The Woman in Black (2012)
★★ / ★★★★
Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe), a young father and a widower, was assigned by his London-based law firm to go to the country and peruse through the documents that Mrs. Drablow (Alisa Khazanova) left upon her death. If it was certain that the firm had her final will, her gothic mansion, known to everyone around it as the Eel Marsh House, would be ready for clean-up and sale. Arthur assumed it would be a relatively easy job. When he arrived at the village, however, the residents were very unwelcoming and keen on sending him back to where he came from. Soon enough, he had a chance to visit the supposedly abandoned house and began to see a woman observing him from the grounds. Based on a novel by Susan Hill and screenplay by Jane Goldman, the greatest strength of “The Woman in Black” was its understanding of the importance of building suspense prior to delivering a genuinely scary moment that either left its audience startled or horrified. I enjoyed the way it kept me interested as to why the distressed townsfolk were so opposed to Arthur’s visit. While we suspected that it probably had something to do with his assignment at the secluded house, we weren’t sure as to how that was related to the three seemingly happy children who jumped to their deaths in the first scene. By not giving us immediate answers, I actually ended up wanting Arthur to finally get to the house and do a bit of investigation in order to get to the bottom of the mystery. The creepiness increased tenfold when the camera loomed over the estate. It was surrounded by a marsh in which tides came and went depending on the hours. At times the road was unavailable which meant that Arthur wouldn’t be able to escape when his encounters turned grim. When he was left alone to look around the house, the picture was at its best because the filmmakers highlighted the stillness that surrounded our protagonist as well as when the stillness was threatened by supernatural forces. Typicalities occurred such as a ghost appearing behind Arthur when he wasn’t looking but a handful of them were executed so convincingly, the clichés were almost negligible. The most chilling scene involved a nursery room with a rocking chair that seemed to defy physics. It was enjoyable on more than one level because while the direction forced our senses to focus on sounds and images, the horror elements–like dolls moving and stopping on their own, the eventual reveal of the malevolent ghost and the like–also challenged us, if we wished, to recreate an image of an unhappy life that had driven the woman in black to do the things she did. This could be connected to the moment when we first met Arthur as he held a blade to his neck but changed his mind for his son’s sake. This led to the picture’s main weakness. I wasn’t totally convinced that Radcliffe was a young father who was grieving for his wife’s death. Although he had no problem conjuring emotions like sadness, the angst behind his eyes and actions weren’t quite there. I felt that a certain level of realism within the character to be important because the reason why Arthur decided to take the job and continued to perform the job despite eerie warnings was because he wanted to provide for his son. Instead of an engaging beginning, since certain emotions didn’t feel true, I found it rather languorous. “The Woman in Black,” directed by James Watkins,” could have also used an ending that didn’t feel so saccharine that it derailed its consistently minacious tone. It was an example of how toxic a cliché can be if there was nothing else behind it other than lazy or confused writing.
Black Death (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) was a young Christian monk who decided to go with Ulrich (Sean Bean), the envoy to the bishop, and his men (Emun Elliott, Johnny Harris, Andy Nyman, Tygo Gernandt, John Lynch) to guide them in reaching a village surrounded by a marsh beyond the Dentwich Forest. It was a place of special interest because word went around that a necromancer had taken control of the area. The heretic was to be apprehended and sent to the bishop for trial and execution. Based on the screenplay by Dario Poloni, “Black Death” was a gripping gothic horror with a supernatural premise on top of the Bubonic Plague backdrop. Since no one understood the science of vectors and disease, people surmised that the pestilence was an act of God, a way for Him to purge away the sins of His people. As the film got deeper into the mystery involving a person being capable of raising the dead, it was interesting to observe the way the men’s faith was challenged. Of particular interest was Osmund, torn between his devotion to his religion and being with a woman (Kimberley Nixon) he loved. Being a monk, he had to choose one or the other. The changes that occurred within each character, not all of them given enough time to get to know by the audience, had variation and maintained a certain level of subtlety. What was straightforward, however, was the physical journey that the men took toward the village. When the group stopped, they faced some sort of death. The standout was a battle among thieves in the forest. The violence was gruesome–throats were sliced, swords went through torsos, arms were torn off completely–but somehow it never felt gratuitous. I got the impression that we actually needed to see how fierce the men were so that later on, when they eventually had to face something so monstrous and they cowered like children, we had an understanding of their fears. The village in question was very curious. Since it was unexpectedly peaceful, the director, Christopher Smith, milked certain looks given by its residents. Hob (Tim McInnerny) was obviously the alpha male, his voice commanding and stature very proud. Langiva (Carice van Houten) was also worthy of suspicion. Her blonde hair which complemented her very pale complexion probably concealed a very dark evil. The abandoned church, given Christianity’s influence back in the day, was a good signal that something wasn’t quite right. There was one detail that didn’t make sense to me. After finding out about the unused place of worship, why did the men continue to trust the villagers by eating their food and drinking their wine? It felt like a plot convenience, a weak set-up so that the men from the outside would lose their advantage. It was a surprise to me because prior to that point, the material did a great job in circumventing eye-rolling clichés. Nevertheless, “Black Death” was very atmospheric, especially the sequences when the men had to wade through the marsh, and offered engaging performances, particularly by Redmayne. The movie worked because it sacrificed cheap scares for more thoughtful denouements.
Hour of the Wolf (1968)
★★ / ★★★★
“Vargtimmen” or “Hour of the Wolf” plays on the idea that between night and dawn, it is the time when most people are born and most people die. It is also the time when we are haunted by our greatest fears whether we are asleep or awake. Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman, while I thought the story was interesting, I can’t quite recommend it because I know Bergman was capable of producing a stronger picture. It just didn’t have the signature tension that most of his movies had. I absolutely loved Liv Ullmann’s scenes because she had a talent for balancing sweetness, anxiety, fear and internal rage. This was highlighted when she talked to the camera such as in the first and last scenes. I wanted to console her and ask her about the finer details of what she thought happened to her increasingly detached husband. While I thought the performances were fine, such as Max von Sydow as Ullmann’s husband who was afraid of the dark, nobody else could match the lead actress’ intensity so I felt like she somewhat carried the film. For a horror film, I didn’t feel scared for a second because it really was more about the fractured mind of von Sydow–how the guilt for something he had done in the past had suddenly become so unbearable; and how one experience he had as a child had changed the way he dealt with irrational fears. As for the people they met in a gothic castle, they were more strange (and amusing) than anything. While they did have their moments, Bergman did not really give the audiences a chance to understand what they really about. For me, they were more like cackling fools in a corner instead of malevolent strangers whose sole intention is to harm. I know a plethora of people who love the cinema that consider “Vargtimmen” a classic. I certainly do not because I don’t feel like it all came together as a strong whole. In the end, I had more questions than answers. While it did incorporate the subject of psychology in its story, it lacked tension. Instead of really being enveloped into the story, I constantly questioned what the point was. For those unfamiliar with Bergman’s work, “Hour of the Wolf” may seem pretty good. But for those who are not, we all know this is not his finest hour (and a half).
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
★★★ / ★★★★
Gary Oldman stars as Count Dracula, a man who found his love named Elisabeta (Winona Ryder) died after he arrived from the war. The priests did not want to give Elisabeta a proper burial because she committed suicide. This angered Dracula, denounced God and was cursed to live for eternity lusting for blood. Hundreds of years later, Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) was assigned to help Dracula to buy some property in London unknowing of the vampire’s true intentions. Eventually, Dracula set his sights on Harker’s wife (also played by Ryder) because she looked exactly like his former lover and Dr. Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins) stepped in to help. I’m not entirely convinced on whether to recommend this picture. While I did find the asthetics magnificent and the execution of the story to be just fine, some crucial elements did not meet my expectations. I thought it sacrificed a lot of the terror for the sake of romance. When I watch a movie about Dracula, I expect to be suspended in suspense instead of watching him yearn over a lover. I thought the best scenes in the film were in the first half. There was something extremely creepy about the whole vibe of the castle when Jonathan visited Dracula in Transylvania. Every shadow and dark corner of the room felt menacing as if something seriously wrong was about to happen. The soundtrack was used sparingly so that the audiences could hear every creak and footstep made in the castle. The second half of the movie felt exactly the opposite. There were overt sexual references, consistent loud noises and the pacing became static. While it still remained elegant, I began to feel more apathetic toward each character when I should have been rooting for them because lives were at stake. Regardless of its flaws, I was still curious on what was going to happen next because Francis Ford Coppola, the director, had interesting techniques when it came to presenting his audiences gothic imagery. Coppola spent too much of his time with the images and asthetics of the picture that he somewhat neglected his characters and where the story was going. I’m not sure how closely this followed Bram Stoker’s original 1897 novel because I haven’t read it. But I must say that it definitely took me back to that time period. So in terms of escapism, I think this movie did a good job. However, when I try to really analyze it piece by piece, I’m not that impressed with it. It’s the strangest feeling.