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.
Here’s the last of my Halloween galleries, this one a bulging, bloody collection of vampire movie posters. Naturally, Dracula, in his many manifestations, is to the fore, dominating the genre, but I think you’ll be surprised at the sheer variety of approaches there have been to the vampire mythology, from the fearful to the romantic, via analogies of contagion and sexuality. View the slideshow above, or scroll down and click on any poster for a larger view.
In the run up to Halloween, here’s the first of a series of scary treats for you to enjoy while you scoop the guts out of a pumpkin or a neighbour. The story of Frankenstein is one of those that has been endlessly reiterated in movies and literature, from Edison’s 1910 adaptation to Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl, via James Whale’s matchless Bride of Frankenstein and Frank Henenlotter’s Frankenhooker. There seems to be an enduring fascination with the reanimated corpse and its path towards self-definition, and the deceptively simple premise lends itself to many reconfigurations. Thankfully, this also gives ample excuse for some wonderful, often lurid poster art to tease us with sightings of the jerry-built creature. You should also pay a visit to the excellent, comprehensive Frankensteinia blog for more about the monster and his maker.
Don’t ask why I decided to compile a gallery and slideshow of advertisements gathered from early issues of the horror magazine Fangoria. I don’t have a good answer. Rummaging through back issues looking for articles about prosthetics, special effects make-up and puppetry, I became a little distracted by the advertisements for video-cassettes (look how expensive it was, in the 1980s, to buy your own VHS tapes!), masks, books, t-shirts and gloopy, gory make-up effects. Ostensibly a journal celebrating the inventive evisceration of the human body, Fangoria actually comes across as a cheery community centre for enthusiasts of rubbery prosthetics and homemade horrors. You’ll find some familiar monsters in this gallery, and some lovely offers to help you simulate demonic possession, or a bit of limb-lopping, gut chewing dismemberment in the comfort of your own home. Avoid if more than a little squeamish. Otherwise, enjoy a bit of 80s nostalgia. Some of these offers may no longer be available, though. Sorry.
Hey, it’s not a perfect film. I didn’t quite believe that the heroine would do what she does at the film’s climax, and it thrills through its familiarity and its reconstruction of older films rather than through innovative, self-made scares, but it delivers exactly what it promises: a retro tribute to a certain era of American horror cinema where terrible things befell nice, pretty college students. Jocelin Donahue is Samantha, strapped for cash and persuaded, against her better judgement, to accept a baby-sitting assignment from a couple in a big old spooky house and, of course, it turns out to be a bad decision. To say any more would be telling. So, as part of a new series of short, accentuate-the-positive posts, I thought I’d praise the good points of whatever pops into my DVD tray every now and then. Here are the things I like about The House of the Devil, with spoilers studiously avoided:
- The retro poster campaign (see above). I feel like I know every piece of each of them (there are some Amityville horrors in there, and that’s Wes Craven’s Deadly Friend top right), even if I’m not enough of a genre specialist to be able to place them.
- It knows that the first thing anybody faced with a harpsichord in a creepy old house would do is play a bit of ‘Heart and Soul’.
- Greta Gerwig, the talisman of American Indie Authenticity, plays the sassy, slobby sidekick. It’s a P.J. Soles tribute act. There’s a long scene where, left alone in a stranger’s house, she tucks into a bowl of boiled sweets. It has nothing to do with the plot: it’s just a character note, but it points up how sensitively West creates tension through focusing on slightly “off” performances or tangential activities that could be the calm before a storm, or a genuine red herring.
- Its minimalism – there only half a dozen speaking parts here, and a large portion of the film is taken up with a girl alone in a house, entertaining herself and trying to ignore the strange noises. It creates a chilling sense of isolation and vulnerability, all the while building up the sense of something sinister occurring in the silent spaces off-screen.
- It takes thirty-seven minutes before anything nasty happens. And when it comes, it’s genuinely sudden and shocking. You have to admire a film that bides its time and doesn’t give up the goods immediately just to cater to viewers with limited powers of concentration.
- Even though it’s a standard-issue haunted house, it still gets a legitimate creepy atmosphere out of prolonged silences, shadows and the simple existence of a basement. Remember when you were young and having a house to yourself was both an exciting opportunity and a slightly uneasy feeling of vulnerability and irrational fears? So does this film.
- Jocelin Donahue’s extraordinary bone structure and feathered hair. Don’t ask me how, but the girl can evoke 1983 with just her cheekbones. As with the posters, I have a feeling she reminds me of someone in particular, but I can’t quite place it. Karen Allen?…
- Are you making a horror movie set in an old empty house? Do you need a scene that explores that setting and shows where everything is, perhaps showing a lighter side to your otherwise reserved and quiet protagonist? Maybe with a bit of nostalgic period detail for good measure? I suggest you follow Ti West’s lead and insert a sequence where your heroine loads a cassette (remember those?!) into her big-ass Walkman (yeah, I had one of those!) and dances around the place, doing that hoppity, aerobics-video dance that lets her bounce from room to room, doing that hey-I’m-just-checking-what’s-in-the-fridge-oh-nothing-much action before pogoing on an armchair, hopping up the stairs, and generally announcing by asymmetric means that the long-awaited horrors are about to commence.
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.