Jameson: when love becomes a permanent existential hell

John Humber, “Jameson” (2018)

A man living an apparently secluded life off the grid in a cabin he built himself in the middle of a deep forest becomes fair game for three highly dangerous men looking to rob him of food, ammunition and whatever money he might still be carrying … but the first indication that all is not what it seems is when the man, Jameson (Brad Carter), is alerted by his alarms and CCTV cameras that there are three strangers on his land, and goes into full lockdown with metal blinds shutting down over his windows. Despite receiving several warnings to get off his land, the three men, led by Shelby (James Grixoni), try to kill him and invade his cabin. Jameson kills one guy and the other two, Shelby and Blake (Tony Doupe), back off. The two men go around the cabin to try to invade another way but Shelby ends up with his leg in a foot trap. Trying to get help for Shelby, Blake is told by Jameson to leave before darkness sets in. After Blake leaves, Jameson ties up Shelby and tells the injured man rather cryptically that his daughter will soon turn up in the darkness to relieve him of his pain.

This spin on the werewolf / zombie story is tersely and minimally told, and driven almost entirely by the actors and their dialogue. Only with the last two scenes – the very last one a quietly devastating one, in which Jameson gazes at a photo while downing a stiff drink – do we realise that Jameson had no choice but to live the way he does and behave with unrelenting hostility to the three men.

We are never told how Jameson’s daughter becomes what she is, why she remains that way or whether Jameson tried to do anything for her. We do not know why he does not kill her but instead chooses to remain her guardian at considerable personal cost to himself: it can’t be easy for him to remain vigilant 24 hours a day, every day. Perhaps he feels guilty for her becoming what she is.

Love, even love for a monster, can be so overwhelming that not only does it become a danger not only to oneself and to all around, but it becomes a living existential hell.

ChromoPHOBIA: a message about how we treat (or don’t treat) mental illness well

Keith Adams, “ChromoPHOBIA” (2019)

Based on a short story by B Evenson, this dark horror fiction short focuses on mental illness and its treatment, and unconscious psychological projection. After a patient in a mental hospital commits suicide for unknown reasons, clinical psychiatrist Jennifer Haver (Marjan Neshat) takes on a new patient called Arthur (Patrick Carroll). Arthur says very little and is extremely withdrawn but comes to life if allowed to draw with charcoal on paper, which he does obsessively: he draws technically complex pictures of the same scene over and over. Dr Haver is drawn to the pictures, which always feature Arthur’s attic-like studio, which has a full-length stand-alone mirror in the background. Discovering that Arthur has a fear of using coloured crayons, Dr Haver tries to investigate the source of his fear by getting the key off him and visiting his studio. She discovers a number of pictures of a room in the hospital that suggest that, through his drawings, Arthur may be acting as a conduit for messages from the past and warnings from the future that reveal some very uncomfortable home truths to Dr Haver.

The actors do a good job with the limited one-dimensional characters they are given with perhaps Carroll as Arthur the best of the cast. The cinematography emphasises greyish colours: even the walls of the mental hospital have greyish-green colour with rust stains here and there, suggesting that the building itself (and by implication the people working there) is inadequate for the needs of the patients. The music soundtrack is overbearing and jarring in its near-hysterical conjuration of fear and foreboding; and given the sparse setting of the hospital and the minimal style of filming and acting, the film would have been better off with no music at all.

The plot may be implausible but it does suggest that the culture of mental asylums in the West can be harmful to their patients because they are subjected to biases of the staff treating them, and thus are forced to bear not only the burden of therapies and medication prescribed by their doctors for their supposed conditions (and the side effects of those therapies and medication) but also the burden of their treating doctors’ own hang-ups, especially if the treatment does not work as it is supposed to do according to the textbook and/or if the patient refuses to co-operate. Did the patient who committed suicide do so because in some way he was driven to do so by Dr Haver, even if unconsciously on her part? Is Dr Haver some unwitting Angel of Death who transmits her childhood trauma of having seen her mother commit suicide to her patients like a contagious disease? Is Arthur fearful that what Dr Haver may have done to her previous patient may happen to him too, and he is trying to warn her?

While the film is very suspenseful and has a very Gothic look, it has too many irritating horror-movie stereotypes: the haunted house harbouring dark secrets, the unnecessary and ridiculous music soundtrack, and ultimately the depiction of the mental hospital as an Arkham-asylum institution where the staff are barely able to keep perceived forces of chaos at bay, when in fact the staff themselves may be bringing chaos to their patients. Still, the message that we in the West do not really treat mental illness very well, and dump our prejudiced perceptions and stereotypes onto mentally ill people to their detriment, comes through strongly; it is a message that speaks to us of our own arrogance, cruelty, denial and ignorance.

Vladimir Putin’s Presidential Speech to the Russian Federal Assembly (15 January 2020): a vision of a future democratic Russia

Vladimir Putin’s Presidential Speech to the Russian Federal Assembly (15 January 2020)

Under Article 84 of the Russian Constitution, the Russian President is required to give an annual speech to the Federal Assembly on the current state of the Russian Federation and on what he believes should guide the nation’s domestic and foreign policies. The annual speech does not have the force of law. Since 2018, the current President Vladimir Putin has been giving his annual speech early in the year but 2020 marked the first time the speech was given in January. The reason for the early delivery is apparent in the opening paragraphs of the transcript of the speech: the theme of the entire speech is change, evolution and development of the necessary institutions and structures in order to face and deal with oncoming issues of social, political, economic and technological importance that cannot be swept under a carpet and assumed to be gone. These changes involve direct active personal participation by all Russians.

Most of the speech (roughly two-thirds of it) is taken up by serious issues and potential crises of an internal domestic nature. The demographic issue of a small generation of young people born during the chaotic and impoverished Yeltsin years from 1991 to 1999 is having an effect on population growth; there simply are not enough young people coming into the critical phase of their lives in which they form families and have children of their own. Unfortunately at the same time people’s incomes are not high enough for them to be able to afford having more than one child. To this end, Putin proposes that programs be adopted to provide more subsidies to families under more social welfare programs so that people can afford to buy homes and create environments into which babies can be born and children can thrive. Such programs include increasing monthly benefit payments for low-income families, increasing “maternity capital” payments to mothers of two children, subsidising mortgage payments when a family welcomes a third child, building more schools and providing free hot school lunches to pupils.

As a consequence of urging more government assistance to families to encourage them to have more children, Putin also foresees more schools will have to be built, more teachers must be trained and the institutions and structures that support teacher education and employment must also be improved. This in turn leads to the general issue of the quality of university education and boosting university education and enrolments across the nation, particularly in regions that lack or are short of medical staff, teachers and engineers. From there, Putin’ speech focuses on issues of healthcare, the training and remuneration of medical staff, and the resourcing of regional medical centres with medication supplies.

Other issues of a domestic or internal nature in Putin’s speech include government investment in vital industries and in research, and in particular the infrastructures that support and provide the environment in which industry can thrive and research can be carried out. Digital technologies and digital network infrastructures, of which the Internet is the most obvious manifestation, receive attention as forums in which the public is able to participate in the life and culture of the nation.

So far, Putin’s speech lays out a vision of an ideal Russia, provided that the relevant government departments and regional governments get off their backsides and work diligently to pursue the President’s vision. What has got Western mainstream news media fired up (in the belief that Putin is appropriating more power to himself) though is the final third part of Putin’s speech in which he proposes various changes to the Russian Constitution, of which some include the devolution of some of the powers and duties of the President to the Prime Minister, and the transfer of the power of the President to appoint the Prime Minister, the deputy Prime Ministers and all Federal Ministers to the Duma (the lower House in the Federal Assembly). One very significant reform proposal is to require prospective Presidential candidates to have had at least 25 years’ permanent residency in Russia, to have no foreign citizenship or foreign residency permits; another significant proposal is that Presidents cannot serve more than two successive terms. These proposed reforms are aimed at decentralising and diffusing political power through the executive and legislative institutions, undoing the changes that previous President Boris Yeltsin made to the Constitution (with the help of the CIA) and concentrating power in the Presidency in the 1990s; and at reducing as much as possible the potential for foreign interference in Presidential elections and in the executive function.

At the same time, Putin states that Russia must continue to have a strong Presidency, and that the President must retain the right to dismiss the Prime Minister and the government, and remain head of the nation’s armed forces. He then goes on to propose other reforms that have the effect of spreading power through the executive, legislative and judiciary functions of government and at the same time place checks and balances that each function can exercise on the others. Significantly Putin proposes that his proposed reforms be put to public referendum.

The entire document reads like a manifesto mapping out a future democratic society in which everyone has as much opportunity as possible to contribute to the well-being of all; moreover, a society that genuinely cares for people and supports them, and expresses love through concern for their development as well-rounded, educated and capable human beings. This is the legacy that Putin wishes to leave Russia when he retires as President in 2024.

Bombshell: film on sexual harassment bombs out for its superficiality

Jay Roach, “Bombshell” (2019)

The plot is very basic enough: a female television personality employee at Fox News is sacked by the big boss for questionable reasons – all arising from a toxic and dysfunctional work culture in which women are employed and promoted on the basis of their appearance and willingness to tolerate sexual innuendo and sometimes downright bullying, harassment and even seduction and rape – and decides to pursue a lawsuit against the boss, rather than her former employer, for sexual harassment. On this structure, “Bombshell” attempts to build a narrative of how an individual fights to overcome sexual discrimination in an organisation and the obstacles she must overcome, not least obstacles such as fear among other female employees of the consequences of speaking out. In this, the film does not succeed well, due to a plot structure of three sub-plots, each revolving around a different woman, running in parallel with not much happening in any of them.

Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is demoted from a prime morning TV show to hosting an afternoon show in a lesser time slot and is eventually fired by Roger Ailes (John Lithgow). She launches her lawsuit against Ailes as advised by her lawyers but needs the support of other women who have been employed at, or are currently working for, Fox News under Ailes. Initially her lawyers question various female employees there and do surveys but discover that the vast majority of women refuse to speak out against Ailes – in part because they fear for their careers and know other TV news networks will not employ them if their CVs show they have worked for Fox News, on the basis of its politics and the general perception that it is a lightweight network. One woman who is found to dither is TV news anchor Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) who has her own history of sexual harassment from Ailes. Kelly spends a fair amount of time making up her mind as to whether her career is more important or speaking out in solidarity with Carlson and other Fox News employees who have also been harassed by Ailes. One of these other women is Kaylah Pospisil (Margot Robbie), a new-ish recruit ambitious to climb high in the organisation but discovering to her horror and anguish that she will have to succumb also to Ailes’ advances towards her if she is to achieve her career goals.

Theron and Robbie do excellent work as their respective characters though their paths cross just twice in the film: once, when they are in a lift together with Kidman’s Carlson, none of the characters speaking to one another; and second when Kelly is sounding out Pospisil as to whether she agrees with Carlson’s lawsuit and would be willing to speak to Carlson’s lawyers. This is a powerful moment in the film: Pospisil responds that if Kelly had spoken out earlier against Ailes, younger women like herself would have been spared Ailes’ harassment. Kelly snarls that her job isn’t to defend Pospisil or any other woman at Fox News. Only when Kelly discovers that a sufficient number of women are prepared to speak out against Ailes does she decide to join them. Carlson tends to be a secondary character and most of what she does to incriminate Ailes is mentioned in passing or off-camera: in other words, Kidman actually does not do a great deal in the film.

The film seems to evade a lot of what Carlson, Kelly and Pospisil do in the way of piling up enough evidence to force Rupert Murdoch and his sons James and Lachlan to dump Ailes. There is also much that “Bombshell” evades about Fox News: how the organisation’s own politics and culture of discrimination against other vulnerable minority groups such as black and other non-white people, and people who are not heterosexual, encourage a toxic environment where women are judged on their appearance; and how companies owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation generally end up espousing similar ideologies and values, and are dominated by work cultures where self-censorship seems to be rife. Megyn Kelly is not an admirable figure, coming over as cowardly and callous, concerned only for herself, but that should not be surprising given the organisation she works for and the shallow and selfish Ayn-Rand materialist values it espouses. The fictional character of Kaylah Pospisil elicits sympathy from viewers – but viewers may wonder why a fictional character had to be introduced into the film in the first place. Were there not any real-life Fox News employees who had a skerrick of decency in them who could have featured in a similar role?

Bizarre narrative techniques such as having Kelly speaking directly to the audience about Fox News and the use of three parallel sub-plots, necessitating lots of choppy editing, leave the film in a fragmented state and its main characters treated in a superficial way. One gets the feeling that the film was made basically to trash Fox News for its politics and its culture – because the network supported Donald Trump for the US Presidency in 2016, when the film was set – but after that, the film takes many liberties with what actually happened at the organisation that led to Carlson’s lawsuit and Kelly’s decision to support Carlson.

Bombshell? The film fizzles more than it delivers explosions. A superficial treatment of the issues at stake, with more effort put into the lead actresses’ make-up, hairstyles and clothing than in the actual plot and investigating the characters and their motivations in depth, makes this a film a bomb.

Slut: a highly accomplished student film on teenage sexual awareness and the danger it attracts

Chloe Okuno, “Slut” (2014)

Set in the 1970s, this cheesy morality tale is a meeting of Little Red Riding Hood and Southern US small-town Gothica in the style of famous horror films of that period, such “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Carrie”. Heck, there isn’t much in “Slut” that Stephen King would not recognise, from the teenage female main character who is rejected by the cool kids at high school to the narrow-minded and bigoted atmosphere in the town where she lives, to Granny who spends all her days watching cartoons on television, the lone drifter who rolls into town and the spate of serial murders of teenage girls that begins shortly after.

Molly McIntyre plays Maddy, the teenage girl who lives in a ramshackle house with her grandmother (Sally Kirkland) in a rural town and who is ill at ease with the sexually aware girls in her form at high school. The kids laugh at her for her bespectacled look and her dowdy long dresses. One day a stranger (James Gallo) turns up at the shopping mall ice-skating rink and, after observing her and one other lass, a blonde called Jolee (Kasia Pilewicz), tells Maddy that she’s a lot more interesting than the girls who only care about flaunting their bodies and sexuality to attract dates. After some time though, and having caught sight of that stranger one evening going off with Jolee, Maddy determines she’ll try to dress the same way and goes off home to cut the legs off her jeans and put on some diaphanous blouses with the bottoms tied at the waist. Dressed in such provocative clothing, Maddy starts hanging out at various places where the high school boys congregate in the evenings. In the meantime, the stranger tortures Jolee and kills her in a horrifically excruciating way.

The stranger discovers what Maddy has been up to and decides to teach her a lesson by breaking into her home at night and attempting rape and torture. At this point the film becomes violent and grisly, and the cinematography can be dark and murky. In contrast with its slower first half, in which Maddy’s character is delineated, and her surroundings to be quite impoverished culturally, the film’s action from here on is very fast and surprising as Maddy finds deep inner resources in herself as she fights the stranger.

The character stereotypes are so obvious as to be hackneyed and ripe for parody. The story’s setting pays homage to the old 1970s horror films that must have held director Okuno and her friends spellbound as kids. The film’s themes of awakening teenage sexuality and the danger this can put young innocent individuals like Maddy into, the small-minded nature of rural towns and teenagers’ yearning for purpose in their lives that will take them away from the bigotry and alienation of these their home towns may be familiar to fans of such movies but they take on additional resonance in Maddy’s actions against the stranger. Maddy discovers she is much more than just a kid who can transform from dowdy to alluring with a change of clothes; she realises she can be her own woman after all. The irony is that the one fellow who showed her her true potential happened to be a serial rapist and killer.

McIntyre does a great job playing Maddy in all her character transformations while the other actors have too little screen time to do other than just reinforce their character stereotypes. Gallo at least manages to appear charming and supportive, and dangerously deranged at the same time, and the film gives him a motive to change his mind about Maddy and see her as a slut.

While the film’s pace is a bit uneven and maybe its earlier half could be tightened a little more, it has such fun playing with audience’s expectations of what may happen to Maddy and with the various devices and motifs typical of 1970s teenage horror flicks, that it turns out to be very enjoyable to watch. One can scarcely believe that it is the work of a student film director.

Carnivore: American Psycho meets Agatha Christie in an elegant and minimalist thriller

Constance Tsang, “Carnivore” (2018)

Elegant in style and minimalist and understated in its narrative, this is a very wry satire on the culture of the cut-throat financial industry where to get ahead, one has to shoot down so many live bodies and crawl over the corpses, sacrificing one’s principles along the way until one becomes as hollowed out and spiritually destitute as all the others who have gone before and who will come after. Young hedge fund managers Ahana (Annapurna Sriram) and Michael (Chris Perfetti), newly promoted, are invited to meet the senior partners and managers at the country home of one of the firm’s owners, a lady called Christine (Leslie Hendrix). As soon as they arrive, Ahana and Michael are required to surrender their mobile phones and keys – a sign that makes viewers go, uh-oh. Sure enough, while Michael seems to slot into the company of mostly middle-aged Caucasian Anglo-Saxon Protestant types born into old money and landed North American gentry, Ahana – a young woman of Indian ancestry whose religion requires her to be vegetarian and to refrain from alcohol – has more trouble fitting in. Initially she is surprised, then despondent and dejected – but then Ahana makes up her mind to make and break her way through the invisible glass barrier and make the owners, partners and senior execs notice her.

On the second day of the corporate retreat, Ahana and Michael are invited to go hunting with the firm’s owners and the senior people. The two young managers get a quick training in the use of highly sophisticated hunting rifles, complete with optical scopes. The hunting party then walks out into the grounds … but what exactly is the quarry? While they spread out through the forest, Ahana and Michael are separated from the others, at which point Michael blags to Ahana that she’s too nice a person to be working at such a firm where the law of the concrete jungle rules and she’d probably be better off running a charity foundation …

Well sure enough – BLAM! – and the hunting party soon gathers around the shooting victim with Christine congratulating the shooter and exclaiming that dinner is going to served early. Guess who will be the guest of honour and who will be served the biggest and juiciest piece of … steak?

Set out very much like an Agatha Christie novel, complete with snooty arrogant upper class folks who take for granted their landed-aristocracy privileges, “Carnivore” is a cool and collected slow-burner, of which its deliberately understated style underlines the tension between Ahana and Michael as each strives to outdo each other in conforming and sucking up to the firm’s senior hierarchy. Sriram does a great job as Ahana in undergoing a considerable transformation from doe-eyed innocent to steely predator; the film is really all hers and everyone else just hovers around her. The one thing that is missing is some little indication in Ahana’s expression, a little tear perhaps, that something in her that was good and moral has died.

Future Boyfriend: a sweet sci-fi romantic comedy offering a second chance of life

Ben Rock, “Future Boyfriend” (2016)

Adapted from a play written by A Vincent Ularich for a science fiction theatre festival, of which its full-length romantic comedy movie potential was quickly appreciated by the audience, “Future Boyfriend” takes place in a single setting – its two main characters sit opposite each other at a table in a cosy Italian restaurant – and is driven entirely by the characters’ dialogue. Stuart and Kayley (played by Ron Morehouse and Emily respectively who also played those characters in the play) are on their third date together, and Stuart decides to tell Kayley, since they are now going steady, about his past – or rather, his future. He has come from 60 years in the future in which he first met Kayley as an elderly woman in the nursing home where he works as a care assistant. He even demonstrates to his stunned date the proof with a hologram presentation in which images of the aged Kayley celebrating her 90th birthday with Stuart appear. Apparently Kayley has ended up in the nursing home as her career dreams have failed and she never married and had any children. The horrified young Kayley decides she’s had enough of seeing her bleak future and flees the restaurant … and a very distraught Stuart.

The film succeeds through the work and energy the actors put into their characters: Morehouse particularly emphasises the details of Stuart’s earnest devotion to Kayley, cutting up the food and even feeding the young Kayley though the dementia will not appear for another 60 years. Bell does great work playing Kayley through all the emotions the character must demonstrate in 14 minutes. Unfortunately the single setting and short duration of the film do not allow for Kayley having second and third thoughts about her relationship with Stuart, with the result that any maturation she undergoes and the decision she makes about that relationship appear unusually quick and shallow. A movie treatment of “Future Boyfriend” would draw out the character development of both Stuart and Kayley, as Stuart would have to see the young Kayley for what she is now and not as the elderly patient she will be in the future, and Kayley would have the luxury of time to consider whether or not she should continue to see a rather dorky if earnest young man with an unusual past … or future.

Some may see a rather conservative message that presumes women are much better off in a relationship than living alone, with all the presumably dire health consequences that might result. A more positive message viewers might come away with is that the future isn’t necessarily set in stone, and even though Stuart has come from a future world in which Kayley has been unlucky in love and career, there is now the possibility that with him now by her side, that future can be directed onto a different and happier path. Who wouldn’t want a second chance at life?

Psychosis: character study of techno-paranoia under computer surveillance

Ben Feldman, “Psychosis” (2019)

The shorter of two films based on the short story of the same name by Matt Dymerski posted to the short horror fiction website Creepypasta, this is a darkly paranoiac minimalist work. When we first meet John (Jack Alberts), an IT programmer, he has already been living on his own in a basement room with his eyes almost permanently glued to the screens of his various IT devices, never venturing outside except perhaps to get another bottle of water from the vending machine or going on increasingly rare dates with girlfriend Amy (Alexandra Ivey). One day John receives a mysterious email message and he becomes convinced that he is being spied upon by a sinister technological entity that threatens to take over his mind. With each passing day, diligently observed by the film, John retreats further into his mind and physical space despite Amy’s best efforts to get him out of his room. John is soon convinced that Amy is a robot just like every other human being trying to contact him. Soon he is convinced that even his body parts – in particular his eyes – are being replaced by cyber-mechanical parts and he attempts to erase these, starting with his eyes.

With its emphasis on close-ups of the main actor’s face, short and fast editing, and abrupt cuts, the cinematography effectively conveys the hysteria of John’s world as it closes in on him. The dark atmosphere in John’s room, its chaotic mess and the various computer hardware of differing ages placed here and there mirror the state of John’s mind. The voice-over narration, performed by the actor himself, gives viewers an insight into John’s paranoia and heightened vigilance against the invisible forces plaguing him.

The climax when it comes is rather sudden, once John begins to doubt the nature of his reality and becomes convinced that his eyes are not only playing tricks on him but are part of his intended downfall by the alien enemy. After his self-mutilation, the next time we see him he is in an institution for the mentally ill, trussed up in a straitjacket and a padded cell and indulged by the hospital staff. A twist in the plot quickly comes soon after and at that point the film ends.

The notion of cyber-technology acquiring its own evil life-force and actively preying on individuals by sending them emails and deciding what they can and cannot see or hear is becoming increasingly and painfully relevant in a world of ever-encroaching cyber-surveillance and AI databases and bots that follow and predict human behaviour and actions, and use the information collected to influence and mould future decision-making. Through such technology, a police state acting on behalf of unseen elites can track individuals through the trails they leave in cyberspace, predict what these individuals will do next and use the information gathered to guide and control the individuals’ thinking and actions. In such a world, where impersonal and deceptively rational and orderly algorithms and rules govern humans as though they were black-box machines responding to stimuli, the only sane thing to do is … to become mad.

Bad Peter: the panopticon police state controlling an individual life to an astonishing degree

Zach Strauss, “Bad Peter” (2017)

At first rather amusing but then quickly becoming sinister and horrific, this nine-minute short presents smart-home artificial intelligence (AI) as an extension of the omniscient panopticon police state. Young expectant – and apparently single – mother Rachel (Frankie Shaw) is subjected to a humiliating and cruel health-and-exercise regimen by an AI database known as Peter (voiced by Ross Partridge) that presumes to know what is best for her and her unborn baby, even as the woman becomes physically and mentally exhausted by the excessive demands made by the technology. Most sinister of all, if Rachel refuses to obey, she is subjected to electric shocks from a neck brace she is forced to wear.

For its length, the plot actually drags on too long and prolongs the viewer’s distress at Rachel’s suffering. We do not know why Rachel must wear the brace or why she has to follow the database’s orders. There is nothing to suggest that she has done anything wrong in the past or that she is a surrogate mother bound to a contract. She wears clean casual clothes and lives in a lovely furnished house with tasteful Scandinavian minimalist design but we do not know how she is supported financially or if she works outside the house. She appears to be completely at the mercy of the database, obeying without question and rebelling in small ways, only to resume her obeisance, and that may be the most horrifying aspect of the film.

The message of the short seems to be that as technology is allowed to intrude more and more into our lives, we are just as ready to surrender our psychological and emotional independence to the machines and the agenda and values of those who write algorithms that power the technology, as we do our physical independence. As we give up our power and control over our lives, we become more and more like children, and we end up needing more external intrusion and control over our thoughts and actions. There is a moment in the film in which Rachel, having silenced Peter, appears to be lost in the sudden silence. Perhaps in that moment she is forced to face the awesome responsibility of having taken charge of her life.

While the film is well presented with a bright atmosphere and clean lines, and Shaw does a good job as the compliant young mother-to-be, the film gives very little context about her character and how she came to be a virtual prisoner. Perhaps this film is a proof-of-concept piece: it certainly deserves a more detailed treatment as a longer short film or a 70-minute movie.

Don’t Look Now: an eerie and profound Gothic horror film of grief, trauma and misperceptions

Nicolas Roeg, “Don’t Look Now” (1973)

Adapted from the short story with the same title by Daphne du Maurier, this famous British cult horror film is ostensibly a study of grief and how it affects a family’s ability to cope with life’s daily routines and informs family members’ perceptions of the world around them. On another level, the family affected by the death of a young child lives in a universe where time appears to be of a different dimension than how we experience it, in the way the past, the present and the future seem to bleed into one another and people may just as readily have premonitions of what will happen as they have memories of past events. After losing Christine in a drowning accident back home in the UK, John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura (Julie Christie) Baxter dump their son in a boarding school and flee to Venice where John has taken up a job helping to restore a Roman Catholic church’s mosaics. The couple meet two elderly sisters, one of whom is blind but has the gift of second sight: she sees the spirit of Christine, still clad in her red raincoat in which she died, hovering around the couple, and tells Laura. After a fainting fit, Laura informs John of what the sister has told her but John remains sceptical.

Over the next several days, while continuing to reside and work in Venice, John and Laura experience flashbacks of the drowning accident and John himself has strange visions in which a small figure in a red raincoat roams the bridges and streets of Venice, and in which (after Laura returns to the UK on being informed by long-distance phone by her son’s school that he has had an accident and is in hospital) his wife is still in Venice but is clad in black mourning clothes and flanked by the mysterious elderly sisters sailing on a vaporetto draped in black. Meanwhile the police in Venice are finding dead human bodies in the canals of the city and realise there may be a serial killer on the loose.

The plot is very clever if not completely plausible: the tragedy is that John has been gifted with second sight, as one of the elderly sisters recognises, but because of his scepticism and belief in rationality, his ability causes him endless trouble and also gets the two sisters detained by the police, which event forces the sighted sister to make arrangements to leave Venice permanently, a move which upsets her blind sibling; and his inability to recognise his gift but to confuse it instead with his memories of his daughter’s drowning leads him on a path to tragedy. In this, the past, present and future intersect in a way that suggests in the universe in which the Baxters live, the events of one’s life really can be predetermined by the decisions and actions one takes.

Various occurring motifs of bright red raincoats, breaking glass, images and their mirror twins, doppelgangers and duplication, and water as the giver of life and bringer of death run throughout the film to reinforce the notion of the Baxters living in a seemingly time-less world where the past could be the future and the future could be the past. Even John’s work in the restoration of the church’s artistic works involves duplicating old glass pieces with new pieces. Misinterpreting incidents and mistaken identities are a major theme in the film. The climax of the film is shocking and viewers quickly realise nothing is what it originally seemed to be: people thought to be innocent turn out not to be so, and those believed to be sinister turn out to be protective.

The film works as it does by drawing inspiration and elements from the work of Alfred Hitchcock and from the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges whose literary concept of the world as a labyrinth is extended to the portrayal of Venice as a city of seemingly endless mazes through its paths, bridges, tunnels and even its canals. Roeg’s use of editing in which shots of two events are spliced so that they appear to be running at the same time, most famously in the scene in which John and Laura have passionate sex and get dressed to go out for dinner, reinforces the idea of a universe in which past, present and future do not follow a linear structure. The actors do excellent work in their roles as the troubled Baxter couple, experiencing the usual ups and downs in their relationship while at the same time recovering (or trying to) from a major trauma. Venice is a significant character in the film: a grittier and darker side of the city is shown, with buildings almost falling into disrepair, streets and tunnels conveying sinister menace, and the city’s bright facade for tourists hiding bureaucratic incompetence and corruption. The film could not have been made anywhere else in the world but Venice.

Roeg’s unusual filming techniques and the way in which he places his motifs at significant points in the film to advance the plot and send the characters on their destinies from which they are unable to deviate give “Don’t Look Now” an eerie and haunting Gothic feel that in its own dark way is very profound and beautiful.