband (Rhys Williams).  A maniac is killing off people with disabilities. After Mrs Warren warns her of the danger to her personal safety she makes plans to leave the dark old house with her boyfriend Dr Parry (Kent Smith), but it is too late. The maniac is in the house, and she is his prey… Mel Dinelli made his screenwriting debut with this adaptation of Ethel Lina White’s 1933 novel Some Must Watch – the  idea for the staircase came from a Mary Roberts Rinehart novel.  It’s a beautifully mounted gripping Gothic suspenser with an ideal setting, atmosphere and occasional flashes of director Robert Siodmak’s Expressionist roots by DoP Nicholas Musuraca, underscoring the murderousness at its core. Spinechilling from start to finish. 

Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

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Bianchi, Doctor, has it occurred to you that there are too many clues in this room? Having concluded a case, fastidious Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) settles into what he expects will be a relaxing journey home from Istanbul via Calais aboard the Orient Express in December 1935 courtesy of the line’s director, Signor Bianchi (Martin Balsam). But when an unpopular and enigmatic American billionaire Ratchet (Richard Widmark) is murdered en route, Poirot takes up the case, and everyone on board the famous train is a suspect. The other passengers travelling on the Calais coach are: Mrs. Harriet Hubbard (Lauren Bacall), a fussy, talkative, multiple-widowed American;  Ratchett’s secretary and translator Hector McQueen (Anthony Perkins) and English manservant Beddoes (John Gielgud); elderly Russian Princess Natalia Dragomiroff (Wendy Hiller) and her German maid Hildegarde Schmidt (Rachel Roberts); Hungarian diplomat Count Rudolf Andrenyi (Michael York) and his wife Elena (Jacqueline Bisset); British Indian Army officer Col. John Arbuthnot (Sean Connery); Mary Debenham (Vanessa Redgrave), a teacher of English in Baghdad;  Greta Ohlsson (Ingrid Bergman), a timid Swedish missionary to Africa on a fund-raising trip; Italian-American car salesman Antonio Foscarelli (Denis Quilley); and Cyrus B. Hardman (Colin Blakely), an American theatrical agent;  and the conductor Pierre Paul Michel (Jean-Pierre Cassel).  Using an avalanche in Yugoslavia blocking the tracks to his advantage, Poirot gradually realizes that many of the passengers have revenge as a motive, and he begins to home in on the culprit as he discovers that everyone aboard is in some way connected with the kidnapping of a little girl which resulted in several deaths … Colourful, energetic pastiche of old train movies, the most surprising aspect of this is that the venerable street-savvy Sidney Lumet directed it.  Heading up the extraordinarily starry cast is Finney who is unrecognisable and plays the man with all those little grey cells to the manner born, achieving a brilliant comedic affect.  With all those famous actors it’s interesting to note how they use ‘business’ to get attention and the cunning score by Richard Rodney Bennett gives them each their own signature (guess what Perkins’ sounds like!) enlivening their vignettes.  There are no surprises in Paul Dehn’s screenplay and the dénouement when Poirot takes us through the murder is very satisfying even while most of the cast must keep quiet as Finney gives his masterclass.  Interesting to note all but two of them got a flat fee of $100,000 barring Finney (who has the lion’s share of the acting) and Connery who was big enough to garner points. Apparently life on the set was better for the actors than the crew, who were subjected to Redgrave’s lunchtime political lectures – the cast got to hear Gielgud’s theatrical anecdotes instead. It was one of just two Agatha Christie plots which the Queen of Crime based on real events. Great fun.

Silkwood (1983)

 

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You think I contaminated myself, you think I did that?  Karen Silkwood (Meryl Streep) works at a plutonium processing plant, along with her boyfriend, Drew Stephens (Kurt Russell), and their roommate, Dolly Pelliker (Cher). When Karen becomes concerned about safety practices at the plant, she begins raising awareness of violations that could put workers at risk. Intent on continuing her investigation, Karen discovers a suspicious development: She has been exposed to high levels of radiation, probably intentionally because of her union activism. Her decision to follow up on the cause jeopardises her life … Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen’s screenplay is a dramatisation of what actually happened to the real Karen Silkwood and there is much to cherish about this film, not least the brilliant performances. What may have happened in November 1974 after Silkwood went to meet with a reporter from The New York Times has been well documented but this is a very human portrayal of friendships, romance and labour relations, a rare combination in cinema and never done so sympathetically. Mike Nichols does an impeccable job of finding the right tone in what is basically a noir-ish conspiracy thriller but laced into the narrative are hints of a Lesbian relationship between Karen and Dolly, complicating their home life with Drew and deepening the surrounding texture which is political and social, growing out of the problems around unions and workers and the knotty issues in the nuclear industry. Streep’s most likeable performance to date.

Mother! (2017)

 

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You don’t know what it’s like to have a child. You give and you give and you give.  It’s just never enough. A burnt-out house morphs into a fixer-upper in lush Edenic grassland. In bed, Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) wife and muse to Him (Javier Bardem) a poet,awakens from a fiery nightmare and wonders aloud where Him is. While renovating the house, she starts seeing things that unsettle her, including visualizing a beating heart within its walls. One day, Man (Ed Harris) turns up at the house, asking for a room. Him readily agrees, and Mother reluctantly follows suit. During his stay, Man suffers coughing fits and Mother observes an open wound in his side. Soon Man’s wife, Woman (Michelle Pfeiifer), also arrives to stay. Mother is increasingly frustrated with her guests, but Him begs her to let them stay, telling Mother they are fans of his work and Man is dying. However, when Man and Woman accidentally shatter the crystal object, which Him had forbidden them to touch, Mother kicks them out and Him boards up his study. Before Man and Woman can leave, their two sons (Domhnall and Brian Gleeson) arrive and fight over their father’s will. The Oldest Son, who will be left with nothing, severely wounds his Younger Brother and flees. Him, Man, and Woman take the injured son for help. Alone in the house, Mother follows a trail of blood to find a tank of heating oil hidden behind the basement walls. Upon returning, Him informs Mother the son has died. Dozens of people arrive at the house to honor the dead son. They behave in rude and presumptuous ways that irritate Mother; she snaps when they break a sink, flooding the house. She orders everyone out and berates Him for allowing so many people inside while ignoring her needs. Their argument ends in passionate lovemaking. The next morning, Mother announces she is pregnant. The news elates Him and inspires him to finish his work. Mother prepares for the arrival of their child and reads Him’s beautiful new poem. Upon publication, it immediately sells out every copy. In celebration, Mother prepares a big dinner, but a group of fans arrives at the house before they can eat. She asks Him to send them away, but he insists he has to be polite and will return soon. Mother tries to lock the doors, but more fans arrive and enter the house to use the toilet. They start stealing things as souvenirs and damaging the house, but Him is oblivious due to the adulation he is receiving. Hundreds of people fill the house and an increasingly disoriented Mother watches it devolve into chaos. Military forces battle a cult of frenzied fans who tear rooms apart and engage in religious rituals. Amidst gunfire and explosions, the Herald, the poet’s publicist, organizes mass executions. Mother goes into labor and finds Him. He takes her to his study, which he reopens so she can give birth there. The havoc outside subsides. Him tells Mother his fans want to see their newborn son; she refuses and holds her boy tightly. When she falls asleep, however, Him takes their child outside to the crowd, which passes the baby around wildly until he is killed. Devastated, Mother wades into the crowd where she sees people eating her son’s mutilated corpse. Furious, she calls them murderers and stabs them with a shard of glass. They turn on her, viciously beating and stripping her until Him intervenes. He implores Mother to forgive them, but she escapes, makes her way to the basement oil tank, and punctures it with a pipe wrench. Despite her husband’s pleas, she sets the oil alight; it explodes, destroying the crowd, the house, and the surrounding environment.Mother and Him survive, but she is horrifically burned while Him is completely unscathed. He asks for her love and she agrees. He tears open her chest and removes her heart. As he crushes the heart with his hands, a new crystal object is revealed. He places it on its pedestal and, once again, the house is transformed from a burnt-out shell into a beautiful home. In bed, a new Mother appears and wakes up, wondering aloud where Him is… I didn’t know that the house’s octagonal shape had some connection with phrenology. Nor did I know (or care) that this was created as a philosophical allegory about creative destruction. You can get all that from the PR or production notes. You don’t get it from the finished film. What I do know is that this is what happens when good auteurs go bad (see Phantom Thread). Literally laugh out loud silly. Watch Rosemary’s Baby instead. Now that’s a film about demonic men and the horror of mothering. Written and directed by Darren Aronofsky. Life:  too short. Etc. Jesus.

 

The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake (1959)

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My head’s been shrunk! Oh the horror! The horror! Anthropologist Jonathan Drake (Eduard Franz) believes that the men of his family have been cursed for generations by the native South American tribe he studies. Shortly after his brother, Kenneth (Paul Cavanagh), discovers one of the tribe’s shrunken heads in his house, he’s found murdered and his head goes missing. In pursuit of the tribesman Zutai (Paul Wexler) and a rival scientist (Henry Daniell) who has become a part of the tribe, Drake attempts to end the curse once and for all…  With career best performances by Franz and Daniell, this is a tremendously atmospheric exercise in genre which belies its impoverished production values. Charles Gemora created award-winning shrunken heads in addition to his duties as make-up artist in this parable concerning race relations and the impact of white men on the New World. Written by Orville H. Hampton and directed by the underrated and enigmatic yet prolific B director Edward L. Cahn, this rivals his early collaborations with screenwriter Tom Reed and may well be the best film ever made.

Message in a Bottle (1999)

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Choose between yesterday and tomorrow.  During her morning jog on the beach, journalist Theresa Osborne (Robin Wright Penn) discovers a bottle protruding from the sand. Inside it, she finds a heartbreaking, anonymous love letter. After her paper publishes the letter, Osborne tracks down the letter’s reclusive author, world-weary widower Garret Blake (Kevin Costner), in the Carolinas. But, as Osborne finds herself falling hopelessly in love with Blake, she becomes wracked with guilt over the real impetus for her visit. As she deals with her own marital mishaps and life back in Chicago with her young son Jason (Jesse James) she can’t bring herself to be truthful with Garret, all the while exploiting his personal tragedy for her newspaper… Adapted by Gerald Di Pego from the Nicholas Sparks novel, it took me a while to see this:  it was released February 1999 and I was travelling from N’Orleans to New Jersey and it seemed to me to be always playing a township or three too far to travel that snowy Spring. It was worth waiting for. It’s a gloriously romantic confection, with conflict, high stakes and a guilty secret or two at its core – there are real lessons to be learned here from the grown-ups with mirroring marital and parenting dilemmas. Penn is terrific as the journo who is basically a stalker and Costner is perfect as the romantic foil whose life is much more complex than she suspects. And guess who plays his father? Paul Newman, that’s who. There are nice bits in the office with Robbie Coltrane revelling in the role of editor and Illeana Douglas as her best friend at work while John Savage is impressive as Costner’s brother in law. This works because it’s tough on the characters even through a rose-tinted lens and the ending, well, it’s not easy but it’s immensely satisfying. It was the first Sparks novel to be adapted to the screen. Love letters?  Message in a bottle? A tragic sacrifice? Death? I hear ya. Just gorgeous cinematography by Caleb Deschanel and music by Gabriel Yared. Sniff. Directed by Luis Mandoki.