I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House


Ruth Wilson looks for clues.

Ruth Wilson looks for clues.

(2016) Gothic Horror (Netflix) Ruth Wilson, Paula Prentiss, Lucy Boynton, Bob Balaban, Brad Milne, Erin Boyes. Directed by Oz Perkins

 

Haunted houses are a part of our culture, both in the West and in the East. Spirits of the departed that remain behind, sad and sometimes angry, have a delicious fascination for us. Perhaps it is a part of our morbid nature, our obsession with death – after all, we’re all going to die eventually and we are fearful of that unknown. Sometimes that fear becomes something more.

Lily Saylor (Wilson) is a hospice nurse come to a clapboard home at the end of Teacup Lane in Braintree, Massachusetts (home to founding fathers John Adams and John Hancock) to care for Iris Blum (Prentiss), an infirm woman who was once a famous writer of horror stories, a sort of distaff Stephen King (or a latter day Shirley Jackson to be more accurate). Lily takes over the care and feeding of Ms. Blum at the behest of Mr. Waxcap (Balaban), the estate executor.

Almost as soon as she settles in she gets a sense that things are a bit off in the house. Although the house looks spic and span (and she takes great pains to make sure it remains that way), there is evidence that the house is beginning to show it’s age (it was built in the 19th century if not earlier) with walls warping somewhat and soon, a bloom of black mold appears on one of the walls. Then there is the tapping sound that manifests in the night and sound like they’re coming from inside the walls. And Lily is annoyed that Ms. Blum habitually calls her Polly. Who is this Polly that her charge has confused Lily with?

Lily investigates and discovers that a brutal murder took place in the house many years before; a young bride (Boynton) was killed by her groom (Milne) on her wedding day. The bride’s name was Polly. Furthermore, Iris wrote a book about it, The Lady in the Walls. The book’s conceit was that a writer was communicating with the murdered bride but the communications mysteriously stopped. Lily attempts to read the book but is soon unable to continue; a sensitive soul, she is easily frightened. That’s not such a good thing in a house like this.

One of the most difficult subgenres of horror to do is the Gothic horror. Gothic depends heavily on atmosphere and creating that atmosphere of foreboding requires a great deal of patience. You have to have the right cinematographer and Perkins chose a doozy in Julie Kirkwood. She not only has a terrific eye but she also understands the mechanics of what makes a great atmosphere; slow camera movements that never jerk the audience around when the camera moves at all, angles that are unsettling without being overt, and a palate of white and goldenrod, making the film look not so much washed out but like an antique photograph. The result is that the movie looks like you’re looking back in time (in fact the scenes are set in what appears to be somewhere in the late 1970s or early 1980s) at tragic events unfolding.

That sense of foreboding is set right off the bat with Lily’s narration. “The pretty thing you’re looking at is me. Of this I am sure. My name is Lily Saylor. I am a hospice nurse. Three days ago I turned 28 years old. I will never be 29 years old.” The narration is for the most part pretty flowery which at times can be eye-rolling. It is also delivered in a flat monotone, as if Wilson is reading a book aloud which adds to the creepiness.

Wilson has shown some pretty sizable acting chops, particularly in the BBC series Luther but here she’s oddly lifeless, as if she’s already become a ghost and is simply awaiting the formalities. I would have also liked to get a bit more backstory from her – we are led to understand that she’d been involved in a romantic relationship but it ended badly – and a little more emotion from Wilson. Then again, it might have been a conscious choice to play Lily as someone extremely repressed emotionally speaking.

Prentiss doesn’t have a lot to do but the former comedienne is certainly a welcome sight. She hasn’t appeared onscreen in nine years and it’s good to know that even though her part is small (but important), she is still out there working.

There are not many haunted house movie clichés here but enough to be unwelcome. Still, overall this is an extremely strong and welcome entry into a genre that is largely ignored these days. Fans seems to like their horror more visceral than subtle these days. Perkins has an impeccable pedigree and even though this is just his second feature film in the director’s chair, he’s served notice that he is a talent to keep an eye out for.

REASONS TO GO: There are some exquisite images here. It’s always nice to see an actress the caliber of Paula Prentiss working. The atmosphere is truly haunting.
REASONS TO STAY: A few too many haunted house tropes are present here. The dialogue is pretentious in places. Wilson comes off a bit flat tonally.
FAMILY VALUES: Some unsettling images and an overall atmosphere of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Perkins is the son of the late Anthony Perkins; the song “You Keep Coming Back Like a Song” which is played several times on the soundtrack is sung by his father; the movie clip that Lily is watching on TV is from Friendly Persuasion in which Anthony Perkins starred.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Haunting of Hill House
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Why Him?

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Crimson Peak


Exploring Allerdale Hall can be hazardous to one's health.

Exploring Allerdale Hall can be hazardous to one’s health.

(2015) Gothic Horror (Universal) Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam, Jim Beaver, Burn Gorman, Leslie Hope, Doug Jones, Jonathan Hyde, Bruce Gray, Emily Coutts, Alec Stockwell, Brigitte Robinson, Gillian Ferrier, Tamara Hope, Kimberly-Sue Murray, Sofia Wells, Peter Spence, Bill Lake, Jim Watson, Joanna Douglas. Directed by Guillermo del Toro

6 Days of Darkness 2015

Some see ghosts as echoes of memories; people who left behind some of themselves when they die. Others see it as a transitory period between this life and the next. Regardless of how you see ghosts, they can be terrifying.

Edith Cushing (Wasikowska) – likely named for the veteran Hammer horror star Peter Cushing – knows all about ghosts. As a child, the specter of her recently deceased mother came to her to warn her “Beware of the crimson peak.” Clearly a message from your dead mother is one that will stay with you for your entire life.

She lives in Buffalo at the turn of the 20th century with her industrialist father (Beaver). She has aspirations to be a writer, sort of a distaff Edgar Allan Poe and she has no time for men, although ophthalmologist Dr. Alan McMichael (Hunnam) would love to catch her eye.

However, her eye is caught by Thomas Sharpe (Hiddleston), a down-on-his-luck baronet who has come to Buffalo with his sister Lucille (Chastain) to convince her father to fund the construction of his experimental mining machine which he is using to mine a rare ore that exists on his estate. Her father is suspicious and hires a detective (Gorman) to check out the siblings.

However, despite her father’s misgivings, Edith falls deeply in love with the handsome young noble and eventually marries him, leaving Buffalo for his crumbling estate in Cumberland and by crumbling we mean it; the roof has a gigantic hole, letting the weather in. Red clay seeps up through the floorboards and walls, looking uncannily like blood. Electricity works intermittently so candle power and fireplaces provide heat and light. Edith is warned not to go below the main level as it is dangerous. And to make matters worse, she almost immediately begins seeing ghosts, angry ones which reflect her relationship with Lucille which is cold at best and hostile at worst.

The ghosts that Edith is seeing aren’t even the worst thing; she begins to suspect that her new husband and sister-in-law are not whom they seem to be. Her investigations further exacerbate her doubts and she soon realizes that if she can’t unravel the secrets of Allerdale Hall, she might just become a ghost herself and I can’t think of any hell worse than spending eternity in Allerdale Hall.

Del Toro has been one of the fan favorites of horror since beginning his career with movies like Cronos, Mimic, The Devil’s Backbone and of course the Hellboy movies. This is something of a passion project for him, one that has been in gestation for years. It is a grand vista that he has painted with, one not unlike that which he created in Pan’s Labyrinth. Allerdale Hall is a magnificent set, as Gothic a look as ever brought to the silver screen. It is a place made for ghosts and ghost stories.

Del Toro has assembled a stellar cast but curiously, two of the main performances leave something to be desired. Wasikowska who can be compelling underplays her role to the point of somnolence while Chastain, one of the best young actresses in Hollywood is shrill and overplays her role in an eyebrow-arching silent film villainess portrayal that seems archaic to my 21st century sensibilities.

The story is straight out of the annals of Shelley and Poe – A.O. Scott of the New York Times correctly described it as “Henry James …filtered through the lurid sensibilities of Mario Bava –  overset with a deep melancholy that pervades every nook and cranny of Allerdale Hall, stained red with the clay that is everywhere, even coloring the snow crimson. Ghosts creep and crawl, their eyes black and empty as the night, their mouths open in tortured expressions of sorrow. A florid description yes, but the movie lends itself to such language.

Some have complained that this isn’t strictly speaking a horror film and I can see their point although I disagree with it. There are plenty of images that will haunt your nightmares but there are certainly elements of Hitchcockian suspense, particularly in the tale of the Sharpe siblings who could easily have been characters in a black and white opus of the Master in the 1930s. While this is set in an earlier period, there is definitely a tension throughout that Hitchcock would have appreciated.

Not everyone likes this movie; some have felt misled by the marketing which emphasizes the horror aspects (in fact the movie was completed in January but held back because Universal wanted it to be their tentpole Halloween release). This is definitely not like modern horror movies which emphasize murder and mayhem and depends largely on atmosphere; those who don’t appreciate old school horror had best give this one a miss. However, if you’re like me and love those brooding old haunted mansions full of things that go bump in the night, this is right up your alley.

REASONS TO GO: Gothic atmosphere. Some genuinely creepy disturbing images. Great set design.
REASONS TO STAY: Wasikowska a bit bland. Chastain a bit over-the-top.
FAMILY VALUES: Bloody violence, gruesome images, scenes of terror, some sexual content and a little bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kingston, Ontario doubled for Buffalo in the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/23/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rose Red
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness concludes!

The Wolfman (2010)


The Wolfman

Someone's in need of a manicure...REEEEEEAL bad!

(Universal) Benicio del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt, Hugo Weaving, Art Malik, Geraldine Chaplin, Nicholas Day, Michael Cronin, David Sterne, David Schofield, Roger Frost, Rob Dixon, Clive Russell. Directed by Joe Johnston

We may carry a civilized veneer, but inside we all carry the soul of the beast. Inside, we are primitive, vicious and impulsive. The beast is never far from the surface, nearer for some than for others.

Laurence Talbot (Del Toro) is summoned to Blackmoor, the country village near Talbot Manor where he grew up. His brother’s fiancée Gwen Conliffe (Blunt) has written him to inform him that his brother has turned up missing. Laurence is a distinguished actor on the London stage, but he hurries out to his old stomping grounds, from whence he’s been estranged for nearly his entire adult life.

When he arrives there he finds his ancestral home is falling apart at the seams. Fallen leaves and dirt have blown into the main hall, bringing the autumn indoors. Cobwebs adorn the rafters and ghosts roam the hallways. His father, Sir John Talbot (Hopkins) inhabits the house but he doesn’t really live there – it couldn’t possibly be called a life. His faithful servant Singh (Malik) tends to his needs, but Sir John is a shadow of his former self and has been that way since his wife killed herself in full view of young Laurence.

His father greets him with the bleak news that his brother’s body had been found only the day before. The body has been severely mutilated, so much so that nobody’s really sure whether it was the work of an animal or a human lunatic loose on the moors. The suspicious and superstitious townspeople (really, is there a Universal horror picture that doesn’t have suspicious superstitious townspeople?) know what they think – that it’s the work of a group of gypsies that have been in the vicinity at about the time that other bodies similarly mutilated started turning up.

Laurence meets Gwen, whose staying at the house until the funeral and it becomes quickly apparent that there is a very strong bond between them. Laurence’s main concern, however, is to find out what happened to his brother and make sure the guilty party is brought to justice. Although he is warned to stay indoors that night because of a full moon, Laurence decides to go to the gypsy camp. He meets there with an old woman named Maleva (Chaplin) who knows more about the murder than she is letting on. Before she can tell anything, however, a group of angry townspeople burst into the camp, looking for retribution. Just then, the camp comes under attack.

The attacker is incredibly fast, savage. Both gypsy and townsperson are at risk; nobody is safe and people on both sides are maimed and killed with abandon. Laurence himself is viciously wounded in the attack.

He is taken back to the Manor where he is found to be healing unnaturally fast from his wounds. While he is convalescing he is questioned by Inspector Abberline (Weaving) of Scotland Yard, who has been called in to investigate the gruesome murders. It becomes apparent that Abberline regards Laurence as a suspect more than a victim.

Secrets from the Talbot family’s past slowly begin to surface from the bowels of the decrepit mansion and an unspeakable horror is soon unleashed on London. Can Laurence discover a way out of the events that are spiraling to an inevitable conclusion before he is swept under by them?

This is not a faithful remake of the 1941 horror classic of the same name. Director Johnston (Jurassic Park III, Jumanji, The Rocketeer) does an excellent job of creating a gothic atmosphere that is filled with foreboding and grimness. The moors become a palpable presence, shrouded by mist and filled with primeval beauty that comes upon them unexpectedly. Of all his directing efforts (which have been marked with considerable box office success), this is his best work to date.

One of the hardest things to do is remake a classic because if you go with the same elements that worked the first time, you’re accused of ripping off the original and if you try to put your own stamp on it, you are criticized for desecration of the original. It’s a lose-lose situation, and only rarely have these types of remakes succeeded (as The Mummy did). The writers here tend to go more extreme with gore and special effects in order to differentiate itself from the original. I’m not sure that this will completely eliminate unfavorable comparisons with the original.

I will admit this movie resonated with Da Queen much more than it did with me. She found Del Toro’s Laurence Talbot to be understated and subtle, expressing his inner torment on his face without resorting to shouting at the camera. He managed to elicit compassion from Da Queen and, I suspect, much more of the female portion of the audience than the male. She found it a convincing performance.

For me, Del Toro was a bit too understated. I would have liked to see a little more passion from him. I think in many ways he was trying to distance himself from the original Lon Chaney Jr. performance by distancing himself from the audience; in that he is successful. His character was meant to be a tragic romantic hero and in an era when gothic romance means Edward Cullen, the Laurence Talbots of the world get swept aside in a wave of female teenaged hormones. In some ways, Del Toro never had a chance.

He has some support though. Rick Baker was the only name on the short list of make-up effects wizards to pull off the look of the Werewolf, and he does an amazing job. The hirsute look of Del Toro allows him to look bestial and feral while retaining the human emotions that Del Toro is obliged to display. There’s enough difference between the make-up design here and on his seminal An American Werewolf in London that it doesn’t feel like he’s repeating himself.

Effects-wise, the one area that disappoints is the actual transformation from human to werewolf. We’ve seen it done in a variety of ways from the original optical dissolves to the practical effects of The Howling and the aforementioned An American Werewolf in London. What we see here doesn’t really make me forget any of those movies and quite frankly, given today’s digital technology, it should have. I was certainly expecting better.

There is a lot of gore here but not enough of the eye candy that modern audiences have come to expect. There is a terrible misuse of CGI; the scenes of the werewolf bounding through the forest looks patently fake and serves to jar the viewer out of the atmosphere of the film, which is a pity because Johnston and his team worked so hard in creating a good one. I love the classic gothic horror movies, and this one retains enough of the original that I can recommend it, but walk into the multiplex with the expectation that this remains the dark shadow of the original, reflected by flickering candlelight. Which, in its own way, is appropriate.

REASONS TO GO: Johnston really captures the gothic and grim atmosphere of the moors. Rick Baker’s make-up is astonishing.

REASONS TO STAY: Del Toro isn’t particularly scintilating in a role that calls for a romantic lead who’s actually romantic. Transformation sequences aren’t any better than, say, An American Werewolf in London.

FAMILY VALUES: Gruesome, horrific violence and gothic images make this strictly for mature teens and older.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Inspector Abberline is a fictionalized version of an actual historical figure. He was, as Laurence alludes to in the film, the man who was a crucial member of the Jack the Ripper investigation for Scotland Yard. Francis was the nickname of the detective, whose real name was Frederick. He would wind up working for the Pinkertons after retiring from Scotland Yard.

HOME OR THEATER: The chilling atmosphere is definitely suitable for the small screen and the intimacy of house and home.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: September Dawn