The Great Impersonation (1935)
Based upon the novel by E. Phillips Oppenheim. In German East Africa, in 1913, Sir Everard Dominey (Edmund Lowe) stumbles out of the bush in desperate condition, into the camp commanded by Leopold von Ragostein (Edmund Lowe). As he recovers under the care of Dr Trenk (Frank Reicher), Sir Everard recognises his rescuer: they were at Oxford together, years before, and besides bear an uncanny resemblance to one another. To Sir Everard, von Ragostein is the perfect host; but a deadly scheme is afoot. Banished from Germany after killing the husband of his mistress, Stephanie Elderstrom (Wera Engels), in a duel, von Ragostein is now an operative for an arms manufacturer intent upon provoking war in Europe and profiting from all sides. Sir Everard, meanwhile, despite his background, has become a drunken waster. Von Ragostein conceives an audacious plan to take his place, and thus gain entry to British high society—and to extraordinary opportunities for spying. He plots to send Sir Everard back into the bush, with brandy in his supplies instead of water… When Sir Everard Dominey arrives in England hale, hearty and apparently flush with money, it is a shock to everyone who knew him before his departure for Africa. Unperturbed, Sir Everard begins setting his affairs in order, and announces his intention of residing at his country estate. There, he must contend with the hatred of his mentally unstable wife, Eleanor (Valerie Hobson)… This is a much simplified and frankly rather cowardly adaptation of Oppenheim’s famous novel, which is problematic on two different levels—first, being an American version of an exceedingly British story; and second, being produced in the mid-30s, under the infuriating Hollywood directive of “don’t upset the Germans”. Consequently, von Ragostein is no longer part of a pre-WWI German government plot to place a spy in British high society, to gauge the country’s attitudes and preparations for war—and consequently, most of the story’s point is lost. Simultaneously, the focus of this version shifts to the relationship between Sir Everard – or “Sir Everard” – and his wife, which makes little enough sense in the novel and less when it is brought front-and-centre here. Not content with his espionage plot, Oppenheim went Gothic with his co-plot about Lady Dominey “going insane” when her husband returned to their house covered in blood, having apparently killed – he says, in self-defence – a former suitor of hers, whose ghost now haunts the sinister Black Wood, and howls beneath the windows of the Domineys’ country house… Working with German operative, Seaman (Murray Kinnell), Sir Everard sets about infiltrating British government circles, gathering information. However, his plan suffers a serious check when he encounters Stephanie Elderstrom, who becomes increasingly convinced that this man is not Leopold von Ragostein… Produced by Universal, with California standing in – not very convincingly – for the British countryside, The Great Impersonation features in its supporting cast Spring Byington as Sir Everard’s duchess-cousin, Brandon Hurst as the head keeper, Middleton, and Dwight Frye as the ghost – or is it!? – of Roger Unthank.
(This version of the story sent me hunting for the 1921 silent adaptation, to see if it was less squeamish about its villains; but alas, it appears to be a lost film.)
The Greed Of William Hart (1948)
Also known as: Horror Maniacs. In Edinburgh, Janet Brown (Anne Trego) tries to steer her friend, Mary Paterson (Mary Love), home, but she heads instead for Swanson’s pub, where she falls into the persuasive arms of Mr Moore (Henry Oscar). When Mary accepts his invitation to supper, Janet sends a local boy, “Daft” Jamie Wilson (Aubrey Woods), to fetch medical student, Hugh Alston (Patrick Addison): she asks him to follow her to the rooms shared by Moore and William Hart (Tod Slaughter). However, when she arrives, there is no sign of Mary: the men insist that she left shortly before. Janet then finds herself in danger of confinement, but is saved when Alston bursts in. There is an ugly scene, during which Alston makes reference to a Dr Cox, and to the people who have disappeared from the upper rooms rented out by Hart and Moore. But he can prove nothing, and departs with Janet; leaving Hart and Moore to regret the latter’s escape since, “The chest is big enough for two…” Delivering their grim goods to the surgical college, Hart and Moore do business with David Paterson (Edward Malin), the servant of Dr Cox. Meanwhile, Alston confronts Cox (Arnold Bell) about his dealings with the men, but the surgeon is unrepentant about his need for bodies. As the two argue, there is a horrified scream from Paterson, who has opened the chest… Though turned into a vehicle for the idiosyncratic stylings of Tod Slaughter, The Greed Of William Hart is a reasonably straightforward telling of the story of the 19th century Edinburgh body-snatchers and murderers, Burke and Hare. In fact if anything it’s a bit too straightforward, wasting little time over setting its scene or introducing its characters, which makes the opening sequence more than a little confusing. It is late before we grasp that Hugh Alston is a medical student (which makes his condemnatory attitude to Cox something that should have been explored in more depth); we don’t know who Janet is, or how she and Mary know each other; and though the latter is obviously meant to be a prostitute, the film is more than usually mealymouthed about it. However, the film does capture the grim reality of 19th century poverty – though this may have been a side effect of the low budget – and the sufferings of women in particular in that milieu, with Mrs Hart (Winifred Melville) and Mrs Moore (Jenny Lynn) beaten into compliance with their husbands’ dark doings. At the same, the screenplay wavers over Cox, who toggles between pragmatism and God-complex ranting. The police, as represented by Sergeant Fisher (Dennis Wyndham), are little help; but when Daft Jamie disappears, the people of the district rise up in fury… The always peculiar British censors had one of their brain explosions over The Greed Of William Hart—objecting to it as straight history, and forcing the producers to change the characters’ names and dub the dialogue accordingly (the cost leaving them unable to pay for a musical score). However, this was only done for the villains – Hare / Hart, Burke / Moore, Knox / Cox – with the killers’ victims not afforded the same courtesy. Brilliant. The screenplay of The Greed Of William Hart was written by John Gilling, who later took another run at the Burke and Hare story in The Flesh And The Fiends (starring Donald Pleasence as Hare and Peter Cushing as Dr Knox).
Angels One Five (1952)
Based upon What Are Your Angels Now? by W/Cdr. A. J. C. Pelham Groom. In 1940, at Neethley RAF base in the south of England, Squadron Leader Peter Moon (Michael Denison) is in charge of the operations room: he frets in his ground-role, even though he recognises its vital importance. Pilots and planes, particularly the latter, are in desperately short supply at Neethley, and everyone is relieved to hear that a new Hurricane will soon be delivered. However, just as Pilot Officer T. B. Baird (John Gregson) is coming in for his landing, a Spitfire makes an emergency crosswind landing directly in front of him. Baird manages to leapfrog the other plane, but his subsequent attempt to land ends with the Hurricane on its nose in the garden of the cottage occupied by Squadron Leader Barry Clinton (Cyril Raymond) and his wife, Nadine (Dulcie Gray). Baird is not seriously injured but the plane is, provoking the fury of Squadron Leader Bill Ponsford (Andrew Osborn), who blames the pilot. Knowing he has a good record, Group Captain “Tiger” Small (Jack Hawkins) compromises, using Baird’s minor injuries as an excuse to assign him to communications. Thin-skinned and rather self-conscious, the injustice of this aggrieves Baird; though he cannot stand out against the friendship of Flight Lieutenant “Batchy” Salter (Humphrey Lestocq), who was in the damaged Spitfire—and who dubs him “Septic” on the strength of his unfortunate initials. As ‘Pimpernel’ Squadron fights an increasingly desperate battle in the air against German incursions, those on the ground find themselves frontline targets of an enemy who knows full well what destruction of British airfields will mean… Leave it to the British to turn their first film about their greatest air victory into a film about something else—though something no less important, if less obvious: what was happening on the ground during the Battle of Britain. Angels One Five (the title a reference to the altitude of radar contact) is a typical British war film, with stiff upper lips abounding, yet not hesitating to show its characters making critical mistakes – or the cost of those mistakes – nor to include realistic casualties in its storyline; though we should note that the film does avoid the recurrent nightmare of such productions, civilian casualties. A justified criticism of Angels One Five is that it tries to do a bit too much, and therefore goes on a bit too long—although you can’t criticise the film’s determination to make sure that those working on the ground get their due, from the communications officers to the mechanics to the emergency crews to the ancillary staff to the women providing both practical and emotional support: everyone who provided the framework for Britain’s most improbable victory. The script by Derek Twist uses “Septic” Baird (his nickname not applied in the Australian sense, nota bene: he’s Scottish) as a connecting thread through its various subplots—finally letting him into the air when Neethley comes under direct assault by the Germans while its squadrons are already engaged, and five practice planes with makeshift pilots become the base’s only defence… Angels One Five is in part based upon events at RAF Kenley, near London, which suffered appalling damage during the German raids of 18th August 1940; the recovered base was also used, appropriately enough, for the film’s location shooting. Though some of the aerial scenes were accomplished through model-work, where possible real planes and other hardware were rounded up for this production, including a captured Messerschmitt Bf 110 G4. However, for this viewer a greater point of interest is that, while several actresses were planted amongst them, most of the women shown working in the operations room are clearly the real thing—former WRAFs drafted in to ensure the accuracy of those scenes.
Goliath And The Sins Of Babylon (1963)
Original title: Maciste, l’eroe più grande del mondo (Maciste, The World’s Greatest Hero). When Nephyr is conquered by Babylon and its king killed, his brother, Pergasos (Piero Lulli), is permitted to rule in exchange for yearly tribute that includes thirty beautiful young virgins. As the latest sacrifices are collected from their homes, one girl tries to escape. When she is caught and roughly handled by a guard, a traveller, Goliath (Mark Forest), intervenes: he accounts for a number of soldiers, but finally must be rescued himself by Xandros (Giuliano Gemma) and Alceas (Mimmo Palmara). They carry Goliath to the gladiator school run by Evandro (Livio Lorenzon), where he learns that the training is cover for a rebellion in preparation. Learning of the outrages committed by Pergasos and the Babylonian ambassador, Morakeb (Erno Crisa), Goliath joins their cause. Meanwhile, Xandros is courting a beautiful woman who he believes to be a handmaiden of the Princess Regia (José Greci), but who is actually Regia herself. Under the law of Nephyr, Regia is to compete in a chariot-race: should she lose, she will marry the winner; the two will then have a claim to the throne. Xandros plans to compete, but Pergasos intends making very sure that his own man will win… This is a film that was roughly handled by its American distributors, AIP, having about ten minutes cut out of it and many of the place and character names changed—including, obviously, Maciste’s. Furthermore, the film was already built around sequences plundered from two earlier productions, Theodora, Slave Empress and Carthage In Flames. (At least we’re spared the usual footage from The Last Days Of Pompeii.) As a result, Goliath And The Sins Of Babylon is an oddly paced, rather jerky film, with a plot that’s sometimes hard to follow (to be honest, I never did get my head around the chariot-race business). On the other hand, you certainly can’t complain about a lack of action, with large-scale battles, a trireme burning, lion attacks, torture (including a brutally conceive death-trap), and any amount of hand-to-hand combat. The major downside is a surfeit of “humour” built around the film’s Odious Comic Relief Little Person, played by Arnaldo Fabrizio (whose character, confusingly enough, appears to have been called Goliath in the original film!); while the stolen chariot-race footage includes some nasty horse-tripping, so be warned. Mark Forest – looking oddly like Bill Bixby from certain angles – shares hero duties with an unusually subdued Mimmo Palmara as Alceas and Giuliano Gemma as Xandros—whose position as “romantic lead” prompts him to some annoyingly defeatist whining. José Greci’s Regia is a satisfactory heroine, however, while Piero Lulli’s weaselly, mood-swingy Pergasos and Erno Crisa’s evilly grinning Morakeb make enjoyable villains. Paul Muller also appears as King Rukus of Babylon.
(There are uncut copies of Maciste, l’eroe più grande del mondo available, but not subtitled.)
Fear Is The Key (1972)
Based upon the novel by Alistair MacLean. Three years after he loses his family when their small plane is shot down while they are fleeing Columbia, John Talbot (Barry Newman) falls foul of law enforcement in rural Louisiana. When he appears in court, he is expecting a misdemeanour charge; but to his dismay Judge Mollison (Elliott Sullivan) has accessed his Interpol record—including the fact that he is wanted for the killing of a police officer. Suddenly, Talbot grabs the gun from his guard and fires at a policeman who comes towards him; then, grabbing a young woman, Sarah Ruthven (Suxy Kendall), to use as a hostage, he flees the courtroom—and then, in a stolen car, the town. Via a dangerous cross-country chase, Talbot manages to lose his pursuers, taking refuge in a derelict house-boat. There, however, Sarah makes a run for it—inadvertently leading Talbot into the arms of corrupt ex-cop, Jablonsky (Dolph Sweet). The latter delivers Sarah to her father, oil tycoon Ruthven (Ray McAnally), in exchange for payment—only to discover that Ruthven and his associates, Vyland (John Vernon) and Royale (Ben Kingsley), want Talbot, too… If you can shut your brain down, Fear Is The Key is a reasonable action-thriller, full of double- and triple-crosses and hidden agendas, and people who aren’t who they appear to be. However, it is also one of those films whose plot turns on a plan so insanely complicated and unlikely, it could easily go wrong in a thousand different ways—but doesn’t, just ‘cos. To take only the most obvious and immediate point, Talbot, or Sarah, or both, could have been killed about fifty times during the opening chase; neither wearing a seatbelt, of course. All that said—in purely cinematic terms, the car-chase sequence – staged by Carey Loftin, who was also responsible for Vanishing Point – is the stuff of legend, and goes close to justifying all the rest, as Talbot pilots the world’s most indestructable car across, around and through anything that gets in his way. At the same time, though, Talbot is so hateful during this opening phase of the film that it is hard to warm up to him or take an interest in his manoeuvrings when he is subsequently displaced from the role of ‘villain’—which happens when he falls into the hands of Ruthven and Vyland. They, too, are very well aware of Talbot’s track-record—including his past life as a deep-sea salvage expert—and they have a little job for him. Something lies in the ocean near to one of Ruthven’s oil-rigs, or rather, two somethings: one is the submersible, the Fathom, which is in need of repair; the other is a prize so great, it has already cost a number of lives—and it will cost a number more before it can be retrieved…
Tourist Trap (1979)
When their car get a flat tyre while they are travelling through an isolated desert area of California, Eileen (Robin Sherwood) and Woody (Keith McDermott) separate: she makes herself comfortable under a makeshift sun-shade, while he pushes the tyre back towards a gas station they drove past earlier. When he gets there, Woody finds the place seemingly deserted. He ventures into the back rooms of the building and finds himself trapped – and in deadly danger – when inanimate objects, including several mannequins, suddenly come to life… A second car carrying Molly (Jocelyn Jones), Jerry (Jon Van Ness) and Becky (Tanya Roberts) finds Eileen still at the side of the road. She joins them, and the friends set out to look for Woody—discovering instead “Slausen’s Lost Oasis”, an old tourist trap. When their car suddenly breaks down, Jerry is left to try and fix it while the girls – including the reluctant Molly – go skinny-dipping in a waterfall-edged pool hidden in woods. To their embarrassment, they are caught there by Slausen (Chuck Connors) himself: however, he is friendly and sympathetic to their plight, inviting them to his old museum with its display of animatronic figures. Slausen tells them these were the work of his brother, Davey, and mourns the coming of the highway which cut off most of their tourist trade. Slausen goes with Jerry to try and fix his car, advising the girls to stay where they are. However, a bored Eileen finally goes to search for Woody in the house on the hill behind the museum—and she does not come back… Tourist Trap is one strange little film. It’s not particularly scary – or particularly violent – and it has no nudity in spite of the skinny-dipping; yet it’s a film that, once seen, is never forgotten (a theory I just tested on my brother, who hasn’t seen it since I showed it to him more years ago than I care to think about). The entire thing unfolds deep within the Uncanny Valley, with waxworks and mannequins – and the spare parts of both – lurking in almost every scene, and a creepily masked figure cutting a swath through the young cast. The latter of course links Tourist Trap to the late 70s’ burgeoning wave of slasher films; but while it resembles these in outline, particularly with the shy, responsible Molly emerging as Final Girl, the film’s sensibilities are quite different. Overall it is unnerving rather than horrifying—and surprisingly hard to shrug off. That said, it certainly isn’t perfect: the film is overlong, and its pacing is off, particularly over the final third; though it compensates with a bravura climactic act and an absolutely classic final freeze-frame. I was able on this viewing to appreciate Chuck Connor’s performance as Slausen: you can understand why the girls don’t feel threatened by him, making them seem rather less criminally stupid than most of their ilk. I also gave a whoop of delighted laughter at discovering Charles Band’s name in the credits, something which wouldn’t have held the same significance back when I first saw this: killer mannequins? – well, OF COURSE.
The Young Master (1980)
After betraying his kung fu school by competing for their rivals in a Lion Dance, and then smuggling a prostitute into his room, a rebellious young student called Tiger (Pai Wei) is expelled. Angry and offended, Master Tien (Feng Tien) speaks with contempt of both Tiger and his brother, Dragon (Jackie Chan), who were taken into the school as starving young orphans. Bitterly hurt, Dragon accuses Master Tien of injustice; he leaves the school, vowing to find Tiger and bring him back. The rebellious Tiger, meanwhile, has become involved in a plot to free a criminal called Kam (Ing-Sik Whang aka Hwang In-shik), as he is being transported by the bailiffs. Meanwhile, Dragon is mistaken for a wanted man known as “the White Fan”, and is arrested by police official, Sang Kung (Kien Shih). Dragon must not only prove his own innocence, but that of Tiger, who has been framed for bank robbery: his task requiring him to battle the dangerous Kam… The second film directed by Jackie Chan, but perhaps the first truly recognisable “Jackie Chan film”, The Young Master is something of a hodge-podge, lurching from overwrought melodrama to overt slapstick and back again, and climaxing in a brutal fight between Jackie / Dragon and Hwang In-shik / Kam that goes for over fifteen minutes. Otherwise, at this early stage the intervening fights are perhaps a bit stiff and over-choreographed, but hugely enjoyable just the same. After its brilliant Lion Dance opening sequence, The Young Master takes longer over its set-up than it really needs to; but once Dragon encounters the son of Sang Kung (Biao Yuen), who is obsessed with his self-designed wooden-bench-style kung fu, it’s all good. One really nice touch here is that the only person who ultimately defeats Dragon in a fight is Sang Kung’s daughter (Lily Li)—teaching him another new fighting style in the process, which Dragon puts to good use later on. The sequence in which Dragon repeatedly holds off Sang Kung by putting his precious gift-from-the-Emperor pipe in danger is also genuinely funny. The climactic showdown between Dragon and Kam is unusually direct and physical, with lots of punching and arm-twisting as well as the more expected forms of fighting. This is a rare Jackie Chan film to acknowledge that such fighting would indeed cause serious long-term damage…albeit that the acknowledgement is used as a comic punchline.
Strange Invaders (1983)
In 1958, Centerville, Illinois, becomes the target of a strange invasion… Twenty-five years later, Charlie Bigelow (Paul Le Mat), a Professor of Entomology at Columbia, is asked by his ex-wife, Margaret (Diana Scarwid), to take care of their young daughter, Elizabeth (Lulu Sylbert): she explains that her mother has died and that she, “Has to go back.” Bigelow is happy to have Elizabeth, but when Margaret’s “few days” stretch on with no word from her, he becomes concerned—partcularly when he is unable to reach Centerville by phone. Asking his mother (June Lockhart) to look after Elizabeth, Bigelow sets out by road for his ex-wife’s hometown; although when he checks in to the small motel run by Arthur Newman (Kenneth Tobey), he is told that Margaret is not in town, nor has any such person as her mother ever lived there. Suspicious and sceptical, Bigelow decides to find out for himself—but only suffers a series of terrifying events, from the loss of his dog to the inexplicable explosion of his car. He finally escapes in a stolen vehicle—catching a glimpse as he flees Centerville of what he can only describe as an alien… Back in New York, Bigelow consults Mrs Benjamin (Louise Fletcher), a government official tasked with investigating stories such as his; but although she is sympathetic, she gives him little encouragement. However, Bigelow then spots a copy of the tabloid, the National Informer, which has a photograph of an apparent alien on its front page… “Strange”, indeed. Directed and co-written by Michael Laughlin as a follow-up to 1981’s Strange Behaviour, this is finally an unsatisfying work—suffering fatally from being neither fish nor fowl; or more correctly, neither parody nor hommage. Though Strange Invaders is chock full of references to 50s science fiction, most overtly Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, but also It Came From Outer Space and I Married A Monster From Outer Space (while The Day The Earth Stood Still plays on a TV), it doesn’t really do anything with them: they are just there for those who recognise them. Similarly, while the film is quite self-conscious about its retro-aspects, its displacement of 50s elements to the early 80s feels uncomfortable rather than clever, aside from a couple of tongue-in-cheek-ish moments—such as the Centerville aliens drawing attention to themselves by their attempts to “blend in”. Overall, however, tongue-in-cheek is conspicuous by its absence: Strange Invaders takes itself pretty seriously, opting for a fairly grim tone (as per its main inspiration)—only to climax with an outrageous use of the reset button and an upbeat ending that feels completely out of place. The other problem here is that neither of the film’s leads is particularly likeable. Charlie Bigelow hooks up with tabloid reporter, Betty Walker (Nancy Allen), whose story has made her a target of alien reprisals. The two join forces with Willie Collins (Michael Lerner), who has been in a mental hospital ever since sending his photograph to the newspapers by way of trying to convince someone, anyone, that aliens killed his family…
(Speaking of retro— I don’t know how old my print of this was, but it was suffering from the worst pan-and-scanning I’ve seen in forever.)
Based upon Red Dragon by Thomas Harris. Two families, one in Atlanta, one in Birmingham, are slaughtered one month apart by a killer who leaves little evidence beyond teeth marks on the victims—prompting the press to dub him “the Tooth Fairy”. With a third full moon approaching and no progress in the case, FBI agent Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina) travels to Florida to meet with his former colleague, Will Graham (William Peterson), who once specialised in serial-killer cases, but retired after suffering a breakdown. Crawford finally persuades Graham to assist; though the latter promises his wife, Molly (Kim Greist), that he will examine the evidence only, and not put himself in harm’s way. However, once back on the job, Graham finds it impossible not to slip back into his investigative method of putting himself in the killer’s place and trying to align their thoughts. And he goes further: he visits the high-security facility where the brilliant but insane Dr Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox) is now confined. Lecktor is a qualified psychiatrist whose insight into the Tooth Fairy Graham needs; he is also the serial killer who attacked and nearly killed him, and precipitated his breakdown… Manhunter is a film difficult to treat fairly these days. It suffers very much, not just from being overtaken and overwhelmed by The Silence Of The Lambs, but from being, effectively, the ur-film of its genre—featuring material that at this distance seems old hat and obvious, but which at the time was new and unfamiliar to most audiences. In particular, the FBI’s investigative techniques, which at the time of the film’s release were cutting-edge, now seem absurdly primitive, with Thomas Harris’s book and this film both appearing prior to the forensic revolution of the early 1990s—and thus giving us a textbook case of something from not so long ago seeming far more “dated” than it objectively is. (When the killer’s saliva sample is used to do blood-typing, I nearly fell off my chair.) Similarly, the viewer’s now-knowledge of William Peterson’s future TV career as an eccentric forensics expert tends to colour perception of his performance as the tortured Will Graham. The third stumbling-block in Manhunter is Brian Cox’s muted performance as Lecktor, and the fact that the now-infamous pop-cultural anti-hero is here no more than a plot-point. Nevertheless—these historical barriers are surmountable. A more serious issue is the eternal one of Michael Mann: he’s more interested in his style than his substance, and with respect to his characters and their motives leaves the viewer hanging at several key points—most significantly, and most bizarrely, with respect to the introduction of Graham’s mental affinity with the killers he hunts, and the personal cost of his work. As Graham finds himself drawn back into his dangerous pursuit, the narrative of Manhunter shifts to Missouri, to introduce photo-lab technician, Francis Dolarhyde (Tom Noonan), as he initiates a relationship with his blind co-worker, Reba McClane (Joan Allen). However, when – coinciding with the night of the full moon – Dolarhyde sees Reba with another man and misinterprets their interaction, it triggers in him an uncontrollable rage… Meanwhile, it is discovered that, somehow, Hannibal Lecktor has been communicating with the Tooth Fairy. Part of the recovered message has been destroyed, and it takes FBI technicians a dangerous amount of time to interpret it—though when they do, they learn that Lecktor has revealed to his correspondent Will Graham’s home address…
Bloodstone: Subspecies II (1993)
Though defeated in a bloody battle with his half-brother, Stefan, the vampire Radu (Anders Hove) is resurrected with the help of his blood-demons. Finding Stefan sleeping in his coffin, and in possession of the ancient Bloodstone, Radu drives a stake through his heart. He is about to do the same to Michelle Morgan (Denice Duff), the American student “turned” by the brothers, when the breaking dawn drives him into the depths of Castle Vladislav. That evening, Michelle wakes to her new existence as a vampire: grieving for Stefan, she takes the Bloodstone and flees to the monastery to collect the few remnants of her human life, then boards a train for Bucharest. Taking refuge in a hotel, she makes a panicked phone-call to her sister, Rebecca (Melanie Shatner), who promises to come to her as quickly as she can. Radu, meanwhile, has tracked Michelle to Bucharest, where he makes contact with his mother, an ancient sorceress (Pamela Gordon). She gratefully accepts his gift of a sword coated with his own father’s blood, but berates him for losing the Bloodstone. Radu assures her that he knows where it is and will soon have it—and Michelle… Though it makes a couple of important changes, with good vampire Stefan dismissed with the wave of a stake and Denice Duff replacing Laura Mae Tate as Michelle, Bloodstone picks up in the immediate wake of Subspecies and comprises a fairly well-thought-out sequel. People who find the resurrection scenes that open some of the Hammer Dracula films absurdly “soft” will just love this—with Radu’s blood-demons pulling out the stake in his heart and repositioning his severed head—and hey-presto! That, by the way, is all we see of the little demons, which is disappointing. However, the shifting of the main action from the countryside to Bucharest, Michelle’s struggle to retain her humanity despite her growing hunger for human blood, and the introduction of Radu’s ancient mother – amusingly, just called “Mummy” – are all positives; as is the leavening of the main plot via some unobtrusive humour built around befuddled (though not stupid) police detective Marin (Ion Haiduc) and Professor Popescu (Michael Denish), the film’s Van Helsing figure; while Denice Duff and Melanie Shatner make convincing sisters. On the other hand, Radu’s repetitive dialogue gets tiresome, and some of the acting is weak—though granted, both Pamela Gordon and Anders Hove have to emote through about twenty pounds of latex. (We note, too, that Radu still can’t actually do anything with those fingers!) While Radu pursues his quest for possession of the Bloodstone – and Michelle – Rebecca consults Professor Popescu, an historian—and what she learns forces her to accept that her sister is now a vampire. She also learns that only one thing can help Michelle: the killing of Radu…
Stage Beauty (2004)
Based upon the play, Compleat Female Stage Beauty, by Jeffrey Hatcher. During the Restoration, the most celebrated actor in London is Edward Kynaston who, with women legally banned from the stage, specialises in female roles. Behind the scenes, Kynaston relies heavily upon his dresser, Maria (Claire Danes), who secretly loves him. However, Maria has another secret: she has persuaded – and paid – the owner of the Cock-Pit Tavern, where plays are staged for a less refined audience, to allow her to appear as Desdemona, Kynaston’s most celebrated role. Word that a woman, an unknown billed as “Mrs Margaret Hughes”, has appeared in a play reaches all corners of London, including Whitehall. George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham (Ben Chaplin), who is Kynaston’s occasional lover, breaks the news to him. Having caught sight of Kynaston with Buckingham, Maria is hurt and angry, and accepts the professional patronage of Sir Charles Sedley (Richard Griffiths). He escorts her to Whitehall, where Kynaston, in male guise, is in attendance upon Charles II (Rupert Everett), and her secret is revealed. However, reflecting that the ban on women was a Puritan law, Charles decides to relax it. Unfortunately for Kynaston, his furious outburst at the idea of women on stage is overheard by Nell Gwynn (Zoë Tapper), who then makes the matter her personal crusade… “A woman playing a woman? Where is the art in that?” Stage Beauty is an interesting but not entirely successful film; though its failures can be traced to the play upon which it is based, which suffers likewise from an apparent uncertainty over whether it is a comedy or a tragedy. The film’s strengths are obvious enough: as usual with British period dramas, the settings, the costumes, the sense of the times and, for the most part, the acting are all first-rate. However, the fact that both leads are American makes for a slightly odd feel…even in a story where “a slightly odd feel” is more or less the point. Stage Beauty has been criticised as a story about a sexually ambiguous man being “straightened out” by The Love Of A Good Woman, but that is a superficial reading of a far more complex situation: Kynaston is every bit as confused about himself at the end as he is at the beginning; while the scene in which he and Maria try out a series of sex roles (and positions) is, in its very lack of resolution, one of the film’s most crucial. There is, moreover, genuine tragedy in the way that Kynaston’s professional life – which in turn defines his identity – is taken away from him at the whim of the royal mistress. Though it captures the cruelty and the violence of the Restoration, Stage Beauty also ignores historical fact: Kynaston and Mrs Hughes were real actors, but neither of their careers played out as shown here. The story also abounds with anachronisms—most significantly, Kynaston and Maria accidentally discovering stage naturalism, and giving their stunned audience a radical new interpretation of Othello.
The Tender Hook (2008)
Also known as: The Bombshell And The Boxer. Sydney, the 1920s. Underworld figure “Mac” McHeath (Hugo Weaving) hires boxer Art Walker (Matt Le Nevez) as a sparring partner for his main fighter, Alby O’Shea (Luke Carroll), as he prepares for a championship bout. Unbeknownst to McHeath, Walker has already caught the interested eye of his mistress, Iris (Rose Byrne); almost beneath McHeath’s nose, the two begin a dangerous flirtation. Meanwhile, all three desperate to escape McHeath’s control, Iris lures two of his goons, Donnie (Tyler Coppin) and Ronnie (John Batchelor), into a scheme to defraud him over bootleg beer. Becoming convinced that Australian audiences won’t support a black fighter, and worried about the growing friendship between Walker and O’Shea, McHeath switches their positions and begins to train Walker for the championship fight—inadvertently throwing him and Iris more frequently together… Jonathan Olgilvie’s 2008 neo-noir is a film that simultaneously has far too much and not enough going on. The basic plot of The Tender Hook could have been lifted from any given Warners fight-film of the 1930s (likewise the alternative title); and Olgivie piles onto this slender framework all sorts of weirdness and anachronisms that it just can’t support—right to the point of pretentiousness. Thus, in addition to allusions to Shakespeare and, in particular, The Beggar’s Opera (whence McHeath’s name), we have political overtones – McHeath calls himself “King Mac” and thinks of his underlings as his “subjects”, even as his goons debate the advantages of “being bolshie” – allusions to real though obscure incidents that even locals might not get, and scenes in which McHeath “entertains” those in attendance at his boxing-bouts by singing selections from Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. Despite the period setting and some excellent cinematography and costume and art design, there is little distinctly Australian about the storyline; though I guess the point might have been that crooks are crooks the world over. Hugo Weaving (sporting a crisp British accent, and wielding a straight-razor) and Rose Byrne both hold the attention, but Matt Le Nevez is basically just there to be ogled. The supporting roles – competing goons Donnie and Ronnie, hanger-on Daisy (Pia Miranda) and aspiring aboriginal fighter Alby – are more interesting than the three lead characters, but generally underwritten, though the actors do what they can. The Tender Hook has some points of interest if you can – so to speak – roll with its punches, but overall it is a frustrating experience.
Blue-Eyed Butcher (2012)
When Susan Wyche (Sara Paxton) and Jeffrey Wright (Juston Bruening) meet on a Galveston beach in 1997, it is the beginning of what looks like a perfect romance. However, cracks soon appear: when Susan tells Jeffrey that she is pregnant, he suspects than in spite of her denials this was an intentional act on her part. Nevertheless, the two marry and for a time seem perfectly happy; a second child is born, and Jeffrey’s career flourishes. But each of these seeming landmarks drives a further wedge between the two; and over time their marriage crumbles, with Jeffrey neglecting Susan, thwarting her attempt to go back to school, and becoming increasingly abusive—first verbally, then emotionally, then physically—until Susan cannot take it any more… I feel inclined to apologise for that synopsis, which of course represents Susan Wright’s version of the events leading up to the stabbing death of her husband, Jeffrey, in 2003. Blue-Eyed Butcher is another of Lifetime’s true-crime dramas, and an interesting one inasmuch as it focuses on what we might call an anti-Lifetime figure in Susan Wright. However, this time around the producers bit off rather more than they could chew: there is an evident attempt to avoid taking any stance on Susan’s guilt or innocence—or more correctly, her degree of guilt, as there is no question about her responsibility for her husband’s death; while the screenplay by Michael J. Murray goes for irony at the outset, intercutting Susan and Jeffrey’s rom-com-esque cute-meet with the former’s disposal of the latter’s bloody body some six years later. But the film can’t keep it up—chiefly because so much of the story rests upon the account of the Wright marriage given by Susan during her trial. It has to tell that story to have any story to tell, which forces it to take a position whether it wants to or not. Recognising the issue, the film sets its enforced depiction of the Wright marriage against the aggressive prosecution tactics of Kelly Siegler (Lisa Edelstein), tasked with convincing the jury (and the viewer) that Susan is no injured innocent, but “a blue-eyed butcher”, and also focuses increasingly upon Susan’s bizarre behaviour after the killing—the effects of PTSD, according to her defence team; an attempt to get away with murder, according to the prosecution. Ultimately, however, the necessarily unanswered questions here result in a queasy tone and an unsatisfactory film.
(Sentenced initially to 25-to-life, Susan Wright had her sentence reduced by five years on appeal. The film carries an ominous “eligible for parole in 2014” end-card, but in fact Wright was denied parole in 2014 and 2017, but released in 2020.)
The Deep (2012)
Original title: Djúpið. The Westerman Islands, Iceland, 1984. After spending the night before drinking, dancing, and brawling, in the icy dawn the crew of a fishing trawler make preparations to set out on their fishing trawler. Guðlaugur “Gulli” Friðþórsson (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) discusses the weather with his father, but evades his mother’s offer of a lift to the docks, instead waiting for; Palli (Jóhann G. Jóhannsson) parts tenderly from his wife, Halla (Thora Bjorg Helga aka Þorbjörg Helga Þorgilsdóttir), and their sleeping children; while the new young cook, Raggi (Walter Grímsson), is both excited and apprehensive. On board already are the captain, Jón (Stefán Hallur Stefánsson), Hannes (Björn Thors), and the latter’s father, Lárus (Þröstur Leó Gunnarsson). As the boat sets out for open waters, Jón radios its position and course back to land. In between pulling in an unsatisfactory catch, the men eat, argue and watch television; though they must deal with a potentially dangerous situation when they snag their own nets. As night falls, and the time for another radio check-in-approaches, disaster strikes: the net snags again, this time jamming the winch, which continues to turn despite the men’s efforts, and finally tips the boat. Not all of the men make it off the vessel, and those that do must deal with the numbing cold and the decision of whether to stay with the wreckage and hope for rescue, or to try and swim for shore. Soon the conditions take the decision out of their hands—and Gulli finds himself alone in the open ocean… The Deep starts out feeling like an Icelandic riff on The Perfect Storm, but in fact it is based on the true story of Guðlaugur Friðþórsson, who in 1984 inexplicably survived both hours in the North Atlantic and a subsequent walk cross-country in his sodden clothing—with director Baltasar Kormákur turning this incident (at times a little heavy handedly) into a rumination upon the Icelandic character; although the film is also positioned as a tribute to the endurance of the residents of the Westerman Islands, who must fight the elements to make a living.In this context, the 1973 eruption of Eldfell, on the island Heimaey, functions both symbolically and as yet another obstacle for the islanders to overcome: after being evacuated to the mainland, the community subsequently divided into those who stayed there, and those who returned to resume their ongoing battle with the elements. Much of this is later presented via flashback, which is part of the problem: The Deep would have benefitted from a bit more time spent upon its setting and background up-front, and in particular a better introduction of the characters, whose names we barely grasp before disaster strikes. Furthermore, while we see more of Gulli than the others, in the way he is depicted, he is not particularly likeable—though of course, his very ordinariness is the point. Though necessary to the telling, the film (as with The Wave, below) suffers from having its tragedy unfold at night, making it difficult at times to see what is happening and who is involved in a given scene. This is unfortunate not least because of the way the film was shot: Kormákur actually sank a boat to film this sequence. Once Gulli is alone in the ocean, The Deep shifts gears—pondering not just the physical mystery of his survival, and the spiritual impact of imminent death, but unanswerable questions like the nature of miracles and whether “life-changing events” really are—or should be. The final third of the film, framed by the truth, is disconcertingly low-key and inconclusive, with Gulli working out his survivor’s guilt by allowing himself to become an experimental test-case, before pragmatically picking up the threads of his life.
In Blithe Hollow, Massachusetts, eleven-year-old Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is isolated by his ability to see and speak to the dead, including his own grandmother (Elaine Stritch), who still occupies the family house. Norman is a puzzle and an aggravation – occasionally an embarrassment – to his parents, Perry (Jeff Garlin) and Sandra (Leslie Mann), and older sister, Courtney (Anna Kendrick); while he is bullied at school by Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and mocked by the other students. Much of the history of Blithe Hollow revolves around the execution of a witch some three hundred years before: before dying, she cursed her accusers and the judge who condemned her to existence as the living dead. Norman is involved with rehearsals of a school play about the witch when he is suddenly overcome by a terrifying vision of himself as the focus of a witch-hunt. Things look up for him when he makes a friend in Neil Downe (Tucker Albrizzi), who is the other main target of Alvin’s bullying, but copes with cheerful resilience. Norman’s happier mood is short-lived, however: his estranged, eccentric great-uncle, Mr Prenderghast (John Goodman), confronts him and tells him that he must take over a 300-year-old ritual designed to keep the town safe. Soon afterward, Prenderghast dies of a heart attack—only for his ghost to force from Norman a promise that he will take on the duty… Co-written and directed by Chris Butler, ParaNorman was the first stop motion film to use full-color 3D printers for replacement animation; following on from the use of black and white in 2009’s Coraline. The film itself may be regarded as a lightened-up version of The Sixth Sense—though mind you, it’s not that much lightened-up, with some amazingly gruesome touches for what is basically a kids’ film, particularly Norman’s wrestling-match with his great-uncle’s corpse. Moreover, the witch, Aggie Prenderghast, was just Norman’s own age when the townspeople – beginning a long tradition of turning on anyone “different” – executed her. Though it foregrounds both its horror and its gross-out elements, ParaNorman has plenty to say individuality and self-respect and accepting people for who they are—and conversely, about bullying and the mob mentality—as Norman risks his life to save a town that hardly deserves it of him…though in doing so, he also frees Aggie from an eternity devoted to anger and vengeance. Meanwhile, the film offers plenty of tongue-in-cheek humour around horror movies and their conventions—while embracing the Romero-esque philosophy that when it comes to posing a threat, the living dead simply cannot compete with the living. However – as with so many films these days, or is it my hearing? – too often the dialogue is almost drowned out by the sound effects. The animation here and the supporting visuals are powerful and often creepy, and the voice-work effective and well-cast. The film also features Tempestt Bledsoe as the town sheriff, Alex Borstein as Mrs Henscher, the drama teacher, and Casey Affleck as Neil’s older brother, Mitch—who gets perhaps the film’s most delightful moment.
Three people fall victim to a killer who stabs them in the base of the brain with a thin, sharp object. They appear to have nothing in common, and the killer leaves no evidence at any of the scenes. Seasoned FBI agent Joe Merriwether (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and his younger partner, profiler Katherine Cowles (Abbie Corninsh), clash over the former’s desire to consult his friend and former colleague, Dr John Clancy (Anthony Hopkins), who once put his psychic abilities to work for the Bureau, but who withdrew when his life and marriage fell apart after the death of his daughter. Clancy finally agrees to help—though when he is unable to avoid altogether physical contact with Merrwether and Cowles, he sees things about both of them he would rather not have known… Though he has left no physical evidence, the killer has been leaving cryptic typed notes; and when a fourth victim is found, there is a note at the scene labelled ‘4:16’ – the exact time the agents arrive. During the interview with the victim’s husband, Clancy realises what it is that the four disparate victims have in common: he urges Merriwether to push for an exhumation and autopsy of a young boy, who is discovered to have a brain tumour—as stated in the 4:16 note, though there is no way the killer could have known such a thing…unless, as Clancy deduces, he too has psychic abilities… Solace started life in 2002 as a proposed sequel to Se7en; and after thirteen years in development hell, it finally emerged as a fairly limp and obvious thriller that uses the extreme psychic abilities of John Clancy and the killer, Charles Ambrose (Colin Farrell), as an excuse for lazy story-telling—with the overused shock-flash editing of Clancy’s visions put to the same purpose. The problem here is that the film-makers desperately wanted this to be all about Anthony Hopkins, if not John Clancy; but the way he and his visions are presented only raises questions the script never seems to realise need answering—such as how could anyone with such powers live anything like a normal life? – and more pertinently yet, how did he not know his daughter was ill in time for an early intervention? At the same time, there was clearly no recognition of the fact that it was Ambrose – a loner toggling much more believably between suicidal and God-complex – who needed development and focus. Meanwhile, Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Merriwether gets more or less pushed aside in favour of the developing relationship between Clancy and Cowles: another over-obvious touch that bookends the inevitable you’re-just-like-me face-off between Clancy and Ambrose. From the first moment of his involvement in the case, Clancy is beset by visions not just of an eventual showdown with the killer, but of the two FBI agents—one if not both of whom seems destined for a grim fate; begging the question of how – and how far – the future may be altered…?
The Wave (2015)
Original title: Bølgen. On his last day as a member of a geological team assigned to monitor activity around the Åkerneset crevice, Kristian Eikjord (Kristoffer Joner) becomes concerned about an apparent disappearance of groundwater in the area. However, he tries to put this aside and concentrate upon packing up his house, along with his wife, Idun (Ane Dahl Torp), their young daughter, Julia (Edith Haagenrud-Sande), and their teenage son, Sondre (Jonas Hoff Oftebro), prior to moving from Geiranger to Stavanger. Idun is to stay behind for a day or two, to complete the closure of the house and to finish up at her job as concierge at the local hotel, which is situated over the fjord. Meanwhile, Kristian is to drive the children to the city. However, while waiting for the ferry, Kristian has a sudden thought: he speeds to the monitoring centre, where he argues that the disappearance of the groundwater is actually a fault in their sensors—perhaps caused by the wires being severed by shifting rock, which may in turn indicate a growing problem. He and his colleague, Jacob (Arthur Berning), fly by helicopter into the mountains and abseil down into the crevice, where they find that Kristian’s theory is correct. Their supervisor, Arvid (Fridtjov Såheim), refuses to order an evacuation, but agrees to issue a yellow alert. Kristian discovers that the children, sick of waiting for him, have gone to their mother at the hotel. Since it is late in the day, Sondre is given a room, while Julia persuades her father to have one more night at the house, “to say goodbye”. While there, Kristian accesses his old work-data, and realises to his horror that the strange readings taken at the monitoring station, which suggest that the crevice is contracting, presage catastrophe… Norway’s first ever disaster movie is an amusing mix of shamelessly deployed genre clichés and genuine originality built around the film’s offering of a new sort of disaster, presented in an entirely new territory. Set and photographed in the remote west of Norway, The Wave offers some spectacularly beautiful cinematography; while at the same time, it builds itself around the area’s history of genuine disaster, the rock-slides and tsunamis of 1905 and 1934, and the reality that a similar tragedy could occur again at any time. All this gives an air of freshness to The Wave which, truthfully, it rather needs—as the rest of it offers little we haven’t seen before; although that said, there is no doubt that director Roar Uthaug and screenwriters John Kåre Raake and Harald Rosenløw-Eeg are deliberately referencing their inspirations. (They even slip in a Jaws-esque protest against, “Cancelling the tourist season”!) The main problem here – and I stress, this applies to watching this movie on the small screen, not in the cinema – is that, since the collapse and the subsequent tsunami occur at night, it is too often impossible to really see what is going on—with much of the power of this new kind of disaster lost in the darkness. I have two other issues with The Wave, one a matter of detail and the other more of taste. The decision to leave Geiranger is never really explained, instead becoming an over-elaborate means of separating the members of the family at the moment of crisis; and while the focus upon the Eikjords gives the film structure and avoids the episodic feel of many disaster movies, it also creates a sense that we’re only supposed to care about these particular people; and that as long as they make it through, the rest don’t matter so much. Furthermore, over the final act of the drama, the family members’ ability not merely to survive in increasingly outrageous circumstances, but to find one another in spite of everything, pushes the tolerance of even your most forgiving disaster-movie watcher.
(I spent this entire film trying not to think about Slartibartfast…)
The Other Side Of The Door (2016)
Michael (Jeremy Sisto) and Maria Harwood (Sarah Wayne Callies) are an American couple who have relocated to Mumbai as a base for their antiques business. When their young son is killed in a tragic accident, the Harwoods struggle to hold their life and marriage together. Maria is consumed by the guilt of having been unable to save Oliver (Logan Creran) and, one night, Michael comes home to discover that she has taken an overdose. While she is recovering in the hospital, the Harwood’s housekeeper, Piki (Suchitra Pillai), confides to Maria that she once lost a child too; she goes on to tell her that, if she wishes for a chance to speak to Oliver one last time, to say goodbye, there is a way… Piki tells Maria that near to her village in the depths of the Indian countryside, there is a temple where the line between the living and the dead may be pierced. She must spread her son’s ashes on the steps outside, and then spend the night shut within the temple; but that, whatever happens, whatever Oliver may say to her, she must not open the door… The Other Side Of The Door is a disappointingly predictable horror movie that blends The Monkey’s Paw and Pet Semetary, with a whiff of The Exorcist towards the end. While its Indian setting wins it a few points – filming was done on location in Mumbai – ultimately this aspect of the story feels rather exploitative, particularly when “creepy Indian guy” starts stalking Maria: it feels like an attempt to shift the blame for events onto the country, and away from where they squarely belong. Moreover, there is not the slightest indication that the Harwoods have attempted to become “of India”: they live in an isolated house behind high walls, with an Indian servant; and when on the rare occasions we see them venture out, their actions still smack of tourism. Nor, for that matter, are the supernatural manifestations that follow Maria’s inevitable violating of the rules anything other than the standard modern spook-film stuff—except for the humany-spidery-stop-motion thing that I wish we’d seen more of, or at least been given a better look at. The Other Side Of The Door is yet another in a long line of depressing films in which, no matter how much they were loved in life, death turns someone into a hateful, vengeful entity (when did I complain about that before? – oh, yeah, Ghost Son. Also The Shadow Within. Hmm, maybe it’s a kid thing?); with Oliver targeting his little sister, Lucy (Sofia Rosinsky). That said, none of the films “scary” moments can compete with two earlier pieces of real-life horror: first, the accident in which Oliver is killed, which is shown in an unusually confronting way, with Maria faced with the horror-movie version of Sophie’s Choice; and then the disturbingly casual way in which Maria and Piki exhume and cremate Oliver’s remains to prepare for the temple ritual. It’s impossible to feel much sympathy with any of the adults here; though we do fear for Lucy (and her dog!), with a then ten-year-old Sofia Rosinsky giving the film’s best performance.
As the relationship between Tina Williams (Katie LeClerc) and Brock Nichols (Mike Faiola) becomes serious, they decide it is time for Tina to meet Brock’s family and friends—and vice-versa. This includes the most difficult introduction, to Joyce Miller (Catherine Dyer), the mother of Brock’s late wife, Lorna, who was killed in a car accident two years previously. From the outset Joyce is hostile, although Tina is warmly received by Duane Chester (Paul Messinger), Joyce’s partner, and Petra (Corinne Nowicki), Brock’s sister: in fact, the latter tells Tina how glad she is to see Brock happy again. During the subsequent party, Brock impulsively proposes and is accepted. From this moment, Joyce dedicates herself to doing everything she can to break up the relationship—convincing herself that she is doing it for the good of her granddaughter, ten-year-old Harper (Brooke Fontana), though she does not hesitate to use the girl as a weapon. But although Joyce succeeds in causing trouble, Brock remains set upon marriage—with Joyce’s campaign against Tina escalating into character assassination, framing her for a crime, and attempted murder… Psycho-In-Law is an amusing and occasionally insightful examination of the potential horrors of the extended family—allowing, of course, for the delightfully absurd way that Lifetime movies go about this sort of thing. However, there is a bit more balance than usual in the screenplay by Becca Topol, with Tina contributing to her own difficulties by, one one hand, being too ready to “buy” Harper’s acceptance through a stream of gifts, and on the other to “show” Joyce by taking on full step-mother duties before she is really ready for them, and in spite of the demands of her new interior design business. Though she fully recognises Joyce as the enemy, Tina hesitates to enter battle—for Harper’s sake and for Brock’s—and of course to avoid making herself look like the bad guy. Since Lorna’s death, Brock has allowed Joyce to loom large in Harper’s life. Nevertheless, he hardly realises how Harper has taken the place of Lorna in his former mother-in-law’s micromanaging mind—even though, as he reveals to Tina, Joyce was driving the car when Lorna was killed (and, as is revealed to the viewer, was distracted by their argument over Lorna’s parenting). Between her resentment of Tina for supplanting Lorna and her fear of losing control of Harper, Joyce employs increasingly desperate measures—having Duane try to dig up dirt on her, assuming a false online identity to bring Tina’s ex, Chad (Tom Lind), back into her life, and framing her for identity theft. The latter is a bridge too far, however, as it gives Tina’s sister, lawyer Ellen (Pamela Mitchell, a dead ringer for Bellamy Young), something concrete to pursue. As Tina and her mother, Mimi (Aubrey Manning), work towards the wedding, Ellen follows a trail of evidence that leads her to Joyce. Determined to put a stop to her persecution of Tina, Ellen confronts Joyce to warn her off—but makes the mistake of meeting her alone…
(Immediate family gets put through the ringer here too: to Mimi, Ellen is a disappointment because she is “only” a successful lawyer and isn’t interested in marriage. Ellen’s wry acceptance of her role as family failure makes her a more complex character than is usual for the supporting-victim.)
As Chanderi begins to prepare for its annual festival, it also makes preparations of another kind: an elderly man goes from house to house, painting on the outside wall – in a mixture of crow urine and crushed bat bones – the incantation, Stree, come tomorrow; this is believed to help ward off the angry spirit of a woman who abducts men during the festival, leaving only their clothes behind. Vicky (Rajkummar Rao) looks on scornfully: he is a modern young man with a good opinion of himself—and is somewhat aggrieved that fate has made him a tailor’s son; though he is so skillful at his profession that many of the women of Chanderi frequent his father’s business rather than the ready-to-wear shop owned by the family of Vicky’s friend, Bittu (Aparshakti Khurana). Vicky is dazzled when a beautiful young woman (Shraddha Kapoor) asks him to sew her a lahenga; she tells him that she has come to Chanderi to attend the festival, and they agree to meet that evening at the temple. Vicky brags about the encounter to Bittu and Janna (Abhishek Banerjee), claiming it is love at first sight. However, that night he must search for the woman: when he finds her, she admits that she has not been to prayers. When they part, she gives Vicky a letter which she asks him not to open until the following morning. Vicky then goes on to a party attended by most of the town’s young men. Before he goes inside, he stops to urinate—unknowingly washing away the word tomorrow from the incantation painted on the wall. One of the guests, Narender (Aakash Dabhade), has invited his “girlfriend” – actually a prostitute – to the party: some time later, upstairs, there is a scream, and the sound of breaking glass; the terrified prostitute claims that a spectral figure dragged Narender out through the window… First some back-story: though director Amar Kaushik rightly points out that similar tales are told all over India, Stree is based most overtly on the Nale Ba urban legend active in Bangalore during the 1990s, in which the spirit of a dead bride searched for her husband—luring men from their homes by calling to them in the voice of a female relative; to ward off this unwelcome visitor, the people of Bangalore began painting the words come tomorrow on their external walls. From this foundation, Amar Kaushik has crafted a film that is part horror, part comedy, and part social commentary. Like so many Indian films, Stree is all over the place—lurching from creepy scenes to broad comedy to shrewd observations about country-town life and the clash of the traditional and the modern, and then back again…and yes, of course there’s dance scene (though mind you, given her movements and her lyrics about hips, the dancer from Bhopal would seem to have trained in Columbia); while to give the film its due, the scene in which Vicky takes the stranger’s measurements is pretty damn sexy. The main narrative thread of Stree follows Vicky and his friends as they go about their lives, with the former’s raptures about his new love contrasted with the jealous grumblings of Bittu in particular—until the latter begins to grow concerned as he hears about the beautiful stranger being in town only for the festival; how she comes and goes without warning; and how she has Vicky searching for a number of strange items usually associated with witchcraft. Vicky refuses to listen to Bittu’s warnings—until the matter takes on a grim new urgency when Janna disappears… While there is plenty to enjoy here, the best part of Stree is its take on the gender roles too often assigned in horror movies and, alas, in real life. As Stree, presumably, goes about her grim business, the young men of Chanderi are warned not to go out at night, not to go out alone, not to speak to strangers…sound familiar? Some of this is played for wry humour, but the background story of Stree and her personal tragedy is played admirably straight—and so are the means by which the young characters finally confront and dissipate her threat. However, the tone-perfect conclusion to the film’s Stree-plot is somewhat off-set by the overall handling of the stranger, particularly given the fact that the latter is the only major female character here—Stree herself excepted, of course. The ambiguity surrounding the stranger’s actions and motives tend to undermine the main thrust of the film’s message, as indeed does the kicker ending which is set against what should be the closing note of the story.