The Casebook of Eddie Brewer (2012)

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Warning: there are one or two rather mild spoilers ahead


Eddie Brewer (Ian Brooker, an actor whose screen credits only seem to consist of a few bit parts, which looks preposterously unfair in context of his performance here) is a rather old-fashioned kind of paranormal investigator. He works alone, mistrusts the whole EXTREME Ghost Hunters approach as much as the professional sceptics, and clearly abhors mediums; in fact, even though he has encountered strange phenomena quite often, he doesn’t necessarily even believe in spirits as such.

Despite his friendly curmudgeonly nature (with an edge of sadness connected to the burning death of his wife decades ago), Eddie has agreed to be accompanied by the documentary crew of a culture TV channel for a bit. The investigator clearly thinks they are doing some friendly puff piece, so it  comes as a bit of surprise to him when he learns that their plans also involve a group of modern style ghost hunters and capital-S sceptic Susan Kovac (Louise Paris) with whom he has clashed before.

Mainly, Eddie is concerned with two cases right now. One involves some poltergeist type occurrences surrounding a young girl named Lucy Blakewell (Erin Connolly), phenomena which started out harmlessly enough but that by the time Eddie appears at the scene have become quite disturbing to Lucy’s mother (Bella Hamblin). And after all, how unthreatening can a phenomenon be that is connected to Lucy’s imaginary friend, when said friend calls itself after the clown Grimaldi?

Eddie’s second case concerns some odd happenings in Rookery House, a historical yet run-down building owned by the local council that’s being – rather haphazardly it seems – renovated. Particularly the building’s cellar appears to be a veritable hotbed of weird occurrences. In fact, Eddie will have encounters there that will be closer than any he’d ever expected.

During the course of the cases, Eddie will also learn that there just might be connection between them, that if you look into an abyss, the abyss just might look back at you, and that you really don’t want to waltz into certain cellars with a horde of people in tow.

Expectations are a wonderful thing, particularly if you go into a film like Andrew Spencer’s The Casebook of Eddie Brewer expecting another paranormal investigation POV horror film (I still can’t believe this is now an actual horror sub-sub-genre with more films in it than the Nazi zombie film) as I did, only to be delighted by what the film then turns out to be.

Formally, The Casebook isn’t a pure POV/found footage film at all. Most of the film does consist of the material the fictional TV crew is shooting but whenever things happen when and where having a camera around would be improbable, or when the paranormal activity is playing around with the camera while Eddie experiences something horrifying – which just happen to be scenes much more effectively staged without the POV camera style – it changes to a more traditional filmmaking language, with many a well-composed (and moodily-lit) shot. Trained against the improbabilities of the POV conceit as I – and probably other viewers of the type who haven’t grown to loathe it – now am, I would have expected to find this changing approach jarring, but Spencer uses it so effectively, naturally, and logically, the shifts in viewpoint seem to be organic parts of the film that wouldn’t make any sense if done differently.

That’s not the only highly impressive aspect of a film clearly made on the tightest of budgets, the kind of production where half of the people involved take on three or four roles behind the camera. The sound design is particularly worth mentioning, with various creepy noises taking the place of visible special effects, though the latter do come into play when appropriate, generally to good effect, unless you just need to see something explode, or want very explicit gore. In that case, however, this won’t be a film to make you happy anyway.

It’s not as if The Casebook were coy about the supernatural, though. There’s no dragging of feet in the script, and an absolute willingness to show the audience creepy and disturbing things, unless – and I love it when a film has the brains to know the difference – it is more creepy not to show something, and instead to suggest it. The film also does right by some other pretty difficult elements of horror, namely the so often tedious and annoying battle between believers and sceptics. The film is always clear that its sympathies (at least in the context of the plot) lie with Eddie’s approach to the supernatural, but it anchors these sympathies in Eddie’s characterisation instead of trying to convert the audience or preach at it, or even worse annoying with the bizarre holier than thou attitude of something like The Conjuring (a film as inferior to this one, by the way, as its budget is higher). In fact, professional sceptic Kovac doesn’t seem to be looked down upon because she doesn’t believe but because she’s an asshole about it, which goes for the Ghost Hunters! from the other side as well.

What impresses me most about Spencer’s film aren’t any of these fine and impressive elements, though, but rather how well it builds up a feeling of dread, beginning in a wry, friendly and even comedic tone that slowly shifts as the more disturbing parts of the plot unfold. At first, the hints of things to come only break the film’s seemingly laid back flow a little, but like Eddie’s nerves, the tone becomes increasingly brittle until even what starts out as a scene making fun of a broadly acted medium can turn frightening at a moment’s notice. Brooker, as the actor who is in most of the film’s scenes, sells this change of mood and his character very well. In his performance, there’s a certain edge to Eddie’s character from the beginning, yet the edge is counteracted by a feeling of basic, no-nonsense (in the polite British way, not the American one) decency. Until, that is, one of the film’s central horrors occurs, and the wonder and calm that are part of Eddie’s character shift into fear and utter horror. It’s quite the thing to watch.

Not coincidentally, as the whole of The Casebook of Eddie Brewer is.


Denis Klotz contributes a regular bi-weekly film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?

é«˜é€Ÿă°ăă° / The Crone (2012)

the crone coverThe two less popular members of the idol group Jersey Girls, Nanami and Mayuko, hate their group own star (if you want to use that word in the kind of bottom-feeder world these girls are working in) Ayane with a degree of passion – at the very least enough to let out their hatred in the kind of physical “pranks” that can’t be described as friendly anymore.

As if this weren’t unpleasant enough, the newest episode of their TV show sees the girls visiting an empty, supposedly haunted, nursing home. Alas, the haunting is more than just a supposed one, and soon Ayane, who was the first to enter the building, is plagued by the titular crone, a ghost that doesn’t just delight in a lot of fast skittering but also brings with her the dubious pleasures of decay, age, and physical abuse. Even though Ayane is the first to suffer, the curious curse eventually reaches out for all three of the girls, as well as to their handler and the show’s director. More ghostly skittering and physical ickiness abound.

Idol-culture based horror has become a bit of a thing in Japanese low budget horror in the last couple of years, and it’s easy to see why: a production can hire idols instead of actual actors, which probably comes quite a bit cheaper, it can latch onto whatever fan base said idols possess, and when in doubt, nobody involved has to do too much acting.

Surprisingly enough, the idol actresses involved in this part of another attempt to re-light the J-horror fire, Honoka Miki, Shiori Kitayama and Kaoru Goto, aren’t playing themselves, and are even giving perfectly decent performances, not only when it comes to screaming but also in the slightly heightened awkwardness of the idoling (that’s the verb, right?) they bring to the movie. That’s all you can ask of young women in their late teens with little actual acting experience, and really all The Crone needs; it even gives one hope for a future for these actresses.

While The Crone is clearly a very cheap production – just look at the Crone make-up to realize how cheap – made in very limited shooting time, director and scriptwriter Eisuke Naito does some interesting things with what he has to work with. This is a film where all the different, and increasingly freaky, ways the supernatural shows itself are actually connected to plot and theme, with nothing happening that isn’t textual or subtextual part of the horrors of the helplessness of the aged, physical abuse and decay. In this context, making the film’s protagonists idols, living symbols of an unhealthy obsession with youth and physical perfection if ever there were one, seems particularly clever, not just because the girls are logical figures of hate for the film’s specific ghost but also, the film seems to suggest, because the kind of objectification inherent in idol culture is entwined with the hatred for the old and their physical imperfections like a Siamese twin.

Naito’s film is really surprisingly resonant in this way, demonstrating a willingness to be a bit deeper than your typical cheap spook-fest usually shows, as well as suggesting a director possessing an ability to actually see his ideas through to the end. There’s an actual sense for contemporary anxieties underlying the proceedings, perhaps even a bit of absolutely appropriate hysteria, which is more than I can say about much praised films like The Conjuring that seem interested in anything but the shocks without ever having an idea what the shocks are supposed to be there for.

The Crone‘s comparative intellectual depth is helpful in other regards, too, for as a mere horror show, the film isn’t quite as effective as you’d wish for, or rather, it is professional and often imaginative when it comes to its supernatural affairs, but it is seldom scary, nor does it induce the kind of breathlessness an audience should sometimes feel in an effective horror film. I’m not sure the film is even trying to scare its audience as much as it wants to transport it into a world of increasing strangeness while keeping inside the lines of the themes it has chosen. More often than not, The Crone succeeded with this for me, in part certainly because I expected rather something more in the vein of the last two direct-to-DVD Ju-on movies, or of whatever the last Ring movie was supposed to be. While Naito’s film doesn’t necessarily succeed in all it sets out to do, there’s a lot to say for a film and a director who at the very least seem to care about what they are doing.

I also found the film’s moments of body horror quite effective, scenes clearly more in the tradition of the grotesque that runs through a lot of Japanese art than in that of David Cronenberg, and all the stronger for it (sorry, Mr Cronenberg).

Visually, the film is shot in a style closer to Japanese horror of the late 90s and early 2000s with a limited colour scheme that is neither based on blue nor on yellow, and a look that can’t quite hide its low budget but which does suggest actual thought has been put into things like composition, blocking, and camera work that isn’t plain boring. You could call it retro, or you could call it an attempt to shoot a film not looking like a reality TV show; I’d certainly go for the latter.

Having said all this, I probably need to emphasise that The Crone isn’t the kind of film that will resonate with everyone as much as it does with me, for make no mistake, while all the rather delightful subtext is in there, this still is a very basic, very cheap piece of low budget horror in plot and structure. It just smuggles quite a bit of contraband into your brain if you let it.


Denis Klotz contributes a regular weekly film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?

 

The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh (2012)

posterAfter the death of his mother Rosalind (Vanessa Redgrave), Leon Leigh (Aaron Poole) comes to her house looking for something like closure, or at least to confront parts of the past he shared with his mother. They had been estranged for years, without visits or phone calls, because Rosalind suffered from a kind of mania that drove her to pressing her religion on Leon, playing “games” bordering on child abuse.

Rosalind’s house – not the place where Leon grew up in – is a strange place, full of antiques, and statues and statuettes of angels, many of which Leon acquired for Rosalind in his profession in the antiques trade without knowing whom he bought them for. The longer Leon stays the more he is hit by a feeling of something strange, something malevolent even, going on, as if there were some truth to Rosalind’s Christian cultish beliefs, and now something were about to punish Leon for his conscious decision against belief. Things seem to move where there shouldn’t be movement, Leon is inexorably pressed into confrontation with elements of his mother’s beliefs that seem to have taken on life and reality, and something is prowling around the house. Only time will tell if ghosts, wrathful angels, or just Leon’s still bruised mind are the cause of the strange happenings.

Rodrigo Gudiño’s The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh is the kind of film that easily divides opinions, not just because Gudiño is the publisher of Rue Morgue mag (never trust a journo – or blogger – making movies, right?) but because it is a film that combines a lot of elements people usually either love or hate in movies, depending on their temperaments.

It’s a slow moving film with comparatively little outward action, utterly dependent on the creation of mood through set design, sound design, camera work, and acting. The Last Will tells its story in a way that never quite answers the question of the reality of what Leon encounters in the house, and consciously keeps parts of the plot’s background ambiguous. Seeing that this is also a film circling questions of belief and disbelief via the weird and influences of classic supernatural tales, it’s no surprise certain people will find the film boring or pretentious. As with all things mood-based, it’s a matter of being compatible with the feeling the film is going for, and if you don’t feel it, you just don’t feel it, though I really wish people would more often differentiate between things that aren’t for them, and things that aren’t good.

To me, The Last Will is a little wonder of a movie, with a lead actor in Aaron Poole who can carry a film all on his own, never sharing the screen with anyone else. Other actors make their appearances as voices on the phone, in a small bit of video footage, and in form of a long-ish monologue by Vanessa Redgrave that really pulls the film together thematically, but really, the film is centered on Poole, with not a few scenes only showing him exploring the house.

One could argue that the house – on the outside built in a mock-medieval castle style, on the inside a living space re-imagined as an angel-obsessed antiques store – really is the film’s other main actor besides Poole, seeing how it is the main source of the film’s increasingly oppressive mood. The way Gudiño films it, the house is a place probably once meant to fill Rosalind’s loneliness through an accumulation of stuff, but now has become something different, a kind of graveyard of emotions and an attempt at keeping a past alive so that it can never truly turn into a new present. In short, it’s a place that seems custom-built to create its own ghosts; and Rosalind had turned herself into a ghost even long before she died, it seems. This mood as well as Rosalind’s turn of mind might very well have something to do with intellectual influence the Christian sect Rosalind belonged to had on her, but then neither Leon nor the audience ever really learn if they had an active role in the proceedings that caused the house’s haunting, or if they just provided more of the emotional trouble Rosalind was looking for.

In fact, the film only ever completely accedes the existence of Rosalind’s ghost to be real; we never learn how much of what happens to Leon is caused by her, how much of it is a product of his mental damage, or how much of it has another supernatural source. The film leaves room for various interpretations, if you’re interested in them, so you can takes its hints about a cult awakening something supernatural that leeches onto Rosalind’s and Leon’s private pains at face value, or you can ignore them completely without losing out on much of the film’s meaning either way. In the end, the film seems to say, there’s really not much of a difference between being haunted by a ghost or being haunted by the past – both things can kill you one way or the other.

The Last Will is also one of the few films questioning the nature of belief and unbelief that doesn’t feel the need to come down on either side while damning the other. Rosalind’s ghost exists as a creation of her own beliefs, while Leon saves himself by reasserting his disbelief in her beliefs. It’s unexpectedly satisfying, and definitely quite a bit less annoying than being petulantly preached at by another movie, quite independent of the direction the preaching comes from.

So, obviously, and not quite unexpectedly given my tastes, I come down on the side of those viewers who find The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh rather spectacular in its quiet, intelligent way. If it were a book, it would probably be published by Ash Tree Press or Tartarus Press, and if that sounds like a recommendation to you, it most definitely is.


Denis Klotz contributes a regular weekly film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?

The Uninvited

While out in the country on vacation, music critic and composer Roderick Fitzgerald (Ray Milland) and his sister Pamela (Ruth Hussey) stumble over a house they immediately falls in love with as it reminds them very much of their childhood home. Pamela’s more open about it, so she’s the one to decide she and Rod will attempt to buy the house and leave their London life behind.

As luck will have it, Winward House, as it is called, is indeed for sale. Its owner, one Commander Beech (Donald Crisp), makes the siblings a surprisingly low price, even though his granddaughter Stella Meredith (Gail Russell), is quite set against selling the house.

As so many horror movie characters before and after them, Rod and Pam soon learn that a cheap new home can only mean one thing: the new home is haunted. Consequently, there are curious occurrences in the house. Its studio room where Stella’s father once painted her mother, is colder and more damp than it should be and has a certain air of dread about it. Pets don’t approve of the house’s upper floor, and some nights, just before dawn, a woman’s voice coming from nowhere can be heard crying.

On the positive side, after first misgivings, Roderick and Stella begin to fall in love. The Commander is dead set against this, but it’s not so much the romance he seems to disapprove of, as the thought of Stella putting even a single step into Winward House. Given what actually happens once Stella does step into the house, the Commander’s fears aren’t exactly unfounded.

In the end, if Roderick and Pamela want to have a nice, spook-less home, help Stella grow independent of the shadows of a past she doesn’t even remember, and get a bit of romance in trade, they’ll have to delve into Winward House’s and the girl’s past, and thwart not only a supernatural menace but also a rather more worldly (yet thematically appropriate) threat.

Lewis Allen’s The Uninvited is that most curious of things, a 40s horror movie made by a major studio that doesn’t explain its ghosts away with some evil uncle in a gorilla costume. Apart from taking its supernatural menace seriously, the film also talks rather directly about some things films made under the iron rod of the production code did not usually dare talk about that way. It’s as if the film were made by grown-ups with a grown-up audience in mind and just didn’t feel the need to coddle anyone.

Not that The Uninvited is sets itself so apart from the film mores of its time that it’s afraid of a bit of deeply Hollywood-like sentimentality, especially since it is not only a horror movie but also a romance that transplants a handful of Gothic tropes into the contemporary 1940s, with a deft understanding of how to use them properly in this context. The characters here are after all modern people, so their reactions to the things going on should be modern too, however old-fashioned the tropes these dangers are based on are. In a really curious development, the merging of the gothically inclined romance and the ghost story elements works perfectly, with both sides of the genre equation strengthening each other, and nary a moment when the horror lover will gasp “oh no, they’re romancing again” nor one for the romance lover to sigh “now with the ghosts again”. This isn’t a film of two genres grafted together like Frankenstein’s Monster (or Bob, as I call him), but one that happens to belong to both and would make little sense – emotionally, thematically, or otherwise – if it restricted itself to just one of them.

While the script’s (based on a novel by Dorothy Macardle I now really want to read, and not just to see how large the differences between original and adaptation are) fusion of ghost story and romance is very strong, a strong script alone does not always make a good movie. Hauntings can easily become ridiculous instead of haunting, and romances cloying instead of charming. Fortunately, Allen is quite capable of handling both sides of the film with equal verve. Allen is in general quite an interesting director. Once the mid-50s came around, he began a nearly absurdly fruitful career as a TV director, but among the films he made before that and – somehow – in between are some fine examples of filmmaking in various genres. It’s this adaptability Allen makes great use of here, still very early in his career, showing a fine sense of how to develop a fine, haunting mood through shadow and sparse light, and especially noise, as well as a knowledge of how to be romantic without turning kitsch.

Allen makes particularly good and subtle use of his actors to deepen the feeling of the house’s haunting, with many a scene where Milland and Hussey are trying to joke away their fears (they are modern people living in the modern world, after all) yet their faces show how out of sorts they really are. It’s always wonderful to witness the young dapper Milland in films of this age, when a guy who’d later have to turn into the perpetual grump in front of the camera was allowed to bring the type of charming, slightly roguish characters to life that can become so annoying in the wrong hands but are really rather loveable when done right.

Thematically, this is of course a rather romantic (in various meanings of the word) film about a dapper young man who – with the help of his very competent sister who’ll win herself her own romance in the process – has to rescue his lady from the shadows of the past, shadows that in this particular case haven’t quite allowed her to grow up or to reach her full potential as a person. Despite the whole set-up not exactly providing Stella with much agency, the film also makes it clear that Roderick wants to help Stella not just because it’s difficult to marry a dead woman but also to help her to actually grow up and reach that potential. We can argue about how progressive this can be when Rod is the one party of the relationship actually active here (though I’d really rather not), but we can hardly argue that a guy applying himself to help his romantic partner become a whole person isn’t romantic in concept.


Denis Klotz contributes a regular weekly film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?

Right to Left: Housui Yamazaki’s Mail

Never let it be said that Housui Yamazaki doesn’t know how to grab a reader’s attention. The first frame of the esteemed illustrator’s (best known for his continuing work on Eiji Otsuka’s The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service) writing debut finds an attractive young woman sitting streamside, and tastefully in the buff no less. No worries, prudes among you. Any abjectly exploitative overtones are dropped with the next frame, when the click of a shutter reveals the photographers beyond. “Break!” is called, the shoot wraps and the model, frigid, emerges to a hot towel. It doesn’t take long, however, for something else to catch the photographers’ attention, and something far less lovely than their prior subject – a pile of well-worn human bones, unearthed by recent flooding but a few steps from the shoot and suspiciously sans head.

Still stranger things emerge when the day’s photos are developed, revealing something odd in the final image. Nestled in the scenery beyond the model is the faint shape of a childish figure, or at least what’s left of it from the shoulders down.

Where the photographers see only coincidence, a chance discovery of long-dead remains followed by a bizarre developing error, detective, medium and unconventional exorcist Reiji Akiba sees a message in need of answering – ‘mail from the afterworld’ as he calls it. Blessed with a keen investigative prowess and rare second sight, Akiba makes a strange career of rooting to the bottom of various supernatural troubles and solving them – permanently – with his sanctified sidearm Kagutsuchi (after fire kami of Shinto mythology, Honokagutsuchi). Hoping to use his unique talents to help them snag a scoop the photographers contract Akiba for a head-hunting expedition, but get more than they bargained for when the search leads them into the wine cellar of a collector with an especially troubling taste…

So goes Housui Yamazaki’s Mail, a too-short three volume collection of independent shorts that’s no less delicious for the consistency of its formula. Yamazaki’s tales are good old-fashioned spooks with a distinctly modern sensibility, and take the time to build real thrills and chills before their ultra-hip take on the classic exorcism inevitably takes center stage. While the action may be predictable I found the details of the individual stories to be anything but, from the nefarious circumstances that keep a little white Toyota’s trunk eternally shut to the deep dark secrets of that aforementioned wine cellar. Yamazaki’s writing generates the same terrific gets-under-your-skin feel as the hearsay creep-outs we heard in grade school, and so gleefully shared in hushed voices in the years before banal gossip took precedent. It’s the sort of stuff we knew was ridiculous even then, but still believed just might be true for fear of what might happen if we didn’t.

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For me Mail offers the very best kind of horror, that of the pure spine-tingling variety that isn’t found nearly enough in popular media these days, and as a downtown city-dweller Yamazaki’s exacting translation of said horror onto an urban landscape only doubles the appeal. His Hide and Seek, in which a young woman runs afoul of some of the lesser-known pitfalls of renting at below-market prices, proved particularly engrossing, if only for its keen twisting of the details of the renting life. Who would ever have thought that anonymous mailings and noisy neighbors might be hints that something demoniacal is afoot? The tale’s grimly comic conclusion was enough (along with my building’s strict NO NAILS policy) to leave me wondering just what lies within my own apartment’s walls. As Akiba remarks in his introduction, “It’s amazing how many people forget to check inside the walls…”

Of course where there’s horror, humor is never far behind, and Mail proves its author to be more than fluent in both. Yamazaki braces his urban legends and campfire tales with witty, often bleak observations and occasionally even outright jokes. “He said he was a medium?” quips a man in the first tale, reacting to a sleeping Akiba. “I think they gave us small instead.” It’s a delicate balance to maintain for material like this, with one extreme leading to dull sincerity, the other to loathsome self-parody. Yamazaki toes the line expertly, and keeps the entertainment potential of his little supernatural vignettes at sky-high levels – Mail is a hell of a fun read.

I made the mistake of picking up only the first volume of Mail, expecting to test the waters, so to speak, and tread (spend?) more deeply only if need be. Well, need be. Less than an hour after flipping open the first volume I was helplessly hooked, with no recourse but to order the other two volumes in the series, and sit… and wait. It seems that when it comes to ghosts the Japanese still do it better than just about anyone else. Yamazaki’s take on the tired topics of paranormal investigation and exorcism are refreshing to say the least, and his formula proved irresistible to my taste. More like this, please!


Mail was originally published by Kadokawa Shoten in 2004, and picked up for domestic distribution by Dark Horse Comics in 2006. All three volumes are still in print and readily available through Amazon.com and others. Digital editions are also available directly from Dark Horse.

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