19 August 2020

Mixed-Motivated Period Horrors

Mixed-Motivated Horror Period Pieces ??? 
by Kristin Battestella


Yes, accurately describing these recent horror period pieces and their misguided, mixed motivations is a mouthful. I'm undecided on if they are good for the atmospheric mood they get right or bad for hampering themselves with shoehorned plots, conflicted structuring, and backward viewpoints.

You Make the Call!

Crooked House – This 2008 British miniseries from producer, writer, and star Mark Gatiss (Coriolanus) is combined as one ninety minute feature stateside, and the picture looks flat, older than it is with uneven sound and over-reliance on strobe splices as an excited museum curator tells a young history teacher about the now demolished 1585 manor once nearby, its disturbing reputation, and the eerie Tudor relics remaining. The setting is neat, but it's a lot of telling to start with flashes of hooded robes, torches, and rituals suggesting the real story lies elsewhere. Indeed this museum account is the anthology frame for more stories about our notorious home, which may work great for the three part event, but this feels misleading as an all in one feature. I actually didn't know it was going to be an anthology when reading the description and suspected some kind of twenties museum in a Tudor house with eighteenth century ghosts. ¯\_(ใƒ„)_/¯ Fortunately, the 1786 past in our First tale “The Wainscoting” looks good with pipes, quills, candles, powdered wigs, and tricorn hats. Our noble has profited from a shady business scheme, and he wants the restoration on his newly purchased, notorious manor complete despite phantom blemishes and spooked, behind schedule craftsman who request a cat, for surely it's mice behind the paneling making all the strange noises. Paint won't cover the recurring stains, and angry widows cry that there's blood on his hands when the men he ruined end up dead. Not believing in superstition or ghouls, he stays up to prove there's nothing spirited about his re-purposed, morbid woodwork. Despite period mood, the rushed pace leaves little time to embrace the sordid history and horror opportunities. Flapper fun and bee's knees slang open the Second story “Something Old” but her ladyship Jean Marsh (Upstairs, Downstairs) isn't pleased with her grandson's poor fiancee. We get to know the characters quickly and the era is well done again, so it's odd these two tales are shoehorned in here when they could have been their own holiday horror specials. The conniving ex-girlfriend, a suggestive, jealous BFF dressed as a sailor, and a creepy bridal figure lurking about the party had potential for more depth and complexity as eerie searches and roaming the dark house reveal veils, dried rose petals, and a scandalous 1876 family wedding. Bad luck, curses, and knives lead to jilted ghosts and the gory truth, but a more immediate object or ancestral relations would have helped tie these stories together, compensating for the budget special effects, dark lighting, padding strobe shocks, and cheap production both chastising those ghost hunter shows while simultaneously imitating them. Our museum curator enjoys the delicious evils – giving away that the museum isn't what it appears to be – yet he's overly cryptic about the original necromancy. Now our teacher hangs the home's freaky knocker on his contemporary door, leading to alarm troubles, relationship problems, and phantom 3 a.m. callers in “The Knocker.” Sudden figures, ominous music, and transformative scares are best when they happen naturally without interfering effects. Increasing encounters, internet research, and library visits escalate to Latin rituals, sleeplessness, and an apartment that's starting to look like the infamous manor. Despite quality shocks, tokens that return after being discarded, and devilish hopes for an heir, this museum plot should have been all together as one finale rather than the intrusive frame. Instead of being a worthwhile topper, this awkward structure withholds the most interesting past pieces before dumping the gotcha in the final moments with no time for the audience to stew over the interconnected horror. The frame setting up the third story also means the two previous tales were just anecdotes that had little to do with the evil Tudor past we never even get to see. Although the parts are enjoyable, the uneven structure isn't a cohesive whole. The small, Christmas ghost stories vision never maximizes its embarrassment of riches when today this would be a star studded season of connected period fears.

The Miniaturist – A young wife moves to her new husband's seventeenth century Amsterdam estate in this 2017 three part BBC and PBS Masterpiece miniseries starring Romola Garai (Angel) and Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch). Lovely canals, barges, brick exteriors, frocks, bonnets, and capes belie the suspicious sister-in-law, odd servants, and severe welcome. Flashbacks to her poor gentry family are rich with firelight and music, but despite fine woodwork, antique furniture, and warm colors, this household is shadowed and cold with large windows that must remain uncovered so the neighbors can see they have nothing to hide – especially sugar because sweets sickens the soul. The whispering, aloof seafaring husband, suspect relationships, and peering camera views invoke gothic red herrings a la Rebecca and Crimson Peak, and an elaborate dollhouse miniature of the home is meant to occupy our newlywed. She furnishes this house because she can't rule her big one, going to the strange titular shop when not making secret trips to the bakery and spotting a mysterious hooded woman in the streets. Suspicious deliveries with specific, detailed items she didn't ask for arrive with the lookalike miniatures amid arguments over getting in on that sugar business, complex guild politics, and delicate Puritan attitudes. Miniatures with secret luxuries, hidden compartments, and missing keys suggest their large size materials have the same – leading to forbidden chambers, love notes, candles, and bloody confrontations. More small warnings provide foreboding and culprits revealed, but sinners, lost loves, women's troubles, and through the keyhole spying make the second hour a more serious drama than the initial creepy mystery. The giving it away mystical and meandering scandalous become uneven with separate if enjoyable stories sagging in the middle hour thanks to obvious twists and doubts about what the spooky miniatures have to do with the Amsterdam period piece intrigue. Great homosexual angst deserved its own time, with phallic looking symbolic sugar cones, shady warehouse activity, heavy handed trials, and corrupt burgomasters who vicariously enjoy the sordid courtroom testimony. Inexplicably, the scandalous associations never sully our wife's reputation, and some numbers negotiating is all it takes to make her a shrewd business woman – which comes off as too modern and meddling. Confessions aren't so shocking when the viewer already knows what happened, and the miniature clues are completely forgotten until convenient. If a woman can take action herself then what was the point of the prophetic toys? Miniaturist? Irrelevant. Strong women? Inadvertently proactive. Interracial couple? Never seen together. Gay men? Not shown being gay. After all the back and forth, the abrupt end cuts off in hopes of a sequel – unfinished rather than leaving the audience wanting more. Maybe it's meant to be a coy wink to the observant audience paying attention and seeing all, but it's just a slap in the viewer's face compared to the expected supernatural on the tin. This has its moments, but it's unsure of its audience, deterring gothic viewers wanting more than the occasional ominous and annoying period piece fans who dislike spooky intrusion.

The Ritual – Robert James-Collier (Downton Abbey) and Rafe Spall (Prometheus) plan an all bros adventure in this 2018 Netflix original. None of that been there, done that will do, and hiking an obscure trail in Sweden becomes the honorary guilt trip after they stumble into a liquor store robbery gone wrong. This clichรฉ start could have been skipped in favor of the brisk mountain trail memorial toasts directly, for we learn all we need to know thanks to out of shape complaints, new $200 hiking boots, sprained knees, and the realization that they didn't even climb very far and can see their luxury lodge from the pretty peak. Despite questionable maps, a faulty compass, rain, and no reception, they of course take a shady short cut through the ominous forest, and if we haven't seen this movie already, we've certainly seen others like it. Rather than the injured and another stay while the other two return for help, logical ideas, talk of bears, and abandoned items from previous campers are dismissed by these husbands and fathers who are a little too old to be acting so stupid. The unrealistic actions dampen the animal carcasses, thunder, and eerie trees as mysterious symbols and carvings lead to a convenient spooky cabin where they can stay the night. They break in, trespassing and ignoring runes and effigies they presume are “pagan Nordic shit” on top of strange roars and growling in the forest. Unnatural lights and distorted dream visuals intermix with bed wetting and sleepwalking frights, and in the morning the men follow a path they know is in the wrong direction just because it's there and nobody is supposed to talk about what's happening. More creepy cabins, monsters in the woods, screams, and blood begat missing friends and gory tree hangings before arguments, contrived guilt, and false hopes lead to torches, folk music, and chains. In the end suddenly brave men make big declarations about their wives when earlier they cowered, passed blame, and couldn't wait to get away from their families. We know horrors are going to happen, but the giving it away title spoils the supposed surprise. The ninety minutes plus feels overlong because it took so long to get to the creepy death warmed over people and actual sacrificial parts, yet the past looking rural and ancient mythology revelations are the story we should have had. Viewers don't get to completely see what could be an awesome monster, and the unique Norse legends, pagan worship, and immortal bargains that should have been the focal point seem tacked on after we wasted all that time watching dumb dudes literally going around in circles in a tired guilt versus the supernatural metaphor. The familiar, predictable derivatives are shout at the television entertaining, but it's tough to overcome the feeling that we should have been seeing the eponymous history perspective while these intruders get what they deserve.

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