Berserk, 1967

 

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A British thriller set in a circus, which has traces of gialli, Berserk is far more tame than both the title and the setting promise. Joan Crawford stars as Monica Rivers, the owner and ringmistress of a travelling circus in England. Micheal Gough plays Dorando, the co-owner and business manager of the circus. Other stars include Diana Dors as one half of a magic act, and Judy Geeson as Rivers’ daughter, Angela.

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The circus’s tightrope walker, Gaspard the Great, falls to his death but it appears to be more than an unfortunate accident. Frank Hawkins, played by Ty Hardin, joins the circus as the new high-walker. After this, murder plagues the circus. At first, Rivers mines the deaths, knowing they’ll draw in more crowds, but eventually even she is disturbed by the gruesome murders.

The biggest issue with Berserk seems to be that it doesn’t know what kind of film it is. Yes, it’s certainly a thriller but the moodiness and grim deaths interspersed by dancing elephants, prancing poodles and an awkward, bizarre song make it tonally inconsistent.

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This is not necessarily a bad thing, in fact tonal shifts can heighten discomfort in this sort of film, but the circus performances go on for too long (not to mention being uncomfortable to watch for someone who hates animal circuses), though they are beautifully photographed and the song gave me too much secondhand embarrassment (but it’s strangeness fits far better with the film than the glossy performances). It feels a little too mish-mash-y.

The killer’s reveal is also quite anticlimactic, which is always disappointing in a murder mystery type story.

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But Joan Crawford is fabulous and looks amazing in her Ringmistress getup. She, unsurprisingly, carries the film with a commanding performance that elevates this above the hammy mess* it could’ve been without her. That’s not to say her performance is restrained but she has the acting chops to make the role believable.

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It has its merits, and it’s not the worst way to spend 90 or so minutes, but it could have been so much more!

 

 

*Though I do love me a hammy mess!

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Crimson Peak, 2015

One thing I keep saying is that I’m not a fan of horror films. This isn’t entirely true, because some of the best films I’ve seen are horror. The problem is, I just hate being scared (and I scare easily). But there are some movies I just desperately need to see and I push my worry of nightmares ,and sleeping with the lights on, aside. One of these was Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak, which my friend (another self-proclaimed scaredy cat) and I vowed to watch together. During the day. We finally got around to it a couple of weeks ago. I only decided this week to do a post on the film, though, and thought publishing it on Friday the 13th might be fitting.

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I think this will be more a look at the visual aspects of the film that I loved, as I reacted to it more on that level. While I agree with many others that the plot was predictable and the story itself didn’t have much meat to it, I honestly wasn’t bothered. I often like predictable. The mood and atmosphere were more important for me in this and it fit with the Gothic horror/romance throwback del Toro was going for. It made me think particularly of Rebecca and Jane Eyre. (Granted, both are more substantial story-wise, but the influences are obviously there).

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I have a thing for lighting and the lighting in this made me want to cry it was so perfect (or, at least, perfect for my own aesthetic taste). I especially loved the scenes where yellow/orange and green light were used together (like the first image of Jessica Chastain at the top of this post and the one below). But the image directly above, with more subtle lighting, is lovely too.

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The entire design of this film is exquisite, especially the costumes (I’m planning on doing a post on the costume designer, Kate Hawley, for my Designer Spotlight series). They made me want to wear mutton sleeves and crimp my hair but I think I’d end up looking more ’80s tragic than Victorian tragedy.

Some of my favourite costumes (I’ll save the rest for that post on Kate Hawley):

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And some of my favourite interior shots:

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The set design is so important in this film and Allerdale Hall is a character in its own right, guiding the atmosphere of the second half of the film. From the red clay that seeps up through the soil, to the roof caving in, letting in light and leaves and snow, to the cluttered, dusty rooms it screams ‘Sinister!’ With its decay and bleak surroundings, it is almost the ultimate Gothic horror mansion. I’m not necessarily a sucker for haunted house stories (I’m not keen on ghosts) but I love stories set in creepy, remote mansions.

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I hadn’t read much of del Toro’s influences for Crimson Peak before watching it (though following him on twitter I got an idea) so I was glad when I read this and saw that Rebecca and Bava’s films were influences as I had felt they were while watching this.

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Jessica Chastain really stole the movie for me. She was phenomenal – I love the way she carried herself and the design of her character. I love how Lucille slowly unfolds as a character throughout the film. She definitely had some of my favourite costumes, too. Mia Wasikowska was fantastic as well, and Edith’s costumes are more obviously impressive than Lucille’s. I’m looking forward to writing all about the costumes of this film one day.

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I need to watch this again for a number of reasons, one of which is that there’s so much going on visually that it’s hard to think about it all on first viewing. Looking at these screencaps I’m already noticing a lot that I missed on first viewing but it undeniably left a deep impression on me. I should really watch more of Del Toro’s films.

Jennifer’s Body, 2009

When I put the DVD for Jennifer’s Body (directed by Karyn Kusama) in the player and settled in to watch it, I was fully prepared for a terrible movie. This was because of the few reviews I’d read and general attitude regarding this film as a truly Bad Movie. I should’ve known better, from past experience, than to pay attention to the bad reviews: this was awesome.

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I’ve since read this has become somewhat of a cult classic, but I haven’t read extensively enough to know if this is true. I did read some good reviews on letterboxd after I watched it, including this one that seemed to capture exactly how I felt about the film as I was watching it. One of the things I noticed, as highlighted in the linked review, is the strong theme of (female) friendship, something I wasn’t expecting at all. This isn’t a typical teen horror flick and maybe that’s why it got so many bad reviews. It’s made more for (and by) girls and women and that made it pretty refreshing to watch.

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Cody’s script is a little weak at some points, I won’t deny that, but these characters – particularly Jennifer and Needy – are so well-written and so much more than the typical ‘nerd’ and ‘slut’ stereotypes they could easily be. Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried are brilliant in fleshing out the roles created by Cody in her script.

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It’s very well directed by Kusama and beautifully photographed, too. There are some really lovely shots in this film and the gorgeous colours are rarely seen in horror.

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I don’t think it was quite as subversive or feminist as it set out to be and this is largely because of the competitive undercurrent in Jennifer and Needy’s friendship as well as some parts of the ending. It’s a pity it didn’t take it’s subversion further but no film is perfect and I still thoroughly enjoyed Jennifer’s Body.

When I noticed there was a theatrical cut and an extended cut, I spent about five minutes agonising over which to watch. I went for the theatrical in the end because I like watching films as they were released initially for my first watch but I’ll definitely be watching the extended cut at some point.

On the subject of Kusama’s films, I also watched Æon Flux which I didn’t think was terrible, either. I’ve never watched the cartoon/animated series, which could have something to do with it but I don’t think it deserves the vitriol it receives. It was a little difficult to follow and the characters could seem shallow, I suppose, but it was very striking.

I now have Girlfight in my queue and I’m hoping to see The Invitation at some point so I can finish off my viewing of Kusama’s films. I have a feeling I’ll enjoy those two, as well.

Morgiana. 1972

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After watching and falling deeply in love with The Duke of Burgundy, I decided to seek out some of the films Peter Strickland cited as influences for his film. The first (and still, to date, the only) I watched was Morgiana, a 1972 Czech Gothic thriller, directed by Juraj Herz, about a woman who jealously plots the murder of her better liked sister (both roles played by Iva Janzurová). I should preface this with two things: writing this was very challenging for me as I find movies like this tend to be outside my comprehension in any kind of ‘academic’ way; I’m not familiar enough with films of this ilk. But I loved it and wanted to write about it.

Morgiana is a histrionic fairy tale, a fevered dream set in an unspecified European region, brought to life with lush colours and delightfully gaudy sets and costumes. It opens with sisters Klára and Viktoria being instructed by a lawyer on the contents of their recently deceased father’s will: each sister gets one of his properties.

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Klara inherits the airy, pretty estate but Viktoria gets a supposedly haunted manor. This sets the tone for the two sisters’ personalities and how they are received by others. It is evident from the outset that Viktoria is jealous of Klára, who is easily amiable, cheerful and well-liked by everyone. Viktoria is the polar opposite of Klara, manifested in their equally different looks.

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Both women appear virginal but where Klára is ‘pure’ in the fashion of a fairy-tale princess, akin to Snow White, Viktoria is ‘repressed’, petty and jealous. She is more like the evil virgin queen, ice cold and remote with a deep mean streak (albeit more nervy than any evil queen). We see this in a scene where Viktoria sneaks up on some of her servant girls, bathing in the ocean, carefree and scantily clad, and gleefully throws a rock at one’s head. It’s interesting to think that’s it not just a matter of the virgin/whore dichotomy but that ‘virgin’ women are presented in different ways: it is either a virtue or a sickness.

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It is a testament to Janzurová’s acting and Herz’s editing that I often forgot that Klára and Viktoria were played by the same actress. I found the editing and some of the camera ‘tricks’ to be quite interesting, if disorienting, such as filming from Viktoria’s cat’s (the eponymous Morgiana) point of view at times. The first time it happened, I immediately knew the camera had taken on the point of view of a cat, not only from the eye level but the movement which couldn’t be anything other than feline.

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The creepiness of Morgiana is more often in the dreamlike atmosphere and intense score (by Lubos Fiber) than in actual content. (Although a woman plotting to murder her sister isn’t exactly not creepy). It is more a psychological exploration than a straight-up horror. Even Viktoria seems a reluctant murderess at first, when she uses the slow-acting poison she procured and immediately tries to get Klára to drink from a different glass. However, once Klara does drink she seems gleeful but nervous. She retires to her own estate, where she becomes increasingly paranoid, going so far as to test the poison on a dog (and then not knowing if the dog, a servant’s son or her own beloved cat drank the concoction).

As Klára descends into illness, she begins to hallucinate another version of herself, in a flame-red dress (reminiscent of Viktoria’s red nightgown), who is more like the petty Viktoria than the amiable Klára herself. Mirrors are just one of the motifs used to hint at a fragmenting personality and unsettled psyche (apparently Herz originally wanted the film to end showing that both sisters were just aspects of one woman’s split personality, but couldn’t because of the censors at the time). There are also some kaleidoscopic scenes, that look like a 3D film viewed without glasses, that Klára sees in her fevered state.

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The 1970s does Edwardian costumes were swoon inducing and that OTT makeup was to die for. (Pardon the pun).

There was one scene that reminded me a bit of Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (a scene where one of the sisters is running along some stairs or a road by a beach or similar that reminded me of the repeated scene in Meshes). I’m not sure that this was an intentional inspiration for the film, but I’d only watched Meshes recently, so my mind made the connection. The dreamlike quality of Morgiana fits well with the actual dream represented in Meshes, though.

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The make-up of my teen goth dreams.

There is another beautiful, mesmerising scene in which Viktoria is looking through an old trunk, and she pulls out all these gauzy, delicate dresses, letting them float about her as they drift to the floor. The chiaroscuro lighting lends an eery atmosphere, as the dresses become ghostly forms. Strickland lifted this scene to great effect for The Duke of Burgundy.

Morgiana is a strange film that had me captivated throughout the entirety of its running time. It’s definitely one that I want to revisit and think about some more, in the future.