The Medusa Touch (1978)

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Talk about beating somebody’s brains out. French detective Brunel (Lino Ventura) working temporarily on assignment to Scotland Yard in London reconstructs the life of author John Morlar (Richard Burton) who is lying in hospital with severe head injuries following a brutal assault that has nearly killed him.  With the help of the man’s journals and psychiatrist Dr Zonfeld (Lee Remick) he realises that Morlar had powerful telekinetic abilities. His books make the link between evil and power and a pattern starts to emerge:  Brunel starts making uncanny connections with a series of disasters occurring in the outside world triggered initially perhaps by Morlar’s childhood brush with a terrible fire-breathing nanny (Frances Tomelty) whom he believes he willed to death …  If he believed himself involved in disasters he may have convinced someone else too. And they may have sought revenge. This oddly satisfying genre-splicing of psychological thriller/supernatural horror/disaster film/policier is aided immensely by Burton’s brilliant performance and Ventura’s charismatic presence, a real fish out of water navigating both a bizarre case and the politics of London policing. There are a number of significant alterations from the novel but the texture is enhanced by plugging into contemporary fears and layering them with cod-Freudianism to effectively channel several horror tropes and a heady dose of misanthropy. John Briley adapted Peter Van Greenaway’s source book and it was produced by the brilliant editor Anne V. Coates and shot by reliable veteran Arthur Ibbetson. Directed by Jack Gold.  I am the man with the power to create catastrophe

The Little Stranger (2018)

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What this house needs is a big dose of happiness. During the long, hot summer of 1948, Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) travels to Hundreds Hall in Warwickshire, home to the Ayres family for more than two centuries. The Hall is now in decline, and its inhabitants – mother (Charlotte Rampling), scarred and crippled son Roderick (Will Poulter) suffering after serving as a pilot in the war and daughter Caroline (Ruth Wilson) – remain haunted by something more ominous than just a dying way of life. When Faraday takes on a new patient there, he has no idea how closely the family’s story is about to become entwined with his own as it transpires he spent time there as a child with his mother who was a housemaid to the family in the aftermath of WWI...  I’m afraid I was horribly jealous of her. She seemed to have such a charmed existence. Adapted from the Sarah Waters novel by Lucinda Coxon, this quasi-Gothic outing has the veneer of sociopolitical critique but is basically a haunted house story with a personal mystery at its core. That mystery is embodied in the doctor – in a case perhaps of Physician, heal thyself, the problems of childhood experience writ large. It’s a sinister and rather elegant exercise but the destiny of the largely unattractive cast seems prefigured in the mouldy decay of the house itself and doesn’t really add up to a hill of beans, complicated by Gleeson’s opacity and the ending, which is true to the obscure conclusion of Waters’ novel. Is this England? Directed by Lenny Abrahamson. Where will it all end?

The Halfway House (1944)

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Death is only a door opening.  During the Second World War, people converge on the Halfway House, an inn in the Welsh countryside run by Rhys (Mervyn Johns) and his daughter Gwyneth (his real-life daughter Glynis Johns). In Cardiff, famous orchestra conductor David Davies (Esmond Knight) is advised by his doctor to cancel a tour and rest, or he will live for only about three months. In London, Lt. Richard (Richard Bird)  and Jill French (Valerie White) argue about the education of their young daughter Joanna (Sally Ann Howes) who overhears them agree to divorce. Then Mr. French and Joanna go on holiday. Captain Fortescue (Guy Middleton) is released from Parkmoor Prison where he did time after being court-martialled for stealing the regimental funds. In a Welsh port, merchant captain Harry Meadows (Tom Walls) and his French wife Alice (Françoise Rosay) quarrel about their deceased son, a victim of the U-boats. Black marketeer Oakley (Alfred Drayton)departs from London for some fishing, while Margaret (Phillippa Hiatt) and her Irish diplomat fiancé Terence (Pat McGrath) take a train from Bristol…… Boyish girls and girlish boys. The fashion for the supernatural in wartime continues apace in this adaptation of Dennis Ogden’s play The Peaceful Inn by Angus Macphail, Diana Morgan, Roland Pertwee and T.E.B. Clarke.  Arguments about what constitutes grief (should a mother feel more than a father), should a family stay together for the daughter’s sake and political righteousness (Ireland’s neutrality – a wish for an impossible peace or an excuse not to takes side) are all on the table. The final images suggest that the external landscape following the inn’s bombing is something that can be made and remade within the mind itself. Strange and fascinating Ealing production with all those familiar faces.  Directed by Basil Dearden. That’s last year’s calendar!

Suspiria (1977)

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You’re going to meet death now… the LIVING DEAD! Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) transfers to Germany to attend the Freiburg Tanzakademie, a prestigious ballet school. When she arrives, late on a stormy night, no one lets her in, and she sees Pat Hingle (Eva Axén), another student, fleeing from the school. When Pat reaches her apartment, she is murdered. The next day, Suzy arrives at her new school, where Miss Tanner (Alida Valli) introduces her to everyone, including the imperious Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett, in her final role) but has a difficult time settling in. She hears noises, and often feels ill, put on a special diet. As more people die, Suzy uncovers the terrifying secret history of the place and has to save herself from a witches’ coven …  I can see that once you make up your mind about something, nothing will change it for you. My compliments. Co-written by director Dario Argento with Daria Nicolodi (and vaguely based on the Thomas de Quincey essay Suspiria de Profundis), this is one of the classic giallos, a colourful, suspenseful exercise in paranoid conspiracy Gothic supernatural horror, with witches instead of politicians and a gutsy heroine who reigns supreme. There are several gorgeous set pieces, incredible cinematography (Luciano Tovoli) and production design (Giuseppe Bassan) and one of the all-time great scores by Goblin and Argento. And it wouldn’t be a Seventies Euro horror without Udo Kier! A delicious delirious dream of a film, every frame bearing the imprint of a master filmmaker. Crazy, sensational and utterly fabulous, this is peak Argento. Suzy, do you know anything about… witches?

Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (1965)

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Schreck? That’s a German word isn’t it? Means fear or horror. On board a train, fortune teller Dr Schreck (Peter Cushing) uses a set of tarot cards to reveal to his fellow passengers (Christopher Lee, Donald Sutherland, Roy Castle, Neil McCallum, Alan Freeman) what destiny awaits each of them … This town isn’t big enough for two doctors… or two vampires.  The first Amicus anthology film and influenced by the great Dead of Night, combining five stories comprising a vampire, a severed hand, a man-eating plant, a voodoo curse and a werewolf – that’s what you get for talking to the Grim Reaper on the way to work. It’s one of my favourite childhood Saturday night horrors with some nice effects and not a little black humour. Written by producer Milton Subotsky and directed by Freddie Francis. Plant like that… could take over the world!

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?

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