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

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.

 

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.

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.

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.

Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964)

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It’s you Myra it’s always been you. Put-upon asthmatic househusband Billy Savage (Richard Attenborough) is persuaded by his wife Myra (Kim Stanley) a mentally ill medium to kidnap the daughter (Judith Donner) of a wealthy London couple (Mark Eden and Nanette Newman) so that she can locate the victim and tout herself as a successful psychic. Billy collects the ransom in a cat and mouse chase around telephone kiosks and Tube stations in the vicinity of Piccadilly Circus.  The couple pretend to the girl that she’s in a hospital but as Myra begins to lose her grip on reality and believes her stillborn son Arthur is telling her to kill the child Billy decides he must do the decent thing … Splendidly taut adaptation of Mark McShane’s novel by writer/director Bryan Forbes which makes brilliant use of the London locations and exudes tension both through performance and shooting style with the cinematography by Gerry Turpin a particular standout. There are some marvellous sequences but the kidnapping alone with John Barry’s inventive and characterful score is indelible and some of the train scenes are hallucinatory. It’s a great pleasure to see Patrick Magee turn up as a policeman in the final scene.

Houdini (1953)

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Pay a dollar to see a man in love with death! Watch Tony Curtis saw Janet Leigh in two! From his start at the Coney Island sideshows to London, Paris and Berlin, the career of legendary escapologist Harry Houdini is charted in a screenplay by Philip Yordan adapted from the book by Harold Kellock which plays fast and loose with the facts, including his tragically early death. Houdini (Tony Curtis) meets Bess (Janet Leigh) while trying out his early magic acts and they marry quickly and move in with his mother (Angela Clarke). He takes a regular job in a locksmith factory but tries to escape from a safe and Bess finally agrees to go to Europe with him instead of putting a downpayment on a house with prize money earned when he escapes from a straitjacket at a Halloween show for magicians. That’s when he becomes obsessed with Otto von Schweger, the only other man to have done so. (He develops a fatalistic belief that good things happen to him on Halloween). Bess joins him on the road as his assistant and becomes a star attraction. He becomes infamous after escaping a police cell at Scotland Yard but is too late arriving at von Schweger’s home to meet the man, who had just died. He left him a miniature of a man in a glass case and it becomes Houdini’s obsession. When his mother dies he wants to make contact with her and loses himself for two years. A journalist persuades him to expose fake spiritualists and then he returns to the one trick that remains … Curtis and Leigh were husband and wife and Hollywood’s darlings when they made this and they’re utterly charming together – she’s beguiling, practical and loving, he’s obsessive, devoted and brilliant:  they practically sizzle on screen.  Director George Marshall stages this beautifully in a production that is a triumph of design, colour and performance with great costumes by Edith Head. Demonstrating Houdini’s focus using a bauble on a chandelier as an objective correlative is a brilliant example of how this is visualised. A splendid, tense, thrilling, witty and romantic biography from the Golden Age of Hollywood with wonderfully imagined tricks and illusions.

Silence (2016)

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The biggest news about the latest Martin Scorsese epic is how it’s been shut out of the awards lists, thus far at least. And it’s easy to see why. No guns, no gangsters. Plus in this minority-appeasing year it’s a film about white Christians defending their faith against mindlessness (think about where you might find that analogy at present even if it’s been Scorsese’s passion project for decades). He and Jay Cocks adapted Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel and in terms of the director’s oeuvre it is most assuredly in the ‘one for me’ category. Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver are the Portuguese Jesuits who get smuggled into seventeenth-century Japan to find their missing mentor, priest Liam Neeson, whose eight-year old letter detailing the torture of his fellow believers at the hands of Buddhist Inquisitor (Issey Ogata) leads them to uncover hidden communities of Christians. Their presence elicits attention and villagers suffer. Garfield is taken in several times by Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka) who has taken them to the country and eventually betrays him repeatedly while constantly pleading for forgiveness in confession. It’s grim stuff and the analogy with episodes of Christ’s own suffering is made several times. Garfield is eventually forced to watch others’ torture and the film then clarifies its several narrative strands, even while posing some problems of a meta cinematic nature:  you can’t help but be reminded of Monty Python, especially as the Jap inquisitor has a high-pitched voice and Bugs Bunny teeth;  Kichijiro is clearly a folkloric trickster;  Garfield looks into water and sees both himself and Christ, indicating that faith is often a matter of extreme narcissism. And then there’s the issue of Neeson’s reappearance in garb we know he wore in Star Wars. But given the long running time, it’s nice to be able to sigh and laugh in recognition occasionally and be glad you’re not there amid this epic of endurance. Driver’s deterioration does not inspire the same humorous recognition:  it is utterly shocking. And these are the postmodern ideas that make this work, an overlay of relief from the relentless series of questions:  what is faith? Is it about God and love or is it about rosary beads and crucifixes? Is it purely about ego? (One recalls the old saw that if you replace the word ‘God’ with ‘I’ you get closer to what fanatics and believers are really about – themselves – and we all know plenty of those, don’t we. The daily churchgoers and penitents who are rifling through your pockets and avoiding paying taxes!) What is religion for? Is it a form of delusion devoid of relevance to real life? Is the Son of God more important than the Sun of God? This ideological tussle is all played out as Garfield is repeatedly taken through crowds of Japs attacking him and having the inquisitor play mind games of persuasion and then terror that take you right up to the twentieth century and ideas of psychology and marketing and war (and you’ll also remember that Shinto Buddhism was the motive force behind what the Japs did in WW2.) Ultimately, this is a work of monumental significance. However there are pacing problems and after Kundun et al one expected a more beautiful photographic immersion in this spiritual odyssey. And there are issues with the depth of the writing, reflected in Garfield’s performance which seems too simplified at times. But I don’t see how a film of philosophical dimensions and thoughtfulness will receive an award since it goes against everything that is current and it’s clear that the gifted Garfield will not be in line for an Oscar for Acting While Black. (This, too, shall pass.) A tough film for true movie believers. Apostasise Now?

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.

Doctor Strange (2016)

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At last. A superhero film I can get behind even if Robert Downey Jr isn’t in it. There is actual dialogue – as opposed to a (c)rap soundtrack substitute for the Asian market. There is humour, much of it deriving from the ubiquitous character’s name. There is – shock – even a vaguely comprehensible story and a sense of its own ridiculousness. And also – and this is crucial – it’s under two hours.(Knowing when to leave is a biggie in my book.) This episode from the Marvel multiverse is about gifted arrogant neurosurgeon  Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) who loses the use of his hands in a car crash. His career is over. When conventional medical procedures don’t help he resorts to a spiritual odyssey in Nepal (Tibet won’t work for the sensitive Chinese, sadly) where he encounters The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton in kung fu monk mode) and learns to subsume his ego to permit him access to mystic powers. Right there you have ingredients mashed up from James Bond, The Lost Horizon and Doctor Kildare. Cumberbatch is fantastic even when his own clothes are hitting him. (And you’ve got to admit that a man with that watch collection has oodles of style – particularly when he chooses to wear Jaeger-LeCoultre! Even the product placement is stylish.) Except you also have the crazed Master Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen, still seeking a sibilant replacement app) who wants to use dark powers to end the world and engage on some seriously impressive building-bending and folding in Greenwich Village and Hong Kong, the likes of which we haven’t seen since architectural origami exercise Inception. The effects are so good you’re left wondering why they couldn’t do something about that unsightly mole on Dr Christine Palmer’s face – Rachel McAdams is otherwise funny in a role that requires some very good real world reactions. Strange’s mission becomes that of intermediary between the world as we know it and the forces beyond. His self-discovery has global implications and reconciling what the Ancient One is really made of is central to what he becomes. It’s not just time that’s relative here – mor(t)ality too. Sidekick librarian Wong (Benedict Wong) enjoys a very humorous relationship with the new mandala master in his cloak of levitation. Steve Ditko’s comic book hero gets a fast and furious makeover from writer/director Scott Derrickson with Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill. Physician heal thyself ! And then some. Pretty great. With a neat cameo from Stan Lee himself reading The Doors of Perception to drop an implicit joke about hippies and drugs… Ho ho ho! Make sure you sit out half the credits for a preview of coming attractions …