Monday, October 22, 2012

Movie Monday: THE HAUNTING (1963)

My final ghostly offering from Martin Scorsese's 11 Scariest Horror Movies of All Time is the unforgettable and endlessly re-watchable The Haunting, directed by Robert Wise (who made the film between directing West Side Story and The Sound of Music -- not too shabby).

What Scorsese has to say:
“You may not believe in ghosts but you cannot deny terror!” was the tagline for this absolutely terrifying 1963 Robert Wise picture about the investigation of a house plagued by violently assaultive spirits.

So what's the story? As Dr. Richard Markway explains in the introductory voice-over: "It was an evil house from the beginning - a house that was born bad." Markway (Richard Johnson) sets out to gather "psychically-inclined" people to study Hill House. Only two show up -- fragile Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris) and stylish clairvoyant Theodora (Claire Bloom). The young man who will inherit the house, skeptical Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn), joins them as well.

Like all the films I've recommended, this is not a shock and gore fest. In fact, tension and dread build slowly as the four explore the house. One thing I love is how, unlike the claustrophobic tight shots of The Innocents, the 30mm wide angle Panavision lens of The Haunting often made the characters seem small and helpless, almost as if they might fall out of frame. (I wish I had a better example to show you than the one above.) Tilted shots and quick cuts also contribute to the viewer's disorientation.

The house is creepy enough by day, but the horror really kicks into gear at night. Every time I sit through these scenes of Nell and Theo in their bedroom -- scenes in which we see nothing but fear everything -- my heart pounds wildly. It's genius!

Is the house warping its inhabitants -- making them paranoid, fearful, unhinged -- or are their pre-existing neuroses feeding the house? Both? I love this off-center shot of Eleanor in high contrast lighting.

I first saw The Haunting shortly after reading Shirley Jackson's brilliant The Haunting of Hill House, and I could only focus on the differences between novel and screenplay. Now I appreciate that this film is quite wonderful on its own terms. If possible, get your hands on the DVD with commentary. I find it so interesting to hear how Julie Harris felt isolated and depressed during filming, and how she thought the other castmembers were buddying up and sometimes even making fun of the film, which she found disrespectful. The other actors all remark on how Julie Harris isolated herself purposefully, as if she were method acting. Richard Johnson has loads to say about his performance, Robert Wise's direction, and the differences between film and stage acting. (He's very charming and eloquent.) And the input from Robert Wise and screenwriter Nelson Gidding, each now deceased, is priceless.

And this concludes my Halloween ghostly film rec series. I do hope you will revisit at least one of these B&W classics. If you do, please let me know what you think!

[Cross-posted at Livejournal]

Friday, October 19, 2012

A tea for October

I had dreams of doing a fancy photo shoot for this month's featured tea. With so much going on, however, what I really needed was a simple and comforting cuppa. So today I'm featuring my go-to tea for days when I need some sweetness and warmth to drive away the blues.

Tea Palace is my favorite English purveyor of tea, and my preferred blend is Notting Hill. If you like black tea flavored with vanilla, this one is guaranteed to soothe and delight.

(As far as I can tell, there are no American distributors for Tea Palace. They do ship internationally! It's not cheap, but their teas are worth the splurge. And they offer sample tins for taste-testing. If you're in London, do check out their charming shop in Covent Garden.)

Isn't it lovely? Notice the marigold petals -- apparently they are known by herbalists to "comfort the heart and spirits." (Learn more here.) If you look closely (click to enlarge) you'll also find bits of Bourbon vanilla beans.

For comfort tea, I always use my big red mugs. The Notting Hill pairs nicely with Dr. Lucy's Gluten Free Ginger Snaps. It also pairs well with a good book -- currently I am wrapped up in the magic and mystery of Katherine Catmull's Summer and Bird.

What is your comfort tea? Do tell -- and share a photo if you like!

Also, if you have a favorite recipe for an Autumnal baked goodie, please share. Next month I intend to BAKE. From scratch.
(Alert the media!)

[Cross-posted at Livejournal]

Monday, October 15, 2012

Movie Monday: The Innocents (1961)

As we continue with ghostly B&W films from Martin Scorsese's 11 Scariest Horror Movies of All Time, I must confess how much I love Henry James' Turn of the Screw. I've read it several times, seen the play, seen the opera, seen (& taught) the 1999 BBC adaptation with Jodhi May and Colin Firth, and I never can get enough. Therefore I was eager to see this classic B&W adaptation starring Deborah Kerr.

What Scorsese has to say:
This Jack Clayton adaptation of The Turn of the Screw is one of the rare pictures that does justice to Henry James. It’s beautifully crafted and acted, immaculately shot (by Freddie Francis), and very scary.

The story: a wealthy man hires a young, inexperienced governess to educate his nephew and niece and to preside over the running of his remote country estate. The only catch? He will be elsewhere, and she must never bother him with questions or concerns. Despite this, our governess makes a good start. The house and grounds are beautiful, and young Flora seems a delightful girl.

(Notice the use of deep focus in the above shot--Flora is smiling sweetly, but the shot is a little creepy, isn't it? Overall there is a very claustrophobic feel to the way this film is shot, and it heightens the horror in a lovely way.)

Everything changes when young Miles is sent home from school. He's a charming boy, but Miss Giddens* suspects more is going on. The children sometimes behave oddly together and are suspiciously secretive. The more she learns about their past, the more certain she is that they are haunted . . . and perhaps even in danger of becoming possessed.

*The governess is unnamed in the original story

She is determined to save their souls, no matter the peril.

Like the previously discussed films, The Innocents features a slow build of psychological horror rather than sudden shocks or gore. Still, I'd rank this one a little higher on the fright scale. It's dark, tense, and at times, very disquieting. If there are any other fans of The Innocents out there, do share your favorite things about it (as long as they're not terribly spoilery)!

One thing that lingered in my mind long after the film was over -- the song "Willow Waly." We hear Flora singing it before the opening credits begin, and it continues as a refrain throughout. It beguiles and chills at the same time:

Next week we conclude with The Haunting (1963) -- one of my very favorite haunted house movies of all time!

P.S. I just learned of a 2009 TV adaptation of Turn of the Screw with Michelle Dockery and Dan Stevens (Lady Mary and Cousin Matthew)! What what? By all accounts it is terrible, and yet . . . I might have to take a look.

[Cross-posted at Livejournal]

Friday, October 12, 2012

Friday Favorites: I CAPTURE THE CASTLE and journaling

My hardcover edition
Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle ranks among my top ten favorite books. Along with brilliant writing, it features the sort of characters and plot elements that make me giddy:

-- a brainy, bookish girl who wants to be a writer
-- a ramshackle castle setting
-- an eccentric, artsy family
-- a pair of handsome, rich American boys as landlords and love interests.
-- kissing and dancing
-- yearning and heartbreak, but also PLENTY of laughter.
-- English countryside, English manners, English vicars
-- did I mention THE CASTLE?

Cassandra and Simon--this scene always makes me cry!
I rewatched the 2003 film adaptation this past weekend, and it sent me into swoons of ecstasy. Yes, in most cases the book is better than the film, but I have to give this screenplay credit for condensing the plot without sacrificing the emotional core of the story. And the cast! Romola Garai is perfection, as always, but in addition there are admirable performances from Bill Nighy, Tara Fitzgerald, Henry Cavill (so innocent prior to all that rutting about in The Tudors), and even Sinéad Cusack (Mrs. Thornton!) as wealthy, straight-talking (and vulgarly American) Mrs. Cotton. Still not quite sure about Henry Thomas as Simon Cotton, but this doesn't diminish my enjoyment of the film. The point of it all is Cassie, and Garai nails it.

Bonus wonderful thing -- while watching I wondered if the gorgeous soundtrack could possibly be available on iTunes. It is! And it was composed by Dario Marianelli, who also brought us the lush soundtracks for Pride and Prejudice (2005), Atonement, and Jane Eyre (2011), among others. Oh, and how fitting that Marianelli is rather handsome in a thinky and soulful way, which has nothing to do with anything except that I like to swoon.

Cassandra, her journal, and her castle
Best of all (and don't laugh at me), watching this film has renewed my zeal for journaling. And by that I mean actual writing in an actual bound journal, where I can say anything because it's meant only for me. After watching, I was just itching to write, but my current journal did not inspire. I bought it a few years ago at a lovely shop in New Orleans (Papier Plume), and it's charmingly compact and leather-bound, but I NEVER WANT TO WRITE IN IT. My hand doesn't fit! The lines are too narrow. I've only managed to write insipid stuff in this little book, which is an insult to the careful, loving way in which it was crafted. I'd promised myself that I wouldn't start a new journal until this one was filled, but when I looked at the long, long gaps between entries, I decided enough was enough. The little leather book has been put away, and now I am writing each day in my teNeus CoolNotes journal. It fits me! My thoughts spill forth onto its creamy, wide-ruled pages!

(I'm too old, however, to write in it while sitting in the sink.)

Are you a fan of I Capture the Castle--book and/or film? Do you keep a paper journal? If so, tell me all about it!

[Cross-posted to Livejournal]

Monday, October 8, 2012

Movie Monday: The Uninvited (1944)

My second ghostly recommendation from Scorsese's 11 Scariest Horror Movies of All Time is The Uninvited, based on a novel by Dorothy Macardie, featuring a screenplay by Dodie Smith (I Capture the Castle! 101 Dalmations!) and Frank Partos.

What Scorsese has to say:
Another, more benign haunted house picture, set in England, no less atmospheric than The Haunting [which I will feature later] — the tone is very delicate, and the sense of fear is woven into the setting, the gentility of the characters.

The basic plot: during a getaway to the coast, a brother and sister (played by Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey) come across a gorgeous mansion overlooking the sea. They decide to pool their meager resources to buy it. As brothers and sisters often do. No, really! It's charming.

(As I've been reminded by the more sensible forum posters on, in that time an unmarried sister would keep house for her bachelor brother, so I shouldn't tease.)

Isn't the house beautiful? Or is that just a model? Sadly, The Uninvited was filmed in California rather than England, and most of the actors are American, but you'll still be swept up in the mystery. Something isn't quite right with the house, you see. The animals run away. Disturbing sounds and cold spots trouble the new owners, and the maid is threatening to leave. The pretty girl down the street, who happened to grow up in the house, tries to leap off the cliff when she visits. What can be done?

Have a séance, of course!

After a slow start (during which an awkward romance develops between the brother and the cliff-leaping girl--their scenes are guaranteed to make you giggle), things start to get truly creepy. There's at least one jump-in-your-seat moment, and the special effects are surprisingly effective. The Uninvited is a great film for an October evening by the fire -- if you can find a copy. I had to buy the VHS tape, but there are rumors of a DVD release in the near future. Or perhaps you can find it on TCM?

Next week: The Innocents (1961)

[Cross-posted at Livejournal]

Friday, October 5, 2012

Friday Flashback -- Ontology in the Bathtub

Years before I had this blog, I kept a (mostly) friends-locked diary at Livejournal. I was teaching high school back then and thus had lots of stress to vent, but I also had occasional moments of joy and triumph to celebrate.

I still blog at Livejournal, and very occasionally I go back and read old entries. Many of them are silly, and sometimes a bit too angsty, but a few entries still make me smile. I miss that old Sonia sometimes.

With that in mind, I decided it might be fun to occasionally resurrect particular entries for "Friday Flashback." Yes this is self-indulgent, but it may be the only way to save favorite entries if/when Livejournal bites the dust for good. And again, there's the smile factor. I need more of these.

So . . . let's take the Wayback Machine to: MARCH 23, 2005!

I just had to write about this moment I experienced recently -- a spiritual, transcendant sort of moment. I had one of those flashes of pure joy, during which I felt this overwhelming sense of connectedness, of awareness, of beingness. (It made me think of Madeleine L'Engle's discussions of "ontology" in A Circle of Quiet.) It was gorgeous. But here's the kicker. Do you wanna know where this experience took place?

*drum roll*

It happened when I was in the BATHTUB.

Seriously, though, the water was the perfect temperature, the bubbles smelled wonderful and were piled as high as my chin, and I was listening to the Mansfield Park soundtrack, which is just . . . so . . . amazing. And this burst of joy flooded over me.

It reminded me of a poem by Emily Dickinson. I've always adored this piece because it speaks of the holiness of our daily surroundings, the divinity of nature, the possibility of a direct connection to God, in a completely accessible and non-preachy way. And it always reminds me of that moment in the movie Black Robe, when the poor Jesuit priest, struggling to survive in the wild woods of the New World, suddenly perceives how the tree branches are forming a cathedral-like arched canopy. Oh, it brings tears to my eyes just thinking about it all (and I'm not what you would call conventionally religious).

The poem:

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church -
I keep it, staying at Home -
With a Bobolink for a Chorister -
And an Orchard, for a Dome -

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice -
I just wear my Wings -
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton - sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman -
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last -
I'm going, all along.


Monday, October 1, 2012

Movie Monday: Dead of Night

As research for a new story, I recently watched four B&W ghostly films from Martin Scorsese's 11 Scariest Horror Movies of All Time. Note to the scaredy cats: on a scale of heart-pounding,jump-out-of-your-seat horror, these movies rate fairly low, so even you might want to check them out!

The first offering is Dead of Night (1945), featuring stories from H.G. Wells, E.F. Benson, and screenwriters John Baines and Angus MacPhail (the latter of whom wrote for Hitchcock and apparently coined the term "MacGuffin"):

In the words of Scorsese:

A British classic: four tales [my note: actually five] told by four strangers mysteriously gathered in a country house, each one extremely disquieting, climaxing with a montage in which elements from all the stories converge into a crescendo of madness. [...] it’s very playful…and then it gets under your skin.

The frame story for this film is so cleverly scripted and skillfully performed that it's easy to hand wave the preposterousness of how these people came together to tell their tales. Dead of Night also has a lovely Noir* feel to it. There are no sudden moments of screamworthy shock; rather, it's a slow burn of confusion, alienation, and psychological horror.

My favorite story within the collection, based on "The Chippendale Mirror" by E.F. Benson, features a very unique sort of haunting. A man's fiancée buys an antique mirror as a wedding present. One day when he's alone and checking his appearance, he notices that the reflection does not match the surroundings of his apartment. In fact, he sees himself in a darkly sumptuous bedroom with a four poster bed and fireplace, seemingly from another time. He's the only one who sees it, and it starts to drive him mad . . .

The most disturbing tale in the film offers Michael Redgrave as an unhinged ventriloquest whose dummy seems to be rebelling against him. Did any of you ever see Magic with Anthony Hopkins? I did, and I was too young to really understand what was going on. It haunts me to this day, and this story brought it all back. It's worth checking out the film for Redgrave's performance alone.

For me, the only unsatisfying part of Dead of Night was the story of the golf buddies fighting for the love of the same woman. There's a ghost, yes, but it wasn't enough to get me past the idiocy of the premise.

You science buffs might get a kick out of this little bit of trivia from the Internet Movie Database: Cosmolgists Fred Hoyle, Thomas Gold and Hermann Bondi, developed the (now discredited) Steady State theory of the universe, an alternative to the Big Bang, after seeing "Dead of Night". They said that the circular nature of the plot inspired the theory.

Next week: The Uninvited (1944)

*Speaking of Noir and circular plots, I saw Looper yesterday. LOVED IT. Such an ambitious screenplay is bound to have a few holes in it, but I appreciate Rian Johnson for taking risks and making me think. Lots of fine performances, too. I was totally swept up in the story.

[Cross-posted to Livejournal]