12 June 2018

Contemporary Chillers versus Cold Ducks

Two Contemporary Chillers versus Two Cold Ducks
by Kristin Battestella

While some of these recent releases can leave audiences cold, other contemporary pieces provide just the right amount of seafaring suspense and psychological chills.

The Reef – Sunrises and sunsets, stunning blue water panoramas, and lovely reef life create coastal bliss for this 2010 Australian fright loosely based on a true story. Shark teeth foreshadowing, statistics about the likelihood of shark attacks, and an inexperienced crewman aboard invoke the ominous to come alongside natural water fears, racing to beat the tide, trouble raising the anchor, and leaky rafts. Capsizing thuds, flooding, and underwater hectic don't need any herky jerky action cam as the innate water movement makes the audience feel like we are there amid the missing keel, sinking hull, no supplies, and outdated distress beacon. It's frightening when viewers can just make out the shark silhouette beneath the surface for themselves, but headless turtle shocks and false suspense moments go for cheap thrills. Instead of keeping us on edge with every chop in the water, over the top music tells the audience when something bad is happening. Unlikable characters inspire little conflict amid a lot of childhood friends and lookalike blonde cliches – they are completely unprepared for any aquatic disaster and there's no sense of ocean vast, the slow passage of time on the water, sunstroke, or thirst. These helpless followers holidaying on this deliver the yacht job are also over reliant on their macho, supposedly world water traveling leader who messes up tide times, can't find north, and thinks they can maybe swim to an island perhaps twelve miles away. Wishy washy, don't know they are in a horror movie stupidity compounds the uneven pacing as the strong girl suddenly in tears stays behind while others risk this uncertain swim before she changes her mind thirty seconds later so they wait in the possibly shark infested seas. The women rightfully call out the guy who orchestrated the trip under false pretenses before apologizing that its not his fault but yes it is. Weak men say they are tired and laugh over sex stories, breaking the swimming scenes to stop and stand on reef rocks rather than shape any kind of epic endurance risk. Fortunately, seeing the nonchalant great white cruising past the hysterical people as they flounder and panic both justifies the yell at the television aspects and makes the viewer recoil. Mirage visions of land and thought they saw something paranoia frays the group as one by one they must leave the dead behind in the ocean. The fatal attacks are well done, and eventually – disturbingly – those remaining can see land but can't get to it. Despite loose characterizations and an uneven narrative in need of taut focus – again all the negatives in low budget horror appear due to one writer/director wearing too many hats – overall this is well filmed with several quality sequences featuring fine scenery and practical shark work perfect for a late night scarefest.

Split – Suspicious rear view mirrors and distorted camera angles turn pity party invites into parking lot abductions for this 2016 multi personality thriller from director M. Night Shyamalan starring James McAvoy (X-Men: First Class) and Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch). Subtle dolly zooms and sideways panning emphasize the bolted doors, dark basement, and huddled girls amid their captor's sinister calculations and ominous childhood flashbacks. Can three girls defend themselves against one violent man? Two gang up on the third, pressuring her to take action as scary switches from one personality to the next are subtle and well done amid local CBS Philly news reports, King of Prussia Mall insults, and distinct city skylines. However it's a mistake to cut away from the dungeon suspense so soon – especially for a foolish psychologist falling for the abductor personality's pretending to be his calm fashion designer persona. Product placement Skype conferences debate multiple personality disorders as a trauma in need versus a new brain chemistry gift, interfering with the tense internal layers we're already seeing. Rather than the Hooters eating Security Guard M. Night's exposition, the reveal should be with the audience as the girls peer through the keyhole and hear both male and female voices. Styling, accent changes, and stuttering show the killer versus child personalities, and the captives speculate on what is crazy or ruse though details from each persona. Location hints, hidden ducts, and underground tunnels lead to possible escapes as the victims are separated thanks to foolhardy attacks and mean girls still being selfish – expanding the cat and mouse between the abductees and a captor who is a prisoner himself. Once the warped situation is established, then the audience can appreciate when he departs for a psychologist session stroking the current dominant, gloating personality's vanity. He deflects on the history of abuse and the cause for this latest psychotic break, resenting his weak host as the kinder personalities blur our sympathies. The female personality of our male abductor, disturbingly enough, may be the most unstable, yet these rogue personas insist another “Beast” alter is coming. One persona needs glasses, another is diabetic – can multiple personalities create mind over matter physiological traits? Videos of all the personalities become an inner monologue paralleling the eerie train station wait for this new evil to manifest its super human abilities and sub human behaviors. Past and present revelations double the uncomfortably frightening suggestion that purity breaking pain awakens the strength and instinct needed to achieve greatness, and certain disturbing subject matter will be tough for some audiences. Though mostly realistic horror and psychological drama, there's a reason things progress into the fantastic with an overlong, somewhat flat ending. Such surprise Shyamalan connections both need viewers to go in cold and appreciate the payoff being held back for sequel winks, perhaps leaving this with reduced repeat value unless you marathon it with Unbreakable. Fortunately, the nuanced performances and no twist just twisted horror meets fantastic does make for some entertaining psychoanalysis.

Two to Skip

A Cure for Wellness – A corner office climber must retrieve his unstable boss from a spa in Switzerland so the company crimes can be pinned on him in this overlong two and a half hour 2017 twister starring Jason Isaacs (Awake) and Harry Groener (Buffy). The bitter work obsessed opening, haunting skyscrapers, and ominous hand written letter describing the darkness of superiority and sickness of men with wealthy people and their wealthy problems are ruined early by tiring product placement and laughable horror clichés. Our unlikable lead is also a wannabe edgy, Shutter Island DiCaprio interfering with the on location castles, mountain vistas, and ruthless baron history complete with blasphemy, incest, and townsfolk with torches. Distorted angles, askew pans, assorted reflections, and upside down inside out views add to the unnatural greenery of this apparent oasis in the middle of a dark cloud. White robes, bright rooms, aqua aerobics, and happy rich people throwing their money at the latest health fad contrast the dark tunnels, taxidermy, and well filmed car accidents despite momentarily confusing flashes amid the forward moving violence. Incidental old folks nudity at the spa increases the discomfort of the eerie steam, maze like hallways, and hazy series of doors, creating ambiguous atmosphere that may be surreal mind, warped structure, or Hotel California influence. Creepy girls by the fountain, bathhouse altars, and whispers of special case patients build to specimens in jars, skin graphs, and creepy urine samples. Body shocks, elevators, dehydrated corpses, and hydraulic assembly lines stir viewer suspense while shadows of what else may be in the tank loom and the smiling staff enjoy a little suspect saucy. Exam chairs, buzzing dental drills, vintage file folders, period lockets, relics of the baron's obsession to cure his sickly family – there are a lot of cool spooky things happening here. Unfortunately, unnecessary flashbacks, Robocop dolls, ridiculous animal gore, and the repeated insistence that something's in the water like it's all just a bad joke take the audience out of the dark atmosphere. Giant eels in the toilet frights are lost in scenes that serve no purpose, and the so-called mystery being given away all along contributes to the increasingly downhill lag. German speakers having cryptic conversations – in English for the underestimated, uninvested viewer's benefit – break the protagonist's point of view as more tunnels, hidden chambers, and early medical equipment expedite the watching fatigue well before the two hour mark or the coincidental timing in the final act. Public declarations, shoving the breakables off the desk, research montage reveals, menstruation and red lipstick a la Little Red Riding Hood, shovels to the face, fiery knockouts, nonsensical villain tell alls, and a Phantom of the Opera-esque lair borrow much too much before yet more tacked on candle light cults and child bride nasty. I hung on for this? o_O

Red Lights – This 2012 tale stars Cillian Murphy (Peaky Blinders), Sigourney Weaver (Aliens), Robert De Niro (Goodfellas), Toby Jones (Berberian Sound Studio), Joely Richardson (Lady Chatterley), and Elizabeth Olsen (I Saw the Light). However, the drive to the horrors, rattling séance, family in fear screams, and early jump shocks are just a lengthy opening before longer credits, jet setting introductions, and debunking seminar restarts. These physicists don't think all paranormal cases are frauds, but they haven't witnessed any miraculous proof against logical controls. Cute coeds, slight of hand platitudes, Occam's Razor – each scene repeats who they are and what they do without saying what university they represent or why authorities call them to expose these supernatural frauds. Editing creates suspense rather than letting the viewer catch the hidden earpiece or audience plant as news reports recount the fire and brimstone psychic selling comeback tour tickets and newspaper clippings on the laptop become the research montage. Weaver's doctor is brash, admonishing a telepathy card test due to the reflections in a doctor's glasses, but we never see her confront a real psychic challenge. The talk show debate better explains the parapsychology fails, seminar versus performance, and religion versus science while the behind the scenes meta television filming makes nicer statements than the shaky cams or booming music. Weaver and De Niro's rivals have personal history – he used the limbo of her vegetative son, adding doubt and emotional pain to her debunking crusade against his dramatic on stage healings. Unfortunately, this intriguing one on one of facts against faith and catching those who think they can get away with it is not the point of this picture, and the focus veers to Murphy's amateur exposé attempts and angry manpain complete with bizarre visions, unexplained electrical explosions, and characters who even say conversations with him are a waste of time. Although academic trials trying to set controls while testing paranormal phenomena, university video reels showing the experiments, and no scientific explanation for the bending spoons provide study for the viewer, there's no chill up the spine scary or awe inspiring wonder at the unexplained because the story completely changes what it started out as. Obnoxious final speeches waxing on man versus monsters, lines of salt, magnetism, and levitation are all over the place. Any commentary on the media, spectator sales, and money made off people who want to believe is lost thanks to the in the in your face protagonist, uneven plot focus, and the movie's failure to heed its own advice with falling flat deflections. If the simplest answer is the correct one, then why does it take an hour and a half to ask why the blind guy wears a watch?

05 June 2018

A Tudor Potluck

A Tudor Potluck
by Kristin Battestella

These miniseries, movies, and documentaries both modern and classic shine the light on Good Queen Bess and company – juicy details, scandals, beheadings, and all.

Elizabeth I – Helen Mirren (The Tempest), Jeremy Irons (High Rise), Toby Jones (Berberian Sound Studio), and Hugh Dancy (Hannibal) star in this acclaimed 2005 two-part HBO co-production. It's 1579 and the unmarried Bess is still without an heir despite the vulnerability of succession, religious strife, and courtiers disliking the overly familiar Earl of Leicester. A symbolic dressing down removes the bejeweled gowns and gilded facade in favor of stays and medical exams saying she's still capable of bearing children – because marriage is for heirs only according to her chancellors. Affectionate bedside chats let the viewer in with the woman behind the throne as she remains outwardly bemused and unfettered by the marital talk but inwardly bored with her council questioning when she is allowed to think or feel anything for herself. Chamberlains are aware of the coming and goings between the bedroom back stairs, and the men look the right mature with swords, capes, and plumes. Despite assassination attempts, dungeons, the rack, and slightly small sets; the golds, rich reds, detailed woodwork, candles, lovely window light, and bright courtyards create an intimate warmth. The camera flows with the movements from room to room – crossing the fine line between private woman and public chambers. Jealous Bess can't marry the earl she wants, courtiers go behind her back, and there are few people to trust amid awkward French courtships, boat rides, and disguises. Of course certain elements are familiar to the well versed Tudor audience, yet the made under Mirren shines with Elizabeth's impressive personality, dancing charm, and lovable infectiousness. It's ironic, however, that everyone says she is so beautiful in obvious flattery, and The Queen is rightfully annoyed when one and all push against her happiness – doubling her heartbreak after falling through proposals. Leicester thinks too highly of his position, yet she will not suffer fools no matter how disappointed. Elizabeth chops off the hand of a writer for his protesting pamphlet, and her chancellors prefer that made of stone rule who does what they tell her, caring not whether she wants a child or to be loved. Surprise meetings with Mary of Scots provide great woman to woman conversation, for only these two ladies can completely understand such an impasse before Dutch aide, conspiracy letters, and executions. After all, women can't be the gentle sex because they know more cruelty. Brutal flayings, quartering alive, and Latin prayers create intensity, however this drama relies less on the lavishness of other melodramatic productions and more on the politics of words and intrigue in the interplay. The first hour alone is dense, award worthy television taking the crown deeper with humility, personal frank, and religious war often spoken in same breath. There's a delicate balance between letting privy men influence her and showing them who's anointed queen. Bess honors the army for their love and sacrifice rather than courage as a king would, but she rises to the armada occasion with famous speeches as the off camera battle sharpens the personal poignant. By 1589, Elizabeth has a slightly pathetic crush on the Earl of Essex, and her elder pure white make up contrasts the womanly undressing that started Part 1. Mirrors are banished and jousts are more about courtiers and spectators whispering on who's in The Queen's favor. Bess watches the men spar, dresses a leg wound, and has some symbolic ankle saucy – she knows its foolish to be desired when she can't show her love. The Queen won't stay in the bedroom but goes to her council where she can whip the men into shape with her leadership. She's not afraid to lash out and show her anger but does threaten the witnesses to her outrage with death. Can one enjoy her royal company or is it all using each other for more influence? Rumors of poison, finger pointing accusations, and false evidence help the not so suave Essex move above his station. New love triangles, deaths, and secret meetings with James VI accelerate Irish discord, divided opinions, and would be rebellions – but it's nothing an arrest or graphic beheading can't fix. While this series doesn't feature all her favorites or serve as a total later reign biography, the focus on such two related loves shows how Bess may have bent from time to time but never totally yields. The Queen goes from romantic tears to Royal We, placing public devotion over self with surreal color and camerawork combining for a graceful denouement.

Henry VII: The Winter King – Author Thomas Penn hosts this 2013 documentary hour chronicling the somewhat obscure – compared to the Richard III infamy before and head rolling Henry VIII after – but no less ruthless, paranoid, dark, and oppressive reign of Henry VII. From the 1485 Millford Haven landing to gaining support for an unlikely victory at Bosworth Field, onscreen text dates and places the previous Wars of the Roses with the Earl of Richmond's precarious claim to the throne through illegitimate Beauforts and a strategic marriage to Elizabeth of York. On location Bosworth prayers, Westminster Abbey art, Hampton Court comparisons, and Parliament archives detail the coronation and dynastic struggles through medieval scrolls, period paintings, music texts, and genealogical rolls. Henry feared he'd loose the crown the way he got it, but shrewd legislation and assuring his lineage help quell any rebellions and eliminate rivals to the throne. Visits to the Medieval Coin Collection at the British Museum present vintage gold pieces stamped with the Tudor rose – despite extensive architecture projects and increasing wealth, Henry used spies to root out corrupt chamberlains and previous allies bankrolling York revivals. The king himself was vigilant with his own financial books and privy accounts, and surviving documents reveal standard payments for falcons from Hungary as well as rewards from some undercover espionage. By the turn of the century, there was little resistance to his tight, underhanded grip thanks to new engagements with Spain, however fatal family illnesses and Elizabeth's death in childbirth cause the distrustful Henry to retreat before cracking down with more building splendor, ruling with fear rather than love thanks to extortion fines and financial ruin making it too costly for anyone to usurp him. Henry's controversial Council Learned in the Law covertly circumvents any legalese with prison sentences, rigged juries, and intimated judges, but threats from Suffolk and dangerous jousts take a toll on his health. Period depictions show Henry VII's deathbed transition – which was kept secret for two days while courtiers cleaned up the regime's loose ends with trumped up executions of unlikable chancellors, allowing young seventeen year old Henry VIII to issue kinder reform. Henry VII's reign was a rocky but necessary road assuring a new English dynasty; his architectural achievements still stand, and this tour fittingly concludes at his grand mausoleum silently beside his tomb. Although the booming music and night time scenery plays at something sinister, the moody here remains scholarly before flashy, keeping this friendly for the classroom or the more learned Tudor audience.

A Stuart Bonus!

Mary Queen of Scots: The Red Queen – Scottish castles, ruinous abbeys, and highland scenery anchor this 2014 documentary on that other devout catholic Mary thorn in protestant Elizabeth's side. The narration admits the similar names are confusing, but the voiceover meanders with unnecessary time on Mary's parents James V and his french wife Mary of Guise amid Henry VIII marital turmoil, perilous successions, and religious switches. Opera arias interfere further as we stray into Mary Mary quite contrary rhymes, earlier Robert the Bruce connections, Tudor rivalries, French alliances, and the possible poisoning of infant Stuart sons before finally getting to Mary being crowned at nine months old in defiance of male inheritance laws. Rough Wooing tensions and early betrothal plans with Edward VI lead to isolation at Stirling Castle before a pleasant childhood at the French court, but a princess education and marriage to the Dauphin in 1558 ultimately send the young widow back to Scotland as regent in 1561. Catholic unrest always leaves Mary on unfriendly terms with Bess alongside John Knox reformations at home, misogynist rhetoric, and a nasty marriage to her first cousin Henry Stuart. The need for an heir, murdered lovers, adulterous pregnancies, revenge – loyal nobles take sides as the Catholic baptism of the future James VI divides public opinion. Men with syphilis, suspicious gunpowder accidents, marital traps, and final meetings with her year old son begat possible kidnappings, a new marriage to the Earl of Bothwell, revolts, imprisonment at Loch Leven, abdication, and rumors of stillborn twins with unknown fathers. It might have been interesting to see scholars contrasting bad girl Mary with her marriages and male interference versus Elizabeth The Virgin Queen rather than the all over the place narrative. Bess holds Mary captive in various English castles for eighteen years until religious coups, forged letters, an absentee trial, and the final treasonous Babington Plot. Mary goes out in style with symbolic red despite her botched beheading, with an ironic final resting place at Westminster Abbey beside Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I. This rambling hour confuses itself and repeats anecdotes in what should have been a tighter, more informative focus. However, such superficial storyteller basics can actually be a good classroom compliment with additional materials.

But A Surprising Skip

Young Bess – Charles Laughton (reprising his role from The Private life of Henry VIII), Deborah Kerr (From Here to Eternity), and Stewart Granger (Caesar and Cleopatra) join the eponymous Jean Simmons (Guys and Dolls) for this romanticized 1953 tale featuring pomp scoring, medieval title cards, fine castle interiors, Tudor hoods, colorful frocks, royal feasts, and bitter beheadings. Unfortunately, annoying, over the top support recounts the already familiar Anne Boleyn exit and repeated new wife introductions in an out of place Mother Goose style narration. The bemusing, petulant little girl whimsy is at odds with the serious chopping block drama, and the defiant teen Bess rolls over once Thomas Seymour sweeps in to subdue her. Now, not only was the older Granger married to the supple Simmons, but he also had an affair with Kerr – who plays his wife onscreen. History would also describe Thomas Seymour's relationship with the young Elizabeth as not exactly healthy to say the least, and it's uncomfortably odd to see such a great, shrewd queen reduced to a stubborn, moon-eyed princess. Can you imagine the uproar today if a historic abusive relationship was depicted as a romance orchestrated by the victim? o_O Bess makes her stepfather jealous of her Danish marriage proposals by kissing Barnaby the whipping boy before getting slapped by her Admiral Uncle Dad Tom, which she loves! Soft glow cameras on the ladies are likewise so fuzzy that the picture looks blurry to HD accustomed eyes. The sets are small, outdoor scenes and matte shots are obvious fakery, brief naval scenes and hokey armor are almost humorous, and the villainous Lord Protector is apparent thanks to his greasy mustache. Henry's larger than life whims and death bed sincere make up for the slow start and the bright, colorful dance scene is the best part of the film – yet for something supposedly about Bess, the focus strays with arguing councilors and ambitious relations. An entire segment is narrated by the typically mid century little brother King Edward, transitioning from his intended as humorous wish that his uncle would “D-Y-E” to inquests and solemn betrayals. Meandering character motivations add to the inaccuracies, the behind the scenes relationships muddle with what's onscreen, and the of its time artistic license feels embarrassing to the well versed Tudor viewer. Simmons gives a lovely performance, and audiences who love classic melodrama can enjoy this. However, it's tough to suspense belief with this kind of blind fiction.

26 May 2018

Gothic Adaptations and Literary Mysteries

Gothic Adaptations and Literary Mysteries
by Kristin Battestella

Although some of these contemporary movies and miniseries based on books are better than others are, the literary adaptations herein exude plenty of gothic atmosphere, mood, and mystery.

The Limehouse Golem – Sublime frocks, décor, carriages, and top hats accent the 1880 bodies in the bed, poisoned cordials, and bloody riddles opening this 2016 serial killer about Londontown adapted by Jane Goldman (X:Men: First Class) from the Peter Ackroyd novel. Red gore, orange lighting, and green hues befitting the title join pink and gold dance halls, sing songs, and theatrical cross dressing as Bill Nighy's (Underworld) Inspector Kildare avoids the sensational headlines and public bloodlust in favor of handwriting analysis and murderous journals. Messy footprints, missing police reports, and polluted crime scenes don't need any modern stylistic intrusions – the intercut discovery mixed with on stage recountings of the kills, disjointed past and present point of views, and non-linear editing are unnecessary. Fast moving abusive childhood flashbacks within murder trials when we've hardly met everybody make the focus of the story unclear, the assistant constable repeats everything the inspector already knows just for redundant audience exposition, and the gay comments about Kildare are useless. Famous names, library clues, dance hall girls, jealous playwrights, and life imitating art plays let the evidence speak for itself, piecing together the case with scribble in the book margins, secondhand shop keeper connections, and inspector deduction. Distorted voiceovers, violent slicings, backstage nudity, accidents on theater stairs, and religious undercurrents set off the deceased's recounting of the crimes in fantasy-esque flashbacks repeated with each suspect as the killer. These brutal horror reenactments compete with the song and dance flashbacks, but they also help blur the investigation as important details aren't shared with the kangaroo trials, distracting the audience as information is given and taken for shock value or cinematic reasons when key evidence, set ups, and relationships would be obvious if anyone but Kildare was paying attention. The persons of interest, backstage investigations, play clues, deflection, and one on one interviews are better once the flashbacks stop and the real time case proceeds. There must be a reason why the crimes have stopped – what we need to know is given in the opening scene – and all the back and forth delaying belies viewers into how little time has passed and why the police are unaware the killer hasn't struck again. Longtime viewers of British period mysteries may see through this faulty veneer with padding misinformation and meandering backstory in need of tighter direction rather than style over substance. Fortunately, there's an interesting mystery, multiple suspects, numerous kills, and suspicious ties between them as the execution order counts down to the finish. The infamous show must go on no matter how many people die for it, and this is fun for fans of Steampunk style mysteries.

Rebecca – Artistic ingenue Emilia Fox (Merlin) – companion to wealthy gossip Faye Dunaway (Don Juan DeMarco) – is smitten by the suave yet mysterious Charles Dance (Bleak House) in this 1997 three hour Masterpiece adaptation of the Daphne Du Maurier novel. Sublime style, flapper headbands, candlelight, and long stem cigarettes add to the whirlwind 1927 Riviera's scenic drives, classic convertibles, and charming hats. Unlike the immediately gothic gray scale of Alfred Hitchcock's 1940 version, vivid color and visual depth layer this initially idyllic romance. Our unusual couple have each been shy, lonely, and sad, but Maxim de Winter admires this young lady's innocence and honesty compared to the gilded aristocracy. Picnics, boat rides, a silly girl, a foolish old man – can they make a go of their differences? The dangerous curves and perilous drives suggest something slightly sinister brewing amid glimpses of the unforgettable and beloved by all Rebecca. It's been a year since her death, yet everyone must remind Maxim of his late wife upon this surprising second marriage. The newlyweds return to the lovely English gardens and proper decorum at Manderley, the estate where the Emmy winning Diana Rigg's (On Her Majesty's Secret Service) icy housekeeper Mrs. Danvers won't let go of the first Mrs. DeWinter's memory. The household reception is awkward and chilly – the coastal brightness turns darker thanks to shadow schemes, lighting changes, and the looming silhouettes of both Mrs. Danvers and Rebecca. Despite being a large estate with a west wing facing the sea, the hefty staircases, huge windows, and great fireplace feel congested, closing in on the new, nervous Mrs. as she gets lost wandering the shuttered parts of the house, breaks priceless statues, and hangs her head like an admonished little girl. She doesn't fit into the upper class routine, but the brooding, often misunderstood Maxim doesn't want her to become like those other cruel, aristocratic dames. Everyone is so heavy handed, formal, and not just unhelpful but resentful of how unlike Rebecca she is, and the couple regrets returning home to the rocky cliffs, beach side cottages, and distrustful staff. Crazy hermits, past gossip, vogue cousins too close for comfort, recreating previous fancy dress balls, and one big costuming faux pas strain the relationship further, but she can't exactly ask her new husband about why the pieces on how Rebecca drowned aren't coming together. Her room is still kept as is, almost in worship where our devoted housekeeper can express her creepy vicarious and pathetic intimacy, re-enacting brushing her madam's hair and laying out her perfumed night gown. Was Rebecca really so perfect? If she wasn't would anybody actually say so? Her presence is overwhelming – not because of any actually supernatural mood or ghost, but because the obsessed Mrs. Danvers won't let anyone forget, placing the fanatical pressures of her devotion on the second Mrs. de Winter. Foreboding strings add more ominous, however the suspense is certainly helped by Maxim's not coming clean on his life with Rebecca at the start. While some scenes are very similar to Hitchcock's vision, this is also closer to the novel, and even if you've seen other adaptations, viewers are swept up in wondering how the secrets will play out in the finale. Fog, vintage boats, watery evidence, mistaken identities, inquests – the circumstances surrounding Rebecca's life and death come to light, but our servant oversteps her bounds with cruelty, jealousy, and bullying suicidal whispers just to assure the Rebecca everyone thought they knew and loved won't die. Though more romantic than true crime, the fresh love and warped liaisons are told swift and honestly as the scandalous true colors are revealed with fainting spells, medical discoveries, fiery rescues, and kisses in the rain. Indeed all the gothic staples are here with period mood and performances to match.

Split Opinion

The Moonstone – This five part 2016 series based on the Wilkie Collins novel opens with funerals, church bells, top hats, and tombstones before gloomy Yorkshire estates and a family cursed to unhappiness thanks to the eponymous plundering. Flashbacks to the pleasant year before recount the colorful gowns, piano music, painting, kissing cousins, and birthday gifts. There are, however, prowlers, suspicious visitors, dangerous beaches, melodramatic maids, rival suitors, and awkward dinners. This was not the day to quit tobacco! One and all pass around the diamond – broadcasting its whereabouts before immediately suspecting the “gibberish speaking” foreigners among them of its theft. The hysterical birthday girl doesn't want a public scandal, refusing to speak with the police who bungle the case with a contaminated scene thanks to a meddling maid made obvious by the ominous music. Men are worried about rectifying their reputations over the lost gem, but one wonders why they go through the trouble when the lady herself impedes them amid nonsensical red herrings, cluttered pacing, spliced editing, and foreboding fake outs. The revisiting flashbacks and present conjecture interrupt the tension with coming and going scenes or up and down stairs transitions stalling the seeking of clues while questionable colonial aspects, off humor, and poor acting parodies the deduction with overly pompous, long winded dialogue, and faux sophistication. London to Yorkshire travel looks instantaneous, and timeline breaks should bookend episodes only instead of deflecting the mystery. A ham-fisted superintendent, busybody relations, and back and forth blaming contests hinder the case further with stupid snobbery. Itemized prophecies with clues, convoluted letters, second hand evidence, and missing people string the messy in the wrong direction. The meandering points of view and uneven framing don't build characters or suspense, and viewers already have precious little sympathy since our supposedly so in love cousin so adamant about the girl and resolving the theft up and left for an entire year. Timely deaths, mysterious wills, suspicious marriage proposals, and coastal rescues finally provide something incriminating halfway thru Episode Four as love sick letters recount how the subservient people of the house were lost amid all the upper class hullabaloo. Eyewitness unreliability and laudanum stupor add to the painting clues and prospective motives while secret passages and potential suicides culminate in jeweler trades, bank stakeouts, and bodies at the hotel. Although this comes together in the last half hour, the presentation continually goes back to the night of the crime where it never should have left all the action in the first place. Characters themselves ask how they are always back where they started, but the insipid performances can't disguise the Twelve Days of Christmas cumulative – each hour adds a superfluous person who knows what happened then who travels to read a letter revealing what happened the Monday after the Wednesday that the moonstone was stolen. Such treading tires impedes the game afoot, and there's never a sense that anyone is closer to solving the mystery. This is fine for audiences who like period piece whodunits, yet such an audience is already well versed enough to be frustrated by this piecemeal structure. The series is twice as long as it should be when a streamlined, feature length design would have sufficed. ¯\_()_/¯


Labyrinth – Christopher Smith (Black Death) directs medieval heroine Jessica Brown Findlay (Downton Abbey), bad girl Katie McGrath (Merlin), Malfoy in a greasy wig Tom Felton (Harry Potter), gigolo writer never seen writing Sebastian Stan (Avengers: Infinity War), annoying creep Emun Elliot (The Paradise), and the under utilized John Hurt (Only Lovers Left Alive) in this 2012 two-parter based upon the Kate Mosse book. Opening scrolls set the 1209 Carcassonne scene with Catharism sects, reincarnation, and Holy Grail secrets before contemporary archaeology digs and caves with ancient writings. Although the men's armor looks cheap, the medieval costumes have the right silhouette – healers, herbs, and woodwork create period detail while scenic bridges, horses, and country beauty belie ominous bodies in the river, missing fingers, and mysterious books. Unfortunately, this telling of two tales at once is immediately confusing with lookalike sisters both introduced in sex scenes with the same man and a modern woman who takes on this archaeology thing after a bad break up, goes into a cave during an earthquake, and is rightfully chastised for her amateur contamination of the site. While a book can go back and forth per chapter, this television film juggles too much. The Old Speaketh is try hard and everybody in France speaks unaccented English as crusader persecutions are intercut with good cop/bad cop interrogations. Secret brotherhood meetings, double crossing contacts, another corporate woman introduced with a nooner – we're still meeting everybody an hour into the story thanks to the spliced presentation. Longer scenes building tension between the sisters, car accident shockers, and hooded rituals with candles and daggers better show the medieval past and present, and the two parts should have had all the past action naturally building to the present intrigue. Why tell in a current research montage when we can see that past suspense? The uneven structure cheats with women from different times in the same frame or place just for visual effect, delaying the storytelling with attempted edgy. Hot guys in the pool, iPod mentions – leave your number by typing it into some man's phone, is that for real? – and forced chemistry aren't as interesting as a Book of Potions or religious protectors. Secret society bad guys chase something so important one moment only to call it an irrelevant loose end the next, people with answers go unutilized, and clues are waiting in an inherited house but nobody goes there. A righteous thug with a silencer shooting people for not going to confession and information easily given that should have come sooner are too convenient as neither past nor present is primary thanks to no sense of danger and the thin women's tropes such as the one-dimensional illegitimate naked bad girl scorned threatening a man with cries of rape. It's also tough to enjoy the trebuchets, sieges, fire, and cemeteries when all the miscast, messy, mansplaining men are so weak in battle. Although the opening scenes suggest a mystical connection, there is no point to these separate stories being told in parallel. Neither receives the attention it deserves, leaving the medieval hollow despite serious topics and the present lacking an intelligent mystery that doesn't know its audience. While the men in such adventures can handle the Holy Grail, reincarnation, immortality, and get the girl; with women the medieval must be all jealous affairs and a soap opera sappy choice between a lover or the greatest religious and archaeology discovery ever. Boo!

18 May 2018

Women in Perilous Places

Women in Perilous Places
by Kristin Battestella

Horror loves nothing more than placing women in danger. Will the girl power be bound by the usual horror cliches or can the ladies from this semi-recent trio of scares overcome the natural disasters, perilous places, and island risks?


Creep – Franka Potente (Run Lola Run) and the delightfully disturbing Sean Harris (Prometheus) anchor writer and director Christopher Smith's (Black Death) 2004 Tube terror amid slippery sewer tunnels and panning flashlights with surprising reveals. Although long credits, a prologue scare, and a colorful party create several restarts, there's already an innate sense of danger with a pretty woman left on the platform alone late at night. She's locked in the station – gates across the doors, still escalators, empty ticket booths. Mysterious echoes, screams, hidden panels, and underground access build fear as disappearances, rats, and maze-like corridors add to the harassment and assaults. Claustrophobic surroundings and confined movements lead to apparent safety on the next train, but the homeless alcoves and search for the control room are to no avail. There's nowhere to run, but security camera flashes and fuzzy black and white footage breaking the solitary point of view emphasize the uh ohs while gory slashes and terrible lashes heard on the speakers create red blood trails across white floor tiles. Panic and heavy breathing are enough without brief herky jerky running camera perspectives thanks to high voltage passageways, chases on the train tracks, ladder climbs, and nasty swims with bodies in the water. The gray claws, amphibian slender, and deformed scaly of our subterranean culprit are well done with the greenish hues and underwater cages contrasting bright flashlight beams. It's cold and dirty in this old medical station – harpoons, dolphin sounds, and specimens in jars accent the gruesome with hints of procedures gone wrong, playing doctor, and bone saws. While mostly what you don't see horror rather than torture porn, some audiences expecting a scary explanation may not like the slightly fantastic turn. A lack of subtitles can make the assorted accents difficult, and background answers storyboarded but not filmed would have helped deepen the statements on sex, drugs, abortion, and homelessness. At times, the tunnel pursuits become a house of horrors room to room with assorted scary themes, and internal logic bends as needed. Couldn't she use her lighter to set off a sprinkler or cause fiery damage to call for help? Why doesn't she initially utilize emergency call boxes and cameras that are apparently everywhere? Fortunately, that skewed realism taps into the ugly visage and unlikable bitchy at work with doubts about the mimicry and where the audience's sympathy should lie.

Still Decent

A Lonely Place to Die – Beautiful but perilous vistas, thunder, and misty but dangerous mountains – a risky place to whip out the camera! – open this 2011 hikers meet kidnappers parable starring Melissa George (Triangle), Alec Newman (Dune), and Ed Speleers (Downton Abbey). Eagles and aerial views quickly degrade into mistakes, hanging frights, and upside down frames. Ropes, gear, risk – people cause disaster among the otherwise still, respected beauty where they aren't supposed to be resulting in cuts, scrapes, and falls. Weather interferes with their plans to climb the next killer facade, but wishing one could paint the lovely forest and rocky scenery uncovers mysterious echoes from an ominous pipe and a trapped little girl. The hikers split up – several take the longer, safer route back to the nearby town – however there's a more difficult path called Devil's Drop that one couple brave climbing to reach help faster. Unfortunately, short ropes and sabotaged equipment create shocking drops and fatal cliffs. They aren't wearing helmets so we can see the heroics, but no gloves against the sharp rocks, rough trees, and burning ropes, well that's as dumb as not having a satellite phone. Unnecessary fake out dreams, annoying shaky cams, and distorted points of view detract from both the natural scary and the mystery of who else may be out there – fear on people's faces is always more powerful than effects created for the audience. Guys with guns encountering more crazed men all in black with yet more kidnappers in pursuit also break the isolated situation too early. Unknowns snipers would better layer the environmental fears, raging river perils, terrain chases, and gunshots. Attacks from an unseen culprit are much more terrifying than knowing what poor shots they are even up close and with scopes. Injuries, screams, thuds, and broken limbs provide real menace, and we really shouldn't have met the killers until they are over the victims asking them how much the price of their nobility hurts or what good compassion did for them today. Although double crossing criminals playing the mysteries too soon compromises the good scares and surprise fatalities, fiery sunset festivals progress the mountain isolation to a ritual village suspicious. Fireworks and parades mingle with hog masks and alley chases – again suggesting people are where they shouldn't be as the hiking dangers become congested public confrontations. While the crooks' conspiracies get a tad ridiculous when innocent bystanders are killed in plain sight, this is a unique natural horrors cum kidnapping thriller remaining tense and entertaining despite some of those shout at the TV flaws.

A Split Decision

Black Rock – Childhood friends Kate Bosworth (Blue Crush) and Lake Bell (Boston Legal) revisit a Maine island with co-star/director Katie Aselton (The League) in this 2012 survival tale from writer Mark Duplass (of the 2014 Creep). Hip music, packing inventories, and crass jokes join the scenic drive to the horrors, but one has invited the other two ladies without telling each one, lies about having cancer, and admits she wants an we're all dying anyway last hurrah. Fortunately, the speedboat, cold water, and barren coast are already chilling as the women revisit a childhood map with old forts and time capsules. There are no distinguishing characteristics such as jobs or even last names, but it's easy to see why the two similar brunettes dislike each other – none of them really seem like friends but they go along with their pushy blonde leader anyway. Despite tough hiking and mosquito complaints one brunette can't get over the other sleeping with her douche boyfriend six years ago. They shout and nearly come to blows as the blonde between them insists she isn't taking sides just as she confers with one and not the other. Instead of discussing their problems, the conversation is of men and childhood lesbian crushes amid try hard cursing every other word. Of course, there are three suspicious dishonorably discharged soldiers turned hunters on this island and the women are obviously their game. Fireside flirtations with drunken blow job talk reveal the once shy brunette as a tease liking attention who thinks a make out session will suffice. Unfortunately, these guys don't play by the rules or take no for an answer, and assault becomes a typical plot point as each trio falls into bullying peer pressure from its strong arming leader. Our sexually dominate alpha male has a meek black follower and his white pal is perhaps so in love with his commander that he is impotent without the rifle he uses against the women. Rather than exploring catty women snapping in the isolated horror, men hit and bind them while the helpless girls say they fear rape – putting the sexual violence back in the minds of the weak trying to prove they are real men. Though directed by a woman with an understanding of shit men, this is written by her husband as a male fantasy. These women are called cunt slut bitch and said to be getting their deserve symbolic impalings and kicks in the crotch for denying the superior war-fighting male his pleasure. Graphic gunshots, action filming, and chases in the woods are well done, and up close camerawork draws in the fear or intimidation. However, the mixed message on whether the violent men or the teasing woman is at fault takes away from the tense women's point of view. The jealous blonde insists they can't escape and dislikes her previously at odds pals working together when they don't need her cowardly to fight back – which becomes more male viewer titillation as the lookalikes strip off their wet clothes. Panties and all in the itchy woods with killer men in pursuit! The brash gal with the masculine nickname quivers as her once meek pal slaps her, and the cheek to cheek, heavy breathing, and hair pulling is almost sex scene coy. They walk around in the woods naked, bonding while making spears, yet for all the girl power, this becomes less about defending oneself over an assault and more about two women psyching each other up to slit a guy's throat. Instead of a horror movie by women, for women, this becomes a bizarre he said, she said. It's worth a viewing discussion, but it skews toward male tropes disguised as a women's piece.

15 May 2018

Witches and Bayous, Oh My!

Witches and Bayous, Oh My!
By Kristin Battestella

This trio of somewhat obscure retro pictures has the spooky mood, atmospheric locales, and bemusing magic needed for a little late night enchantment. 


Mark of the Witch – A noose, mud, frock coats, and ye olde speaketh set the scene for this 1970 tale of 300 year old witches and revenge on a Texas college campus, oh yes. Certainly there are bemusing production values – false eyelashes on the witch, modern dental work seen in her over exaggerated delivery, more bad acting, and super windblown curses amid lengthy filler credits, off key folk tunes, uneven sound, and cutting corners close camera work that's just too up close. Fortunately, more natural conversations are casual fun alongside occult books, superstition and psychology studies, and 'spook seminars' recounting how those who exorcised and persecuted witches ended up suffering horribly themselves. Not to mention there's a professor descended of those originally cursed who knows more than he's saying. Colorful fashions, pigtails, and cigarettes add nostalgia as far out dudes play the sitar and ask hip chicks about their zodiac signs. Palm readings and Ouija boards lead to messing with a black magic tome and laughing at spells with belladonna and bat's wings. They can substitute some dried rosemary for the fresh sprig in the recipe, right? Invocations, witch's runes, candles, and wine goblets create an eerie ritual mood along with storms, possessions, and high priestess warnings. Things get slow when the embodied witch learns about our world – the telephone and coffee percolator are explained before campus tours and unnecessary music montages. And look at those classic station wagon ambulances! The men argue about ordering more books so they can learn how to excise the witch's spirit from the coed, but she's getting down with the fiery spells, demon summonings, and luring boys to the grove at midnight for some satanic saucy. Again, some action is laughable thanks to bizarre, poorly edited make out scenes and a certain tame to the potions, pompous explanations, repetitive rites, and psychedelic light show driving out of the evil spirit. There isn't a whole lot to the actual revenge, yet eerie sound effects keep the cackling, daggers, and automatic writing interesting. This could have been totally terrible but the good premise doesn't go far enough, either. Though neither stellar nor scary, this is both bemusing and creepy for a late night viewing if you can take the bad with the good. 

Necromancy – Orson Welles (Chimes at Midnight) and Pamela Franklin (Satan's School for Girls) star in this 1972 oddity also later known as The Witching with varying editing and runtimes. Hospital room scares and dead baby traumas restart the tale several times when an unsettled bedroom says everything needed before the husband's job transfer to an isolated town called Lilith. His new boss is occult obsessed and insists his dead son is only resting, but our wife doesn't believe in life for a life rituals reviving the dead. The town name, however, gives her the creeps – as does talk of her having potential gifts thanks to being born with a veil. Although the outdoor filming is super bright, retro phones and a packed station wagon add to the desert drives, dangerous curves, and explosive accidents. A doll from the wreckage has fingernail clippings in its pocket O_o and the sense of bizarre increases with nearby funerals, dead children in coffins, burning at the stake flashes, disappearances, and tombstones. Older, castle-like décor – trophy heads, demonic imagery, magic tomes – pepper the spooky Victorian homes alongside women both seventies carefree yet medieval inspired with old fashioned names. There are however no children in town, pregnant women have to leave, and our couple moves into the same place as the recently, mysteriously departed. These devil worshiping townsfolk in white robes prefer hiding in the past with time stopped and have no interest in the present thanks to goblets filled with bitter red liquid, astrology, ESP, and tarot. It's awkward when you invite someone new to a party and ask them to join your coven! Mismatched fade ins, crosscuts, zooms, and askew angles accent the hazy rituals, devilish lovers, and brief nudity. However, such editing both adds to the eerie and allows for more weird while making it look like creepy, lecherous, self-proclaimed magician Welles filmed his asides separately. He's upfront about the occult, terrifying yet luring the Mrs. as the messy visions, wolves, and injuries increase. Freaky basements, rats, seduction, voodoo dolls, dead bodies, bats – is what she's seeing real? Have any of these encounters actually happened? Despite shades of The Wicker Man foreshadowing, it takes a bit too long to get a clue even as the poison mushrooms, skeletons, and rituals gone wrong become more bizarre. Fortunately, there are some fun twists to keep the somewhat obvious and slightly nonsensical warped entertaining.

The Witchmaker – The picture may be a little flat for this 1969 slow burn also called The Legend of Witch Hollow, but vintage swamp scenery, moody moss, weeping willows, shallow boats, and Louisiana cemeteries set off the bayou murders. Mellow music and swimming babes in white lingerie begat violent kills with ritual symbols, dripping blood, binding ropes, upside down hangings, and slit throats. The disturbing is done with very little, but eight women have been killed in last two years, thus intriguing a parapsychologist investigator and his team of sensitives, psychic students, and skeptical magazine writers. It's $21 for their three boat trips, supplies, and six people renting the no phone cabin for five days – I'll take it! Old townsfolk fear the culprits are immortal witches who need blood to stay young and warn the guests of snakes, quicksand, and gator-filled marshes. Early electrical equipment, radios, and technical talk on waves and magnetic fields balance the somewhat dry acting and thin dialogue as more bikini clad psychic women rub on the sunscreen while our ominous warlock watches. Although the nudity is relatively discreet with the skimpy suggestion doing more, the maniacal laughter and slow motion running while clutching the boobies is a bit hokey. Thankfully, lanterns, hidden rooms beneath the floor, underground tunnels, and satanic rituals sell the macabre. Crones with gross teeth and dominant spells must recruit these psychics to the coven for invigorating body and soul trades as the scientific talk gives way to candles, seances, chanting, and fog. Green lighting, red sheer dresses, and skimpy blue nighties are colorful spots among ominous witnessing, creepy statues, torches, and demonic altars. The investigating team buries victims amid out of control powers, hypnosis, and screams while the witches enjoy a little necking, decoy dames, knives, and fiery brandings. Granted, the male investigators are limp leads, just the facts fifties cops out of place compared to the ladies feeling more of the sixties Hammer lite. A third woman does nothing before being used as bait in the men's plan which goes awry of course. The raising of the coven is more entertaining – all kinds witches, warlocks, cool cats, and unique characters manifest for some wine, feasting, and whips for good measure. The red smoke, music, dancing, romance, and chases lead to a blood pact or two before one final romp in the mud. Overall, this remains tame, and the plot should have gotten to the more interesting coven action in the latter half sooner. However, the unpolished aesthetics and retro feeling keep this late night drive-in eerie fun.