The Legend of Hell House (1973)

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This house – it knows we’re here. Elderly millionaire Rudolf Deutsch (Roland Culver) is obsessed with the afterlife and hires sceptical scientist Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill) and his wife Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt) to lead a team into the infamous Belasco House, supposedly haunted by the victims of its late owner, a notorious six-foot five serial killer. Though the rational Barrett does not believe in ghosts, the other members of his group ding, including devout spiritualist Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin) and psychic medium Benjamin Fischer (Roddy McDowall), who has been in Belasco House before and is the only survivor of a previous visit and has therefore seen what horrors can befall those who enter it...  The house tried to kill me – it almost succeeded. Fabled novelist and screenwriter Richard Matheson adapted his own Hell House and transposed it from New England to the old country for financial reasons where it was directed by John Hough (who would also direct the cult Disney horror Watcher in the Woods there a half-dozen years later). This pits science and the rational against the paranormal, with fascinating excursions into the psychosexual – it ain’t too often you see a ghost having its way with a young lady. And Franklin’s presence, a dozen years after that spectacular classic of a haunting, The Innocents, is a guarantee of this film’s integrity and she rewards us with a dazzling performance. Hunnicutt is no less effective although her eroticism is literally in another kind of dimension. Frankly any film that commences with the following statement has me at hello:  Although the story of this film is fictitious, the events depicted involving psychic phenomena are not only very much within the bounds of possibility, but could well be true (Tom Corbett, Clairvoyant and Psychic Consultant to European Royalty). The building’s negative energy has amazing repercussions for these investigators and McDowall has one of his best roles as an unlikely hero, with an unbilled cameo by one of Brit horror/exploitation’s key actors rounding things out as things end rather explosively but paradoxically, giving this a very human affect in a story of things unseen and the detritus of perversion. One of the very best horror films of the Seventies, probably inspired by Aleister Crowley. Shot at Bolney, West Sussex, Blenheim Palace and Elstree Studios. If you’re that clever why are you still a prisoner in this house?

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Dementia 13 (1963)

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Aka The Haunted and the HuntedI think you should spend more time with your wife to be. After John Haloran (Peter Read) dies suddenly, his wife Louise (Luana Anders) fears she will be denied his inheritance and conceals the death. She travels from the US to join the rest of the Haloran family at their Irish estate, Castle Haloran, as they hold a memorial for John’s young sister, who died in a lake eight years ago. Her brothers-in-law Billy (Bart Patton) and Richard (William Campbell) perform a strange ritual. Louise schemes to convince her mother-in-law Lady Haloran (Eithne Dunne) that she can speak with the dead child. However, this plan is interrupted by an axe murderer on the loose and family members start dying off, one by one.  Local medic Dr Justin Caleb (Patrick Magee) attempts to solve the mystery  It’s a true sign of the late, great lord y’are. A neat little slasher made by producer Roger Corman with funds left over from The Young Racers (and three of the stars, Campbell, Anders and Magee), this is Francis Ford Coppola’s proper debut following two nudie pics. It’s nicely shot on location in Ireland (at Ardmore Studios, Howth Castle and Dublin Airport) by Charles Hannawalt.  It’s an effective little slasher flick made in the mould of Psycho, with some new sequences shot by Jack Hill when Coppola’s original didn’t fit Corman’s exacting requirements with a tacked-on prologue done by Monte Hellman. It’s a good role for the underrated Anders, one of my favourite actresses of that era and there’s oodles of atmosphere with the murderer appearing out of the dark in the many murder sequences, making superb use of the picturesque setting. Who could have guessed that the director of this story about family business would turn into America’s version of Luchino Visconti in less than a decade with The Godfather?! He made a wax doll to relieve his guilt

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

 

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 in Muscat with whom she communicates via Skype 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.

Coco (2017)

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A minute ago I thought I was related to a murderer! You’re a total upgrade! Despite his family’s generations-old ban on music, young Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) dreams of becoming an accomplished musician like his idol Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). Great-grandmother Coco (Ana Ofelia Marguía) was abandoned by her musician father to pursue his career and her daughter Mama (Sofia Espinosa) doesn’t want to hear or see anyone with musical inclinations in this multi-generational household. Desperate to prove his talent, Miguel finds himself in the stunning and colorful Land of the Dead after he plucks de la Cruz’s guitar from the wall of his mausoleum on the Day of the Dead. After meeting a charming trickster named Héctor (Gael García Bernal) the two new friends embark on an extraordinary journey to unlock the real story behind Miguel’s family history involving murder, theft and a misbegotten career … Disney’s Mexican quest narrative has proved hugely popular critically and commercially and it’s easy to see why even if like most contemporary animated features it could have been twenty minutes shorter. It’s a wildly colourful ride, beautifully realised as an explanation of death as a parallel universe where existence is run with just as much pettiness and bureaucratic nonsense (spewing information from an Apple Mac in what looks like a nineteenth century railway station). Mapping Miguel’s desire to find out the truth about his mysterious great-grandfather while being teamed up with Héctor who hasn’t completely crossed over because his photograph hasn’t been memorialised is a clever trope, typical of the Hero’s Journey model which revolutionised the studio’s animation output thirty years ago. There are some good jokes for the adults featuring unibrows and Frida Kahlo (Natalia Cordova-Buckley) with a nod to Game of Thrones via a spirit guide that resembles a dragon. It may be based on the preceding short Dante’s Lunch but many people will recall The Book of Life from Fox a few years agoThis occasioned an eye-wateringly bad rendition of the song Remember Me at the Oscars, along with the other unutterably under-rehearsed Best Song nominees. Ah, Hollywood. The original story is by director Lee Unrich, Jason Katz, Matthew Aldrich and Adrian Molina while the screenplay is by Aldrich and Molina and the score is by Michael Giacchino.

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.

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.

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 XAlexis, do you think I’d make a good celestial companion? 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 and one of my new favourite Forties movies! PS:  Wilbur was first cousin to Tyrone Power and he said of his work, I‘m going to give people what they want. Sensation, horror, shock. Send them out into the streets to tel their friends how wonderful it is to be scared to death.