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.
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.
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.
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.
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),
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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),
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
I’m not sure why the 2012 film The Raven doesn’t have at least 9 out of 10 stars on popular reviewing sites because it is one of the best takes on Edgar Allan Poe and his stories that I’ve ever seen. If you know anything about Poe, you know he is credited with inventing the detective story, and he is famous for some of his scary tales, like “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” many of which were made into somewhat cheesy 1960s horror films starring Vincent Price. As a fan of Poe’s since I was 11, when I first read all of his works, I was surprised that I’d never heard of the film, starring John Cusack as Edgar Allan Poe, in an interpretation where the drug-addicted and alcoholic writer is redeemed by his love and self-sacrifice for his fiancée.
The film begins and ends with this enigmatic scene: Poe sitting on a bench in the middle of a public park, motionless, gazing upward. The scene then switches to officers responding to the screams of a woman. When they break into the locked boarding-house room, they discover bodies but no assailant; they find a window nailed shut. Viewers familiar with Poe’s work will immediately recognize the scenario from Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Even if you’re not familiar with Poe’s tales, however, you can certainly enjoy the film, in which a literate serial killer seems to be trying to implicate Poe in murders that come from his published stories.
Inspector Fields (Luke Evans, L) recognizes the stories from which the crimes are mirrored, and when he calls in Poe for questioning, it becomes apparent that the author is not the killer. Fields then enlists Poe to help him and his men solve the crimes.
Poe’s involvement in solving the crimes is complicated by the presence of his fiancée Emily (Alice Eve), whose father, wealthy Captain Charles Hamilton (Brendan Gleeson) doesn’t know about their relationship or their secret engagement. Furthermore, Hamilton wouldn’t approve if he did know of their love. When the mysterious killer kidnaps Emily and gives Poe clues to her whereabouts, Hamilton is forced to work with Poe, whom he dislikes, and with the Inspector, to save Emily.
The film is genuinely gripping suspense, even if you are familiar with the Poe stories on which the killer is basing his crimes. Additionally, though Cusack sometimes seems to be a bit unemotional in his delivery of some lines, his Poe is fascinating. Cusack’s Poe has a temper, he’s jealous of “hacks” like fellow-poet Longfellow, he’s experiencing writer’s block that prevents him from earning sufficient money to formally request Emily’s hand in marriage, but in The Raven, this Poe is transformed from a drug-addled failure to a clever, romantic hero of admirable proportions. In the 2012 film The Raven, Edgar Allan Poe is worthy of respect and admiration, no matter his personal failings.
Okay, so I was gonna go all classical on you by proving that I could name the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World, but I couldn’t find any pictures of them because they’ve all been destroyed. Except for the Great Pyramids at Giza. So then I thought I’d do the 7 Wonders of the Modern World, but there are so many disagreements, it’d be like going to a family reunion and listening to great-aunts and uncles argue about what happened to you when you were three: You did not cross the Golden Gate Bridge; you went up the Empire State Building. I wanted to take you to see the Giant Statue of Jesus in Brazil, but your mother wanted you to see the Great Wall of China, while your father — God love him — wanted you to see the Panama Canal. (And, yes, those are some of the items actually considered to be Wonders of the Modern world.) Instead, I decided to do something I found a lot more interesting: the 7 Wonders of the Horror Movie World.
Hammer Horror Film Stars, L to R: Christopher Lee, John Carradine, Peter Cushing, Vincent Price
I have always loved scary movies, I grew up on all the Hammer Studio classics with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, I loved anything with Vincent Price because it was usually based on something by Edgar Allan Poe, and I didn’t even care about the special effects. Who cared if you could see the shadow of the fishing pole holding the “bat” that was flying around the room, terrorizing the beautifully made-up and costumed tourists (all with really big hair!). I was in a darkened theatre with my siblings and lots of other kids whose parents had dropped them off to get them out of the house for a while, being scared out of our wits, and I loved it.
Of course, I laugh at most of those movies now, though I appreciate what they were doing at the time. Now my horror movies have to have something different to scare me, something that could really happen, or some new twist on the paranormal. And I have to want to watch it over and over, even though I already know the story. That’s one of the reasons I love October so much: watching all the horror movies while waiting for Halloween. But I’ll watch a good horror movie any day.
And by “good,” I don’t mean a bunch of stupid teens in some isolated area screaming while running in high heels (girls) or bare feet (boys) while a killer with a dangerous implement (fill in the blank) chases them down till he finally catches them and hacks them into pieces.
Here then, from #7 to #1, are my picks for the Top 7 Wonders of the Horror Movie World.
And I’m talking Hitchcock’s original here, which was ground-breaking even if it was only because he killed off his leading lady, who happened to be a big Hollywood star, less than halfway through the film. Then again, maybe it was that atmospheric music, if you could call it “music.” It didn’t have anything to do with the fact that my little sister and I watched it on the sofa-couch when we were 6 & 7, respectively, while “babysitting” our baby brother.
Yeah, we were scared. Long before we ever found out about Norman Bates’ mother, too. I still find it fantastically creepy. And that Shower Scene. Janet Leigh claims she could never take a shower afterward and feel quite safe enough. I hear you, Janet.
To tell you the truth, I don’t even know what “the shining” in the movie (or the novel of the same name) is. And I know fans complain that the Kubrick version is nothing like the Stephen King novel on which it was based. But there’s something terrifying about the entire concept: being stuck, without rescue, in an isolated place, with a husband who’s slowly and obviously going violently insane. Now that’s horror for me, if only because it could really happen.
And I love Jack Nicholson, even before he gets to the iconic — and ad-libbed — “Here’s Johnny” scene. The typewriter tantrum is just a taste of the scary to come.
#5 Sleepy Hollow
Tim Burton makes some weird movies, I admit, but he also makes some fine ones. This is one of my favorites. It has big stars — Michael Gambon, Miranda Richardson, Christina Ricci, Johnny Depp, and Christopher Walken. It has atmosphere. It has good special effects, especially since Burton doesn’t overdo it on the gadgetry stuff he likes. Depp’s performance as the fainting-under-stress detective Ichabod Crane investigating the murders in upstate New York is a funny but seriously interesting take on the original Washington Irving story. But Walken as the Headless Horseman can not be beat. Even when he has no head.
In interviews, Walken claimed the director instructed propmen to hold lights under his chin, shining them upward, to “make him look scarier.” Walken told him, “Get those d***d lights out of my face. I can make myself look scary without any help from them.” And he proved true to his word. He’s at some of his scariest in the Death of the Hessian scene.
We found this film totally by accident one night, and within a few minutes we were hooked. I could only find the trailer since the film is only a few years old, but I doubt I could show you any scenes that wouldn’t give away the frightening premise and revelation at the finale. You know the main idea: parents longing for another child and also to do good in the world — no, not Angelina and Brad — adopt an older, unwanted orphan from another country — in this case, Russia — and bring her home to the good life in America. Where, of course, things start to go wrong. But not in any way you’d ever guess.
Though the earnings at the box-office were mixed, Orphan was a prize-winner in several Independent Film Festivals, and Isabelle Fuhrman as the orphan Esther was universally acclaimed.
A great twist on the age-old vampire story, a prize-winning entry in Independent Film Festivals, based on the Swedish version of the film and directed by the same person. I can’t even tell you anything about it without doing the Spoiler Alert thing. Suffice it to say that it starts out with two lonely and outcast kids who begin a tentative friendship while scary, gruesome murders are being committed in their neighborhood.
Some viewers like the Swedish version — Let the Right One In — better, some the American. I don’t usually like to read my films, so I’m guessing I’d prefer this one. The performances by the child-actors are great, and the ending of Let Me In is completely unexpected.
Okay, so the lit-tra-chure purists complain that this isn’t really like Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw, on which it’s based, where two young children in a governess’ care claim to see ghosts. Or the governess claims that the children told her they see ghosts and that she has to protect her wards from the supernatural beings, depending on your interpretation of the governess’ reliability. Some film buffs prefer the 1956 Deborah Kerr version of The Innocents, if only because they say it’s closer to the James’ book. For my money, give me Nicole Kidman and the stunning child actors in this version. You have to watch it a second time to see all the clues you missed the first time. And you’ll probably be willing to do it right away, it’s that good.
Set in a brooding old estate right after World War II, where wife (Nicole) and children are patiently and worriedly waiting for Daddy to come home from the War, while being looked after by a trio of servants who “come with the place.” The Others is so close to #1, I had to flip a coin (not really… well, okay, only a couple times).
There is no doubt that this is one of the greatest film versions of the classic vampire story. Surrounded by a short set-story explaining Dracula’s and Mina’s psychic and emotional “connection”, the rest of the film is pretty loyal to the novel, even showing the characters writing their letters, receiving telegrams, and typing their diaries/journals, which is how the book is presented. Great performances by all, including Sir Anthony Hopkins, Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, Cary Elwes, etc.
But no one, and I most emphatically repeat, no one can out-do Gary Oldman’s spooky, eerie, sexy (yes!), scary, totally believable turn as Count Dracula, or as he’s known to Mina, Prince Vlad. And I ain’t talking about the special effects here because director Francis Ford Coppola went old-school and refused to use computer graphics anywhere in the film (and added the author’s name to the title of the film so it wouldn’t be confused with any other Hollywood version).
I’m not talking the brilliant costumes, hairdressing, wigs, and makeup on Oldman either. I’m not talking about his accents — he claims to have used a different accent or dialect for every film he’s made, and that none has ever been his own natural dialect — which change, consistently, in Bram Stoker’s Dracula whenever he needs them to. He even learned an old dialect of Transylvanian for the set-story which begins the film and appears before the credits.
I’m talking about Gary Oldman, in what should have been an Oscar-winning performance. He rocks as Dracula (sorry, Christoper Lee: you know I loved you when I was a kid.) Oldman is so good, that I’ll even watch this one with commercials, though of course, they leave some of the coolest stuff out.
The best horror movie of all time, and included high (usually in the top 10) in the lists of most “Best Horror Movie” compilations: Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Somebody who knows me already asked why I didn’t include The Prophecy (1, 2, and 3), with Christopher Walken as a kick-ass Archangel Gabriel come down to steal someone’s soul to help with the War in Heaven. I love that movie. Seen it dozens of times. But there’s so much humor, especially with the scenes including Amanda Plummer, Adam Goldberg, and Walken, that I don’t even know if it, technically, classifies as horror. So, I left it out.
What say you, my Lovelies? Any of your favorite horror films that should have made it on this list? Let me know, in spooky comments.
Author. Prizes and awards include New York Times Book Review "Notable Book" & Top 100 Books of the Year, University of Rochester's Kafka Award, University of Cincinnati Elliston Poetry Prize, Centennial Review Poetry Prize, UKA Press Grand Prize, Santa Fe Writer's Project Literary Awards finalist, Writer's Digest Non-Rhyming Poetry Honorable Mention. SexAbuse and CSA survivor. Writer @ The Mighty and @ Migraine Mantras.
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