The Skeleton Key (2005)

The Skeleton Key.jpg

The thing folks just don’t understand about sacrifice… sometimes it’s more of a trade. Twentysomething Caroline Ellis (Kate Hudson), a good-natured nurse living in New Orleans feels guilty about not being around for her father’s death while she was on the road working for rock bands. She quits her job as a carer at a hospice to work at a plantation mansion in the Terrebonne Parish for Violet Devereaux (Gena Rowlands), an elderly woman whose husband, Ben (John Hurt), is in poor health following a stroke. When Caroline begins to explore the couple’s rundown house where Violet bans mirrors, she discovers strange artifacts in a locked room at the back of the attic and learns the house has a mysterious past to do with servants from the 1920s, Papa Justify (Ronald McCall) and Mama Cecile (Jeryl Prescott) and the practice of hoodoo. She realises that Violet is keeping a sinister secret about the cause of Ben’s illness and wants to get the old man out of there. When she appeals to their estate lawyer Luke Marshall (Peter Sarsgaard) for assistance she finds that he’s not quite what he seems to be …  It gets harder every time. They just don’t believe like they used to. Gotta get ’em all riled up. An immensely appealing excursion into folk horror that is as much about the history of Louisiana and race relations as it is a genre exercise (though it’s a fairly efficient suspense machine too). Beautifully staged and atmospherically sustained by that very stylish director Iain Softley, it’s written by Ehren Kruger, who burst on the scene with the surprising Arlington Road, another look at Americana (of the homebred terror group variety) who has spent his time since this either a) making a shedload of money or b) squandering his immense talent (take your pick – perhaps both?) making the Transformers films. Hudson is very good opposite screen great Rowlands while Hurt spends his time silenced by the stroke, emoting with his eyes and making a failed suicide attempt off a roof. That’s how badly he needs outta here. Gorgeous location shooting around New Orleans and Louisiana make this a feast for the eyes and the twist ending is very satisyfing, cherI don’t believe I don’t believe I don’t believe

Advertisements

The Plague of the Zombies (1966)

The Plague of the Zombies.jpg

Please take care not to stray from the path.  In 1860 young local doctor Peter Tompson (Brooks Williams) cannot stop the spread of an epidemic in his Cornish village. He contacts his old professor Sir James Forbes (Andre Morell) who arrives with his daughter Sylvia (Diane Clare). She notices that Peter’s sister Alice (Jacqueline Pearce) is unwell. When the men disinter coffins and find them empty they link the plague to Squire Clive Hamilton (John Carson) and his voodoo practices which he learned in his time in the West Indies so when the men act against him it’s time to assemble his zombie army … Do you believe in life after death? A terrifically effective thriller from Hammer, beautifully made and endlessly influential:  the green-tinted zombie ‘mare an hour in is chillingly convincing. Screenwriter Peter Bryan had already written the studio’s Hound of the Baskervilles and The Brides of Dracula and the conventions of the graveyard standoff, the doctor’s intervention and the possessed women are all here in this restrained horror. Carson does a good vocal impersonation of James Mason. Stylish as heck. Directed by John Gilling.  I dreamed I saw the dead rise

Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (1965)

Dr Terrors House of Horrors.jpg

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!

Eureka (1983)

Eureka poster.jpg

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

The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake (1959)

The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake.jpg

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.

I Walked With a Zombie (1943)

I Walked With a Zombie.jpg

‘There’s no beauty here – only death and decay. Everything dies here – even the stars.’ RKO were on the skids with the commercial failure of Orson Welles’ films so producer Val Lewton was entrusted with churning out low budgeters ($150,000 limit) with audience appeal. One of these famous cult productions is this Jane Eyre adaptation by Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray from a magazine article by Inez Wallace, set in Haiti or an island very like it, with Frances Dee as a nurse hired to care for Christine Gordon who has a mysterious illness. Dee falls for the husband, sugar plantation owner Tom Conway and begins to get drawn into the island’s strange colonial past and the voodoo culture… Zombies, colonial guilt, voodoo ceremonies, calypso, sibling rivalry, supernatural ambiguity and the ineffable blend beautifully in a film that positively drips with atmosphere and scares under the careful direction of Jacques Tourneur, all on the studio lot. Better experienced than read about.

French Quarter (1978)

French Quarter 1978 movie poster.jpg

We love N’Oleans, cher. And we love odd films. So this curiosity from the late 70s drive-in circuit is just the ticket. Directed by Dennis Kane from his screenplay with Barney Cohen. Bereaved drifter Alisha Fontaine (a newcomer of 17 going on 35 who had done a biker flick and a drugs movie some years earlier…) turns up on the Greyhound bus and doesn’t like life as a stripper. By some voodoo trick she winds up in the same bed 100 years earlier, in a brothel. Pretty Baby X French Lieutenant’s Woman, as one wag has it, this has okay production values, narrative stretch (with a VO to keep us in the loop) and some serious strangeness. Bizarrely, the soundtrack is composed by the great Dick Hyman and there are tracks by Jelly Roll Morton (who shows up 100 years ago!!!). Virginia Mayo’s late career appearance is a welcome addition. And there’s Barry Sullivan too!  (And spot a Playboy Bunny). Was it all just an especially piquant dream?

The Vault of Horror (1973)

Vault of Horror poster.jpg

Amicus (Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg) was the only other production company attempting to give Hammer a run for their money in the 60s and early 70s and this was another in their series of portmanteau films, adapted from stories by William Gaines. Five men are trapped in the basement of an office building and share their recurring nightmares. My favourite is the one with Terry-Thomas and Glynis Johns and their fabulous bungalow filled with vinyl wallpaper, anglepoise lamps and a mod kitchen. There’s also fun to be had in seeing Robin Nedwell (from TV’s Doctor in the House) and Arthur Mullard – and then finding out who’s really top dog at the end. Not really terrifying, more of a mood piece about male anxiety.