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. 

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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.

 

Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990) (TVM)

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Get off of me! You are going to forget once and for all about that filthy thing of yours! You’ll forget that you even have one of those things! Do you understand me, boy? Released from a mental institution once again, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) calls in to tell his life story to a radio host (CCH Pounder). Norman recalls his days as a young boy living with his schizophrenic mother (Olivia Hussey), and the jealous rage that inspired her murder. In the present, Norman lives with his pregnant wife psychiatrist Connie (Donna Mitchell), fearing that his child will inherit his split personality disorder, and Mother will return to kill again… Both a prequel and a sequel, this made for TV entry in the series has the original writer Joseph Stefano (never mind Alma Hitchcock’s contribution!) and a whole heap of interest to anyone who either visited the Universal FLA lot where it was shot (I have the shower curtain!) or was addicted to Bates Motel (to which it bears no relation, but you know what I mean).  Apparently Perkins wanted to have his Pretty Poison director Noel Black direct it from a screenplay by III scripter Charles Edward Poague but that film’s commercial failure meant a change in talent and Mick Garris was brought in to direct. Stefano didn’t like the violence in the preceding two films and ignored the backstory about Mrs Bates in II and the aunt in III.  Now, Norman Bates is married. Whatchootalkinabout?! Yup, they go there. Literally the unthinkable. And having a child. With a psychiatrist. Gulp … Pushing Freudian and schizoid buttons galore, Henry Thomas plays the young Norman in out of order flashbacks that clarify the events triggering the break in his personality with a path straight up to the first film.  Ironically this is probably the weakest of the sequels despite Stefano’s desire to have a psychologically accurate portrait of a cross-dressing mother-loving voyeuristic serial killer. But you just have to watch. Don’t you?! A  must for completionists.

 

 

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)

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I’ve studied you all these years – a little girl in a cage waiting for someone to let her out. In 1928 young Martha (Barbara Stanwyck) inadvertently causes the death of her cruel, authoritarian and extremely wealthy aunt (Judith Anderson). Martha lies to the police and Walter (Kirk Douglas), who saw the crime, corroborates the girl’s story. Eventually, they grow up and wed out of convenience; the meek and alcoholic Walter is genuinely in love, and Martha thinks that her secret is safe since she has married the one witness to her aunt’s death. As District Attorney he saw her lie on the stand and put an innocent man to death for the crime. However now Martha is trying to get Walter elected Governor and her childhood pal Sam (Van Heflin) shows up.  Martha knows her dark past may not stay a secret for long and Sam’s romance with Toni (Lizabeth Scott) – an ex-con just out of jail – threatens to come between them …  The film noir as hothouse melodrama, this has Stanwyck at her most manipulative since Double Indemnity but the surrounding performances are impressive as satellites to her cunning. Adapted by Robert Rossen (and an uncredited Robert Riskin)  from playwright John Patrick’s short story Love Lies Bleeding, this plays fast and loose with love and death, desire and obsession, betrayal and murder, marriage and entrapment. The pickup between Heflin and Scott is really something and the dialogue is really striking – just look at the way the Bible crops up at crucial plot points. Stanwyck’s string of extra-marital affairs reveals a longing for sex not often portrayed in Hollywood films of the era. Douglas makes an impressive debut as the weak husband just as capable of lying. The twisting DNA spiral of guilt and secrecy plays out brilliantly as these conflicted personalities bump up against one another in a deadly game. And what a twist(ed) ending! Listen to how the rain hits the windows of that fabulous house during some of the toughest conversations – talk about atmospheric! The cinematography by Victor Miler and score by Miklós Rósza are quite splendid. Directed by Lewis Milestone.

Psycho II (1983)

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Remember Norman: only your Mother truly loves you.  22 years after he’s been incarcerated in a psychiatric institution Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is back in Fairvale California, only to find his hotel run down under the management of Warren Toomey (Dennis Franz). Despite a new friendship with a waitress, Mary (Meg Tilly) and a job bussing tables at a diner, Norman begins to hear voices once again. Mary moves into Norman’s house as his roommate but no matter how hard he tries, Norman cannot keep Mother from returning and coaxing him to unleash the homicidal maniac within but then it transpires that Mary’s mother is in town – and she’s Marion Crane’s sister Lila (Vera Miles) …Written by Tom Holland, this won’t erase your memories of Hitchcock’s seminal thriller and it stands alone, not adapted from Robert Bloch’s own sequel. It has the courage of its predecessor’s convictions and plays with Hitchcock’s tropes (and his cast) with just the right emphasis. Perkins is the same nervy antagonist and Tilly is an excellent foil. Director Richard Franklin has fun with re-staging some famous scenes and manages to make quite the suspenseful thriller – right until the end! Talk about a twist(ed) conclusion!

The Furies (1950)

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I have no stomach for the way you live. It’s the 1870s. Widower T.C. Jeffords (Walter Huston) rules his sprawling New Mexico ranch with an iron fist, a born-again Napoleon who pays with his own currency, TC’s. But his authority doesn’t extend to his strong-willed daughter, Vance (Barbara Stanwyck), who both hates and loves her father with equal ferocity. He abandoned her mother for an inter-racial affair and she died at The Furies, her bedroom a mausoleum left precisely as she left it with Vance fiercely guarding it. Tensions rise when Vance falls for bad boy saloon owner Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey), whom T.C. buys off. But the family conflict turns violent when T.C. decides to marry Flo Burnett (Judith Anderson) and evict Vance’s childhood friend Juan Herrera (Gilbert Roland) from his land… Charles Schnee adapted Niven Busch’s novel and Anthony Mann does quite an exquisite job of staging the action, with his customary mountainous settings providing an objective correlative for a literally furious woman to take revenge. The interiors are no less impressive with the Gothic trappings enhancing the Freudian subtext with both Oedipus and Electra active in the arena of gender identification. There is a mythical quality to this classic narrative and the visuals reinforce a sense of homoerotic voyeurism in a film which constantly veers toward the psychosexual. Stanwyck is magnificent in one of the key roles of her career and the first of her seven western parts in the 1950s which laid the groundwork for her Big Valley matriarch a decade later. There is a domestic scene of horrifying violence that is for the record books. Rivalry was rarely so vicious. Notable for being Walter Huston’s final film performance.  It was shot by Victor Milner with uncredited work done by Lee Garmes and Franz Waxman provides the aggressively tragic score. I write about Stanwyck’s Fifties Westerns  in Steers, Queers and Pioneers, which you can find here:  http://offscreen.com/view/stanwyck-part-1/.

 

 

 

 

 

Hush (1998)

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Do you see what she’s doing? She wants to be me! Handsome rich guy Jackson (Johnathon Schaech) and Helen (Gwyneth Paltrow) are in love and he introduces her to Mom Martha (Jessica Lange) down home in the Deep South. About to have their first child, an attempted robbery and rape prompt them to leave NYC and they move in with Jackson’s mother in order to take care of the family estate which is a horse breeding ranch with a great yield. But all is not well in this household. Martha is jealous of her son’s affection for Helen, and, despite her smile, she’s starting to act strangely. As Helen tries to create a happy home life, Martha attempts to divide the family so that Jackson will become hers alone… Long before she played Joan Crawford in the first hagsploitation horror What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? pace Feud: Bette and Joan, Jessica Lange was sharpening her claws on Gwyneth Paltrow. Jackson is pretty dumb as sons of controlling mothers go, but Martha lays it on the line for Helen every day even trying to prevent her from seeing her late husband’s mother (Nina Foch) who’s in a wheelchair in an old folk’s home and full of interesting tidbits about her son’s death. When Helen’s departure from NYC is prompted by a burglar who intends raping her but she screams I’m pregnant and he scarpers you just know who’s behind it. Luckily Helen notices a blackened fingernail which leads her to the culprit – after she’s found a very spooky nursery in the stables. And her beloved locket with her late parents’ photo. This wears its influences on its expansive sleeve (Rosemary’s Baby et al) but it never really goes full tilt crazy even during the horrendous childbirth so the finale doesn’t have the delirium of Grand Guignol cacklins you want to see.  Mommie Dearest indeed. Written by Jane Rusconi  and director Jonathan Darby.

The Diary of Anne Frank (1959)

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 I think the world may be going through a phase, the way I was with mother. It’ll pass. Maybe not hundreds of years, but someday. – I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart. In 1945 Otto Frank (Joseph Schildkraut) revisits the Amsterdam building where he and his wife and young daughters were hidden from the Nazis during the Occupation and recalls their life in the cramped space with other families … In Nazi-occupied Holland in 1942, shopkeeper Kraler (Douglas Spencer) hides two Jewish families in the attic above his office. Young Anne Frank (Millie Perkins) keeps a diary of everyday life for the Franks and the Van Daans (Lou Jacobi and Shelley Winters) chronicling the Nazi threat as well as family dynamics. They have to maintain total silence during office hours. Miep (Dody Heath) frequently visits with food and other items to keep them going. A romance with Peter Van Daan (Richard Beymer) causes jealousy between Anne and her sister, Margot (Diane Baker). Only Kraler’s radio can provide any relief, especially when troops land at Normandy. But then the office telephone rings repeatedly and the strain tells … As it is Holocaust Memorial Day it is apt to recall a film which was based on a diary (probably co-authored post hoc by her father) kept by an ordinary teenage girl recording her impressions of her daily experiences, her first love, her day-to-day activities and fantasies amid extraordinary circumstances – the utterly desperate covert existence led by a disparate and uncomfortably ill-matched group of people forced to live out in cramped conditions under threat of discovery by Nazis and their collaborators and informers in wartime Holland. It was essential reading when I was growing up and it can hardly have lost its lustre or significance. The building where the family hid was the first destination for me on my trip to Amsterdam and it was unbearably moving to see the newspaper cuttings of movie stars (a lot of Garbo) pasted to the wall in the room where Anne had slept. Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett adapted their own stage play (based on Diary of a Young Girl) and it perfectly captures the initial civility that gives way to the normal reactions to which people under pressure might succumb when food goes missing (stolen by selfish Van Daan), a fake cat allergy (Ed Wynn as dentist Albert Dussell), and a thief who makes regular night-time visits to the safe downstairs, with everyone simply dreading a knock on the door. When Anne has a nightmare about the schoolfriend taken to a concentration camp it is a jolt. While former model Perkins doesn’t have quite sufficient emotional range to convey the complexity of the role (which, to be fair, may have been mostly fictional in the first place) the stresses and irritations of people stuck with each other provide a narrative arc with certain inevitable outcomes that are extremely well played out. The story is persuasively told – suspenseful, tense, sentimental, and, worst of all, horribly true. Directed by George Stevens, a man forever changed by what he saw in the camps. פן ישכחו.


					

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

 

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I want you to do something. I want you to get yourself out of the bed, and get over to the window and scream as loud as you can. Otherwise you only have another three minutes to live. Due to a glitch on the phone line, cough drop queen Leona Stevenson (Barbara Stanwyck), a spoiled controlling heiress confined to a wheelchair, overhears a conversation about a plan to kill a woman. Unable to leave her home or reach her husband Henry (Burt Lancaster) – who’s employed as one of her wealthy father’s many powerless company vice-presidents – and written off by the police, Leona struggles to uncover the truth through a series of phone calls that only lead her deeper into a mystery, which may involve her college love rival, Sally (Ann Richards), and a scheme to sell pharmaceuticals on the black market. As she speaks to different people, flashbacks illuminate the plot but she struggles to find Henry and then she thinks she hears somebody downstairs … Lucille Fletcher’s radio play was called the best ever written by none other than Welles – and he would know. Stanwyck’s hysteria is irritating and wholly appropriate – sweating it out at the end of the line, curtains billowing into her luxurious bedroom where she is literally an unmoving target in a nailbiting thriller which never lets you go as it plays out in real time. This is a superbly controlled noir Gothic thriller with just enough breathing space in the flashbacks until the inexorable, horrible finale – and that last line of dialogue! Adapted by Fletcher and directed by Anatole Litvak.

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.