I read the stage play version of this story (itself based on an earlier novel) about ten years ago, so had a broad sense of the plot before I went in, although I'd forgotten the details. Not that it makes a huge amount of difference - it is very much a standard Victorian gothic ghost story, and although the stage play version includes a meta-referential twist at the end, the film doesn't do anything much that a regular horror film-goer won't be able to predict.
[That said, here's a spoiler-cut just in case]That isn't to say it won't make you jump from time to time. Its horror relies quite heavily on 'stings' - i.e. sudden noises, movements or appearances designed to give the audience a shock of adrenaline. In fact, sometimes, this felt overdone. It was OK in cases where the 'sting' event would genuinely make a sudden noise - as for example when an old rusty water-pipe suddenly burst into noisy action. But in other places it seemed too contrived - as when our young hero (Kipps) is taken by surprise by the sudden appearance of the local cart-driver Keckwick on the causeway to the haunted house, accompanied by a loud *BOOM* on the soundtrack. Caused by what? People don't usually make a boom when they just turn around - at least in my experience.
Still, though, there was plenty of good creepy atmosphere in between the stings too, and indeed an impressive tick-list of all the elements you would expect from the most successful outing so far from the newly-revived Hammer Film Productions. A couple of years ago ms_siobhan and I came up with a list of Hammer film clichés after watching a couple of their 1960s oeuvres back-to-back, so just for a giggle I have nipped back to that to see which of them crop up in this latest offering. I made it seven out of a list of 23, as follows:
- Fainting lady
- Proper set-piece scream
- Inn scene complete with check or gingham table-cloths1
- Any peasants
- Speeding carriage sequence
- Close-up of the villain's eyes
- Actor who has appeared in any other British film or TV that you can name
That doesn't seem like very many, but another eight items on our original list were to do with bad fake effects, and it would be a surprise to see seriously bad effects in any film made now, given general changes in movie culture since the 1960s. A further four were also based on Hammer's propensity to recycle props, scenery, music and actors during their heyday - and indeed to be fair they could well be doing the same thing here without me knowing, since I haven't seen any of their other revival films. So in fact that's seven out of a remaining eleven that it is really fair to apply to a film made in 2012. And meanwhile, there was plenty besides which essentially comprised what we had paid our money on the door to see - to whit:
- Suspicious villagers
- Scenes set on period transport (steam-trains, a vintage car and bonus horse-and-trap)
- Spooky and decrepit haunted house
- Ghostly children
- Creepy mechanical toys
- Characters foolishly chasing after ghostly apparitions, despite having been explicitly told not to
No complaints on the classic horror tropes front, then. But of course, for the same reason, it could never really have hoped to be a truly great horror film, because the basic story doesn't attempt to advance or subvert the genre - it just follows the genre very well. And I must confess to having become rather bored about half-way through with the character going into one room in the big, haunted house and being scared by something, and then going into another room and being scared by something else, and so on and so on, while he was actually supposed to be going through some family documents. After I while I wanted to say, "Oh, just quit procrastinating and get on with your work!" Which probably wasn't the intended reaction.
Also, sashajwolf is entirely right in her excellent review of this film to point out that its female characters are all either demonised or idealised and exist entirely in relation to men, with the entirely unsurprising result that the film doesn't come anywhere near passing the Bechdel test. Again, this fits in with the story's faithful approach to classic horror, but I feel that given the original novel was written in 1983 (rather than 1883), we are entitled to ask better of it.
Overall, then, definitely a Hammer film - but I think that now they have caught the public's attention with this one, they need to do something a little less predictable next time.
1. I'm not completely sure about the patterning on the tablecloths.
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