I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House

Ruth Wilson stars in I AM THE PRETTY THING THAT LIVES IN THE HOUSE

Canada/United States. Directed by Oz Perkins, 2016. Starring Ruth Wilson, Bob Balaban, Lucy Boynton, Paula Prentiss. 87 minutes.

If you’re here, reading this, I reckon you’ve probably heard of Shirley Jackson. If you haven’t, long story short: writer from the 1940s and ’50s, chiefly of contemporary gothic stories and novels. In 1959 she published The Haunting of Hill House, which established the modern-day version of the Bad Place trope: it might not necessarily be haunted, not per se, but it definitely gets into your head and twists your thoughts around until you don’t know whether you’re coming or going. Stephen King dedicated his novel Firestarter to her memory, observing that she “never needed to raise her voice.” Shirley Jackson didn’t do jump-scares. What she did was get under your skin, build a nest, and lay eggs.

I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House (whose title itself suggests another Jackson work, We Have Always Lived in the Castle) has the Hill House-iest haunted house storyline since, if not the actual Hill House, at least since The Shining. 28-year-old hospice nurse Lily arrives at the house at the end of Teacup Road to care for the aging and senile Iris Blum. Iris, once a successful horror writer, seems to think that Lily is actually Polly, the subject of her novel The Lady in the Walls. Or maybe it’s not really a novel. The house at the end of Teacup Road hides many secrets, the most important of which is who Polly really is.

As I watched Pretty Thing, I couldn’t go five minutes without thinking about Steve King’s dedication. Writer/director Osgood “Oz” Perkins paces the film slowly and deliberately, laying on the atmosphere with a trowel. He deploys very few shocks of any kind, and no jump-scares. He complements the proceedings with Julie Kirkwood’s lyrical cinematography and an unsettling ambient score provided by his brother Elvis. Skin, nest, eggs. If Jackson never raised her voice, Perkins spends the film whispering.

…or maybe it’s actually mumbling. I’m not going to lie to you, I think most people are going to hate it. I said before that Perkins paces the film slow; it might be more accurate to say that what little plot there is could fit in a half-hour episode of The Twilight Zone—the ’60s version—with little to no abridgment. Ruth Wilson, playing Lily, spends much of the film slowly wandering from room to room, occasionally pausing to deliver a poetic soliloquy: “It has always been that wearing white reassures the sick that I can never be touched, even as darkness folds in on them from every side, closing like a claw…” Melodramatic, yes, but Wilson makes it work. Meanwhile, it takes Lucy Boynton (as Polly) multiple flashbacks just to complete the action of turning her head, and Paula Prentiss (Iris Blum) works on perfecting her vacant stare. I’d say she nails it.

Now, I will gleefully admit I love stuff like this: I get everything I like about Kubrick and Tarkovsky (lovely wide shots, slow pacing, music that makes my stomach churn) in just half the time. It’s a win-win! Other viewers, who prefer movies in which things actually happen are likely to reach the end credits wondering what all the fuss is about. That is, if they don’t suddenly discover they fell asleep halfway through the second act.

And that’s fine: I can’t blame anyone for being bored by this movie; it’s about slow people doing slow things very slowly, until they stop doing them. But I did find it pretty and poetic, almost like watching a morbid, gothic dance. I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House isn’t going to be something I want to watch every day, but I’m glad it exists.

Crimson Peak

Crimson Peak

United States/Canada, 2015. Directed by Guillermo del Toro. Starring Mia Wasilkowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam, Jim Beaver, Burn Gorman, Leslie Hope. 119 minutes. 8/10

Like any storyteller, visionary filmmaker Guillermo del Toro has a set of themes and ideas that recur throughout his body of work. Children, lacking at least one biological parent if not both, forced to confront dangerous circumstances intertwined with secrets from a past not wholly dead. It’s easy to see how these fit into del Toro’s masterpieces Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone, but they even make themselves clear in less “arty” works (Pacific RimThe Mimic) and his production work (MamaDon’t Be Afraid of the Dark). These themes are also the hallmarks of the Gothic genre; it was, perhaps, inevitable that he would eventually make a film like Crimson Peak.

Granted, protagonist Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) may not be a child, but she possesses a certain naïveté at odds with her inner strength and willfulness. An aspiring author and daughter of a wealthy New York industrialist (Jim Beaver of DeadwoodSupernatural, and Justified), she meets the dashing but destitute British baronet Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston, Wasikowka’s Only Lovers Left Alive co-star), and the two quickly fall in love. The elder Cushing doesn’t approve, but his sudden death leaves the two to pursue their romance; they soon marry and move into the Sharpe estate (nicknamed “Crimson Peak”) with Thomas’s elder sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain). But life is not happy at Crimson Peak, and Edith soon takes ill and begins seeing what could be ghosts. Back in New York, Edith’s former suitor Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam, Sons of Anarchy), comes across information uncovered by Edith’s father shortly before his death…information that sheds suspicion on Sir Thomas’s real motives…

Those familiar with del Toro’s work will not find themselves surprised at Crimson Peak’s lush beauty. Crimson Peak is a place where the walls can literally run red–not with blood, admittedly, but with mud (Sir Thomas tells us his forebears built his ancestral home upon clay), but the symbolism is clear, as are the visual possibilities. The most obvious aesthetic influences come from The Shining and the ’60s Technicolor Hammer Gothics (you did notice the heroine’s surname, right?) along with more understated classics such as The Innocents and The Haunting. The special effects are marvelous, with del Toro staple Doug Jones providing fine motion-capture performances for some of the ghosts.

However, del Toro hasn’t fallen so far down the CGI/SFX rabbit-hole that he’s forgotten how to tell a human story, something that distinguishes him from other filmmakers in his niche such as Jackson, Cameron and the Wachowskis. Crimson Peak’s world-building relies as much on its characters and storyline than its visual and technical aspects. While it is, unabashedly, a work of formula, the characters are more archetypes than clichés. Wasikowska and Chastain dominate the film with fierce performances, but the rest of the cast–Hiddleston, the endearingly gruff Beaver, Hunnam, and character actors Leslie Hope (as Alan’s snobbish mother) and Burn Gorman (as a slimy private investigator)–get enough room to do what they do best.

The result is a multilayered film that attempts a lot–mystery, love story, ghost story, horror, big-budget spectacular–and succeeds at all of it. Dark, lovely, atmospheric, and creepy, it’s the perfect film for the Hallowe’en season.

Originally published by Cinema Axis.

A scene from WE ARE STILL HERE.

We Are Still Here

United States. Directed by Ted Geoghegan, 2015. Starring Barbara Crampton, Andrew Sensenig, Larry Fessenden, Lisa Marie, Monte Markham. 84 minutes.

I’ve always had a complex relationship with Lucio Fulci’s films. In theory, I should consider his œvure some of the best horror films ever made, featuring as they do beautiful imagery, existential themes, and strikingly-designed, well-executed gore sequences guaranteed to make the stomach churn. In practice, however, his screenplays tend to lack coherency, which irritates me because I’m mostly a story person. For me, the archetypal example of this is 1981’s House by the Cemetery, in which several minor characters insist the protagonist has a daughter he denies exists (and whose subplot disappears early in the film with no explanation), amongst other bizarre story elements and plot developments.

That being said, let’s turn our eye to Ted Geoghegan’s We Are Still Here. Barbara Crampton and Andrew Sensenig star as Anne and Paul Sacchetti, who move into a rambling old house in the wake of the tragic death of their son Bobby. Almost immediately, Anne becomes convinced that Bobby’s spiritual presence has joined them in the new house; not too long after, they learn the nasty history of the house and its first residents, the Dagmar family. They invite their spiritualist friends Jacob and May McCabe to help them sort out the strange phenomena.

Now, if you’ve seen The House by the Cemetery, you’ll understand why I brought it up. For the uninitiated, the most obvious similarity comes with the character names, many of which Geoghegan borrowed from Cemetery’s characters, cast, and crew. The references don’t stop there: both We Are Still Here and Cemetery’s predecessor The Beyond feature a tradesman named Joe who suffers a traumatic experience in a basement. Indeed, Geoghegan’s film shares many thematic elements that link Fulci’s loose “Gates of Hell Trilogy” (which includes City of the Living Dead along with The Beyond and Cemetery).

Now, I’ve spent so much time pointing out the ways in which We Are Still Here obviously cribs from Fulci’s work that I’d forgive you for thinking I was going to turn in an unfavorable review. On the contrary, the film encapsulates the things I like about Fulci’s films while improving on (what I perceive as being) their shortcomings in every way.

The plot, by and large, makes sense, and when it doesn’t, it’s not impossible to see an internal logic at play. The characters are genuine characters, and not thinly-drawn effigies who only exist in the plot to suffer from disgustingly gory demises. The performances are very strong for the most part, particularly Crampton, Sensenig, and a scene-stealing Monte Markham as a creepy local old-timer who clearly knows a lot more about what’s going on than he’s saying. I do have to admit that Larry Fessenden and Lisa Marie go a bit over the top as Jacob and May, but, hey, it helps give a bit of variance to an otherwise solidly somber-toned film so it’s not unforgivable.

The cherry on top is Geoghegan’s superb direction, understated and lyrical for much of the running time, then suddenly shifting into overdrive for the film’s blood-soaked climax, an effects-driven set-piece defined by some sickeningly memorable death scenes and a lot of icky, gooey gore.

Best of all, We Are Still Here is that rarest treat of the horror pastiche-slash-homage: the one that stands entirely on its own and doesn’t require the audience to know jack-all about the source material to enjoy it. Sure, it helps to be familiar with Fulci’s work to get the references and in-jokes, but it’s not necessary. This excellent film has plenty to delight fans of both atmospheric and gruesome horror regardless.

WE ARE STILL HERE poster

A scene from POLTERGEIST.

Retro Review: Poltergeist

United States. Directed by Tobe Hooper, 1982. Starring Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Dominique Dunne, Oliver Robins, Heather O’Rourke, Zelda Rubenstein. 114 minutes.

Premise: “They’re here.” Steve and Diane Freelings are a couple who seem to have it all: affluence, a beautiful house in the suburbs, and three wonderful kids. But their perfect life turns upside-down as a strange series of incidents lead them to believe their house is haunted, and the stakes are raised when spiritual forces abduct their youngest daughter, Carol Anne.

Something I’ve mentioned several times in the past is that one of the formative pop-culture experiences of my childhood was watching Poltergeist with my parents when it was first released on VHS; I would have been 8 or 9 at the time. Except for the Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” no work of horror has affected me so profoundly, and revisiting it again after almost thirty years, I found it to retain a great deal of effectiveness.

I believe the key to the film’s longevity is its accessibility. Very few people actually grew up in places like Cuesta Verde or belonged to families as perfect as the Freelings, but the fictional environment never seems less than real. Through a combination of excellent writing, direction and acting, the film creates an idealized yet utterly credible depiction of early ’80s suburban life. We don’t see much of the family’s life away from each other–Steve interacts with his boss in a couple of scenes, and the dialog provides a few tantalizing details such as oldest daughter Dana’s sly remark about remembering the Holiday Inn–but we get enough details to fill in the blanks. I don’t feel the script is perfect–in particular, the final act goes a bit too over-the-top–but overall, it’s pretty strong.

The primary cast–Craig T. Nelson as Steve, JoBeth Williams as Diane, the late Dominique Dunne as Dana, Oliver Robins as son Robbie, and Heather O’Rourke as Carol Anne–have perfect chemistry with each other, bringing poignancy to scenes that, as written, run dangerously close to cornball. The supporting performances are also excellent, with Zelda Rubenstein putting in a legendary performance as Tangina Barrons, the eccentric medium. It’s a bit sad that her career took a sharp turn into self-parody almost immediately after Poltergeist’s release, as here she practically radiates authority, and commands every scene she’s in without straying too far into over-acting.

There’s been some debate over the years who was really in control of Poltergeist: Spielberg or director Tobe Hooper. The production features stylistic touches from both filmmakers (watch Poltergeist as part of a triple-feature with Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Funhouse and see what strikes you), but I ultimately have to give advantage to Hooper on this one for the gore effects (I’m still surprised the face-ripping scene didn’t garner the movie an “R”), some of the creepier compositions (such as the strobe lighting effect when Carol Anne watches static on the TV), and the handling of the actors. Compare O’Rourke’s performance to that of Drew Barrymore in E.T.–see what I mean? The effects have aged very well–only the “face-ripping” scene (I’d be interested to discover what favors Spielberg rendered to the MPAA in exchange for a PG rating) looks a bit dated by modern standards.

There’s a school of thought that states that aiming a horror movie for any rating lower than R isn’t worth doing. I’ve probably stated my disagreement with this philosophy in the past. Let’s be perfectly honest with ourselves: most of us are here because of things we were exposed to (or exposed ourselves to) before we became adolescents. There’s no better time than childhood for the rudimentary principles of horror to take root in the mind. While there are definitely horror concepts that shouldn’t be pitched as PG-13 (movies in the Alien series, for example), I’d argue that there’s a definite need for a particular strain of horror that’s aimed at kids, and Poltergeist proves that it can be done effectively, without pulling punches or watering things down.

Review originally written October 2011.

POLTERGEIST poster

A scene from I AM A GHOST

I Am a Ghost

United States. Directed by H.P. Mendoza, 2012. Starring Anna Ishida, Jeannie Barroga, Rick Burkhardt. 76 minutes.

What is it like to be a ghost, and to haunt a place? Not exactly a novel notion for a ghost story: even if you take The Sixth Sense out of the mix, I’ll wager most of the people reading this review can name at least two or three films whose protagonists are ghosts. But most of the time, the spectral nature of the lead character is a twist, not something you’re supposed to know at the story’s start. I Am a Ghost is unique, at least in my memory, in that you know up-front that its heroine is no longer among the living. If you somehow manage to miss the title, the actual revelation comes about three or four minutes into the film.

Anna Ishida plays Emily, a young woman living a simple life alone in an old rambling house. Her existence is routine: wake up, eat breakfast, wash the floor, bandage a strange hand wound in the bathroom, leave to shop for groceries. She doesn’t realize that she tends to do the exact same things in the exact same order every single day–until, one day, she makes a trip to clean a room she rarely visits. There she hears the voice of a woman she cannot see, who calls herself Sylvia (Jeannie Barroga). Sylvia claims to be a medium hired to cleanse the house of the spirit that haunts it–that spirit being Emily. And she also claims that she has spoken to Emily before, although she won’t remember it.

This unusual premise intrigues but isn’t enough to carry the entire picture; luckily, it doesn’t have to. Writer/director H.P. Mendoza develops Emily into a fascinating character, and Ishida is a skilled enough actress to keep the audience engaged throughout, even when the dialogue gets awkward. That’s a good thing, because there’s only three real characters in the entire film. Barroga’s performances are entirely vocal, and the third character isn’t introduced until the story’s final act.

Visually, the film is a treat for most of its running time (we’ll get to the exception). I’m assuming that Mendoza shot the film in one or more real houses instead of sets on a soundstage. The design of these locations is lush and beautiful, evocative and baroque, and his photography and editing helps establish a wonderfully dreamlike atmosphere. Even the title card is awesome.

Unfortunately, there are two big flaws in the film that kept me from liking it at much as I’d wanted. The first problem is that the mise en scène falls apart almost entirely about fifteen to twenty minutes before the film’s end. Embarrassingly cheap-looking CGI combines with cheesy design and camera work to create something that’s more funny than intense. I had a hard time taking it seriously, particularly when that vocal effect came into play. You’ll know what I’m talking about when it happens.

The other problem with the film is more ephemeral. Mendoza works too hard to keep the puzzle-pieces from fitting together just so. I don’t have a problem with ambiguities, unanswered questions and deliberate inconsistencies; nor do I mind a film asking me to work issues out for myself instead of spelling everything out for me. But Mendoza seems to do this in a particularly conspicuous way that doesn’t feel organic and doesn’t sit quite right with me.

Neither of these flaws mar I Am a Ghost to the point where my experience was a net negative, but they were nonetheless disappointments. That aside, it’s a worthy effort, and Mendoza will surely be a talent to watch in years to come.

I Am a Ghost poster

A scene from MARIANNE

Marianne

Sweden. Directed by Filip Tegstedt, 2011. Starring Thomas Hedengran, Tintin Anderzon, Peter Stormare. 104 minutes.

Let me tell you about something that has happened to me about a dozen and a half times over my life. I was laying down, sleeping. Suddenly, I woke up, eyes wide open and staring at the ceiling, but entirely unable to move or speak. My body simply refused to obey the commands my brain sent it. Eventually, after some unclear amount of time, I would be able to force my will into my limbs or to my mouth and break the paralysis. It is very difficult for me to express exactly how terrifying these experiences are. The first time it happened is probably the single scariest moment of my entire life.

Eventually I discovered that the phenomenon was technically known as recurrent isolated sleep paralysis, usually just shortened to “sleep paralysis,” and my episodes were pretty mild. I’ve never hallucinated during an episode, or at least I don’t think I did. Hallucination is widely associated with sleep paralysis: the sensation of pressure on the chest, the feel of claws or talons on (or under) the skin, the unshakable feeling that an evil presence shares the room. Folklore often attributes such experiences to visitations from demons or evil spirits, such as the German/Scandinavian mare. A mare is a cursed or damned female spirit that sits on your chest while you sleep, causing you to dream of scary things: this is where the English word “nightmare” comes from.

The mare legend is at the center of the low-key Swedish horror film Marianne. Its protagonist, a recently widowed math teacher named Krister, suffers from incidences of sleep paralysis–or maybe he’s attracted the attention of a mare. As the film goes on, we learn more about Krister and his complicated relationships…his late wife Eva…his teenage daughter Sandra and infant daughter Linnéa…his mistress Marianne. It seems that something wishes to do Krister and his family harm, and he needs to find out what…and why…before it’s too late.

The dominant aspect of Marianne, in terms of the story, is the family drama. Writer/director Filip Tegstedt thoroughly explores the complexities and ambiguities that come with modern dysfunctional family life. Krister’s not entirely sympathetic as a character: while he owns up to his failures as a husband and a father, he doesn’t seem to be particularly repentant of his choices until comparatively late in the story. These scenes will be very familiar to anyone who’s witnessed the effects of infidelity on a relationship or experienced them firsthand. Tegstedt admirably refuses to pull any punches and it’s what largely gives the film its power.

On the other hand, this means that a lot of the story is told in flashback and I wasn’t entirely sure whether a couple of events were meant to take place in the present or recent past. I’m also not entirely sure how I feel about the action Krister takes that ultimately attracts the mare to him–it’s a third-act twist (actually revealed at what is almost the end of the movie) that doesn’t feel entirely in character with his personality.

I felt the supernatural-horror aspect of the story to be significantly weaker. I don’t know exactly why, but I simply didn’t find myself particularly interested in it. It moved a bit too slow and I didn’t really engage much with it. I did find it interesting that, if you pay close attention, you’ll find that everything that happens to Krister has a rational explanation and that the mare might be the psychological examination of his own guilt instead of a supernatural monster.

The characterization is excellent but it’s the sort of project that requires a great cast to make it work, and Marianne features many fine performances. Thomas Hedengran gives Krister just the right amount of distance and detachment to make the character work. He’s a guy with a traditionalist view of the parent-child dynamic, and he’s clearly uncomfortable with displays of emotion, but he’s hardly an unfeeling robot. Sandra Larsson imbues her namesake character with a fierceness that undercuts some of the “rebellious daughter” tropes (and the scene where she hides Krister’s coffee is priceless).

Dylan Johansson and Peter Stormare shine as two very different supporting characters: the former as Stiff, Sandra’s man-child boyfriend whose knowledge of Swedish folklore makes him Krister’s unlikely and uneasy ally; the latter as Sven, Krister’s thoroughly rational therapist. (Viewers from English-speaking countries, who only know Stormare for his over-the-top psychos and whack-jobs, may be pleasantly surprised at the subdued performance he gives here.)

Marianne does an excellent job of portraying the emotional wreckage of family turmoil, by way of Scandinavian folklore. Unfortunately I don’t feel the horror aspect of the story holds up quite as well, but the strong plotting and characterization and terrific performances make up for that.

Marianne poster

A scene from ENTITY

Entity

United Kingdom. Directed by Steve Stone, 2012. Starring Dervla Kirwan, Charlotte Riley, Branko Tomovic. 87 minutes. 4/10

In 1983, an unknown agency keeps a man known only as “Mischka” in isolation in a facility in Sadovich, Siberia. They keep him under restraints, as often as they can. He can do things.

In 1988, an investigation uncovers thirty-three sets of human remains buried in the forest near Sadovich. The authorities issue no explanation and close the case.

In 2010, a crew from the British reality program Darkest Secrets, led by presenter Kate Hansen (Charlotte Riley), visits Sadovich. With the help of psychic Ruth Peacock (Dervla Kirwan) and author Yuri Levkov (Branko Tomovic), they hope to uncover the truth behind those thirty-three corpses.

Twenty-seven years ago, something happened in Sadovich. Something so terrible that the spirits of those that died there are unable to rest. Something that continues to pose grave danger decades later.

A trap that Kate Hansen, Ruth Peacock and their associates have just walked into.

Hip hip huzzah, it’s another found footage movie. I’m so excited and I just can’t hide it.

Well, okay, since there’s plenty of “objective” (for lack of a better term) camera footage, you can argue Entity isn’t really a found footage movie. You’d be correct, but you’d be focusing on a single aspect of the production at the expense of the bigger picture. Entity looks and feels like a found footage movie, it uses the tropes and the iconography. Even when the footage doesn’t come from the characters’ cameras, it still looks like director Steve Stone shot it on consumer, not professional-grade, DV.

Like many other recent attempts to cash in on the found footage craze, a sense of calculation and obligation defines Entity. It meticulously does everything the subgenre requires it to do. When the team learns that Yuri has a secret connection to the mystery, it wouldn’t surprise the audience even if Tomovic didn’t play the character as if he were carrying a sign reading ASK ME ABOUT MY HIDDEN AGENDA. It’s not a surprise because that’s the only sort of role a character like Yuri can play in a story like this.

Similarly, when Kate has to choose between checking up on her cameras or searching for an associate who disappeared literally seconds ago, of course she chooses the cameras. The most important lesson she gleaned from Heather Donahue and Jason Creed is that the footage is more important than anyone’s life, or indeed everyone’s lives.

What Entity doesn’t have is heart, soul or a reason to care. Tomovic’s performance is the only weak one per se, but most of the others don’t exactly come out smelling like roses. Riley isn’t able to invest Kate with anything beyond what little the script gives her: she’s a driven, ambitious TV presenter, indistinguishable from a thousand other similar characters in a thousand other stories. She’s like a toy slot car on a race track, following a path for no other reason than that’s what the script tells her to do.

The same goes for Rupert Hill and Oliver Jackson, as tech assistants Matt and David; the characters are so generic that their job titles may as well be “cannon fodder” for all the difference it makes. Only Kirwan (as a Doctor Who fan, I must inform you that she played Miss Hartigan, the Cyber King, in “The Next Doctor”) emerges unscathed, and even then I can’t help but think that Ruth should have been so much more impressive than this.

And what really hurts is the fact that, for once, for all the film’s other failings, it’s solid from a visual perspective. The forests of Yorkshire, England, easily double for the forests of remote Russia. The facility interiors are beautifully atmospheric, and the effects and editing team deserve most of the credit for the two or three scenes in which Mischka is an effective villain-slash-monster.

Ultimately, Entity is a mediocre effort that doesn’t even have the common decency to suck. If it did, it would at least be memorable. Instead, it’s largely forgettable, a horror film as generic as its title.

Entity poster

The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh

The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh

Antiques dealer Leon Leigh has become estranged from his eccentric and devout mother Rosalind; yet her will specifies him as sole inheritor of her estate. After her death, he comes to her home to put her affairs in order. As he does so, memories of his unhappy childhood–the death of his father, the emotional abuse by his mother, and the strange cult his parents belonged to–come flooding back, and he has numerous strange experiences during his stay. How did Rosalind Leigh die, and was the cult involved? What, exactly, is the strange animal who prowls the grounds? And does the cult truly possess the secret of communion with the dead?

The Last Will and Testament is the début feature from Rue Morgue founder Rodrigo Gudiño, and it’s a doozy. It’s rare to see a first effort this audacious, visionary and unique. Clive Barker’s assertion that “no precedent” exists for a film like Rosalind Leigh is hyperbole, but not by much.

For one thing, there’s the cast. The only actor we spend more than a nominal amount of on-screen time with is Aaron Poole, who plays the lead role of Leon Leigh. There are a couple of other actors with brief, on-screen speaking roles: Vanessa Redgrave’s Rosalind is only seen in vague flashes; Julian Richings appears in a video clip as the cult’s creepy founding twin brothers; Steven McIntyre shouts fire and brimstone on a VHS recording of a church service.

But in terms of who we actually see, it’s up to Poole to carry the vast bulk of the film. This makes his role the most crucial casting decision, because he has to fit the role like a glove…which he does.

That doesn’t mean that there’s not a gaggle of strong performances here; Rosalind Leigh is very rare among live-action films for having more significant voice-over roles than on-screen ones. Rosalind is to the unseen roles what Leon is to the roles that actually appear, and her understated, slightly mournful narration helps drive the film. And yet, it’s more crucial than most film narration, as it tells a subtly different story than the visuals do. In order to get the full measure of what’s going on here, you have to figure out how to fit the narration and the visuals together.

Other remarkable vocal performances come from Charlotte Sullivan, as Leon’s significant other Anna (I’m not sure whether they’re meant to be married or dating), and Mitch Markowitz as the narrator of a book-on-tape on the subject of communion with the dead. Indeed, the latter performance is one of the most striking and memorable voice-overs in recent memory, calling to mind Lonnie Farmer’s performance as the psychiatrist in Session 9.

The visuals are as strong as the performances. Rosalind Leigh is a remarkable aesthetic effort for a feature début (although Gudiño has directed several short films as well), with breathtakingly beautiful cinematography and design work. (This film actually manages to make angel statues scary in a way that Doctor Who can’t quite manage!) The pacing is a bit of a slow burn, but it fits the story well, and the momentum never flags between set-pieces.

The last singular aspect of Rosalind Leigh is its narrative. By now horror fans are used to both “puzzle movies” where they’re expected to piece what’s going on along with the characters (see: Cube), movies whose natures change  their plot twists (see: Martyrs), and films that either answer seemingly central questions ambiguously or not at all (see: The Blair Witch Project). Rosalind Leigh contains elements of all three, and indeed, is often so subtle that you don’t even realize you’re looking at a plot twist or a crucial reveal until much, much later.

The downside to all of this is that much of the experience consists of things whose significance are far from readily apparent. (What significance does the animal hold, for example? And how is it possible for Rosalind to have died in the way we’re led to believe?) Seemingly insignificant or random details seem to take on grand importance (why doesn’t Gudiño show the face of the man who knocks at the door?).

Even minor production details tantalize: many of the less prominent voice-over roles are performed by Aaron Poole, Julian Richings and Charlotte Sullivan. This mightn’t have been done for budget reasons–certainly Gudiño could have afforded a couple more voice artists with his $1.8 million (Canadian) budget? So was it for convenience…or are we supposed to infer that there’s a deeper connection between Leigh’s agent, the aforementioned visitor, and the cult’s founders (all performed by Richings)?

It’s all very intriguing, to be sure, but one wishes that Gudiño had put a bit more work into assuring the audience that there’s a real explanation behind all the obscurities. More than once, I feared that Rosalind Leigh might fall prey to the worst indulgences of Argento’s back-catalog, in which elements are included because they make pretty visual events, not because they connect with the story. As it is, I commend Gudiño for placing so much trust in his audience’s intelligence, but that same audience has to put a lot of faith in the filmmaker that he knows what he’s doing. The film will doubtlessly benefit from rewatching–but how many in the audience bother is an entirely different question.

The bottom line is that those trusting and patient enough will find The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh to be an enchanting, enigmatic, obsession-inducing gem, and one certainly hopes that its reputation grows in future. Even if it doesn’t, it’s still different enough from the ruck and run of modern horror movies to justify giving it a chance.

Starring Aaron Poole, Vanessa Redgrave, Julian Richings, Charlotte Sullivan, Mitch Markowitz. Directed by Rodrigo Gudiño, 2012. 80 minutes.

THE LAST WILL AND TESTAMENT OF ROSALIND LEIGH poster.