Gothic at the British Film Institute

Last week the British Film Institute launched their Gothic project; the longest running season of film screenings and events ever held. The season commences in August, with the BFI Monster Weekend at the British Museum among other events. The full programme is yet to be announced, but here are some recommendations of films to see during the season…

The Haunting

Robert Wise’s 1963 haunted house movie is a genuinely unnerving experience. Locating the horror both internally and externally, The Haunting hurls its 1999 remake into the shade.

Dracula

Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film

The quintessential Hammer Horror movie, Dracula introduces Christopher Lee as Bram Stoker’s vampire count. The film is an excellent introduction to Hammer, as well as exhibiting the key traits of Gothic.

The Innocents

Another haunted house film, The Innocents is deeply unsettling. Based on  Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, Jack Clayton’s film is a masterclass in psychological horror.

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari

Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is one of the finest examples of German Expressionism. The 1920 silent film is far reaching in its influence. As important as the visuals is the truly Gothic narrative of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.

The British Film Institute’s Gothic season runs from August 2013 to January 2014. For more information on screenings and events can be found here.

Report: Alice Cooper Presents Nightmare Movies

Most fitting for the Halloween weekend, Alice Cooper appeared at the BFI Southbank on Friday 28th October to discuss horror films. Attendees were treated to Alice Cooper make-up sets on their seats, and a selection of his music before the event began. Interviewing Cooper was Alan Jones, veteran film writer and FrightFest founder.

Cooper enthusiastically discussed his horror movie favourites from his youth. He also talked about the films that influenced him in terms of appearance and stage show. Clips from What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Barbarella were screened, with Cooper illustrating why these films were important influences.

As well as elaborating on some of his favourite horror movies, Alice Cooper also talked about his acting career. He discussed working with Robert Englund on Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, where he played the father of the notorious horror villain. Cooper also mentioned another film he made called Monster Dog, which sounds like a must see.

The evening was concluded by a screening of Halloween, introduced by Cooper. I was lucky enough to attend a drinks reception after the event, where I was thrilled to get a chance to meet Alice Cooper. In person, he was congenial and happy to talk to everyone. Our brief discussion extended to talking about our shared birthday, as well as our mutual love of The Haunting.

Many thanks to the wonderful team at the BFI for extending their hospitality.

Film Review: Insidious

People in horror movies never actually seem to watch horror movies themselves. Otherwise, they would know to scarper at the first sign of danger, unlike the protagonists in Insidious.

Josh, Renai and their three children move into a new home. Before they have finished unpacking, strange things start to occur. When the couple find their oldest son Dalton in an unexplained comatose state, they decide to pack up ad leave. Moving into a new home, the family find that whatever was previously haunting them has followed…

Insidious is a good schlock horror that provides a decent amount of frights for those who buy into it. Some elements are unsurprisingly silly; seemingly a prerequisite of the modern horror film. Nevertheless, Insidious is an effective possession movie overall.

Much is made in the film’s publicity of the fact that the makers of Saw and Paranormal Activity are at the helm. Creator of Saw James Wan directs and Leigh Whannell writes, while Paranormal Activity creator Oren Peli is one of the film’s producers. Given the success of these two recent franchises, it is easy to see why they have been played up in the advertising for the film. Although it is most comparable to Paranormal Activity of the two, thankfully Insidious is its own movie. The film does not draw too heavily on previous haunting films, despite the inevitable comparisons to The Haunting in Connecticut and The Amityville Horror among others.

One of the best things about Insidious is that the film injects a healthy dose of humour into proceedings. The appearance of Specs and Tucker lighten the atmosphere at the right time. They relieve some of the tension and sombreness that had hitherto been building. Whilst Insidious is unlikely to rank alongside cult classic Evil Dead II with this mix of horror and comedy, this aspect does distinguish the film from being just another generic possession movie.

Certain scenes in the film evoke Ridley Scott’s Legend, with their polemical imagery and use of colour. The booming score is pivotal in enhancing the sense of apprehension. The use of a recurring vintage tune is reminiscent of the Halloween series and Jeepers Creepers in giving an innocuous song a more menacing turn. Effects are good, although there is one particular use of CGI that cheapens the look of the film.

Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne are aptly cast as protagonists Josh and Renai. Ty Simpkins is believable as young Dalton, while Barbara Hershey is underused as Lorraine.

With its nods to numerous horror films, Insidious is a well-crafted movie that effectively delivers the scares. It’s not The Haunting, but should prove to be popular amongst horror aficionados.

Film Review: The Amityville Horror

For a film with the word ‘Horror’ in the title, The Amityville Horror is not a very frightening film. Although the 1979 film is effective in building atmosphere, it is let down by the lack of frights.

George and Kathy Lutz and their three young children move into a house in Amityville, New York. The scene of a multiple murder, the couple begins to experience strange occurrences in their new home. After their family priest attempts a failed exorcism, things seem to get worse, especially for George…

Adapted from a book by Jay Anson, which is apparently based on true events, The Amityville Horror offers plenty of stock horror conventions. Influence from films such as The Haunting and The Exorcist are clear, in both theme and on-screen devices. Young Amy’s apparent connection with a spirit evokes William Friedkin’s 1973 film, while the moving chandelier can be compared to Robert Wise’s 1963 haunted-house classic. Nevertheless, The Amityville Horror perhaps has also influenced later films in the genre itself. The scene where George attempts to break through the bathroom door with an axe instantly recalls 1980’s The Shining, although Stephen King’s novel was published two years before in 1977.

The Amityville Horror is not usually remembered with such fondness as other horror pictures of the era. There appears to be two main reasons for this. Firstly, despite the supernatural context, there are very few actual scares in the film, and those that do appear are mild rather than shocking. Secondly, the pacing of Stuart Rosenberg’s film is awry. The film builds very slowly, and in comparison the ending feels rushed. The slow momentum of isolated incidents each day suggests a major pay-off, but sadly this never occurs.

Where the film excels is in generating a pervading atmosphere. George’s slow decline enhances the sense of unease, coupled with the gentle release of information about the house’s past. By far the most effective tool in building tension is Lalo Schifrin’s fantastic score. Given Amityville Horror‘s low budget, the filmmakers are wise to keep special effects to a minimum; the ones that are featured have not aged well.

James Brolin and Margot Kidder both do well as the unlucky couple, despite the material they have to work with. Rod Steiger brings passion and urgency as Father Delaney, while Helen Shaver is jarringly over the top as friend Carolyn. Natasha Ryan is well cast as the young Amy, providing both innocence and an air of menace in the role.

Although The Amityville Horror was a big box office success on its release, the film has not really stood the test of time. Sadly, there are plenty of other haunted-house movies that are far more affecting.

The Amityville Horror was screened at Union Chapel by the Jameson Cult Film Club, as part of their Chills in the Chapel Halloween event.