The Tingler 1959 ***

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William Castle is a somewhat neglected figure, perhaps because he staked his reputation on novelties, some would say gimmicks, which were dated from the moment they appeared. Such felicities as having a skeleton appear above a cinema screen seem rather old fashioned in the shadow of IMAX 4DX. So it’s rather nice to see The Tingler appear on Amazon Prime is a natty new print that makes it ripe for rediscovery.

What’s surprising here, given Castle’s reputation, is the ingenious nature of the whole conceit. The Tingler is a horror film, but one that operates in a specific and rather post-modern way. Vincent Price plays Warren Chapin, a scientist who has been working to isolate the Tingler, a creature that feeds on fear; it appears inside the human body, often at the instant of death, and Chapin is keen to isolate it. Many boffins might have been tempted to use illegal means to pursue this goal, but fortunately LSD was legal in the US at the time, and The Tingler features the spectacle of Price and other cast-members cheerfully blowing their own minds and (pretending to) trip on acid.

This in itself is odd enough, but things get weirder when Chapin meets a woman who is a deaf mute and is unable to express herself; she’s got a lifetime of fear bottled up inside her and is ready to blow like a bottle of champagne, releasing a mega-tingler. Her husband owns a silent-movie theatre which appears to be showing 1921’s Tol’able David in a permanent loop, and when The Tingler escapes, it escapes into the theatre and begins tingling the occupants of the seats.

This leads to a quite wonderful sequence in which you, the viewer, find yourself watching the same silent movie, with Vincent Price on the soundtrack warning you about dangerous creatures on the loose and potentially assaulting your backside. It places the audience in the movie in an absurd and yet ingenuous way; there’s also a brilliant scare involving a splash of blood-red in an otherwise black and white movie. With a frank view of drugs, plus some meta-narrative twists, The Tinger is a great way to waste 80 minutes, and shows that 1959’s cinema showmen had plenty of ingenuity as the on-going battle with tv hotted up.

Gwen 2018 ****

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Comparisons to Rober Egger’s The Witch are inevitable for Gwen, an effective little indie film about a young girl’s hard-scrabble existence in the desolate mining areas of North Wales. That’s not ideal given that William McGregor’s drama is hardly a conventional horror film, although there are strong supernatural elements. Like The Witch, it’s a slow burn that gets to a fever pitch in the last act, but it’s notably different in that the pay-off is a different kind of horror from most supernatural genre fare.

The big draw here is Maxine Peake, who has a substantial reputation as one of today’s best performers; her Hamlet was certainly as good as any man’s. She plays Elen, a young mother whose ageing rapidly as the difficulties of raising her family increase. Elen’s single-mother existence is complicated by her difficult relationship with her daughter Gwen (Eleanor Wothington Cox), who lacks her mother’s fiery temper. Elen responds instinctively and protectively, sometimes violently, and is nursing a potentially life-threatening illness. And the very land that Elen and Gwen live on hides a secret that makes their situation all the more precarious.

William Oldroy’s 2016 film Lady Macbeth might be a better point of comparison; this is a well-acted, visually austere drama in which the central theme is man’s inhumanity to man. Elen’s supernatural beliefs are very old-school, but Gwen’s investigations of the world around her seem to back up many of her mother’s fears, irrational or not. The cost and difficulty of sourcing medicine to treat her mother makes for a depressing spiral of events, but Gwen, the film and the character, never stops for pathos or contrivance; McGregor maintains a hard edge throughout.

Gwen just about fits in on the fringes of the growing ‘folk horror’ genre, but don’t be expecting devils, demons and talking goats. There are jump-scares, however, and a feeling of dread and foreboding that’s justified in the final scenes. And McGregor also does well with a cast who are not overshadowed by Peake’s powerhouse performance; Gwen transcends genre expectations to offer a potent, difficult but rewardingly tough drama.

The Bride 1985 ****

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As a schoolboy avidly reading the trades to find out about the next big release, there were few films that loomed as large on my radar as Franc Roddam’s The Bride. The cast, the entire notion of the film made for perfect tabloid fodder; big names, a high concept, but a film that eventually limped out, killed by negative press and general disinterest. Viewed in 2019, that’s a real shame because The Bride is a stunningly made and original film that was never likely to capture the public fancy, even with such an exquisitely modish cast.

This is a re-telling of the Frankenstein story of Mary Shelley, but starts where most films stop; Frankenstein and his monster in the laboratory, the Bride wrapped in bandages, brought to life by flashes of lightning. The Baron is played by Sting, pop icon with The Police, but no mean actor in Brimstone and Treacle, less so in Dune. The Bride is Jennifer Beals, still super-hot from her Flashdance sensation, and whose unfamiliarity works well for this role; her first appearance, sans bandages, is when she walks naked into the Baron’s living room, unaware of the effect her nudity causes. Meanwhile Clancy Brown is a good choice for the monster, although the make-up is unimpressive, while Tim Spall is a hunchbacked assistant and Quentin Crisp barely says a word as a lab helper.

The story then splits to follow the monster as he befriends a circus dwarf and gets a job at a circus run by Alexis Sayle and Phil Daniels, and The Baron’s My Fair Lady-esque attempts to civilise his new creation; she hisses at a cat and claims she thought it was a ‘tiny lion’. Things turn sour in both cases, and the scene is set for a battle between creation and creator. The Bride has ambitions to being a feminist revision much like Angela Carter’s The Company of Wolves, and does nicely by making Dr Frankenstein the real monster, something Sting actually does well with in the final scenes. Audiences probably wanted something sexier than recasting a classic character as a toxic male, or more sensational that the pathos-drenched tears of a monster, but shorn of expectations, Roddam does pretty well to revise a familiar story with fresh detail.

Even sour-puss critic Leslie Halliwell attested to the arresting quality of The Bride’s opening scene, and the set for the laboratory is truly impressive. But The Bride constantly has style to burn, and the locations, sets and costumes are first rate. The wisdom on the film is that the story and acting let things down, but that’s no-longer the case; doubling down on single elements of classic stories is much more fashionable in 2019 than in 1986, and The Bride is far better than the reputation suggests.

Legend of the Werewolf *** 1975

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Why has Legend of the Werewolf been so hard to locate since it flopped in 1975? One’s gratitude in seeing Freddie Francis’ 1975 horror film pop up on Amazon Prime is muted by the dismal condition of the print; with other Cushing films like Horror Express and Scream and Scream Again so wonderfully restored, it’s a shame that Legend of the Werewolf is presented in Awful-o-vision. That said, there’s lots to enjoy here in this rare Tyburn production.

The setting is Paris, presented in a laughably cheap way by a couple of street-signs and a zoo entrance. It’s within this zoo that Etoile (David Rintoul) forges a bond with some wolves. Etoile was raised by feral wolves after they killed his parents at midnight on Christmas Eve; there’s a vaguely blasphemous nativity vibe to these early scenes. Etoile is drawn to the local brothel, a popular venue which the characters wander freely in and out of as if it was a rural fast-food outlet. Etoile’s master, a zookeeper named Zookeeper, is played with paint-stripping bluster by a post-Fagin Ron Moody; he fancies the local girls, and Etoile shares his passion, but this raised interest leads him to murderous rampages. Professor Paul Cantaflanque (Peter Cushing) is supposedly charged with disposing of the corpses, but in a pre-The Alienist move, launches his own investigation as to who, or indeed what, is responsible.

Shot at Pinewood Studios, but with little in the way of spectacle, Legend of the Werewolf sees a number of Hammer staff jumping ship into a sinking life-boat. John Elder aka Anthony Hinds provides the script, while Roy Castle turns up as a photographer and Hugh Griffith as Etoile’s first mentor, an eccentric circus-owner. All are substantial pluses; the debit sheet is marked by the awful red filter that supposedly represent wolf-o-vision, the strange silver-fox make-up of the wolf, and Amazon’s laughable English-as-she-is-spoke subtitles, ranging from ‘He’s saving up his Sioux’ when the word required is sous, or such infelicities as “Exhausted?’ Yes, I must be getting (g)old!”

Other critics have pointed out that, despite the familiar presence of the likes of Michael Ripper, Legend of the Werewolf doesn’t feel like classic Hammer, and they’re right; the Tyburn experiment didn’t last long, with The Ghoul the only other major genre offering. But Cushing is a perfect centre, genial, serious, an unable to give a dull line-reading; he makes something special from a well-written character. Horror was already leaving such genteel stylings behind by 1975, but Francis’s film is something of a last gasp. Cushing presumably banked his cheque, thumbed through his Star Wars script and wondered what was coming next…

The Legend of Hell House 1973 ****

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When it comes to haunted house movies, the influences on The Shining should not be overlooked. Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting is one, Richard Matheson’s book Hell House, filmed here with a more elaborate title, is another. John Hough’s film is often forgotten in the annals of great horror, perhaps because of its PG certificate, yet it’s an intense and original take on the genre that serves up a veritable banquet of scares.
The scenario is familiar; a group of intrepid ghost hunters, scientists, mediums, arrive at Belasquo House, dubbed ‘the Mount Everest of Haunted Houses’. Ben Fischer (Roddy McDowell) is the only survivor of a previous attempt to understand the house’s secrets, and he’s joined by physicist Lionel Barratt (Clive Revill) and his wife Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt), plus spiritualist Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin). Belasquo is long dead, or at least misplaced since he allegedly poisoned a group of visitors who ate at his manor. Séances are planned and executed, while a computer big enough to store a rugby team inside arrives, and a book of auto-erotica is found and perused; this isn’t a lowest-common denominator stalk and slash at all.
A property ‘haunted by multiple personalities’ certainly brings to mind the varied an unexplained inhabitants of the Overlook hotel, although there’s a quaint British-ness about some of the proceedings here; the presence of Peter Bowles and discussion about whether the house as a ‘full larder’ firmly identify what kind of vibe the house has. There’s also a strong sexual undercurrent that belies the family certificate; presumably the lack of gore persuaded the censor to turn a blind eye to the nudity. The investigation into violent psychic activity reaches a fairly vice-like crescendo, even if the dialogue occasions becomes over ripe; ‘The cat?’ “Yes, it was possessed by Daniel Belasquo!”
The screenplay, direction and performances are all top notch, but the icing on the cake is the foreboding electronic soundtrack by pioneer Delia Derbyshire, which adds an unsettling edge to the film. Something of a neglected classic, The Legend of Hell House is one of the few great horror film that you’re probably not seen yet.

Doctor Sleep 2019 ****

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‘When I was a kid, I didn’t understand the shining,’ says Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) in Mike Flanagan’s adaptation of the novel by Stephen King. It’s a fair point; I saw The Shining when I was 12, and was chilled, filled with dread, hugely impressed, but also genuinely didn’t quite understand what I’d just seen. Stanley Kubrick’s film has since been much discussed and dissected, with many fanboy and conspiracy theories about the possible meanings, and that elusiveness it a key part of the haunting appeal. The biggest problem Doctor Sleep has is that, by positioning The Shining as part of a larger story, the meanings are nailed down and the sense of mystery is palpably reduced.

That said, Doctor Sleep is probably the best adaptation of King’s work since 1980, and a lot more faithful to the letter of his writing. Young Danny is seen getting advice from Dick Halloran (Carl Lumbly) about how to put his demons to rest, imagining a series of boxes into which his fears are captured and forgotten. But Danny has demons of his own, and his battle with alcohol mirrors that of his father Jack. Danny starts life in a new town, but his ‘shining’ creates a connection to Abra, a young girl with a similar gift. Meanwhile, a new plotline details the antics of Four Non Blondes-influenced vampire Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) whose crew require the ‘steam’ of innocent young victims to survive. Rose has designs on Abra, and Danny is torn between his fears of his past and his desire to help the young girl.

Flanagan is something of a whiz with post-modern horror; his Ouija: Origins of Evil showed he could take rote characters and plot elements and fashion something fresh and memorable from them. And his Haunting of Hill House tv show brilliantly used the original Shirley Jackson novel as a base for a much more expansive but spiritually connected story. He was the perfect choice for the film, and does well to create a work that’s faithful both to King and Kubrick; fans of The Shining in all its incarnations will know that Halloran’s fate differs in the film to the book, but Flanagan cleverly fudges whether the character is alive or dead as the story starts. He clearly enjoys working in the Stephen King meta-verse, and Doctor Sleep also links ingeniously with many of King’s preoccupations.

Kubrick famously cut many of the supernatural elements from King’s novel, and created something suggestive, grim and foreboding. Flanagan and King have repurposed many of the familiar elements as part of a new and very different story, one that riffs neatly on the original property while going off in a fresh direction. McGregor gives probably the best performance of his career as Danny, wrestling with his demons in some depth, while Ferguson is a slippery foe in Rose. Doctor Sleep can’t aspire to be the game-changer that Kubrick’s The Shining was, but it’s a styling, entertaining sequel that thrills and chills on route to a satisfying finale that brings back the many demons of the bad place for one more chilling go-round.

 

The Dead Zone 1983 ****

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Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining proved to be a game-changer in terms of horror, with a major director transforming a genre tale into something at once more mainstream and also more arty. Adaptations of Stephen King’s work that followed were a mixed bag, but the property seemed to drive the project, and major talents like John Carpenter mixed with accomplished journeymen like Mark L Lester and Lewis Teague. For David Cronenberg, fast becoming a major name in horror, taking on a King project was a promising idea, and The Dead Zone establishing a number of cinematic tropes that have stuck.

The setting, of course, is Castle Rock, and the central character Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) is a man out of time, left in a five year comatose state by an accident, and emerging from the fringes of life and death, a magnet for bad things happening like Henry Deevers in the Castle Rock tv show. On his hospital bed, Smith sees a nurse’s house burning down with a child inside, and a boy he tutors will fall through cracking ice at an ice-hockey match. Smith has a gift for precognition, and with the help of a doctor (Herbert Lom), he is able to use his gift to stop these deadly events from happening, as well as helping local police to track down the Castle Rock Killer. An encounter with a crooked politician provides the climax here, with Martin Sheen reversing on the JFK character that was his 1980’s signature role.

The Dead Zone has an effective, wintry feel, bolstered by Walken’s wonderfully off-beat characterisation of Johnny. Castle Rock is shown as a bad place in various ways, with crooked politicians and businessmen, sick, twisted individuals on the loose and a decaying set of morals. And the ending packs a punch; rather than the every-increasing circles of horror featured in the Castle Rock tv show, Cronenberg nails the story down to one brief, satisfying plot twist.

The Dead Zone has a few nasty details, but it’s generally a classy, accessible horror film that’s gained in richness over the years. Many of the ideas contained here have become clichés, but Cronenberg’s restrain and visual austerity are nicely matched here by King’s ability to conjure up the inner lives of the Castle Rock denizens.