Thursday, December 26, 2013

Review of The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh

The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh (TLWATORL) is about abandonment and parental abuse, abuse by a parent and abuse of a parent, and the birth of evil incarnate. The opening sequence of TLWATORL is a series of slow fades of an embryo, the anti-Christ in utero, seen at different angles and distances from the viewer, and entwined with dark nebulous material that could have been a NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day, a gateway to Hell, or the Lovecraftian all-consuming sublime. This opening sequence is filled with pretty and somewhat disturbing images, because as pretty as the weightless floating embryo is, we all know it will grow up and be or do something horrible. The coming of Satan or something evil and powerful is a popular theme in our literature and cinema, and this movie adds to that mound.

After this atmospheric opening, the haunted house tropes fall into place for the rest of the movie and are slickly presented with professional, television commercial worthy lighting that evoked very little, except in the scenes that included a lot of well placed darkness, a downstairs room the lead must descend into with a wavering candle, darkened hallways and rooms the lead must walk through or into to discover a secret, or slowly opening doors that thwart our expectations of a big scare, so kudos for that. Again and again the camera slowly takes in cluttered rooms with a panning shot but the jump scares are held back. This atmosphere and tension building camera movement is accompanied by some creepy soundtrack noises, but overall the sound design doesn't do more than not call attention to itself, with a few exceptions. Somehow the sense of horror generated by the sound track could have been increased. The set design is great though, the rooms filled with unsettling objects are a treat to gaze at, and the director leaves us visual clues as to what will happen during the end game and neatly ties up the themes introduced earlier in the movie by the end.

I did partially cover my eyes for a number of scenes, to the filmmaker's credit, and the cameraman's use of a tried and true bag of tricks including the glacial pacing that everyone is copying from Ti West, and a type of horror film making that is an ongoing tribute to Rosemary's Baby, Repulsion, and The Exorcist, don't stop this from being a film worth watching. With Hollywood combing through Bronze Age comic books for winning story line material these days, it is impressive that not much happens at all in this movie and we still want to pay attention. The director focuses on the world of objects, well chosen by someone good at choosing atmospheric props, and domestic interiors, both of which take on the strong presence and sense of drama a good actor does. The house becomes the eerie personification of the mother character, and this animating of things is common in the genre. The house becomes alive, responsive to the characters, lashes out at them, wishes to suck the living in and control their fate or make them become one with the house itself, another piece among the furnishings. The object becomes a subject, and then as a subject it wants to turn the subjects into objects. There is a weird inversion. But in this house the ghost of the mother wants to save the son, and fails to do so at the end, miserably.

The main character, the son returning to a home and mother he abandoned many years before, starts out simple, he prepares a meal, unpacks, explores the house for a long period of time, being reminded of the past by objects he encounters, and objects begin to take on a life of their own, moving from one room or floor to another on their own, revealing secrets at just the right time and steering the path of the living. In the haunted house genre objects are usually the undoing of people, literally killing or trapping them. There are action sequences and special effects, and supernatural monster moments, but the actions are very fragmented, episodic. The one scene in which a CGI cat-devil-man creeps across a ceiling, lowers itself down to the main character's face and licks him with a long purple tongue doesn't work so well because the distraction of the special effects interrupt the narrative momentum instead of seamlessly blending with it, although the same creatures appearance on surveillance footage, something that has become a horror movie staple, is convincing and works.

As a viewer I was curious enough about the male lead's role in everything, his past and his future, to feel empathy for him and get lost in the point of view shots and fall for the illusion of actually being in a two dimensional space that was becoming more fucked up and scary as the film drew to a close. The supernatural elements are sparse and carefully placed. Is this a new genre? Horror Minimalism. The jump scares that come near the end of the film that the director chooses very carefully, because the addition of the supernatural, not just clues and hints and subtle intimations of them, but full on, here is the thing we have been fearing since the beginning of the movie standing perfectly clear and in view, center frame, typically signals the end of the film. We can't escape behind a closed door. We are in the room, the same space, a shared space with the horror, whatever that happens to be, and then there is a muted shriek or none before fade to black. Or, like in a number of contemporary horror films, there is a follow up scene or epilogue that does the opposite of a happy ending and conveys a nihilistic world view. We are in a post-Horror age, where reality has proven over and over again on a daily basis that real life produces many more monsters and psychopaths than all the horror movies combined.

The editing was well done for the most part, although patches in the middle did lag a bit. If the jump scare doesn't come at a moment when visual and dramatic tension is at a perfect pitch, it falls flat. At the same time jump scares are the easiest thing to do and there really is no wrong way to do them, so frequency and placement in the plot are crucial. This and many other horror films are strung together pockets of time, during which the lead or leads are doing one specific task, such as watching a creepy VHS footage religious ceremony in which a statue comes to life, discovering some hidden item or space, listening to a How To cassette about communicating with the dead that consists of a voice that is partly psychotic and partly machine, and trying to open a mysteriously locked door with a ring of skeleton keys. There are a lot of doors within doors and hidden doors in this movie, and this redundancy doesn't help the overall emotional content. There are just too many portentous opening door moments, and one is bored by the overuse. The always popular trip to the cluttered, large, compartmentalized, poorly lit basement, a mainstay of the haunted house sub-genre, makes its appearance a few times and the director has fun with it. The lead goes to the basement in the middle of the movie to fetch a cassette player he noticed earlier and he quickly procures it, end scene, even though the viewer expected something to happen when he went back down there. The director toys with viewer expectations, until the pay off comes at the end, and the hallucinations of the son take over, or come to life, or are real, we are never sure.

Throughout the movie we are meant to think of the mother as an abusive religious fanatic. But by the end, we see her crucified in a doorway, and then the camera turns from her frightening visage and we see a pair of monstrous glowing eyes, of some ancient evil thing that has emerged from a pitch black corner, an image that appeared earlier in the film in a religious journal, along with the word Believe, which pops up a number of times in the film. The son's inner turmoil, the epicenter of the parental abuse he still suffers from, is this notion of believing or not believing in the human soul or in god in general. The candle game from his youth, which is a major plot point early and late in the story, embodies this. The mother lit three candles and blew out one candle each time her son answered the question, "Do you believe?" in the negative. She warned him about the impending darkness of unbelief, but he always answered no and got punished in some way that is a mystery, and when he plays the candle game as an adult with the dead mother, as the plot climaxes towards the end, he still says no, denies faith and belief in good or god. His visual fantasies, these begin after he tries to contact the dead for the first time, get mixed up with what the director presents as the present, or reality. By the end the son leaves, the mother is the true victim, abandoned by father and son, and still suffering under the pact her husband made. That is if we believe the narrative thread she recites throughout the movie.

The word Satan is never used in the movie, but the lurking evil consumes all vestiges of good in the end, as in the finales of many contemporary horror movies. Typically in the haunted house sub-genre the haunted house crumbles, implodes, etc., or survives to do evil another day. In TLWATORL the house survives in a qualified sense, some unknown buyer is taking possession of it and its contents at some future point and the son is leaving, never to return.

In the final scene the son, now clearly seen as evil incarnate, takes a slow motion descent down a spiral staircase, the second big descent down a spiral staircase he does in the movie, to exit the front door with cell phone in hand. He leaves the house with the image of his crucified mother and the demonic eyes, perhaps belonging to the creature who crucified her, fresh in viewers' eyes. It is easy to believe Satan would be a prick talking on a cell phone in this day and age. The son was really there to condemn the mother to an eternity trapped in the house at the mercy of demonic servants. This morality flip flop, having the lead portrayed as possible victim and someone you would sympathize with up to a certain point, only to have him/her embody evil by the end of the film, is common in many fine horror movies. The mother explains her side of the story throughout the movie, and these flashbacks, usually consisting of still images and rooms with no people in them sometimes fail to gel with the return to the main storyline, which takes place in the fictional present. It is hard to keep track of time in the film. It is never clear exactly how many days the son is there before the shit hits the fan, and the repeated return to the mother's narrative breaks up the narrative flow, but this artfulness isn't necessarily rewarding.

A crime committed by the father, either a deal with the devil that includes the mother giving birth to the anti-Christ, or something representing evil, happened in the past, and the father abandoned his family. The mother's voice over describes this in the beginning of the movie while the camera hauntingly surveys room after room in the odd haunted house that is filled with religious statuary, frightening samples of taxidermy, and a huge variety of religious icons, especially of Mother Mary, female angels, mostly Christian feminine imagery and lots of J.C. There is a rich iconography. The male lead, the only actor in the movie besides the neighbor's disembodied voice coming from a figure we never see because a door blocks our view, the mother's haunting voice over, and frightening VHS and cassette vignettes that have become popular in contemporary horror movies, vinyl recordings and old 8 mm film being used in other movies, among other old media, is peculiarly alone in the movie. His isolation is emphasized by the desperate calls he makes to an ex who happens to be a psychologist or psychiatrist, but the advice she gives him is also in service of the encroaching evil. Everybody along the way who helps him is also on team evil, with the exception of the mother, and perhaps the neighbor who in retrospect offerred good advice. There are no heroes in this world, at least none that pose a real threat or challenge, and evil triumphs over good.

There is also a cult in the background, one that fosters and encourages belief in angels, and the leader of the cult, a gaunt and spindly tall man, whose skull structure is pronounced and cheeks are gaunt, a la Peter Cushing, someone who just looks scary, has one speaking part, although his face appears numerous times in pictures and magazine images, and it is as a black and white photograph, in which he is seated next to a clone of himself. The father is successfully kept a mystery, little more than a photograph on the mantle and a few anecdotes the haunted and trapped deceased mother recites intermittently. There was a murder suicide in the lead's past, and by the end it appears the father killed his wife and himself, although it isn't spelled out. The screenwriter is cagey with the details and the director does show a lot of restraint, but maybe too much.

I thought this movie managed to convey the deeper psychological terrain of the script decently while relying on well worn formal and plot devices of the horror genre. Many things work well in this movie, but there were errors with pacing and editing, but not enough to make the overall experience of watching the film a waste of time.
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