Category Archives: Suspense

But This Isn’t a Detective Story: Agatha Christie’s Crooked House, the Film

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I’ve loved detective fiction since I was 6 and discovered the Nancy Drew mysteries in the bookmobile, preferring Nancy and her pals to the Hardy Boys and their adventures. Later, I dove into Edgar Allan Poe’s mystery stories without even realizing that Poe is credited with the invention of detective fiction in English, with his 1841 publication of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” which appeared before the word “detective” even existed. Without even knowing that I was reading a specific genre, I tore through all the works of Wilkie Collins and Agatha Christie, loving the casts of strange and fascinating characters even more than I cared about “whodunnit.” Little did I realize that Agatha Christie was considered the star of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction (1920-1949) when the whodunnit was the primary genre of crime fiction. Nor did I realize that Christie was one of the bestselling novelists of all time: I just knew she wrote lots of books and the bookmobile seemed to have all of them. Most importantly, I liked her books very much.

Gillian Anderson as Magda, and Julian Sands as Philip, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

I wasn’t as interested in Christie’s plots as much as I was in her flawed but vitally interesting characters. I often guessed whodunnit and was unimpressed with many of the detectives, not realizing that the amateur or inept investigator is one of the tropes. Gosh, I didn’t even know what a “trope” was, let alone that genre authors used recurring types of characters, themes, or plot devices in their books. And I certainly didn’t realize that many of the detective stories I read had “several classic features,” such as a large, rambling country estate where a group of equally suspect characters distracted the sometimes amateur investigator (and readers) while the least suspicious character continued to commit the murders. I did, however, learn to ignore “red herrings” before I realized there was a term for it, if only because I concentrated instead on the characters themselves, little caring who had actually committed the crime. It wasn’t the murder or the initial victim that I was interested in. I liked all the people involuntarily pushed together after the crime, where they flailed and fought against their lives, against fate, and against each other.

Crooked House, First British Edition, 1949 ©

I still read mystery fiction, though these days I prefer the hard-boiled or noir genres. Again, it’s the characters that interest me, not the crimes or even the process of solving the murder. So it was with great surprise that I saw a 2017 film version of one of Agatha Christie’s classics, Crooked House, which she herself listed as one of the favorites of her own works. I’d heard of the book, and have it on my TBR list, but I hadn’t heard of the film, and I tend to notice films that are adapted from books pretty quickly, especially when the screenwriter is Julien Fellowes, of Downton Abbey fame since I so love his work. With a cast of excellent actors playing atrociously selfish and seriously flawed characters, Crooked House is one of the best films I’ve ever seen. Perhaps because I had not read the Agatha Christie novel of the same name on which it is based, I came for the actors and stayed for the characters, watching it again immediately afterward to see all the delightful ways the author — and the screenwriter — give clues, scatter red herrings, and create the kind of ambivalent characters that I adore.

Stefanie Martini as Sophia Leonides, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

Dark and moody, the film begins with the detective’s office, where an unnamed lady is waiting, without an appointment, and where viewers immediately learn that she and the private investigator have some prior relationship. Beautiful, young, vastly wealthy Sophia Leonides (Stefanie Martini) requests that her former lover Charles Hayward (Max Irons) come to her family’s estate because she believes her grandfather’s recent death may have been murder. Further, she is afraid that the murderer is still in the house.

Max Irons as Investigator Charles Hayward, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

Because the investigating business is not going so well and he needs the money, because Charles doesn’t want to work at Scotland Yard in the shadow of his own famous father’s career nor under the eye of his father’s colleague, Chief Inspector Taverner (Terence Stamp),

Terence Stamp as Chief Inspector Taverner, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

who constantly reminds Charles of how his father sat, leaned forward, looked, acted; and perhaps because he’s never gotten over being summarily and without explanation abandoned by the lovely Sophia, Charles goes to the house — the big and gorgeous country estate house — to talk to the Leonides family members.

What a group! Charles immediately meets the family matriarch, Aunt Edith aka Lady Edith de Haviland (Glenn Close) who wields s shotgun like a pro and laughs at Charles’ delusions that he “saved Sophia” when the two were in Cairo.

Glenn Close as Lady Edith, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

Aunt Edith came to the Leonides’ English estate years ago, from America, to nurse her dying sister. After her sister’s death, Edith stayed on to run the household, and raise the murdered man’s two sons, Philip and Roger.

All grown up, with wives and children, the boys still live at their father’s home, on their father’s money, though each has his own reasons for doing so.

Julian Sands as oldest son Philip Leonides, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

Sophia’s father Philip (Julian Sands) is an author and a playwright, who had some minor financial troubles that forced him to return home and live under his father’s controlling and manipulative domination.

Gillian Anderson as Philip’s wife Magda, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

Philip’s wife — Sophia’s mother — Magda (Gillian Anderson) is a once-glamorous, heavy-drinking, stage actor who has delusions of grandeur and talent. She’s convinced she could become a film star if only her father-in-law would give them the funds to produce her husband’s brilliant screenplay, written specifically for her as the lead. Now that her father-in-law is dead, however, she fears that she will continue to wither away in relative obscurity on the estate, albeit in the company of her husband Philip, her eldest daughter Sophia, her disgruntled and angry teenage son Eustace (Preston Nyman, below), and her youngest daughter Josephine.

Glenn Close as Lady Edith, and Preston Nyman as Eustace Leonides, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

Twelve-year-old Josephine (Honor Kneafsey), who loves ballet and wanted to become a dancer, welcomes Charles to the estate because she loves to read detective fiction almost as much as she loves to spy on family members via a telescope from her treehouse.

Honor Kneafsey as Josephine, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

Because she then writes everything down in a journal that she never shows to anyone, her family is convinced that she is writing down their secrets.

Christian McKay as younger brother Roger Leonides, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

Youngest brother Roger (Christian McKay) also lives at his father’s home, ostensibly because it is he, rather than his older brother Philip, who runs his father’s business.

Amanda Abbington as Roger’s wife Clemency, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

Roger is an angry young man, and though his prickly wife Clemency (Amanda Abbington) attempts without success to keep her husband’s outbursts under control, it is soon clear that both of them resent their father’s new wife more than anything else.

Christina Hendricks as the new, much younger wife, Brenda, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

Of course, the new, much younger wife is everything you’d expect in a story like this. A former Las Vegas showgirl, Brenda (Christina Hendricks) is naïve, voluptuous, and rumored to be having an affair with Laurence (John Heffernan),

John Heffernan as the tutor, Laurence, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

the tutor of Philip’s children Eustace and Josephine, as well as the ghost-writer of the deceased patriarch’s memoir, the only copy of which seems to have been stolen.

Roger Ashton-Griffith as the family attorney, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

Now, just for fun, throw in a bumbling family attorney (Roger Ashton-Griffiths, who’s no doubt best known as the bumbling Mace Tyrell in Game of Thrones, who suddenly realizes that, inexplicably, the Old Man Leonides’ will most recent will, where everyone in the family was equitably and reasonably provided for, was never actually signed. That means everything — the estate, the businesses, the vast fortune — goes to the widow. That American, that dance-hall trollop, that Brenda, who probably — insists virtually everyone in the family — knew all about the unsigned will and so had the most motive of anyone to commit the murder in the first place.

Jenny Galloway as Nanny, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

And for even more fun and intrigue, stir in old Nanny (Jenny Galloway), who fears that she’s soon to lose her comfortable job and home because the widow, who is without children, won’t need a nanny, and because Nanny’s youngest charge, Josephine, is now too old to have a nanny anyway. Now make Nanny obsessed with getting that nasty journal away from Josephine because… well, just because… it’s a nasty, dirty book. And Nanny hasn’t even read it.

The family dinner, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

By the time Charles’ third-hand car won’t start and he has to stay the night and we get to the family dinner — the first time we actually see all the family members in the same room actually interacting with each other — this party is roaring dangerously, combustibly hot.

Glenn Close as Lady Edith de Haviland, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

When Lady Edith asks Charles to tell them what a murderer is really like, he rather smugly lists a murderer’s traits as “vanity, distorted morality, a lack of empathy, and a tendency to believe they’re above the rules that govern others.” The rest of the family’s rather bored expressions, along with Lady Edith’s boisterous laughter as she quips “that description fits every member of this family,” are no surprise. After all, no one knows villains so well as their fellow villains.

A few critics felt that the cast of accomplished actors in Crooked House  “promised… more than it could deliver” or that the the film was “flawed” though a “top-notch period piece.” Emily Yoshida of Vulture described the the film as “directed with slightly sleepy, but entertainingly morbid style” and said that, ultimately, Crooked House knew what its job was and did it: “to set up a tangled web of colorful characters, throw in a few red herrings, set off its dynamite, and make its exit while the smoke is still in the air.”

Stefanie Martini as Sophia, Julian Sands as her father Philip, and Gillian Anderson as her mother Magda, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

From the bumbling, naïve, inept investigator to the thoroughly despised former-showgirl young wife, from the two bickering, resentful, completely spoiled brothers to their angry or utterly vain yet bewildered wives, it is this tangled web of deliciously twisted characters that makes Crooked House worth watching. If you haven’t read the novel on which it was based, even better: then everyone in the film can surprise you.

Like me, you may find that you don’t actually care who committed the murders. Yes, murders, because, as detective-fiction fan Josephine points out, there’s always another murder. If you haven’t read the book, you’ll be both delighted and horrified when you finally learn who, actually, done it all. And while the younger stars are certainly talented, it is Glenn Close, as Lady Edith, and Gillian Anderson, as Magda, who shine as hot and bright as their characters’ falling stars.

Unfortunately, although this film is free to watch for Amazon Prime members, it is not yet available via rental, only purchase ($14.99) from Amazon, YouTube,and GooglePlay. If you do buy it, you won’t regret it.

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Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, the Film

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Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather trilogy, along with Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, are some of the most intriguing films I’ve ever seen, if only because they never question whether their criminal characters are good or evil. Instead, their stories plunge viewers deep into a world where doing evil is such a given, it’s the norm. Even in these evil worlds, however, criminals have some moral standards by which to judge the behavior of their fellow thieves, gangsters, and murderers. It is this exploration of good and evil within an already evil world that makes these films so fascinating.

The 1995 neo-noir crime film, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, featuring an ensemble cast of Hollywood heavy-hitters, examines morality, honor, and justice among people who would scare most of us to death if we simply saw them on the street. The film’s unexpected story-delivery and darkly comedic scenes don’t hide its tragic moments, but , instead, lift it beyond the ordinary story of crime-from-the-criminal-perspective to that of a classic. Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead  is a film you’ll want to watch multiple times so you can decide which of its quirky criminal characters you like best.

Andy Garcia as Jimmy the Saint, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

The film’s premise is a familiar one in crime stories: seriously bad-ass gangster wants to abandon the criminal life, go straight, and earn some good karma in the remaining time he has left, but somehow gets coerced, by someone much more dangerously bad-ass and way more powerful, into doing “one last job,” which, of course, goes terribly wrong. In Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, Jimmy the Saint (Andy Garcia) is a former hitman attempting to be a legitimate businessman with his Afterlife Advice services, where the terminally ill record reminiscences, advice, or other final messages for their loved ones. Unfortunately, Jimmy’s non-criminal life isn’t paying well enough to keep him solvent, and his former boss has paid off Jimmy’s debts and now wants him to do one last job.

Narrated by Joe (Jack Warden), to anyone who’ll listen, in a malt shop, the film’s quirky start gives you a hint of the film’s compelling and unique slang while letting you know that virtually everyone involved in the story, but especially Jimmy the Saint, is already a legend.

In those days, you wanted a piece of quim, you knew where to go. You’d go with a big noise guy, you know, a cake-eater. Before you could say “beef bayonets,” you’ve got a bangtail on your arm, sweet as Dutch cheese.

Christopher Walken as The Man with the Plan, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

The “big noise guy” in this film is The Man with the Plan (Christopher Walken), and he has a son, Bernard (Michael Nicolosi), who’s tried to kidnap a little girl off the school playground.

Michael Nicolosi as Bernard, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

This is not a good thing, even in their criminal world. The Man with the Plan believes that if his son Bernard were reunited with his former girlfriend, Meg, things would be like the good ol’ days, when everyone was happy, and Bernard would be “cured.”

Christopher Walken as The Man with the Plan, Sarah Trigger as former-girlfriend Meg, and Michael Nicolosi as Bernard, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

Unfortunately, Meg has a new boyfriend, and something has to be done. The Man with the Plan wants “an action,” not a “piece of work,” i.e., Jimmy is to scare the current boyfriend away from Meg and no one is to be physically hurt, let alone killed.

Christopher Walken, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

Because The Man with the Plan, confined to a wheelchair after an assassination attempt, repeatedly emphasizes that this is only an “action” and not a “piece of work,” the viewers immediately know that something is bound to go terribly wrong and that it’s going to effect all the characters in the film, not just Bernard or his former girlfriend Meg.

Gabrielle Anwar as Dagney, and Andy Garcia as Jimmy, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

Despite having met Dagney (Gabrielle Anwar), with whom he’s falling in love, and despite trying to help a friend Lucinda (Fairuza Balk) get out of the street-walking life and go straight so she doesn’t die from drugs or disease, Jimmy goes back to work for The Man with the Plan.

Fairuza Balk as Lucinda, and Andy Garcia as Jimmy, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

Jimmy gathers together his old gang (below, L-R): Critical Bill (Treat Williams, in his career-best performance), Easy Wind (Bill Nunn), Franchise (William Forsythe), and Pieces (Christopher Lloyd). Then, on a symbollically dark and rainy night, they wait on the side of the highway to scare away Meg’s new boyfriend.

As you may have already guessed, things do not go well.

Treat Williams as Critical Bill, Bill Nunn as Easy Wind, William Forsythe as Franchise, and Christopher Lloyd as Pieces — Jimmy’s gang. Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

Things go so horribly wrong, in fact, that The Man with the Plan feels obligated to “buckwheats” the entire crew. For this, he hires an outside man, Mr. Shush (Steve Buscemi), who has never failed to complete a job for which he’s been hired.

Steve Buscemi as Mr Shush, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead © Miramax

But in this world, as you might have already guessed, nothing ever seems to go right, not even for the criminals who are punishing criminals who (intentionally or inadvertently) disobeyed other criminals’ orders. In almost any world, it seems, disappointment breeds betrayal, and treachery breeds vengeance, no matter who’s involved.

A few critics labeled this neo-noir classic a “copycat” and a “weak sister” of Pulp Fiction by “wanna-be Tarantinos,” but other critics praise Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead as an “offbeat thriller” that is “relentlessly quirky” and “perversely comic,” allowing it to “dodge any hand-me-down Pulp Ficton formula.

Though Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead earned only about $529K (USD, $1M adjusted) of its $8M budget at the box-office, it has since developed a cult-following, earning more through DVD sales and streaming services.

Available for free viewing to subscribers of Starz (showing this month) and DirecTV (premium channels), and for rent ($1.99-3.99 SD/HD) from Amazon (free with a 7-day trial of Starz), iTunes, YouTube, GooglePlay, and Vudu.

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The Sweet Smell of Murder: The Noir Film Classic, Double Indemnity

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In 1925, Ruth Brown Snyder, of Queens NY, who was having an affair with a married salesman, Henry Gray, decided to kill her husband. With the assistance of an insurance agent, who was later fired and imprisoned for forgery, Snyder purchased an insurance policy in her husband’s name, a policy that paid extra — double indemnity — if her husband died in an act of “unexpected violence.” Snyder then attempted to kill her husband at least seven times, finally succeeding with her lover Henry Gray’s assistance, and subsequently staging the murder as a robbery gone bad.

Snyder’s inconsistent stories about the robbery-murder, along with the police discovery of the stolen items hidden in the house, caused detectives to investigate Snyder more thoroughly. When police located her lover, Gray, he confessed in great detail. Snyder was found guilty and imprisoned. In 1928, she became the first woman executed at Sing Sing since 1899. Tom Howard’s dramatic photograph of Snyder in the electric chair mid-execution was printed on the front page of the New York Daily News the next day.

Ruth Brown Snyder, photographed mid-execution by Tom Howard, © New York Daily News

Many celebrities and reporters covered Snyder’s trial, including crime reporter James M. Cain, who subsequently based two of his novels on Snyder’s story: The Postman Always Rings Twice, about a woman who murders her husband with the help of her ex-con lover; and Double Indemnity, which more closely follows Snyder’s story.

The novel is a crime fiction classic, and the 1944 film of the same name, co-written by director Billy Wilder and crime fiction author Raymond Chandler, has since become one of the defining classics of Noir Film, with all the genre’s requisite essentials: a morally dubious male protagonist, Voice-Over narration limiting the audience’s perspective to the male’s version of the tale, and the dangerously duplicitous but always beautiful and sexually alluring femme fatale.

Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff, Double Indemnity © Paramount

Double Indemnity opens with a gun-shot insurance salesman, Walter (Fred MacMurray), sneaking into his company offices at night to record a Dictaphone message for a colleague, Keyes, a brilliant claims adjuster noted for ferreting out insurance fraud. Walter’s confession becomes the characteristic Voice-Over for the remainder of the film.

Fred MacMurray as Walter, and Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis, Double Indemnity © Paramount

Wise-cracking, womanizing Walter relates his initial contact with Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck), with whom he flirts outrageously though she’s already married and, furthermore, seems to be seriously offended by his behavior. Phyllis is not only physically striking: she’s a damsel in distress. Lonely and anxious, she’s worried about her husband’s dangerous job but helpless to protect him. When she discusses accident insurance, Walter becomes wary, but it’s too late: he’s already obsessed with the “dame.”

Fred MacMurray as Walter, and Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis, Double Indemnity © Paramount

With Phyllis’ ostensibly reluctant help, Walter sets in motion a murderous plan to get the girl of his dreams and a huge pile of money from his own insurance company. To really reap the financial benefits, however, the husband’s “accident” needs to trigger the policy’s “double indemnity” clause, a provision for payment of double the face amount of the policy, payable only under certain specific and statistically rare conditions.

Fred MacMurray as Walter, and Edward G Robinson as Keyes, Double Indemnity © Paramount

Walter’s colleague, Insurance Investigator Keyes (Edward G. Robinson, playing against type as an honest man instead of as a criminal or gangster) is immediately suspicious about the husband’s accident. Keyes intentionally stalls payment on the insurance policy to aggravate Phyllis, complicating Walter’s relationship with her.

Jean Heather as Lola, Double Indemnity © Paramount

Further, the victim’s daughter Lola (Jean Heather) knows some secret about Phyllis’ past that makes Lola also suspect foul-play was involved in her father’s death. While simultaneously side-stepping his colleague’s ongoing fraud investigation, Walter spends more time with Lola to keep her from going to the police with her suspicions. Though still sexually involved with Phyllis, Walter begins to have feelings for Lola. When she tells him that she thinks her stepmother Phyllis is involved with Lola’s own boyfriend Nino, Walter’s guilt about the murder and his burgeoning fear of Phyllis make him anxious for his own life.

Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis, and Fred MacMurray as Walter, Double Indemnity © Paramount

With snappy dialogue and great acting, Double Indemnity is a “moody, pessimistic crime story with strong overtones of spiritual bankruptcy and moral cynicism” and is considered both a model and an archetype of the Noir Film genre.

Filmed in black-and-white, and

[b]rilliantly photographed by John F. Seitz, Double Indemnity’s use of ‘Venetian Blind’ lighting (creating a jail bars effect that foreshadows the likely, if not actual, fate of its protagonists) was to go on become a staple of the film noir look.

Nominated for seven Academy Awards, regarded as a “template” for Noir films, and considered by most critics and archivists to be one of the best American films of all time, Double Indemnity is available for rent for $2.99/3.99 SD/HD) from Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, GooglePlay, and Vudu.

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Filed under #Noirvember, Actors, Books, Classic Films, Classics, Crime Drama, Film Noir, Film Videos, Films, Films/Movies, Movies/Films, Noir, Noir / Neo-Noir, Official Film Trailers, Official Movie Trailers, Official Trailers, Review, Review/No Spoilers, Suspense

Horror and Suspense Films

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listed in alphabetical order by name of film

Scary Because It’s Possible:
The Bad Seed, the Film

To Make Cynics of Us All:
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Setting the World on Fire:
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The Demons Within:
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The Plague that Cast the World Into Darkness:
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When Children Scare You To Death:
Orphan, the Film

Not For Children:
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The World of the Living and The World of The Dead:
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The World Breaks Everyone:
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Hansel and Gretel with a Video Camera:
The Visit, the 2015 Film

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Slasher-Horror as Art Film: Psycho, the Classic

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Based on the 1959 novel of the same name by Robert Bloch, which was itself loosely based on the story of Wisconsin serial killer and cannibal Ed Gein, the 1960 film Psycho, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, was filmed in black & white, by a television crew, on a small budget, because Paramount had already rejected the project, claiming its subject matter was “too repulsive… and impossible” for film. Hitchcock, who had already optioned the novel, then financed the film himself. According to film critic Roger Ebert, Psycho (1960) “remains the most effective slashing in movie history, suggesting that … artistry [is] more important than graphic details.” Because Hitchcock was answerable to no one but himself, he succeeded in creating one of the greatest psychological horror films ever made. At the same time, he created an art film classic.

Janet Leigh as Marion, and John Gavin as Sam, Psycho © Universal

The story begins as if it were a crime mystery. Marion (Janet Leigh) is having an affair with Sam (John Gavin), and she is distressed that they cannot marry because of his debts. Later that afternoon, when she returns to work, Marion is asked to take a substantial cash deposit of $40K to the bank. Instead, Marion absconds with the money, hoping to use it so she and Sam run away together.

Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, Psycho © Universal

That night, in a thunderstorm, Marion stays at an isolated and mostly unoccupied motel, managed by a young man named Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). Though handsome, Norman is gawky, and he has an odd hobby: taxidermy. The room where he serves Marion dinner is filled with dead and stuffed birds of prey.

From the spooky house overlooking the motel, Norman’s mentally ill mother can be heard berating him, and this elicits Marion’s sympathy for him. It also makes her re-evaluate her own crime, which would hurt not only her employer but his client as well. Marion takes a shower, symbolically cleansing herself of her evil intentions since she has apparently decided to return the stolen cash, when…

The famous shower scene, with Janet Leigh, Psycho © Universal

You may or may not know about the most famous shower scene in all of cinematic history, but the rest of the story becomes an intense murder mystery as the audience’s sympathy is shifted from impulsive criminal Marion to horrified son Norman as he desperately attempts to protect his dangerous mother.

Anthony Perkins as Norman, Psycho © Universal

In a move that, even now, is considered outrageously audacious, Hitchcock directs the film’s viewing audience as much as he did its actors: about a third of the way into the film, he takes all the viewers’ attention away from the ostensible protagonist — played by the film’s star power, Janet Leigh — and focuses the story on the newly introduced Norman. “I was directing the viewers,” [Hitchcock] told [fellow director] Truffaut in their book-length interview. “You might say I was playing them, like an organ.”

Martin Balsam as Detective Arbogast, Psycho © Universal

As Norman is feverishly working to protect his violent mother from discovery, Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles) is desperately worried about Marion, who has disappeared. While asking Marion’s lover Sam about her whereabouts, the pair is approached by a detective (Martin Balsam), who has been hired to retrieve the stolen money. Sam and Lila encourage the detective to search for Marion, confident that some mistake has been made concerning the missing funds, which they assume Marion will be able to explain.

Vera Miles as Lila, John Gavin as Sam, and Anthony Perkins as Norman, Psycho © Universal

When the detective fails to contact them as arranged, Sam and Lila decide that they must investigate the mysterious happenings surrounding the isolated motel themselves…

Vera Miles, Psycho © Universal

Even if that means they must break into the spooky old house where Norman’s mother is obviously keeping watch over everything that happens down at the motel.

Nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Supporting Actress for Janet Leigh, and Best Director for Hitchcock, Psycho is considered one of Hitchcock’s best films. Marred only by the final scene with the psychiatrist — which appears before the classic finale with Norman and his mother — Psycho is a classic thriller, with enough realistic spookiness to keep you up at night.

Available for rent ($2.99/3.99 SD/HD) or purchase (about $6.99) from Amazon, YouTube, iTunes, Vudu, and GooglePlay.

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Scary Because It’s Possible: The Bad Seed, the Film

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It’s October, and that means it’s time for scary movies. When I was young, vampires and ghosts and werewolves usually did the trick. As I’ve gotten older, I find movies where the events could actually happen even more frightening than those supernatural beings of my childhood horror films. One of the scariest is 1956’s The Bad Seed,  which was considered so potentially scary to viewing audiences that all the actors appeared to “take a bow” at the end of the film — much as they had in the stage play of the same name on which it was based — to remind everyone that it was fictional.

The Bad Seed may be fictional, but that doesn’t mean it’s not scary. And the most terrifying part of the film is that it could actually happen. To anyone. So don’t let the fact that the actors “take a bow” at the end of the film keep you from watching this horror classic. Psychologically realistic and terrifying in the extreme, The Bad Seed contains not a single paranormal character or hint, but that doesn’t mean it’s not scary.

Nancy Kelly as mother Christine (L) and Patty McCormack as daughter Rhoda (R), The Bad Seed ©

The film stars Nancy Kelly as Christine Penmark, who begins to feel uneasy around her 8-year-old daughter Rhoda (Patty McCormack) after a little boy who’s Rhoda’s school rival dies in an accident. As Christine begins to re-evaluate things about Rhoda’s character that make her uneasy, she is faced with opposition from neighbors and family, all of whom insist Christine herself is imagining things about her angelic little girl.

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Every time Christine manages to convince herself that she’s jumpy and unreasonably suspicious, however, Rhoda does something that’s less than angelic, throwing Christine into doubt all over again.

Nancy Kelly as Christine, The Bad Seed ©

Though the film is a little heavy-handed on the heredity vs. environment discussions, it’s worth watching. The supporting cast is excellent even when their parts are minor, and include Eileen Heckart as the grief-stricken mother of the dead boy,

Eileen Heckart, The Bad Seed ©

Paul Fix as the doting crime-writer Grand-dad who thinks his beloved daughter is just worrying about nothing in particular,

and Henry Jones as LeRoy the suspicious handyman who just knows that something is not right with pretty little Rhoda.

Despite everyone’s assurances that Rhoda is a beautiful, sweet, highly intelligent little girl, Christine has her doubts and suspicions about Rhoda’s true nature and potential for violence. After all, not everyone gets to see Rhoda when she’s upset. Or annoyed. Or even angry.

Patty McCormack as Rhoda, The Bad Seed ©

The film’s content is so scary — and so very possible — that even the original trailer had to “remind” viewers that they were watching an advertisement for a film based on a play based on William March’s novel, just so, you know, people didn’t get too creeped out. Further, The Bad Seed was so unusual for its time that it had a notice at the end of the film, asking viewers not to reveal its ending to others.

The Bad Seed, 1956 ©

McCormack as the young girl Rhoda and Kelly as her mother Christine received Oscar nominations for their performances.  60 years later, the film and its exploration of evil remain pertinent.

 The Bad Seed is available to rent for a couple bucks on Amazon, on YouTube, and on Vudu.

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Not For Children: The Horror Film The Orphanage

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Of all the horror films I have ever watched or blogged about, The Orphanage (2007) — written by Sergio G. Sánchez, directed by  JA Bayona, and produced by Guillermo del Toro (The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth) — is the only one that I would caution adults not to allow children to watch. As in many of del Toro’s other films, there is a strong connection between fairy tales and horror, but I’m not talking about the sanitized versions of fairy tales that most children are now familiar with. If children, especially those under age 10, watch this film with you, they may be quite distressed. By the time you discover why young children should not watch The Orphanage, it’ll be too late: they’ll probably be seriously upset by this film, if not actually traumatized, so be warned. The Orphanage is R-rated for a reason, and there are no special effects, bad language,  or graphic violence to warrant the rating: the mature rating comes purely in the content of the story itself.

Belén Rueda as Laura, The Orphanage ©

Laura (Belén Rueda) spent many of her formative years in an orphanage, where she loved, and was loved by, the other children. Despite her having grown up without parents, Laura she remembers being happy in that orphanage.

The Orphanage ©

In an attempt to “pay back” society for her secure and relatively happy childhood, she purchases the old home and decides to take in special needs children.

Belén Ruedo as Laura, and Fernando Cayo as Carlos, The Orphanage ©

With Laura are her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo), who’s an MD, and their son Simón (Roger Princep), who doesn’t know that he’s adopted nor that he’s seriously ill (he’s HIV-positive).

Roger Princep as Simón, The Orphanage ©

Simón already has a couple of imaginary friends, but he makes a few new imaginary friends at the orphanage-now-home. This starts to disturb his parents, who aren’t sure that he’s not just trying to get more attention at a time when their focus is going to be divided among the new resident children, all of whom will have special needs.

Roger Princep as Simón, and Belén Rueda as Laura, The Orphanage ©

On the day of the party to welcome the special needs children who will be living at the orphanage,  Mama Laura sees a strange, hooded figure, and she thinks it is Simón, trying to get attention.

The Orphanage ©

When the strange figure then attacks her, Laura is frightened, not only for herself but for Simón, who goes missing on the same day.

The Orphanage ©

And Laura’s life deteriorates from there.

Belén Rueda as Laura, The Orphanage ©

Laura becomes a sort of detective, trying to discover what might have happened to her son. She also invites a psychic (Geraldine Chaplin) to visit the orphanage in an attempt to locate the missing Simón.

Geraldine Chaplin, The Orphanage ©

Though her husband and other grieving parents who have lost children attempt to convince Laura that Simón is dead, rather than merely missing, she refuses to give up hope. She travels all around the area looking for her son. When husband Carlos suggests they leave the scene of their tragic loss, Laura insists they remain at the orphanage, if only because it was the last place anyone saw her son.

The Orphanage ©

Laura then decides that the mysterious hooded figure she saw on the day Simón disappeared must have been a ghost. She is determined to make contact with any ghosts who might be at the orphanage, to ask them for help locating her son.

The Orphanage ©

Some reviewers of the film complained that the ghosts were a minor part of the story, and I have to admit that they are, but I found that a strength of the film rather than a weakness. The Orphanage is about loss and grieving, about guilt and hope. It’s about parents and children, husbands and wives. It’s about how tragedy can forever change everything in our lives, and how some people simply cannot live with the devastating pain of irreparable loss.

It is not a film for young children: you will just have to trust me on this.

In Spanish with English subtitles, The Orphanage is an intense and excruciating psychological drama, masking itself as a ghost story. Yes, there are some ghosts, but that is not why this is a powerful and memorable film.

Winner of 14 Goya Awards (Spanish Academy Awards) and winner of 8, including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay, The Orphanage is available for rent for $2.99 from Amazon, from iTunes, and from Vudu.

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The Plague That Cast the World Into Darkness: Open Grave, the Film

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I’m going to be honest with you: I don’t think much of post-apocalyptic dramas that include zombies. I mean, who’s going to root for the zombies in any battle between them and humans? I find human conflict so much more intriguing and dangerous, whether in fiction or film. Maybe it’s because zombies are so… so… mindless… at least in most of the dramas that I’ve seen. When I rented the 2013 film Open Grave, nothing in its description mentioned “zombies,” and the film never uses that word — not even once.

Instead, the closest any of the characters come to an explanation of the post-apocalyptic world in Open Grave is “plague,” specifically, “the plague that cast the world into darkness,” and even that line comes near the end of the film. Call me intrigued-against-my-will if you wish, but a “plague that cast the world into darkness” and masses of dead bodies in open graves with no explanation — even to the characters in the film — is much more perplexing than plain old zombies. Open Grave is one of the few “zombie-like” films that earns kudos from me.

The amnesiac in the mass grave in the opening of Open Grave ©

Open Grave begins with an amnesiac guy who awakes in an open grave, surrounded by countless dead bodies. As you can imagine, he’s totally freaked out, and not just because he can’t remember how he got there. I mean, there are hundreds of dead bodies in this mass grave, and he’s in there with them. Yeah, how’s that for a gripping start?

Josie Ho, Open Grave ©

Our amnesiac manages to get out of the grave with help from a mysterious woman who doesn’t speak. He follows the Mute (Josie Ho) to a house, where he eventually learns that his name is probably John (Sharlto Copley). Once at the house, John meets other victims, most of whom have some degree of amnesia, among them Lukas (Thomas Kretschmann, below L), who has some anger issues, and Nathan (Joseph Morgan, below R), who is terribly scared of everything,

Thomas Kretschmann as Lukas and Joseph Morgan as Nathan, Open Grave ©

and Sharon (Erin Richards), who seems attracted to John, and who may have had a previous relationship with him.

Erin Richards as Sharon, Open Grave ©

Most of the people in the house are really good at using weapons, which seem to be stored all over the place, and that scares just about every single one of them. Even more scary, however, is a calendar with the 18th marked, and which the Mute points out, frantically and repeatedly. Since the calendar is marked with Xs almost to the 18th, which is only two days away, John and the others realize that something very important — even ominous — must be happening on that date.

So there’s that open mass grave, amnesia that’s affecting everyone, and now some scary deadline that only the Mute seems to understand… spookiness to the max.

Open Grave ©

Though some of the amnesiacs have this feeling that they know some of the others, they’re not sure, so nobody feels safe. When they begin to explore the surrounding countryside, they find creepy “scarecrows” tied to or hanging from trees, and, as you can imagine, that makes them more stressed.

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When they find a guy trapped in a barbed-wire fence, calling for help, things go bad quickly, and the members of the group turn on each other in their desperation to survive and in their fear of what’s happened, which they can’t even remember.

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They can’t shake the feeling that there’s some “big picture” they seem to have forgotten, and that something really super-monstrously big — like bigger than BIG — is going to happen in a couple of days, and not just because of that calendar with all the days marked off and with the 18th circled. They need to regain their memories quicker than quick if they’re going to discover why the 18th is so important to their survival and to their discovering why there are mass open graves filled with dead bodies.

Open Grave ©

Are those dead bodies in the open grave the result of an attack? Of a plague? Of mass murder? Of vicious and unethical medical experimentation? Was John involved in that unethical medical experimentation? Were Sharon and the others helping him, or trying to stop him?

I don’t know, and I’ve seen the film more than once.

You watch Open Grave, and let me know what you think.

One of the best post-apocalypse movies ever made, Open Grave is available for purchase or rent ($2.99-3.99) on Amazon, on YouTube, on iTunes, on Vudu, and more.

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The Demons Within Us: The Innocents, the Film

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I first read The Turn of the Screw when I was ten years old after I learned it was about ghosts, and much of what I loved about the book was what I still love: are there really ghosts or are they figments of troubled people’s imagination? Last year, I saw the original British film adaptation of Henry James’ classic ghost story, The Turn of the Screw, and was completely spooked by the great performances and the cinematography. I don’t know how I missed the film before, given my obsession with scary movies and my complete worship of Deborah Kerr, who plays the spooked governess. With a screenplay by William Archibald and Truman Capote, The Turn of the Screw has fantastic acting, and the performances are plenty scary without any special effects.

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Deborah Kerr as governess Miss Giddens, The Innocents (C)

Deborah Kerr stars as the Governess, Miss Giddens, who comes to an isolated estate to care for two orphans, Flora (Pamela Franklin) and Miles (Martin Stephens),

Pamela Franklin as Flora, and Martin Stephens as Miles, The Innocents ©

who are just too beautiful and too-too perfect to be believed.

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Still, Miss Giddens is happy enough with her lovely charges and with the gorgeous house, despite all its creakity-creaks and spookity-shadows and creepity closed-off rooms. She’s happy with the beautiful gardens and the beautiful lake and the outdoor picnics with the ever-so-beautiful children and… oh, all of it.

Even if she occasionally does think she sees something out of place and inexplicable…

The Innocents ©

Oh, it’s just her imagination, isn’t it, because she’s happy with the house, the garden, the lake, and she’s so incredibly happy with the sweet, innocent, beautiful, orphan children. Most of all, she’s happy with those sweet children.

Deborah Kerr as Miss Giddens, The Innocents ©

Until she begins to be unhappy with them.

Why? Maybe they’re too beautiful. Maybe they’re too perfect. Maybe they’re too mature. Maybe…

Martin Stephens as Miles and Deborah Kerr as Miss Giddens, The Innocents ©

Well, it’s bad enough that Miss Giddens thinks the two siblings are keeping secrets from her and lying about it. Even worse when they two of them go off on the grounds by themselves without her permission or knowledge. And it’s really not very proper at all when she says “goodnight” to Miles and he kisses her in a totally inappropriate way.

The Ghost and Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr), The Innocents ©

When Miss Giddens begins to see ghosts, she gets scared. When she begins to suspect that the children know all about the ghosts, who seem to be the ghosts of people that the children actually knew, she gets worried. But when Miss Giddens begins to suspect that the lovely orphan children may, in fact, be possessed by the ghosts’ evil spirits, well, that’s an entirely different story. Miss Giddens feels morally responsible for the children’s welfare, so she simply must do something drastic to protect them from physical, psychological, and spiritual danger.

The film stays close to the source material in never revealing whether or not the children can also see the ghosts, leading us to question the Governess’ sanity as she attempts to free her charges of the evil that she believes possesses them. Are the ghosts merely a figment of her imagination? Are the children possessed?   Is Miss Giddens dangerously crazy? You’ll have to decide those for yourself in this scary classic.

If you’ve read the Henry James novella, you’ll really appreciate the film’s subtlety. If you’ve seen the later remake of the same work, The Others, there’s no comparison: both films are great though they are completely different from each other.  The Others is one of my top 7 Wonders of the Horror World.

Whatever version of The Innocents you find — dated 1956 or 1961 — make sure you have the black & white film, not the colorized one: the stark cinematography helps create the scares in this completely non-CGI horror classic.  The Innocents is available for rent or purchase from Amazon.

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Killing Others To Survive: Identity, the Film

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The 2003 psychological horror film Identity is not a direct adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1939 mystery novel And Then There Were None, though the plot of Identity is structured like that classic novel. In both, “10 strangers arrive at an isolated location which becomes temporarily cut off from the rest of the world,” where terror and paranoia mount as the strangers are killed off one by one. Despite the fact that one of the characters in Identity tries to explain the unusual and downright scary events at the isolated motel with a story of displaced Native Americans who may be seeking supernatural revenge, there is nothing other-worldly about Identity and its scares. The real horror of Identity is even spookier than revenge-seeking ghosts.

John Cusack, Identity © Columbia Pictures

The story begins with a chauffeur, Ed (John Cusack), getting trapped by washed-out roads at a lonely motel with his movie-star passenger Caroline Suzanne (Rebecca DeMornay), who is beyond annoyed at the fact that they end up stuck at some slimy motel.

Rebecca DeMornay, Identity © Columbia Pictures

Soon Ed, who is a former police officer, and the spoiled actress are joined by a family, including son Timmy, whose mother was injured in an accident.

Identity © Columbia Pictures

Because of the relentless thunderstorm, other travellers are also soon stranded at the motel, including a former prostitute Paris (Amanda Peet), who is leaving Las Vegas and traveling to Florida to start a new life as a citrus farmer,

Amanda Peet, Identity © Columbia Pictures

a pregnant newlywed Ginny (Clea Duvall) who is insecure about her husband’s love and completely, irrationally superstitious on her best days,

Clea Duvall, Identity © Columbia Pictures

and another cop, Rhodes (Ray Liotta), escorting a dangerous convict, and who goes crazy when his convict escapes shortly after their arrival at the motel.

Ray Liotta, Identity © Columbia Pictures

When other people begin disappearing at Larry’s (John Hawkes) motel, everybody gets more than a little anxious, paranoid, and defensive.

John Hawkes, Identity © Columbia Pictures

It doesn’t help that some of the stranded motorists feel they’re being targeted, that it’s raining and it’s the middle of the deep dark night, or that way too many of the stranded people at the out-of-the-way motel are awfully proficient in the use of firearms.

John Cusack and Ray Liotta, Identity © Columbia Pictures

Now, throw in the story of a convicted mass murderer / serial killer Malcolm Rivers (Pruitt Taylor Vince), who’s getting a last-minute, pre-execution hearing from a judge and prosecuting attorneys

Pruitt Taylor Vince, Identity © Columbia Pictures

because the convicted killer’s psychiatrist Dr. Malick (Alfred Molina)

Alfred Molina, Identity © Columbia Pictures

insists that his client-patient is not morally responsible or legally guilty of the crimes. Since Rivers is not mentally competent, Dr. Malick explains, it is irrelevant that Rivers’ body might have, in fact, perpetrated the murders that Malcolm Rivers was convicted of committing.

Bret Loehr as Timmy, Identity © Columbia Pictures

What does that convicted serial killer have to do with the people stranded at the isolated motel in the pouring rain? Are they his victims? Are we, in fact, seeing the killer’s memories of all the people he killed? Is the killer truly and verily mentally incompetent, as his psychiatrist insists to the judge and attorneys present at the last-minute competency hearing?

You won’t miss the absent supernatural elements in this scary thriller. By the time you get to the big Reveal, you’ll be as spooked as the people stranded at that isolated motel.

The film has a great storyline and powerful acting by everyone involved. Identity is a psychological horror great. It’s available for rent for a few bucks, or purchase for a few dollars more, from Amazon, from YouTube, from iTunes, and more.

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