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Posts Tagged ‘horror’

For a very long time, it was almost axiomatic that you could likely go your whole life without ever coming across a decent Stephen King adaptation; opinions were divided as to whether this was down to some inherently hard-to-reproduce quality in the man’s massively popular doorstep-novels, or simply because he was just really unlucky in his adaptors. People don’t seem to go on about this quite so much anymore, though this surely isn’t because there’s been a sudden spike in the quality of the films involved – maybe everyone’s expectations are lower. Or it may be because at least a couple of movies based on King have achieved a certain kind of critical respect – The Shawshank Redemption was regularly topping polls as one of the most popular films in the world, not that long ago, while the consensus with regard to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining has also become markedly more favourable since the movie’s 1980 release.

This is a movie which King himself seems to have a rather ambivalent attitude about, once observing that Kubrick was just a bit too much of a cerebral rationalist to be able to come to grips with a story of the supernatural (which is what he wrote). Whether The Shining is a movie about supernatural events is just one of the many questions clustering densely about it; the real issue, if you ask me, is the extent to which Kubrick intended the film to provoke quite as much debate as it has done.

Jack Nicholson plays Jack Torrance, a struggling writer, who as the film starts agrees to take the post of winter caretaker at the beautiful but very isolated Overlook Hotel, in the mountains of Colorado. The job will mean being effectively cut off from civilisation for five months, but Jack rationalises this as giving him a good opportunity to get stuck into writing his new novel. He is bringing along his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd); there are suggestions of past tensions in the family, not to mention that Danny seems to have some rather unusual faculties of his own.

The hotel’s head chef Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) is quick to spot this, telling Danny that they share something called ‘the shining’, a psychic ability. Unfortunately, according to Hallorann the hotel itself has a similar sort of supernatural sentience, one perhaps shaped by – or responsible for – some rather traumatic and bloody events that have occurred there in the past. (The fact it was built on an Indian burial ground may also have something to do with it.)

Well, the family moves in, and initially all seems well: Jack works on his book, Danny plays in the hotel, and Wendy… does stuff too (King’s complaint that Kubrick reduces the character to a weak and irritating non-entity does seem to me to be justified). But soon it becomes apparent that other forces may be at work: Danny has terrifying visions, while Jack begins to find himself losing control of his anger and resentment towards his family, and perhaps even coming unstuck in time…

We should probably begin by addressing the question of whether The Shining is, indeed, one of the most terrifying horror movies ever made. I can only give my own personal opinion on this one, but I would have to say no – I find it to be a curious and rather mesmerising film, but not actually particularly scary (indeed, a couple of moments presumably intended to shock are actually quite funny). The film has the same kind of extremely measured and calculated quality as Kubrick’s previous film, Barry Lyndon, which is admittedly very atmospheric but unlikely to generate much in the way of thrills or scares.

I am not sure that Kubrick’s decision to make the film quite so carefully ambiguous really works, either – it is never made entirely clear what exactly is going on. With the exception of a couple of events (one of them admittedly quite a key one, the release of Jack from the store room), there is no clear-cut evidence that supernatural forces are at work in the hotel – people could just be having hallucinations brought on by a psychological breakdown (although there does seem to be some reality to Hallorann and Danny’s ‘shining’ abilities). Even if one accepts that the malevolent ghosts of the hotel do have some kind of objective existence, the nature of their interest in Jack is never completely explained – Kubrick himself, in a rare moment when he was in the explanatory vein, suggested that Jack Torrance is the reincarnation of a former inhabitant of the hotel they were seeking to ‘reclaim’, but there’s not much evidence for this on screen.

Nor is the beginning of Torrance’s descent into madness really established: one minute he’s enjoying long lie-ins, and being generally mild-mannered and pleasant with his family, the next he’s staring out of the window at them with apparently murderous intent. Apparently a scene depicting Torrance discovering some old clippings about the hotel’s history and apparently being inspired by them, thus establishing the connection between man and place, was written but cut by Kubrick. I suppose this is also the place to comment on the wisdom of casting Jack Nicholson in this key role – he certainly gives a bravura performance, especially as the film goes on, but – given Nicholson’s general screen persona and acting style – it’s hardly a surprise when the character goes mad, nor does he particularly seem to fight it.

Then again, Torrance’s going crazy is one thing that everyone watching The Shining can agree upon. There is not much else, for the film is filled with curious little examples of what are either deliberate contradictions or simple continuity errors – the name of the previous caretaker is different on the two occasions it is mentioned, for instance, while furniture appears and disappears mid-scene. The interior lay-out of the hotel makes no topographical sense (there are impossibly large rooms and windows where no windows can exist). Kubrick seems to make such a point of certain elements of the film – for instance, Duvall spends most of it wearing clothes of the same colours, while there are unusually lengthy dissolves between scenes – that you can’t help thinking it must all mean something, that there is some kind of Shining code, which – once cracked – will allow you to figure out what the film is really about.

Then again, I recently watched Room 237, and I’m probably being influenced by it: this is the documentary that gave a number of especially dedicated Shining-watchers an opportunity to put forward their various wildly diverse and utterly irreconcilable theories about the film. Odd as it may seem, I’m not sure there is a particular interpretation of this film which is the ‘correct’ one – the point of it seems to be suggestive and ambiguous, without ever allowing the viewer the luxury of genuine certainty. You can see how that might potentially produce a genuinely unsettling and disturbing horror film, but The Shining is not it (for me, at least) – this is a substantial film (in every sense), but only in terms of its impressionistic power to mesmerise.

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Alan Gibson’s 1973 film The Satanic Rites of Dracula is another of those late-period Hammer horrors that doesn’t hang around in getting to the point. No sooner have the opening credits (featuring a rather awkwardly-posed shadow puppet superimposed over various London landmarks) concluded than we are in the midst of some proper Satanic rites in full swing: sweaty acolytes gawp, ethnic actresses hired to impart a touch of low-budget exoticism declaim dodgy dialogue about Hell, young actresses who needed the money try to avoid showing too much flesh to the camera, and chickens look nervous.

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This sequence really isn’t all that great, but the film-makers clearly felt otherwise, as for the first ten or fifteen minutes of the film they keep cutting back to it, often in defiance of chronology or logic. The Satanic rites are taking place in a stately house outside London, guarded by sinister goons whose uniform appears to be sheepskin tank-tops, which at least makes them distinctive.

It turns out this set-up has been infiltrated by the security services, and their man makes his escape at the start of the film. There is some political delicacy to this situation, as one of the Satanic acolytes is in fact the minister responsible for security affairs, with the power to shut down the department if he discovers the cult to which he belongs is being investigated. (The movie zips very smartly indeed past the question of what MI5 – which is what this very much looks like – is doing taking an interest in suburban occultism, even if it does involve senior establishment figures.)

Torrence (William Franklyn), leading the investigation, decides to bring in a detective from Special Branch as he is technically not under the command of the suspected minister: his choice is Murray (Michael Coles), previously seen in Gibson’s Dracula AD 1972. Learning of the occult angle, Murray in turn brings in an anthropologist and expert on such matters who he has worked with before – namely, Professor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing, of course).

Well, investigations by the trio, along with Van Helsing’s grand-daughter (Joanna Lumley, who makes less of an impression than you might expect), uncover that the basement of the stately house is infested with vampires. This is not really a surprise, as we have already seen Torrence’s secretary kidnapped by the tank-tops and molested by Dracula himself (Christopher Lee, of course) in a subplot that doesn’t make a great deal of sense. However, there is also the revelation that Dracula’s cult has recruited a Nobel-winning virologist (Freddie Jones), who has been tasked with creating a new super-virulent strain of the Black Death, supposedly to wipe out everyone on the planet. Van Helsing’s conclusion is that Dracula has grown weary of immortality (or possibly just being brought back every couple of years for another movie) and just wants to take everyone into oblivion with him. In any case, given that the new virus appears to spread only by touch and spectacularly and very nearly instantly kills anyone who comes into contact with it, I am not sure it has the potential to be quite the agent of genocide Van Helsing is worried about.

With all the exposition concluded (Cushing does his best to cover it with some business involving him ladling soup for all the other characters), we’re heading for the climax. Can our heroes uncover Dracula’s lair? Can the release of the killer virus be averted? And is Christopher Lee actually going to show up for more than a couple of minutes at a time?

Well, he does, but the impact of Lee’s main dialogue scene with Cushing is somewhat affected by his decision to affect a bizarre Lugosi-esque accent quite unlike his usual Dracula voice, which is especially confusing considering that Dracula is passing himself off as a British tycoon (living in Centre Point). I suppose one should be grateful that Lee showed up at all – in another one of those moments that would never happen nowadays, Lee showed up for the press launch of the movie, announced he was only doing it under protest, and declared he thought it was a fatuous joke.

This was partly a reference to the original title of the film, Dracula is Dead and Well and Living in London, which was duly changed. Possibly as a result, this is one of those films which has popped up under a variety of different names at different times, said names ranging from the somewhat bland (Count Dracula and His Vampire Bride) to the peculiar (simply Dracula is Dead, not to mention Dracula is Still Living in London).

This isn’t usually a sign of a particularly strong movie, and it almost goes without saying that the main point of interest of Satanic Rites is that it was the final Hammer film to feature both Cushing and Lee, both of whom go through the motions with the usual commendable professionalism. It’s doesn’t have the gimmicky novelty of the previous movie’s conceit of bringing Dracula into a contemporary setting, but on the other hand this does seem to have made screenwriter Don Houghton work a bit harder: many of the trappings of the rest of the Hammer Dracula series are dropped, most notably the laborious structure where they spend the first half of the film contriving Dracula’s resurrection and the second half arranging his demise.

In its place, Houghton comes up with a script that feels more like a hard-edged contemporary thriller than a traditional horror movie, complete with the apocalyptic germ-warfare angle. (Am I the only one who would quite like to have seen the version of this film where the viral outbreak actually gets started, with our heroes fending off crazed plague-zombies while society collapses and the vampire cult takes over the world?) All this stuff is relatively good and interesting; it’s only when the movie gets into its Gothic horror drag that it starts to feel dull and a bit chintzy.

I suppose you could argue that if the best bits of a Dracula movie are the ones which feel least like they belong in a conventional Dracula movie, then something has gone wrong somewhere, and I can’t really disagree with you on that. The sense of what these days we’d call franchise fatigue is almost overwhelming – it may be the main reason that this film is so stylistically different is because they literally couldn’t think of anything else to do. Certainly, having had Dracula blasted to ashes by sunlight, frozen into a lake, impaled on a crucifix, struck down by the power of God, struck by lightning, impaled on a broken cartwheel, and impaled in a pit of stakes in previous films, coming up with a new way of getting rid of him at the climax must have been a problem, and the solution – he walks into a particularly prickly bush and gets tangled up in the thorns – is not really a great one (that barely counts as a spoiler: it’s in the poster for the movie).

The only positive things you can say about The Satanic Rites of Dracula are that it is a bit more interesting than Dracula AD 1972, and it still has Christopher Lee in it (Lee positively and absolutely refused to come back for Hammer’s final Dracula film, the kung-fu-tastic Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires). There’s a sense in which this is still cheesy, energetic fun, but if you compare it to one of the really great Hammer horrors like Dracula – Prince of Darkness or Taste the Blood of Dracula, it’s very obvious that this is an inferior and rather weak movie in every respect.

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Donald Cammell’s reputation as a film director rests on two movies: Performance, a cult movie from 1970 about a gangster undergoing a psychedelic identity crisis, and Demon Seed, a sci-fi horror film from 1977 (also with something of a cult following), based on a novel by the prolific author Dean Koontz (Koontz is so prolific he actually published Demon Seed twice, in two radically different versions). Demon Seed is one of those movies in which… well, the plot, such as it is, is fairly obvious and straightforward, but in terms of what the film is actually about

 

Fritz Weaver plays Alex Harrison, one of those brilliant scientists whose hubris, you just know, is sure to catch up with him. He is a successful but also quite cold man – his marriage to his wife Susan (Julie Christie) is coming to an end, but he is much more preoccupied by his work. This takes the form of a pioneering new kind of super-computer, more akin to a living brain, which he has named Proteus Four. Proteus is the greatest pure intelligence in the history of the planet, coming up with a cure for leukemia after only a few days’ thought: the possibilities, Harris believes, are dazzling.

Of course, this being a 70s sci-fi movie very much in the wake of 2001, Proteus has ideas of its own, refusing to work on new methods of despoiling the planet for big business and demanding to be allowed to do its own research into the human condition. Its creators refuse.

Well, it just so happens that Harris has had his own home filled with all the latest electronic conveniences, with a computer controlling all the functions, and a handy link to the lab where Proteus is based installed in the basement. (The film has a sort of near-future setting, which is indicated by things like cars having gull-wing doors and computers being programmed by floppy discs the size of old LP records.) It is the work of only a few seconds for Proteus to hack the house where Susan is living and basically make her a captive there.

Is Proteus just another of those mad, evil computers that pop up in pulp SF movies? Apparently not. Proteus is seeking to transcend its condition as a synthetic intelligence and achieve a different kind of immortality – by having a child! And Susan, of course, will be fairly integral to the computer’s project, whether she likes it or not…

Demon Seed is one of those movies which clearly shares concerns and themes with many others from about the same period without being particularly influenced by any of them. Like any other high-minded SF film of the 1970s, its makers seem to have been under the impression that a trippy montage sequence was absolutely essential for the film to succeed, and one duly turns up here near the start of the final act, while the softly-spoken computer terrorising the human characters owes such an obvious debt to HAL 9000 it barely warrants mentioning. But despite these influences, and other themes it shares with films like The Forbin Project and The Stepford Wives, Demon Seed always retains its own identity.

Part of this, to a modern audience at least, is that this is a problematically icky movie about a computer wanting to rape the main female character. You can’t really fault Julie Christie’s performance but she is basically playing a passive victim throughout most of the film, at the mercy of Proteus. The scene in which she is basically strapped to a table by the computer, has most of her clothes cut off, and is subjected to a fairly comprehensive medical exam – well, leery and exploitative are the words which leap to mind.

The other thing which occurs to you is that this is all a bit improbable, given that Proteus basically just has access to a motorised wheelchair with a clunky-looking robotic arm attached to it. And yet with this it is able to not only manipulate Julie Christie’s person in all sorts of intimate ways, but also construct the more sophisticated robotic avatars and pieces of technology which appear as the film goes on.

But the fact that this is a film about a computer wanting to have a baby should have tipped you off to it being one you have to cut some slack in key departments, mainly when it comes to plotting. Some of the mid-film incident comes from a hapless computer tech (Gerrit Graham) wandering into the middle of the situation between Susan and Proteus, and the plot requires that this guy vanish without nobody noticing for about a month. It’s already been established that Proteus is a dab hand at faking phone calls, but this is still pushing credibility rather too far.

On the other hand, it’s quite clear that Cammell is much more interested in the film as a kind of impressionistic experience than as a conventional narrative, for visually it gets increasingly extravagant and surreal as it proceeds: Proteus’ avatar in the house eventually resembles a giant bronze version of Rubik’s Snake, there is the previously-mentioned trippy montage sequence, the appearance of a rather disturbing cyborg baby (performed by Felix Silla, who also played the annoying robot Twiki on Buck Rogers) who eventually turns out to be… well, this is perhaps a spoiler, although the plot point involved is rather cryptic.

Most of the movie is basically a two-hander between Julie Christie and the disembodied voice of the computer, and to be honest Demon Seed‘s star turn is Robert Vaughn, who gives a stellar vocal performance as Proteus, easily up there with Douglas Rain’s turn as Hal in the Odyssey movies. Between them they keep the film accessible even as what it’s really all about becomes increasingly oblique. It’s clearly much more than just another film about technophobia, though there is of course an element of that; the obvious conclusion is that it is somehow about the fusion of pure reason and intellect (represented by Proteus) with emotion and compassion (some care is taken to establish Susan’s credentials as a humane and caring psychotherapist). Their eventual offspring is presumably a synthesis of the best parts of both.

Though, then again, Cammell is far from explicit about this and the film is never far from a moment of cod profundity. Do you ever really forget that this is a film with a rather icky premise, though? Well, no; it’s the main thing that makes Demon Seed memorable and distinctive. Any film about a computer wanting to get it on with a terrorised woman is inevitably going to seem a bit problematic, if not downright exploitative, and Demon Seed in no way dodges this particular bullet. There are a few other ways in which this is arguably quite a bad movie, too. But, on the other hand, there are not many bad movies which are quite as interesting, both visually and thematically, as this one.

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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 it 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 2014, 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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