The Little Stranger (Ireland-UK-France, 2018)

Decline and fall

The film version of Sarah Waters’ novel seems to me to be a rare example of Todorov’s ‘fantastic’, a ‘genre’ in which the supernatural happenings may have natural causes. This is in contrast to the novel where the ghostly goings on are more obviously really ghostly. Set in the post-war era the Ayres’ stately home is falling into dilapidation symbolising the shift from the old deferent order to the Labour government of the Welfare State. Domhnall Gleeson’s socially mobile doctor inveigles himself into the Ayres’ household having become entranced by the house when visiting once as a child. Ruth Wilson plays the sister hauled back to nurse her brother, injured during the war.

Lenny Abrahamson’s direction is solid and I liked the way the Gothic horror elements slowly infiltrated the movie; even the house, at first, seemed to me to be innocuous. The scene where Charlotte Rampling’s mother gets trapped in her room is genuinely scary and Ole Bratt Birkeland’s cinematography is suitably atmospheric.

Spoiler alert: ‘who is the little stranger?’ remains a question in the book but the film is more direct in the final scene where the doctor, as a child, remains in the house. In addition, the death of the sister is more directly dramatised, more than hinting at the perpetrator. Otherwise the film is a faithful adaptation of a good novel but it is good there are divergences otherwise what would be the (artistic) point?

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The Beguiled (US, 2017)

My eyes were dim

Another low-medium budget US film (after me complaining about their decline) but in spite of the rave reviews, and Cannes recognition, this remake of the Clint Eastwood 1971 version, of Thomas Cullinan’s 1968 novel, did not hit my buttons. I’d be interested to see the earlier version again, directed by testosterone-fuelled Don Siegel, to compare with Sofia Coppola’s adaptation. I remember enjoying the original film but not why I did. Is it the feminine sensibility of the remake that disengaged me? (Hope not).

One problem I had was with the extremely low light levels, many of the interiors are (apparently) only candle lit; I kept nodding off (end of term exhaustion). The cast is great: Kidman and Dunst in particular. I like the way Colin Farrell appeared to be cast against type, at least for the first part of the film. However, I struggled to understand his motivation: was he flirting with the women ‘naturally’ or calculatedly? I couldn’t connect his ‘second part’ melt down (though it was understandable that he was angry) with the charmer of the first part. Was that the script or performance? Either way, Coppola is responsible.

The opening shot looked fake to me. It’s a Southern Gothic forest that appears to be out of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ but it looked stylised. It may have been (mostly or all) real but one of the problems of modern CGI is the plasticity of digital effects (though The Beguiled was shot on film that doesn’t preclude digital manipulation) have corrupted (in my eyes) the contract of film that asserts the pro filmic image is real. Of course special effects have been a part of cinema virtually since its inception, however CGI has lost its ‘wow’ factor through its ability to show anything. I rarely find any ‘visible’ special effect awesome. Most effects are ‘invisible’, such as eradicating a jet’s stream from the sky, but when a scene doesn’t look real it’s easy to think CGI is to blame and so from the first shot of the film I was (slightly) disengaged because I didn’t believe the image. That is, the image’s verisimilitude didn’t convince me. I apologise for the meandering paragraph but CGI has changed the way I watch films and I’m trying to understand how.

At the conclusion of the film, where Southern Gothic was writ largest, I did start to enjoy the movie. Kidman’s a fine actor and her shift between ladylike and malevolence was virtually imperceptible. It’s great to see her getting great roles again.

The Woman in Black (UK-Can-Swe, 2012)

Don't go in!

Hammer horror’s back, which will probably only be meaningful to the older reader. Defunct for 25 years, The Woman in Black is a welcome return for this purveyor of British horror movies; interestingly it’s only got a 12A certificate whereas the original Hammer benefited from salacious marketing emphasising the films’ ‘adult’ credentials.

In Britain the X-certificate (adults only) had replaced the H (for ‘horror’) certificate in 1951. In an attempt to differentiate itself from the new mass medium, television, film companies began using the X certificate as a way of branding their product as risqué and/or violent:

‘The number of films awarded an ‘X’ certificate by the British censor rose remorselessly from 1954 onward and especially at the end of the 1950s, when it quadrupled…’ (David Pirie, 1980, part 3, Hammer Horror Teaching Pack)

Indeed Hammer used the X in its marketing for The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and this film launched the production company on a successful series of Gothic horror movies including both ‘Universal’s’ 1930s monsters in Curse of Frankenstein (1956) and Dracula (1957). Using lurid colour, combined with the British theatrical tradition of acting (best exemplified by Peter Cushing), Hammer’s films were condemned by most critics and loved by audiences. Like the Victorian Gothic of its source material, Hammer movies sublimated the sexual into the violence of the monster. As censorship shackles lessened the sex became less sublimated and in the 1970s, when Hammer was struggling to survive economically, it produced exploitation  films such as The Vampire Lovers (1970).

Sensibly, as the studio wouldn’t be advised to compete with the ‘gorenography’ of the Saw series (US, 2004-10), it’s chosen a modern ghost story, by Susan Hill, for its comeback. Clever casting Daniel Radcliffe, in his first post-Potter role, ensured plenty of publicity for the $17m budgeted feature and it’s taken a healthy $35m after 10 days in North America. Despite its ‘lowly’ certificate for a horror film, there are plenty of spine-tingling-twitching-in-the-seat moments.

The film fits happily into the Hammer oeuvre with its Gothic house and suspicious ‘peasants’ though I wasn’t clear where it was set. Sight & Sound suggests the Fens, which makes sense, but the Settle-Carlisle railway is advertised on the train Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe) travels on (our resident trainspotter – Roy – tells me the train’s all wrong). We even get the ‘classic’ scene when our hero enters the pub to glaring from the locals. However, there’s also more than enough to suggest the makers have learned from J-horror of how to make little details in the background as scary as big ones in the foreground.

I enjoyed the film even though I felt Radcliffe was little more than a lump of wood. I didn’t get a sense of the protagonist being reluctant to stay the night in the house that most of us wouldn’t enter in broad daylight. Hopefully the film will do well to continue a box-office renaissance for British cinema over the last 12 months. BAFTA, however, aren’t helping by claiming The Artist is the best film from last year.