Thursday, 28 October 2010

Dead of Night (1945)

For Halloween, an English chiller par excellence is a suitable choice.

Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) is invited for the weekend to the country farmhouse of Eliot Foley (Roland Culver). But as he drives along to the farm, something odd disturbs Craig as he drives up and stops his car, something strangely familiar about the place, as if from a dream, which he finds himself gradually recollecting.

As he steps in, there's something oddly familiar about the other guests too: not only that, but they've also had their own dealings with the supernatural: racing driver Hugh Grainger (Anthony Baird) who has seen a creepy hearse driver (Miles Malleson) who turns up again on a bus that is about to crash. There's also Mrs Joan Courtland (Googie Withers) whose blissful married life is suddenly threatened by a sinister mirror which drives her husband (Ralph Michael) to murder. Even sceptics like Foley himself (who tells the one humorous segment of "Ealing comedy" involving Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne), young Sally O'Hara (Sally Ann Howes), and most notably, the pragmatic Dr. Van Straaten (Frederick Valk), all have their strange tales to tell.

Thus began, in its now well-trodden form, the multi-ghost story compendium, which seems to suit horror and in particular British horror very well, where few of them are particularly long (or have any need to be), so Dead of Night is the ideal transposition of these chilling tales, and though Ealing were rightly famous for their comedies, they could turn their hands to other genres with equal skill, as this compelling film very ably demonstrates. Indeed if anything, there is a vein of wry conversational humour to the linking sequences in the farmhouse that helps to emphasize the horror even more.

Van Straaten's tale is the most remembered of the lot, and also the most imitated; it's perhaps not so terrifying, indeed even comical nowadays, to see a ventroliquist's dummy take over its owner. However, Michael Redgrave's demented Maxwell Frere (with his dummy, "Hugo") is a case of the film's main star in a relatively brief but startling role, and one that certainly grabs the most attention.

The nightmare reaches its zenith for Walter Craig, as Hugo strangles him.

But even more chilling for me however is the climactic linking sequence, where the whole stately set-up suddenly spirals into nightmare, and allows Basil Dearden (chief of the film's four fine directors) and Ealing to be experimental and highly avant garde.

Many film makers have mimicked this style of portmanteau horror, but the wrap-arounds are often tame and perfunctory, and none of them have Dead of Night's force - which makes itself felt even on the end credits, where...

...Walter Craig is invited for the weekend to the country farmhouse of Eliot Foley, but as he drives along to the farm, something odd disturbs Craig as he drives up and stops his car, something strangely familiar about the place.....

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

The Village (2004)

Back in 1999 when one blockbuster followed another with a variable degree of intelligence and a greater amount of special effects, along came an old-fashioned ghost story called The Sixth Sense, which dared to keep the camera still, the soundtrack quiet, and to let the audience in on the experience (even though it also cast macho Bruce Willis as a sleepy-looking psychologist to precocious Hayley Joel Osment.)

The Sixth Sense was followed by Unbreakable (again with Willis) and Signs, with Mel Gibson this time as the macho hero for whom widowhood has made him lose the faith that he regains when fear strikes the world at the sight of alien invasion on every TV channel (an allegory for September 11th). Also cast as Gibson's brother was Joachim Phoenix, for whom M. Night Shyamalan specifically wrote his next project, the unusual setting on this occasion being a remote village in the 19th century, where a fragile but happy existence is enjoyed by the community in spite of the growing threat of murderous creatures in the woods.

Things turn awry however when quiet, introverted but courageous Lucius Hunt (Phoenix) dares to walk the line into the woods - and the domain of the creatures - and both he and the villagers suffer the consequences.

Unusually however, when events in the story take an unexpected turn, it is not Lucius but his prospective fiancee Ivy Walker (Bryce Dallas Howard) - who has quietly slipped into the film one third of the way through - who takes up the challenge to go beyond the woods into the towns to get help. Ivy, blind since childhood, is ironically the best qualified for such a quest, for being intuitively able to sense things that others cannot, her blindness being her strength as well as her handicap - and helping also to heighten the suspense and terror in the audience.

The Village is one of the few cases where I have sat in the cinema and audiences have literally screamed aloud, a testament to the suspense and atmosphere created by Shyamalan, not only from the threat of the creatures but also the beautifully conveyed scenery and sense of community (the wedding barn dance strongly reminisces Heaven's Gate), thanks also to a superb supporting cast - the best of all Shyamalan's films - that includes William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Brendan Gleeson, and in an offbeat diversion from his Oscar-winning The Pianist, Adrien Brody - as the village idiot, who like Ivy, is a lot smarter than he looks.

In spite of its beautiful construction and taut suspense, a certain amount of critical backlash has - unfairly in my view - been accorded The Village. Trailers for the film misleadingly emphasised most of the horror aspects, and some audiences expecting a ghostly shocker on the lines of The Sixth Sense were rather disappointed to find an elegiac suspenseful romantic drama instead. The characteristic final twist in the tale is (as with most of Shyamalan's work) quite guessable, but does not in any way diminish from the tension or the atmosphere. If anything, it serves to strengthen the resolve of the village elders, and speaks a great deal about the spiritual dedication of their cause.

Many of M. Night Shyamalan's films have a haunting spiritual undertone, drawn from his upbringing (from India but raised in America) and though his recent work seems to have withered and turned pretentious in the eyes of many, The Village is one of his best works, on all counts.

100 Favourite Films

100 Favourite Films