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Regular readers may recall my trip a couple of months ago to the excellent Ghost Stories, in the company of a couple of young Russian women who – in defiance of all logic – were unaware they were actually going to see a horror movie. Well, as they say in the more gothic-influenced parts of Switzerland, mein Gott, ich habe ein Monster erschaffen, for – while her friend Yekaterina returned to Russia alarmed and trembling – Olinka, it seems, has developed a real taste for this sort of thing. ‘Can we go and see Hereditary? Can we can we can we?’ ran the general tenor of her messages to me for quite some little while, until we, um, went to see Hereditary, directed by Ari Aster. Filling in for Yekaterina was me good mate and occasional contributor around here Next Desk Colleague, which if nothing else made me hope that there would be less jumping onto and grabbing at each other in the dark on this occasion.

We saw the trailer for Hereditary before Ghost Stories, of course, and were not unimpressed by its unsettling weirdness. Less positive was the response of another group of people who also saw the trailer, according to the media, but as they were a group of small children and their parents waiting to watch Peter Rabbit, this is not really surprising. Oh, the horror! Oh, the outraged screams! Oh, the parents desperately dragging their youngsters out of the theatre! Mind you, I don’t understand why this doesn’t happen during every screening of Peter Rabbit, regardless of which trailers precede it, but there you go – it’s a funny old world.

‘It’s a funny old world’ is not the prevailing ethos on display in Hereditary. ‘It’s a horrendous, bleak, nightmarish existence’ would probably be closer to the mark. The main character is Annie (Toni Collette), a successful artist, who lives with her husband (Gabriel Byrne), son (Alex Wolff), and daughter (Milly Shapiro). As the film opens they are preparing to bury Annie’s recently deceased mother, with whom she had a fraught relationship, to say the least. It soon becomes fairly clear that this is not exactly what you would call an entirely functional family: tensions and resentment, between mother and children at least, seem to be constantly simmering away not far from the surface. And as far as daughter Charlie is concerned – well, the kid just ain’t right, somehow, choosing to spend lots of time alone in a somewhat spooky treehouse, with hobbies that include scissoring the heads off dead birds. Hmmm.

And here we kind of run into a problem, which leads us back to the trailer to Hereditary. This is definitely one from the atmospheric, impressionistic end of the spectrum – it does a very good job of giving you an idea of how you’re going to feel while watching the movie, but in terms of telling you what the actual plot is, or even what the movie is really about… not so much. Let’s just say that something happens, the nature of which is significant, and the rest of the film is about the family’s response to this and the various ways in which things go awry as a result.

So what is Hereditary about? It’s not at all clear at first. If you’re watching a zombie movie, there’s a certain grammar and set of tropes in the storytelling that you know to expect; the same is true with werewolf movies, haunted house films, and all the other odd little subgenres. But for the first hour or so Hereditary offers no hints, at least not openly. The film really seems to be about the dysfunction of an affluent family – you only really know it’s a horror film because the soundtrack makes it clear that there is an ominous significance to many of the events on screen (lots of heavy cello and occasional outbursts of unsettling noise). This, together with the sheer darkness of what occurs on screen, results in a first half to the movie which is genuinely extremely uncomfortable – there is an almost chokingly oppressive sense of darkness and unease. It is not at all easy or pleasant to watch. I have to say it’s not actually very scary, either, as this is traditionally understood, and I did wonder if this was going to turn out to be another one of those post-horror movies we are having so many of currently.

Well, it turned out that Hereditary isn’t a post-horror movie after all, for it turns into a very different film in the second half and a rather more familiar one. Once again, there does seem to have been some deliberate obfuscation on the part of the film-makers as to what audiences should expect, so I don’t feel I can really go into too much detail except to say that it involves seances not going according to plan, conspiracies, the desecration of graves, one of the kings of Hell, a cult, numerous severed heads, spontaneous combustion, and quite possibly a demonically-possessed kitchen sink. In other words, we are very much back in mainstream horror territory, with the important caveat that it still isn’t particularly scary.

Oh, they manage a few mechanical jump scares, and there are bits which will make the average person go ‘eww’ and no mistake, but it won’t get into your head and mess you up in the way that a truly great horror film will. The best it can manage is some so-so gore and other old favourites: when a shot is composed so that the main character in it is off to one side in front of an open doorway, you don’t have to be Thelma Schoonmaker to figure out that something spooky will be ‘unexpectedly’ appearing in the frame behind them in the not too distant future. And the problem is that all this doesn’t even seem to be there in support of a story which makes sense. There are a lot of ominous red herrings which don’t seem to go anywhere: Next Desk Colleague observed that it looked like a film where they were making up the story as they went along. Maybe they were.

Not surprisingly, by the end people were openly laughing at Hereditary in the screening we attended, and not the nervous-tension-diffusing kind of laughter either. I myself found I was more inclined to look at my watch, but I did emit the odd derisory snort as things went on. As the credits rolled I looked around at the rest of the team, wondering if they would agree with my snap ‘what a load of cobblers’ judgement. Apparently so: ‘terrible,’ was NDC’s response, while all Olinka had to say was ‘I’m so sorry for making you watch that.’

This does seem to be one of those films which everyone loves apart from the audience, though – I note that Hereditary currently enjoys a 92% approval rating from your actual professional film critics, but only a D+ from paying audiences. I do have to say it would be remiss of me to give the impression that this is an entirely worthless experience – the way in which the atmosphere of the first half is created and maintained is extremely impressive, highly unpleasant though it is to experience. Also, while all the main actors are good, the film has a particular virtue in Toni Collette’s performance, which is often mesmerising, and manages to engage and affect the viewer even when the film is beginning to unravel. So there is lots of promise and potential here, but for this to be realised it would need a film which is more coherent and original. There are certainly things of interest in Hereditary, but if this is the future of the horror movie, we are looking at a genre heading into serious trouble.

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Virtually the first thing you see in Peter Sasdy’s 1971 movie Hands of the Ripper is a Whitechapel street sign, and virtually the first thing you hear is a hearty cry of ‘It’s the Ripper!’ In our day of very possibly over-decompressed storytelling, it is frankly a relief to encounter a film which gets straight to the point with quite such briskness – although the briefness of the film’s running time may also be a factor. Yes, we are back in Victorian London, and Jack the Ripper is fleeing from a mob of angry Londoners. We know it is he, for he is wearing the top hat and cape which has become a kind of visual shorthand for representations of this person – and we should always remember we are discussing a person, not a fictional character – in films.

Well, he may be on the run, but the Ripper still has time to pop in to see his significant other and the child they have apparently produced together: a charming little moppet named Anna who appears to be just about to enter the toddler stage. However, our man has not been keeping his nearest and dearest entirely in the loop when it comes to his leisure activities, and the lady of the house is shocked to discover that Jack the Ripper is, in fact, Jack the Ripper. So, by the flickering light of an open fire, he murders her too, pausing only to kiss his child a tender farewell before vanishing into legend. Cue credits.

(This is by no means a film lacking in merits, but an iron grip on historicity is not one of them, and we may as well get this out of the way. Like many films of this type, Hands of the Ripper takes a kind of impressionistic, cafeteria approach to the Victorian era in general and the Ripper murders in particular. A good fifteen years, at least, elapse during the credits, which – given the Ripper murders occurred in late 1888 – would place most of the film as happening in the early 1900s, possibly in 1903 or 1904.  The one element of the film which chimes with this is a piece of suffragette graffiti demanding votes for women: the rest of it has that generic, late-Victorian aesthetic to it familiar from any number of Sherlock Holmes adaptations, and it also seems to be implied that Queen Victoria is still reigning (Her Majesty carked it in 1901). On top of all this is the fact that someone who gets killed midway through this film is called Long Liz, which is surely a reference to a real-life victim of the historical Ripper who had the same nickname. I mention all this not because I think this makes Hands of the Ripper a bad film, but because it surely says something about popular attitudes toward and conceptions of this period of history.)

Years pass, and we find the seventeen-year-old Anna (Angharad Rees) working as the accomplice of fake medium Granny Golding (‘guest star’ Dora Bryan). She is not terribly good at fake spirit voices, but the evening is moderately successful until Golding basically pimps her out to an MP who was at the séance. Ignoring the fact she simply doesn’t want to sleep with him, the MP gives her a piece of glittering jewellery, kisses her, and then attempts to force his attentions on her. Even as Golding has a change of heart and tries to back out of the transaction, something odd happens to Anna, and Granny ends up skewered on a poker driven through a solid wooden door.

As chance would have it, also present at the séance was Doctor John Pritchard (Eric Porter, a fairly big star at the time following the success of the BBC’s The Forsyte Saga), an ambitious and somewhat arrogant psychiatrist. Pritchard is fully aware that Anna very likely killed Golding, but he also believes this is a priceless opportunity to study the psychopathology of murder. Which is just about fair enough, I suppose. Does it justify lying to the police and taking the killer into your own home? I would say not. There is also the curious detail that Pritchard installs Anna in his late wife’s bedroom and instructs her to start wearing his wife’s old clothes. You do not, I suspect, need to be Freud to conclude that, on his part at least, there may be something going on here beyond basic clinical research.

Oh well. You can probably guess much of what happens next: it transpires that Anna’s troubled childhood has left her with an irresistible urge to kill, but only after she sees the reflection of flickering lights and is then kissed. Pritchard eventually figures this out, but not before his new ward has carved a bit of a swathe through the domestic servants, the local prostitutes, and even the royal household. Can Pritchard do anything to free Anna from her condition? Or is she destined to always be the instrument of her father’s homicidal compulsions?

The thing I always say about Ripper movies is that here we are in danger of trivialising the real crimes of a brutal, misogynistic serial murderer, usually for quite dubious motives. Maybe it’s because the film is so clearly detached from reality, with the Ripper himself very much a minor character, that Hands of the Ripper feels less problematic in this regard. Or maybe there is another reason (we shall return to this). In general, though, this is rather good stuff, both as a post-1970 Hammer horror movie and a Hammer Ripper film: the very same year, Hammer also released Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde, a queasy black joke of a movie, clearly made on a punitively low budget. It’s pushing a point to say that that Hands of the Ripper is lavish (the photographic blow-ups representing the interior of the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral are positively primitive), but it has expansive location filming and is well-populated by extras. The story is reasonably interesting, too.

This is still ultimately a rather preposterous melodrama constructed around a series of set-piece killings, and you do have to cut the plotting some slack: as a viewer, you are required to accept that, after fifteen or sixteen wholly innocuous years, Anna finds herself in a succession of situations where her ‘kill reflex’ is triggered half a dozen times in the space of a few days. There’s also the fact that this is another of those films where the male lead is essentially a kind of idiot savant – brilliant, and wholly dedicated to his work, but also with a seemingly boundless capacity for making insanely bad decisions. Such is Dr Pritchard’s devotion to psychiatry that he cheerfully perjures himself, blackmails an MP, and takes someone he suspects of a savage murder into his home. I would say that was quite enough to be going on with, but he also seems determined to keep covering up for Anna as she kills again and again: at one point he appears to contemplate dismembering the corpse of his murdered maid and disposing of the bits. As mentioned, the film seems to imply a certain interest beyond the purely scientific, but come on, Doc, she’s not that cute. This shrink really needs a shrink of his own.

The film seems to take it for granted that the first response of most of the men who meet Anna is to try and get her into bed; it has a salaciously non-judgemental attitude to the London streetwalkers in the supporting cast, too. Obviously this is a film of its time, but there are signs of a definite subtext about how women have their lives screwed up by men. Anna is almost as much a victim of her father as any of the women he killed, and has very little agency – she’s either being escorted about, or pimped out, or being compelled to kill. The same is true for most of the other women in the film. I would hardly call Hands of the Ripper a feminist horror movie, but it’s not as offensively exploitative or chauvinistic as many others I could mention.

I would say, however, that there is a sense in which this is a film which seems to be toying with a slightly more psychological style of horror than was usually Hammer’s wont. The actual psychology in the movie is basically schlock, but the film sticks with it for most of the duration. In the end, though, it seems to opt for a rather less naturalistic rationale – although this is one which has been foreshadowed earlier in the movie, in scenes with a medium and a clairvoyant, and by the superhuman strength Anna exhibits when the red mist is upon her. She is not just conditioned to kill like her father, it really does seem Anna is literally possessed by the spirit of Jack the Ripper. The voice of the Ripper which Anna occasionally hears seems to be an objective phenomenon, capable of being overheard by another character. It takes us back into the realm of supernatural horror which was Hammer’s comfort zone, but the film is none the worse for that.

Perhaps because it is perceived as being the work of Hammer B-team members (although personally I feel that Peter Sasdy made some of the studio’s most interesting films from around this time), Hands of the Ripper has never really enjoyed the same profile as other films starring the big names and belonging to major series. This is a shame, because while this is obviously a film with a few issues, it is also very solidly assembled, with some strong performances and memorable moments. Maybe not a truly great Hammer horror, but certainly one of the more interesting movies with the theme of the Ripper murders.

 

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Oh, my stars and garters, there really is no escape at the moment – not content with having released a movie that has made $700 million at the box office in rather less than a week, it even seems like the people at Marvel are sneaking out other movies which sound kind of like they could be one of theirs. We went through a brief period of this sort of thing in 2o14, with the release of Fury and Nightcrawler, and now it seems to be happening again with the appearance of Michael Pearce’s Beast.  Just to reiterate: this is not a Marvel Studios or X-Men-related film, but something rather more modest; in fact, as a low-budget British movie from a first-time director and featuring no-one with much of a track record when it comes to the big screen, it probably qualifies as a piece of counter-programming, aimed at people who honestly couldn’t give a stuff where the Soul Stone happens to be lurking. Nevertheless, this is a superior movie and a worthy recipient of your attention.

It’s never really made explicitly clear, but Beast is set on Jersey, one of the islands in the English channel. (One notes that the French release of this movie is under the title Jersey Affair, which is arguably misleading in quite a different manner, suggesting something flippantly romantic.)  The focus of the story is Moll (Jessie Buckley), a young woman from a well-off background who has, shall we say, a somewhat troubled history. Her situation is not helped by her demanding family, especially her domineering and manipulative mother (Geraldine James). After she finds herself upstaged by her sister-in-law at her own birthday party, it all gets a bit too much for Moll and she goes off on a bit of a bender. This shows every sign of going badly wrong for her until she is saved by a gun-toting stranger (Johnny Flynn). He is Pascal, a charismatic rogue and a bit of an outsider; if they had tracks in Jersey, he would be from the wrong side of them.

There is instant chemistry between Moll and Pascal, and her family’s attempts to keep them apart are counterproductive. Soon they are a couple. However, before long there is a cloud looming over the relationship – the island has been troubled by a string of abductions and murders, and a family friend – perhaps motivated by his own feelings where Moll is concerned – lets her know that Pascal has a dark past, and is in fact a suspect in the latest killing. All this seems to do, however, is force Moll to confront the darkness in her own personal history which she has tried to forget. Now she has questions to confront, though: is Pascal the killer? And, honestly, does she really care either way?

Well, as you may have gathered, the tone and substance of Beast has rather more in common with Cracker than Bergerac; indeed, I think it is fair to say that while the film starts off looking like a fairly bleak drama, it soon develops into a highly engrossing thriller, and by its conclusion has actually started to resemble a psychological horror movie. The closing sequences in particular feature some events and imagery which people turning up to enjoy a nicely overwrought romantic drama with a picturesque backdrop could well find a bit too much to cope with. My instinctive point of reference is to compare it to a Lynn Ramsay movie, but it is not quite so impressionistic in its assembly: nevertheless, the fusion of cinematic artistry and narrative strength is highly impressive for the most part.

This is not to say that the film ever completely loses the depth and strength of characterisation established in its early scenes. I was not at all aware of Jessie Buckley prior to this movie, and was startled to learn that much of her background is in musical theatre: this is a proper movie acting performance, naturalistic but compelling. For the film to function you really have to understand why Moll, basically, makes a succession of questionable – if not outright bad – choices, and thanks to Buckley you do, and it is completely plausible. The movie takes its time to get going, building the oppressive details of Moll’s life – taken for granted and disregarded, squashed by their middle-class respectability, you can see why she feels the need to go a little crazy sometimes, and why such a bold act of rebelliousness – which is what her relationship with Pascal starts out as – holds such appeal for her.

The drama is consistently impressive throughout but the thriller element is perhaps a little more mixed in its execution. The serial killer plotline is partly notable for the way in which the protagonist of the film essentially becomes that much-demonised figure, the girlfriend or wife of a suspected murderer. We have all seen how such people get treated by the media, and Moll remains sympathetic enough throughout the movie for the scenes of her harassment by the press and treatment by the police to be slightly uncomfortable viewing.

There’s also a terrifically tense and uneasy interrogation scene in which Moll is questioned by the senior detective on the case – a well-played cameo by Olwen Fouere. Once again, you know that wise choices are probably not going to be high on the agenda here, but you can’t help hoping otherwise.

Later on, though, the psycho-horror component of the story comes more to the fore, and the way in which the thriller element is resolved would probably be unsatisfactory if this was at the core of the film. The least you can say is that the film keeps you guessing as to how things are going to play out right until the final scenes. By this point the film has, to some extent, left conventional reality behind, but it has carried the audience with it all the way, and the conclusion, if not comfortable viewing, is both memorable and satisfying.

Fine cinematography and assured editing just add to the quality of Beast, which is one of the most impressive debuts I can remember seeing. One can only hope that it finds the audience it deserves and that everyone involved is likewise rewarded. Well worth seeking out.

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I am not the first person to notice that it sometimes seems like most of the internet is made up of lists. I’m not necessarily a huge fan of list-writing, and it’s not something I personally indulge in very often, but occasionally I’ll be browsing around one of these things and come across something that piques my interest. I think it was the BFI that were hosting a list of ten often-overlooked British horror classics of years gone by, and one of the films they recommended was Jerzy Skolimowski’s The Shout, originally released in 1978. (Skolimowski is an acclaimed multi-disciplinary Polish artist who is, let’s face it, probably best known to the wider audience for a cameo appearance in The Avengers.)

One of the nice things about the internet, on the other hand, is that you can very often find these slightly obscure films from decades gone by lurking on free-to-view video sharing sites. This may require a slight tweak of one’s ethical subroutines, but it’s hardly in the same league as recording Black Panther on your phone camera in an actual theatre.

Should one be surprised at the obscurity of The Shout? Well, this is a movie which won the Grand Prix de Jury at Cannes, which is not the kind of distinction one normally associates with low-budget British horror movies; also, it features a rather impressive cast of genuinely distinguished performers. The producer suggested that they were attracted by the fact that the film is based on a short story by the acclaimed author Robert Graves (he of I, Claudius renown). (The fact that it’s derived from a short story may explain why this is a rather short film, clocking in well shy of ninety minutes.)

There are various stories within stories and potentially unreliable narrators in The Shout, but the film proper gets underway with a young man (Tim Curry), possibly intended to be Graves himself, arriving to participate in a cricket match at a mental institution. The head of the place (Robert Stephens) gives him the job of scoring, in the company of Crossley (Alan Bates), one of the patients. Crossley proves to be an unusual companion and offers to tell his story.

This proves to revolve around a well-heeled young couple living on the Devon coast, named Anthony (John Hurt) and Rachel (Susannah York). Anthony seems to be an avant-garde composer or radiophonic musician; Rachel doesn’t appear to do much of anything. One day Anthony encounters Crossley, an intense, mysterious stranger, and ends up inviting him home for Sunday lunch.

Over lunch Crossley reveals he has recently concluded an eighteen year sojourn in the Australian Outback, and regales his hosts with various hair-raising tales of his experiences. Anthony seems bemused more than anything else, but Rachel is not impressed by their visitor. However, Crossley claims to have been taken ill  and ends up staying the night with the couple. He also tells Anthony of the strange supernatural powers he has learned from the magicians of the Outback, and offers to give him a demonstration the next day – should he be brave enough…

The Shout was made in 1978, but the source material dates back to the 1920s, and this is one of those films where it kind of shows – it takes place in a very British landscape of cricket matches (suffice to say that rain stops play), lonely sand dunes, country churches, and quiet cottages where people live comfortably with no visible means of support. One would imagine that some of the story would have felt a little dubious in the seventies; it certainly feels that way now, especially when Bates announces that he has been trained in the use of the terrifying death-shout of the Australian Aborigines. It comes perilously close to resembling the kind of spoof you would expect to find on The Goon Show or possibly an episode of Ripping Yarns.

The money sequence of the film, obviously, comes midway through when Crossley takes Anthony out onto the dunes and unleashes the eponymous bellow. You’re kind of aware that this is either going to be an utterly awesome cinematic moment or something slightly absurd and rather embarrassing; in the end it really is on a knife-edge as to which turns out to be the case – the cinematography and sound design are up to the job, Hurt’s performance helps, and cutaways to local wildlife dropping dead also add to the effect. But on the other hand it is still just someone shouting on a beach, and the fact that the camera angle gives us a very good view of Alan Bates’ dental work is also slightly distracting.

It’s not even as if the shout is really that important to The Shout; it’s a big moment in the film, but not really in the story, which is much more about (it is implied) Crossley using rather subtler magic to displace Anthony and have his brooding way with Rachel (this being a serious, cultural movie, it is full of artistically-significant nudity, and I will leave you to guess which of the three leads is required to take her clothes off the most). In a way, it almost feels like an extra-long episode of Hammer House of Horror as written by Harold Pinter – although, to be honest, one would hope that would be a little more coherent as a story. This one is full of unanswered questions and people behaving in a way no normal, reasonable person would.

I suppose the film’s escape clause for this is the fact that, after all, the central narrative is a story being told by a mental patient, and one should therefore not expect it to be completely coherent – the script even quotes Macbeth’s line about ‘…a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’ On the other hand, the film does seem to suggest that there is a deeper truth to be teased out from close viewing of the film – Hurt and York both appear in the framing sequence set in and around the mental institution, but it’s not completely clear whether they are playing the same characters or not. It is certainly strongly implied that there is some truth to Crossley’s tales of the killer shout.

Perhaps one of the reasons why The Shout is so little known these days is because it is essentially a thing on its own – it comes from a point in time when all the big British horror studios of the 60s and 70s had essentially packed in their operations, it’s not quite part of the folk-horror tradition… in fact you could argue that it doesn’t really feel like a genuine horror movie at all, and only gets lumped into the genre because it’s the closest thing to a good fit. It feels like much more of an art movie than anything really intended to stir the emotions – although in places it has an effectively eerie and unsettling atmosphere. I wrote recently about the peculiar new phenomenon of the ‘post-horror’ movie, and were it to be made now The Shout would certainly be a candidate for this new sub-genre. As it is, perhaps we can call it a pre-post-horror movie?

The cast certainly work hard to give some heft and depth to a fairly unlikely tale, with John Hurt on particularly good form. Stephens and Curry aren’t in it that much, though. Making a very early appearance (and one unlikely to appear on his showreel, one suspects) is a 28-year-old Jim Broadbent, as a participant in the cricket match. To say this concludes with Broadbent showing a side of himself not often seen in his other movies is probably a significant understatement.

Even the producer of The Shout was quick to make clear that in 1978 the Cannes film festival is not the corporate juggernaut that it is today, which may explain why such an odd little film managed to win a major prize there. I would say this has cult movie written all over it, mainly due to its wilful obliqueness and peculiar atmosphere. But one of the great lost classics of British horror? I would say that is pushing it a bit.

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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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I’m all for people getting a bit evangelical and sharing the things that they love, but even I have to admit there’s usually a time and a place. In recent years I have been regularly amused and bemused by the good folk at the Horror Channel’s attempts to bring Roger Corman’s 1964 version of The Masque of the Red Death to a new audience, mainly by screening it in wildly inappropriate time-slots: 11am during the school holidays, for instance, or eight o’clock on a Sunday morning. Prefacing the movie with the announcement that ‘this film contains scenes which may be unsuitable for younger children’ hardly gets them off the hook; there would be nothing more certain to make me settle down in front of the screen as a younger child than hearing such a disclaimer. (Though it is of course not just this film that gets eccentrically scheduled: The Devil Rides Out has turned up as the Monday matinee in the past, while Quatermass and the Pit was on in the Sunday teatime slot just the other week.)

I suppose you could argue that it’s the ideas, not the visuals, of The Masque of the Red Death that make it the film that it is, and that your average nine-year-old isn’t going to pay much attention to those – I first saw this film as a teenager, and while I was blown away by some of the more fantastical imagery, the film’s musings on good and evil and the fate of the world sort of went over my head. Even then, though, it clearly seemed to me to be by far the best of the Corman-Price cycle of Edgar Allen Poe adaptations, which it comes near the end of.

The film is set in late-mediaeval Italy, with the land ravaged by plague. Local despot Prince Prospero (Vincent Price, obviously), making one of his usual trips to terrorise the peasantry, is horrified to see that the dreaded red death has begun to spread amongst the villagers of his domain, and resolves to retire within his castle walls until the disease has run its course. Mainly to pass the time, he takes with him pious young peasant girl Francesca (an 18-year-old Jane Asher, in her pre-cakes Macca’s-girlfriend period); the prospect of destroying her faith in God amuses him (also he plans on having her boyfriend and father fight to the death for the entertainment of his cronies).

Prospero, as you may have been able to gather, is a toweringly nasty piece of work, but in his own way he is equally devout in his beliefs: it’s just that he is a devil-worshipper who believes that God is dead and Satan holds dominion over the world. Cruelty and viciousness are practically religious duties for Prospero, and he has done his best to encourage others in the faith – particularly his lover Juliana (Hazel Court), who is not best pleased when Prospero brings another woman home with him.

Well, Prospero sets about educating Francesca in what he sees as the deeper truths of existence, while at the same time planning for a grand masquerade ball to be held in the castle. Meanwhile, Francesca’s presence has made Juliana contemplate making a deeper commitment to Satanism, while another subplot concerns a dwarf acrobat planning a cunning revenge on another nobleman who has been cruel to his lover. Also occasionally glimpsed is a figure robed and cowled and cowled in crimson, who speaks somewhat cryptically of deliverance and fate. Could it be that Prospero’s dark master will be putting in an appearance at the masque? Or has he inadvertantly summoned up something even worse?

This movie was made in the UK, largely using home-grown talent (as well as Asher, stalwart character performers like Nigel Green, Robert Brown and Patrick Magee appear, with an uncredited John Westbrook doing really excellent work in the title role), which results in a well-played and very good-looking film, even if the slightly garish depiction of mediaeval life is a bit cod-Hollywood (the cinematography was the work of a fairly young Nicolas Roeg).

Historical realism is not really on the agenda, anyway, as this is a much more thoughtful, impressionistic kind of horror film. The slightly facile way to describe Masque of the Red Death is that it looks like the result of a torrid get-together between Ingmar Bergman and the people at Hammer Films (Corman repeatedly delayed production, as he was aware people would assume he was ripping off The Seventh Seal), but the truth is that this film is the product of a slightly different sensibility than the one at Hammer: Hammer were making classy costume dramas which they sold to a youthful audience by the inclusion of elements of gore and fantasy, but Corman mostly eschews fake blood and easy shocks.

Instead, the success of the film comes from a consistently-maintained atmosphere of moral and intellectual decadence, and a strong sense of impending doom as the red death draws closer and closer. Prospero isn’t just evil: he’s clearly having a whale of a time being evil, and it’s this which is as disturbing as anything which happens in the film (and some fairly serious stuff goes down, especially considering this movie was made in 1964).

Much of the work on the script was done by Charles Beaumont, although the illness that would eventually kill him meant he was unable to complete the project. Beaumont is probably best-known for his work as one of the three main writers on the original version of The Twilight Zone, and there’s a very real sense in which Masque of the Red Death almost feels like an extended episode of that series, made in lavish colour. Personifications of abstract ideas stalk the land, characters engage in lengthy discussions about good and evil, there is a killer twist ending. And the dialogue has an extraordinarily poetic quality to it – ‘I want to help save your soul, so you can join me in the glories of hell,’ Prospero tells Francesca, while Juliana later declares ‘I have tasted the beauties of terror.’

It may look a little iffy written down, but delivered by these actors it really sings, and no-one gives a more operatic performance than Vincent Price. No-one, I would say, could have been better suited to this depiction of playful, apparently civilised evil; and Price is a good enough technician to leave the tiniest cracks through which the remains of Prospero’s humanity can be glimpsed – he seems genuinely moved and unsettled by Francesca’s faith, and the film’s big pay-off comes in his great moment of pride and hubris, when he comes to realise there may be limits to his wisdom and understanding after all.

Most of the Corman-Price-Poe films are competent entertainments or amusing diversions, but this one takes the series to a higher level, filled with memorable imagery and striking ideas. In the first rank of Vincent Price’s horror film career, the fact is that I’ve never seen another film quite like this one: if The Masque of the Red Death doesn’t qualify as a classic horror movie, I don’t know what does.

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It would appear that the Steven Soderbergh collective, having resumed their film-making activities, are back to their usual remarkable level of productivity: it’s not much more than six months since the last Soderbergh movie, Logan Lucky, and yet here comes their new one, Unsane.

The thing that distinguishes Soderbergh, other than a certain breezy stylishness, is his sheer versatility as a film-maker: all-star disaster movie, revenge thriller, martial-arts action film, caper comedy, Soderbergh has had a crack at them all and for the most part been highly successful. The thing about Unsane is that it seems to be playing off this difficulty in pinning Soderbergh down, for at first it’s not at all clear exactly what kind of movie this is going to be.

Claire Foy, probably best known for her role in The Crown (and the size of the pay packet involved), plays Sawyer Valentini, an ambitious young financial analyst with a slightly traumatic personal history. (The film does address the fact that she has a fairly unlikely name.) She has issues, to put it mildly, and they are impacting on her life – so, in an attempt to sort herself out a bit, she visits a private psychiatric facility in an attempt to get herself some counselling.

Although the facility is in Pennsylvania, it might as well be called the Hotel California, for while checking out of the place is (on paper at least) quite straightforward, actually leaving it is another matter entirely. To her understandable astonishment, Sawyer finds herself incarcerated in a rubber hospital, her sanity questioned, and declared to be a risk to herself and others. Naturally, this is not what you need when your mental state is already somewhat fragile, and Sawyer finds herself having hallucinations of a man who used to stalk her (Joshua Leonard, still probably best known for The Blair Witch Project). But are they really hallucinations…?

The opening section of Unsane is diligently ambiguous about exactly what is going on, and just what kind of film this is going to be. It could be that it’s going to be a fairly serious and thoughtful drama about what it means to be mentally well, or mentally ill – ‘I get a bit blue sometimes! Who doesn’t?’ cries Sawyer, as the orderlies are bundling her down a corridor. How do you make that call? Who sets the standard?

Or, it could be a fairly bleak comedy-drama about the state of the American mental health system, with the startling and plausibly-presented revelation that some private mental facilities are basically insurance scams, actively seeking a pretext to lock up essentially healthy people so they can claim the cost of their care from their medical insurance providers. It is suggested that this is what may have happened to Sawyer.

Or, it could be that Sawyer’s unfolding nightmare is essentially the stuff of a psychological horror movie. Has her stalker really managed to track her down and infiltrate the hospital? Who can she trust? Can she possibly get anyone to believe her story?

Well, as regular readers (dearie me!) will be aware, we have usually had the film’s poster by this point, but in the case of Unsane it will be appearing shortly. This is because I am going to break with standard blog procedure and talk about the movie in a way which may give away important facts about it. In short, after the poster image I am going to Spoil This Movie. Caveat lector.

(For anyone wanting the Not-Spoiled verdict on Unsane: usual skilful work by Soderbergh, great performance by Foy, but this is one of those movies which gets steadily less impressive as it goes on.)

All right. Last chance to leave… There are many good things about Unsane, chief amongst them Foy’s performance: she’s not afraid to appear damaged or somewhat unsympathetic, and there are moments where you wonder if the shrinks might actually have a point and she does deserve special treatment. There is also Soderbergh’s casual mastery of storytelling. This wasn’t at all apparent while we were watching it, but apparently Unsane was entirely filmed on Soderbergh’s smartphone (needless to say he did all the cinematography and editing himself, too), which if you ask me is just showing off. Minor pleasures include an all-killer no-filler cameo from Matt Damon and some good supporting performances from the likes of Amy Irving as Sawyer’s mum and Juno Temple as another inmate.

But, and oh dear, this is a film which starts off looking like a smart and thoughtful drama-maybe-thriller, and concludes with some proper old fashioned fem-jeop, as the leading lady flees through a darkened forest chased by a psychopath with a hammer (in true slasher movie style, she is running, he is walking, and yet she never seems to get any further away from him). In short, we end up in gonzo B-movie territory with a swiftly unravelling plot and a succession of improbable developments.

As the credits rolled, my companion and I were sitting there actually trying to figure out what had actually happened. ‘So… if the dead body in the trunk of the car was actually Character X,’ I said, feeling like a dullard, ‘then who was that in the shallow grave in the park?’ (I am always careful to avoid using actual character names when out and about.) A passing total stranger paused to explain the plot to us. ‘That was Character Q,’ he said kindly (clearly a man after my own heart). Well, I suppose the film may have made this clear, but I suspect you would have to be really on the ball to have picked it up.

In any case, this general sense of narrative confusion isn’t even the film’s biggest problem. This is as follows: we are required to accept, as the premise of the film, that a young woman will accidentally have herself committed to the very same mental institution which her insane stalker has already infiltrated as an orderly under a false identity. There is, so far as I could tell, no attempt to justify this monumentally improbable turn of events. My companion suggested how this could have happened, but to say I am not convinced is a massive understatement.

Still, you really do have to accept this, as it is the premise for the whole second half of the movie: it’s a bit like Jaws: The Revenge in that respect. Provided you go with it, the concluding parts of the film have a certain manic energy to them, and the performances remain impressive, but I was constantly aware of how much slack I was having to cut the film just to take it seriously.

Seriously, you either go with the premise, in which case this is a reasonably fun piece of high-class psycho-horror, or you don’t, whereupon it simply becomes an absurdly implausible piece of tosh unworthy of the talent involved. I suppose in the end I kind of enjoyed Unsane, because it is well-acted and the ambiguity of the opening section at least is impressively achieved. But that doesn’t change the fact that this is really a wildly silly film which, to my mind at least, makes hugely unreasonable demands on the audience’s ability to suspend their disbelief.

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