Sleepy Hollow (1999)

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Villainy wears many masks, none so dangerous as the mask of virtue. in 1799 New York Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) is an annoyingly methodical policeman sent to Sleepy Hollow to investigate the decapitations of three people, with the culprit being the legendary apparition, The Headless Horseman. He finds himself completely out of his depth in the New England town where the supernatural competes with real-life wickedness as Baltus Van Tassel (Michael Gambon) tries to divert the earnest interloper’s scientific approach elsewhere yet his daughter Katrina (Christina Ricci) takes a fancy to Ichabod and tries to interest him in spells … It is truth, but truth is not always appearance. Depp makes for a wonderfully squeamish Crane as he bumbles through an assortment of seedy pantomime characters (Richard Griffiths, Ian McDiarmid, Jeffrey Jones and a one-eyed Michael Gough) decorating Andrew Kevin Walker’s adaptation of the Washington Irving classic.  Director Tim Burton has a whale of a time in this dank Gothic landscape devising more ways to behead the victims. Not scary at all! Will you take nothing from Sleepy Hollow that was worth the coming here?

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Angelica (2017)

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You pursue your own desire at your family’s expense. In the Victorian era, a young wife Constance (Jena Malone) and her husband Dr Joseph Barton (Ed Stoppard) go through a difficult time in their marriage after the arrival of their baby Angelica,  heightened by a mysterious ghost that enters their house. They have been advised to stop having sex following a traumatic birth and Barton is wholly frustrated by his wife bringing their daughter into the marital bed and eventually insists Angelica have her own room. When he resumes sex with Constance little Angelica experiences shared visions with her mother which become dangerously physical – but only in the child’s room.  When Constance pays a visit to Barton’s workplace she discovers he is carrying out horrific animal experiments.  Housekeeper Nora (Tovah Feldshuh) advises Constance to consult her spiritualist friend Anne Montague (Janet McTeer) whose intervention gives her small respite. Then Barton finds his daughter’s bed on fire and believes his wife is mad … My child suffers pain the precise moment I am submissive to my husband. Adapted from Arthur Philips’ titular novel, this is a precisely nuanced treatise on sexual repression in the Victorian era. Told in the form of an extended flashback from the sick bed of Angelica’s mother (with Malone playing the grown up Angelica) where she wants to explain the disappearance of Barton when Angelica was young, it utilises every trope from Gothic literature to dramatise the horrors of desire unleashed.  An exquisitely beautiful, rather mysterious film about women’s power that is let down only by the rather underpowered acting of the leads. Written and directed by Mitchell Lichtenstein, whose father is fabled Pop Art legend Roy, with mesmerising production design by Luciana Arrighi. The mother’s confession has a suitably ironic (actual) climax.  Find your pleasure elsewhere

 

John Carpenter’s The Ward (2010)

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Nobody ever gets out. In North Bend Psychiatric Hospital in rural Oregon, 1966 a patient called Tammy dies in strange and violent circumstances. Kristen (Amber Heard) is committed there after she burns down a house. She is suffering from amnaesia.  It seems an angry spirit of a former patient is haunting the girls (Mamie Gummer, Laura-Leigh, Lyndsy Fonseca, Danielle Panabaker) who are being treated on her ward and they are disappearing one by one. Dr Gerald Springer (Jared Harris) pays Kristen no heed and in fact subjects her to terrible medical treatment when she warns of the girl called Alice Hudson who was a former inmate and whose ghost stalks the corridors. What did the others do to her to make her swear revenge? And why is she included? Kristen makes desperate escape attempts after the staff ignore her fear of losing her life to the spirit… You stay locked up long enough and you start to believe that you’re nuts. You’ll recognise some visual references to other films here – and what else would you expect from the maestro John Carpenter? This is a small-scale exercise in tropes from the medical horror sub-genre with an attractive cast playing it for real, even if there’s something of a tribute to Nurse Ratched by Susanna Burney in this Sixties-set Snake Pit. It may turn on the most rudimentary issues and beliefs of psychiatry and ideas about how a personality might take steps to insulate against past traumas but it’s probably true to the era. In the midst of the Mean Girls scenario are some observations about how people deal with being institutionalised in physically violent and threatening environments. However it’s fast and fun and efficiently dramatised by the great Carpenter. Written by Michael Rasmussen and Shawn Rasmussen. Sleep tight, sugar!

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

 

Eureka (1983)

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Aka River of Darkness. Once I had it all. Now I have everything. After 15 years of searching on his own, Arctic prospector Jack McCann (Gene Hackman), becomes one of the world’s wealthiest men when he literally falls into a mountain of gold in 1925. Twenty years later in 1945, he lives in luxury on Luna Bay, a Caribbean island that he owns. His riches bring no peace of mind as he feels utterly besieged:  he must deal with Helen (Jane Lapotaire), his bored, alcoholic wife; Tracy (Theresa Russell), his headstrong daughter who has married Claude Van Horn (Rutger Hauer) a dissolute, philandering, narcissistic social-climber; and Miami mobsters Aurelio D’Amato (Mickey Rourke) and Mayakofsky (Joe Pesci), who want the island to build a casino off the Florida coast but Jack is resistant to gambling and their frontman Charles Perkins (Ed Lauter) cannot persuade him to do a deal with them. I never made a nickel off another man’s sweat. When Jack is brutally murdered, his son-in-law, Claude, is arrested for the crime and put on trial … One of Nicolas Roeg’s most underrated achievements, this pseudo-biography is a fascinating portrayal of perversion and power, obsession and dread. The texture of the film, contained in lush colour coding, symbols of the occult and the ever-present stench of sex, oozes corruption and greed, decay and desire. Adapted by Paul Mayersberg from Marshall Houts’ book Who Killed Sir Harry Oakes? an account of that real-life murder in the 1940s, in which the author suggests that Meyer Lansky had Oakes killed [Pesci’s role is based on the gangster albeit this carries the conventional disclaimer], this exhibits all the familiar Roegian tropes. It also has echoes of Orson Welles as character, a director who hit the cinematic motherlode first time off the blocks and spent the remainder of his life in a kind of desperation (or so people would like to think). Hence McCann feels larger than life and is dramatised as such with Wagner soundtracking his great – almost psychedelic – discovery and Yukon poet Robert Service’s words Spell of the Yukon amplifying its myth. It isn’t the gold that he wants so much as finding the gold The allusions to Citizen Kane are clear and the portentous character of prostitute/fortune teller Frieda (Helena Kallianiotes) would appear to have at least superficial similarities with Oja Kodar, Welles’ last companion. One moment of rapture followed by decades of despair. The first line of dialogue we hear is Murder! and there is a structure which suggests destiny is being fulfilled. This is a story about disparate characters connected by blood and a morbid wish for ecstasy which suggests life but actually propels towards death. Russell’s testimony in court is gripping and Hauer as the playboy driven by the Kabbalah and other elements of the supernatural is just as good. Hackman is Hackman – he totally inhabits Jack, this man whose greatness is envied by all but whose happiest time was in the wastes of Alaska so long ago, basking in heat and light now but longing for snow.  It is this man’s ability to function as a totally singular individual that creates the chasm between himself and others, gangsters or not.  Internally he knows it is Frieda who led him to the gold that made him the richest man in the world but he decries notions of luck or superstition. His murder is an accurate depiction of what happened to Oakes and it’s terribly gruesome – sadistic and heartless. The first part of the film could be from silent movies – and the bizarre aphoristic dialogue is laughable except that it sets up the sense of supernature which dominates the narrative. Shot by Alex Thomson, edited by that magician of jagged mosaic Tony Lawson, and scored by Stanley Myers (including wonderful double bass solos composed and performed by Francois Rabbath), if this sometimes feels that it has not fully committed to the melodramatic mode (there are a lot of genres at work), the threads of gold and blood make it a satisfying and disturbing watch, with some extraordinary performances bolstering the overall effect. This is all about signs and meaning.  A mystery. The end of the beginning

Night of the Demon (1957)

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Aka Curse of the Demon. Where does imagination end and reality begin? What is this twilight, this half world of the mind that you profess to know so much about? How can we differentiate between the powers of darkness and the powers of the mind?  American professor Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews) arrives in London for a conference on parapsychology only to discover that the colleague he was supposed to meet, Professor Harrington (Maurice Denham) was killed in a freak accident the day before. It turns out that the deceased had been investigating a devil-worshipping cult lead by Dr. Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis). Though sceptical, Holden is suspicious of Karswell. Following a trail of mysterious manuscripts, Holden finds out that the sole link between Karswell and Harrington is a supposed murderer Rand Hobart (Brian Wilde) who is now catatonic. At Harrington’s funeral he meets the man’s niece Joanna (Peggy Cummins) who gives him Harrington’s diary. He enters a world that makes him question his faith in science…  Adapted by producer Hal E. Chester, Charles Bennett (responsible for creating Hitchcock’s trademark tropes) and Cy Endfield, from the story Casting the Runes by the great M.R. James, this is one of the best horror films ever made. Notwithstanding the material’s power, the producer argued with director Jacques Tourneur (and Bennett) as to whether the demon should actually be shown – the producer won. Andrews (replacing Robert Taylor) is pretty good in a film that just drips with tension:  you wouldn’t want to attend a seance led by Athene Seyler in a hurry.  Locations include Brocket Hall, Herts., Stonehenge, Salisbury Plain, Bricket Wood Railway Station, Heathrow Airport, the Savoy and the British Museum Reading Room. It’s totally terrifying, incredibly atmospheric and an under-seen minor classic of the genre. I’ve heard it I’ve seen it I know it’s real

Flatliners (2017)

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I didn’t know the side effects would show up and start hunting us down.  Five medical students embark on a dangerous experiment to gain insight into the mystery of what lies beyond the confines of life, initiated by super-smart Courtney (Ellen Page) who attempts to regain contact with the younger sister she killed in a car crash when she drove off a bridge. They trigger near-death experiences by stopping their hearts for short periods of time. As their trials become more perilous, each must confront the sins from their past while facing the paranormal consequences of journeying to the other side … Directed by Niels Arden Oplev, this remake of the fabulously trashy 1990 original takes itself a little more seriously – and who wouldn’t, with little Ms Page to be dispatched. Once One Takes The Anatomy Final Very Good Vacations Are Heavenly, she declares to her dumb classmate Sophia (Kiersey Clemons) and she has to explain that it’s a mnemonic. Except she pronounces it pneumonic. What a great idea for a movie, exploring the concept of the afterlife. Except that this turns it into quasi-horror with the ghosts of people’s guilty past coming back to get revenge, thus avoiding any more complex explorations of life beyond biology. When Courtney flatlines she is plunged into the past and her medical knowledge ratchets up several notches impressing their senior doctor Barry Wolfson (Kiefer Sutherland, making us hanker for the original and very good looking cast). Rich kid Jamie (James Norton) lives on a boat and after he flatlines he is haunted by the ghost of his still-living ex, a waitress at his father’s country club whom he impregnated and abandoned the day of her abortion. He becomes more intuitive. Marlo (Nina Dobrev) however is haunted by the ghost of a man whom she killed in the ER. Sophia figures she’ll gain academic advantage but she just becomes a sexpot and then wants to get the forgiveness of a more gifted student she screwed over in high school. Former firefighter Ray (Diego Luna) is the conscience of the group who just doesn’t go under and urges Marlo to come clean over the death she caused. Then things get murky and murderous…  Adapted by Ben Ripley from the 1990 screenplay by Peter Filardi this self-absorbed millennial mindlessness avoids profundity at every opportunity and is satisfied with the minutiae of dull people in darkened apartments which would be a lot less creepy if someone just switched on a light occasionally. Personally when I awoke from my own brief death on the operating table all I could think about was Guinness.  I didn’t even drink it. No insights there! Or here. So it goes.  It’s an awakening. See you later Jesus!

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.

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.