Monday, November 5, 2018

"Hill House" Haunts the Crain Family

Carla Gugino in The Haunting of Hill House
Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House has long been considered one of the true classics of horror fiction. The frightening novel (which counts authors like Stephen King among its most ardent fans) has been adapted for the screen twice. The first version was director Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963), a well-received adaptation featuring Claire Bloom and Julie Harris. The 1998 remake, directed by Jan de Bont, starred Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta-Jones. That special effects laden film strayed significantly from the original story, and was a box office failure. Now writer-director Mike Flanagan has created a new version of the story for Netflix. The 10 episode series, The Haunting of Hill House, is an atmospheric, chilling tale of the disintegration of a family, and the devastating effect that the evil title dwelling has on them.

The series tells the story of Hugh and Olivia Crain. They temporarily move into Hill House, a Massachusetts mansion, with the intention of fixing the place up and later selling it. Their five children, Steven, Shirley, Theo and twins Luke and Eleanor, come along for the journey. What should have been a relatively simple opportunity to flip a house turns into the most terrifying experience of their lives. The house seems to be alive, and preys on the fears and insecurities of the family; multiple ghosts appear, strange events occur, and each time they happen, the paranormal events become more and more disturbing. It all leads to a horrifying night on which Olivia ends up dead under mysterious circumstances, and the family is forced to flee the house. This series of events continues to haunt the Crains throughout their lives.

Michael Huisman and Timothy Hutton
Olivia’s death (and the pervasive influence of the house) fractures the family in ways that resonate across the years. Each member of the Crain family deals with the events that occurred in the house in different ways. Luke ends up a drug addict to numb his pain. Steven (despite not believing in ghosts or the occult) becomes a best-selling author of true-life ghost stories, including one based on the family’s experiences. Theo works as a therapist helping abused and traumatized children. Shirley operates a funeral home with her husband. Their father becomes a recluse who doesn't stay in touch with the family. But Eleanor (Nellie) is perhaps the most traumatized by her experiences, suffering from night terrors and sleep paralysis. She may hold the key to freeing the family from the house's dark influence.

The casting is perfect, and the performances are excellent across the board. The actors portraying the younger versions of the characters are well matched with their older counterparts. The stars include familiar faces such as Timothy Hutton, Carla Gugino and Annabeth Gish, as well as Michael Huisman, Henry Thomas (of ET fame) and Elizabeth Reaser. There are a number of “jump” scares throughout the series, but there’s also an unsettling atmosphere throughout each episode that builds to a crescendo of uneasiness, dread and real terror. The intensity level ramps up as the series moves forward, and the ultimate confrontation between the Crain family and the evil that lurks within Hill House will frighten you, amaze you and perhaps even bring a tear to your eye. And if you love ghosts, the show is tailor made for you, as there are multiple spirits, both good and evil, which appear throughout the story.

The carefully structured story of this "re-imagining" of the book moves around in time, flashing back and forth in a puzzle box style reminiscent of the series Lost. The transitions between the different time periods are cleverly done. Writer-director Flanagan (Oculus, Hush) and his crew deliver a brilliantly executed look and style to the series, especially in the startling sixth episode, which is built around several long continuous shots. There are also some clever callbacks and Easter eggs for fans of the original novel. I’ve tried to avoid revealing too much about the show, so that those who like to binge view their series spoiler-free can thoroughly enjoy the experience of watching the story and its twists and turns unfold. I highly recommend The Haunting of Hill House to fans of intelligent, well-crafted horror tales. Here’s a link to a trailer for the series:

Sunday, October 28, 2018

The Awakening: A Flawed Ghost Story

I love a good, well-produced ghost story. Movies like The Haunting (1963), The Legend of Hell House (1973)The Sixth Sense (1999)The Others (2001),) and Guillermo Del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Crimson Peak (2015) are some fine examples of what can be achieved in this sometimes overdone genre. The Awakening (2011) tries to evoke the feeling of those films, but only partially succeeds. Rebecca Hall (The Town) stars as Florence Cathcart, a woman in 1920s London who debunks fake spiritualists. It’s clear from the outset that she’s suffered a loss of her own, and that loss is what drives her on her quest to expose these charlatans. She believes in rationality and science, and not ghosts or the spirit world.

One day, a history teacher at a boy’s school asks for her help. The recent death of a student has been attributed to the sightings of a ghost; the staff wants her to investigate. Florence travels to the school, and rather quickly solves the mystery…or does she? Most of the students and staff depart for a holiday break, but Florence stays behind, feeling there’s more to the story. Strange events that can’t be explained start to occur. It appears that there may actually be a haunting at the school. Aided by the teacher, the school’s matron, and a boy who stays behind because his parents are away, Florence begins to unravel the mystery.  But the answers she find just may change her beliefs forever.

Directed by Nick Murphy and co-written by Murphy and Stephen Volk, the movie is handsomely filmed and has some eerie moments, courtesy of the cinematography by Eduard Grau. But we’ve seen this all before, and sharp viewers are likely to figure out the plot twists before the story’s conclusion. The metaphors (World War I’s horrors haunting the history teacher, for example) in the story don’t quite work; they aren’t fully explored. There are also a couple of characters that aren’t as well developed as they could be; the creepy groundskeeper is pretty much a stock villain. The movie is well acted (especially by Hall and Imelda Staunton, as the matron) but it can’t make up for the faults in the storytelling, or an inconclusive ending that wants to have it both ways.

The Awakening is an admirable, albeit flawed try at an old-fashioned ghost story. We’ve seen more successful attempts at this type of tale in films like the ones I mentioned above. It’s not a bad film, but it could have been so much better. If you’re looking for a more recent spooky tale to view on movie night, try The Woman in Black (2012), starring Daniel Radcliffe. It’s an effective chiller that has some good scares, and a solid, well-turned story. As for The Awakening, the film is currently available on DVD and Blu-ray and for digital download. Here’s a link to the trailer for the film:

Thursday, October 18, 2018

"The Witch" is a Dark, Terrifying Tale

It’s a difficult task in today’s cinema to create a truly unique horror film, but that’s just what writer-director Robert Eggers  accomplished with the 2015 thriller The Witch: A New England Folktale. This eerie tale concerns a Puritan family who is banished from their colony because of their too strict religious beliefs. The family sets up a farm, which is located not far from a wooded area. William, the father, works hard to make their crops bear fruit, but they are failing. Strange things begin to occur. The family’s youngest child disappears while being watched by the oldest daughter, Thomasin. Was it a wolf that spirited the infant away, or something more sinister? The mother, Katherine, is inconsolable at the loss of her infant child, believing supernatural forces may be responsible. Her sanity begins to fray at the edges, and she focuses her ire (and the blame) on Thomasin, who claims she's innocent.

Caleb, the oldest son, goes hunting with his father, and confides that he is struggling with his faith. Young twins Mercy & Jonas claim the family’s goat, which they call Black Philip, speaks to them, and they sing songs to him. Caleb disappears one night, only to return feverish & in a coma, after a terrifying ordeal. Paranoia begins to set in, and everyone starts to distrust one another. A witch appears to be the cause of all their woes, but is this evil being among them? Katherine believes it to be Thomasin, since most of the strange events seem to center upon her. Things go from bad to worse, and ultimately the true face of the evil that haunts the family is revealed.  I don’t want to spoil the film, so I won’t say more about the plot. This is a story where the terror builds at a slow burn, and reaches a crescendo by the film’s climax.

The family’s religious beliefs are very real to them, and this threat tears those beliefs, and their bonds, asunder. The Witch: A New England Folktale is as much a story about the unraveling of the family unit & a challenge to its core values, as it is a supernatural thriller. Anya Taylor-Joy gives an assured & layered performance as Thomasin, whose gentleness, curiosity & humor seems at odds with the more stern, restrictive nature of her parents. The excellent cast also includes Ralph (Game of Thrones) Ineson who is solid & effective as William, Kate Dickie, who delicately portrays Katherine’s spiraling descent into madness, and Harvey Scrimshaw as the loyal Caleb, who powerfully conveys the boy’s questions & conflicted emotions regarding the severity of their spiritual beliefs, and the nature of sin.

Writer-director Eggers and his crew have done an excellent job with this carefully crafted, exquisitely produced film. The accurate period details, costumes and sets really make you feel as if you’re living with this family in the 17th century. The kind of terror this family faces wasn’t just the stuff of bedtime stories; the demons of their religion & folklore were very real to them. The Witch: A New England Folktale is a creepy, unsettling film that does not go for “jump scares” or cheap shocks, but uses atmosphere, sound effects & lighting to convey a sense of unease & dread. If you like intelligent, well-crafted tales of spine-chilling terror, The Witch: A New England Folktale is truly one of the best recent films in the genre. The movie is now available for streaming & on Blu-ray and DVD. The disc versions include some fascinating interviews and a Q&A with the filmmakers. Here’s a link to the trailer for the movie:

Sunday, October 7, 2018

A Trio of Horror Icons Visit "Route 66"

The stars of Route 66 meet the monsters
The television drama Route 66 aired for four seasons from 1960-1964. The show concerned the adventures of two young men who roamed the United States in a Corvette convertible, showing up in different locations every week.  Like Richard Kimble on The Fugitive, our heroes interacted with various people, helping them out of trouble, and often getting into some difficulties themselves. The initial co-stars were George Maharis and Martin Milner. Maharis later left the show, and was replaced by Glenn Corbett. The series was very popular with fans, and featured a host of stars to be in various roles, including Lee Marvin, Julie Newmar, and Walter Matthau. But on the night of October 26, 1962, longtime horror fans were given a very special Halloween treat, with the premiere of an episode entitled "Lizard’s Leg and Owlet’s Wing."

In this entry, our heroes Todd (Milner) and Buz (Maharis) are temporarily working as staff liaisons at a Chicago hotel, which is hosting a secretarial convention. Meanwhile, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney, Jr. (playing themselves) arrive at the hotel to discuss a new project. They register with their first names reversed (Peter Lorre is Mr. Retep, for example) and once they’re together, Lorre and Chaney try to convince Karloff that old style scares can still be successful, even in a world where there is a more graphic "new" type of horror film. This leads to the trio causing all kinds of havoc at the hotel, including Chaney wandering the halls in his Wolf Man makeup, hoping to frighten the convention attendees! As Todd helps the titanic terror triumvirate with their shenanigans, Buz falls for one of the secretaries, and the two stories end up intertwining in more ways than one. Karloff even ends up helping fix the broken relationship of the object of Buz’s affections!

The best part of this enjoyable show is seeing Chaney and Karloff suit up as some of their most famous horror characters. Chaney gets to play the Wolf Man, The Mummy and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Karloff dons the makeup of the Frankenstein Monster one last time. Lorre, as always, has some great moments, including a funny scene at the hotel desk when he checks in under his “assumed” name. Karloff, Chaney and Lorre play off each other to great effect, and are clearly having a grand time. Martin Milner seems to be enjoying himself interacting with these iconic actors, and the story wisely focuses on their antics. The only truly outdated aspect of the episode is that (for modern audiences) there are some decidedly un-politically correct moments in the depiction of the secretaries, but that is a sign of the era in which the show was produced.

"Lizard’s Leg and Owlet’s Wing" was penned by Stirling Silliphant (who co-created the series) and directed by Robert Gist. Even if you’re not a familiar with Route 66, this episode is worth seeking out if you are a fan of Karloff, Lorre and Chaney, and their classic films. You may even find yourself opting to check out more episodes of the series; it's a well-written and handsomely-produced show, almost like an anthology series. As I mentioned earlier the show features a number of familiar faces in guest star roles, including William Shatner, Suzanne Pleshette and Edward Asner. The series is available for purchase on DVD, for viewing on Amazon Prime and also on the free streaming website TubiTv.  Here’s a link to a trailer for the DVD release of the series:

Saturday, September 29, 2018

A Book Lover's Devilish Journey

In The Club Dumas (1993) by Arturo Perez-Reverte, rare book "finder" Lucas Corso is hired to authenticate a lost chapter of the Alexandre Dumas classic, The Three Musketeers. This eventually leads him on a journey to find two copies of a rare book called “The Nine Doors to the Kingdom of Shadows.” This book can supposedly be used to contact the devil himself. Corso becomes embroiled in a chase for this unearthly tome, as various allies and enemies try to either aid him or hinder his progress. It's a search that may just bring Corso more than he bargained for in the beginning.

Perez-Reverte’s novel features many in-jokes for bibliophiles and lovers of classic literature. Chapter sub-headings include quotes from famous fictional characters, including Poe’s famous detective, Arsene Lupin. As Corso tracks down the book, many pages features drawings, quotes and clues that aid Corso in his search.  We find out information as Corso does, along the way. Much of the trivia and in jokes revolves around The Three Musketeers, as characters and situations reflect those in the famous adventure story. The novel has elegant settings and interesting characters, including obsessive book dealers, forgers, devil worshippers and a mysterious girl whose origins (and true motives for helping Corso) are unclear.

The most well drawn character is Corso. He is a lover of books, but he's been corrupted by the nature of his work. We get inside his head, and understand how he thinks. He’s been an unscrupulous man, and, as the search goes on, he starts to doubt if he’s taken the right path in life. The plot keeps you intrigued as the search for the book goes on, with trips to Spain and Portugal along the way, colorfully rendered by the author. The novel is a treat for mystery fans that like working out all the angles of a puzzling story. Portions of the novel were turned into the movie The Ninth Gate (1999), starring Johnny Depp, but significant changes were made to the story for that screen adaptation. The Club Dumas is an intriguing book, and fans of literary mysteries will enjoy Perez-Reverte’s thinking man’s thriller. Perez-Reverte is the author of several other historical and literary themed thrillers, including 1990's The Flanders Panel, but The Club Dumas is one of his best.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

A Haunting Double Bill Featuring Eerie Carnivals and Mysterious Mermaids

Candace Hilligoss and friend in Carnival of Souls
Carnival of Souls (1962) is one of those films that truly fits the definition of the term “cult movie.” Made on a small budget, it retains its reputation as an offbeat exercise in horror. The story concerns Mary Henry, who survives a terrible car accident after a drag race. She then heads to Utah to begin working as a church organist. But as she settles into her new surroundings, a ghostly man keeps appearing to her and haunting her. She also has moments where she feels disconnected from reality, and it seems like no one can see or hear her. Why is she being drawn to an abandoned carnival outside town? Is she being pursued by an otherworldly presence? Or is there an even more terrifying reason why these strange events are centered on Mary?

The ultimate twist in the movie will seem less shocking to today’s audiences, who have seen a host of similar reveals on TV shows like The Twilight Zone, and in modern films like The Sixth Sense. The "surprise" ending works very well in the context of the story. It’s a tribute to the cast & crew that they get so much out of so little in this eerie thriller. There are some truly spooky sequences that really stay with you after seeing the movie. Producer-director Herk Harvey, who had previously worked on educational and industrial films, shot the movie on location in Utah. He employed mostly local actors, except for lead Candace Hilligoss. Amazingly, Hilligoss (who’s excellent in the role of Mary) only made one other film. She also did a handful of TV appearances and some stage work. However, it's this film for which genre fans most fondly remember her.

While it was not a success on its original release, Carnival of Souls gained fans from countless late night TV showings and occasional festival screenings over the years. The movie has influenced many filmmakers, including George Romero and David Lynch. I remember seeing it on late night TV as a kid. It was unsettling, and it left you feeling uneasy, like you'd just seen something very different from the usual horror fare. This is a strange, offbeat film that plays more like a meditation on life and death than a straight ahead terror tale. The movie had fallen into the public domain for many years, and inferior video copies were available in bargain bins at video stores and discount outlets. In 2000, the outstanding specialty label The Criterion Collection released an excellent two-disc edition of the film that includes two versions of the movie, a retrospective documentary and other extras. Criterion also released an updated version of their disc on Blu-ray in 2016. The movie is also available for digital download and viewing on various sites.

Another effective thriller from the same period is Curtis Harrington’s Night Tide (1961). While it’s not really a horror film, it’s another atmospheric story that will appeal to old school genre fans. A lonely sailor named Johnny (Dennis Hopper, in an early role) enters a relationship with a woman named Mora, who performs as a mermaid in a sideshow at a local marina. People keep telling him that her previous boyfriends have all met mysterious ends. The ethereal Mora (Linda Lawson) believes she may actually be a mermaid. As their relationship continues, a mysterious woman stalks Mora; she appears to know about Mora’s past, and warns her that her 'true nature' will show itself. Is she really descended from a race of sea people? Who is killing the men Mora’s been dating? What does Murdock, the owner of the sideshow, know about all this?

Linda Lawson and Dennis Hopper in Night Tide
Writer-director Harrington went on to a long career in TV and movies. He also directed the twist-laden mystery Games (1967), which starred James Caan & Katherine Ross. Here he evokes the mist-shrouded style of films like producer Val Lawton’s Cat People (1942). Harrington was a fan of Lewton’s work and his influence on Night Tide is clear; there could be a supernatural explanation for some of the film’s events, but we’re never sure. What is evident is that some of the characters believe there are other forces at work, and that informs their choices in the story. The film is well directed; despite its low budget, the movie manages to convey an effective sense of the uncanny. Night Tide is another film that I recall seeing on WPIX's “Chiller Theatre” in my younger days, and I've always remembered it. I hadn’t seen it in many years, until I recently viewed it again on Turner Classic Movies. The movie has now been released in a new, remastered edition on both Blu-ray and DVD by Kino Lorber Video; extras include a commentary by Harrington and Hopper, and a video interview with Harrington from 1987.

If you haven't seen these films, I highly recommend them. Both Carnival of Souls and Night Tide just might get rooted in your psyche. If you have seen them, perhaps it's time to revisit them. These movies may not be as scary as you remember, but they can still get under your skin, and find their way into the darker corners of your mind. Here are links to the trailers for Carnival of Souls and Night Tide

Sunday, September 9, 2018

The Dark Truth Behind "The Locket"

As a dedicated film fan, I’ll often seek out the movies that have slipped through the cracks, the ones that I’ve missed viewing over the years. I recently caught up with the 1946 film The Locket, starring Laraine Day, Robert Mitchum and Brian Aherne. It’s an intriguing, noir-flavored story of a woman named Nancy, and her relationships with three very different men. As the story begins, Nancy (played by Day) is going to marry her fiancĂ© John. But a man bursts into the house, and demands to speak to the groom. The man is Dr. Harry Blair (Brian Aherne) and he wants to warn the groom about the woman he’s about to marry. In fact, Blair says that HE was married to her, and it led to his ruin. He begs John to listen to his story. And what a story it is!

Thus begins the puzzle-box flashback structure of the film, as Blair relates the details of his relationship with Nancy. But it isn’t just his story. As his tale unfolds in flashback, we move into another flashback showing the story of the man Nancy was with when she met Blair, an artist played by Mitchum. During that story, we flashback even further, to a pivotal moment in Nancy’s childhood, which involves the locket of the title. So it’s a flashback within a flashback, within a flashback. Confused yet? It all works marvelously well in this moody tale of love, lies, deception and murder. Nancy appears to be the woman of these men’s dreams. But she’s a far more complex character than she seems on the surface.

Director John Brahm (who also helmed 1944’s The Lodger) does an excellent job of creating an atmosphere filled with dread and impending doom. He’s aided by master cinematographer Nicholas Musaraca, who also displayed his masterful talents on such classics as Cat People (1942) and Out of the Past (1947). The cast is perfect; Mitchum (who’s on the cusp of stardom here) is good in an atypical role as the artist who falls in love with his idealized image of Nancy, but realizes too late that his image of her is not the real person. Aherne is marvelous as Blair, who doesn’t heed the Mitchum character’s warnings about Nancy’s true nature, and comes to regret it. Laraine Day is excellent as Nancy, whose almost coquettish persona hides the darker shadings of her real self.

The offbeat structure actually works in the film's favor, as each flashback reveals a little more of the truth about Nancy, leading to a twist I won’t reveal here. Suffice it to say that you’ll be asking yourself at the conclusion of the film if her experiences are caused by fate or coincidence. The Locket is something of a “psychological noir,” a trend that was in vogue around the time of its release, along with films like Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945) and the later Robert Taylor vehicle High Wall (1947), featuring psychoanalysis as a pivotal plot point. If you’re in the mood for an old-fashioned thriller, featuring a solid cast and an impressive visual style, seek out The Locket. It’s available on DVD from Warner Archive, and has also aired on Turner Classic Movies, most recently as part of host Eddie Muller’s Noir Alley series.