Monday, 19 January 2015

The Haunting of Radcliffe House

Director: Nick Willing
Writer: Nick Willing
Producer: Michele Camarda
Cast: Olivia Williams, Matthew Modine, Antonia Clarke
Country: UK
Year of release: 2014
Reviewed from: TV screening

The Haunting of Radcliffe House is a curious film with an interesting history, and no-one else seems bothered about reviewing it so I guess it’s up to Muggins here. The film has its good points and its bad points. It’s not as awful as one might suppose from reading user reviews on the IMDB but nor is it as good as it could (or should) have been.

Olivia Williams (X-Men 3, Last Days on Mars) and token Yank Matthew Modine are Meg and Alec, a London couple who move into a vast, empty mansion on the Yorkshire moors.  Meg has got the job of restoring this pile for an American client who has recently purchased it. Alec is an artist whose style mostly involves welding square lumps of metal together; he can use part of the building as a workshop. Also moving in are teenage daughter Penny (Antonia Clarke: The Thirteenth Tale) and not-quite-teen son Harper (Adam Thomas Wright: The Awakening).

Locals believe the house to be haunted, or cursed, or something. Local builder Donnelly (Jonathan Jaynes) agrees to help Meg with the fixer-upping but leaves when they discover an occult painting on the floor of a curious, slightly pyramidal room somewhere up on the top floor.

Fairly swiftly, spooky stuff starts happening. Penny receives a genuinely frightening visit from a ghost woman who runs towards her as the girl lies in bed, frozen with fear. Alec cuts himself on a nail and a drop of his blood is absorbed by the house. He starts making artistic sketches of a woman who may or may not be supposed to be Meg, and becomes increasingly obsessed with the artistic possibilities of blood. A ‘ghost whisperer’ (Sightseers’ Steve Oram) contacted online by Penny visits briefly and has psychic flashbacks to an accident involving a garden ornament that was broken but has been restored to its former location.

The good thing about The Haunting of Radcliffe House is that many of the scary bits are genuinely scary. Unlike the mediocre, over-rated Woman in Black (which seems to have kickstarted a renaissance in British ghost films) this does not rely on cheap cat scares. The ghost here is much more frightening than Hammer’s because it doesn’t just lunge screaming at the camera on a regular basis.

Where the film falls down however – and it’s a big tumble – is that there is no logic or coherence to any of the supernatural shenanigans on display. It’s like writer-director Nick Willing just got carried away when writing the script – ooh, and then this scary thing happens, then this – quite forgetting that he was supposed to be crafting a coherent narrative. In a way, that actually helps because each new scare is unexpected and, in its novelty, adds another layer of fright. Something you don’t get if each new scare is the same as the last. But that is offset by the completely random nature of what we see. In the third act for example, Penny gets trapped in a network of previously unmentioned cellars and is stalked by something human running fast on all fours, which is never explained. A little later, Penny and Harper find themselves out on the moors where they come across an artist’s easel with a painting of them, dressed exactly as they currently are. That’s spooky, I’ll grant you, but it doesn’t relate to anything before or after.

The activities of a ghost in a ghost story need to serve a purpose: a warning, or a cry for help, or a lamentation.  The underlying story here is that the owner of Radcliffe House in the mid-19th century was an artist who murdered his wife, and was also a ‘Rosicrucian’ (though quite what that means in this context is neither explored nor explained). But there also seems to have been an accidental death of someone else falling from an upstairs window onto the garden ornament. The ghost of this person turns up in dayight although it only later becomes clear to us and Meg that this was indeed a Victorian ghost, despite wearing modern clothes.

There’s just no clear story here. The ghost’s activities and motivation are all over the place. There’s some talk of transferral of souls and Alec is clearly possessed by something. I think he is under the spell of the former owner (presumably as a result of that minor accident with a nail) and is trying to somehow transfer his dead wife’s soul into Meg. But why would he want to do that if he killed her in the first place? And where does this other ghost fit into it all? The whole thing is just a random grab-bag of (admittedly effective) spookiness masquerading as a (thoroughly unsatisfying) story.

Matters are not helped by some careless lack of attention to detail. At one point a phone in a room  full of clutter starts ringing, although we know that the engineer who was supposed to reconnect the phone didn’t turn up. Spooky. Problem is: the phone is very clearly a 1980s Trimphone which is completely out of context with the other junk. More to the point, the foley artist on this film is presumably not old enough to remember Trimphones and their very, very distinctive sound so has added a standard ‘telephone ring’ sound effect. I don’t care if the caller is some spirit using an unplugged phone: either use a Trimphone sound or a pre-1980s phone prop. (While I’m being pedantic, there’s a scene where Harper and Jenny play Cluedo, which you can’t actually do with just two people.)

Eventually Meg is left lying on the painting underneath a weird, heavy, hanging metal thing that drips blood onto her. There is no explanation or context for this metal thing and, apart from hoping that it won’t pull its rusty bracket from the ceiling and squish the woman’s head, there’s very little reason to feel any concern, empathy or involvement in this scene.

And then there’s the ‘twist’ ending of the film. This is so bad, so unnecessary, so clichéed, so ineptly, unsubtly handled, and generally so stupid that it completely ruins the whole movie, hammering the final nail into something which up to then had been merely ‘not very good’.

The motive force behind The Haunting of Radcliffe House were married couple writer-director Nick Willing and producer Michele Camarda, whose previous BHR entry was 2002 misfire Doctor Sleep aka Hypnotic aka Close Your Eyes. Willing has also directed several mini-series for Hallmark, the two head honchos of which, Robert Halmi Sr and Jr, are credited here as executive producers. But this is a long way from a lavish Hallmark production, being principally funded by Screen Yorkshire. Presumably that funding body was keen to include as many establishing shots of tourist-friendly moorland as possible, and to overlook the film’s underlying message which is: stay away from Yorkshire, our ghosts will try to kill you and your children.

The film was shot in early 2014 under the half-hearted and pointless title Altar. There are a couple of mentions of an altar but there isn’t actually an altar in the film, unless that term refers to the circular floor painting, which isn’t any sort of altar that I would recognise. This was supposedly made with expectation of a theatrical release, but only in the sense that every film bullshits that line. Realistically, Altar was always going to be a straight-to-DVD picture – and hey, there’s no sin in that. But what actually happened was that Channel 5 bought the UK rights, improved the title considerably by changing it to The Haunting of Radcliffe House, and screened the film on terrestrial TV a couple of days after Christmas 2014.

In September that year a Kickstarter campaign was launched, presumably by Willing and Camarda, to raise $40,000 to pay for the film (as Altar) to get a theatrical release in the States. Despite reaching its target in under two months, it’s not clear what that money will pay for because at time of writing (mid-January 2015) the film was still listed on Amazon for a US DVD release in mid-Feb (through a distributor called Cinedigm, and with a truly abysmal sleeve). In any case, even if the film does get to play US theatres I can't see it getting a better response from audiences than it got on British TV.

Willing and Camarda don’t seem to have much luck with distribution. Thirteen years on, Doctor Sleep remains solidly unreleased in the UK under any of its varied titles, Amazon.co.uk offering only American, German and Danish discs. More to the point, one can’t help thinking that if savvy, successful film businessmen like Halmi pere et fils don’t think that a movie is worth backing as a theatrical release, then it’s probably not a sound investment on the part of crowdfunders, most of whom are presumably just really big fans of Modine or Williams.

Reading through the various comments on the IMDB of those who watched Radcliffe House over Christmas, there are numerous accusations of plagiarism: everything from The Shining to The Woman in Black (hey, I just got it: 'Radcliffe' House...) to Hellraiser. Truth be told, I don’t believe Willing set out to deliberately ape well-known horror movies, rather I suspect this is just a side effect of the film’s lack of originality. In randomly bolting together a whole pile of horror film clichés, devoid of the narrative context that might justify them, he has created an effective ‘greatest hits’ package of the genre. And it is natural that in making individual comparisons, the original and/or best known examples of each idea will spring to mind. So yes, a father takes his family to a remote building and then goes nuts but I don’t think Willing watched The Shining and went, “Yes, that’s what I’ll do.” More likely his thought process was: “Lots of horror films feature someone going nuts and threatening their family, often in an isolated setting – that will do me.”

One comparison that is worthy of note – and must be deliberate - is that the film’s basic premise is apparently very similar to ‘The Prayer Tree’, the two-part story which constituted Season 4 of BBC paranormal series Sea of Souls. “When a young couple, Karen and Ian O'Rourke, move into an old home they discover unique symbols painted on the walls. When they post the image on the Internet, Dr. Douglas Monaghan believes they have found the Tree of Life, a symbol of the Order of the Golden Dawn, a 19th century spiritualist group.” - is how the IMDB sums that up.

‘The Prayer Tree’ was written, like most Sea of Souls episodes, by David Kane. Nick Willing directed two episodes in the first season of that series, and Kane wrote the screenplay for Willing’s 2006 Anglo-Canadian thriller The River King. According to the IMDB he also gets a ‘thank you’ on Doctor Sleep. So clearly there is some connection there, but what it is I couldn’t say (and, truth be told, don’t really care).

Perhaps if Kane had written the script for Altar the film might have actually had a plot that made sense. As it is, Willing’s direction is pretty good and he uses a lot of different effects to create his spooky atmosphere, plus the cast are generally fine with particularly impressive performances from Clarke and Knight, but none of this can save the film from its fundamental problem which is simply incoherence and randomness. Things are just thrown into the mix for no reason and to no effect.

For example, at one point Meg discovers that her client didn’t actually buy the house but inherited it (from a previously unknown 19th century relative who had entrusted it to some solicitors). But that has no bearing at all on the (for want of a better word) plot. In fact it adds a layer of confusion because it implies the building has been empty for 170 years, which it plainly hasn’t. And if it had been empty since then, what was a 1980s Trimphone doing there? In fact what was any sort of telephone doing there?

Ironically, one of the top-level perks offered as part of the aforementioned Kickstarter campaign was that Nick Willing was, ahem, willing to provide a professional critique of a screenplay written by the donor. Which sounds good except, Jesus, did no-one provide a critique of this screenplay? Would you trust the critical judgement of someone who thought this abstract bunch of disconnected ideas was ready to be filmed? That’s like a chef who has served up a cold, undercooked meal offering his customers cookery lessons.

Anyway, other cast and crew round-up. There’s Stephen Chance who was the vampiric quizmaster in Kill Keith, Richard Dillane who played Werner Von Braun in 2005 drama-doc Space Race, and David J Peel who had a bit part in Stalled. The music is by Simon Boswell who scored much of Willing’s other work, as well as some crap like Octane and Incubus (plus, famously, some Argento stuff). Top Danish DP Jan Richter-Friis (Wire in the Blood, Powers) lit the film, which was cut by editor David Freeman (The Full Monty). Production designer John Ellis mostly works on Springwatch and Autumnwatch, not the sort of shows you would expect to use a production designer. John Lindlar (White Settlers) designed the costumes; visual effects were supervised by Ben Ashmore (Love Bite, The Harry Hill Movie). A bunch of talented people doing their best, I have no doubt, but as so often happens, the whole thing rests on the script - which, by any standards, is just a jumble of unconnected ideas.  And thus the whole edifice crumbles.

Without some structure and some sense of why – why is this particular spooky thing happening to this person at this time? – a ghost story stops being a ghost story and becomes simply a ghost train. And that’s what we’ve got here. Which is a shame.

At time of writing a British disc from RLJ Entertainment (as The Haunting of...) is listed on Amazon for release in December 2015. Presumably the twelve-month delay indicates that Channel 5 have the rights for a year in case they want to repeat this. It's not because the film, which takes place in the summer, has any connection with Christmas.

MJS rating: C

11 comments:

  1. Is this an actual house in the movie or just a set? I would love to know more about it!!

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    1. I suspect it's a mixture. The 'altar room' is very obviously a studio set.

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    2. It's just outside Boroughbridge north-west of York but that's all i could find out.

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  2. I love the film. I liked the music too, specially the short piece played when the mosaic was uncovered but i cannot find it anywhere.

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    1. Thanks for your comments, Martin.

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  3. film ini menyajikan tontonan yang sangat menegangkan... membuat kita penasaran apa yang akan terjadi.. aku masih tetap penasaran.. dan ingin segera mencari tahu makna dari simbol2 yang ada dalam film ini.

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  4. The house hasn't been empty for 170 years, as you rightly said. The presence of the phone relates to the fact that the house has been a bed and breakfast hotel (as Meg mentions at the beginning). I think the main problem with the film is that the scriptwriter relies on lots of hints and scenes to make us uneasy without explaining everything. This can be effective but I think you're right; there's just too much of it.

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    1. Thanks for your comment. I completely missed the reference to the B&B. It certainly didn't look like a former B&B. Not really a great location either, I would have thought...

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  5. Gosh, what a lot of work you've put into this piece - thank you. I read it because I've just bought the dvd from a charity shop for £1.50 because, well, it was a British horror film and only £1.50. Ha, ha! Still, even if the script is not cohesive enough I hope the chills are worth £1.50. But if not, hey, the charity benefits.

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    1. Thanks for your comment. It's certainly worth £1.50.

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  6. One of the fewest reviews I have really enjoyed reading. And yes, as a tribute, I am going to watch this movie too. Vidyanand from India

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