Posts Tagged ‘i want a huge house by the sea dammit’

Dear Daniel Radcliffe,

I apologize for saying that you were such an atrociously wooden actor that you could have been swapped out for your polygon figure from the Harry Potter video games for three movies on end before anyone noticed.  Clearly that was a bias of mine formed back when you were ten years old and still had Chris Columbus telling you to act with your eyeballs.  Now that you have discovered that there are more facial expressions in an actor’s toolkit than bug-eyed-and-vaguely-bored and squinch-faced-and-vaguely-bored, you do pretty damn well.

I look forward to seeing you in more films.  Please do not dress in Victorian garb.  You are disturbingly attractive in it, and the cognitive dissonance is a bit more than I can handle.

Sincerely,

Larissa.

It’s a shame that the newly-resurrected Hammer didn’t come out of the starting gate with The Woman in Black, instead of leading with the direct-to-video Wake Wood  and the universally unloved The Resident.  That would have smashed off the coffin lid with a bang.  Woman in Black is a throwback to the gorgeous foggy creepiness of the best of the Hammer films, a claustrophobic gothic thriller that doesn’t rely on gore but on seriously disturbing imagery to keep the audience’s attention.  If it has a fault, it’s the ill-judged tendency to build up suspense with care, skill, and elegance, and then bring it crashing down with a cheap jump scare; but that’s easily forgiven in the sheer wonderfulness of seeing a good old-fashioned haunted-house story play out this beautifully on the screen.

Radcliffe plays Arthur Kipps, a struggling attorney unable to get past his wife’s death in childbirth four years before.  He’s sent out to the creepy Drablow house in the middle of a marsh to collect the widow Drablow’s papers after her death.  (There are a million of them.  I wanted to sneeze just looking at the huge stacks of parchment.)  The house is creepy, the townspeople are terrified, and after Kipps sees a mysterious woman in black in the graveyard outside the mansion, children in the village start dying in horrific ways.

The last movie I watched that largely consisted of someone wandering around a creepy house was House of the Devil, a movie that bored me so badly that I still resent the fact that it exists.  The Woman in Black didn’t bore me for a minute; partly because this house genuinely was one of the creepiest houses ever committed to celluloid, and partly because Radcliffe has against all reason managed to grow into a charismatic and compelling, if travel-sized, screen presence.  The cinematography is deft and in places astonishing to watch – this is probably the only movie I’ve ever seen that manages to make handwriting terrifying.  It’s definitely a blu-ray buy, both for the quality of the performances and the sheer visual spectacle of it.

If you’re a horror buff, though, there’s one outstanding question: how well does it hold up to the original?  Well… that depends on what you thought the original’s strong points were.  I liked the original, but while it had a couple of seriously disturbing moments (which the 2012 movie has the good sense to allude to but not try to replicate), I didn’t think it was as scary as it’s usually built up to be.  I like Radcliffe’s Arthur better than the original’s – he’s more three-dimensional and less passive.  I can’t decide which version’s woman in black I like better.  The new one definitely has more going on and a faster pace, which may strike you as pandering to the short attention spans of modern audiences or may strike you as better at keeping the audience wrapped up in the movie every step of the way.  I liked the original; I was going to say I like the remake better, but I like them for such different reasons that it sort of seems like comparing apples and oranges.  The only thing to do is to buy both of them, stock up on the popcorn, and spend a long winter evening comparing and contrasting.

So what’s the verdict?  Four stars.  If you love gothic movies, haunted-house movies, or both, The Woman in Black is a must-see.

One of the horror genre’s most profound and inexplicable mysteries is why The Uninvited has yet to rate a US DVD release.  It’s a classic that in places is capable of holding its own against the 1963 The Haunting; beautifully shot, gorgeously candlelit, and utterly creepy.  If it has a flaw, it’s that the romance plot is weaker than the ghost story and has a tendency to arrive on the doorstep as a distraction just when the fear factor is starting to ramp up.

But that’s if you concede that the film has flaws.  Which I do not, because: Flawless.

Siblings Rick and Pamela Fitzgerald (Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey)  fall in love with a mansion off the coast of Cornwall and buy it more or less on impulse.  The owner is a crotchety old bastard named Colonel Beech (Donald Crisp) whose one redeeming feature is his granddaughter, the adorable and dorky Stella (Gail Russell, reminding me weirdly of Shanna Collins in last night’s disaster-of-the-week, The Haunting of Molly Hartley).  It was Stella’s mother who owned the house, until she took a header off the cliff.  Stella hasn’t been back since because her grandfather pitches twenty kinds of assfit every time she goes near the place.

I try not to be bitter when people in movies are somehow able to afford to live in places like this.  It doesn’t usually work.

Rick goes back to London to make his telecommuting arrangements and returns to find an AWOL dog and a freaked-out sister.  Also, the housekeeper’s cat refuses to go upstairs and nearly takes Rick’s arm off when he tries to push the issue.  Soon enough, Rick finds out that the reason his sister is a bit on edge is the ghostly weeping that echoes through the house right before dawn.

The scenes with Rick and Pam standing at the top of the stairs looking down into all that dark, listening to someone crying in an empty house, are remarkably effective considering that (or because) the only special effect involved is some sort of echo around the audio.  I love those scenes because the two of them are so clearly at a loss.  They do pretty much what any of us would do under the same circumstances – stand around going “Um, I feel I should be doing something about this.  I just don’t know what.”  You can’t quite believe it’s a ghost, and yet; down there in the dark, something is crying.

Inviting Stella over for dinner proves disastrous.  She gets upset in the creepy studio that depresses everyone and nearly flings herself off the cliff.  She comes out the other side convinced that the ghost haunting the house is her mother.

Of course, it isn’t quite that simple, because The Uninvited is gothic horror from start to finish.  There are deep secrets about some sort of strange menage a trois between Stella’s parents and one of her father’s models.  There’s Stella briefly being shunted into a sanitarium run by a batshit insane former nurse with a creepy obsession with Stella’s mother.  And there’s a seance scene that all other movie seances could benefit from studying, because it is seriously unnerving.

Back in the day, we didn’t have those newfangled Ouija boards.  We made do with wineglasses and refrigerator magnet letters.  And we were GRATEFUL!

The Uninvited is one of the classics of the haunted-house genre for good reason, and more filmmakers should study it.  You can watch the 1999 remake of The Haunting by the hour and never be more than vaguely impressed by the sheer level of effort that must have gone into the CGI, but The Uninvited has only one thing that even looks like proto-CGI: the ghost, which is only seen a handful of times and is weirdly reminiscent of the things that came out of the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders.  The rest comes from the viewer’s imagination and a handful of trick shots.  Candles gutter for no reason.  Flowers wilt before your eyes.  Pets want nothing to do with the upstairs.  Something keeps making the rooms smell like flowers – or making them cold as ice.

I’m not going to lie, The Uninvited was made back before everyone in the country needed Ritalin, so if you prefer fast cuts and jump scares to slow builds, this movie might not be your speed.  But if it is, and if you have a chance to catch it on TNT at Halloween, don’t miss it.

So what’s the verdict? Five stars.  Gorgeous, creepy, flawless. I feel all restored and ready to jump back into the gauntlet of iffy indie movies and craptacular big-studio releases.  Now how about a digitally remastered DVD release?

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