Category: Horror

Censor (UK 2021)

Enid (Niamh Algar)

Censor is the British film that perhaps benefited most from the pandemic’s impact on cinema releases in the UK. After initially appearing at a range of film festivals, including Sundance and Berlin, and getting a US release in June, the film opened in the UK in August of 2021. It gained a profile from national reviews and for a while it was a ‘must see’ film. Although it got some very good reviews, it seems some horror film fans were disappointed by what is actually a very sophisticated narrative ‘about’ horror films and how they both generate fan communities and controversies. Censor is now streaming on MUBI in the UK (and is available to rent or buy on most UK streamers).

Prana Bailey-Bond

Censor is the début film of Prana Bailey-Bond, a young Welsh woman, too young to have first discovered the ‘video nasties’ during the period when they were being pilloried in the tabloid press in the UK in the early 1980s. She first experienced horror films on video in the mid 1990s and became aware of the history of the controversies. She became interested in the politics of the attacks on video viewings of horror films and in an interview has suggested that she equated them with the attempts to repress ‘rave culture’ which she recognised as a  form of rebellion as a teenager. Working with scriptwriter Anthony Fletcher, she directed a short film Nasty (UK 2015) and when that was well received, moved on to the development of Censor.

A little history

I think it’s quite important to understand the history of ‘video nasties’ and the structures of the film industry in the UK, especially for non-UK readers. There is a long history of film censorship in the UK which up to 1984 operated in a typically British ‘gentlemanly’ manner. The industry itself established the BBFC (then the ‘British Board of Film Censors’) in 1912. The board both classified films to be seen by adults only or children of set ages and required cuts for films deemed unacceptable. The Board had no statutory powers. These rested with local government authorities which issued performance licences for venues. The only other law that could be applicable to films was the Obscene Publications Act – which was notoriously difficult to use for prosecutions.

The ‘censor’ team in their dingy basement offices (Enid wither back to the camera)

The development of video cassette technology in the early 1980s created a new viewing environment and the initial refusal by the Hollywood studios to release their films on video (at a time when, in the UK, cinema admissions were falling rapidly) meant that a new domestic market was created for films not classified for cinema screenings. The Thatcher Conservative government, pressurised by campaigners against obscenity and pornography, created the Video Recordings Act (1984) which charged the BBFC with a statutory power for the first time to ‘protect’ younger audiences. ‘Video nasties’ was the term used by the tabloids to describe around 70 horror films, most made outside the UK, which were then proscribed by the BBFC. Around 2000 the BBFC (British Board of Film ‘Classification’ since 1985) organised extensive public consultations which then informed new classification policies. Many of the original ‘banned’ titles were then re-classified for public viewing.

Enid’s local video store – in reality most of the ones I visited in the 1980s were brighter and busier and much more cramped

The film

Prana Bailey-Bond was a diligent student of the furore that surrounded the video nasties controversy and in particular the defence by film and media scholars, especially in Ill Effects: The Media/Violence Debate (1997) an anthology edited by Martin Barker and Julian Petley. She researched the films in question but decided to adopt an approach which avoided direct historical references. Instead she imagines a group of ‘film censors’ working away in an underground office space sometime in the early 1980s. She doesn’t reference the BBFC directly. One of these censors is Enid (Niamh Algar) a serious and intense young woman who dresses rather primly. Enid lives alone and works diligently to suggest edits in films before ‘passing’ them. Later, it emerges that Enid is at odds with her parents over the disappearance of her younger sister Nina when the two girls were playing together in the woods some years earlier. Enid becomes particularly interested in the films of a particular producer of cheap horror films who at one point comes into the censors’ office. She becomes aware of the media controversy about horror films when one of the films she has ‘passed’ is named in a court case as possibly prompting a vicious attack. She also visits a local video rental store where she observes that the more notorious ‘extreme’ films are kept ‘under the counter’. As the pressure on Enid mounts she begins to lose her grip on reality, especially when she thinks that an actress in one of the films she is working upon might be her sister, now grown up. In the final section of the film, as the audience, we can’t be sure about what we are seeing as Enid appears to cross over into the fictional world of horror films.


I’m not sure what to make of Censor. I remember the video rental market very well. It involved sexploitation films, thrillers and martial arts films as well as horror – all of which would otherwise have struggled to get into cinemas. I was never particularly interested in the video nasties. I’m too squeamish for gory horror films, but I’m not necessarily interested in banning them. I am interested in horror as a genre but more inclined to ghost stories and psychological horror. Bailey-Bond does call Censor a ‘psychological horror’ and although there is plenty of blood at times (and the screen is suffused with a red glow), the film is not particularly scary as such. Having taught horror films and read widely around the subject, I can see that Prana Bailey Bond is an intelligent and talented filmmaker (and recognised as such in industry circles). She certainly develops an impressive performance by Niamh Algar and she packs a great deal into the brief 84 minutes running time of her film.

Enid crosses a boundary . . .

It seems clear to me that the 1980s is now a time of fascination for two groups of people. For one group who were children of the 1980s and who are now established in more senior roles in society, there is a nostalgia for childhood experiences. For younger groups discovering the 1980s for the first time and necessarily without the cultural baggage of the period, films like Censor must feel rather different. For my generation the 1980s was a nightmare – unless you were willing to embrace Thatcherism and the real horrors that accompanied it. I’m intrigued by Bailey-Bond’s linking of the horror films on video to rave culture and I think she has produced an intelligent and illuminating film. The performances are strong and the film has a distinctive visual style. I’m not sure I’m competent to evaluate how effective/appropriate it is but I do note that DoP Annika Summerson has used a wide range of formats for image capture with aspect ratios varying from ‘Scope to Academy and along with production design by Paulina Rzeszowska has achieved a look that might well suggest horror on video in the 1980s. This is definitely a film to look out for, but only as long as you don’t expect a standard generic horror flic. Here’s the UK trailer.

St Maud (UK 2019)

Maud and Amanda in the old wood-panelled house

Saint Maud is one of those films that got a brief run in UK cinemas in Autumn 2020 some six months after it was scheduled for release. That might partly explain its critical success but it had already been well received at Toronto in 2019. Given the limelight in this way, the film has been extensively reviewed and discussed. It’s difficult to gauge the audience response since cinema audiences were restricted and it will have been seen mostly on streamers. It was selected as an online film for a Friday night film club meeting on Zoom and I watched it on BFI Player. I mention this because Saint Maud isn’t necessarily a film I would have chosen to watch. I’m not sure if I enjoyed the screening but it was certainly gripping and intriguing and I did enjoy reading about its production and discussing it with friends.

Maud has a former life as someone less obviously religious

Saint Maud has been described in several ways. ‘Religious horror’ and ‘psychological thriller’ are two of the most common. A young woman has a nightmarish experience working as a nurse at St Afra’s Hospital. Leaving her job, she is taken on by a nursing agency and after a year is assigned to be the live-in carer of the terminally ill dancer and choreographer Amanda, who was celebrated for her career and whose house is full of memories of her performances. In one of those cruel twists, Amanda has a form of lymphoma which affects her spine so she can no longer dance. Instead she is drinking and smoking away her last few months in an old house with art deco wallpaper. It soon becomes apparent that Maud is a recent convert to Catholicism who believes that her prayers are answered by the voice of God and His presence. She determines to save Amanda’s soul before the dancer dies. What follows is a narrative with some familiar events and a climactic ending. These are presented with strong creative ideas and real flair. The film is only 84 minutes long and you get plenty of thrills for your money. But the narrative is primarily about Maud so we learn a little more about her. We are given some clues about her past life (as ‘Katie’) and her struggles. Writer-director Rose Glass offers us the possibility that Maud is mentally ill or that she is indeed possessed in some way by the Holy Spirit. Some of us might take these to be the same affliction.

(from left) Morfydd Clark, Rose Glass and Jennifer Ehle

Maud making her way to Amanda’s house along the promenade

Rose Glass was a convent girl and there are a number of references I found I had to look up. My research suggests that St. Afra is the relevant historical figure, not Maud, although I spent time trying to remember the two royal Mauds in medieval England (Maud is an alternative version of Matilda). The film is set in a seaside town that is inevitably described as ‘bleak’, ‘dismal’ and ‘small’ etc. The location is actually Scarborough, though it is not named and the camera carefully picks out the least salubrious parts of town. I think Scarborough would make a good setting for a different type of horror film, something more gothic – Whitby is also just up the coast. Perhaps the gothic house in Saint Maud is paired with the garish amusement arcade close to Maud’s own tiny flat as a way of linking two rather different representations of decay and lost faith?  My gripe is that seaside towns are quite specific locations capable of representing a range of meanings but they seem to be used for only a limited range of possibilities. Today, UK seaside towns are often depicted as decaying, with ‘welfare recipients’ living in what were once holiday lettings. It’s an easy shorthand though it is true that some of the most deprived districts in the UK are found in seaside towns. Although Saint Maud is clearly a narrative about some form of highly personal Christianity, it is also possible to read it as a social commentary about the alienation of many young people, featuring loneliness and self-harm, especially among young women. Maud includes self-harming as part of her devotional practice. I found these scenes among the most horrific in the film.

Maud places nails through the insoles of her shoes . . .

This kind of film depends a lot on the central performances and here Morfydd Clark as Maud and Jennifer Ehle as Amanda are both excellent. Rose Glass is a National Film School graduate here making her feature début after several well-received shorts, including the prize-winning Room 55 (UK 2015). The cinematography by Ben Fordesman has won prizes and the music score by Adam Janota Bzowski has also been praised. I confess I didn’t like the very heavy bass notes in the score. The film has a female creator and there are several other women in the production team. The narrative is very much about Katie/Maud and the women she interacts with. There are three male characters who are there primarily to help to reveal something about Maud. I expect it helps to have had a convent education in order to get the most from the film.

Maud in her tiny flat begins to prepare for her final act.

Much of the discussion around the film is focused on whether this is a religious film, a horror film or a psychological thriller – though of course it could have elements of all three. There are certainly  a small number of fantasy/dream/nightmare scenes. St. Afra was a 4th century penitent and martyr and that description perhaps fits Maud, though she could fit other descriptions too. Rose Glass was heavily featured in Sight and Sound‘s November 2020 ‘Horror’ special issue. Discussing her influences in writing the script she denied ever having thought about The Exorcist or The Omen and instead referenced filmmakers such as Lars von Trier, David Cronenberg and John Waters and writers such as Iain Banks and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Morfydd Clark watched a lot of Bergman films for preparation and I think that must have been Glass’s influence. Clark also refers to both the ‘grossness’ of scenes and the humour. I’m not sure I really got either but I think I know what she means. I’m not attaching a trailer because I think the ones I’ve seen all include too many spoilers. I think there is partly a problem with how the film has been promoted, especially in the US by A24 and generally in some of the film posters. These are misleading, creating the idea of a certain kind of horror film. It’s interesting that I struggled to find images of the film which showed Maud on the streets of Scarborough and interacting with people other than Amanda. It’s best I think to see the film without too many expectations. If you haven’t yet seen it, do give it a go. You won’t be bored!

I Remember You (Ég man þig, Iceland 2017)

This Icelandic horror film was released in the UK a few months after its Iceland release. I don’t remember noticing the release (StudioCanal straight to DVD?) and I also missed its BBC transmission. It’s still available on iPlayer for another week and I’m glad I managed to catch it. (Just Watch suggests it is available to watch on several streamers.) The BBC handles relatively few foreign language films these days and it doesn’t promote them very well. My only real purchase on this film was through its source material, a 2010 novel by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, who is one of the best known and most celebrated contemporary Icelandic writers. Many of her books are available in the UK in translation. Mostly she is known for crime fiction and children’s fiction. I Remember You is described as a ‘standalone’ thriller. Her crime novels comprise two series, one featuring a lawyer and one a psychologist. Some of the crime novels have shades of horror about them but I Remember You is much more a crime fiction/mystery/horror mix – at least in its film adaptation, I haven’t read the original.

Freyr and Dagný examine the corpse of the hanged woman

The genre elements in the story are familiar, especially in an Icelandic or more broadly Nordic context. The fate of small children in a hostile environment and in remote communities crops up in several crime fictions, sometimes with almost mythical links to Norse storytelling. In this film the focus is on a small community across the fjord from a larger settlement. The community goes back a long way and the narrative spans 60-70 years. It is one of those narratives which switches between time periods without clear signalling for the viewer. In what appears to be the present, a local hospital doctor, Freyr (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson), who works as a psychiatrist, is called to a church where the body of an older woman has been found. The church has been defiled and the woman has been hanged. Or is it a suicide? The psychiatrist’s son went missing three years earlier and when it appears that there is some connection between the woman and his son’s disappearance he begins to investigate alongside local police detective Dagný (Sara Dögg Ásgeirsdóttir). A second narrative strand involves a trio of thirty-somethings(?), a couple and a second woman, who arrive in the area seeking to renovate an old house that has been empty for many years. They hope to create a property to let during the summer season. The old building will turn out to be haunted in some way. I don’t want to spoil the narrative any further so I’ll move on to more general observations.

Katrín looks out from the house she is renovating – faces at the window are key genre images

Iceland is a country with a small population, barely enough people to fill a medium-sized city in most of Europe. But it’s quite a large island so population density is very low. Remote communities are likely to be small with potential internal conflicts not easily detectable from outside. The small population numbers however mean that the records of the population are more manageable than in larger communities. Stories that involve lost children are not unusual. Events long ago can perhaps be more important when communities are more isolated. Children are important characters in a host of horror stories as well as crime stories. They invoke intense emotions for parents and they also generate ideas about innocence but also susceptibility to evil – they are perhaps more open to suggestion, but also to paranormal forces. I Remember You is primarily a ghost story and those images of small figures glimpsed out of the corner of an eye or suddenly appearing and disappearing behind buildings or rocks on the hillside, familiar from other films of the genre, are a feature of this film.

Ghostly figures are briefly glimpsed . . .

I think the film generally succeeds as a mystery and a ghost story. It does need ‘work’ to read the narrative and I certainly struggled over several sections. I’m not sure if it is easier for horror fans to follow because of the conventions it uses. It does offer thrills and chills even if you aren’t sure what is going on, but if you follow the narrative carefully and try to work out the time shifts (and the geography of the area) you will get a richer experience. Having said that I think I am still puzzling over parts of the plotting. The contemporary reviews I’ve read all explicitly link the film to ‘Nordic noir’. The Guardian‘s not particularly helpful review even goes to the extent of citing the knitwear as a significant genre element – while dismissing the ghost story. I found American reviews to be much more appreciative. It is much more concerned with the ghost story than with police work.

Director and co-writer Óskar Thór Axelsson has directed on two series of the excellent police procedural Trapped. For I Remember You he is supported by suitably dark and chilling cinematography from Jakob Ingimundarson. The cast is also a major asset. I’m always impressed in Icelandic films and TV by the quality of the performances. There are several cast members I’ve seen in other Icelandic films/TV series. The music by Frank Hall is suitably generic for this kind of horror. The trailer below gives much more plot information and the film’s opening credit sequence shows many scenes from the whole narrative, much like the pre-credits sequences of some TV serials. However, I suspect that you will still be trying to figure out what is going on by the end of the film. On reflection, I think this is a rich text in terms of storytelling and one which repays a second viewing.

Cure (Japan 1997)

The cross on the wall signifies a murder in ‘Cure’

MUBI recently offered a Kurosawa Kiyoshi mini-season and I managed to catch Cure, Kurosawa’s international breakthrough film, just before it fell off the 30 day rolling programme. It is available on DVD/Blu-ray in the UK from Eureka and possibly on other streaming services. Kurosawa is a major filmmaker who hasn’t been seen much in UK cinemas but he’s a firm favourite with festivals and is very highly regarded in France. In the UK he became known around 2000 with some releases in the ‘Tartan Extreme’ DVD series. I was very impressed by his 2008 prize-winner Tokyo Sonata which did get a very limited run in UK cinemas. Although it does have links to the earlier films, Tokyo Sonata seemed to many critics to be something different. The issue here (or perhaps just in the UK) is that Kurosawa began his career in what were seen as exploitation genres – ‘pink films‘, then V-cinema films (low budget, straight to video) and finally J-horror. Cure appeared in Japan just a few weeks before Nakata Hideo’s Ringu which has often been acknowledged as the film which launched a series of remakes and similar titles in South East Asia and Hollywood. (Ringu was a literary adaptation that had already been adapted for TV.) Cure does share something with Nakata’s film but in other ways it is even more complex and disturbing.

The suspect (Hagiwara Masato) tries to intimidate Takabe while the psychologist Sakuma (Ujiki Tsuyoshi) watches in the background.

In outline, the story appears to be a familiar serial killer format but one in which gruesome murders are committed by dazed killers who don’t know each other and who seem almost unaware of what they have done. Somebody or something has caused seemingly ‘ordinary’ people to kill someone they encounter or someone they know. The detective in charge of the investigation is the lead character who has his own problems in the form of his wife who seems to have a form of amnesia. She is prone to getting lost when she goes shopping and she acts oddly in attempting to keep house. Yakusho Kôji plays the detective ‘Takabe’. He is one of the most successful Japanese actors of his generation and in 1996 had a major international success with Shall We Dansu? He has worked several times with Kurosawa Kiyoshi. In this film he wears a long gaberdine coat and his demeanour switches from complete calm to bouts of rage. He himself is overworked and getting close to a breakdown. Like the the best J-horror films there are also moments of possible hallucination and the progress of the investigation is disturbing in several ways. The narrative does not end when the suspect is caught and interrogated. Instead we move into a dénouement which includes another element similar to that in the Ring series – a scientific experiment dating from the turn of the 20th century which continues to create a ‘disturbance’ nearly a hundred years later.

Takabe finds an ‘Edison phonograph’ in an abandoned laboratory.

I’m not going to spoil the narrative in any way – and indeed to do so with any certainty would be very difficult since the events, especially in the closing section, are presented elliptically. Instead I’ll just mention some of formal ideas and possible references. A link to Ringu is the addition of a second investigator. Whereas in Nakata’s film, the principal investigator is a female reporter who is aided by her ex-husband, here the detective is aided by an academic psychologist who is eventually able to track down details of an 1898 criminal investigation and the scientific research that became part of that investigation. The suspect is a young man who is able to compel ordinary people to kill. Why does he do this? Takabe the detective seems drawn ever more deeply into the case and we begin to worry that he might not have the mental strength to pursue it to its conclusion. The narrative is set in the Tokyo area and ranges from the beach to offices, cheap hotels, a police hut, a hospital ward etc. The final sequence almost felt like a Tarkovskian stumble through an abandoned world (I’m still mulling over Stalker) – see the image above.

J-horror was a Japanese genre that achieved significant international distribution. Kurosawa is clearly at one end of a spectrum with a heavy shading of arthouse/auteur sensibility. I do wonder how much the success of the genre is down to the general feeling of malaise in Japan during the long period of economic stagnation during the 1990s. Does this connect to the return of ghost stories? There is a suggestion of a ‘return’ of 19th century fears in Cure and a feeling of desperation and despair about contemporary society. With this film Kurosawa was hailed as a new ‘master of horror’ and I found the film extremely affective in its power to disturb. I must try to watch more.

Little Joe (Austria-UK-Germany 2019)

Chris (Ben Whishaw) and Alice (Emily Beecham) in the laboratory greenhouse

Little Joe was funded by a range of European public funding agencies and is now distributed in the UK by the British Film Institute. Its profile within the European film world is based on its Austrian director Jessica Hausner’s previous Cannes screenings and its Cannes 2019 Best Actor prize for Emily Beecham. But apart from a handful of critics, the film audience has not taken to it – at the time of writing it has a 5.9 score on IMDb. I think the problem is that the film falls into a contemporary bear-trap – the sense for audiences that an arthouse director is making a genre film but not carrying through the expectations they have for that specific genre. It’s a different version of the problem which also affects The Lighthouse.

‘Little Joe’ is the name given by a senior ‘plant breeder’ to a new plant she has created as part of a project to develop a house plant that will produce excessive amounts of pollen and a very distinctive smell.  The project team believe that inhaling the smell will be calming and will promote ‘happiness’ – thus tying in to the latest ‘wellness’ craze, though nobody mentions that in a film shot in 2018. The plant name refers to Alice Woodard’s son, Joe a young teenager who she fears she may be neglecting. As well as the central narrative about the plant, a parallel narrative explores Alice’s relationship with Joe (she is a single parent, her estranged (?) husband lives out in the wilds, in the fells). Alice is visiting a psychotherapist (Lindsay Duncan) to deal with her anxieties about parenting.

Joe and Alice with another takeaway meal

The genre narrative here is seen to belong to either horror or science fiction/speculative fiction and most critics and audiences seem to have assumed that this is a re-imagined version of the famous Body Snatchers novel (1955) by Jack Finney which has been adapted four times by Hollywood. Although I read this suggestion before I saw Little Joe, I forgot about it completely and instead thought about a range of other horror/SF narratives. Two Ira Levin novels sprang to mind, both of which later became Hollywood hits – Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Stepford Wives (1974). These may seem peculiar references but the key element is the fear that all of us feel when we think that somebody we know well still looks the same, but that they seem now to be somebody else. This sense of paranoia makes for a quiet but devastating psychological thriller. I was pleased to discover that the writer-director (with co-writer Géraldine Bajard) was aiming precisely for this:

. . . our concern was to create an atmosphere within the scenes that allows the audience to question the integrity of the characters involved.

We wanted to offer different ways of interpreting what is happening: the so-called changes in people can either be explained by their psycho­logical state of mind, or by the pollen they have inhaled. Or alternatively, those ‘changes’ do not exist at all and are only imagined by Bella [the first of the breeders to notice something] or Alice. (from the Press Notes)

The issue for audiences here appears to be that, first, the narrative moves at a glacial pace and there isn’t as much ‘plot’ as we would expect from a genre horror/SF film and second that because we know the story we can predict the next event. I don’t buy this, partly because I’m quite happy to accept the arthouse approach. Hausner herself offers a conversation in the Press Notes with a neuroscientist to suggest that the basis of her narrative is at least plausible. Plants do contain chemicals which humans choose to ingest in various ways and which we accept as behaviour-changing and mood-altering (cannabis and nicotine are just two examples). The horror factor in this narrative is terrifying because the film doesn’t have a clear resolution. In all the Invasion of the Bodysnatcher films at least we know that the pod people are replacing humans. In this film we never know if it is actually dangerous to inhale the pollen. Have we changed? Or, because we are happy, do we just not notice?

The film’s colour palette is presumably created with this red of the mature plant as a starting point

My gripe with the film is not with the ideas, the arthouse pacing or the complex relationship to genre, but with the aesthetics of the film. The costumes are designed by the director’s sister Tanja who has worked on Jessica Hausner’s previous films and those of the Austrian auteur Ulrich Seidl. I found them ugly especially in their cut and in the clashing pastel shades designed for the overall colour palette of the film. But I can see that they help to create the sterile world of the plant breeders. They are matched by the camerawork of Martin Gschlacht and Hausner’s decision to use some of the avant-garde Japanese music of Teiji Ito (1932-1981). Ito is credited with melding traditional music from noh and kabuki theatrical forms with American avant-garde music. Hausner came across his work because of his collaborations with Maya Deren (who he married at the end of her life). This music has been one of the most disturbing/irritating aspects of the film for some audiences, especially those expecting a conventional horror/SF score (even though conventional scores for such genre films do sometimes use unusual musical forms). Finally, it is important to add to the aesthetic mix, the acting styles that Hausner has urged some of her well-known actors to adopt. I find it difficult to describe this style other than to say that it feels stilted and unnatural. I did wonder if any of it was associated with this being Hausner’s first film in English, but I would have expected the actors to have overcome any issues with the script. It must be deliberate and is most apparent in scenes which would otherwise carry emotional force such as those between Alice and Chris (Ben Whishaw) and between Alice and her son and his girlfriend.

There were times watching Little Joe when I was strongly reminded of Peter Strickland’s In Fabric. That film has the same sense of ‘timelessness’ – but it also has plenty of humour, violence, horror, sex and passion, all absent in Little Joe. I sound as if I am damning Little Joe, but actually I did find it intriguing and always interesting. I’m not sure why Emily Beecham won her acting award. Perhaps it was because she gave Jessica Hausner precisely the performance the director wanted? I do wonder if I’ve fallen into the trap of ‘seeing’ Alice only through a ‘male gaze’? It’s interesting that the three other female roles of the psychotherapist, the former lead plant breeder, Bella (Kerry Fox) and Joe’s girlfriend Selma (Jessie Mae Alonzo) are all characters with more vitality and emotion reflected in their costumes and acting than that of Alice.

The production, with its Austrian, British, German and French funding was shot mainly in Liverpool and North West England, Austria, Germany and the Netherlands (for the plant breeding). I have seen comments from critics complaining about ‘another Euro-pudding’ but I think the different locations add something to the ‘otherworldliness’ of the narrative. If you go in to Little Joe thinking that you will see a horror or SF genre film I expect you will be disappointed. You might enjoy it more as an art film exploring a specific set of ideas. I’m now going to try to watch Jessica Hausner’s earlier success Lourdes (Austria-France-Germany 2009) which has just popped up on MUBI in the UK. I’m expecting a similar arthouse approach but without the genre narratives.

The Lighthouse (Canada-US 2019)

Robert Pattison and Willem Dafoe when they first arrive on the island

The Lighthouse has received rave reviews and a smaller number of groans and dismissals. I can understand that, but I find myself somewhere in the middle. The film’s strength is its about technical virtuosity and I certainly applaud the cinematography, the set design, the sound design, the effects work and the central performances. It’s worth going to see the film for these achievements alone. Unfortunately, I don’t think the script works quite as well. It’s not so much the ‘content’ of the script but more the choice of structure and the pacing and the handling of genre elements. It’s a clever and learned script, but I did find it tedious at times.

The film is written and directed by Robert Eggers. His brother Max had the original idea for a film inspired by ‘The Light-House’, a two page ‘fragment’ and the last thing written by Edgar Allen Poe in 1849. The Eggers’ script moves away from Poe and in its use of language and the history of myths and legends told by sailors and coastal peoples it evokes Herman Melville. The narrative is set in the 1890s on the New England coast (though it was shot on the South-West tip of Nova Scotia near Yarmouth). Two lighthouse keepers arrive on an island to replace a pair who leave on the same tender. The new men are the experienced Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and the younger new ‘wickie’ Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson). The younger man is given all the menial (and dirty, heavy) jobs. Wake concentrates on the lamp at the top of the tower.

The two men speak little and Winslow tries to avoid drinking alcohol as the rulebook decrees. Wake drinks every evening and eventually Winslow gives in and the two men relax a little. But the work and the weather and the isolation prey on Winslow who begins to have nightmares and strange experiences around the island. On the night before the pair are due to be relieved, a violent storm blows in and the men get very drunk. No boat arrives and the terrifying waves and winds lash the island. There are even darker times ahead.

The narrow frame emphasises the confines of the lighthouse and its staff quarters

All of this is delivered on screen in images composed for the 1.19:1 aspect ratio sometimes termed ‘Movietone’ but also used in German and British cinema at the end of the 1920s and early 1930s during the transition to sound on film. To complement the format, Eggers and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke chose to shoot on film using filmstock and lenses which recreated the look of the 1920s/30s. However, they also chose to manipulate the images using stronger artificial lights than would have been available  at that time. All of this seemingly made the actual shooting process quite difficult for the actors. According to Robert Pattinson in the Sight&Sound special on the film (February 2020), he and Willem Dafoe were often very close together to fit in the narrow frame. Certainly at the beginning of the film the qualities of the image are very noticeable as the lighthouse and the ship bringing the new ‘wickies’ gradually appear in the fog. Some of the early compositions making striking use of the vertical axis, peering up at the lighthouse and then placing the characters at the top of the screen. Gradually, however, I found myself getting used to the shape and texture of the images. The only noticeable difference from watching an Academy Ratio print was that the masking curtains in the Cubby Broccoli cinema at the National Media Museum didn’t close to the edge of the frame – presumably there is only a selectable position for Academy from the projection box?

The visual qualities of the image and the sound design (the wind, rain, the foghorn, the steam engine) are terrific. The problems come, partly I think because there are too many allusions to other films, paintings and literary narratives. This in turn suggests a wide range of genres, defined by iconography and generic characters as well as visual/aural style. IMDB suggests ‘Drama’ and ‘Fantasy’. Graham Fuller in Sight&Sound suggests a “gothic maritime horror film depicting a psychosexual power struggle”. He also, tellingly, suggests the film is “less a text than a trove [of visual and literary influences].”

Dafoe lit as the gnarled Wake

If we take Fuller’s analysis as a starting point, we might argue that there is a core genre repertoire here which comprises a specific location (the North Atlantic or more specifically the North East seaboard of the US/Canada), a specific period (in this case the late 19th century) and specific characters (sailors, whalers, lighthouse keepers and others whose lives depend on the sea) and environmental factors (sea, wind, rain, fog). By extending one or more of these elemental categories we can soon find a whole range of films and other narratives. We can then merge this repertoire with the ‘psychosexual power struggle’ – the drama of two men locked into a destructive relationship. Eggers’ narrative does provide us with a kind of ‘key’ to the narrative when ‘Winslow’ reveals that he has changed his name because he fled another job in Canada, feeling ‘guilty’ for something he did. On this basis, the horror elements in the film could be manifestations of his breakdown exacerbated by the behaviour of Wake. The iconography of his nightmares could conceivably be drawn from his own experiences, if he had heard the tales or read the stories. But as the audience we have seen and read much more. For example, Winslow seems to be terrorised by a gull. It’s impossible not to think of Hitchcock and the birds of Bodega Bay as well as the birds of Greek mythology. The other images that may be nightmares offer similar kinds of references. I’m making this reading in retrospect. During the screening I reached a point where I began to lose interest and I’m not sure why. I can only think that I became overwhelmed by the ‘trove’ of references and lost my way through the narrative.

Fuller’s account of references includes Michael Powell’s 1935 ‘quota quickie’ The Phantom Light, a comedy thriller about murder and sabotage at a remote Welsh lighthouse which I watched a couple of years ago. It’s not a great film but it’s entertaining and I might go back and watch it again. Powell is a good example of a filmmaker who was ultimately a successful ‘artist’ because he made films for himself and for audiences – large audiences who respected wit and intelligence. Eggers is an artist who seems to make films for himself and a much smaller audience. If you are part of that audience you may enjoy the film’s narrative as much as the technical virtuosity and the performances.