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Posts Tagged ‘ghost story’

Genre’s a funny old thing, especially when you start playing games with it. I used to watch a lot of rather formulaic American TV shows and in some cases the only specific episodes I can remember are the ones which stirred a big dollop of fantasy or horror into an otherwise naturalistic set-up: both CHiPs and Matt Houston did episodes about alien abductions, while there were also episodes of Quantum Leap featuring vampires and the Devil. As we have recently touched upon, British series have sometimes done the same thing – just today they repeated the episode of The Saint with the giant ants in it, while we’ve been talking about those episodes of The Avengers which included things like alien plants and genuine telepathy, rather than the usual tongue-in-cheek whimsy. (I suppose it works the other way too: the various Star Trek series would very occasionally do a show which was SF only in virtue of its setting.)

In conjunction with this, I recently mentioned the Bergerac Christmas special from 1986, which is a) exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about and b) memorable for being properly scary (at least it was when I was not yet in my teens). Bergerac, for those not in the know, was a sort of precursor to modern shows like Death in Paradise and Midsummer Murders, in that it was built around competently-presented detective story plots (with perhaps a touch more action to them than usual), occurring against an attractive, escapist background. To pay for the thing, the BBC went into partnership with an Australian network, and quite possibly the Jersey tourist board too, given this is where the series is largely set.

Our lead character is Jim Bergerac (played by John Nettles), a detective with the (fictitious) Bureau des Etrangers, a usefully vague fictitious branch of the Jersey police. Bergerac has the two essential attributes of a 1980s TV detective, namely a memorable car (a 1947 Triumph roadster, it says here) and a complicated personal life (he is divorced and has a history of alcoholism).

The Christmas show in question is entitled Fires in the Fall, and was written by Chris Boucher (this must have been one of the last things he did on the show before departing to focus on Star Cops, which we have also discussed recently). The tone is quite properly set by a scene in a darkened graveyard and what sounds like a child’s voice chanting a nursery rhyme. Yes, this is going to be a bit spooky. The plot itself gets underway with Bergerac’s father-in-law, local tycoon Charlie Hungerford (Terence Alexander), asking for his help in exposing a man named Raoul Barnaby (Barrie Ingham) whom Charlie believes to be a fake medium (widescale cognitive dissonance ensues for anyone used to John Nettles himself playing a character named Barnaby in Midsummer Murders).

Barnaby has been attempting to insert himself into the good graces of wealthy local widow Roberta Jardine (Margaretta Scott), a friend of Charlie’s, by trying to contact her late husband. Jim and his partner Susan (the great Louise Jameson) duly attend the seance, something Susan is not entirely pleased about following a rather eerie experience at an old house she is involved in selling. Further odd events ensue at the seance, with the voice of a young girl being heard, strange scratches appearing, and a grave in an one of the island’s cemeteries bursting into flame at the same time.

Barnaby appears convinced he has been contacted by the spirit of the girl whose grave was interfered with, and goes to the press with this – a scummy reporter (Paul Brooke) duly appears – which in turn forces Bergerac’s boss to task him with finally closing the case on the girl’s death. Apparently she was the only victim of a spree of arsons back in the 1960s, but what is the connection to the Jardine family? It turns out the cop who was assigned to the case back then retired after it went nowhere – well, not quite ‘retired’, but took a well-paid job with Jardine’s company. There are also some irregularities involved with the firm of undertakers who handled the interment.

Bergerac thinks he’s cracked the case – the arson attacks back in the 1960s were the work of Mrs Jardine’s disturbed son, who is known to have committed suicide. Bergerac thinks he killed himself out of guilt, after being responsible for the girl’s accidental death, and the family covered up the scandal. Now Mrs Jardine’s rapacious niece (Amanda Hillwood) has uncovered the family’s dark secret, and – in partnership with Barnaby, an old associate of hers – is using it to damage her aunt’s mental stability to the point where they can fake her suicide, allowing them to inherit the family fortune.

So far, a satisfying and clever detective story, as smart and cynical as the best of Boucher’s work elsewhere. The supernatural trappings just seem to be set dressing, fun though they are. But what was that scene with the spooky old house all about? Before we even have time to ponder that, things abruptly take a different turn. Mrs Jardine abruptly rumbles Barnaby as a fraud after he affects to receive messages from her dead son. The corrupt copper involved in the cover-up (Ron Pember) and Barnaby himself are found dead in mysterious circumstances, with a black-robed figure seen near them shortly before, both times.

It turns out that the dead son did not in fact die: he was just horribly burned and smuggled off to a Swiss sanatorium by his mother, with the story of his death put about to facilitate the cover-up. Now, it seems, he is back in Jersey, and seeking revenge on the individuals involved in his mother’s murder (quite why he offs the bent copper is a bit of a plot hole). It also seems that he used to live in the spooky old house where Susan had her scary experience at the start…

Cue a rather creepy sequence where Susan is stalked around the old house again by the cowled spectre – all of the set-piece ‘phantom attacks’ are very well directed, with Tom Clegg the gentleman responsible. Perhaps running and screaming is a bit less than Louise Jameson deserves as a performer, but Bergerac was a show with a very large and unwieldy regular cast at this point (there’s Bergerac, his girlfriend, his ex-father-in-law, his ex-wife, his daughter, his boss, his boss’ secretary, two other detectives from the Bureau, and a nightclub owner of his acquaintance) and I suppose this was as elegant a way of incorporating all of them into the plot as any. It’s almost a shame they don’t make more of this horror angle, but the script still manages to bring it into the resolution of the main story: the villain confesses to the murder after glimpsing Nemesis over the shoulder of an oblivious, genially sceptical Bergerac: an almost uncannily creepy moment.

And Boucher still hasn’t quite finished – the final twist of the episode is that the believed-dead son has not snuck back to Jersey, killed his mother’s tormentors and then escaped. According to the Swiss staff, he has been there in the sanatorium all the time. Nettles delivers this information with a completely straight face, in complete contrast to the amused scepticism about the supernatural that’s been going in. It’s very nicely pitched, in fact: it’s up to the viewer to decide whether this a simple case of the Swiss staff getting it wrong, or some sort of psychic projection, or something even stranger and more obscure. Anyone who doesn’t like Christmas ghost stories is afforded just enough wriggle-room to be able to avoid feeling peeved.

At the time this felt like a fun seasonal change of pace, but it seems that Bergerac did its first horror-tinged episode earlier in the same season (I should say that every other episode was shown in 1985) – What Dreams May Come, starring Charles Gray (and very much informed by Gray’s appearance in The Devil Rides Out). The annual excursion into something a bit supernatural became something of a Bergerac tradition (I remember my teenage sister being genuinely scared by 1990’s The Dig, about a Viking burial site with a spectral guardian), but I don’t think any of them were quite as effective as Fires in the Fall (maybe the ninety-minute run-time helps the story and atmosphere develop). No-one, I think, would describe Bergerac as a genuinely classic piece of TV, but this is a solidly entertaining episode.

 

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Most of the things in the heritage TV bit of this here blog are there because I have particularly strong memories (and usually affection) concerning them, normally from when I was young. As you may have noticed, it’s comparatively rare nowadays for me to write about contemporary TV, mainly because I very rarely watch any – that said, my not-serious pick of the year so far would be Floor is Lava, while in terms of a serious pick I’m struggling to see past the apocalyptic Belgian SF series Into the Night, which doesn’t do anything especially new, but still does its thing with great elan.

Ghost in the Water isn’t something I have more than the vaguest recollection of from its – well, I’m pretty sure I didn’t even see the original transmission on New Year’s Eve 1982 (I think I was at the cinema watching E.T.), but caught the repeat the following March. Other than something vaguely spooky and disturbing going on in a canal, I remember very little about it, other than one moment which was so startling it branded itself into my brain (we shall come to this). I wasn’t even sure what it was called until I came across an article listing various spooky TV shows the BBC made in the early 1980s. Due to the unique way the BBC exploits its back catalogue, Ghost in the Water is now available for new generations of viewers to watch and be mildly gobsmacked by.

This is a fifty-minute play, written by Geoffrey Case from a novel by Edward Chitham, and directed by Renny Rye (later to have a fairly interesting career, including a lot of Dennis Potter’s late works – he certainly seems to have been an ambitious young director, not afraid to be provocative). It opens, traditionally enough, in a dark and storm-lashed graveyard somewhere in the Black Country, where two teenagers are wandering about looking for a gravestone. This is part of their school history project, although why they have not come at a less spooky time is something known only to the screenwriter. They are Tess (Judith Allchurch) and David (Ian Stevens), and the implication is that they are about fourteen (though Allchurch at least was a couple of years older). By an odd coincidence, Tess’ family have a sampler (a piece of embroidery) in their home made by a girl named Abigail Parkes, who was born in the 1840s, and David is sure he recalls seeing her grave.

So it proves, but it appears that Abigail died in 1860, when she was only eighteen. A little research by the young investigators reveals that she fell in the canal and drowned, and it is assumed this was a suicide, as she had been in low spirits for some time beforehand. However, Tess finds herself having strangely accurate dreams concerning Abigail’s death and its aftermath, and begins to feel the dead girl’s presence in her life. It seems there is a connection between the housing estate where she lives and a young man Abigail was close to. Objects from Abigail’s life begin to insinuate themselves into the lives of Tess and her family. It is even revealed that Abigail is actually Tess’ great-great-aunt. But is the ghost of the dead girl really influencing Tess, or is it all in her head? And if so, what does the spirit want?

I know I touch upon some real outliers in this blog – genre shows, weird plays, genuine oddball stuff – but Ghost in the Water is really off in a category of its own. It sounds relatively straightforward, the way I have described it, but the look and feel of the thing is, from a 21st century perspective, not far short of astonishing. It’s a fifty-minute play made for children, for one thing, shot entirely on film. Only the most prestigious dramas get this sort of treatment nowadays, and even then they’re shot on hi-def tape and ‘filmised’ in post-production. The sense that the play is fiercely ambitious and punching above its weight extends to the script – the opening sequence intercuts the two teenagers in the graveyard with them in class, deciding to investigate Abigail Parkes, without bothering to laboriously explain what’s going on. This is a play crediting its audience with intelligence, which is normally a big plus for me.

This continues in the depiction of working-class life in the Midlands in the early 80s, which is entirely naturalistic and convincing. Playing Tess’ mum is Jane Freeman, best known for over 270 episodes of Last of the Summer Wine, but apart from a brief appearance by a young Paul Copley nobody else in it is a recognisable TV face. It’s almost like a precursor of Threads aimed at children, with the mundane lives of Tess and her family juxtaposed with various disturbing and possibly supernatural events.

It fact it’s all so convincingly mundane and realistic that… well, one magazine did a retrospective review of Ghost in the Water a few years ago and concluded that one scene in particular, if broadcast nowadays, would probably result in the BBC being shut down. I have to say I see where they are coming from. I saw the moment in question back in 1983 – it comes early in the play and lasts about three seconds – and honestly couldn’t believe it. You can’t show that in a children’s programme, said my subconscious mind. God knows how Renny Rye got away with it: even if it was something he improvised on the set, I’m astonished it wasn’t taken out at the editing stage.

What am I talking about? Okay. Early in the play Tess is having a bath when she has a vision of Abigail’s death by drowning: she imagines herself in Abigail’s place and nearly drowns in the bathtub. So far, so spooky: but then we cut to her sister going into the bathroom and coming across a shaken and upset Tess. Who has just got out of the bath. And while the shot is carefully framed and composed to keep everything implied (just!), Judith Allchurch (who must have been about sixteen at time) is still only about half an inch away from being visibly completely naked on BBC1 at five to five in the afternoon on New Year’s Eve. (You know, it may have been a body double for the full-length nude shot, but in terms of the story, the character is still only fourteen.)

This all happens fairly early on in the story, when genuinely spooky things seem to be happening. This continues until about the mid-point, or just after, when they row back on the sense of disquiet and unease and it becomes more of a mystery, as Tess and David try to work out just what happened when Abigail died. As someone used to the standard BBC Ghost Story at Christmas format, where there’s a long, long, slow, long, slow build-up to a genuinely alarming and terrifying climax, this is somewhat wrong-footing and disappointing, though perhaps more appropriate for the youthful audience (it’s nice that at least one part of it is). Unfortunately this throws more of the weight of carrying the film onto Judith Allchurch and Ian Stevens. Apparently neither of them had acted before – or since, in Allchurch’s case – and this really does show. I mean, they’re not completely awful, but neither are they as naturalistic and convincing as the rest of the production deserves.

Better acting and a bigger and spookier climax might have elevated Ghost in the Water to somewhere within spitting distance of The Stone Tape and Ghostwatch, as another example of the kind of brilliant, iconoclastic ghost story the BBC used to occasionally make and unleash without any warning on a startled audience. As it is, there is lots to enjoy (and perhaps be dumbfounded by) in this play, but it is mostly a curiosity, falling a bit short of genuine classic status.

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One of those tried-and-tested rules of cinemagoing that they keep going on about (whoever ‘they’ are) is that if you’re going to the cinema on a date, it’s best to make it a trip to a horror movie – mainly because the effect of watching a really scary movie is that it will move you on to the ‘clinging sweatily to each other’ stage much sooner than would otherwise be the case. All very well, I suppose, for those whose horizons extend so far, but – well, here’s what happened to me.

A couple of weeks ago I went to see Unsane with a friend of mine, whom I will be referring to as Olinka in order to save her blushes. She is a very good friend who I don’t feel I see nearly enough and so I suggested we do it again and see Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson’s Ghost Stories, which we caught the trailer for. Olinka was keen, provided she could bring her friend Yekaterina, who was in the UK for her very first visit. So down we settled in the theatre, with your correspondent the meat in a sandwich mostly comprised of young Russian womanhood.

As usual, the trailers were carefully selected, for the most part: we had the trailer for Truth or Dare, a grisly-looking imminent horror movie, and then the trailer for Hereditary, another scary movie which is on the way. And then a couple more in the same severed vein. ‘Why all movies here so horrible?’ Yekaterina whispered in the dark, sounding rather aghast.

‘This is a horror movie, so they are showing us adverts for other horror movies,’ I explained.

‘Horror movie?’ Yekaterina was turning even paler.

‘Relax, it’s not a horror movie, it’s a thriller,’ said Olinka, with her usual unflappable confidence.

‘Ol, you saw the trailer for this, of course it’s a horror movie,’ I said, rather incredulously. (I had forgotten this was a woman who watched Legend and thought it was meant to be a comedy film.)

Anyway, the film started and we soon found out just who had been paying attention best. Due to the kind of movie this is, there is a degree of narrative sleight-of-hand going on, but let’s try and keep this straightforward and spoiler-free: Nyman co-writes, co-directs, and stars as Professor Philip Goodman, a parapsychologist and professional debunker of supernatural phenomena – something he was inspired to do by a man who disappeared years ago.

But now his predecessor resurfaces, bearing details of three extraordinary cases which, Goodman is assured, will convince him of the existence of otherworldly forces, if he can summon the courage to investigate them properly.

A troubled security guard (Paul Whitehouse), alone in a derelict mental hospital in the middle of the night, begins to realise there may be something there in the dark with him. A nervous and fragile teenager (Alex Lawther), driving home through the woods one night, has a disturbing encounter which brings a whole new meaning to the word ‘roadkill’. And finally, a wealthy man (Martin Freeman), whose wife is in hospital with complications connected to her pregnancy, finds his home invaded by a malevolent force of some kind. But beyond all this, is there something even worse at work? Something with a personal connection to Goodman himself…?

Well, it may be very pleasant to go to the cinema with someone you’re in a relationship with and have them yelping and lunging at you in the dark, but when you are there with two young Russian women, neither of whom you are close to in that way, and one of whom you only met an hour earlier, and the pair of them are grabbing at you and clinging on and occasionally shrieking – well, you know, I found this somewhat challenging and was not entirely sure how to respond appropriately, not least because I was doing the odd spot of cringing and meeping myself. Which if nothing else should tell you that Ghost Stories really does work as a scary movie.

Andy Nyman is one of those people who seems to have been around for ages, doing lots of different things without ever really becoming well known: he was in Kick-Ass 2, for instance, and also Charlie Brooker’s Dead Set; he has also been a key collaborator of Derren Brown’s for many years. Jeremy Dyson, on the other hand, is famous as the lesser-spotted member of the League of Gentlemen, the one who occasionally looks like Michael Sheen.

If this, together with some of the casting, gives you the impression that Ghost Stories comes from League of Gentlemen/Black Mirror/Derren Brown-ish kind of territory, you’d be absolutely right. The League of Gentlemen practically drips with affection for and knowledge of a certain type of British horror movie of years gone by, but here the goal is pastiche much more than parody, and it is pastiche very effectively executed.

I’ve seen quite a few articles recently discussing the phenomenon of what they’re calling ‘post-horror’, a label they’re cheerfully sticking on films as diverse as Personal Shopper and It Comes By Night (also A Quiet Place, out at the moment, which I have a therapist’s note excusing me from seeing). The two schools of thought on post-horror are that either this is a movement using the raw material of genre horror to tell stories which aren’t constricted by the usual conventions and cliches, or just an empty new buzz-phrase concocted by journalists looking for a new angle. As usual, I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle – it occurs to me you could describe films like Under the Skin, Annihilation, and Upstream Color as post-SF with equal accuracy – but the thing about Ghost Stories is that it doesn’t muck about trying to second-guess or deconstruct itself. This is a proper horror movie.

That said, there is virtually no gore in this movie, and it does draw heavily on a very British tradition of portmanteau horror films that started with Dead of Night and includes the famous Amicus horror anthologies, amongst others. (It is perhaps ironic that the only obvious in-joke in the movie is a reference to Tigon, not Amicus.) But the influences on the movie extend further – there are surely traces of things like The Stone Tape and Ghostwatch, and even those genuinely terrifying public safety films from the 1970s. The film’s world is one of dismal housing estate pubs, seafront caravan parks, waste ground, all places with their own bleak and very British eeriness.

It may be that the Diversity Police turn up on Ghost Stories’ front steps, for this is primarily a film about white men, but on the other hand it is also a film with superb performances from all of the principal cast – Nyman is clearly a very skilled performer, but each of the other three manages to eclipse him completely in their segment of the film. It isn’t even as if any of these is blazingly original – Whitehouse’s segment just has him wandering about a dark building with a torch, for instance. And yet it builds and builds until you are frozen to your seat, unable to look away.

In the end, of course, there is a revelation of sorts – this doesn’t come as a complete surprise, not least because of the heavy prosthetic make-up one character is clearly wearing – and the leap into nightmarish surrealism this involves is also extremely adroitly handled. A dozen little seemingly-trivial details from earlier in the movie snap into focus, and you realise… well, no spoilers here.

It initially seems like Ghost Stories may be trying to say something about existential dread and guilt, but in the end I get the impression the film is mainly constructed the way it is to enable the bravura twists and reveals in its final few minutes. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, for this is a horror movie which succeeds completely in its first duty, which is to seriously put the wind up the audience. Maybe there is something old-fashioned and formal about it, but it’s still a terrifically alarming, entertaining experience. I very rarely use the words ‘instant classic’, but in this case I am minded to.

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Film studios are usually so prepared to jump on the bandwagon of any successful movie and devote themselves to making more of the same, that it almost seems churlish to be less than fully enthusiastic when someone unveils a project which is quite startling in its originality. Nevertheless, this is the position I find myself in with respect to Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper. If you are a fan of movies in which low-ranking fashionistas moonlight as ghostbusters and find themselves mixed up in the stuff of a psychological thriller, well, rejoice, for this movie is right up your street. If you are part of that inexplicable minority for whom this is not instinctively interesting, well, you might want to read on anyway, for this is still a fairly interesting project.

Kristen Stewart wafts around Paris, London, and Muscat as Maureen, personal shopper and general dogsbody for a prominent figure in the fashion industry (who’s a fairly unpleasant individual, it would appear). Several people wonder why she stays in such a difficult and unrewarding position; well, she has something else on her mind – her brother died three months earlier and the two of them made a deal. Whichever one passed on first would send a message of some kind to the other, confirming the existence of the afterlife. For Maureen, you see, has mediumistic powers, in addition to a good knowledge of couture, and spends much of her spare time hanging around gloomy old mansions harassing dead people. So when she starts to receive enigmatic text messages from someone seeming to know all about her and her life, one of the first questions that occurs to her is that of which side of the grave her stalker is on…

There is a certain class of actor who rose from near-obscurity to global celebrity extremely rapidly and at a relatively young age, and while this may have done their profile and bank balance no harm whatsoever, it creates a lens through which all their subsequent work is inevitably viewed. I’m thinking of people like Elijah Wood, Daniel Radcliffe, and Emma Watson, and – of course – Kristen Stewart belongs to this select group as well. (Jennifer Lawrence, on the other hand, seems to have slipped the net, while the career of Leonardo DiCaprio indicates there is hope for any of these people.) No matter what Stewart does, on some level she is still going to be The Twilight Girl for many people, with all the baggage that comes with this. On the other hand, I expect having a net worth of $70m makes up for a lot, and Stewart could be forgiven for either just sitting on a yacht somewhere or simply doing very commercial work. I would say that for her to lend her profile to an odd little slightly art-house film like this one is commendable, especially considering the vanity-free performance it demands of her.

Personal Shopper played at the Cannes festival, where it won the prize for best direction and was also booed by the audience, which may give you a sense of the film’s potential to divide and confuse. On paper the film sounds like some sort of odd genre mash-up, with elements of a psychological thriller and a possible ghost story intermingling, but to be honest it doesn’t so much combine genres as slosh around between them haphazardly. Most of the time it comes across as a naturalistic, ostentatiously understated character piece with Stewart buzzing around Paris on her moped, carrying out lengthy text message conversations, looking at shoes, and so on, and you think that the metaphysical elements – her fretting about the existence of the next world, the mysterious absence of word from her brother – are just part of this. She has the same congenital heart defect which killed him (and could potentially do the same to her), and you almost expect the business about spirits to be not much more than a metaphor, an expression of her existential uncertainty about life.

But then there’s a genuinely creepy sequence of Stewart wandering around a big old house in the dark, and vague shapes swirl around the edges of the frame, and abruptly she is contending with a hostile CGI spectre, and the effect is quite discombobulating – especially when the sequences like this don’t particularly seem to lead anywhere or add to the story. The thriller-storyline is somewhat less arbitrary – someone gets murdered, Stewart’s character is too close to being implicated for comfort, and what does her mysterious text friend know about it all? – but arguably gets going too late in the film and ultimately remains quite baffling and unexplained in several key details. (It may be there’s a brilliant subtext or hidden story in this film which completely passed me by; one sequence near the end is certainly very suggestive.)

Despite all this, Personal Shopper remains oddly mesmerising to watch – I glanced at my watch at one point, wondering when the plot proper would get going, only to find we were already 80 minutes into the film without my noticing it. This is partly because it’s simply quite a well-made film, and the various elements of the plot, for all that many of them are not entirely resolved, are nevertheless quite intriguing while they’re being developed. I would also say that credit should go to Kristen Stewart, who does have that indefinable quality we call Star. Her performance here, while a little mannered, is also technically meticulous, the work of someone who cares about their craft at the very least. And she pretty much has to carry the entire film – no-one else really makes much of an impression, with the possible exception of Lars Eidinger – it might be worth a small flutter on Eidinger as a potential future Bond villain, as he certainly seems to have the looks and the moves for the role.

For all that Personal Shopper sounds like a plot-driven genre movie, so much of it is oblique and ultimately unresolved that it really functions more as a mood or character piece than anything else. There are so many strangenesses and weird quirks and choices to the movie that I can fully understand why some people might find it deeply annoying, but on the other hand, the central performance is quite impressive and it is extremely watchable, in a funny sort of way. Is it actually a good movie or not? For once I can’t actually decide, but The Twilight Girl is certainly good in it.

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Christmas means different things to different people. This is practically a truism, of course, but it has been brought home to me in recent weeks by the local art house cinema’s selection for their films for Christmas season. Some of the usual suspects were in there, like Scrooge, but on the whole there was a rather different and unexpected flavour to the proceedings: as regular visitors may recall, things kicked off with a very welcome revival of The Blood on Satan’s Claw, and went on to include Night of the Demon and Under the Shadow, before concluding with Hideo Nakata’s 2002 film Dark Water. A fairly sustained assault by supernatural forces of darkness upon the innocent and unwary, then – in the words of Thea Gilmore, that’ll be Christmas.

I wanted to take my Anglo-Iranian affairs correspondent along to see Under the Shadow again, to see if he could identify any of the cultural subtexts which I suspected had eluded me the first time I saw it. But we couldn’t make that date so we ended up going to see Dark Water instead, which was the first time for both of us.

dark-water

The original title of this movie, Honogurai Mizu no soko kara, translates as From the Depths of Dark Water, which is perhaps a bit more florid than the English version but still tells you everything that you need to know – it gets very dark and there’s water by the bucketful. Hitomi Kuroki plays Yoshimi, a Japanese housewife in the midst of very acrimonious divorce proceedings, central to which is the custody settlement for her young daughter Ikuko (Rio Kanno). Things are, frankly, starting to get to Yoshimi, and she is very relieved when she manages to find an apartment for the two of them to live in. The building is old and slightly decrepit, and there’s a bit of a damp patch on the ceiling in Ikuko’s bedroom, but you can’t have everything, can you, and how bad can things actually get?

Well, pretty bad, to be perfectly honest: Ikuko finds a child’s bag on the roof, which absolutely refuses to be thrown away no matter how many times Yoshimi tries to get of it. The damp gets more and more pervasive. Yoshimi begins to glimpse a small, raincoated figure around the building, and it seems to be closing in on the pair of them. Then she hears the story of how a young girl disappeared from the same building a few years earlier and begins to suspect her daughter may be in much greater peril than she previously suspected…

In the end, I confided to my Anglo-Iranian affairs correspondent that missing Under the Shadow in favour of Dark Water was probably for the best, not just because Dark Water is a rather more effective and subtle film, but also because it clearly inspired and had a huge influence upon the more recent movie. Both concern an effectively single mother and her daughter, trapped in an almost derelict and partly deserted residential building, surrounded by useless and unhelpful individuals, with a relentless supernatural force encroaching into their lives. Even one of the key images of Dark Water, the spreading damp, is sort-of replicated in the form of the bomb-damaged ceiling of Under the Shadow.

It’s perfectly understandable that other directors should feel moved to draw upon the work of Hideo Nakata, for he is one the leading exponents of the cinematic ghost story of the modern era – as well as Dark Water, he also originated the seemingly-endless Ringu franchise – and Dark Water is unquestionably a very unsettling film to watch. Well, more than unsettling, in places it’s downright scary.

There’s a slightly odd thing going on here where you know well in advance that Nakata is going to be using certain devices to achieve his effects – you just know there’s going to be some business involving mysterious figures appearing on the antiquated CCTV system of the apartment block, and so it proves, and also some fun and games with the decrepit old lift, and once again this comes to pass – and yet when the moments come you are as rattled as if it was a complete surprise to you. It may just be down to the sheer virtuosity of the director, and perhaps also the way in which he conjures up such an oppressive atmosphere from virtually the first moment of the film. The relentless rain and puddles quickly acquire a greater significance and their own set of associations – by the end of the film a leaky tap has basically become a portent of utter dread.

That said, I feel I have to say that my companion didn’t find the film quite as effective as I did, and we had a lively discussion about the film’s employment of various horror movie and ghost story tropes – was it really necessary, we discussed, for Yoshimi to be quite so psychologically fragile and prone to alarm? In a way it helps to drive the story along, because people who make bad decisions are worth their weight in gold to the writers of horror movies, and perhaps Nakata is also trying to leave a little bit of ambiguity as to what exactly is going on – to paraphrase Peter Bradshaw’s comment when discussing the US remake of this film, just exactly what kind of help does Yoshimi need – a psychiatrist, an exorcist, or a plumber?

Nevertheless, this film does have some properly spooky moments, even if I might also suggest it has a few issues with pacing – having ramped up the tension in the second act, Nakata perhaps lets it slack off just a bit too much before the climax, while the concluding sequence which acts as a coda perhaps goes on just a little too long to be completely effective. Despite all this, I would still say Dark Water is a hugely accomplished and very potent ghost story, with some superbly effective surreal flourishes as it reaches its climax, and just enough depth and ambiguity to linger in the memory once concluded. Certainly a modern classic, and a very influential film.

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Time to once again part company from common sense and write about a film which most people will likely be completely unaware of: it’s just finished an art-house run in my neck of the woods, and likely never got close to a proper multiplex release, despite being… well, let’s just say that the standard advice for anyone wanting to make a profit on a movie is that they should do a horror film, for these films have a rock-solid track record of making comfortable returns on very low budgets.

Perhaps this explains why the BFI, financier in its current and previous incarnations of almost unwatchable garbage like Sex Lives of the Potato Men and The Future, has decided to invest heavily in horror films of late – the BFI put substantial funds behind The Girl with All the Gifts, and also helped with the budget of Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow. However, perhaps a little of the BFI’s old magic still lingers, for Under the Shadow is in some ways a rather uncommercial horror film, for all its refreshing accomplishment.

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Is this film in fact, as it appears, the world’s first Iranian horror movie? Well, it’s set in Tehran, entirely performed in Farsi, and made by artistes of Iranian descent. On the other hand, you can make a film entirely in Klingon without actually being from Qo’NoS, and Under the Shadow is technically a co-production between film companies in the UK, Jordan and Qatar, rather than actually being Iranian. (If that makes a difference.)

As mentioned, the setting is Tehran in the mid 80s, towards the end of the Iran-Iraq War. The city is under regular attack from Iraqi missiles and bombs, but Shideh (Narges Rashidi) has more personal problems to contend with: an unwise flirtation with counter-revolutionary politics has left her banned from pursuing her medical studies, leaving her looking for a purpose in life – simply being a housewife and mother to her daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) is just not enough. Her husband (Bobby Naderi) is not overwhelmingly understanding, and is soon conscripted into the army and sent to the front line anyway.

But things get worse. In the aftermath of a missile strike on the tower block where they live, an elderly resident seemingly dies of fear, and Dorsa reports disquieting stories told to her by a troubled young boy living in the same building: ‘they’ are coming. Dorsa’s beloved doll disappears, Shideh starts to have alarmingly vivid nightmares, and slowly she comes to realise that they are no longer alone in their home – dark spirits, or djinn, have attached themselves to the family…

Strip away the oddities of its setting and language and Under the Shadow is essentially a fairly straightforward scary story about a woman and her daughter who find themselves trapped in a haunted tower block. There is something undeniably universal going here – if you remade this film in English you could certainly imagine it turning up on the Horror Channel – and in some ways the film seems to be tapping into the deeper traditions of the genre. When the malevolent presence at the centre of the story eventually manifests itself, it is as the most primal form of ghost, essentially an animated sheet, perhaps recalling Jonathan Miller’s celebrated adaptation of M.R. James’ Whistle and I’ll Come to You.

Talk of ill-intentioned linen should not give you the impression that Under the Shadow is anything but a properly scary film with some genuinely alarming moments, and this is because the director gives every sign of knowing what they are doing: there is a long, long build-up before he starts wheeling on the jump scares and CGI horrors. There is a lot of disturbing, incidental detail woven into the story, supported by a unsettling, atonal soundtrack – at one point the sheer atmosphere the sound design wound me up to the point where I was jumping simply at a toaster popping up.

I mentioned to a friend of, to simplify matters somewhat, Iranian extraction that I was off to see a horror movie set in Tehran thirty years ago, and his initial reaction was ‘So, it’s a documentary, then?’ Certainly the real-world background to the story does inform it somewhat: at one point Shideh flees her home in the middle of the night, driven out by supernatural forces, and is promptly arrested and nearly flogged for being out in public without her head covered. But there’s less of this kind of real-world horror than you might expect.

To be honest I kind of wish I’d taken my friend along with me, partly because he doesn’t get out very much, but mainly because it would have been nice to have someone along more familiar with the traditions and situation concerned, because as things stand I’m not sure if there’s a deeper level to this story that completely passed me by. All ghost stories are ultimately metaphorical, but here it’s a bit unclear what that metaphor is. It’s implied there’s some connection between the coming of the djinn and the effects of the war, but then again there’s perhaps the merest suggestion that Shideh’s relationship with her recently-departed mother may also be relevent.

This lack of a deeper story – at least, one that I could identify – is the only fault I can really find with Under the Shadow. It’s not the biggest or most groundbreaking film of the year, but it certainly has novelty value on its side, as well as all the traditional storytelling virtues. If you only go and see one ghost story set in a Tehran tower block during the Iran-Iraq war this year, then… no, that’s not quite giving the right impression. If you like a proper old-fashioned scary movie, this is definitely worth checking out.

 

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Most producers of major Hollywood summer blockbusters would probably react with dismay, to put it mildly, upon learning that their movie was not going to get a release in one of the world’s biggest and most lucrative markets. For the people behind Paul Feig’s new version of Ghostbusters, however, I suspect China’s decision not to allow the film to show in their country will come as something of a relief: it will at least give people something else to talk about, for this is a project which has attracted a higher-than-usual level of chatter since it was announced.

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The film is set in present day New York. Kristen Wiig plays Erin Gilbert, a physicist who reluctantly finds herself drawn back to her one-time interest in parapsychology, and also her former friend Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy). A spate of ghost sightings across the city lead the duo to go into business with semi-unhinged engineer Holtzman (Kate McKinnon) and former metro worker Patty (Leslie Jones) as professional psychic investigators. But things seem to be quickly getting out of control, as someone seems intent on unleashing a supernatural disaster on the city. The citizens and government desperately need help, but (and I’m aware you’re probably ahead of me on this) who are they gonna call?

Yes, this is the All-Female Ghostbusters Remake which you may or may not have become aware of in recent months. If you’re going to talk about it with any degree of credibility, I suspect you are required not just to have an opinion on the film but also on its gender politics – I saw one internet comment, following the Chinese decision (apparently because the 1984 Ivan Reitman original never got shown in China there is no demand for it, but rumour suggests an arcane anti-superstition regulation in the censor’s code may also have played a part), along the lines of ‘Men, please take just two hours out of your life to watch this movie and show your support for women’ – which is not the sort of thing people usually say when recommending a Melissa McCarthy movie. It’s almost as if normal debate has been shut off and any suggestion that you don’t like this film means you are basically this century’s answer to Bobby Riggs.

This is just one of a spate of recent films, most of them remakes, which have been drawing flak for their diversity, or lack of it, while this remains a hot-button topic in many areas of popular culture. I must confess to being left bemused, at best, by a world in which the fact that a 15-year-old girl can be a character named Iron Man even makes sense, let alone gets acclaimed as a great progressive victory: attempts to retool long-standing characters with new genders, orientations, and even sometimes ethnicities strikes me as a rather cynical means of cashing in on existing name-recognition while disregarding the work of the original creators. The All-Female Ghostbusters Remake at least opts to include a completely new set of characters, rather than regendering the originals – but I still think it’s a little disingenuous of the film-makers to express surprise at all the attention their decision has drawn. Making a blockbuster VFX-heavy comedy with an ensemble female cast would be a bold move and perhaps a risky one, but not especially controversial – remaking such a well-known and indeed classic film in such an ostentatiously radical and arguably odd way was always going to get a strong response. (The film itself has a couple of somewhat through-clenched-teeth gags about internet trolls, which at least shows a good degree of self-awareness.)

One wonders if there is anything more to this decision than a cheery willingness to exploit the goodwill surrounding the 1984 film, not to mention its familiarity to audiences, because this is by any standards an extremely loose remake, not just in terms of plot and characters but also in style. Ghostbusters sort of hearkens back to the original horror-comedy films like Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, in which there was a strict delineation between the two genres – the monsters are played straight and people really do get killed; the threat is taken seriously. The new film is much more broadly and consistently comic, with plenty of slapstick and jokes about orifices, much as you’d expect from this particular set of artistes. It is also more emotionally articulate and character-driven, with an essentially human antagonist rather than an unearthly pseudo-Lovecraftian menace. That said, it also works hard to keep fans of the original on-side: all the main stars who are still alive and active in the film business get cameos, and one of them even gets the last word before the closing credits – it is (spoiler alert) ‘flapjacks’.

Well, hie me down to my reinforced bunker as the Diversity Enforcement Squad head for my garret with flaming torches in hand, but I think I’ll be sticking with the 1984 film, which I saw on the big screen again not that long ago and still found to be tremendous entertainment. The All-Female Ghostbusters Remake is stuffed with un-engaging neon-hued CGI and has the same kind of deadpan, ironic, mock-bathetic sensibility as the other Paul Feig films I’ve seen, but I have to say neither of these things really draw me in any more, simply because after a while they both get a bit predictable. Wiig and McCarthy carry the film pretty well, but I suspect it’s Kate McKinnon who is going to get the best notices of the main quartet – she can probably look forward to becoming a dressing-up icon very soon, and, who knows, maybe another sort of icon too. There is also a somewhat revelatory performance from Chris Hemsworth as the new Ghostbusters’ epically dim receptionist, which I thought was one of the funniest things in the film (Hemsworth is cheerily objectified as an object of lust in a way that neither Sigourney Weaver nor Annie Potts were back in 1984 – just saying).

But in the end, as an even vaguely horror-themed film this just isn’t very spooky, and as a comedy there seemed to me to be quite long gaps between laughs. It just about functions and stays watchable as a fantasy-action movie, but then this is by far the least demanding of the three disciplines it attempts. It’ll be interesting, in the light of the Chinese decision, to see what kind of money this film makes, not least because it has clearly been set up as the start of a new franchise (Dan Aykroyd, who exec produces in addition to his cameo, has suggested a Marvel-style series of connected-but-separate series of films is in the offing, which to me sounds wildly optimistic, but we’ll see). I will be surprised if it does super well – not because I think audiences are sexist and reactionary, not because I think films with a mainly female ensemble cast are a bad idea, but simply because this isn’t a particularly accomplished film, for all that it retains one of the catchiest theme tunes in history. Not a comprehensive sliming of the classic original, by any means, but it still feels curiously lightweight and non-essential.

 

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Alarm and consternation has gripped the organisers of populist-yet-slightly-art-housey film retrospectives across the land – can it really be true? Say it isn’t so! How can a benevolent supreme being countenance such a thing? Yes, if the rumours are true, Japan’s Studio Ghibli is ceasing operations. Considering that Ghibli’s top wasabi Hayao Miyazaki has announced his retirement, this shouldn’t necessarily come as a huge shock, but on the other hand there’s (presumably) only so many times you can mount revivals of My Neighbour Totoro, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and all the other crowd-pleasers without having the convenient hook of a new Ghibli movie to hang them on.

But here it is, the (possibly) final film under the Studio Ghibli marque, Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s When Marnie Was There (J-title: Omoide no Mani, or Memories of Marnie). This is not the story of someone thinking back to the days when their local cinema was showing a problematic Hitchcock psycho-melodrama with Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery, but a rather more nuanced story. Quite who it’s going to play to other than die-hard Ghibli fanatics I’m not entirely sure, but anyway.

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This is the story of Anna (voiced by Sara Takatsuki), a troubled young girl living in Sapporo, Japan. Suffering badly from asthma, amongst other things, her adoptive parents decide to send her to live with their relatives in the remote countryside, in a (fairly) idyllic lakeside village.

However, on her arrival Anna finds herself inexplicably drawn to the Marsh House, a luxurious mansion now falling somewhat into disrepair. Despite this, she sees there is a young fair-haired girl of around her own age living there, and the two become friends. The other girl is Marnie (Kasumi Arimura). Anna comes to realise that Marnie has troubles in her own life, and that perhaps the strange connection they feel may end up helping both of them…

Now, you’re a smart and intelligent individual, questionable taste in online film criticism excepted, and you may well be wondering exactly why a Japanese animation would choose to name its two main characters Anna and Marnie: common names in the land at the root of the sun these are not. Well, the answer, which you may have already surmised, is that once again Studio Ghibli has looked beyond Japan for its source material. As with Howl’s Moving Castle, Tales of Earthsea, and Arrietty, When Marnie Was There is based on an English-language novel – an actual English one in this case, written by Joan G Robinson and apparently much acclaimed (not that I’ve ever actually heard of it, of course). Transferring the story from the UK to Japan has been done fairly seamlessly, the odd thing with the names aside – the wilds of Norfolk become the remote countryside of Hokkaido with the greatest of ease.

Actually, realising that this was based on an English novel set in Norfolk almost helped me figure out why When Marnie Was There seemed a little familiar: there’s the troubled visitor from the city, a delapidated and often inaccessible house out in the marshlands, a definite undercurrent of loneliness and desperation, a strong flavour of the supernatural… That said, while I suppose you could show When Marnie Was There in a double bill with The Woman In Black and the two would synergise quite nicely with each other, this is an altogether gentler and less disturbing piece with considerably fewer untimely deaths in it.

Which is not to say this is one to dump the tinies in front of while you slide off to grab a breather somewhere: from the very start, it is clear that this is a film concerned with serious, quite dark themes. Alienation, loneliness, depression, loss – all of these are central to the story and subtly woven into the narrative with the Ghibli writers’ customary skill. Is it heavy going for a bit? Well, perhaps, but you almost expect a challenging narrative from this studio – this is actually quite lightweight compared to some of their past projects – and the conclusion of the story is ultimately a positive one. This is a ghost story where the past is embodied not as a monster seeking to wreak vengeance, but as a source of answers and understanding.

By western standards the story does feel a little unfocused – is there supposed to be a big moment of revelation when we discover one of the characters is a ghost? It doesn’t feel like it, plus the audience would really have to be very slow not to guess the film’s final revelation long before it’s made – and perhaps also lacking in incident. But set against this there is the usual Ghibli mastery of form – these people do make the most beautiful animated films in the world. Even then, I did feel there wasn’t a whole lot going on here I hadn’t seen before – there’s the bit where the wind stirs the long grass, the incredibly busy and detailed crowd scenes, the loving depictions of meals being prepared and consumed – all of it meticulously done, but somehow lacking in the visionary touch of the fantastic that marks out their best films.

When Marnie Was There is beautiful to look at, of course, and laden with all the essential storytelling virtues, of course. No-one could accuse Studio Ghibli of departing with a sub-standard production. But at the same time this is solid rather than anything really special – it’s easy on the eye, and passes the time very pleasantly. It’s just not truly exceptional in the way the studio’s work has so often been in the past.

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Maybe there comes a time in a man’s life when he must admit that, regarding the current crop of Doctor Who, he is more often than not left unimpressed and disappointed. If so, then I am certainly reaching this point – and no-one is more honestly surprised by this than I am, given the obvious credentials and abilities of the key people involved in the making of the current series. Does it just boil down to the fact that – and this is such a shocking comparison I have to take a deep breath before making it – like Eric Saward, Steven Moffat is a better scriptwriter than story editor? I don’t know. Certainly the cheerful braininess of Moffat’s first season in charge feels like it’s evaporated, leaving in its wake a penchant for long-running, fiddly arc plots, and sentimentality which is at least as cheesy as that of the last days of Rusty Davies.

Which is a funny way of opening a review of a story which, in the end, I really liked, but there you go. I say all of the above, but only because enjoying Hide so much made me realise just how indifferent my response to other recent episodes has been. Not enjoying new Doctor Who makes me grumpy, and it shouldn’t happen.

Which is not to say that Hide was by any means perfect – if anything, it reminded me, in general terms, of a couple of older stories, namely The Android Invasion and The Stones of Blood: Android Invasion, because it showed how a really, really strong opening can do a lot to make up for a dubious climax, and Stones of Blood in the way it shifted somewhat jerkily from something approaching proper horror to a more scientifictional approach.

I enjoyed the full-on ghost story elements of the first part of Hide tremendously: this is surely the most full-on attempt at a scary episode in ages, and it’s just a shame that it ended up being broadcast on the first decent Spring day all year rather than on a rain-lashed winter’s night. Quite apart form the fact that the episode got the methodology of a ghost story so right, it convincingly evoked the atmosphere and some of the plot of The Stone Tape, Nigel Kneale’s legendary piece of SF-horror (the early-1970s setting seemed an obvious tip of the hat to Kneale’s play).

‘Please stop going on about how Hugh Jackman nicked your career.’

Of course, the problem with raising the spirit of The Stone Tape in Doctor Who is that in the original play, science takes on the supernatural and is found severely wanting – and you can’t have that happening in a show at least partly predicated on the primacy of rationalism and the general infallibility of the Doctor’s approach to problems. Which may be why the episode, with almost disappointing speed, turned into something rather more SF-inflected.

Here I thought I detected an echo of James Tiptree’s The Man Who Walked Home, though the correspondence may well have been coincidental. To be honest, I thought proceedings started to unravel somewhat at this point, with people visiting pocket universes on the end of ropes and so on, and a general lurch back in the direction of soft-centred wooliness that has afflicted so many recent episodes.

The stuff with Clara and the TARDIS not getting on is interesting, even if the bit with the TARDIS actually having a conversation with someone surely contradicts Neil Gaiman’s last script? We know that the TARDIS didn’t like Jack Harkness after his resurrection, as he was an unnatural space-time event, so it seems logical to assume the same applies to the new girl. Will this stuff be explained at the end of the season or in the 50th show? Of the two, I’m betting on the former, although…

Well, look, here’s some wild speculation – Oswald isn’t the most common surname, and we know that Moffat names his major characters with a degree of care (plus some repetition). The 50th anniversary show, in which Ms Oswald will be a major participant, will be going out around the time of the anniversary of another famous event in which the Oswald family were involved, an event with which TV Doctor Who has never properly involved itself. Could this be the time that they do?

Let’s face it: probably not. Anyway, to reiterate, I enjoyed the beginning of this episode so much that it lifted me over all the business with everyone turning out to be in love with and/or rel ated to each other – even the drokking monsters are now falling in love with each other, for crying out loud. Okay, so maybe I am a high-functioning psychopath with zero empathy and no ability to establish normal human relationships, but this just strikes me as absurd and unnecessary. Nevertheless, Neil Cross can consider Rings of Akhaten atoned for. Onward and inward…

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How very pleasant it is to have a Hammer production topping the UK movie charts, and rather unexpected too. That said, of course, the success of James Watkins’ The Woman in Black has probably less to do with residual affection for the House of Horror than the presence in it of Daniel Radcliffe, fresh from a certain other franchise which has received moderate financial success. Some people have described the Potter movies as ‘Hammer Horror for Kids’, which I don’t think is entirely fair to either J.K. Rowling’s work or the House, but the connection is perhaps responsible for the peculiar phenomenon of Radcliffe going on a round of appearances, supposedly to plug the movie, where he repeatedly warned people against taking their children to see it!

Being in the midst of studying for a diploma in teaching, the prospect of an atmosphere redolent in incipient dread and despair made a welcome change from one of actual dread and despair, and this, coupled to my long-time love of Hammer, made it pretty much a certainty that I’d be going along to see the new film. Based on Susan Hill’s novel of the same name, this is the story of Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe), a young solicitor in Edwardian London. Since the death of his wife in childbirth, he has been struggling to, as they say, keep things together, and is now given one last chance to show competence in his work. He is dispatched to a remote part of the north of England to sort out the paperwork of a recently-deceased elderly woman.

Harry Arthur soon discovers that a dreadful pall hangs over the area, centred on the old house his duties require him to work in. His presence is resented by the locals, who seem besieged by a succession of fatal accidents befalling their children – accidents they attribute to the baleful presence around the house of a spectral Woman in Black… Can Arthur complete his work in the house with his sanity intact? And, even worse, can he be in such close proximity to the source of the Woman in Black’s power without being somehow tainted by it himself?

James Watkins’ previous directing credit was Eden Lake, which was an authentically gruelling and properly nasty horror movie but by no means supernatural in its focus. The Woman in Black, on the other hand, is a proper spook story, very much in the classic vein. As a result, it has more than a few similarities with films like The Others and The Awakening, even to the point of repeating some of the same dramatic beats. Nevertheless, this is a superior addition to the genre for most of its running time.

Initially, though, the decision to employ Daniel Radcliffe’s formidable star-power seems like a mis-step – he looks rather too young for the part and is issued with some painfully non-Edwardian dialogue (‘Gotta rush! Don’t wanna miss the train!’ he pipes up with near the start). But, once a London swathed in dodgy CGI fog is left behind, the film fully immerses itself in the oppressively creepy atmosphere hinted at from the very first scenes.

As well as this chilly bleakness, the film benefits from the very solid three-act structure of Jane Goldman’s screenplay. Kipps’ encounters with the Woman in Black and the effects of her power grow longer and more intense as the film goes on and his comprehension of what is happening increases. That said, the fact that the film doesn’t solely consist of the main character rattling around inside an old house in the dark is also a strength.

To be perfectly honest Daniel Radcliffe doesn’t get a great deal to do beyond react and look strained for most of this movie, but he does this rather well. Also near the top of the cast list are Ciaran Hinds and Janet McTeer, who are both rather good in their individual ways. Liz White plays the title role, but I’ll be curious to see how much of this film ends up on her showreel…

It’s quite common in this kind of film for the ghostly manifestation to in some way be a metaphor for the main character’s own psychological issues or troubled past, but the movie avoids this idea along with many other cliches: the Woman in Black is wholly external, with her own story. Neither is she just a passive figure inadvertantly influencing anyone trespassing in her domain, but an active menace with her own very specific agenda.

And this is a scary film, with many shrink-back-in-your-seat or emit-a-soft-meep moments. Watkins orchestrates these rather well, as well as the film’s deeper source of disquiet. A previous TV version of this story was scripted by the great Nigel Kneale, and it seemed to me that some of his influence has filtered through into the movie – particularly his rigorously logical approach to the behaviour of supernatural forces. The slow realisation by both Kipps and the audience that the Woman in Black is not simply an unquiet spirit but an unstoppable, irrational force of vengeance is finely achieved, and the film’s most terrifying moment comes not from anything directly on the screen but a sudden understanding on the part of the viewer that Kipps has wholly misunderstood the nature of the Woman in Black…

It’s a fine moment, impressively subverting genre conventions while staying true to itself, which makes it all the more depressing when the film blows it in its final minute or so. An ending which looked like it was going to be ruthlessly dark and downbeat is, crudely, twisted so it ends up sentimental and soggy-headed.

The ending of this kind of film is, of course, the hardest part to get right – The Awakening fell down just as badly, if not worse – and there’s more than enough good stuff in the first 93 minutes or so to make this film very much worth a look. The Woman in Black is by no means a traditional Hammer horror (there’s a distinct lack of Kensington Gore and bare breasts), relying more on atmosphere to get its scares. But get them it definitely does.

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