One of my favorite novels of all time is Dan Leno & The Limehouse Golem by Peter Ackroyd (if you’re curious, you might find it more easily in the United States under the title The Trial of Elizabeth Cree. A disturbing historical thriller/horror story about a Victorian serial killer known as the Limehouse Golem, after the section of London where the victims could be found, and certain ethnic specifics connected to the crimes, Ackroyd, as is his wont, incorporates many historical figures and events in his story, but not in the “Perhaps Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who created the famous detective Sherlock Holmes, can help us find the killer! Maybe your cousin Bram Stoker, who wrote Dracula, can ask him!” variety. The infamous Ratcliff Highway murders of 1811 and Thomas De Quincey’s essay about them, “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts” are used as both reference and unsettling mood enhancement, the author George Gissing is roped in both as a suspect and as a way to discuss Victorian poverty, and Dan Leno, an actual cross-dressing music hall performer is, I don’t know…representative of everything sad and joyful and dangerous and unstable. It’s quite a book, with a lot going on in it.
I’ve often wished for a film version but never really believed one would be made. Well, one has been, called simply The Limehouse Golem, directed by Juan Carlos Medina and starring the great Bill Nighy as a Scotland Yard detective investigating the case. When I heard about this film, I thought it might not be unreasonable to assume that the filmmakers main goal was to streamline Ackroyd’s story right into the damn grave. I figured it wasn’t even outside the realm of possibility that Dan Leno himself could have been ditched himself. But no, Medina and screenwriter Jane Goldman seem to have wanted to actually put the novel on screen to the best of their abilities. The film is smart, graphically violent, hopeless and frightening, eerie and complex. I can imagine a better film made from Ackroyd’s novel – I wish Medina had tried to recreate a more realistic and raw Victorian London, rather than the stylized, too-dim imagery he settled on (almost inevitably) – but I’m honestly grateful someone who could get the film made cared so much about this obscure novel that as far as I know nobody reads anymore. It’s a great novel, and this is a very good film.
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The premise behind Liam Gavin’s A Dark Song is so good I can’t believe another young ambitious writer/director with no budget didn’t already get there. It’s about a woman (Catherine Walker) who rents a large, secluded home in rural England, paying extra for the assurance of privacy, and hires what appears to be a somewhat oafish, sarcastic, bitter man (Steve Oram) to walk her through a complex occult ritual, with the end result, she says, she hopes, being an opportunity to speak to her dead son. And A Dark Song is about that, and just that: the process of the ritual, and the physical and psychological toll it takes on both of them. The man warns about the how awful this is all going to be, and how dangerous – if she doesn’t do what the ritual demands, he says, the results will be catastrophic, because they aren’t dealing with pleasant forces.
For a while, I would say that A Dark Song is brilliant. Both Walker and Oram are terrific; Walker plays her character as a meek woman trying to struggle through her devastating loss and be strong enough to do this impossible thing, and Oram’s societal fringe-dweller comes off as an angry, abusive coach who knows that if this woman ignores his orders, he’s just as fucked as she is. After a while, the structure of the story almost demands (it doesn’t actually, but it seems like it does) that the two escalate their occasional clashes to another level of screaming and physical confrontation. I have to say that as good as Oram is, when he blows his lid he’s not as naturalistic (a tone that I think is demanded here) as he is in the first half. It could be more Gavin’s fault than Oram’s; these scenes do play as somewhat obligatory – we must do this in order to get to the next part – and therefore feel like bits of the movie that everyone just wanted to get through.
Not to spoil anything, but the ritual does get results, I won’t say of what kind, and the audience is, as per usual, invited to decide for themselves what’s real and what isn’t. Ordinarily, I find this kind of unwillingness to commit to a concept (because that makes it “character driven” or some other meaningless pseudo-intellectual bullshit) to be completely aggravating, but I have to say, in the case of A Dark Song, it kind of works, and enriches the film. Of course, I still made my decision, and perversely my choice makes me unsure if the ending works or not. But I find this route more interesting, and either way, I like its moxie.
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Two or three years ago, I saw a found-footage horror film with the hilariously unwieldy title The Houses October Built. It’s about this group of friends (one of whom is played by director/co-writer Bobby Roe) who totally love the elaborate haunted house attractions that spring up across the country every Halloween. The more extreme the better, I think it goes without saying, and they’re plan is to make a documentary about their experiences driving around America visiting these places. I won’t go too far into this movie, but suffice it to say by the end, they may have found the wrong haunted house attraction, and at the end maybe they die? The ending is a complete whiff, almost proud in its lack of any imagination whatsoever, or horrific impact, or visual engagement. The film was lousy up to that point, but it had a moment or two that made me think maybe it was building to something. And it was: it was leading to a giant shrugging turd.
Somehow or other, I guess because horror films are cheap to make and are therefore often profitable, we now have The Houses October Built 2, the last sequel anyone ever asked for. “What’s the last sequel you’d ever care to see?” I imagine the world was asked. “I don’t know, probably The Houses October Built 2?” answered the world, and so now here we are. All of our “heroes” are still alive, including Brandy (Brandy Schaefer), who the world watched being buried alive at the end of the last movie, but who was rescued, as was everyone else. And now these five stupid dinks are being asked by haunted house attractions to come visit and film, and basically do what the last film did again. Brandy’s like “No way, I was buried alive.” The other guys are all “You have to, you’re famous.” She’s like “No way.” Then the guys say “You have to.” “But I was buried alive.” “You have to.” “Okay, I’ll do it.”
The Hou2e2 2ct2ber 2uil2 then proceeds to be a kind of remake of its own predecessor, but this time it almost completely ejects the notion that it was ever supposed to be a horror film, and most of what we see is this group of insufferable shit-ass dorks going to real attractions and just going through them with bad music laid on top (this is a movie that has the audacity to begin with a Marilyn Manson quote, as though this provided the project with some sort of gravitas). We’re basically watching vacation videos. Eventually, Bobby Roe turns on the jets so that he can race through the “horror” part, and Brandy (in fairness, Schaefer isn’t bad) begins to become uncomfortable with some of the places they’ve gone, because they come too close in their extremity to the one that ended with her buried alive. Then all of a sudden they’re all very clearly at a very dangerous haunted house attraction and are “forced” to go inside (they’re forced to the extent that one of the evil guys in clown garb that brought them to this location has also jammed the door to their caravan. One of our heroes says, essentially, “We can’t open it, they’re not going to open it until tonight and then we’ll have to go inside their haunted house. Let’s just wait here until that happens.”). Brandy’s objections to this, the exact thing she’s been afraid of all along and insisted she would take no part in, are given to the audience via monotone ADR dialogue like “See guys, this is what I was talking about” as we watch Brandy walk with the other guys to the condemned building surrounded by clowns with a giant sign on it that says “HELLBENT.”
The ending of 222 H22e2 2222222 222i22 is just as transparently and noncommittally chickenshit as the climax of the first movie, but at least that one did a better job of concealing the fact that its true purpose was to fund the filmmakers’ road trip. This sequel doesn’t bother. It’s stupid, shameful, lazy, boring, and insulting.