Archive for the ‘Gothic’ Category

Maps_to_the_Stars_poster

Director: David Cronenberg

Writer: Bruce Wagner

Country: Canada / USA / Germany / France

Runtime: 111 mins

“Bad Babysitter” reads the lettering on Agatha Weiss’s (Mia Wasikowska) sweatshirt, as she lies asleep in a coach driving through the night towards Hollywood. These words turn out to carry a heavy weight of significance in this dark, Gothic nightmare from writer Bruce Wagner and director David Cronenberg. Wagner’s script draws upon his own experiences as a former Hollywood limousine driver who would often give fake tours to visitors. According to Wagner, Maps to the Stars “doesn’t have a satirical bone in its elegiac, messy, hysterical body. I’ve given you the lay of the land as I see it, saw it, and lived it”.

Jerome Fontana (Robert Pattison) is the first person that Agatha encounters when she arrives in Hollywood. He is a wannabe script writer working as a hire driver. As they motor in the sunshine past the palm trees, Fontana points out the homes of the stars. When he mentions Juliet Lewis Agatha remarks that she is a scientologist, to which Fontana responds “I was thinking of converting – as a career move”. This level of self-absorbed ambition is characteristic of almost everyone we meet during the course of the film.

Agatha, who is badly scarred from a fire, gets a job working for actress Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), who has reached that age when the parts start to dry up for women in an industry obsessed by female youth and beauty. Segrand is desperate for a role in an upcoming movie remake, a role that was played by her mother in the original. But she is also troubled by the memories (possibly false) of sexual abuse that she suffered at the hands of her mother. These memories were recovered with the assistance of a bogus therapist, Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), who claims that life traumas reside in the body (“I’m gonna press on a personal history point – it’s stored in the thighs”). Dr. Weiss is married to Christina (Olivia Williams), who is the pushy mother/agent of troubled teenage TV star Benjie (Evan Bird), whose career is just getting back on track after a period in rehab.

None of these people are happy. They are all weighed down by unsatisfied ambitions, dark secrets, or ghosts. In fact, the story really starts to take off when Havana Segrand literally sees a ghost (or is it all in her mind?). Benjie then also starts to see apparitions. But it is the arrival of Agatha that provides the catalyst for people’s lives to unravel. The film ends as it began, with a journey into darkness.

By the very nature of its subject matter, Maps to the Stars doesn’t have any characters that we can easily empathise with from the outset, which might account for its rather mixed critical reception. However, the performances are uniformly well-delivered, there are some fine flashes of dark humour, and my own attention was easily held by the gradual revelations leading eventually to the uncovering of the thread that connects all the characters.

This is a fine addition to David Cronenberg’s oeuvre, perhaps closest in mood to Dead Ringers, except where that movie followed in the director’s early tradition of body horror the darkness at the heart of Maps to the Stars is purely psychological.

Rating: 10/10

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Soulmate (1)

UK: 2013

Written and directed by Axelle Carolyn

Runtime: 104 mins

Axelle Carolyn’s Soulmate is an atmospheric gothic chiller that entertains but ultimately fails to deliver on its initial promise. The story begins with a very graphic suicide attempt by Audrey (Anna Walton), a beautiful young musician who – we later learn – has survived a car crash in which her husband died. Audrey likewise survives the attempted suicide but, finding that friends and family cannot understand her feelings, she retreats to a remote country cottage in order to reassess her life.

Upon arrival Audrey is greeted by the rather over-friendly owner, Theresa (Tanya Miles), who lives just down the road with her husband Dr Zellaby (Nick Brimble). When Audrey later reports strange noises coming from a locked upstairs room at night, Theresa and Dr Zellaby appear strangely reluctant to investigate. Eventually, the ghost of the cottage’s previous owner, Douglas (Tom Wisdom), manifests himself to Audrey. Over successive days, Douglas and Audrey get to know each other. As they become closer Douglas begins to take an increasingly physical form. So far, so The Ghost and Mrs Muir, but where is this relationship actually going to go? Unfortunately, the answer to that question is: into soap opera territory.

There are no real scares in Soulmate, although writer-director Carolyn does a good job of creating a gothic atmosphere in the first half. But for one thing, this seems like the kind of film that you would watch over the Christmas season, with a glass of whisky or mulled wine to hand. However, it is hard to imagine the TV programmers showing the ghastly suicide attempt that opens the film. In fact, I felt that this opening sat somewhat uneasily with the rather traditional fare that followed.

The actors all turn in solid performances and Anna Walton is very watchable as the pale, introspective Audrey. However, someone should have pointed out to her that when you play the violin your fingers should actually move over the strings.

Shown at the Sci-Fi-London Film Festival

Rating: 6/10

Bunker 6 (1)

Bunker 6 is a brilliant Canadian low-budget (about £70,000) movie set in an alternate future. Shot in an actual nuclear fallout shelter in Nova Scotia, it tells the story of a small group of people living below ground after a nuclear strike in 1962 (the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the cold war threatened to go hot). Although billed as science fiction, in many ways it is closer to a gothic horror where the nuclear bunker substitutes for the country house.

The central character is Grace (Andrea Lee Norwood), who – in 1962 – is still a young girl living with her parents. Her father is a senior military figure, so when the bomb goes off they are all piling into the shelter. However, Grace’s parents get caught in the blast before they can get through the entrance door. Several years later, Grace survives below ground with two men and two women, led by ruthless young Alice (Molly Dunsworth). Communications with the outside world and other bunkers have been lost. However, noone can leave until the red light above the strong metal door turns green. Grace regularly monitors the colour of this light. She also has engineering responsibilities, ensuring the the power keeps running in their subterranean prison.

But the problems of engineering are nothing compared to the challenge of simply staying sane, and we learn that an earlier inhabitant went crazy, killing his wife and then himself. Then, when one of their number is found dead the struggle for survival becomes even more intense. Should they remain in the bunker or should they risk going back into the outside world? However, if the external environment is still deadly then opening the blast doors will kill all of them, and so Alice will not allow anybody to leave.

There are assured performances from all concerned, especially Andrea Lee Norwood. I thought the initial set-up – Grace as a child and the beginning of war – was a little rushed, but beyond this Greg Jackson’s script and direction builds the tension effectively. The use of a real nuclear bunker gives the whole thing a genuinely claustrophobic atmosphere.

Shown at the Sci-Fi-London Film Festival

Rating: 8/10

Berberian_Sound_Studio

Berberian Sound Studio is the second directorial outing for Peter Strickland, who also wrote the screenplay. It is interesting and entertaining, what I guess could be considered a postmodern horror movie. Toby Jones plays Gilderoy, a British sound engineer, who arrives at an Italian film studio believing they are making a film about equestrianism, though in fact they are making a giallo – a pulpish horror movie. Gilderoy, who is short, drably dressed, rather meek, and lives with his mother, finds himself being pushed around by two tall sharply-dressed Italians, Francesco the producer (Cosimo Fusco) and Giancarlo Santini the director (Antonio Mancino).

The film they are making is supposedly an historical drama about the mistreatment of women who were believed to be witches, but Gilderoy is uncomfortable with the scenes that he is creating the sound effects for. Nonetheless he gets on with it, and we get to see the mechanics of sound production for this kind of film. There are intricate sound maps, indicating the sounds that are required at particular times, and for which scenes. Microphones are positioned and swapped, dials are turned and buttons pressed. All manner of fruits and vegetables are recruited for the purpose of creating the sound accompaniment to torture and gore. We see blades slicing through melons and being twisted in marrows, roots being pulled from radishes, and some sort of red-coloured item being pulped in a blender (the sound of a chainsaw). At no time, however, do we see any of the actual visuals for the film.

Santini tries to convince Gilderoy of the serious intent of the movie, emphasising that the horrific scenes are necessary for historical accuracy. However, the concern about the historical mistreatment of women seems to be at odds with the way that Francesco and – especially – Santini treat the female voiceover artists. There are perhaps two events that represent a significant turning point in the narrative. Firstly, Gilderoy balks when asked to create the sound effect of a red hot poker being inserted into a woman’s vagina. Secondly, after being given the runaround over his expenses one of the voiceover artists, Claudia (Eugenia Caruso), tells him that being rude and aggressive is the only way to get what you want at the studio.

From this point on the narrative becomes increasingly disorienting and the barriers between fiction and reality start to dissolve. There is a definite influence of David Lynch in the way things develop, and I was also reminded a little bit of the Ealing classic Dead of Night. As is appropriate for a story about a sound engineer, sound is used effectively throughout. At various places, whilst Gilderoy is trying to sort out his expenses, or whilst we are contemplating the sound maps on the wall, the audio accompaniment makes these mundanities seem like the background to something mysterious and terrible.

For all its accomplishments, Berberian Sound Studio does not pack the punch of a David Lynch movie, but it is enjoyable enough and a fun deconstruction of the unseen elements of a horror movie. Toby Jones is excellent as Gilderoy and has been justly rewarded at several film festivals.

Rating: 8/10

Strange Colour (1)

Original title: L’étrange couleur des larmes de ton corps

Director: Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani

Screenplay: Bruno Forzani and Hélène Cattet 

102 minutes

 

I so much wanted to like this film, having read in advance about how it harks back to the Italian giallo cinema of the 1970s. Sadly, I ended up resenting the fact that I had actually spent money to watch it. The opening scenes are promising, delivering both visual style and intrigue. We see a white man, Dan Kristensen (Klaus Tange) waking from his sleep as his plane comes in to land. In his hand he holds a book of matches showing a woman’s legs and the words “Table Dancing”. Later, in his taxi he looks out of the window at what appears (out of focus) to be a woman in a red window display. These images are intercut with some black and white sequences showing a black woman, dressed in black leather, engaged in some kind of bondage activity involving a knife. Whether these images are flashback, dream, or real-time activity happening somewhere else is never made clear.

The woman in these sequences is apparently Kristensen’s wife, Edwige. When he arrives home she is not there, but the chain on the inside has been put in the locked position. We learn that Kristensen has been phoning his wife during his absence on a business trip, but she has not been responding. Kristensen has a smoke and a drink (or a few), then goes searching for his wife. From this point onwards, the film gradually takes on the appearance of some hallucinatory trip. Kristensen follows some mysterious man out of the building, and then starts ringing the bells of all the occupants.  He takes tea with the woman upstairs, all dressed in black, but whose face we cannot see, who tells a strange story of her husband’s disappearance in the same building. He meets a detective who also recounts a story, which appears to involve keeping one of the inhabitants under surveillance. These stories are told in flashback.

I very much enjoyed the opening scenes of the film, simply because of the promise they seemed to offer. The mid-section, where Kristensen talks with the woman upstairs and with the detective also held some interest but with diminishing returns. Increasingly, there is a nagging suspicion that the directors are too much in love with the visual style of their movie and that the story is never going to make any sense. Unfortunately, this turns out to be exactly the case. By the time we get to the final third of the film Kristensen is ripping away the walls of his apartment (there is some bit of nonsense about a possible intruder using hidden passages), chasing his own doppelgangers around, and there is a gratuitous and equally baffling slasher sequence.

If only the directors could have attached their visuals to a narrative that even remotely made sense, then this could have been a very enjoyable film. They clearly do have a sense of style; in fact, the musical soundtrack is brilliant and works well with the visuals. But in the end it is all style and no substance, resulting in the kind of dismal self-indulgence that gives “art house” a bad name. I watched this on my computer via Curzon Home Cinema. On the first viewing, I fell asleep several times and, by the end, had no idea what I had just seen. Feeling a bit guilty that perhaps I had been too tired to watch, I viewed it again a day later, this time buoyed by some strong tea. On this occasion the film made just as little sense as on first viewing. We never really know if there is a real “story” at the heart of the movie or whether the whole thing is just some dream, psychotic delusion, or hallucinatory trip. It would not surprise me if the film has a future as cult viewing among students who have just discovered mind-altering substances, but I can’t imagine who else could possibly enjoy this.

Rating: 2/10

DeadOfNight1

In his treatise on the horror genre, Danse Macabre, the great American horror writer Stephen King makes reference to a particular subcategory, the portmanteau horror film. These tell several tales within the running time. King is not, in fact, particularly positive about portmanteau films; he thinks they rarely work well. One notable exception is Ealing Studios’ Dead of Night.

I first encountered this marvellously creepy film on television as a boy, and then spent many years longing to see it again, and wondering why it never seemed to get a mention when people talked about horror movies. About 10 years ago it was shown at the British Film Institute (BFI) in London, and it gave me no end of pleasure to sit among people who seemed to appreciate the film like I did. That pleasure was repeated towards the end of 2013 when, as part of its four-month Gothic season, the BFI presented several showings of Dead of Night. Round about the same time various media outlets reported Martin Scorcese’s top 11 scariest films, a list in which Dead of Night appeared in fifth place. How thrilling to find that this little film that I once thought no-one knew about is vaunted by one of the world’s greatest directors! My perception is that this is a film whose reputation has been growing over time. Indeed, reading the reviews on IMDB suggests that this is a film that many people don’t just like but, like me, hold in some affection.

**SPOILERS FROM HEREON IN**

The great thing about Dead of Night is that it is not merely a set of disparate tales, but all of these stories take place within an overarching framework. The film involves architect Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) who has been called out to a country house, Pilgrims Farm, for business reasons. The owner, Eliot Foley (Roland Culver), introduces Craig to various other guests who are staying there, but Craig cannot believe his eyes – he has been here before and met all these people in his dreams. One of the guests, Dr. Van Straaten (Frederick Valk), attempts to rationalise this away, but increasingly the other guests side with Craig and have their own supernatural tales to tell.

The first story comes from motor racing driver Hugh Grainger (Anthony Baird), who describes a premonition that enabled him to cheat death. The second story is told by Sally (Sally Ann Howes) who once encountered a sad little boy whilst playing sardines at a party; only the little boy turns out to be the ghost of a child who was murdered by his step-sister some years earlier. In the third story, Joan Cortland (Googie Withers) tells of how her husband Peter (Ralph Michael) was haunted by a mirror that she gave him as a present during their engagement. The mirror had once been owned by a man who murdered his wife. At this point there is some light relief. Eliot Foley tells the guests about George and Larry (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne), two golfing obsessives who play to win the hand of the woman they both love. The loser commits suicide, but comes back to haunt his friend in comical fashion after learning that he had cheated in order to win. This lighthearted story gives way to a much darker final tale, in which a ventriloquist, Maxwell Frere (Michael Redgrave) becomes obsessed with the idea that his dummy is plotting to leave him and set up in business with another ventriloquist, Sylvester Kee (Hartley Power).

The haunted mirror and ventriloquist’s dummy stories are widely held to be the scariest of the five. In some ways the Haunted Mirror is a better story, because there is actually a narrative journey involved that has an effect on the couple. By contrast, in The Ventriloquist’s Dummy Maxwell Frere is already on the brink of a mental breakdown at the beginning, so it is a short distance to his breakdown at the end. However, there are a number of things to note about this last story. Firstly, Michael Redgrave’s portrayal of the increasingly unhinged Frere is superb. Second, Frere’s belief that his dummy has a malevolent mind of its own does not appear delusional. We see the dummy move of its own accord and we also witness it apparently biting into Frere’s hand. Third, Frere’s attitude towards his dummy appears to be that of an obsessed but rejected lover. The two are like a bitching gay couple. Is the dummy, in fact, trying to leave because of Frere’s obsession?

One of the things Dead of Night does so effectively is to ramp up the tension between each of the tales. In each interlude Walter Craig, recalling new fragments from his dream, becomes more convinced that something terrible is going to happen. At one point, terrified, he decides that the only way to break the spell is to leave the house. Dr. Van Straaten, who is convinced this is all in Craig’s mind, tells him that this would be a disastrous thing to do, as he would simply be giving in to his own delusion. At this point Eliot Foley manages to manoeuvre Craig into staying, partly by pressing a whisky into his hand and partly by beginning a lighthearted tale. This, of course, is the Golfing Story, which some describe as the weakest story of the five. However, this is to treat that story with more seriousness than it deserves. The whole point of this story is that it is meant to be a lighthearted diversion. On the one hand, it serves to keep Craig at the house. On the other hand, given that the Haunted Mirror and Ventriloquist’s Dummy stories are of a similar level of creepiness, inserting the Golfing Story between the two gives The Ventriloquist’s Dummy more power than it might otherwise have.

It is also far from clear that the Golfing Story is even meant to be a true tale. Not only does Foley indicate that he told it to lighten the mood, but the story has internal contradictions that mean it cannot be real. When Larry comes back as a ghost he tells George that he is the only person who can see him. Therefore, when George vanishes at the end and Larry saunters in the direction of Mary’s (Peggy Bryan) bedroom, there should be no point in his appearing triumphant as she would not be able to see him. Likewise, how could Eliot Foley have even come to know the story? Realising that this is just a shaggy dog story makes it easier to swallow the preposterous idea that young Mary would be remotely interested in a couple of middle-aged bores like George and Larry, or that she would be willing to marry the victor because he had won a game of golf (even in 1945 these ideas must surely have seemed ridiculous).

Following The Ventriloquist’s Dummy story Craig asks to be left alone with Dr. Van Straaten and the others leave the room. Craig is now driven by forces beyond his control and murders the psychiatrist, after which we see Craig in a bizarre surreal sequence. At this point we see Craig in bed waking from a nightmare, just as his wife arrives with breakfast. It was all a dream! Except… then the phone rings, and the caller – one Eliot Foley – invites Craig out to his country house on business. As the credits begin to roll we see the opening sequence again, in which Craig drives down a country road towards the farmhouse.

Whenever I watch Dead of Night I seem to notice something new. Most recently I realised that I had never before picked up on the opening exchange of words between Craig and Foley. As Craig gets out of his car Foley is there to greet him, but the first words come from Craig. He doesn’t say “Are you Eliot Foley?” or “I’m Walter Craig. And you must be…?” He emphatically says “You’re Eliot Foley!” (and I think there is an exclamation mark there), to which Foley says “Yes, that’s right”.

In the Hearse Driver sequence, I didn’t originally spot how the time changes on the face of the clock just before Grainger pulls open the curtains. At first, the hands are showing quarter-to-ten (at night). When the background noise vanishes and Grainger checks the clock again, it shows quarter-past-four (which turns out to be daytime). Both the long hand and the small hand are now in exactly the opposite place on the clockface (I’m not saying that has any significance, but it’s a nice kind of symmetry, if that’s the right term to use).

One aspect of Dead of Night that I have rarely, if ever, seen commented on is how well the music complements the story (or stories) throughout. The music was written by Georges Auric and performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra. In some horror movies, such as Night of the Eagle, the score can be over-emphatic which, to modern ears at least, is somewhat distracting. In this case, the music that plays over the opening credits is quite ominous, creating a mood of tension right at the start, but as soon as we see the opening shot of Walter Craig driving along a country road the music becomes quite jaunty. These shifts between light and dark recur throughout the film and never feel forced. The music is perhaps at its most effective during The Haunted Mirror. When Peter sees the wrong room in the mirror the music becomes heavy and dark, but the moment we switch back to the real room then the music is light again.

I think the framing story for the five individual tales is a brilliant device. Although people like to discuss which of the five tales is the creepiest, the thing that really puts a shiver up my spine is the final sequence as the end credits are rolling, watching Craig driving up to the house, and realising that this is all going to happen again, and perhaps go on happening forever. In the cinema I feel a vague sense of annoyance at people who are getting up out of their seats at this point. They should be savouring a sense of dread at the eternal terror that is unfolding before them!

Finally, it is worth reflecting on the fact that this was the only horror film that Ealing Studios ever made and was released over a decade before such British chillers as Night of the Eagle and Night of the Demon. There is also a lesser-known companion piece of sorts, released one year before in 1944. This film, The Halfway House, was directed by Basil Deardon and Alberto Cavalcanti, who both directed parts of Dead of Night. It also stars Mervyn Johns and Sally Ann Howes (both in Dead of Night too). The Halfway House is a ghost story, but it is not horrific; it is really a morality tale with an element of wartime propaganda. It isn’t in the same class as Dead of Night, but it does create quite an effective atmosphere and is a watchable curiosity.

Rating 9/10

Image

What would it be like to live forever? This question must have crossed most people’s minds at some point. In Only Lovers Left Alive, the centuries-old vampires Adam and Eve (Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton) are responding to their immortality in different ways. Although they are lovers, they are keeping things fresh by living apart, she in Tangiers and he in the run-down city of Detroit. Eve is happily reading all the books she can lay her hands on; indeed, so practiced are her reading skills that she is flipping a page every couple of seconds. Adam, on the other hand,  is depressed. Musically skilled, in previous centuries he has given away his music to the likes of Schubert. He has also hung around with Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft. Now, though, he spends all his time at home making what he calls “funeral music”, electronic drones. Adam is losing faith in a world run by the zombies, the name that he and Eve give to humanity. He is at such a low point that he commissions the production of a single wooden bullet, and practices pointing a gun at his heart.

Adam and Eve no longer kill people (or convert them to vampires) in order to obtain blood. In Tangiers Eve obtains her blood supplies from a vampire with connections, who turns out to be the author Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), portrayed here as the author of Shakespeare’s plays. In Detroit, Adam buys his supplies from Dr. Watson (Jeffrey Wright) at the local hospital.

During a phone conversation Eve discovers how depressed Adam is, and arranges to travel back to Detroit (carefully organising her connecting flights so that she will only be travelling at night). But she has only been back in Detroit a short while when her wayward sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) shows up and throws their lives into turmoil, not least by tucking into their dwindling supply of blood.

Only Lovers Left Alive is not really a horror movie as such (indeed, because vampires typically exhibit fairly human-like qualities I would suggest they are rarely as frightening as zombies, possessed children, and demonic houses); rather, it is a supernatural romance/drama that also includes some amusing dialogue. The relationship between Adam and Eve is nicely played and quite touching, and you don’t need to be a vampire to identify with the problems caused by the unwanted arrival of an awkward family member.

The one aspect of the story that did require some suspension of disbelief was the idea that a man who has lived through the hundred years war and the black death could think that the world is getting worse, to the degree that he is contemplating suicide. Jarmusch draws a parallel between the vampires’ dependence on limited supplies of blood and humanity’s dependence on oil and water (the latter identified as the next resource to be fought over). However, such social commentary is kept to a minimum and it is the couple’s romance that is very much at the heart of the film.

Visually, Only Lovers Left Alive is always interesting to look at. Adam and Eve are tall and wan, and Adam in particular is very much the dandy (at one point Eve blames his depressive tendencies on Byron’s influence). His house, where many of the scenes take place, is like an interesting old junk shop, full of slightly outdated recording equipment, and he has an impressive collection of old guitars. We also get a glimpse of modern Detroit, which of course is in a sorry state. A scene inside the delapidated Michigan concert hall gives us a very real sense of the transitory nature of things.

Anyone seeing this movie in the hope of experiencing a few scares and thrills is likely to be disappointed, but if Byronic characters and gothic atmospherics are your thing then you are in for a treat.

Rating: 8/10