Format: DVD + Blue-ray Release date: 26 June 2017 Distributor: Lionsgate Director: André Øvredal Writers: Ian Goldberg, Richard Naing Cast: Brian Cox, Emile Hirsch, Ophelia Lovibond, Olwen Kelly
UK, USA 2016
André Øvredal follow-up to Troll Hunter is an original, elegant horror tale anchored by a well-observed father/son relationship.
When an advance screener of André Øvredal’s Troll Hunter slipped into my machine at the end of 2011, the buzz about the film was already intense, with plenty of discussion about the fact that it had been optioned for a US remake before the film had even been released there. The remake never materialised and although I enjoyed it, I wasn’t blown away. So when I began watching The Autopsy of Jane Doe, which has been surrounded by another blaze of publicity (including favourable comments from Stephen King and Guillermo del Toro), I was a little wary. This caution was quickly dispelled, however.
Format: Blue-ray Release date: 15 May 2017 Distributor: Eureka Entertainment Director: Sidney J. Furie Writer: Frank De Filetta (original novel and screenplay) Cast: Barbara Hershey, Ron Silver, David Labiosa
Sidney Furie’s disturbing, ambiguous 80s poltergeist tale brings up difficult issues surrounding sexual assault.
Sidney J. Furie’s sunshine-set supernatural horror, The Entity, is based on an alleged true story, ‘a story so shocking, so threatening, it will frighten you beyond all imagination’. Carla Moran (Barbara Hershey) is the single mother of three children, a teenage boy (David Labiosa) and two younger girls, struggling to get by in Southern California. Our brief introduction to Carla is set to menacing, clanging noises; after an exhausting day, she returns to the safety of her modest bungalow, only to be viciously attacked in her own bed by an unseen assailant. Her cries bring her son running, but a search of their home uncovers nothing – no perpetrator, no forced entry, no unlocked doors.
Writers: José Ramón Larraz, Stanley Miller, Thomas Owen
Cast: Angela Pleasance, Peter Vaughan, Lorna Heilbron
UK, Belgium 1974
Spanish director José Larraz’s take on the English ghost story is beautifully atmospheric and subtly disturbing.
‘I know everything that goes on in these woods. Many things go on in these woods.’ So says Helen (Angela Pleasence), a delicate, vulnerable seeming young woman whose wide-eyed gaze seems indicative of an innocence bordering on mania. She is staying in a mansion with her friend Anne, played by Lorna Heilbron with a sharp Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby haircut. The other obvious Roman Polanski influence is Repulsion, as Helen’s feeble grip on reality begins to loosen and the story of a former friend Cora slowly unravels. All the while, Brady (Peter Vaughan), a beefy gamekeeper with Laurentian ambitions, lurks in the woods.
Spanish director José Larraz turns away from his earlier sexploitation style and produces that peculiarly English genre: the ghost story. Symptoms exists in the tradition of Don’t Look Now or, later, The Others, filled with painful memories, repressed desires and emotions and sudden messy violence. Like those films, it locates its core in human emotion and Larraz allows his characters time for their relationship to slowly evolve, as much through mutual quietness as dialogue. Both Helen and Anne need each other and there is genuine warmth, which never spends itself in lurid eroticism. This might be the beginning of a lesbian affair, or a deep friendship, or in fact both.
The gardens and woods, the river and pond are all filmed with a Kodachrome lustre, the sunlight glints from rivulets and river water dripping from dipping oars and through the branches of the trees that fragment it into shafts and yellow beams. The house itself is full of heavy furniture, but there are also mirrors that reflect the past as much as the present as well as knives and razors and an attic perfect for its very own Bertha Mason. There’s a kind of split personality to the way the camera moves as well. The meditative watching is constantly disturbed by the sudden cuts and movements, as if the eye must always search for something that just happened, a presence just departed.
As the denouement is reached, Larraz’s film confidently subverts without ever really surprising. There is a dread inevitability to the oddness that occurs and a sadness overlaying everything which mutes the horror, but also colours it effectively as if we are sleepwalking to our doom, destroying everything, including those we love, in our path. Although released as Britain’s entry to the Cannes Film Festival, Symptoms slipped away somehow and became a legendary lost film, on the BFI’s most wanted list of lost films as it happens, passed around by collectors in poor quality VHS versions. This new re-mastered print is deservedly pristine, highlighting the wonderful cinematography of Trevor Wrenn, who according to IMDb only photographed three films, all of them in 1974.
An odd, upsetting 71 minutes from Latvia, in which an unnamed man, dressed in the utilitarian high-visibility vest of the title, separates from the crowds of similarly attired workers, leaves a plant and makes his way to the house of the industrialist who has just put him and 211 others out of work. There, he uses his toolkit to exact bloody revenge, and maybe steal a little of the luxury lifestyle he feels he is owed. However, something isn’t right; the mansion makes strange noises, the cupboards are bare. Rich food, when he eats it, doesn’t agree with him, cigars make him choke. He’s plagued by nightmares, just-glimpsed figures and the feeling that he’s being stalked. Possibly by a man in an orange jacket…
Partly a twist on home-invasion horror, part old-fashioned ghost story, part politically conscious fable, The Man in the Orange Jacket is complex and unsettling. Bringing to mind The Shining and Jan Švankmajer in some places, The Woman in Black in others, it is not averse to getting properly nasty now and then. Divided into four acts, and largely dialogue free, it eludes simple explanation. Has the act of murder and greed in act one turned the man into his own enemy in the class war? Is he simply a horrible psychopath being tortured by the unquiet shades of his victims? How much of any of this is only happening within his head? Undoubtedly there is an emphasis on the emptiness of bourgeois desire, and on the corruptions of capital, especially in scenes where he treats two (apparently twin) prostitutes he has hired as a ‘rich man’ appallingly, showing his own capacity for exploitation.
Frankly, I’d be lying if I said I had a handle on exactly what was going on at every given moment. What I can say without much fear of contradiction is that the sound design is brilliant and that writer-director Aik Karapetian is a dab hand at evoking nameless menace and delivering brutal shocks. Approach with caution.
Cast: Rupert Evans, Antonia Campbell-Hughes, Steve Oram
One of the highlights of Film4 FrightFest 2014, Ivan Kavanagh’s shadowy horror tale starts with film archivist David asking a group of school kids in a cinema if they would like to see ghosts before showing them a silent film from the turn of the 20th century: everyone they will see on screen is dead, he tells them. This is an ominous and apt introduction, not only to the ghost story that will follow, but to the film’s look backward at the disappearing forms of its own medium.
After five years of living in a beautiful old house by a canal with his wife Alice and young son, David begins to suspect that she is having an affair. At the same time, he finds footage at work of a 1902 crime scene and realises that the murder of a cheating wife and their children by her husband took place in their house. As his suspicions become stronger, he begins to have visions of the sinister murderer and increasingly loses his grip on reality.
What makes The Canal so captivating is less the familiar story than David’s intensifying nightmarish mindscape, constructed around the secret-filled canal, neon-lit public toilets, holes behind walls and underground tunnels, building a dark, oppressive atmosphere enhanced by strong colours and elusive shadows. His obsession with – and possible possession by – the sinister murderer of 1902 does not echo only his jealousy and fear: he is a prisoner of the past that his work represents, unable or unwilling to move on and live in the modern world to which his wife seems so well attuned.
Just like its protagonist, The Canal is haunted by the ghosts of its own history, by the eerie pulsing light of silver nitrate and the fleeting beauty of its luminous contrast, in thrall to its hypnotic power, as though it were impossible to ever equal it, but also attempting to preserve it, fighting a lost fight against the evolution of the medium, trying to keep what is dead alive. Interestingly, this simmering anxiety about the future of film was present in a number of other titles in the FrightFest programme. It may be telling that The Canal ends on a bleak, uncompromising note, with the characters condemned to remain trapped in an ever repeating cycle: it seems that for them as for cinema there is no escape from the past.
Cast: Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, Olivia Williams, Sarah Gadon, John Cusack, Robert Pattinson
Canada, USA 2014
You can say what you want about Maps to the Stars, as long you don’t mention the word ‘satire’. At least not in the presence of director David Cronenberg or his screenwriter Bruce Wagner, who spent most of their time in Cannes denying the fact that the narrative could be seen as such. A pitch-black family drama of sorts, yes. Cronenberg’s very own Divine Comedy, maybe. A haunting, terrifying version of life in LA, if you like. But a ‘Tinseltown satire’, NO. ‘It is not a satire of Hollywood,’ Cronenberg stresses in more than one interview, ‘it’s reality.’ And Wagner adds: ‘I’ve given you the lay of the land as I see it, saw it, and lived it.’
If so, then the truth is that Wagner has seen a lot – by anyone’s standards. Julianne Moore plays Havana, a fading yet feisty ageing actress, who is desperate to make her big comeback but instead is increasingly haunted by the ghost of her mother, a celebrated child actress who became a classic Hollywood star. To her good fortune, Havana is inclined to think, she meets Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), whom she employs as her new PA. Branded with burn scars on her hands and arms, Agatha, however, has her very own agenda. The daughter of a smug self-help guru (John Cusack) and demanding mother (Olivia Williams), who managed her kids’ careers but otherwise cared little for their well-being, Agatha left home for rehab after causing a fire that put her and her little brother Benjie (Evan Bird) – a child star ruined by fame – in life-threatening danger. Now back in the hood, Agatha lives out her inner demons and romantic fantasies in a weird imaginary game with limousine chauffeur Jerome (Robert Pattinson), who, in turn, is seduced by Havana. Unsurprisingly, things get pretty messy from here on.
In his career, spanning almost 40 years since his 1975 debut featureShivers, Cronenberg has never before shot an entire film in LA and, quite aptly, finally arrives only to expose it to the bone before burning it all down to ashes. What’s more, Maps to the Stars exploits its blatantly Lynch-inspired plot of switching reality for fantasy, yourself for someone else, and losing all sense of truth to a point where delusion (and in Havana’s case, hysteria) thrives, terror rules, and nothing is sacred.
In both counts, the film sees Cronenberg at his weirdest, wittiest and most horrifying in years, crafting a highly charged, cynical nightmare about today’s fucked-up Hollywood society, with the suitable feel of a mystery ghost story. And yet, as fitting, seductive and gruesome as it is, Maps to the Stars somewhat feels at odds with the director’s insistence that the film is anything but a satirical apocalypse. But luckily, as in real life, the truth lies in the details and it is the ambiguity that makes the experience worthwhile.
Writers: Truman Capote, William Archibald, John Mortimer
Cast: Deborah Kerr, Pamela Franklin, Martin Stephens, Megs Jenkins, Peter Wyngarde, Clytie Jessop
UK, USA 1961
Adapted in 1961 from Henry James’s masterpiece of ambiguity The Turn of the Screw, Jack Clayton’s The Innocents is one of the finest ghost stories in British cinema. With an intelligent screenplay by Truman Capote, William Archibald and John Mortimer; radiant cinematography by Freddie Francis (who went on to direct films for Hammer and Amicus, as well as the brilliant 70s oddity Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly); an eerie score by Georges Auric; and an extraordinary performance by Deborah Kerr, the film is a superbly crafted, subtle gem that remains deeply disturbing.
Read Robert Barry’s feature on the score and Daphne Oram’s electronic sound effects for the film here.
Kerr plays Miss Giddens, a repressed minister’s daughter, who has left the shelter of her father’s parish to seek employment as a governess. She is hired by a wealthy bachelor (Michael Redgrave) to look after his orphaned niece and nephew on his country estate. On arrival at Bly House, she is charmed by the delightful Flora (Pamela Franklin) and Miles (Martin Stephens), but a number of strange occurrences lead her to believe that the children are possessed by the spirits of the previous governess, Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop), and former disreputable servant Quint (Peter Wyngarde), who died violent, mysterious deaths after a scandalous love affair.
Whether Miss Giddens is right, or whether the ghosts are simply a manifestation of her growing derangement, is left carefully undecided in the perfectly poised original story. Clayton’s film, and Kerr’s performance, seem to lean more towards the thesis of the governess’s insanity, although both beautifully maintain enough layers of ambiguity. Flora and Miles’s angelic features and apparent sweet natures are marred by unexplained behaviour, suggestive silences and intimations of cruelty, which could corroborate Miss Giddens’s fears. As for Kerr, she is both heartbreaking and frightening in the intensity of her need for love and human attachment, and her passionate desire to ‘save’ the children may well cause their destruction instead.
At the heart of the film (and of the short story) lies a deep, dark, tortured anxiety about the innocence of children and the corruption of sex. Flora and Miles may know more than they should, and it is this terrible suspicion that so troubles the inexperienced, straight-laced Miss Giddens. Nature is the symbol of that corrupting force, of the carnal urges and predatory instincts that intrude upon the civilised, polite world of tea, corsets and lace at Bly House. The idyllic garden that surrounds the house is spoiled by defilement and savagery: a cockroach comes out of the mouth of a cherubic statue, a spider eats a butterfly on the terrace and the singing of birds sometimes sounds deafeningly menacing. The ghosts of Quint and Miss Jessel are feral presences that lurk outside the domesticated house, waiting to ‘contaminate’ the children. When Miss Giddens demands that the kindly housekeeper, Mrs Grose (Megs Jenkins), reveal what she knows, the latter wonderfully obliquely explains that Quint and Jessel used the rooms on the upper floor of the house ‘as if they were woods’, confirming that the lovers belong to the world of the wild, of filthy, depraved sexuality – to Miss Giddens’s horror.
So much is suggested, and so little shown. An atmospheric tour de force, with a tremendous sense of restraint that gives the film its evocative power, The Innocents is all about hints of shameful secrets and intimations of improper desires, set among arches and vaults, dark wooden panels and spectral candle glow, with Deborah Kerr’s anguished, moving face so often the only spot of light in the darkness. And how haunting that face and its unresolved torments are.
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