345-Word Reviews: The Woman in Black

One of the more successful efforts to buff up the Hammer Films brand, The Woman in Black gives Daniel Radcliffe the role of the respectable gent given the challenge of focusing on his paperwork in a place of mystery and dread, surrounding by superstitious rubes who pop up to tell him he’s not welcome round these parts. Forty years ago, this part might have been played by Ralph Bates, but now its a vehicle for the ex-Potter to show whether he can branch out. Most of the film consists of Radcliffe, his lower jaw determinedly jutting out with the tension of it all, exploring a tricked-out, pop-up house filled with spooky Victoriana. The obligatory shots of pale faces peering mournfully out of upper-floor windows are also given a good airing.

The trappings of the abandoned 19th-century nursery (broken dolls, rocking chairs, staring-eyed portrait paintings, clockwork toys) have become the visual shorthand for uncanny terror, the return of a repressed childhood trauma none of us can actually remember. These are the hard, unhuggable toys invested with the memories of games with long-dead children (that the film is about dead young ‘uns only compounds the creepy connotations), superstitious markers of the end that awaits us all: we will be outlived by our stuff. There is potential shock built into the mechanism of a moving toy: haunted house movies are all about anticipating movement in inert things and, to paraphrase Chekhov, you know that the wind-up monkey automaton from the first act is going to spring into life before the last.

Scares are effectively engineered by James Watkins (director of chavsploitation outing Eden Lake), and I must admit that my buttons were successfully poked with a cold finger a few times, but we race so swiftly from one jolt to the next that there’s little modulation between quiet repose and skin-jumping shockery. Like any good ghost story, it sets up a contest between rational and supernatural interpretations of paranormal phenomena but, as usual, rational explanations, which tend to make for less unsettling horror movies, don’t stand a chance.

Ingrid Pitt (21 November 1937 – 23 November 2010)

Ingoushka Petrov, better known as Ingrid Pitt, one of the key figures of British horror through her work for Hammer and Amicus, has died aged 73. A Polish-born concentration camp survivor, she was possibly the most famous of all female screen vampires, thanks to her thirsty lust for blood in The Vampire Lovers, Countess Dracula and The House that Dripped Blood.


Remembering She


I had a strange and unsettling viewing experience this week. Having found a special offer on the 21-disc Ultimate Hammer Collection DVD boxset, once it finally arrived I wondered when I was going to get chance to watch it all? I’m a sucker for a big boxset, but time is tight. There is some good stuff here, like Plague of the Zombies, The Devil Rides Out and The Nanny, but will get round to Viking Queen or The Reptile? I hope so, because even in its weaker moments, Hammer is a historically interesting place to visit, even when it is cosier, more familiar than it is scary. The first film in the chronological collection (which starts in 1965 – it’s not complete, but a good sampler of the post-Bray studios period) is She, an adaptation of H. Rider Haggard‘s 1887 sthammer-dvd-boxsetory of Ayesha, queen of a lost African city who cannot die. She is waiting for the return of the lover she killed 2000 years previously, and believes she has found him in the form of an English explorer. The plot isn’t important right now, because watching it again, I came across a scene which had haunted me as a child, though I hadn’t remembered which film it had come from. Even after nearly 30 years, it came back to me, shot-for-shot. In the scene, Ayesha, believing she has been betrayed by a group of rebellious slaves, orders their execution by having them thrown, chained together, into a deep, fiery pit. For years after seeing this sequence it would come back to me and make me shudder at the plight of these poor guys – I remembered clearly the low whimpering noises they made as they were dragged towards the pit, and the screams they issued as they fell. I had only misremembered the pit as a bottomless chasm, an eternal tumble into pitch blackness. To find that it was actually filled with lava was strangely reassuring: I had previously thought to myself, years after seeing the film in my childish naivety, that “the slaves are still feeling”. It scared me, and it made me sad whenever I remembered it.


I mention this now to share a little revelation, though it may be peculiarly personal, and to pay tribute to the selective power of memory, excerpting these few shots and storing them up as a marker of how cruel the world could be, how inhumane powerful rulers could become. Posting these images now is amusing; I’d even begun to doubt whether I had ever really witnessed this grotesque scene, or just fabricated it out of my worst imaginings, but there it is, clear and complete in readily-available digital form, a memory mastered and overcome. Oh, and I notice that it now has a “U” certificate: “suitable for all”, indeed …


Seventies British Cinema

9781844572731One of the best surprises in my overstuffed post box this week  was a couple of copies of Robert Shail’s new edited collection Seventies British Cinema. We often think of the 70s as an embarrassing period for British film-making, encrusted as it is with memories of a red-cheeked Robin Askwith covered in bubble bath, and the slow deaths of Hammer Films and the Carry On series, two “national institutions” who ended their days like pervy grandads grasping at their last handfuls of boob in an effort to keep up with a domestic film industry propped up by a proliferation of slapped-arse soft porn and sitcom adaptations. This book doesn’t deny the prominence of crap movies in 70s Britain, but it does take them seriously as historically interesting cultural products. Before Merchant-Ivory got their hands on the steering wheel of Britain’s iconographic milk-float (“And the award for the clumsiest metaphor of 2008 goes to…”), Confessions of a Window Cleaner was the go-to movie for a transparent, unvarnished vision of a n English town centre. But that’s the only nice thing I can think of to say about it, so I’m hoping that Shail’s book can give me some insight into its historical, perhaps even its textual worth. Having added Seventies British Cinema to my Christmas reading pile alongside the second edition of Peter Hames’ The Cinema of Jan Švankmajer and Jose Saramago’s Blindness (must read before movie comes out…), I’m particularly looking forward to I.Q. Hunter’s chapter on sexploitation, James Chapman on Brit cinema’s “Lost Worlds” (hey, I grew up on a diet of rubbery pterodactyls!), Sarah Street on Agatha Christie adaptations, and Paul Newland on “Folksploitation”. Other readers might also notice my contribution of a chapter about Don Boyd and Boyd’s Co.

On a related note, I’ve noticed that Robert Shail’s other recent publication, Stanley Baker: A Life in Film has been selling like diesel-soaked hot cakes, if the Cardiff branch of Borders is anything to go by! Steady on, Rob – it’s unseemly for an academic to be seen to be shifting so many books in one go… [can’t bring myself to insert a wink icon, but you get the picture]

A Merry Christmas to all readers of Spectacular Attractions. Thanks for visiting and checking out my blog. It started as an experiment, but I feel a bit more established now and I’m looking forward to keeping it going next year as a teaching tool and a repository for ideas in progress.I’ve had an especially busy teaching schedule this semester, but next year will be much lighter, so I’ll have more time to flood these pages with works-in-progress. I’ve had my heart set on a big study of puppetry and film for a long time now, but 2009 will be the year it kicks into gear. Really. I mean it this time.