The Woman in Black: Angel of Death (2014)

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I was pleasantly surprised by Woman in Black: Angel of Death. The reviews have, by and large, been pretty awful, but I think they have also been unfair. Unlike most sequels, this one stands on its own and doesn’t require you to have seen the first film but, at the same time, it’s not just a remake either. This time, the film is set during WW2 with a group of evacuees and a couple of their teachers being sent to the house that dominates the first outing. Whilst there, they meet an airman and the younger teacher starts a tentative relationship with him. At the same time, mysterious things start happening in the house.

Angel of Death isn’t going to win any awards for originality, but it’s not a copycat effort either. The first film seemed overlong to me, and strangely un-cinematic. Despite a very good performance from Daniel Radcliffe, a film where a guy walks around a house holding a candle for nearly two hours just isn’t very exciting, despite the fact it was well made and had more gravitas than this second effort. Where this second film wins out is by having more characters, and yet not enough for the house to feel occupied as such. The greater number of characters allows relationships to develop between them, and this is, after all, something that most films rely upon. The stark, dark, cinematography of the first film, where many scenes were drained of colour, is retained here but the greater use of dialogue means it isn’t quite as foreboding. This sequel might not be as “worthy” as the original but, to me, it’s more entertaining.

Indeed, the film zips along and is over and done with in ninety minutes, and yet still manages to be atmospheric. But it’s not without faults. Phoebe Fox is superb in the lead role of the young teacher, but Jeremy Irvine, as the young airman, seems to be literally on autopilot. That’s not his fault – his part is woefully underwritten and he has very little to work with. One can only wonder what attracted him to the part in the first place. He is as charming and charismatic as ever, but that doesn’t make up for the clichéd dialogue he is saddled with, and his “big scene” about two thirds of the way through the film is, frankly, pretty awful. The final third of the film seems much more of a genuine climax than in the first film, with a couple of impressive sequences packing quite a punch.

Yes, there’s no doubt that we’ve been here before, not just with Woman in Black itself, but with other period ghost stories. But the best horror films are often those that stick to a formula and make sure they do it well – and that’s pretty much what this film does. The atmosphere is well-sustained throughout, and there are some genuine jump-scares too if that’s your thing. If falls down in the sometimes clichéd script, but it’s entertaining enough and certainly not the dire outing that some reviewers are leading us to believe.

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The Sender (1982)

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Netflix in the UK is currently showing an obscure little horror film from 1982 called The Sender.  Directed by Roger Christian, the film tells the story of a young man taken to a mental hospital after trying to drown himself.   Whilst there, the doctors attempt to find out who the man is, why he tried to commit suicide and what role his strange mother has to play in his story.   Unlike many horror films from the period, this avoids the stalk and slash formula, opting for a mystery/thriller approach instead, but wrapped up in a packaging that is unmistakably horror.  The script is intelligent, the direction solid but unflashy, and the acting above-average for a horror film of the period.

These issues alone, along with its obscurity, would make the film worth seeking out while you can.  However, there is more of interest here to the horror fan than just a decent movie.  Indeed, it seems clear that this is a predecessor and inspiration for Nightmare on Elm Street.  The horror element of the film is tied up in the fact that the young man at the centre of the narrative can “send” his thoughts and dreams to others around him, making them think and feel what he is thinking and feeling.  It’s telepathy, but almost in reverse.  It’s also Freddy Kreuger, but in reverse:  rather than entering other people’s dreams, he can make people enter his.   The whole feel of the film is very similar to Elm Street, from the invasion of dreams scenario to the eerie musical soundtrack which clearly bears similarities to the later film.  The “if I die before I wake” prayer even plays a prominent part here, too.   The connections are too many to be coincidental – and that’s before you take into account the even greater similarities between this film and the third in the Elm Street franchise.

Also of interest is that I have written a few times about the negative ways in which those with mental health conditions are portrayed in horror films.  Here, though, the portayals of patients are generally inoffensive – that’s not to say they are ideal, but for a film made thirty years ago, The Sender was clearly somewhat ahead of its time in this regard.  The young man at the centre of the story, for example, might unintentionally injure others thanks to his “sending” capabilities, and yet he is presented to us in a sympathetic way – he is shown to be a victim, not mass murderer who goes on the rampage.

All in all, this is a film that deserves to be better known, and quite why it isn’t is something of a mystery.  Even Quentin Tarantino is quoted as saying it was one of his favourite horror films of the early 1980s.  Its great to see Netflix presenting it over here in the UK (there has never been a UK DVD release), in HD no less.  These films are not often permanent fixtures, and so grab it while you can.

Frogs (1972)

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I’m going to make a statement for the defence for a film that is supposedly one of the worst horror films made. So, why did I buy it and watch it? Well, it was a penny on Amazon and I got curious.

However, I found much to enjoy in “Frogs” (1972). It’s a kind of amphibian version of Hitchcock’s The Birds. Ray Milland plays Jason Crockett, the owner of a mansion on a private island who has gathered his family together for his annual birthday celebrations. However, the island’s wildlife has other ideas and slowly but surely start killing off the family. It sets itself out as an eco-horror from the very beginning although, as with “The Birds” there is no exact explanation given for the behaviour of the animals, other than the fact they are giving some kind of revenge on humans who are polluting their environment.

I’m sure much of the film’s bad reputation comes from the title, which does admittedly sound rather daft. However, the film itself is surprisingly well done, all things considered. The atmosphere is built up through endless shots of, well, frogs within scenes (virtually ALL scenes). This is set up at the beginning when Pickett Smith, played by Sam Elliott, is taking photos of the wildlife of the island. What makes this build up of tension work so well, however, is that there are long stretches of the film that are effectively silent. Other than the sounds of birds or croaking from the frogs, there are no sound effects, and the usual crescendo of music that nearly always signals a murder or death in a horror film is absent. There is no music here for the most part, and it only adds to the bizarre creepiness of the film.

Some of it is very silly (such as death-by-turtle), but some of the deaths are rather uncomfortable to watch – particularly the first one that we see occurring on screen. And, as with the Hitchcock film, even more eerie is the lack of intelligent explanation at the end. These events just happen.

The film falls down in some respects, though, not least through the writing of Milland’s character. His actions are downright absurd at times, and the dialogue he spouts is often ludicrous. Milland’s acting is less than great also – I’ve never found him to be the most convincing of actors at the best of times, but there are moments here when he is downright appalling. Some of the other actors are less than stellar too, but Sam Shepherd is superb, and manages to hold the whole thing together.

So, I put the DVD in expecting to be giggling my way through a campfest, and ended up thinking “that wasn’t at all bad.” It’s a lesson that we should all know by now – some films have a reputation for being bad for no real reason, and this is a case in point. So, if you see it on Amazon for a penny, it’s well worth considering for ninety minutes of sometimes daft but sometimes very eerie entertainment.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1913)

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It’s safe to say that cinema was obsessed with Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde during the 1910s and early 1920s, with multiple versions being produced on both sides of the Atlantic.  Most famous of these is the version starring John Barrymore, produced in 1920.  However, Grapevine Video has pulled together four silent versions (including the Barrymore film), a few silent comedy shorts, and a number of sound adaptations for their Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde Collection, which is a three-disc set.   Do you need this many Jekyll and Hydes in your collection? Maybe not, but the price is good at $17, and it’s interesting to see how film adaptations changed as cinema became more sophisticated during the 1910s, and there is a vast difference between the 1912 version and the ones from 1920.

The 1913 version, starring the wonderfully-named King Baggot, is certainly not the best of the surviving silent films, but it is particularly interesting in that it was made at a time when Hollywood was making its first tentative steps towards feature-length films.  This may run at just under half an hour, but that was almost an epic in American film at this point, and it was well received.  Two years after the film’s release, The Moving Picture World wrote: “King Baggot played the name parts, and his work in the two roles ranked as the equal of the best he has done. …It was a strong picture.”.

For those people new to silent film, the benefit with this version is that there is no hanging around when it comes to telling the story.  Meanwhile, for fans of classic horror coming to this film, there will be special significance because this is the very first horror film to be produced by Universal studios, who would go on to make the classic horror cycle of the 1930s which included Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935).

This, and all subsequent silent and early sound film adaptations that are known to survive, include a love interest for Jekyll – something which is not present in the novella, which contains only male characters.  One can only surmise at the motives for introducing extra characters and subplots in an adaptation of a novel which runs for under thirty minutes.  Perhaps it was simply a case that American film by this point had a set of conventions which had become popular with audiences, and one of them was a female love interest for a male protagonist and vice versa. It should also be remembered that the first big stars of the movies were female, so the making of a film with an all-male cast may have been looked down upon by studio bosses.  It could also be that the story left too much open to interpretation if Jekyll was left as a single man – both Benschoff and Showalter have written about what Jekyll and Hyde might really be about.  However, the most likely reason for the addition of a love interest was that the 1887 stage adaptation of the story, dramatised by Thomas Russell Sullivan, included such a character, and it was common for many years to base film versions of novels on stage adaptations, particularly within the horror genre.  For example, both Dracula (1931) and The Innocents (1961) are based on the stage versions of Dracula and The Turn of the Screw respectively.  We can only surmise as to why the playright, Sullivan, included a love interest in the stage version, but presumably it was simply to make the narrative more conventional. 

A few words on the other silent versions included in the Grapevine set.  The 1912 version runs for around ten minutes, and is simply is a series of short scenes giving the basic elements of the narrative within its restricted timeframe, and thus is rather lacking when it comes to the thriller element.  This form of screen condensation of full length novels was a common practice by this time – earlier examples include ten minute versions of Ben Hur (Sidney Olcott et al, 1907) and Frankenstein (J Searle Dawley, 1910).  It was only during the early 1910s, as the popularity of longer films started to increase, that film adaptations of novels could begin to give a faithful  and complex rendering of the source text other than simple representations of key scenes.  The 1920 version starring John Barrymore is the most highly-regarded of the silent adaptations that survives, and is certainly the most accomplished film.  However, for pure entertainment value, the other version from 1920, starring Sheldon Lewis, is thoroughly recommended for it is one of those films we like to label “so bad it’s good”.  Lewis is outrageous as Hyde, and the film’s budget restraints result in a series of continuity errors and sequences that really don’t make much sense.  Near the end of the film, Lewis is seen changing from Jekyll to Hyde and back about every thirty seconds!  It’s a real hoot (but for all the wrong reasons)!

Ten favourite Horror Films

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Well, it’s that time of year, folks, where the horror genre comes to the fore as we all go a little Halloween crazy.  Actually, I can’t say Halloween has ever bothered me a great deal (and the original film even less so), but it is a damn fine opportunity to wheel out another in my occasional series of “ten favourite” blogposts.  As with the entries on 1910s and 1920s films, these are favourite films and I make no pretence that they are or might be the ten “best” horror films.

Waxworks (1924)

It’s true to say that Dr Caligari leaves me a little cold, and so if I’m looking for a German expressionist horror film it is Waxworks that I normally turn to.  This is a great little portmanteau feature which includes three stories within a framing device in which a writer is employed to write stories about the various exhibits in a waxworks museum.  The most famous sequence is by far the shortest, and involves the coming to life of the Jack-the-Ripper type figure.  The sequence only lasts six minutes, and seems like a bit of an afterthought compared to the other stories lasting nearly forty minutes each.  However, there are reasons for this.  Firstly, there was originally going to be a fourth story, although this was never filmed and, secondly, the order of the stories was changed due to the censors in Germany.  It is the resequenced version we have on DVD from Kino.  However, the film was shown in its original sequence at its USA premiere in 1926 – so perhaps a version with the pre-censor sequencing is hiding in a vault somewhere, waiting to be rediscovered.

The Mummy (1932)

For me this is the most chilling of all films in the first cycle of Universal horror films.  Dracula feels stage-bound and Frankenstein, though a brilliant film, is not one that ever unnerved me.  The Mummy, on the other hand, does just that.  Karl Freund’s direction is remarkably creepy, Karloff is superb, and the flashback sequence is as horrifying now as when it was filmed.

I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

I have always felt this was a most unfortunate title, as it is one that makes the film sound like a trashy drive-in type move from the 1960s.  It is instead a brilliantly executed horror movie inspired by Jane Eyre.  In all of the current crop of zombie movies, there is nothing quite as terrifying as the zombies portrayed here in what is probably the best of all the Val Lewton-produced horror cycle from the early 1940s.  It wasn’t an instant classic, however.  The New York Times review didn’t have much positive to say:  ‘To this spectator, at least, it proved to be a dull, disgusting exaggeration of an unhealthy, abnormal concept of life. If the Hays office feels it has a duty to protect the morals of movie-goers by protesting the use of such expressions as “hell” and “damn” in purposeful dramas like “In Which We Serve” and “We Are the Marines,” then how much more important is its duty to safeguard the youth of the land from the sort of stuff and nonsense that their minds will absorb from viewing “I Walked With a Zombie”?’

The Uninvited (1944)

I recently re-watched The Uninvited and was a little disappointed in that it didn’t live up to the distant memory I had of it from when the UK’s Channel Four showed it when I was but a nipper.  That said, this is still an engrossing mystery/ghost story that has achieved both classic and cult status over the years.   Ray Milland’s character might be a little too chipper and bright, often breaking the atmosphere the film tries so hard to achieve, but otherwise this is one of the best ghost stories of the 1940s.

The Innocents (1961)

Another film I remember watching when I was younger, and one that is still totally entrancing today.  Jack Clayton’s direction provides a spooky atmosphere from the opening credits and never lets up throughout the entire film.  Based on Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw, arguments still continue as to whether the narrative is a straightforward ghost story or the delusions of the governess.  In the end it doesn’t matter, for the film delivers no matter which reading you happen to favour.  The film is actually based on the stage adaptation of the novel with the same name (The Innocents), the 1950s production of which starred British child actor Jeremy Spenser (It’s Great to Be Young, Ferry to Hong Kong) as Miles.

The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)

One of the best entries in Roger Corman’s series of horror films based on the stories of Edgar Allan Poe.  Like most of the other films, Poe’s story is used as the third act of the film, with the rest of the narrative built around it. Others might favour others in the series as better films, and they might be right, but nothing beats the brilliant, disturbing climax of this film.

The Changeling (1980)

One of the great unsung horror classics, this stars George C Scott as a recently-bereaved composer who finds that the house he has moved into is haunted.  This is stunning stuff, with Scott in great form, and the atmosphere built-up superbly throughout the film.  One of the few horror films I saw as a teenager and still find as unnerving now as I did then – and a good example of how atmosphere is what makes a horror film scary, not buckets of blood!

A Nightmare on Elm Street III: Dream Warriors (1987)

Perhaps an unlikely choice, but I still feel that this is the best of the wonderful Nightmare on Elm Street series.  It sees the return of Heather Langenkamp as Nancy, the main character of the first film.  By this point she has become a dream therapist and joins a hospital where some kids are being treated for their nightmares (of Freddy Kreuger, of course).  For once, the kids are all likeable (who didn’t fall in love with Rodney Eastman as Joey?  I know I did), Langenkamp finally shows signs that she might be learning how to act, and there are some brilliant set pieces.  Sadly it was mostly downhill for the series after this one.

Idle Hands (1999)

I feel sorry for Idle Hands.  It’s one of those films that came along at the worst possible time:  a fun, irreverant horror comedy about a kid who unwillingly goes on a killing spree when his “idle hands” are taken over by an evil spirit or demon or…something.  And released ten days after the Columbine shootings.  It’s actually a fun teen horror comedy, with great performances from Devon Sawa and Seth Green, but this was not what American audiences were clamouring to see at that point in time.

Dead Silence (2007)

Ok, I admit it.  I was possibly the only person in the world who saw Dead Silence and really liked it.  It’s an old-fashioned horror film with ghosts, spooky ventriloquist’s dummies and a ridiculously good looking leading man.  But what I really liked about it was that it showed there was life in the horror genre beyond the torture porn which had almost taken over the market over the previous few years.  Dead Silence might not have been seen by many at the cinema, but it is good entertainment and helped to pave the way for the return of the traditional horror movie which has blossomed over the last few years with Dark Skies, Sinister, The Conjuring and Insidious.

Honourable mentions:

The Old Dark House

The Seventh Victim

The Haunting

Ghost Story

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare