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The Door (2013)
The shadowy world of 'mockumentary...
Written and directed by Matthew Arnold, Shadow People is a supernatural/psychological horror/thriller which purports to tell the 'true' story of a spate of unexplained deaths in 2008, in a small town in Kentucky USA.
The movie's premise is that the condition known as Sudden Unexplained Nocturnal Death Syndrome (or SUNDS) is connected to night-time visits from shadowy beings, who steal the breath - and souls - of their victims.
SUNDS is a genuine - and unexplained - condition that has been noted amongst young (predominantly) Asian men. However the movie takes a leap, attaching SUNDS to another (far more widely) documented condition known as Hypnagogic Sleep Paralysis, where a person on the border of wakefulness and sleep finds themselves aware but completely immobile for a short period of time - but does eventually recover. There is actually no acknowledged link between the two.
What follows is the 'true' story of late-night radio host Charlie Crowe (convincingly played by Dallas Howard - looking like a cross between Heath Ledger and John Ritter) and his crusade to bring this menace to the attention of the public (and in the process gain syndication for his talk-show), and the efforts of Centre for Disease Control investigator Sophie Lacombe (Alison Eastwood) to prevent him from doing so. Ironically, both have the public's best interests at heart. The film is reminiscent of The Fourth Kind (2009) and uses a similar technique of showing both dramatised re-enactments and 'genuine' footage throughout (in fact all the footage in both films is bogus).
Despite the maker's claims that this is a dramatisation of real events, there are no genuine records of the Kentucky deaths, or of 'Charlie' and his attempts to warn the unsuspecting public. That being said, Shadow People does succeed in creating a strong sense of unease. It's obviously low-budget, but it scores by never trying to extend itself beyond what it has the resources to do. The performances are good, Dallas Howard being the stand-out.
The film suffers slightly from the 'shoe-horning' of the seemingly obligatory (and in this case completely irrelevant) strained domestic situation which the central character has to deal with along with everything else; but generally it's an enjoyable and creepy change from the blood and guts that fills most modern horror films, with several 'blink and you'll miss it' glimpses of the shadowy visitors, mercifully few jump-scares, and no shaky-cam!
6/10. You may have to sleep with the light on!
The Innkeepers (2011)
Ti West directs old-school supernatural/psychological chiller - with mixed results...
The story of The Innkeepers centres around the Yankee Pedlar Inn, Torrington, Connecticut, which is about to go out of business. Just two employees - Claire (Sara Paxton), and Luke (Pat Healy) - are left to oversee the hotel's final days and ensure the safe departure of the few remaining guests.
The hotel is rumoured to be haunted by a young bride who hung herself many years before, and Claire and Luke determine to obtain proof of her ghost before the inn doors close for the last time. Cue much creeping round corridors and empty rooms at night, cameras and recording equipment at the ready. The unexpected check-ins of both an aged widower and faded-actress-now-psychic-medium Leanne (Kelly McGillis) impact on Claire's and Luke's investigation, and as things progress they are presented with tantalising glimpses of the supernatural. Or are they?
This is a film that can be taken two ways; either the supernatural occurrences are real, or they're all in one character's head (I won't say which one) - and this creates a critical dilemma; if the haunting is real and the sights and sounds are genuine this film is pretty generic, boring in places, and - it has to be said - not that creepy. If, however, one accepts that the events are 'all in the mind' the film takes on a far more interesting perspective. Are the delusions spontaneous? Is the character experiencing them actually being manipulated - perhaps by more than one person? Going down that route there are intriguing clues as the film unfolds as to who the culprit(s) might be (including some fascinating pointers to a possible connection between them).
As well as handling directing chores West also wrote the screenplay, and should be commended for going with a 'slow-burn' approach and not pandering to the 'gore-hounds' who seem to expect every horror film to feature nudity, torture, and dismemberment (not necessarily in that order). How good a job he's done again depends on how you interpret the film. As a ghost story it's nothing that we haven't seen before. As a psychological thriller it's actually very clever, and one of those films in which you'll see something new each time you watch it. His story shows influences of several earlier films (to varying degrees, depending on which interpretation you favour), including The Shining, 1408, Psycho - there are even striking similarities to the 'Something Old' segment from the BBC's highly acclaimed 2008 TV production Crooked House - but the biggest and most telling influence is Robert Wise's 1963 classic The Haunting (arguably the greatest haunted house movie ever made, and itself a highly ambiguous film). It's referenced in plot elements, character names, even in the closing scene - which is a visual nod to The Haunting's famous final voice-over.
Rating it is difficult. As a ghost story I'd give it 5/10; as a psychological thriller I'd award 7/10. I'll just have to go with a mean average of 6/10.
The Innkeepers was filmed at the real Yankee Pedlar Inn, where cast and crew stayed throughout production, and which is also rumoured to be haunted (it's actually still very much in business - and I suspect doing rather well!).
Oh, that last scene? Look very closely... There really is something there...
Crooked House (2008)
Crooked House delivers honest chills
Crooked House is a three-part TV ghost story directed by Damon Thomas (Prisoner's Wives, and supernatural drama Lightfields) for the BBC. Written and co-produced by Mark Gatiss (The League of Gentlemen, Sherlock), and starring Lee Ingleby (George Gently) and Gatiss himself, it was originally shown over three nights during Christmas 2008.
It comprises three linked tales (two in 'flashback', plus a connecting 'wrap-around') told in the style of classic Amicus horror anthologies such as Dr Terror's House of Horrors and The House that Dripped Blood. Here, the focal point is the fictional Geap Manor (a now demolished Tudor mansion) and its occupants.
In the opening tale (The Knocker) a young teacher named Ben (Ingleby) unearths an old door knocker in his garden. He takes it to the local museum, where the curator (Gatiss) informs him that it most likely comes from Geap Manor which stood for many years partly on the site of Ben's house. Knowing nothing of the old manor's existence Ben encourages the curator to tell him its history. The curator gives Ben a broad outline, and then recounts two tales in detail...
The first (entitled The Wainscoting) is set in 1786. Ruthless and wealthy businessman Joseph Bloxham moves into Geap Manor, having first had it fully refurbished. However, his nights of luxury are soon disturbed by strange sounds emanating from the brand new wood panelling...
The second (Something Old) is set in 1927. During a costume ball a young couple proudly announce their engagement. However their future seems doomed to be linked with a tragic wedding day many years before, and a ghostly bride who haunts the corridors.
Returning to the present day (and main story), after hearing these accounts of the house's troubled past Ben decides to offer the knocker to the museum. However, the curator informs him that in itself it's of no particular interest and would perhaps look best on Ben's own front door. This leads inevitably to a grim finale, where past events are shown to be only too capable of shaping the present.
Gatiss' intention was to contribute to the BBC's long-standing tradition of Christmas Ghost Stories, and Crooked House is clearly influenced by the works of M. R. James as well as the portmanteau type horror films of which Gatiss is such a self-confessed fan. However, these tales are sufficiently original to remain gripping to even the most ardent horror watcher.
The Wainscoting might be termed a revenge tale - or perhaps more accurately a 'just desserts' tale, with a hugely enjoyable performance from Philip Jackson (Poirot's Chief Inspector Japp) as businessman Joseph Bloxham. It sets up well, perfectly conveying Bloxham's fear at the increasing night-time disturbances. Unfortunately, the 'payoff' when it comes doesn't quite live up to what's gone before, and this sadly makes it the weakest of the three.
Something Old is all about righting an age-old wrong, and features Jean Marsh (housemaid Rose from the original Upstairs, Downstairs). Although the theme is a common one in ghost stories, it's nicely done - and the ghost bride is chilling.
The 'wrap-around' tale, The Knocker, again treads familiar ground in its set-up - but the climax is a good one. In addition to Gatiss and Ingleby there is a nice cameo from illusionist Derren Brown.
Compared to most ninety-minute TV dramas the budget for Crooked House was minuscule. However, a careful doubling of locations and an unbelievably tight shooting schedule (just fifteen days) ensures that this almost never shows. It's atmospheric, the performances are good (Gatiss hits just the right level of creepiness in his museum curator, Ingleby is entirely convincing as a man whose normal existence is unravelling around him) - and although it's intentionally derivative, it stops short of predictability.
Of course, the key question with any ghost story is 'Is it scary?' The answer for Crooked House is 'At times, yes'. Given the illustrious heritage of which this production is now a part, that makes it a job well done.
Whistle and I'll Come to You (2010)
Classic ghost story crosses the divide
Director Andy De Emmonay's Whistle and I'll Come to You is the second UK TV adaptation of M. R. James's short ghost story 'Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad' (the first being in 1968). Both versions were made by the BBC, and both used the same abridged title. However, this 2010 production is not a remake, it's a re-adaptation.
John Hurt stars as James Parkin, a retired astronomer, whose wife is in advanced stages of dementia. Exhausted from the constant care that he has been providing, he books her into a home so that he can take a short break at a favourite small coastal town. Whilst out walking the shore-line he finds a ring, inscribed in Latin which Parkin translates as "What is this thing that's coming?" He pockets the ring - and from that moment is subjected to an unnerving series of events, beginning with the appearance of an ominous white figure whenever he ventures out. The incidents follow him to his hotel, his nights being disturbed by increasingly frightening visitations...
Without giving anything away, it's very effectively done. It's well written (by Neil Cross) and directed, the performances of John Hurt and Gemma Jones (as his wife) are spot on, it's atmospheric, and the night-time horrors really do conjure up a sense of paralysing fear. In short, it's a damned good ghost story.
It should be said that M. R. James' original is looked on with an almost reverence by enthusiasts, with any deviation being automatically condemned - and this version deviates a lot; in the original story there is no wife, and therefore none of this version's central story arc appears; the object Parkin (Parkins in James's story) finds is a whistle in the original (and in the 1968 version) - here it's a ring (actually quite an important difference); and in the biggest departure of all, the BBC press release announced that this version would be "taking its lead from L'Orfanto (sic, presumably El Orfanato - The Orphanage ~ 2007), The Shining and Japanese horror movies" (all of which had James devotees ready to lynch the director, the writer, and the Controller of BBC2)!
However, I'm a huge fan of M. R. James - and that didn't stop me liking it. The terrifying disturbances that Parkin is faced with are extremely well done, and you feel the heart-squeezing dread right along with him (the J-horror influence is unmistakable - especially in the film's climax). I also liked the arc concerning the wife's condition, and the impact it had on the overall story. As for the ending, it gets you wondering...
Perhaps the whole thing would have been better done as an original piece (in all honesty it almost felt as though what there was of James' material had been 'shoe-horned' in anyway), but nevertheless it's still very enjoyable - and very chilling!
M. R. James meets J-horror...
'M. R. J-horror'?? Might even be the birth of a new genre!