30 July 2014

Recent Horror Goods

More Recent Horror Goods!
By Kristin Battestella

Yes, these new millennium scares have some flaws and bumps in their dark, scary roads. However, most of the spooky here is a fun, creepy good time perfect for a quick contemporary fix or a marathon movie night with genre friends.

Below – Bruce Greenwood (Thirteen Days), Olivia Williams (The Sixth Sense), Matthew Davis (The Vampire Diaries), and Scott Foley (Felicity) do well in this 2002 World War II set haunt thanks to oceanic isolation, natural trappings, wartime fears, and mechanical failures. Ironically, the submarine secrets and mutiny don’t really need any paranormal or ghostly elements to keep the thriller pace intense – the paranoia and duress of the situation is enough for some boat bound mayhem or maniacal. Fortunately, the crew and company here are also fully aware of the inexplicable in their circumstances. The script smartly has the characters consider the expected horror movie twists on their fate – are they already dead themselves and ghosts hearing the living recovering their watery tomb? Pure horror audiences may dislike Zach Galifianakis (The Hangover) and his moments of humor, but the quirky, ironic wit here isn’t the laugh out loud jokes so often seen in today’s bad blends of comedy and scares. It’s also refreshing to see an unusually set period horror piece today – this isn’t contemporary nor Victorian gothic but has some of the brooding atmosphere of black and white forties horror.  It’s great to have old-fashioned uniforms, see records, and hear Benny Goodman yet the design here also feels a bit too modern. The boys look too all-American chiseled, and the submarine design and effects come across as too CGI laden rather than looking off the past as they should. There are a few questionable moments and some obnoxious shipmates that viewers will be happy to see depart, but this remains an entertaining 100 minutes with an intriguing mystery that needs to be carried through to the end. 

Insidious and Insidious: Chapter 2 Poltergeist meets Inception with these 2011 and 2013 films from director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell. One interwoven plot of ghosts, possessions, psychic phenomena, séances, and paranormal equipment traverses across these two films; worlds blend together as our in fear family moves from one haunted house to next – be it modern scenery or spooky Victorians. Hypnosis, multiple locations, and activity in both the real world and astral arenas create layers of surreal and conflict while fog, lighting, zooms, odd camera angles, wide lenses, filters, and color photography distinguish dreams, flashbacks, and dimensions. Camera flashes and flashlights for lighting are not nearly as obnoxious as in films that literally resort to all flash and no substance, but the booming music cues and painfully loud sound effects shock for the sake of shock when the eerie soft noises and subtleties do better. Herky-jerky movements, found footage, and abandoned hospital scenes in Chapter 2 also seem like out of place Ghost Hunters add ons and convenient newspaper clippings and laying about medical files too easily replace the traditional research montage. Fortunately, the cast classes this duo up, and Rose Byrne (X-Men: First Class), Patrick Wilson (Phantom of the Opera), Barbara Hershey (Beaches), and mediums Lin Shaye (Dumb and Dumber) and Steve Coulter (Coma) all have something to do even when the script gets convoluted. Whannell and Angus Sampson (Spirited) ease and heighten fears with their love/hate humor and innuendo, but only Ty Simpkins (Little Children) as child in peril Dalton is actually needed – the unnecessary second son and baby are extraneous plot devices used for baby monitor scares and they disappear without explanation in both pictures. Jobs, detectives, doctors, and other realistic expectations also fall off as the tale goes on– neighbors don’t hear this racket? Why did the Lambert family moved to start the tale? Was this haunting there or did the astral abilities disturb the unidentified spirits? The passage of time isn’t always clear – months move but forensic results that should take a few days seem to happen in a few hours. Psychic capabilities, their origins, and rules of the supernatural locations are vague, and the demon of One has no explanation compared to the familial evil and Freudian basics of Two. These questions don’t sink the ship, but the writing and direction feels too assembly line complacent instead of structured and polished. The First film finale will be frustrating as well, for it feels more like an abrupt second act of a play. There’s too much material here for one supersized long form film, but these two halves must be see together in one marathon just to pick up on all the hints, remember the connections, and to truly see all the acts of the piece at work. The character journeys, resolutions, shadows, monsters, and scares tie together well enough that now it is surprising that these films were not written and shot back to back but instead came several years apart. In addition to repeat footage from the first movie and an open ending for the forthcoming third film, knowing Chapter 2 was actually a capitalizing follow up after the fact does cheapen it somewhat, and it’s also apparent that either Wan or Whannell has some unresolved issues with dolls. Saw, The Conjuring, the forthcoming Annabelle spinoff, and Dead Silence don’t immediately seem related in subject matter, yet all have similar creepy lipstick faces, puzzles, toys, and scary toppers. They can’t all be in the same universe thanks to repeat casting and such, but these films are certainly in the same vein with an obvious if you like one, you’ll like another style. This feeling follows these Insidious pictures, and despite intriguing film within a film facets, aha moments, emotion, complexity and action to keep up the surprises and intensity for both films, wise horror viewers can easily solve a few of the mysteries here. Not everything has a tidy coda answer – some of that is intelligent and some of it plot holes – but you have to pay attention for several viewings to get all of the Insidious goodness.


Stoker – A cryptic start, bizarre opening credits, distorted visuals, a superficial avant-garde, and CGI that’s a little too noticeable interferes with this 2013 family creeper penned by Prison Break alum Wentworth Miller and starring Mia Wasikowska (Jane Eyre), Nicole Kidman, and Matthew Goode (Brideshead Revisited). Fortunately, the abstract setting, older radios, cool cars, symbolic saddle shoes, retro fashion, cursive ink, and operatic flair create a mid century affluence – the camerawork need not call attention to itself thanks to an already intriguing funeral and awkward relations. Photography placing the dark and red ladies in competition or in suggestive poses with the ominous man of the hour does much better, and quick editing between multiple locations builds criminal suggestion, helping to balance the waiting for something to happen pacing and unevenly kinky and murderous tone. Brief cell phones and flat screen TVs airing obviously parallel animal predator programs spoil the mood a bit, but a solid phone booth appearance makes up the difference. Director Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) does layer too much style over substance, but this is indeed a straightforward first time script too reminiscent of other thrillers. Wasikowska’s India is a pretentious small game hunter turned anti social peas in a pod, and her escalating killer instinct, sexual awakening, and hunter versus prey reflection are no great surprise. Throwaway relatives toppers and a flashback history that could have started the picture are tossed in late despite fine fifties innuendo, familial catalysts, interesting characters, repeat viewing requirements, and the potential to dig deeper. Ironically more Hitchcockian and Grace Kelly-esque than her ill-received Grace of Monaco, Kidman is clearly in saucy pursuit of her brother-in-law, but she’s not as stupid or desperate as she seems. Goode, of course, is the noticeably creepy uncle feigning sexy older cool while being even more skivvy via dialogue laced with subtext and French flavors – gardens with soft soil for digging deep, young wine not ready to be popped, and all that. Though not horror per se or really all that scary, this is worth seeing through to the end thanks to the macabre, old school feeling and quirky, entertaining disturbia.

A Split Decision

Bag of Bones – I want to like this 2011 ghostly family tale for the fine cast, including Pierce Brosnan (GoldenEye), Annabeth Gish (The X-Files), and Melissa George (Triangle). The performances are enjoyable along with the rural, upstate setting, water scenery, and cool cabins. Some of the obligatory writing aspects are fun, too. However, even having not read the Stephen King source, one can tell this is poorly adapted, borrowed material that confusingly tries to endear whilst also using scary dreams for shockers, confusion, and audience mistrust. Despite the King of Horror pedigree, the slow pace often takes too long to get to the ghostly shenanigans, and though atmospheric, none of it is horrific. This didn’t need to be two parts, and every scene feels like it has its own unnecessary establishing scene before it. Other films have done this same type of paranormal resolution in a taught ninety minutes, and the plot here is surprisingly similar to the 1981Ghost Story adaptation – a Jazz era indiscretion, a familial curse, a female haunting, and an attempt at bodily appeasement. Prophetic connections aren’t fully explained, and too many questions are left unanswered – did he do the final revisions for his book or not? A few spiritual confrontations are downright laughable, too, like ghosts tossing records to deter people back up the stairs. Hit 007, you possessed tree, smack him with your leafy branches! These action missteps become hokey wastes of time in what should be a straightforward town mystery. King references may be fun for some viewers but too on the nose obvious or annoyingly pointless for others. This is entertaining to watch, even bemusing, but it’s also yelling at the TV frustrating thanks to convenient technological uses and contrived clues. All in all, I remember the bad more than the good, and that’s not the best way to do a memorable adaptation. 

18 July 2014


Apparitions is a Fine Spiritual Thriller
By Kristin Battestella

What if Mother Teresa was possessed and died during an exorcism? So begins Apparitions, a 2008 6-part British tale chronicling a modern day exorcist caught between the bureaucracy of Rome and the demons running amok in London. Who knew?

Father Jacob (Martin Shaw) tries to help a young family in fear of demonic possession, despite Cardinal Bukovak’s (John Shrapnel) insistence that Father Jacob is over stepping the bounds of his archaic exorcism office. Sister Ruth (Siobhan Finneran) is placed as Father Jacob’s secretary to keep an eye on him, but she begins to question the strange goings on around their parish – and their mysterious patient Michael (Rick Warden), himself a victim of possession in Satan’s master plan to birth new and powerful evil on earth. Can Father Jacob unravel these demonic intentions and save the lives and souls of those around him, or will his own institution and the non-believers inside and out inadvertently allow evil to triumph?

Blasphemous suggestions, debates on canonization, and behind the scenes church happenings are immediately intriguing to start Episode 1 of Apparitions. However, series writer and director Joe Ahearne (Ultraviolet, Doctor Who) and co-creator Nick Collins (Murder in Suburbia) also smartly endear the cast and plots with quickly relatable young girls with possessed dads and seemingly inspired Leprosy healings. There’s a pleasing attention to detail as well through battle of wits dialogue, historical dates, and specific examinations. Are the saints as active in earthly work as demons – even in prisons and with rapists seeking repentance? Perfumes versus foul scents, appearing and disappearing eerie figures, and more devilish implications create a paranormal but religious CSI design with no need to resort to nasty priesthood innuendo. The flaws of the church, however, are certainly acknowledged; exorcisms are recognized as medieval hokey, and the misbelieving even make some Hammer Horror jokes. Are such non-believers all possessed by evil? Of course not, but are all men of the cloth touched by grace? Nope. Apparitions confronts the whole lot of grey in between thanks to multiple storylines and layers of legion; the longer serial format gives room for deeper demonology dimensions, legal issues, social services, church hierarchy, government battles, and family debates by Episode 2. A film would have one monstrosity excised with the confrontation against evil resolved in several hours, but Apparitions offers a possession infrastructure to mirror the church’s chain of command. Who knew being a priest was such dangerous work? Apparitions remains self aware with quips – “Don’t make many enemies in your line of work?” “Only Satan.” – and provides fantastical but honest discussion on humanity being the battleground between good and evil where our flaws, temptations, and those to which we would or would not do harm are used against us. Casualties and sacrifices happen in this spiritual warfare, and Episode 3 raises the stakes as Apparitions uses its individual hours or multi part arcs to tie its larger plot together. It was probably tough to watch Apparitions from week to week thanks to the somewhat rolling cast and changing righteous or evil affiliations, but binging several episodes at a time keeps the soulful character dilemmas in focus.

Demonic pregnancies and abortions gone awry push the exorcism twists further in Episode 4, but these upsetting, controversial themes remain delicate and compelling. Where is the line between deformity or evil showing upon one’s person, disability, mental illness, and possession? Do we encounter demons daily but remain unaware as we argue the fine line between medical rights, patient privacy, and religious need? No one wants a priest interfering with healthcare, but interesting commentary on how medicine was once thought of as superstition helps plead the spiritual case. Demons, of course, thrive on perversion and seek to be born in emulation of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ. Even people who think they believe are shocked when they encounter the possessed on Apparitions. Episode 5 mixes Islam and supposed visions of the Blessed Mother with hopeful, miraculous moments, and this good standing tall balance keeps Apparitions from being too somber or serious. Can we recognize these good or ills among us? Do we invite the devil in while supposedly differing religions recognize our common evil enemy? Apparitions poses a lot of questions and can be lofty at times in hypothesizing whether humanity is inherently bad or good, and some secondary people or plots end up forgotten and unresolved by the Episode 6 finale. Several excellent supporting players don’t have any follow up time, and this one series could have perhaps been 8 or 10 hours instead of 6. Fortunately, great guest stars and core characters facing their own demons provide more thought provoking muster. Could you work for evil just once to save millions? The needs of the masses certainly outweigh the cost of one’s own life – or soul. The finale pieces together all the significant dates, anniversaries, and births to up Apparitions’ ante, testing its faithless by having them perform exorcisms and face their own catastrophes. Once you open the door to hell, can it be closed? Does God let evil in only to prove good’s triumph? For all its doom and gloom on evil and possession, Apparitions is a powerful spiritual show about the underlining good needed for the job, cloth or no cloth.

Apparitions producer and star Martin Shaw (Judge John Deed, Inspector George Gently, The Professionals) looks the mature, priestly part as Father Jacob and is certainly up to the credible, experienced, and soft spoken but kick ass task. His rapport with young Romy Irving (Public Enemies) overcomes her fear and ours as Father Jacob puts pressure on and pursues his investigation for the true cause – there’s no time to pussyfoot around when souls are at stake! Father Jacob firmly believes Satan is amidst our daily lives but must continually defend his exorcism office even to fellow church members who think he is relic of the past. Father Jacob embodies an interesting debate – he doesn’t want people to suffer to prove his point, but the possessed are the exact people he must excise. How much pain is saving the world going to take? You don’t need to believe to enjoy Apparitions thanks to Shaw’s everyman alone style and the doubts cast upon him by others. Why do so many immediately resist the opportunity for his help or take extremes to spit in his face? Is it easier for people to run from faith when they should fight evil or help good to happen? Father Jacob is an anchor for his office, yet Shaw also provides excellent internal conflict and silent reflection. His line of work always leads to death, but Father Jacob must continue to fight the good fight. A very strong script also helps Shaw take it to the next level – he always has a good comeback or the right thing to say to the possessed, the believer, or the church that is both for and against him. Father Jacob has to break the rules and does what he has to do, and Apparitions is a worthy ride because we want to see Father Jacob succeed against all this dang earthly red tape just as much as we root for his quest against supernatural evil.  

Are these miracles on Apparitions done for good or ill? Guest priest Elyes Gabel (Game of Thrones) adds more conflict and temptation while addressing homosexual ideologies within the Catholic Church. Are the ones concerned with what is thought to be the unclean or questioning their faith and role in the church the ones closest to God that the demons seek to trick and enter in? David Gyasi (Interstellar) as prison chaplain Father Daniel wants to take action and is a resourceful ally for Father Jacob, but doubts what he witnesses during exorcisms. Wouldn’t you? Shaun Dooley (Red Riding) also represents a realistic father trying to handle divorce and parenting before possession becomes a factor. Why does he have to justify his family to the church, indeed? Rounding out the ensemble is Rick Warden (Band of Brothers) as the perfectly disturbing, demonic, and desperate Michael. His Holocaust parallels and waxing on why God allows evil to happen are sickly good television. The devil is, after all, a master wordsmith and persuasive little fellow who exploits our fears and weaknesses. Michael’s struggles with his possession are eerily correct in many aspects – cast out one demon on Apparitions, and another takes his place. Ultimately, Satan wants your soul, or better yet, the best soul he can find. The higher evil can climb, all the better. Thus is the battle on Apparitions.

Some of the female characters on Apparitions, however, are somewhat under written as either helpful, bitchy, or obstacles as needed and could have stayed around much, much longer. Sassy nun Michelle Joseph (Eastenders) feels under utilized as the good counterbalance to numerous cliché non-believing beotches, but detective Stephanie Street (20 Things to Do before You’re 30) does better as a strong sensible lady seeking answers to these crimes. Can justice be served legally and spiritually or does one office trump the other? Likewise, abortion clinic doctor Claudia Harrison (Murphy’s Law) is willing to consider Father Jacob’s theories whilst also seeing to her patients needs, and psychologist Claire Price (Rebus) seems objective but her atheist stance and evaluations for the church clash just a bit. Cherie Lunghi (Excalibur) also provides a very interesting debate on the devil as seduction, and it is such a loss that Apparitions didn’t continue for a second season. Just seeing Lunghi and Shaw go toe to toe in this ongoing good versus evil war would have been delightful enough! Thankfully, Siobhan Finneran (Downton Abbey) is a strict but fun Sister Ruth with worthy wit to match Shaw as Father Jacob. She starts out an unofficial spy for the suspicious, jerky but juicy, and career advancement seeking John Shrapnel (Gladiator) as Cardinal Bukovak, but Sister Ruth is wise enough to make up her own mind in whether she is for or against what’s happening. She certainly plays with that vow of obedience as needed! Again, this evil fighting priest and nun tag team antagonism would have been fun to see in a Series Two. Pity.   

The look and feel of Apparitions is appropriately foreign and ecclesiastical, too, with plenty of priestly robes, aged buildings, and inspiring or brooding locales from London to Rome. Smart uses of Latin prayers and Italian dialogue also accent the drama, which doesn’t go for shocking full on horror in its solid 55-minute shows. Of course, there are disconcerting touches of gore, blood, and skin – and not as in nudity skin, either – and subtitles will be necessary for these soft-spoken accents and multiple languages during the tense moments of exorcism, violence, and surprises. Despite old world candles, chapels, and rituals, the medieval rite in the modern realm also makes amusing appearances. Oh, a second priest isn’t handy for an exorcism? Let’s just call him up and put on the speakerphone! Excellent intercutting, uses of light and dark photography, colored lighting, and zooms up the intensity, and music, prayers, and near chanting rhythms heighten simultaneous action. People do shout or talk over each other, but this works when the languages or prayers are being translated – or when taunting demons are causing mayhem while those unseeing speak on, unaware. Fiery fantastics and walking on water spectacles do have their moments in the final two episodes, but most of Apparitions relies on the cast in action or reaction before special effects. Sometimes the imagery of the possessed tapping on the church gates waiting to enter in is really all you need to send your demonic tale home.  

Some audiences may be put off by the totally steeped in religion setting of Apparitions, and the variously heavy subject matter is obviously polarizing. This is however an intelligent presentation of a frightening implication, a word of warning on the dilemmas both internal and external akin to the classic “The Howling Man” episode of The Twilight Zone. Despite sensational topics and a dabble in the supernatural realm, Apparitions does not go for the scandalous or shocking but remains a mature analysis on body, mind, and soul – you won’t find everything wrapped in a pretty bow here like other exorcism films that declare all is well. The plots remain personal with small people amid the institutional framework solving mysteries and using clues in this tormenting game against evil – a game evil wants to play with you. Mainstream sophisticated viewers, casual horror fans, and even the non uber religious can enjoy the good versus evil drama of Apparitions.

15 July 2014

Just Vamps 3!

Just Vamps III!
By Kristin Battestella

Uno, dos, tres – we are rounding up another batch of saucy and classic vampire delights to whet your appetite! 

Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter – The titular Horst Janson (Murphy’s War) certainly looks suave in his period frocks and frills for this 1972 later day Hammer romp co-starring Caroline Munro (The Spy Who Loved Me). Though perhaps tame compared to its vampire film compatriots, writer and director Brian Clemens (The Avengers) provides a nonetheless edgy mythos with anti-vamp forged swords, hints of blood, bats, creepy mirrors, a whiff of nudity, kinky innuendo, hypnosis, swordfights, horses, and dark, hooded figures running amok in the idyllic countryside. Sweeping music or silent approaches accent the religious and righteous suggestions, and the vampire mystery and family intrigue remain unique thanks to a Scarlet Pimpernel–esque twist and a fun, hunchbacked John Cater (The Duchess of Duke Street) sidekick. Some modern viewers may find the vampire revelation obvious or the opening to slow to get rolling. However, the moody moments and supernatural atmosphere make for a few intense scenes, and some running dry wit adds brevity along with a surprise or two. Astute Hammer fans may also notice a Karstein connection, and I wish a Kronos series would have continued as planned. Why wasn’t this the successful outing needed to save Hammer Films? A bigger name star may be lacking, perhaps someone like Michael York would have brought a cashing in wink or zing. However, Kronos is meant to be a somewhat unlikable anti-hero, and his tormented hunting style feels like a precursor to some of the darker vampire fighters to come. Ironically, studios today would milk a property like this dry. C’est la vie. 

Dracula – Many others have already written about this 1931 classic – myself included briefly here. However, I simply must take a moment to talk about the superior blu-ray restoration of Tod Browning’s widow’s peak trendsetter now preserved in the Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection. What’s this, no jumping print, damaged frames, hissing noise, or flat, barely visible dark scenery the likes of a worn VHS? The black and white photography is crisp, the sound smooth – even soft focus up close shots and foggy, hazy forests look of depth. Background matte paintings blend seamlessly along with decrepit castle cobwebs, coffin-laden basements, and silver screen candlelight. All the smoke and mirrors classic effects have been dusted off and shined anew here, and Bela’s hypnotic eyes have never looked so good along side the polished Demeter footage, and well dressed stage interiors. Yes, the bobs and women’s frocks are more twenties that Victorian, but the atmosphere is nonetheless period gothic effective. Zooms, decadence, and the decrepit are still captivating thanks to this revitalized distinction and dimension. In addition to commentaries, alternate scores, trivia, and more than an hour of behind the scenes featurettes, once again, blu-ray makes the vintage vogue, and longtime fans should upgrade ASAP. 

Dracula (Spanish Version) – Luckily, one of the features accompanying the Bela Lugosi essential on blu-ray is this once lost and found 1931 Spanish edition. The introduction from star Lupita Tavar sheds light on this brief, early talkie trend of producing foreign language movies during the off hours of the English filmmaking using the same script, sets, and designs. The result certainly looks crisp in high definition yet it’s quite bizarre to watch two such similar films – those lookalike opening carriage scenes and some word for word exchanges accentuate the eerie mood and gothic feeling. Extra smoke, cobwebs, spooky sound effects, and music also add more flair than its sire, and though still stage like in its presentation, there’s more camera movement, risks with cinematic design, and smart shadow usage. Carlos Villar, however, takes getting used to as the titular conde thanks to his near comical London After Midnight expressions amid the otherwise serious cast. While not Lugosi, Villar benefits from the flashy filmmaking and stays creepy with more up close shots and spooky zooms. This Dracula is not suave but intentionally stilted like a corpse and more ogle predatory. Pablo Alvarez Rubio as Renfield, fortunately, is much more subdued in his maniacal, and the anachronistically divine silks, scandalous furs, and seductive frills keep the ladies saucy. Indeed, this edition feels more about the frightful ensemble and their explaining dialogue rather than the vamp himself. We look at this production in comparison to its English neighbor, but it truly comes together as an entirely separate film. Hopefully more Dracula and vampire fans will see and study this edition now – movie scholars can have a glorious time with scene by scene comparisons and analysis!

Innocent Blood – Netflix very long waited the full screen DVD of this 1992 mob meets vampires thriller – there are no subtitles, it wouldn’t play in our PS3, and the violent action sounds are ridiculously loud compared to soft-spoken dialogue. Not to mention most of the picture is too damn dark to see all the city smoke, candles, old time noir ambiance, and nudity. Suffice to say, this movie totally needs a proper video release! Thankfully, the cast – including Robert Loggia (Necessary Roughness), Anthony LaPaglia (Without a Trace), Angela Bassett (Strange Days), Chazz Palminteri (A Bronx Tale), Luiz Guzman (Boogie Nights), and Don Rickles (Casino) – is having a good time with director John Landis (An American Werewolf in London) and this tongue in cheek atmosphere accented by swanky Sinatra tunes. Anne Parillaud’s (Nikita) French accent will be tough for some but her unconventional sensuality does wonders. Her opening narration isn’t really necessary, but she’s a vamp in both senses of the word, subtle and unassuming yet deadly and over the top. Sassy Italian elements also provide a mid century gangster feeling – there are classic horror movies on the boob tube TVs, too – and Loggia is totally having a good time with this eccentric mash up. Word to the skinny dames out there, “A little meat on the bones never goes out of style!” Snappy dialogue, colorful metaphors, and badass quips contrast the red eyes, bloody feedings, and one gory but hysterical morgue. The intersecting crime, cops, and chicks add complexity amid the comedic moments and humorous circumstances, and I don’t know why audiences don’t like the camp horror blend of this picture more, as it’s done much better than today’s attempts. Some horror fans may not like the intrusion of crime plots and action fans may not like the vampire contrivances, but this deserves a look for its uniqueness and winking good time.

07 July 2014

Anastasia (1956)

Anastasia Remains a Lovely Little Tale
By Kristin Battestella

Granted, we know the fate of the Romanovs was not as hopeful or romantic as the award winning 1956 classic Anastasia makes it out to be – complete with fifties splendor, dashing intrigue, and a whole lot of Cinemascope. However, the what ifs, period charm, and excellent performances here shine nonetheless into the new millennium.

Expatriate Russian General Bounine (Yul Brynner) and his cohorts Petrovin (Sacha Pitoeff) and Chernov (Akim Tamiroff) rescue Anna Koreff (Ingrid Bergman) from the edge of the Seine after her escape from an asylum. Together, the trio intends to capture the inheritance of the rumored to still be alive Grand Duchess Anastasia by presenting an impersonator as the lost survivor. Anna – her past unknown – is likeness enough to the Grand Duchess to proceed, and Bounine educates her to play the part in hopes of impressing the exiled Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna (Helen Hayes). Only her approval of this Anastasia will legitimize Bounine’s claim and release the inheritance. Anna’s memories about who she really is, however, shows signs that she may indeed be the lost Romanov heir – and Bounine is no longer certain of his mercenary intentions once Anastasia’s former betrothed Prince Paul (Ivan Desny) renews his marital pursuit of the would be Grand Duchess.

Based upon Marcelle Maurette’s play about real life Anastasia pretender Anna Anderson, opening scrolls fill in the back-story on the 1917 Revolution and establish the possibility for Anastasia’s Paris 1928 tale from director Anatole Litvak (The Snake Pit) and writers Arthur Laurents (Rope) and Guy Bolton (Easter Parade). Today we’re tainted by knowing how the history actually turned out, however, Anastasia almost makes you believe. The filming is closer to the interwar period than to us in the in 21st century, further inspiring our suspension of belief and realizations that Grand Duchess or not it may not even really matter who Anna is. From the proverbial princess training to the limited time window of acceptance, Anastasia tells its story in fine progression but doesn’t give the audience everything. Contemporary spoon fed viewers may not like this opportunity to make up their own minds, and when viewing as kids in the eighties, my sister and I always argued as to whether she isn’t or isn’t the titular Grand Duchess. I’m still not so sure we have a definitive answer, yet the nuanced performances, subtle style, and romantic possibilities make for ongoing rewatchability in spite of the real world facts.  

Sure, the tender old ladies and the swelling music accenting their believing will be overly sentimental for some; perhaps too many grumpy old men contest Anastasia just to make a proving point for her. The audience is quickly caught up in each leg of the approve or disprove, however, and thanks to an appropriately regal European cast, we go along with the unforced chemistry. Anna and Bounine have a rocky start and different motives, but scenes with them shouting at each other from opposite rooms are a headstrong treat. The camera remains focused on the common living room with their open doors on either side, and the wit is allowed to blossom with a play within a play wink. This is, after all, an actress hired for the role, people are pretending to endorse her, and when is their show really over? Anastasia’s conclusion may upset some with its was she or wasn’t she, but this is perhaps one of the most memorable classic film endings. It’s totally fitting and could not have been done any other way.  

Is Anna Koreff merely sick after an asylum stay or delusion that she is the Grand Duchess Anastasia? Ingrid Bergman (Casablanca) makes us care regardless of the truth. Anna’s on the run mentality and flight from authorities is understandably based in the fear of what she doesn’t know and can’t remember. Whether she is a princess or not, this is a troubled woman needing redemption. Her desolate wandering Paris scenes may feel fifties overdone, but they are also stunning snapshots of the time and visually represent her on the edge state of mind. Does Anna latch onto Anastasia’s story and tell so many lies that she believes this identity is true? Mixed uses of both “I” and “she” keep the sense of self in crisis, and Bergman is able to be small, meager, and confused like this woman trapped in her little girl in the cellar nightmare. The wavering between Anna’s supposed train accident and the trauma of the Grand Duchess Anastasia becomes a tormenting inner conflict always brimming at the surface. She coughs, hunches over in longtime illness and burdens, yet Berman has some bemusement at the ruse as her class and grace shine and Anna blossoms into confident, regal poise. Will this act heal Anna or will she cut her puppet strings and ruin their inheritance plot? It’s a bittersweet performance from Bergman, as it is both melancholy on the past yet hopeful on the possibilities of a fresh start. Will Anna find her new life as a princess or as a woman in love – and which does she really want?

Now then, not only was he not even nominated for The Ten Commandments, but Yul Brynner never would have won an Oscar for playing the notorious lead villain Ramses II – though I confess I’ve always preferred him to the heroic Charlton Heston! Likewise, he was never going to win anything for Anastasia after the Academy politics already relented and quote forgave Ingrid Bergman for her perceived scandals and rightly awarded her the Best Actress Oscar. Brynner, of course, did ultimately win Best Actor for The King and I, which was perhaps graciously awarded more for his already longstanding history with the character on stage than for the actual movie musical. I would however like to think his Oscar trophy was awarded for this stunning sum trio of 1956 films, as in my mind, General Bounine in Anastasia is Brynner’s best performance. Initially, Bounine seeks to capitalize on the Grand Duchess returned and collect her lost inheritance and takes pride in this subterfuge. Bounine is fast-talking and claims he’s putting on no pressure and wants you to make up your own mind, yet at the same time, he tells you exactly what you are going to think. Anna’s cleverness, clues, and what ifs, unfortunately, do better than he expected, and Bounine’s thought of everything except the possibility of her really being Anastasia. Is this the wrong woman or just the right one pulling the rug out from under his plans? Bounine has faith in nothing but himself and wants a passable fake, yet he goes on his own journey of self-discovery by falling in love with his charge. Brynner sings and plays guitar in Anastasia as well, bringing a sentimental Old World feeling to Bounine. The General would perhaps have things as they were or thinks more of his lost country than he admits, and with such a mix of hardened and romantic, Bounine is not an easy character to pull off. Fortunately, Brynner presents a surprisingly stern but warm company to match Bergman. Who’s really discovering whom in their charade? Simply put a paragraph too late, I don’t think anyone else could have played this part so wonderfully.

Adding to the Imperial poise in Anastasia is the beautifully refined and much lauded Helen Hayes (A Farewell to Arms) as the exiled Dowager Empress. She’s a dolled up little dame, but also an old lady hanging on to this past grandeur – one who’s lost everything but her acerbic wit. The poor thing is understandably crabby after facing all these pretenders and now a “madwoman with a royal obsession,” but she puts down Bounine and sees right thru him even when he won’t say what’s on his mind. Are he and this pretender using her personal tragedy for vulgar reasons as she says? Can the Dowager Empress open herself to believing she may just yet have her granddaughter returned to her? “Wanting a dream doesn’t make it come true,” she says, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t hoping this is the one. It’s a darling performance by Hayes, yet the sappy isn’t without some sass or humor thanks to the banter with Martita Hunt (Brides of Dracula) as the Dowager’s goofy lady-in-waiting Baroness Livenbaum. I love it when the Empress tells the Baroness that for a woman her age, her fantasies of Bounine are disgusting! Likewise, Akim Tamiroff (For Whom the Bell Tolls) and Sacha Pitoeff (Is Paris Burning) are largely for the brevity and questioning of Bounine’s scheme early on in Anastasia. Ivan Desny (Bon Voyage!) as Prince Paul is also a fictitious character designed for romantic conflict – he’s charmed by the eponymous lady whether she is or isn’t his once lost and former intended. Paul unabashedly admits that women and money are certainly worth all this trouble, and though Desny can’t stand up to Brynner, the prince makes an interesting mercenary counterpoint to Bounine in Anastasia’s final act. And say hey, there’s Natalie Schafer – Mrs. Howe on Gilligan’s Island!

Colorful reds, velvets, Old World objects, and cluttered apartments also accent Anastasia with a bittersweet Russian flavoring while a somber Oscar nominated score from Alfred Newman (State Fair) remains classical and period sweeping. Can I get a cheer for that crank record player, too? Though some of the twenties via fifties looks may be inaccurate, there’s a real sense of lost splendor in the Orthodox Easter opening and concluding ballroom ceremonies. The old cars, hats, cigarettes, and time capsule Paris and Copenhagen locales also look divine along with white frocks, sweeping staircases, and onscreen orchestras touting Tchaikovsky. Subtitles will be necessary to catch all the tough to hear Russian names or now less common upscale French phrases, but this whiff off pre-war Edwardian manners and even earlier Victorian pomp and protocol re-imagined as mid century can’t quite be recreated today. Ironically, the DVD menus are surprisingly plain with no music or crafty designs; however, a brief restoration comparison and an old school Biography episode on the real life Anastasia provide film and real world history balance. Though dated, it’s fantastic to compare the grainy black and white photographs and archive footage of the Romanovs against the vivid fifties grandeur just seen – perfect for the historian or classroom to discuss. Now, someone please tell me there are plans for a 60th Anniversary blu-ray edition coming soon!

Anastasia waxes nostalgic with exiled royals reminiscing on what was supposedly so splendid a time and this might anger viewers who think differently today. Luckily, the charm of the tale, style of the film, and excellent performances win out against any lingering politics or sense of aristocratic mood. In fact, compared to the tragically identified bodies accounted for nearly 100 years later, Anastasia may be even more revered now as a time capsule of past hopes and romantic escape. The Dowager Empress says she can smell the mothballs but the past remains “sweet and familiar.” Somehow, the film’s self-aware Gone with the Wind reflection and celebration of former luxury still let’s you choose which tale you’d rather believe. Fans of history, period dramas, classic film, and powerhouse performances can delight in the always entertaining and charismatic Anastasia.