Danish Director Martin Barnewitz Enters "Room 205"

 

Perhaps the era of the sleeper hit horror movie is over in the U.S. Once upon a time, movies like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE could come out of nowhere; foreign films like BLACK SUNDAY and SUSPRIA could pack American audiences into drive-ins and grind houses, while their more upscale brethren like ONIBABA and KWAIDAN could find audiences in the art theatres. Today, a low-budget, foreign-language horror film – no matter how good – is lucky to get a DVD release in the U.S. With little hope of selling tickets stateside, the film becomes not an end in itself but a means to an end, a calling card that can, hopefully, lead to a more lucrative gig.
This is more or less what happened with ROOM 205 (a.k.a. Kollegiet [“The College”]), an effective supernatural thriller from Denmark that impressed audiences at last year’s Screamfest Film Festival in Hollywood. Ghost House Underground, a joint venture between Ghost House Pictures (known for J-Horror remakes like THE GRUDGE) and Grindstone Entertainment Group (one of the country’s bigger direct-to-video companies), picked up the U.S. rights, including a potential American remake; by passing theatres, the film will come out on DVD later this year. Meanwhile, director Martin Barnewitz has landed a deal with Ghost House Pictures to direct THE MESSENGERS 2, a direct-to-video sequel to the 2007 film directed by the Pang Brothers (THE EYE).
ROOM 205 follows Katrine (Neel Ronholt), a young woman from a small town who moves into a dormitory when she goes to a University in the big city. She tries to fit in with her new neighbors, but her situation quickly sours into alienation. Complications take the form of a ghost, which manifests in a bathroom mirror and seems to act on Katrine’s behalf, taking revenge against those who have wronged her. Although the film ultimately comes down squarely in favor of a supernatural explanation, much of it plays like a modern homage to Roman Polanski thrillers like REPULSION, ROSEMARY’S BABY, and THE TENANT, which focused on characters who were paranoid, isolated, and/or alienated from their neighbors.
Cinefantastique Online sat down for a chat with Barnewitz when he was in the U.S. for Screamfest, before the deals for releasing ROOM 205 and directing MESSENGERS 2 had been finalized. Read More

The Innocents (1961) – Retrospective Review

“Do They Ever Return to Possess the Living?”

That was the question asked in the advertising for this adaptation of Henry James’ classic novelette, The Turn of the Screw.It is a question that goes unanswered by the film itself, which true to the source material leaves the existence of ghosts unclear, forcing audiences to debate whether Quint (Peter Wyngarde) and Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop) are really visitors from the grave or simply figments of the demented imagination of governess Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr). Imagine yourself as the young English governess, given sole responsibility for two young children growing up in an isolated country manor. Shortly after assuming this position (your first), you begin to see the ghosts of your unfortunate predecessor and her lover, a valet with an evil reputation. At first you seek to shield your young charges from the horror haunting the house, but soon you come to believe that your young charges are not only fully aware of the ghosts but actively in league with them. You cannot seek outside help without seeming mad, and your employer, the uncle of the orphaned children, wants under no circumstances to be bothered, leaving you to face the situation alone, and unguided. How can you stop the these visitors from the grave from claiming the “innocents” as their prey?
This unresolved mystery charges the events of THE INNOCENTS with a dreadful sense of uncertainty far more thrilling than the simple supernatural chills of a typical haunted house movie – another “turn of the screw,” as James would have said. At the same time, the ambiguous narrative serves up its share of suggestive shivers; its ghostly apparitions, achieved without special effects, convey a palpable sense of horror. Glimpsed at a distance or through windows, lurking in the shadows of night but sometimes revealing themselves by day, are utterly convincing and magnificently threatening without ever actually doing anything; their supernatural stillness, as much as anything else, sends shivers down the backbone, playing the vertebrae like a skeletal hand tapping on a xylophone.
Truman Capote`s screenplay plays upon the ambiguity of James` tale: are the two children really possessed by the ghosts of the dead, or is their governess merely imagining everything? Producer-director Jack Clayton keeps the film firmly grounded in reality, so that the intrusion of the supernatural strikes far more strongly.
The overt horror in THE INNOCENTS takes the form of Quint and Miss Jessel – tangible apparitions who appear as solid as a living beam, not like some gauzy ghost. Miss Jessel is the more reticent of the two, waling in the shadows at the end of a hallway, standing on the shore across a lake, or crying in a school room. Quint seems more aggressive. First glimpsed atop a tower, he is later seen peering through windows, his expressions paralleling those of Miles, as if the dead valet were the puppeteer pulling the strings of the young lad.

The ghost of Quint (Peter Wyngarde) oversees young Miles (Martin Stephens).

In way, however, the real horror of the film resides in the children. Are Miles and Flora innocent, or are they in league with the ghosts? Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin are excellent, their too perfectly precocious innocence suggesting that Miss Giddens’ fears may have some basis in reality after all. Stephens is given more opportunity to shine, but Franklin (who would go on to star in 1974’s THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE) holds her own, delivering lovely lines of twisted dialogue such as “Oh, look – there’s a lovely spider, and it’s eating a butterfly!”
Deborah Kerr gives a superb performance, conveying Miss Giddens’ desperate desire to help while overtly suggesting a note of repressed hysteria, hinting that the ghosts may be externalizations of her own inner demons. Kerr brings this complex, redoubtable character to life in THE INNOCENTS with an added layer of her own. In the book, the governess was in her early twenties at most; her youth and inexperience could excuse this missteps she makes in her dire circumstances. Kerr, although youthful, was clearly older than the book’s character, yet she played the part with the naiveté of an inexperienced woman, while adding a range of affected mannerisms hinting at hidden neurosis. Consequently, she comes across as a spinster in the making, her repressed sexuality bubbling to the surface in her obvious attraction to her employer (whom she sees only once, during the job interview that opens the film) and in her reaction to learning that her predecessor engaged stormy nearly sado-masochistic relationship with the valet, a man clearly her social inferior (an unforgivable taboo for a Victorian woman).
Oscar-winner Freddie Francis delivers excellently black-and-white photography in beautiful widescreen Cinemascope. When Miss Giddens wanders the shadowy halls of Bly at night, candelabra in hand as she follows the whispered words of Quint and Jessel, the scene superficial resembles typical horror movie cliches, but it is handled with grand flair, including some clever camera effects to suggest that the moving candles truly are lighting the scene. In the days before film could rely on available light, Francis had special filters fashioned that created a spotlight-like effect, with the image bright in the center of the frame and tapering off to darkness toward the edges. The sequence is perhaps the closest the film comes to visualizing a cinematic equivalent of James’ prose, with the haunting effects serving equally well as evidence of the supernatural or the psychological.
Seen decades after its initial release, THE INNOCENTS is clearly a relic from a bygone era, before The Haunting (1963), The Legend of Hell House (1973), Poltergeist (1982), and the remake of The Haunting (1999) had moved the haunted house sub-genre toward ever more jarring effects. Yet THE INNOCENTS continues to trump all of their best efforts. As frightening as some of those films are, none of them sucker punch the audience with the devastating emotional wallop of Clayton’s masterpiece. The ending seems designed with almost deliberate sadism, building the climax to a breath-taking crescendo and then fading away to an eerie silence that perfectly captures the feel of the novel’s closing line: “We were alone with the quiet day, and his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped.”

 DVD DETAILS

The 20th Century Fox DVD offers a two-sided disc, one with a widescreen transfer, the other with a full screen transfer. The audio is available in English stereo or Spanish mono, with options for English or Spanish subtitles. Bonus features (the same on both sides of the disc) are limited to the film’s theatrical trailer, plus some clips and recommendations for other Fox home video releases (LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE).
The film is divided into 28 chapters, with titles like “Tears of a Ghost.” The menu images culled from the black-and-white film have been colorized. Both transfers retain the photography’s beautiful contrast of light-and-shadow. The full screen version is not too bad an alternative if you do not have a widescreen television; much of it looks quite nice, but several shots do betray the loss of picture image around the sides. The widescreen transfer is of course preferable, preserving the widescreen compositions of the Cinemascope photography, particularly in shots like the one below, of Miss Giddens forcing Flora to confront the ghost of Miss Jessel (the two heads in the foreground, which are matted into the shot, not filmed live on location, are almost cropped off in the full screen version).

Miss Giddens (Deobrah Kerr) forces Flora (Pamela Franklin) to confront the ghost of Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop).

The trailer is a bit schizophrenic. It emphasizes THE INNOCENT’s  serious approach to the ghost story, citing the resptable credits of Kerr and Clayton,  but there seems to be a deliberate attempt to pump up the volume, including an echoing voice that asks the question quoted at the top of this review. The words are illustrated in eerie letters superimposed over a swirling, almost psychedelic vortex of black-and-white (an image not in the film, which was presumably achieved with paint in a tank). There is also an odd moment when the originally recorded soundtrack rather obviously drops out: the music and background effects disappear while the narrator reads the screenwriting credit for William Archibald and Truman Capote. (Presumably, the final screen credit changed, and the narration had to be re-recorded and awkwardly dropped in.)
Needless to say, this bare-bones presentation does not do justice to Jack Clayton’s classic.. One hopes that, someday, Fox will release a special edition disc loaded with bonus features.
THE INNOCENTS (1961). Produced and directed by Jack Clayton. Screenplay by William Archibald and Truman Capote, basedon the play by Archibald and the novel The Turn of the Screwby Henry James, additional scenes and dialgoue by John Mortimer. Cast: Deborah Kerr, Martin Stephens, Pamela Franklin, Megs Jenkins, Michael Redgrave, Peter Wyngarde, Clytie Jessop.

The Others (2001) – DVD Review

The Others (2001)This is a modern horror film with an old-fashioned touch, relying on suspense and the suggestion of the supernatural to generate a disturbing sense of the Uncanny. In the manner of classic haunted house movies like THE INNOCENTS (1960) and THE HAUNTING (1963), THE OTHERS uses a deliberately steady pace to increase tension, gradually drawing viewers into its mystery until they are so engaged that they completely susceptible to the effectively executed scare tactics. Although the actual shocks are few and far between, the film maintains interest with its intelligent storytelling, and the rich atmosphere sustain the mood of supernatural dread throughout, so that when the scares do come, they are worth the wait—even simple things like a slamming door are guaranteed to send you hurtling out of your seat with a scream. Of course, the pacing is a gambit, and it does not always pay off; repeat viewings may have you wishing that the editing were not quite so slow and stately. The scare scenes remain effective, but you may find yourself growing impatient while awaiting their arrival.

SUMMARY

The story is set in a mansion on a small British island, immediately after World War II. Grace (Nicole Kidman) is seeking replacements for three servants who mysteriously disappeared, without explanation. Fortunately, three volunteers show up, led by Mrs. Mills (Fionnula Flanagan), even though (it later turns out) the advertisement Grace mailed to the local newspaper was never picked up by the postman. Our concern about who these servants really are (and what they’re up to) keeps us off-balance while we try to focus on the real story: Grace’s house seems to be haunted; at least, that’s what her daughter Anne (Alakina Mann) insists Grace refuses to believe in ghosts, and so—at least at first—does her son Nicholas (James Bentley). But soon Nicholas is hearing voices in the night and feeling the touch of a hand. Is there really a ghost, or is his older sister playing a horrible prank on him? Soon Grace herself is having doubts, when she hears unaccountable noises in the attic, and finds a door swung closed in her face by an unseen force.
Mrs. Mills lends a sympathetic ear to Grace’s growing fear. But is she really sincere, or merely plotting in some way to drive Grace and her family from the house? Grace’s doubts melt away after she departs for the village, searching for the local priest to bless the house. Lost in the fog, she never makes it to town; instead, she encounters her husband Charles (Christopher Eccleston), who had been presumed dead in the war. Returning with him, she reverts to her previous skepticism, refusing to listen to her daughter’s tales of “The Others” who inhabit the house. But when Charles departs as mysteriously as he arrived, the evidence of another presence in the house grows too strong to ignore. Grace blames the servants for perpetrating some kind of hoax, but locking them out only traps her inside with the intruders, forcing a confrontation that finally reveals the mystery behind the haunting.

CRITICISM

Writer-director Alejandro Amenabar (who also composed the score) orchestrates all these plot elements wonderfully. He knows how to build up to his shocks slowly and carefully, teasing the audience along, making them wait for the big moments without getting bored. Although the limited cast and locations (a half dozen people in one house and the surrounding grounds) almost suggest a stage play, the film is never static. His camera pulls us in, hints at what lies unseen around the corner, gives us glimpses of horrors sometimes real and sometimes imagined. With the help of cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, Amenabar achieves a level of atmosphere equivalent to the best black-and-white pictures of this kind. Filmed mostly in darkened interiors (because Grace’s children are allergic to sunlight), THE OTHERS layers on the shadows and fog (thanks to help from the special effects team, who turned the sunny location into a mist-bound limbo) without ever overdoing the effect. In short, this is a film that gives you what you expect from the best examples of the genre, without ever seeming formulaic or predictable.
THE OTHERS is a film that succeeds because it is built upon simple, basic virtues: use story, characterization, and performance to make the audience care about what’s happening on screen; then when the horror element emerges, viewers will scream in fear instead of laughing in derision.
Because of this approach, one comes away from the film not only impressed with the technical competence that crafted the thrills. One also has a vivid appreciation of the film’s performances, which are as strong as in any mainstream, dramatic film. In particular, Nicole Kidman handles herself quite impressively in the lead role: in the horror sequences, she conveys an impressive array of variations on the stock expression of wide-eyed fear, yet somehow she never descends into camp; in the everyday scenes, she brings a level of neurosis to the character that is always convincing. Her character is a god-fearing woman, and she obviously loves her children, but you know that something was wrong even before the haunting started, something that is not fully explained until the very end, but her performance makes the revelation understandable and believable when it comes (just as Anthony Perkins slyly tipped his hand in Hitchcock’s PSYCHO).
Also deserving mention is Fionnula Flanagan as Mrs. Mills, who gives a carefully measured performance that elicits sympathy, even while sowing doubts in our minds about her true intentions.
With this level of performance at his command, Amenabar had the luxury of crafting a film that eschewed the excess of most contemporary horror films. Subtlety (often a misused synonym for unimaginative technique) in this case does what it is supposed to do, resulting in a film that lives up to (even if it does not quite exceed) the classic films that it aspires to emulate.

LASTING APPEAL?

Grace (Nicole Kidman) confronts an apparition claiming to be her daughter.
Grace (Nicole Kidman) confronts an apparition claiming to be her daughter.

It is a little too soon for THE OTHERS to have developed the patina of age that one normally associates with a “classic.” The film’s lasting impact, if any, is an open question (although it is spoofed in SCARY MOVIE 3—which suggests the audience is expected to recognize the joke—the film has not entered the public consciousness in the manner of THE SIXTH SENSE). Nevertheless, THE OTHERS’ period setting bestowed an almost “classic” feel on the film from its debut, and the passage of even a couple years contribute to a growing appreciation of the film’s virtues, which embody the best of the Victorian ghost story tradition.
M.R. James, one of the great writers in this field, once outlined the method he used in his tales: set the story up slowly; show the characters going about their daily lives; then introduce the supernatural element gradually; at first, let it be heard rather than seen, then glimpsed fleetingly, before finally making its full appearance on stage. This technique works marvelously in short stories such as those that James wrote, but it can be dangerous when applied to a novel or a full-length movie. By keeping the main element of interest, the ghost, off-screen for so long, one risks boring the audience. This may be even more true in this day and age, when viewers expect a full-frontal assault of CGI special effects starting from frame one. Yet somehow, Amenabar managed to fashion just such an old-fashioned ghost story for the screen.
At times, his film resembles a classic Victorian ghost story written by another author named James: Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw.” The horror of the situation is amplified to terrifying degrees by focusing on the presence of the two children in the house; the performances by the youngsters are always effective, and Bentley is especially good at portraying a level of fear that is usually heart-breaking.
But THE OTHERS is no carbon copy. “Turn of the Screw” rested on two questions: (1) Were the children innocent victims or accomplices of the ghosts? And (2) were there really any ghosts at all, or were they merely imagined by the novelette’s narrator? For the sake of mystery and suspense, Amenabar’s script doesn’t give us all the answers right away, but it soon becomes apparent that there is indeed some kind of supernatural presence in the house, and the children are terrified of it, not in league with it.
[SPOILER ALERT] Still, even with these elements clarified, the story strives to pull off a surprise ending, revealing that not only the suspicious servants but also Grace and her children are the ghosts haunting the house. Viewers who paid close attention to all the clues were able to figure it out, but this is hardly a criticism. Rather, it characteristic of the best kind of plot twist: one that makes sense out of the mysterious events that preceded: Why did the mail stop coming to the house? Why does the pastor no longer visit? Why does Grace say that she feels absolutely cut off from the rest of the world? Why does a surrounding fog make the house seem as if it’s lost in limbo? In short, Amenabar’s script plays fair with its audience, and the resolution is a satisfying, even if you do have a suspicious notion of where the ending is headed.* [END OF SPOILER ALERT]

DVD DETAILS

click to purchase
click to purchase

THE OTHERS is available on DVD as part of Dimension’s “Collector’s Series,” but the two-disc set will hardly satisfy collectors. The presentation of the film is excellent in terms of picture and sound quality, but there is no director’s audio commentary (perhaps because English is not his first language), and the minimal extras hardly seem sufficient to justify the second disc. The longest of these, a so-called “documentary” look behind the scenes, is little more than a promotional puff-piece that falls far short of providing the sort of critical analysis and historical perspective the film deserves—and which would go a long way toward explaining how such a long-shot movie managed to become a front-runner in the box office race. Such a finely craft film deserved a more thorough presentation on DVD.
THE OTHERS (2001). Written and directed by Alejandro Amenabar. Cast: Nicole Kidman, Fionnula Flanagan, Christopher Eccleston, Alakna Mann, James Bentley, Eric Sykes, Elaine Cassidy, Renee Asherson.
FOOTNOTE [with spoilers]:

  • Coming only two years after THE SIXTH SENSE, the ending of THE OTHERS is sometimes perceived as a rip-off of that film. Actually, the surprise twist is more reminiscent of the obscure 1973 film VOICES, which stars David Hemmings and Gayle Hunnicutt as a married couple who have moved into an old house that seems to be haunted; eventually, realize they died in a car crash on the way, and now they are among the ghost haunting the place. William Peter Blatty used a similar plot twist at the end of his short novel Elsewhere, which was published as part of the horror anthology 999, in the appropriate year of 1999.

Dark Water (2005) – Film Review

Despite ho-hum reaction from the film critics, this is not a bad film, although it does suffer from slow pacing. In fact, as a remake it compares more favorably to its source material than THE RING does — at least in part because the Japanese version of DARK WATER is not as good as RINGU. It’s easy to see why an American producer would be attracted to the source material: the tale of divorced mother fighting for her daughter in a custody battle and fending off a malevolent ghost combines real-world believability with supernatural horror, providing a strong identification figure that could appeal to women and thus increase the film’s appeal to an audience not normally known to frequent genre films. Read More