Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016)

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Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield) gets along far better with his grandfather Abe (Terence Stamp) than with his parents so when the old man dies, with his eyes missing and a strange creature hiding outside his apartment in the bushes, Jake recalls all the stories he told him about living in a magical place during WW2. After several sessions with therapist Dr Golan (Allison Janney) he convinces his reluctant father (Chris O’Dowd) to take him to Wales where he is befriended by some Peculiars, enters a derelict mansion through a portal in a cave and encounters the very much alive Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) who lives in this weird time loop with all the weirdly gifted kids whom his grandfather told him about. They have to ward off a powerful enemy who feast on the children’s eyes, led by Samuel L. Jackson who delivers his now customary cod-threatening performance and after taking Miss Peregrine, the children must engage in a final face-off (or eye-off…) in a theatre in modern-day Blackpool. Jake himself has a special power which can save them all … There’s a level of ordinariness to this which is irritating. It’s well set up, with Tim Burton returning to contemporary Florida (remember the achingly wonderful Edward Scissorhands?) and the problematic father-son dynamic that fuels some of his better work. However there’s no real sense of mystery or fabulism that would bring this to a different realm. What is best about it? Probably the Ray Harryhausen-style doll animations. Emotions lie half-buried in the middle of this – about being the grandson of a Holocaust survivor, hating your dumb parents and only finding your true family because you possess an understanding of life that other people don’t (seeing invisible monsters is inordinately helpful). Oh well – there’s a good joke about the evil motivations of psychiatrists, though. Adapted by Jane Goldman from the novel by Ransom Riggs, and apparently a lot of changes took place in the writing. Very, very uneven.

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The Sixth Sense (1999)

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I see dead people. How extraordinary is this film? A truly scary ghost story – even all these years later when you know the amazing twist at its centre. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) is the child psychologist treating troubled Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment). The son of a single mother (Toni Collette), he’s a kid whose weirdness marks him out amongst his schoolfriends leading to bullying and strange injuries. Halfway through the story he tells the extremely sympathetic Malcolm his dark secret – and he knows that Malcolm just doesn’t get it. A stunning exposition of death, bereavement, grief, sorrow, the problem with acceptance and some punishing home truths, this is augmented by totally believable, realistic performances. A really audacious and cunning piece of work by writer/director M. Night Shyamalan.

A Place of One’s Own (1945)

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An old house in the country. Creaking boards. Flickering lights. Things that go bump in the night…  I’m there. This Gothic melodrama from Gainsborough originated in a 1942 novel by Osbert Sitwell and was adapted by Brock Williams to fit the mode so popular in the wartime period. James Mason was a huge star and insisted on playing the retired husband to Barbara Mullen, both of them wearing makeup to dramatically age for the parts. Directed by Bernard Knowles, Mason put much of the film’s disappointing end result down to their miscasting (blame his pliant father in law, the studio boss) and Knowles’ infatuation with Citizen Kane and those uninterrupted long shots without the redeeming features of a brilliant script or cast. However the haunting, the love story between doctor Dennis Price and young Margaret Lockwood, the couple’s companion who is possessed by a girl murdered 40 years earlier, and the sustained eerieness, remain  quite cogent and provide fiercely atmospheric chills just in time for Christmas. With Dulcie Gray, Moore Marriott and Ernest Thesiger in the ensemble for a production which makes excellent use of Chopin, Borodin, Tchaikovsky and Gungl, all arranged by Hubert Bath.

The Spiritualist (1948)

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Aka The Amazing Mr X. The wonderful Carole Landis committed suicide in the most horrendous way a couple of days before shooting began on this;  she was replaced by the estimable Lynn Bari, no mean actress in her own right. She’s widowed Christine Faber, haunted by the ghost of her late husband (Donald Curtis) rising from the surf, but a tall dark stranger (Turhan Bey) materialises who knows more about her than he ought, faking his way as a medium, and luring her into a dangerous game … With Cathy O’Donnell as her sister Janet and my sci fi heart-throb Richard Carlson as a lawyer, Harry Mendoza and Virginia Gregg rounding out the ensemble, we are taken into truly villainous territory with Bey making for an alluring bad guy who gets in way too deep.  In his eyes, the threat of terror! In his hands, the power to destroy! Crane Wilbur’s story was written for the screen by Muriel Roy Bolton and Ian McLellan Hunter and directed by Bernard Vorhaus. This film noir is gilt-edged thanks to the luminous cinematography by John Alton and good use is made of Chopin’s Prelude for Piano, opus 28 no. 4 in E minor. A special experience.

Midnight Offerings (1981) (TVM)

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Witching hour again! And this time it’s a witch-off between Little House on the Prairie‘s Mary Ingalls (Melissa Sue Anderson) and The Waltons‘ Erin (Mary Beth McDonough), a battle that has an incendiary ending.  Anderson is Vivian Sotherland, the spiteful Mean Girl at Ocean High CA who intimidates male teachers sexually and if they don’t succumb she murders them – we enter as she casts a spell that causes one to crash his car, saving her quarterback boyfriend Dave (Patrick Cassidy) from flunking and thereby keeping him on the team. New (motherless) girl Robin Prentiss  (McDonough) has read about his drunken misdemeanour in the local freebie paper but likes him despite her dad’s objections. They’ve moved from Connecticut following a series of unfortunate events – she has powers too, but no idea how to control them. Vivian can’t read her and starts to attack her dad and Dave and nearly kills Robin in a house fire. Dave is on to her scheme and brings Robin to Emily Moore (Marion Ross, Mom from Happy Days!) to help her ward off evil. Mrs Sotherland (Cathryn Damon) didn’t abort Vivian to stop breeding the 7th daughter of the 7th daughter and blames herself for allowing her to go off the rails so she must intervene before another murder occurs … This is clever, intelligent stuff, as you would expect from long-time Rockford Files writer/producer Juanita Bartlett, responsible for the screenplay. Anderson is very well off-cast in the lead but it’s McDonough who has the more expansive role and she is very good. A newly blonde Kym (Sound of Music‘s Gretl) Karath is the hobbled cheerleader and this is a point of interest – she made her debut in Spencer’s Mountain as a three year old, a film that was the first adaptation of Earl Hamner’s book that of course became … The Waltons. And look fast for Vanna White too. Excellent stuff, thanks to the Horror Channel for resurrecting it. Directed by veteran TV helmer Rod Holcomb.

Ghostbusters (1984)

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– Gozo was very big in Sumeria. – Then what’s he doing in my icebox? This was the film that brought the National Lampoon/Saturday Night Live TV crews to the international consciousness in a family-friendly format – and boy did they hit it out of the park with a scary funny paranormal comedy that found a brilliant match with the best special effects available. Written by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis who also star, it was directed by Ivan Reitman, who handled Bill Murray perfectly in a script that would give him his best role to date. (It had originally been dreamed up as a project with John Belushi and was totally rewritten following his death.) They’re a team of parapsychologist scientists who lose their funding at Columbia University and have to find work in the private sector – and it’s not easy out there. An imperious cellist called Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) opens her refrigerator and is faced with demons – happens me all the time. She becomes the gatekeeper for a god of destruction and the entire city is at risk but the Environmental Protection Agency and the Mayor have an issue with bad PR and get in the way of halting the haunting  … Breathtakingly witty, inventive and the casting of everyone, from Rick Moranis to Annie Potts, William Atherton to Jennifer Runyon, is spot on. This of course spawned massive merchandising opportunities and the team was put under pressure to do a sequel which they resisted for five years and in the early teens a third was in progress when Harold Ramis died. And we all know what happened next … This, however, is marvellous!

Ghostbusters II (1989)

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The great thing about this is:  the gang’s all here. With added baby for extra flavour. Five years on from saving NYC the Ghostbusters are in disgrace. Venkmann (Bill Murray) has a shonky psychic cable show while Stantz (Dan Aykroyd) and Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson) are terrible kids’ entertainers and Spengler(Harold Ramis) has a real job in a lab. Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) calls upon them when her kid (from the man she divorced after turning down Murray) displays some haunting behaviour. Add a supernatural sea of sludge sailing through the sewers – an existential despair on the part of city dwellers? – and a very driven diabolist (Peter MacNicol) keen to adopt said baby to channel the demonic Vigo of Carpathia and we have a paranormal debacle. It’s not great and some of the writing is lazy but the players all give it their best in this riff on the original. It’s zany, funny stuff and the baby’s great. Directed again by Ivan Reitman, with supersized slime.

Satan’s School for Girls (2000)(TVM)

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In the early 1990s, there were two cool girls:  Winona for the big screen, Shannen for the small screen (and they were both in HEATHERS!!!!)  Beverly Hills 90210 was an obsession! Brenda! Dylan! Hearts and flowers and heartache. Etc. And years later Aaron Spelling kept Doherty working including on this remake of a much-loved TVM made in 1973 (by himself and Leonard Goldberg, his producing partner) which starred two of his future Charlie’s Angels, Kate Jackson and Cheryl Ladd. The story is somewhat updated from the original screenplay by Arthur Ross, who had a terrific TV pedigree including 8 episodes of the fabled Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Here it’s Doherty playing the girl who suspects her sister’s death at a New England college is not the suicide the authorities claim so she enrolls there to find she may have died at the hands of a sinister Satanic cult called The Five (was Harlan Coben watching?!) It turns out that her particular magic could give the other cult members the power to take over the world. Bien sur (well, it was shot in Canada as some of the street signs indicate…) In order to lure her into their cabal all Hell literally breaks loose. Doherty was of course one of TV’s Charmed sisters (Prue) and this was made mid-stream those series she was in (she was replaced, eventually). It took me a while to recognise Taraji P. Henson (her eyes are different … ahem). The effects are pretty good but not enough to conceal the skeletal  appearance of Kate Jackson who re-appears as the dean in this version. As with Charmed, and The Craft, there was a spate of witchy movies and TV shows in this era but I’d love to see the original, directed by David Lowell Rich. One can but hope that the Horror Channel might retrieve it one of these dark nights. And hey, it’s Ms Doherty’s birthday tomorrow, 12 April:  Happy Birthday Cool Girl!