The Witch (2015)

aka The VVitch: A New-England Folktale

2016 #171
Robert Eggers | 93 mins | Blu-ray | 1.66:1 | USA, UK, Canada & Brazil / English | 15 / R

The Witch

There’s a lot to commend in this debut feature from writer-director Robert Eggers, the story of English settlers in 17th Century America who are banished from their community and begin to be affected by a supernatural force in the woods.

With dialogue lifted from contemporary reports of witchcraft, it has a level of period authenticity that is rarely seen. I thought it was an immensely effective choice for evoking an entirely different era, but others find it a distracting affectation. Also distancing for some viewers is the understated style — it’s more of an arthouse period flick than a gore ‘n’ guts chiller; like a horror movie made by Terrence Malick. Much like the dialogue, I thought that gave it a level of realism. You know this isn’t a true story because such occult happenings aren’t real… but if they were, they’d be like this.

It’s not a horror movie that suits all tastes, then, but I thought it was v.v. creepy and v.v. good.

4 out of 5

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Kill List (2011)

2016 #51
Ben Wheatley | 92 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 18

I appear to be coming at director Ben Wheatley’s films in reverse order (having covered A Field in England in 2013 and Sightseers in 2014), and now I reach, not his feature debut (that’ll be ‘next time’, I guess), but certainly the film that brought him wider attention.

To describe too much of the plot of Kill List, or to even name its genres, is to give away some of its mystery. It’s a problem for reviewers, and has been since it came out — I read an interview with Wheatley where he said he didn’t envy their job, trying to accurately assess and ‘sell’ the film without actually telling people why they should watch it! The marketing people go a little way towards that for us, though, billing it as a horror movie when it seems to be nothing of the sort for a very long time.

It begins in that classic British tradition, the “kitchen sink” drama. Jay (Neil Maskell) and his wife (MyAnna Buring) argue about the fact he’s not got a job and the money’s run out. It becomes clear something happened in Jay’s recent past to spook him out of work. Then his mate Gal (Michael Smiley) comes round with a new girlfriend, Fiona (Emma Fryer), for one of moviedom’s more uncomfortable dinner parties. Gal talks Jay into joining him on a new job (there’s some criticism of the film for being a “one last job” movie, but I don’t recall it being presented as that — Gal talks him back into work, not for a definitively final go-round. Maybe I missed something); elsewhere, Fiona’s actions hint at something more… unusual going on.

Kill List mixes in its genre elements — and they’re elements from a couple of different genres at that — so gradually that, as I said, it’s hard to discuss them without spoiling the film. (Much like the film itself, this review is getting progressively more revealing, so jump off when you’ve had enough.) It’s kind of a compilation of traditional British movie genres: we begin with kitchen sink, then discover we’re actually watching a crime film, before the final act swerves (though not without foreshadowing) into folk horror. The skill of Wheatley, and his co-writer Amy Jump, is in not making these transitions too implausible. That’s not to say they’re not surprising, but the doom-laden music, inexplicable proclamations by some characters, and a couple of very strange events should all clue the viewer in to the film not being a common-or-garden hitman flick.

Even as the latter, it is, again, very “low-key British”. It follows through on its domestic setup, presenting the mundanities of the profession — it’s the kind of film where the dealmaking and mission-giving are dealt with in a dialogue-free montage, but we do see characters discussing how they’ll get out of the hotel lobby without an injury being noticed, who’s going to clean up the blood in the sink, and the quality of the hotel’s free toiletries. The biggest threat the characters initially face is their credit card being declined, which might, potentially, later, draw attention to them.

The final act is naturally where the film reveals its overarching purpose… or rather doesn’t reveal, because there are a shortage of answers here. It’s a lot more straightforward than A Field in England, but it still offers few (or, some would say, no) explanations for what’s occurred. According to Wheatley, the screenplay was more explicit about what was happening and why, and so was some of what they shot, but he cut back on the exposition to leave it up to audience interpretation. This isn’t a film to passively watch and have everything explained, but even viewers prepared to do a little work for themselves may find it frustrating.

Nonetheless, there is striking, unnerving imagery to be found during the movie’s climax, Wheatley and regular DP Laurie Rose using the pitch-black nighttime setting to create dread rather than merely accidentally hide things, as so many under-lit movies seem to nowadays. The handheld camerawork and jumpy cutting that earlier in the film was just a little New Wave-y comes into its own here, aligning us with Jay’s disorientation and confusion. While the ultimate result is arguably predictable, to get too caught up in the minutiae of whether it’s a twist or not is to miss the point. What the point is… well, that’s debatable, but I don’t think it’s meant to be a twist for the sake of a twist. (Others disagree.)

The odd mash-up of domestic drama, mundane crime, and folk horror by all rights shouldn’t work, so credit is definitely due for the movie’s flow. Memorable sequences keep it ticking over throughout — and so they should: taking inspiration from the likes of Kubrick and Stephen King, Wheatley started from specific images and worked backwards to a plot. Here, I think that method has been effective. The abstruse ending won’t be to everyone’s taste, but the journey there is worth experiencing.

4 out of 5

It’s Ben Wheatley Night on Film4 this evening, beginning with Kill List at 10:45pm, followed by Sightseers at 12:35am and A Field in England at 2:15am.

Wheatley’s new movie, High-Rise, is currently showing in scattered preview screenings around the UK (mainly in London, because of course), and is on general release from next Friday, March 18th.

The Falling (2014)

2015 #141
Carol Morley | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | UK / English | 15

Inspired by real events, The Falling stars Game of Thrones’s Maisie Williams as Lydia, a 1960s teen with an awkward home life who is a student at a repressive girls’ school. She’s best friends with the popular and charismatic Abbie (newcomer Florence Pugh, next to be seen as the lead in Lady Macbeth (which seems to have bugger all to do with Shakespeare)). When Lydia starts fainting for no apparent reason, it leads to a fainting epidemic at the school that no one can explain. Is it caused by illness? Fakery? Something psychological? Or possibly even some kind of dark magic?

On Amazon Instant Video (where it’s available free to Prime subscribers from today), The Falling is billed as “a mesmerising psychological drama”, which isn’t too wide of the mark. However, presumably because of the prominent pentagram on the cover image there, all of the “customers also watched” recommendations are called things like The Exorcism of Molly Hartley, The Houses of Halloween, Haunt, Demonic, and Sinister House, or are other obviously-cheap-trashy-horror-looking films with less blatant names (like The Canal, Awaiting, and Robert (chilling!)). No wonder it has a low user rating if it’s a “psychological drama” being mainly watched by people who choose to pay to watch that kind of low-rent horror crap!

The Falling is certainly not low-rent horror crap. Is it a horror movie? Not really — there are no monsters, no jump scares, none of the obvious tropes; but it does have a distinctly unnerving air a lot of the time, and there are definite references to and hints about some kind of mysticism playing a role. It’s often incredibly atmospheric, with some beautiful cinematography courtesy of DP Agnès Godard and effective editing by Chris Wyatt. Writer-director Carol Morley has kept the pace and tone slow, in an enchanting rather than ponderous fashion, but it’s a “not for everyone” pace nonetheless. For me, it only really lost its way as it moved into its final stages. Without wanting to spoil where it goes, in my opinion too much was explained, but at the same time it explained nothing.

Indeed, I feel it might’ve fared better overall if it had stuck with the magical-realist / folk horror / olde-worlde magik styles it veers towards early on. But then Lydia says she’s a rationalist, and I suspect Morley is too, and so they well know that such things as spells and lay lines have no bearing on the real world. If one wants to present the possibility of a real-world explanation for the film’s events — and, as they were inspired by actual events, I presume Morley does — leaving things at “because magik” isn’t going to cut it.

The immediately obvious explanation — certainly as far as the school’s teaching staff are concerned — is that the girls are faking for attention. One comment-review on a website asserts that “one of the central questions of the film is whether or not the girls were faking their illness,” before going on to outline how this could’ve been improved to make the film into an “entertaining thriller”. I think this is a prime example of reviewing what the reviewer expected or wanted rather than what they were given, because it didn’t seem to me that the issue of fakery was the “central question” here. Of course, that’s only my interpretation of the filmmaker’s intent, so no more or less valid than this other commenter’s; but I really don’t understand how you can watch The Falling and think it was anyone’s goal for this film to be considered an “entertaining thriller”. It’s simply not that kind of movie.

An element I do think was at the forefront of consideration is sensuality and sexuality, which plays a large and significant part in the film. Pretty much any movie bar “bawdy high school comedies starring obvious twentysomethings” seems to veer away from schoolgirl sexuality these days, wary of inevitable “OMG u a pedo” reactions, I guess. Sexuality does not equal pornography, though; and, as I alluded, here it’s played out as much through a heightened, tactile sensuality. It does probably ‘help’ that it’s a film written and directed by a woman — it would carry a very different, more Lolita-ish air if it had been written or directed by a man. What exactly it’s saying with all this is arguably as mysterious as the cause of the fainting epidemic, but then it’s all tied together: teenage years are a period of sexual awakening, of course, and if you’re in an environment where nearly everyone is of the same gender, and where such things are massively repressed… well, how is it going to manifest itself? If “sex” is somehow the cause of the fainting, it’s not because sex is bad, it’s because there’s no other appropriate outlet for it.

Or maybe that’s got nothing to do with it at all.

A lot of this has to be carried on the shoulders of a relatively young cast, but all are capable. Maisie Williams is by far the best known of the girls, though viewers of Ripper Street will recognise Anna Burnett. She was good in the Victorian detective series, but she’s even better here. Williams gives a strong performance too, afforded the ability to show some range and variety from Arya Stark (unlike her appearance in the currently-airing Doctor Who two-parter-that-isn’t, for instance). There’s also a quality adult supporting cast, including the likes of Maxine Peake (in an initially quiet but ultimately key role), Greta Scacchi, and Monica Dolan, while Peaky Blinders’ Joe Cole acquits himself well in the subtly complex role of Lydia’s brother. Best of the lot, however, is Florence Pugh. Reportedly discovered when The Falling’s casting directors visited her school, you can see why she’s quickly been snapped up for a leading role. I wouldn’t be surprised if Hollywood come knocking looking to make her the next Kate Winslet/Keira Knightley/Gemma Arterton/etc “English rose”-type lead in some blockbuster or other.

The Falling is an odd film, really; though in many respects that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Some will love it; many will despise it. Personally, I felt a lot worked very, very well, but the bits that didn’t, well, didn’t. For what it’s worth, I ranked it 3.5, aka 7, on sites that have half-stars or are out of ten. It would’ve been a solid 4 if not for those niggles, but equally they’re not so bad to drag it down to a 3. Some viewers seem to put the niggles aside entirely and push it up into the 4.5 or even 5 margin; for others it doesn’t work at all, dragging it down much lower. Everyone’s reaction to any film is completely subjective and personal, obviously, but this is the kind of film where it’s more true than others — you can’t pigeonhole it like you can a superhero actioner, or a rom-com, or, well, most movies, to be honest. It’s part high school coming-of-age drama, part supernatural thriller, part kitchen sink drama, part arthouse tone poem. How well that uncommon mix works is entirely down to the individual viewer’s personal predilections.

For me, it’s the kind of film that, with time and subconscious reflection, I may come to remember more fondly and be keen to see again, or all but forget. It’s the kind of film I could, without even re-watching it, re-evaluate and want on my year-end top ten, or could see on my top ten contenders long-list come January 1st and wonder, “dear God, what was I thinking?!” It’s the kind of film I’m not sure I wholly liked, but I’m glad I’ve seen.

4 out of 5

As mentioned, The Falling is available on Amazon Prime Instant Video from today.