THE WITCH (2015)

I don’t know exactly when the word “fairytale” began to conjure up images of love and happy endings. That was, of course, my understanding of the term through infancy too, until my parents gave me a book of traditional Scottish fairy and folk tales. Gone were the sanitised and tame caricature villains in favour of the genuinely terrifying, unsettling, brutal, tragic, and evil. I often found my young and uninitiated mind terrified and haunted, and yet I found myself impulsively coming back for more, with my heart in my mouth and stomach tight with nervous excitement for the horrors the next tale would bring. I was completely hooked. I have since read many similar tales from around the globe, developing a particular fondness for reading the original (and brutal) stories that would evolve (or devolve, one may argue) into the safe and familiar stories presented – complete with bubble wrap, candy-floss colours, and all sharp edges removed – in children’s picture books and movies today.

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The Witch, or “VVitch” as appears on the posters (a common Jacobean spelling from the time in which the story is set), is one such tale. Whilst the story is an original rather than a historical tale, director Roger Eggers – a fellow lifelong aficionado of folk tales in general and those of witches in particular (somewhat unsurprisingly) – has made every effort to ensure that The Witch is as ‘traditional’ a folk tale as they come: The language is true to the period, with some dialogue even taken directly from historical source materials including court records and journals; the storyline itself also inspired by both fictional and “historical” accounts of witchcraft, no doubt including many of the tales I so loved throughout my youth.

Eggers collaborated extensively with historians from both British and American museums to make the film as historically accurate as possible, going as far as consulting experts on historical agriculture to make certain that the family’s farm was just as any would have been at the time. Despite the film’s setting, farming can hardly be considered one of the film’s themes and we are only ever given fleeting glimpses of any such activity, a reflection of Eggers’ dedication to getting every detail just right. I personally loved the myriad small but significant details such as the characters’ delivery of early-modern English in British accents, exactly how newly arrived settlers in the Americas would have spoken (something that may escape the attention of a lesser director of an American/Canadian co-production both set and filmed on the North American continent), and that the film was shot using exclusively the sources of light that would have been available to a real family in the 1600s, limiting himself to the sun during the day and candlelight and moonlight after dark. I can’t help but think that this is as close to time travel as we have available to us at the moment.

Whilst I am yet to hear any criticism of the film’s artistic style or cinematography (and rightly so, may I add, for it is a visually stunning work of cinema), having spoken to some less enthused by the film’s plot it has occurred to me that some might have gone into the movie expecting a more conventional horror film, or more specifically something more contemporary in themes. I watched The Witch with my mum on a recent visit – my first trip south since moving to Glasgow late last year – and having left film selection up to her, knew little to nothing about it prior to watching it, with the exception of its tagline: “A New-England Folktale”. Perhaps I have this to thank for my getting exactly what I had expected: A folktale (rather more specific and a slightly different concept in my mind to that conjured by the term “horror film” as The Witch is listed on streaming or review sites, and even referred to in the trailer). As I said before, folk tales were often scary, but they were not intended to scare the audience of the 21st century silver screen; the tales that inspired this story were written by candlelight by men and women to whom a witch was not just a spooky concept but a genuine threat: it is estimated that some 50,000 witches were hung, drowned, and burned over several hundred years across Europe and the American colonies, with 17th century New England – the setting of the infamous Salem Witch Trials amongst others – no exception.

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Some things you should know before you watch this movie, if you have not done so already: The story moves slowly; antagonists hardly ever appear on screen (though to great effect when they do); there are no jump scares, which interestingly added greatly to the movie’s tension for me as I occasionally found myself bracing for jump scares that never came, leaving an unresolved tension lingering in my gut (a sad reflection perhaps on the predictability of some modern cinema); and the film’s conclusion is perfectly realistic and logical only when considered through the eyes of someone living in the period in which it is set. To a modern viewer with a stubbornly contemporary view of the world expecting a modern horror movie this will be a recipe for disappointment, but if you can leave the trappings of the modern world behind for a couple of hours, I am sure you will agree that The Witch is a consummate work of art.

A QUIET PLACE (2018)

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Most would instinctively describe cinema as a visual art-form, but one look at the history of everyone’s favourite (mostly) English-language cinema celeb-fest, the Oscars, shows that awards have been given for various aspects of a film’s audio since the third award ceremony in 1930 (Best Sound Recording). Whilst it’s not uncommon to have discussions about favourite soundtracks and movie themes, if A Quiet Place doesn’t cast sound design into the public consciousness nothing will. From the sound of unseen foes approaching (even more effective when implemented as a wandering “sound element”, more on this later), heartbeats racing as the tension skyrockets, to the piercing feedback of a young girl’s cochlear implant, sound plays a crucial role in the generation of tension. Marco Beltrami’s soundtrack’s not half bad either, the veteran horror scorer at it again with a mix of dissonant ambient tracks implemented in moments of action or threat and decidedly Jóhann Jóhannsson-esque minimalist beauties to lift the more sentimental moments to a higher plane. I actually stayed for the credits just to note the composer, always a sure sign of a great soundtrack.

I am an audiophile. I have always been obsessed with music, radio, and sounds natural and not alike: thunderstorms, bike tyres on loose gravel, briefcase clasps closing, the sound of oars skimming the water’s surface (the best thing about rowing)… So it may surprise some who know me well that it wasn’t actually the sound effects or the music that most impressed me: it was the silence. “If they hear you, they hunt you.”: one glance at the movie’s tagline tells us we’re in for a lot of holding our breath and tip-toeing around. It’s a simple yet effective strategy, and the suspense created by noticing anything that could create or cause the slightest noise – or even not so slight, such as an upturned nail on the stairs or Evelyn’s (Emily Blunt) baby bump – is so intense that I found myself almost longing to just get it over and done with. Almost. In reality, the only moment of relief permitted by the film is a simple yell shared by father and son, protected by a barrier of noise provided by the deafening roar of a waterfall.

Going beyond elective silence, Evelyn and Lee’s (John Krasinski) young daughter Regan (like Millicent Simmonds who played her) is deaf, in itself not an entirely unique concept – a character’s deafness was also used to wonderful effect in 2016’s Hush (here I feel obliged to mention that the writing of A Quiet Place was already underway in 2013) – but a young girl and her family’s struggle to come to terms with her disability would be difficult enough without the imminent threat of death at the claws of an alien predator (or “Death Angels” as they are nicknamed). The family’s ability to communicate non-verbally, undoubtedly initially for Regan’s benefit, is what allowed them to adapt and survive in the soundless world that the majority of humankind had failed to adapt to (civilisation as we know it all but wiped out), and – without giving too much away – the unique challenges of facing such a condition ultimately provide the Abbotts with the knowledge necessary to have a fighting chance at survival again towards the film’s close. Perhaps I, having grown up with a close friend who himself has a cochlear implant, am particularly attune to such themes, but Regan’s reaction to another of Lee’s failed attempt to fix another aid and provide some degree of hearing – fragile, restrained, and utterly devastating – left me in tears, and is unquestionably my favourite scene in the film. The maturity of such restraint in the face of pain, both physical and emotional, is what really makes this film so special (testament to the talents of Blunt and Millicent in particular, without whose measured and delicate performances such emotional impact would have been lost).

More than just a scary concept with a lot of jump scares, A Quiet Place is about a family’s ability to adapt and overcome. Here, we leave behind the all too familiar “every man for himself” survival concept in favour of a family’s altruism, and there is no limit to how far they will go to save each other. It’s a story of loss and sacrifice, and of acceptance. If I had to describe A Quiet Place in a word, it would not be “fear”, but “love”.

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PS: I normally wouldn’t talk too much about where I watched a film, but in this instance I feel I must say a few words before I go, as it enhanced the experience so much. A Quiet Place was the first film I have watched in a screen fitted with Dolby’s “Atmos”, showcased spectacularly by this film in which sound is so important. I’m not very well informed on the particulars of how it works, but sound elements move in a three dimensional space rather than the conventional “channels” used previously, giving a move specific sense of location (including a sense of “height”).

Not directly relevant to the film itself but definitely adding to my enjoyment of the visit (more specifically my first to an Odeon “Luxe” cinema), was the intense comfort of the auditorium. The cinema was absolutely packed – usually something that can feel quite claustrophobic, uncomfortable, and ultimately distracting – but everything about the room’s design leaves only one thing to give your attention to: the film (and so I did – only occasionally snapping back to reality at the odd shriek from one particularly timorous member of the audience seated further along the row to my right). All the seats in the auditorium were incredibly comfortable hand-stitched leather recliners with so much leg room that even when fully reclined I, at 6’1”, had enough room for a grown man to walk easily between my outstretched legs and the seat in front, minimising disruptions and eliminating distracting bumps in the back from the knees of the people sitting behind you. Each seat has its own private table for drinks and snacks, and two rather large armrests (goodbye awkward elbow bumping) which is both more comfortable and the added distance seems to make talking to the person next to you – a pet peeve of mine – more difficult or just less appealing, as nobody seemed to be doing it. Though on second thoughts the silence of the crowd (I have rarely seen a room so full so quiet) may have been equally to do with the quality of the film…

Five films that (almost) everyone can enjoy this Halloween

I would guess that I have my mother’s enthusiasm for all things spooky to thank for my love of my dad’s birthday (happy birthday my favourite old[er] dude!), or, more accurately, the celebration he shares his birthday with: Halloween. Whilst the meaning of this day has changed with cultural beliefs and religious practices, I am glad we have retained the “dressing up as scary stuff” aspect of Samhain, even if (most of us) are no longer trying to scare off ghosts and other malevolent spirits. Growing up I used to look forward to my mum’s halloween parties more than any other annual celebration, and still love decorating the house and opening the door to young trick or treaters out in pursuit of whatever goodies they can get their hands on. But there is another reason I love this date, and it is that All Hallow’s Eve inspires so many who normally stay well clear of anything of the sort to dip their feet into the world of scary movies (which I am usually otherwise forced to watch alone).

Of course, there are a billion lists already available online covering “the scariest films of all time”, “best horror/insert-horror-subgenre-here films of all time”, “best new horror movies”, etc., so you’ll be happy to learn that this is going to be something at least a little different. Below you will find a list of films (of no specific genre) to watch on Halloween, but offer something more than just being scary. I back this approach for a few reasons:

  1. Not everyone is scared by the same things, and so if a film’s only strength is its “scariness” and little else, the impact of the film will vary by the degree to which you possess a certain phobia. What’s more, much like can happen when someone describes a food as “spicy”, you may accidentally invite a pissing-contest in which people begin to joke around and make light of a film (in an attempt to show how unfazed they are or something), which whilst sometimes a good laugh (particularly with “so-bad-they’re-good” gems, although that’s kind of the point I suppose) can ruin the experience for everyone else. After all, most fictional works are more enjoyable when one can suspend disbelief and lose themselves in the story.
  2. I believe at least most of the core facets of what makes a film “good” to be universally applicable rather than genre specific: having an interesting or engaging plot or concept, the strength of the acting, possessing a strong art style/cinematography, and many more.
  3. There’s something for everyone, or at least a better response to the person at your halloween gathering who won’t join in watching something because they “just don’t see the point of scaring yourself” (and frankly more reason to watch a film altogether).
  4. I save myself some grief at the hands of the Genre-Police (ever notice those comments something along the lines of “Actually, x or y movie isn’t horror, but psychological thriller”?). More to the point, many films outside the conventional genres of horror/thriller (and their infinite sub-genres) can also match the definition of “horror” (a thing causing an intense feeling of fear, shock, dismay, disgust, anxiety, or nervousness).

 

So, without further ado, my list of Halloween recommendations:

Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Nominated for 7 and winning no less than all “big five” Academy Awards (including Best  Actor for Hopkins’s 16 minutes of screen time), this one really needs no introduction. Hannibal Lecter has become one of cinema’s most iconic – and chilling – characters for very good reason. (A good one to reach for in the company of film snobs).

 

I Saw the Devil (2010)

This Korean masterpiece is as beautifully filmed as it is unflinchingly savage. A cruel, tense, and violent, yet incredibly human and emotional (if you can see beyond the blood), game of cat and mouse.

 

Goodnight Mommy (2015)

This Austrian film plays with some real (and terrifying) psychological conditions (such as Capgras syndrome), and is a triumph in artistic style, concept, and storyline, which through a series of twists and turns will make you question what you accept to be real.

 

The Invitation (2016)

Slow and steady wins the race. Another beautifully shot movie that plays wonderfully with human psychology, this time in the context of a dinner party between old friends. This film controls both pace and tension levels throughout to create a complex emotional rollercoaster, tackling many difficult themes from relationships to death along the way.

 

Hush (2016)

This film takes a familiar horror movie setting – an isolated house in the woods – and ramps up the tension by excluding an entire sense: the protagonist is deaf. I love that this movie has a leading character whose disability is not the crux of the film but is rather an aspect of her character used to change one’s perspective of an otherwise clichéd concept, which I see as both ingenious (from a storyline perspective) and empowering . What’s more the film stays engaging despite the scarcity of dialogue and being filmed at a single location, which speaks volumes of not only the storyline itself, but also the movie’s direction and cinematography.

 

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