Despite the brutal horror in Midsommar, the images that’ll stick with you after the credits roll are all close ups of Florence Pugh’s face. Pugh crying inconsolably. Pugh screaming in abject horror. And, in the closing moments, Pugh smiling beatifically.
Like writer/director Ari Aster’s previous film, Hereditary, Midsommar is a story about grief and heartbreak built around one massive performance. When we first meet Pugh as Dani Amour, she’s already in a state of distress, and things only get worse from there. Midsommar opens in mid-winter, as Dani discovers that her depressed sister has killed not only herself but also their parents. Her pain is immense, and the only support she has left is her useless boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), who was already planning to dump her.
But when she invites herself along on a lads’ holiday to Sweden, where Christian and his anthropology student mates are hoping to study the rituals of the mysterious Hårga community, well… let’s just say her internal anguish gets externalised.
This director’s cut doesn’t feel strictly necessary: the extra scenes include an extra abortive ritual and some more bickering, and their inclusion extends an already long film to an indulgent 163 minutes. But then it was an indulgent film in the first place. Did every flat surface really have to be covered in paintings, tapestries, or runes spelling out the unsuspecting characters’ doom? Was there any need for all the scenes of people sitting down to eat together? And were all those over-saturated, distorted flowers really needed? Of course not! But all of those details, plus Pugh’s killer performance, elevate what could have been a basic Wicker Man re-tread into an intense sensory experience that demands your rapt attention.
Yes, it takes nearly three hours to get somewhere any half-savvy horror fan will already have known it was heading. But it’s worth the trip.
It’s a boom time for horror right now, with lots of talented new directors scaring up huge box office returns and glowing reviews. But at the same time, everyone suddenly seems afraid to say the h-word. SciFiNow investigates…
When is a horror movie not a horror movie? Well, maybe when it’s so good that everyone, even non-genre critics, recognises that it’s great. Then it might be an “elevated genre” movie instead.
You’ve probably heard the term being thrown around a lot lately. It’s been applied to quite a few recent horrors, from Robert Eggers’s slow-burning The Witch to Julia Ducournau’s gory coming-of-age parable Raw. It’s meant to be complimentary, to establish a film as something a bit more special than a run-of-the-mill scary movie. Critics write about the surprising depth and intelligence to be found in these films, about how they use genre trappings to express vital truths or to explore the dark corners of the human psyche.
And while we’re not arguing that those things aren’t true, doesn’t it kind of seem like that’s what all horror does – and has always done? Where did this terminology come from, and do we really need to play complicated semantic games just to express admiration for a horror movie?
It’s only a movie, it’s only a movie…
Jordan Peele’s racially charged chiller Get Out is a prime example of this kind of genre apologism. It’s been a massive success: it took around $150 million at the US box office, with a production budget of only around $4.5 million, and reviews aggregator Rotten Tomatoes shows it’s been a critical hit, too, with a 99% fresh rating. It’s even set a new record: it’s the highest grossing debut film based on an original screenplay ever made. That should be good news for everyone, from Peele and Blumhouse Productions to anyone who wants to see more bold, original, intelligent movies getting made.
But much of the praise it received came with caveats. A lot of people seemed keen to avoid the h-word. Even Peele himself, an avowed horror fan, has been calling it a “social thriller” instead. (In his recent interview with SciFiNow, he used the phrase three times.) What’s going on?
“I think it’s a horror movie and a social thriller,” says Jason Blum, CEO of Blumhouse Productions. “Jordan is an incredibly talented visionary filmmaker who made a great movie, and that movie really touched a nerve in the culture. Not only did it scare the crap out of people, but it had something serious on its mind.”
This time, it’s personal
Does that “something serious” mean we need to invent a new category for Get Out, though? Blum doesn’t necessarily think so. “If it helps get more people to see horror movies who were previously reluctant to, than I am all for it,” he says. “That being said, I think horror has a long and distinguished history of combining entertainment with powerful social messages, whether it was Nightmare on Elm Street or Halloween or The Purge, which helped lay the groundwork for Get Out.”
Horror fans reading this are probably nodding their heads vigorously right now. And while Blum’s not particularly bothered by what people call his company’s films, it’s hard not to be a little bit frustrated by the way horror’s generally treated as an artistically invalid genre – until a great movie breaks through, at which point it’s treated as if it’s not really a horror movie at all.
Last year’s Under The Shadow is another example. It’s a horror movie that found fans beyond genre fans, and got given some creative labels along the way. But director Babak Anvari shares Blum’s lack of concern over labels.
“I’m happy to say it’s a horror film,” he says. “Though sometimes I’ll say it’s a psychological thriller, just to be diplomatic. It depends who you’re talking to. It’s funny, ever since the film came out, you’ll see people saying ‘it is a horror film, I got scared’ and I think ‘great, I love that!’ and then you see people comment saying ‘it’s not a genre film, it’s not a horror film, I think it’s a lot more than that,’ and I think, ‘cool’, I’m happy with that too. I just wanted to tell an exciting story.”
But when it’s an exciting story that involves a mother and child being chased out of their home by both the Iran-Iraq war and a shadowy djinn, why argue that it’s not a horror movie?
Be afraid, be very afraid
Strangely, horror’s bad reputation might be partly down to its own successes. Because it often is super successful, as least on a commercial level: before Get Out, the film that held the record for being the highest grossing directorial debut based on an original screenplay was The Blair Witch Project, while in terms of return-on-investment, Paranormal Activity is the most profitable film of all time. But commercial success and critical acclaim don’t always go hand in hand, and a market flooded with me-too cash-ins hasn’t improved horror’s reputation.
Indie horror producer Jennifer Handorf, who’s responsible for bringing us Prevenge, The Borderlands, and The Chamber, reckons that’s definitely part of the problem. “Horror filmmaking has long been the arena of the no-budget filmmaker,” she says. “You don’t have to have a budget [to make a successful horror film], you don’t have to have stars, and as prosumer filmmaking got bigger and bigger, that’s what a lot of people flocked to.
“So you’ve got a lot of these films being made, some of them very well, but a lot of them not very well. Sales agents needed a way to separate their product from all the other schlock that’s out there, so they’d say ‘no, don’t worry, it’s an elevated genre film’.” And as a producer, she’s noticed other problems with the way horror’s come to be regarded. “I think people are less happy to invest in a horror film,” she admits.
Blum agrees that horror’s unfairly stigmatised. “That stigma comes from people who don’t understand the genre,” he says. “People who don’t like horror movies think all they are is a bunch of jump scares with a bad story thrown around them. That’s why there are so many bad horror movies, because they’re made by people who don’t get it.”
It’s exactly what you think it is
Still, horror’s status as the under-loved, awkward relation is nothing new. Michael Blyth, who programs the BFI’s Cult strand, says it’s pretty much always been the case. “Look at The Exorcist,” he says. “If you read interviews with Linda Blair or William Peter Blatty, they say it’s not a horror film.
“Historically, horror movies don’t win awards, they don’t get that critical response or industry accolades that other genres do. The Exorcist did have that big critical moment, and it did get the award nominations, but it seems like there’s this idea that to have those successes, you have to move away from talking about the film as pure horror.”
He also sees that happening with Get Out, though he thinks it shouldn’t. “I think Get Out is a really interesting film, and I think it’s important that people talk about it as horror. Horror is the genre that’s best at mirroring society; it’s the best at reflecting social anxieties and political situations. Get Out is so rich in subtext – and it’s just text, a lot of the time, in terms of what it’s saying about race – so I think it’s important that people talk about that as horror and everyone is reminded how smart and socially adept horror can be.”
And trying to pretend these films are something other than they are can sometimes backfire. Blyth reckons being too coy in describing films can sometimes mean they struggle to find their audiences. “You can see the marketing cogs working sometimes, thinking ‘we’re gonna appeal to as many people as we can’, but as a horror fan, I love something to be presented to me as a horror movie,” he says. “Sometimes, in trying to cater to everyone, you cater to no-one.”
The next scream you hear may be your own
So how are audiences expected to decide which movies to see, in an over-saturated market? Blyth sees it as his duty, when programming films for the BFI, to introduce people to new kinds of films: not by trying to trick them into seeing something they’re not interested in, but by putting them into a different context.
“It’s been interesting for me over the last few years to see the audience grow for these kinds of films at LFF, for people to come round to the idea that maybe LFF isn’t what they thought it was, and maybe you don’t have to go to Frightfest to see these films,” he says. “I think Frightfest is amazing and I don’t want to be in competition with them, but I think it’s important for genre work to be programmed in mainstream festivals as well, because I think it’s a way we can progress views on the genre. We can legitimise a maligned genre as a significant art form.”
Director Alice Lowe definitely appreciated having her film Prevenge shown at non-genre festivals. “When we got into Venice [Film Festival], we were really surprised. I think it was because it’s a mashup of themes, and there’s some quite serious themes in it; it’s got moments that are related to horror and then other moments that dip into social satire or realism or surrealism. Venice is a proper grownup festival that’s not known for genre or horror, so it was a big triumph for us. I thought, ‘this might mean something different for the film, maybe it’s got a wider reach than we thought.’”
And she thinks there’s a way to work around the ‘horror’ problem: “You never want to pigeonhole yourself,” she explains. “What I feel is, horror shouldn’t be treated as a box. It should be a peg that you can hang onto, along with lots of other pegs. It’s something to be inspired by, rather than trapped by, really.”
Oh yes, there will be blood
Which brings us full circle, in a way. It’s clear that horror has got a reputation problem, and that a lot of people don’t think a horror movie can also be about something serious, or be considered a serious piece of art in its own right. But by making up new ways to describe them, by refusing to call horror movies, well, horror movies, that isn’t going to change. Instead, we need filmmakers to keep making great horror movies, and for us to call them horror movies while discussing what’s so interesting and worthwhile about them.
And Jason Blum, for one, seems to be on board with that. “I love horror movies, and have no interest in doing anything else but making them,” he says. “I know they aren’t for everyone, but that doesn’t bother me. The true horror fans understand how powerful the genre is as a storytelling platform.”
Controversial paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren get another cinematic outing in James Wan’s supernatural sequel, The Conjuring 2. Total Film goes on set to scare up the truth behind the ‘true story’…
October 30, 2015: it’s nearly Halloween and the crew of The Conjuring 2 are getting into the holiday spirit. When Total Film arrives at the studio in Burbank, we count several people in costume: black cats, zombies, skeletons, and an especially creepy Snow White. The truly scary stuff, though, is happening on the other side of the camera.
That’s where Patrick Wilson, reprising his role as demonologist Ed Warren from the first movie, is hanging out of the window of a painstaking reproduction of a 1970s north London council house. Buffeted by supernatural forces, clad in a ripped shirt and smeared with blood, he’s clutching a young girl in his arms and screaming for help; inside the house, Vera Farmiga, also returning as Wilson’s onscreen wife Lorraine, is driving back a red-eyed demon while religious icons crash to the floor around her. Despite the bright Californian sunshine outside, here on set, a rain machine is providing a much more authentically British atmosphere.
While the crew sets up for a second take, we grab the opportunity to explore the rest of the set. Beyond the main house (which has been scaled up to three times the size of a real council house, though it’s otherwise convincing) there’s a whole street, complete with pebble-dashed walls, shrubberies, and real, damp concrete underfoot.
Around the corner, there’s the Warrens’ artefact room. Like the grimmest toy box ever, it’s crammed with evil-looking bits and pieces: weird paintings, skulls, a stuffed monkey, a samurai suit and, of course, plenty of creepy dolls.
The final set we spot might be the most exciting. It’s a familiar-looking attic bedroom, complete with period-accurate shag pile carpet, an old TV, and those iconic quarter-moon shaped windows – it’s the Amityville Horror house! Bad news for Amityville fans, though, because the Warrens’ most famous investigation isn’t going to be the main haunting in this movie. That honour goes to the Enfield poltergeist, a case the Warrens travelled to London to investigate back in 1977.
Like The Amityville Horror, it’s a story about a struggling family in a haunted house. Here, it’s single mother Peggy Hodgson (played by Frances O’Connor) who’s being plagued by evil forces, as she and her four kids watch furniture zoom around the room, speak in unearthly voices, or get tossed into the air by unseen nasties in the middle of the night.
But while the Enfield haunting might not be quite as famous as the Amityville one, it’s hardly unknown, either. There have been several screen adaptations of the ‘true’ story already, most recently Sky’s miniseries The Enfield Haunting. Considering the real Warrens took on more than 8,000 hauntings in their time, you might expect the filmmakers to plump for a less recognisable story to adapt this time round (especially because choosing this one meant having to build a mini-Enfield on a soundstage) but it turns out that Enfield’s infamy was part of the attraction.
“Why did I pick this one?” repeats director James Wan, when we quiz him about it. “Well, trying to find the right case to go with was tricky, but people are very familiar with the Warrens investigating Amityville, so we knew we had to address that in the second film. And we thought it would be interesting to tell these two different stories – they mirror each other, because they’re both cases that are infamous, and they’re both cases that have their fair share of sceptics.”
That’s a hell of an understatement. Both the Amityville and Enfield hauntings have been thoroughly debunked over the years, though Lorraine Warren still maintains that they were real examples of paranormal activity. The movies are unquestionably on her side, though Wan doesn’t want to completely ignore the sceptics. “It was one of the things I felt I had to talk about,” he says. “After the first movie came out, people who don’t believe in the Warrens had a lot to say about them, and I think it’s important for me as a filmmaker to address that, and make it one of the hurdles that the characters have to try and overcome.”
Non-believers might even turn out to be more difficult to exorcise than demons. The Conjuring 2 picks up a long six years after the first one left off, and over those years the Warrens have become both more famous and more criticised, facing widespread accusations of fakery. “A lot has changed in six years,” says Farmiga, who’s understandably protective of her character’s beliefs. “It’s six more years of wisdom, six more years of being attacked by sceptics, and six years of even more harrowing spiritual warfare. What’s going to be palpable to the audience is that [Lorraine has] this real wariness and weariness, and frustration with the media.”
Behind the scenes, the sequel also faced its share of naysayers. Though the record-breaking box office success of the first Conjuring movie meant a follow-up was all but inevitable, that got a bit stickier when producer Tony DeRosa-Grund tried to sue Warner Bros, claiming that the studio didn’t have the proper rights to the Warrens’ stories. According to him, they’d only licensed parts of some of the cases that he owned, and that licence didn’t allow for any sequels. A long legal battle ensued; the case was only settled this January, when a judge ruled that DeRosa-Grund’s claim to the rights was invalid.
By then, of course, the movie was already in the can. When we talked to producers Peter Safran and Rob Cowan on set, they seemed unconcerned; for one thing, they had Lorraine Warren on board, and for another, they’d spoken to the Hodgson family about getting the rights to tell their story. Plus, well, the script had already taken certain liberties with the facts, embellishing the story of the ‘Old Bill’ spirit, amping up the significance of a creepy old leather armchair, and adding in that red-eyed demon. Facts, it seems, are pretty flexible when it comes to ghost stories.
“If people get upset about my films not being realistic, I would say, ‘I’m not making a documentary here,’” laughs Wan. “I’m making a fun movie!” And making a fun movie means you get to fudge it. “We’re doing the cinematic version, obviously,” agrees Farmiga. “It’s one of the longest historical cases of paranormal activity on record, so we had to compress that down to make it a really terrorising experience.”
For horror fans, that’s probably what really matters: the scares. With five horror movies already under his belt, Wan’s something of an expert in engineering terror. “The scares for me are very organic,” he explains excitedly, “It all starts with the seed of an idea, then I slowly plan it out and open it up more. I try to think of things that would scare me, and what would happen if I went one step further – if you think it’s going to stop here, but I don’t stop it there and carry on a bit more. Audiences get more and more sophisticated with every passing year, so it’s definitely a challenge to stay one step ahead of that, but that’s part of the fun, to try to come up with new things to scare them with.”
He definitely seems to be having fun, especially for a man who’d announced he was retiring from horror after 2013’s Insidious 2. A major factor in bringing him back, it seems, was the opportunity to work with Wilson and Farmiga again. “I love those guys a lot,” he confesses. “They’re super talented, but ultimately they’re just amazing people.”
Wilson’s worked with Wan on four horror movies now, and when we catch up with him, fresh off the set and still damp from the faux rain, he’s got nothing but praise for his director. “One of the things James does so well is, he never settles,” he says of Wan. “I think that’s why he and I get on so well. I just want to keep pushing myself, and we’re doing that on this movie.”
This time round, Ed gets to do a lot more in the way of evil-fighting heroics, and Wilson’s relishing every second of it. “As an actor, I’ve done a lot of roles where it’s so underplayed it’s like, ‘are you doing anything?’” he says. “In the horror films I’ve done with James, there’s a lot to chew on. It gets me out of my comfort zone, embracing the fact that you have to walk around screaming Latin at a demon. You cannot bullshit your way around, half-giving an exorcism.”
For Farmiga, it’s more about capturing the real, human side of the story. Partly, that’s about developing the onscreen relationship between Ed and Lorraine, a relationship she describes as “their astounding love, friendship, and partnership.” She and Wilson have been friends since his wife, Dagmara Dominczyk, appeared in Farmiga’s directorial debut, Higher Ground, and both of them say their off-screen friendship feeds into their on-screen chemistry. But also, she’s now spent enough time around the real Lorraine Warren that she considers the clairvoyant a friend, and wants to make her depiction of her as authentic and respectful as possible – even if the story doesn’t unfold quite as it might’ve done in reality.
“[Lorraine’s] given me so many books over the last few years – and diaries, and tapes – and three years ago [during the filming of the first film] we had very specific conversations about cases,” Farmiga explains. “But now my time with Lorraine is just about absorbing her, just watching her exist. The script is so precise that it’s just a matter of applying myself, and knowing what her attributes and gifts are, trying to add that energy: her grace and her ardour, her passion and her way of moving through space.”
All very heart-warming for a team of people working on a film designed to scare the pants off cinemagoers. Sweet, even. But before we go, since it is Halloween and all, we have to ask whether there’ve been any spooky goings-on behind the scenes. If everyone’s so determined to believe that the Hodgson haunting was real and the Warrens really were fighting a war against evil, shouldn’t they be worried about attracting the attention of something supernatural themselves?
Turns out, not so much. Wan had the set blessed before production began, bringing in a Catholic priest to sprinkle holy water around and pray over the principle cast members, and after that, nothing weird seems to have happened. Or at least, not that he noticed. “Usually, when scary things happen, they happen to the crew and not to me,” he giggles. “But I’m usually so busy directing the film I don’t pay attention. I could literally walk right through a ghost and not think twice. I’d be like, ‘what was that? That was a bit chilly!’ as I was on my way to the camera to set up the next shot.”
“It’s not a ghost story,” explains Mia Wasikowska’s Edith Cushing, early on in Crimson Peak. “It’s a story with ghosts in it.” She’s trying to persuade a doubtful publisher to take a punt on her debut novel, imagining herself the next Mary Shelley, but she’s also speaking for director Guillermo Del Toro. Because although Crimson Peak is a story with ghosts in it, it isn’t quite a ghost story. It’s a romance; a sumptuous Gothic romance where ghosts might be real, but they’re also just a metaphor.
The bare bones of the plot are pretty typical Gothic fare. At the dawn of the 20th century, wannabe author Edith is swept off her feet by a brooding (and impoverished) nobleman. After marrying the sad-eyed Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), she’s whisked away to his ancestral home in England – but Allerdale Hall, known as Crimson Peak because of the blood-red clay it’s built on, is as full of secrets as it is cobwebs. Stuck there alone with her new husband and his over-protective sister (Jessica Chastain), Edith will need to do a lot of creeping around by candlelight if she wants to put the Hall’s ghosts to rest.
Del Toro’s influences are easy to pick out: there are hat-tips to Rebecca, Hammer Horror, Edgar Allen Poe, and more than a dash of Shirley Jackson. There are so many, in fact, that the film should probably come with a recommended reading list. But though the references are clear, Crimson Peak is pure Del Toro, and it’s his embellishments that make it sing. Like Pacific Rim, it’s a love letter to the past that’s utterly respectful even as it veers off in new directions. And like his Spanish language horrors, it plays supernatural terrors off against human evils, ultimately finding the latter far more disturbing.
As viewers, we’re let in on most of the film’s twists and turns ahead of time, so there are very few surprises when the house’s secrets are brought to light. We know, even if Edith doesn’t, that she’s walking into a trap, yet it’s still deeply pleasurable to follow her flickering candelabra down shadowy corridors and into forbidden rooms. Wasikowska brings an intelligence and ballsiness to her character that makes her impossible not to root for; she’s a wilful heroine in the Jane Eyre mould, though if she’d married Mr Rochester she probably would’ve marched him up to the attic and demanded to know what he was playing at. All three of the central performances are persuasive, really; Hiddleston’s all charm and subtle menace, while Chastain’s intensity often threatens to steal the show.
The real star, though, is the house itself. The production design is incredible: there’s barely an inch of the enormous haunted mansion that hasn’t been lavishly decorated and then destroyed. It’s beautiful and repulsive, a delirious confection of a set crammed with insects and rotting wallpaper, with scarlet clay oozing from beneath every floorboard. Even the ghosts match the décor, dripping ectoplasm from their broken bones and decayed faces. There’s no subtlety to it, but then this isn’t a subtle film. Every scene, every line of dialogue, even every costume choice is stuffed to bursting with significance. It should be overkill, but Del Toro’s commitment to his story makes it work. Where a lesser director might’ve winked to his audience, Del Toro plays it deadly straight.
The only disappointment, really, is that it’s not very frightening. There’s only one jump scare, and it’s a mild one; there is violence – even extreme, watch-through-your-fingers violence – but it’s so stylised, so beautiful even in its darkest moments, that even while you’re immersed in the melodrama, it’s all a little distant. The screen wipes (and a bit of cheekiness in the credits) only underline that feeling. Horrifying though it might be, it’s still just a story that we’re being told. Somehow, even that works in its favour. The spookier it gets, the cosier it feels, and there’s enough of a happy ending that it’s all perversely comforting.
Crimson Peak, then, is as warm as Allerdale Hall is cold; as decadent and velvety soft as a giant tasselled cushion, this is a movie to luxuriate in.
The author of the scariest haunted house novel ever written and the most controversial short story The New Yorker ever published was notorious in her lifetime but forgotten shortly after her death. Now, Shirley Jackson is beginning to receive the kind of acclaim she’s always deserved…
Readers of the New Yorker weren’t prepared for what they were about to read when they opened the 26 June, 1948 edition of the magazine. Nestled within its pages was a short story – just over 3,000 words long – that would prompt them to write, in their droves, to demand an explanation. What did it mean? Was it true? And who did this Shirley Jackson think she was, anyway?
The story that caused all the controversy was The Lottery. Set in an unnamed village somewhere in America, it depicts a community carrying out a time-honoured ritual. Once a year, on 27 June, all the townspeople come together to draw lots from a battered old box. Whoever picks the paper marked with a black spot is that year’s sacrifice; the one person chosen to be stoned to death by their friends and neighbours in front of the whole town.
The letters began pouring in to the New Yorker’s offices within days of the story’s publication. Some readers were outraged enough to want to cancel their subscriptions immediately; others wanted to know the name of the town where the lotteries were held, so they could go and watch. Jackson would later claim that she received over 300 letters about The Lottery, only thirteen of which were complimentary.
It wasn’t the first story the then 32-year-old author had had published, but it was the one that would come to define her reputation. Even now, nearly seventy years later, it’s shocking – both in its subject matter, and in its presentation, because Jackson’s prose is so precise, so efficient, you really could almost believe it is non-fiction. Now, though, it’s not regarded as subscription-cancellingly gruesome – it’s regularly taught in US high schools.
“I don’t know how old I was the first time I read it on my own, but I definitely encountered it in high school,” remembers F. Brett Cox, one of the founders of the annual Shirley Jackson Awards for horror literature. “The teacher tried to reinforce things by holding a lottery. No rocks involved! But we each drew lots, like in the story, and one of the lots had a black spot on it. Everyone else would crumple up their pieces of paper and throw them at whoever got the black spot.”
Sensibly, Cox’s teacher rigged his lottery so that he drew the black spot. That meant the teens in his class could vent their pent-up frustrations on their teacher, rather than taking it out on one another. As a literature professor himself now, Cox has often taught the story to his own students, and even without the theatrics, there’s plenty to discuss: it’s a story about rituals, about outdated tradition, and about the darkness that can lurk, unexamined, beneath even the most picturesque surface.
That darkness, the sense of something being slightly askew somewhere, permeates Jackson’s work. The Lottery might be her best known story in the US, but on this side of the Atlantic, she’s probably better known for her 1959 novel The Haunting Of Hill House.
Even if you’ve never read it, you’ll recognise the plot: a professor sets out to investigate a notorious haunted house, with the help of a couple of psychics and the house’s young heir, and things get creepy, fast. It’s been adapted for the screen twice, first as 1963’s black and white classic The Haunting (directed by Robert Wise) and then as 1999’s not-quite-so-classic The Haunting (directed by Jan Du Bont). And it’s also the template for any number of other horrors, from Richard Matheson’s Hell House to Hammer’s 2014 chiller The Quiet Ones.
But no matter how many ghost stories may have come after it, Jackson’s novel remains the most spine-tingling. Even Stephen King, a writer who’s given plenty of people nightmares himself, finds it chilling; he called it “as nearly perfect a haunted house tale as I have ever read.”
Reading The Haunting Of Hill House is one of those experiences you never forget. It’s obvious from the novel’s opening lines that you’re in the presence of a master storyteller, one who has an utterly unshakeable grasp on her characters, her plot, and her atmosphere, and who never wastes a single word. And while, yes, it’s scary, it’s not just the constant threat of ghosts that makes it so spine-tingling. The Haunting Of Hill House is a sensitive, thoughtful, heartbreaking character study. The story unfolds from the perspective of one of the ghost hunters, Eleanor, a young woman who’s been plagued by apparently supernatural occurrences for most of her life. Hill House doesn’t just scare her, it also beguiles her, offering her a twisted version of the home she’s always wanted. It’s Eleanor’s slow unravelling that makes the novel so compelling.
Like bewildered New Yorker readers desperate for answers, it’s tempting to search for explanations of Jackson’s work in her life. Born in 1916 to well-off and socially conservative parents, Jackson was always something of a black sheep – a creative eccentric, rather than a glamorous socialite. Her mother, Geraldine, was always her harshest critic, even when Jackson had become a successful writer. And while Jackson’s marriage had a fairy-tale beginning – her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, had read one of Jackson’s stories in their university magazine and decided to marry her on the spot – it had plenty of problems, too. In the last years of her life, Jackson suffered from agoraphobia that left her housebound for months on end.
“She writes about wrongness and outsiders, and she herself was an outsider,” says Cox. “She spent most of her adult life in [the small town of] Bennington, Vermont, but she was born in San Francisco, and she had lived in New York. So there she is, this odd person writing odd stories. In the context of her day, she was someone from a very mainstream American family who was married to a Jewish intellectual. It’s sad, but that set her apart as well.”
While it might be possible to read genuine angst into the sufferings of her characters, though, that doesn’t really do anything to explain Jackson’s brilliance. There’s a magic about her writing that’s hard to define – her own words are always far more compelling than anything anyone can write about her.
Speaking of magic, many Jackson fans will point to her final novel, We Have Always Lived In The Castle, as her masterwork. Published in 1962, it’s strange sort of mystery story about the Blackwood family – Merricat, her sister Constance, and their uncle Julian – who live in a crumbling mansion on the outskirts of small American town. Six years earlier, the rest of the family were murdered: poisoned by arsenic in the sugar bowl. While Constance was suspected at first, she was acquitted, but the townspeople still think of her as a murderer, and her agoraphobia effectively keeps her a prisoner in her own home. Meanwhile, Merricat, the story’s narrator, imagines taking violent revenge on the village, and uses her own kind of ritual magic to try and protect what’s left of her family.
The novel is a little over 200 pages long, but every sentence is rich with symbolism, every word carefully selected to have the greatest possible impact. Though her earlier works had received mixed reviews, We Have Always Lived In The Castle was critically acclaimed. It was a commercial success, too, flying off the shelves so fast that its publisher, Viking, had to double the size of its second printing. So why isn’t it being taught in schools? Why haven’t there been multiple films made of it? Well, possibly because Jackson died in 1965, just a few short years after its publication.
“When Jackson died, she was at the peak of her fame,” explains biographer Ruth Franklin, whose gloriously comprehensive book Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life was published last year. “Her obituary ran in every major newspaper and magazine. I think it was her early death – she was only 48 – as well as her husband’s, only a few years later, that led to her decline in recognition. Many of her books went out of print.”
In the introduction to the anthology Let Me Tell You, Franklin tells a story that illustrates how frustratingly under-appreciated Jackson has been. In 1966, the Library Of Congress wrote to Hyman, then an eminent academic and critic, to ask if he’d like to donate his manuscripts and notes. Only as an aside did the letter mention that the Library would also be interested in Jackson’s papers.
From a modern perspective, it’s easy to blame Jackson’s fall into relative obscurity on sexism. She wasn’t just a woman writing at a time when women’s writing wasn’t taken seriously; she also dared to write in multiple genres – including memoir, a type of writing that’s often dismissed as less worthwhile than other genres.
“People are often surprised to discover that, as well as her dark fiction, she wrote light, humorous reflections about her family life with her husband and four children, which she published in women’s magazines,” says Jessica Harrison, Jackson’s editor at Penguin Classics. “She wrote one of the most searing stories of the twentieth century with The Lottery, and yet still had to spend much of her day doing housework. There’s a fascinating tension in her work between those two roles.”
That tension was what sparked Franklin’s interest in the writer, too. “I’ve always loved Shirley Jackson’s writing, especially The Haunting Of Hill House, one of my all-time favourite novels,” she says. “But I actually became interested in writing her biography after reading her household memoirs, Life Among The Savages and Raising Demons, which describe her adventures and misadventures in family life. I was fascinated not only that the same person could write in such different styles – Gothic suspense versus humour – but also that Jackson was an American woman in the 1950s who clearly felt pressure to be a perfect housewife and mother. Nevertheless, she had a creative genius that she couldn’t suppress.”
Jackson’s creative genius is still being uncovered. The current resurgence of interest in the author can be traced back to the mid-1990s, when Laurence Jackson Hyman found a scruffy old crate on his front porch. Inside were stacks of his mother’s notes and manuscripts – including several unpublished stories – all typed on Jackson’s signature yellow paper.
The contents of that box led Laurence and his siblings to track down several of Jackson’s other uncollected works, which were published in the collection Just An Ordinary Day in 1998. Other anthologies of Jackson’s unpublished work followed, and Penguin Classics published new editions of all of her novels and short story collections. Fast forward to 2017, and Ruth Franklin’s biography has won awards by the handful, Netflix is working on a Hill House adaptation with Mike Flanagan, and a film of We Have Always Lived In The Castle, directed by Stacie Passon and starring Taissa Farmiga, Alexandra Daddario, Sebastian Stan, and Crispin Glover, is currently in post-production.
Without that shabby old box, maybe none of it would have happened. But in an enjoyably Jacksonesque creepy twist, the box didn’t have a return address on it, so no-one knows where it came from, or who sent it.
If the mysterious archivist ever came forward, though, there’d be plenty of people lining up to shake his or her hand. There are a lot of Shirley Jackson fans out there, and they tend to be super devoted. “I get a lot of emails from authors and publishers, and I think we’ve become a kind of lightning rod for people to declare ‘hey, I really love Shirley Jackson!’” says JoAnn Cox, administrator of the Shirley Jackson Awards.
Researching this feature led to lots of similarly enthusiastic conversations. “Shirley Jackson pretended genre boundaries and genre conventions weren’t even there. She reinvented herself and her craft with every book,” says MR Carey, author of The Girl With All The Gifts.
Joanne Harris, author of The Gospel Of Loki and Runemarks, is also a fan: “Her handling of the mundane, and its closeness to horror, is very impressive, and shows us how subtle the literature of unease can be,” she says, while Jeffrey Cranor, co-creator of Welcome To Night Vale, raves about “her ability to make quotidian life unsettling. There are so few obvious devices or jump scares in her stories. They’re immersive in their ability to capture a certain recognisable Americana, and twist it ever so slightly, not just once in a shocking jerk but slowly, slowly. You don’t really ever notice it happening, until you do.”
Barry Hyman, Jackson’s youngest son, says he’s definitely noticed an increase in attention paid to his mother recently. “All my life, I have been aware of the impact my mother’s writing has had on people,” he recalls. “For more than fifty years, fans have approached me eagerly to say how important her works were for them, so I have always known that there was a devoted core group of readers who respected her talents and abilities as much as I do. What has changed in recent years is that the sheer number of her fans has grown exponentially.”
Jackson’s profile might be higher right now than it’s been at any time since her death, and the momentum is still building. Even in North Bennington, the town where Jackson seemed to feel like such an outsider, appreciation of her work is quietly growing. “About a dozen years ago, as a resident of North Bennington, I realised that not much had been done with Shirley Jackson, and that it was time for her to receive her due,” explains writer and curator Tom Fels. “The result was Shirley Jackson Day, which I’ve produced each year since in co-operation with Jackson’s four children, all schoolmates of mine from earlier days.”
Held on the Saturday closest to Lottery Day (27 June), Shirley Jackson Day doesn’t involve any ritual sacrifices – instead, it features readings of her works by her children, and by appreciative fans. “Shirley Jackson Day has proven to be popular with the local community, both those who appreciate her and some who are just learning about who she was,” says Fels. “It also attracts wider attention; sometimes people show up from afar, I have no idea how they hear of it. I think Jackson has a network of her own.”
If she does, it’s about to get bigger. Next year’s Shirley Jackson Day is probably going to need a much larger venue.
What’s the difference between magic and science? Maybe, sometimes, there isn’t one. If you can measure a magic trick, if you can break it down to its constituent parts and analyse how it works, doesn’t it turn into science? The Quiet Ones’ Professor Coupland thinks so. He’s got a theory about poltergeists that might win him a Nobel prize, if only he can prove it.
So he sets up an experiment. In a crumbling old country house, miles away from anywhere, Coupland plans to teach a disturbed young woman to manifest her mental illness as a paranormal entity. With a hired cameraman ready to capture his work on tape, he thinks he’ll finally get the evidence he needs. But as time and money dribble away, his pseudo-scientific methods soon dissolve into hokey spiritualism, and the experiment turns into something like torture. Through it all, the camera keeps rolling, documenting every step of the increasingly scary process.
The actual scares aren’t particularly innovative, though they’re effective enough in the moment – creaky doors and loud bangs tend to make you jump, even when there’s nothing behind them. What the film lacks in terrifying imagery, it makes up for in atmosphere; it’s eerie, oppressive, seething with grief and sexual jealousy.
The cast work hard to sell both their characters and the situation, and it pays off: Sam Claflin is charmingly naïve and Olivia Cooke believably haunted, though it’s Jared Harris who steals the show. As the unconventional professor, he exudes a sleazy charisma that lets him make even the most bizarre argument seem perfectly reasonable.
There are some definite missteps along the way – the ‘teleplasm’ scene is less convincing than even the dodgiest Victorian spirit photograph, and there are a few stray lines of dialogue that betray the fact that many, many writers had a hand in this script. But it’s easy to forgive those flaws. Filmmaking itself is a kind of magic trick, as The Quiet Ones’ clever mix of traditional and documentary style footage acknowledges. No matter how many cameras you point at something, there’s no guarantee you’ll ever really understand how it works. Here, Hammer has taken a handful of stock elements – a haunted house, a creepy doll, and a troubled teenage girl – and turned them into something truly haunting.
Superheroes often end up playing detective, but can a detective become a superhero? That’s the question season two of Stan Lee’s Lucky Man has got to answer. Crime Scene tries its luck on set…
“Doing this show is knackering,” grumbles actor James Nesbitt, but he can’t help grinning as he says it. He’s taking a few minutes to chat to Crime Scene behind the scenes of Stan Lee’s Lucky Man season two, and though he’s working to a gruelling schedule that won’t let up until Christmas, Nesbitt is clearly enjoying himself. Judging by the general mood on set, he’s not the only one, either. When its first season aired back in January, the supernatural crime drama quickly found its audience, becoming Sky 1’s most successful original drama to date. And that success has given production company Carnival Films licence to kick things up a notch for season two. No wonder Nesbitt’s smiling.
To recap: the first season ended on a fairly bleak note for Nesbitt’s DI Harry Clayton. Cursed with a mysterious luck-bending bracelet he can’t remove, Clayton was being chased by various baddies who wanted to use the charm for their own ends. The identity of the villainous Golding had finally been revealed, but only because he’d kidnapped Clayton’s wife and daughter. Clayton managed to save the day, but let Golding escape in the process. Personally, professionally, and even mythologically, things were going pretty badly for our supposedly lucky hero. And it doesn’t seem like it’s going to get any easier for him in season two…
It’s late September, the first proper day of autumn when Crime Scene visits, and just over half the series is already in the can. The crew is set up in Shadwell’s King Edward VII Memorial Park, with the actual filming taking place inside a former power station’s pump house. Inside, the industrial look of the building has been softened with the addition of some abstract art and saggy sofas, but there’s a corpse – well, okay, an actor made up to look like a corpse – sitting in the middle of the room. A Steadicam operator moves slowly towards the dead man, while actors Amara Khan and Darren Boyd, playing officers Chohan and Orwell respectively, walk first behind the camera and then around it to discover the body. Before they can investigate further, a gunman clutching a hostage storms into the room yelling threats… and then the scene is reset for a take from another angle.
It’s all very dramatic, and Nesbitt confirms fans can expect a lot more action from season two. “It’s embracing the genre much more,” he explains. “I think in the first season of something like this, it takes its time to find its feet. What we discovered is that, by embracing the genre more, we’re also embracing the reality of the characters much more: we’re putting ordinary characters in extraordinary situations.”
In practice, that means season two will take a more episodic approach to its crime element, with a stand-alone mystery in each episode (Nesbitt tells us there’s one about a poisoner, one involving a potential chemical attack on London, and one “kind of Sweeney Todd” story). Meanwhile, the supernatural side of things will continue to create problems for Clayton and his nearest and dearest, both because Golding’s still out there, and because there’s a new character in town who’s about to change the rules of the bracelet all over again.
Played by Dutch actress Thekla Reuten, Isabella is a kind of foil to Clayton. “She’s got a similar bracelet,” Nesbitt reveals. “Harry has been told all along that there’s only one, so that complicates things. At first, it might seem quite good, because it’s incredibly isolating to think you’re the only one with that [power], so the idea that someone else has it too – a mysterious, beautiful woman – that has to be an attraction for him.” The “at first” is telling, though: it sounds like Isabella will turn out to be bad news.
Nesbitt won’t be drawn further on what she’s up to, but he does admit that Clayton’s relationship with the bracelet is still developing. “I think it throws up difficult choices,” he says. “If you’re saddled with it, what’s your responsibility to it? It can be a power for good, as he’s seen, and who’s to say that everything he’s been told about yin and yang is actually true?”
That’s where the superhero bit comes in, then. It’s hard not to hear echoes of another Stan Lee character’s philosophy in Clayton’s dilemma – responsibility, power, sound familiar? – and when Crime Scene gets an opportunity to talk to Steven Mackintosh, who plays Clayton’s boss Supt. Winter, he agrees. “I was a massive Spider-man freak as a kid,” he laughs. “I don’t know why, but he always captured my imagination.”
Fans might be surprised to see Mackintosh back on set for season two, considering Winter took a bullet to the chest at the end of season one. “It was looking a bit touch-and-go for Winter,” he says, “But here I am!” In the gap between seasons, Winter’s been laid up in hospital, but has decided the force needs him too much for him to stay away any longer – even if he now needs a walking stick to get around.
On the bright side, though, his relationship with Clayton has improved vastly: “Harry is an important member of his team, and there’s always that understanding that he’s unorthodox,” Mackintosh explains. “Winter always has to think, ‘where is Harry now? What’s he up to?’ But he has this understanding now that, wherever he is, he’s probably got a pretty good hunch about something. He cuts him much more slack now, but Winter’s still very much the boss, so what he says goes.”
Like Nesbitt, Mackintosh is extremely enthusiastic about the possibilities of the new season. “It’s very exciting getting new scripts and thinking ‘what’s going to happen? Where’s this going to go?’” he says. “All the cases are really edge-of-the-seat, they’re brilliant.” Most excitingly for him, he’ll get to be a bit more hands-on this time around. “I don’t know if you noticed in the first season,” he laughs, “but I was mostly stuck in an unglamorous office in Ealing. So I did say ‘is there any way Winter could get out and about a bit more?’”
Mackintosh’s wish was granted. The riverside set we visited is only one of literally dozens of locations the production has used. Some of the more ambitious locales include London City Airport, where the crew were allowed to film airside, and the Eros statue at Piccadilly Circus, one of the busiest places in London. “We filmed at rush hour,” Nesbitt told us. “That was incredible. It’s a very dramatic moment, and you can’t block it off, so that was like theatre – with thousands of people watching!”
It’s virtually impossible to talk about Lucky Man without talking about London, because the city is so integral to the look and feel of the show. “I think London is a modern Gotham, in a sense,” muses Nesbitt. “And I think [the crew] have embraced that in the way they shoot it and the way they light it. The camera is doing the genre work, and we’re doing the real work – we’re steeped in reality, but the camera and the lighting create this wonderful place that’s still unquestionably London.”
That question of genre comes up time and time again, to the point where it sometimes seems Nesbitt is defensive about the show’s supernatural side. “Don’t let the genre fool you: it is entertainment, but it’s quite dark,” he says. “I love that however difficult and challenging the world is, there’s a real reliance still on the notion of magic and the notion of love. Of course, it’s escapism, but it does have an impact on people, and clearly that’s something Stan Lee was born with. He’s changed the lives of so many people with these notions. We all need a superhero, I think.”
Even if that superhero is a gambling addict with a history of bad decisions? Nesbitt thinks so. “There’s something so attractive and compelling about a flawed hero – though right may be on his side, there’s wrong in him – and if you throw in a flawed superhero, it makes it really interesting. It makes for good stories about the choices people make, whether to err on the side of right, and how fine the line is between good and bad.”
It’s nearly time for Crime Scene to leave, because Nesbitt’s needed back on set. But before we go, we can’t resist asking him the obvious question: what would he do if he came into possession of a magic lucky bracelet? He leans forward, grins that wolfish grin. “I’d get myself in trouble,” he says. “But I’d have some fun doing it.”
When even the star of a movie won’t stand up for it, you know something’s gone wrong. And when Mark Wahlberg ranted about what “a bad movie” The Happening was – “Fucking trees, man. The plants. Fuck it. You can’t blame me for not wanting to try to play a science teacher” – he was only saying what many critics and viewers had already said about the film.
But to dismiss M. Night Shyamalan’s deliberately strange eco-parable as just an evil tree movie is to miss the point; it’s only about plants in the same way Invasion Of The Body Snatchers is about plants. Really, it’s about the difficult relationship between humans and nature, both in the sense of the natural world and in the sense of our own mysterious biology.
The opening scene sets up that conflict in a spectacularly creepy way. In Central Park, people are walking, reading, and generally enjoying the outdoors. But then something happens. Everyone freezes. Then they start to move backwards. Some try to speak, but their speech is confused. And then they commit suicide. Soon, similar incidents are happening in other cities along the East Coast, and while people scrabble for explanations – maybe it’s a terrorist attack? – the experts are baffled. No-one knows what’s happening, only that it is.
The film’s refusal to offer up easy answers is clearly part of Wahlberg’s problem with it. As an action star, he usually gets to face off against a clearly defined threat, but The Happening doesn’t give him that. Instead, Shyamalan chooses to shoot what violence there is from a distance, keeping his victims isolated, even from the viewer. This is a film about internal struggles, not external ones. It’s about paranoia, about not being able to see what’s going on in someone else’s head, or to entirely control what’s going on in your own. You can’t run away from depression, and you can’t escape nature.
Every choice Shyamalan makes in this film is a conscious inversion of genre tropes. It’s not just the detached action sequences and the awkward science teacher hero, it’s the quietly discordant soundtrack, the defiantly un-nurturing female characters, and the way the tension repeatedly ramps up and then fizzles away again without any kind of satisfying resolution. Every choice is designed to wrongfoot the viewer, and it’s both effectively unnerving and kind of invigorating to watch the film reject one cliché after another.
Maybe the most interesting decision Shyamalan makes is to give the job of explaining what’s going on to a hotdog-loving weirdo. The nursery owner played by Frank Collison isn’t even named, but his apparently crackpot theory about plants taking revenge on humans for our treatment of the environment turns out to be correct.
Watched today, in a political climate that prioritises charisma over facts even as the polar ice caps melt, that seems oddly prescient – and utterly chilling.
The most obvious, hackneyed set up for a horror movie goes something like this: a group of college kids heads out to the middle of nowhere, planning to get drunk and have fun in an isolated cabin near a lake. On the way, they meet a creepy old guy who warns them that something nasty’s lurking in them there hills, but they ignore him… only to discover, as they’re picked off one by one, that he was right all along. Cue buckets of fake blood; running; screaming; the end.
So, yeah, The Cabin in the Woods looks very, very familiar. But it’s relying on the fact that you know that. This is a film that loves horror movies; it knows them inside out, and it expects you to have done your homework, too. It’s a gleeful deconstruction of the horror genre that takes an enormous amount of pleasure in holding up the most common tropes of the genre for you to recognise, and then very deliberately piling one of top of another until the whole thing threatens to topple over, Jenga-style.
But while the pieces are all there, they could end up anywhere. Recognition is half the fun, but it’s also kind of exhilarating to realise that, this time, you really can’t predict what’s going to happen. And the more you like horror movies, the bigger kick you’re going to get out of this one.
Of course, including self-aware characters and making references to other horror movies has become a cliché in its own right so while The Cabin in the Woods does do those things, it goes further than that. It understands why audiences watch horror movies, and knows that our relationship with the characters in horror movies isn’t straightforward. It knows that, while audiences identify with horror movie characters, and root for them, and cheer for them when they triumph over evil, we also need them to face up to the nastiest, scariest things imaginable.
Horror movies would be no fun at all if everyone just packed up and went home at the first sign of something scary. Much as we know we’d never go up into the attic/down into the basement/into the creepy house to investigate a strange noise ourselves, we really really want our hero and/or heroine to do it, even while we’re sitting on our sofas screaming at them to just, for the love of God, run away! The eventual defeat of a monster isn’t half as much fun if there hasn’t been a little bloodshed along the way; the heroine who manages to escape the masked maniac isn’t much of a heroine if all her friends haven’t been butchered first. The Cabin in the Woods gets all of that. It wants to give us what we want, but not without letting us know, first, that it knows we want it…
Although the kids in The Cabin in the Woods are pretty much the archetypal horror movie kids, the script – written by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard – actually manages to make us care about them. Partly that’s through cleverness, using tricks borrowed from reality TV shows, but mostly it’s just that the dialogue is so good. In the space of just a few lines, the writing sketches a set of believeable, even sympathetic characters. It’s not as stylised as the dialogue in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but the film’s sense of humour is recognisably Whedon-esque. (And it is really, really funny; Fran Kranz, as the movie’s annoying stoner, gets most of the best lines, and his comic timing is bang on.) Even if this was just a straightforward kids-go-to-the-woods-and-get-murdered movie, it’d be a better-than-average example of the form for its characterisation alone.
But it isn’t just a straightforward kids-go-to-the-woods-and-get-murdered movie. And beyond its jokes, the script is great; it skilfully builds anticipation and, crucially, delivers on all of its promises. Everything that’s set up in the first two-thirds is paid off, gloriously, in the final act. There’s almost too much to take in. This is a film that’s going to reward a second viewing, and a third – especially any second or third viewing armed with a pause button.
The Cabin in the Woods is a love letter to the horror genre, but it’s also possibly the ultimate horror movie. (And yet, in some ways, it isn’t a horror movie at all.) It’s the culmination of decades upon decades of scary movies; it knows that everything’s already been done, and uses that familiarity to its own advantage. Without that history, without a well-worn set of exhausted clichés, The Cabin in the Woods couldn’t exist. It’s almost obscenely clever – and after this, anyone making a horror film set in a cabin in the woods is going to look hopelessly amateurish.