Jackie review

Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy

Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy

Jackie is a biopic of Jackie Kennedy that mercifully eschews the conventional tropes of the genre in favour of a form that's relatively light on plot - as much as a film about the immediate aftermath of arguably the most controversial and iconic assassination in history can be considered light - since it is much more concerned with the complexity of inner life and how that intersects with a controlled public persona in which the minutest gesture is under scrutiny. (Dare I say, one cannot help but imagine the contemporary equivalent: a Melania/Ivanka Trump biopic, bookended by a Diane Sawyer interview, is probably as inevitable as death and tax breaks.)

Production values are immaculate, but the grainy 16mm film stock and minimal lighting add a layer of muted realism that prevents it becoming swamped in glossy Hollywood artifice - unlike the conceptually similar but artistically bungled Grace of Monaco - which is a credit to the good taste of director Paulo Larraín. Although it has to be said that the shadow of previously attached director Darren Aronovsky (Black Swan) looms conspicuously, at least until the aesthetic strays into Terrence Malick territory towards the end. Less conspicuously, one may also sense the influence of Jonathan Glazer, director of the underrated Birth (2004), both in its intense atmosphere of socially contained emotional tumult, and the choice of Glazer's Under the Skin composer Mica Levi for the score.

The film glows with a tactile elegance complimented by intimate camerawork which revels in Natalie Portman's exquisite face, and apart from two violent flashbacks to the Dallas motorcade, the tone, in keeping with its subject, is stately throughout until the deeply moving, transcendent finale. An additional, albeit less intentional, poignancy is supplied by a cameo from the late John Hurt as the grieving First Lady's spiritual guide ruminating on mortality.

Franco Zeffirelli Ruined My Love life

“How many lives have movies ruined? Maybe it’s about time they stopped doing their damage.” ~ Bret Easton Ellis

Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting

Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting

I remember the first time I saw Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. I was 14 (the same age as the play’s star crossed lovers), and my English Literature teacher, Mrs Hayes, had arranged a screening of the film in a no doubt desperate attempt to inspire some interest in Shakespeare amongst her apathetic students. (This approach had previously proved a modest success with a screening of Michael Radford’s haunting adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984, a book too dense for my mind to fully comprehend at the time.) Looking back, I believe the film had a greater impact on me than Mrs Hayes perhaps envisioned.

Firstly, thanks to Olivia Hussey, it was my formal introduction to what I somewhat reluctantly came to understand much later to be My Type - what one might call ‘Roman Catholic’, that is, pretty Southern European brunettes. Her striking beauty aside, the spirited Hussey is captivating in the film, and ably supported by Leonard Whiting, a much more likeable Romeo than Leonardo DiCaprio’s brooding narcissist in Baz Luhrmann’s otherwise spectacular adaptation three decades later. Memorably, Zeffirelli’s film created a mild sensation in our classroom with its brief nudity - a seminal moment for any teenager - although it is notable that the homosexual* Zeffirelli chose to linger over the nude Whiting whilst having Hussey flash her bosom so quickly that if you blinked you’d miss it. (I didn’t blink.)

Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

But more significantly, I blame this film for seducing me with the intoxicating but deadly notion that in order to be truly sublime, love ought to have a tragic dimension. This would later embed itself in my adult imagination through films such as Vertigo and Once Upon a Time in America, until I eventually came to the realisation that, while it might make for great art, in reality it is masochistic self-indulgence not conducive to a healthy love-life (whatever that is). Grazie, Franco!

In a sick twist, Nino Rota’s famous love theme from Romeo and Juliet - arguably a major part of the film's power - became synonymous in the UK with Simon Bates’ execrable Our Tune slot on Radio 1 in the 80s/early 90s, a sentimental ode to tragic love stories featuring letters sent in by listeners to be read out by the sonorous-voiced Bates while Rota's love theme played in the background. Bates later went on to be the smug face of the Video Standards Council infomercials preceding video rentals in the 90s, describing the classification of the movie you were about to watch. As if to prove that romance, as I once understood it, is dead, I couldn’t resist cutting one of these introductions to Rota’s love theme.

(* Zeffirelli preferred this description, considering the term ‘gay’ less elegant. Fun fact: Zeffirelli partly inspired the lecherous Uncle Monty character in Bruce Robinson's Withnail and I, after Robinson had acted in Romeo and Juliet and claimed to be the target of unwanted sexual advances by Zeffirelli during production. Evidently I'm not the only victim of Señor Zeffirelli's charms.)

Bad Pennies

“The whole idea that a movie should be seen only once is an extension of our traditional conception of film as an ephemeral entertainment rather than as a work of art.” ~ Stanley Kubrick

 

Good films make an impression upon first viewing only to then recede from memory. Great films do not give up their secrets easily. They demand and indeed reward repeated viewings. These are not to be confused with the bad pennies: deeply flawed films that continue to turn up for all the wrong reasons. These are the films that you return to full of hope - whether it be through force of genre or the pedigree of talent involved - only to be reminded how mediocre they are. Here’s a selection of my cinematic ‘bad pennies’, the films which never fail to disappoint and yet I know I’ll give them another chance someday.

 

Desperately Seeking Susan (1985)

Desperately Seeking Susan (1985)

I’ve seen this film several times over the years and to this day I could not tell you what the story is. I think it has something to do with a mistaken identity. So why do I go back to it? Well, it stars Rosanna Arquette and Madonna in their prime, the latter giving what is generally considered to be her best performance. But, more than that, it’s a feminist twist on one my favourite sub-genres, the Yuppie Nightmare - a fusion of film noir and screwball comedy - which reached its apex in the mid-80s. After Hours, Into the Night (both 1985) and Something Wild (1986) all feature a ‘square’ protagonist, bored with his routine life, who is drawn into a dangerous but titillating nocturnal adventure by a ‘kooky’ i.e. free spirited, slightly manic woman - a precursor of the controversial Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype. By the end of these films the hero has learned a valuable lesson: either he must loosen up and take risks if he is to live a fulfilling life, or he must see the folly of his latent self-destructive impulses and be grateful for what he has.

Sadly as a sub-genre it was relatively short-lived, mutating by the end of the decade into violent erotic thrillers in which a WASPish man is victimised by a deranged femme fatale (a sub-genre of which Michael Douglas is patron saint). This trend was probably a result of widespread cultural panic at the height of the AIDS crisis, when the prospect of illicit sex with strangers was suddenly a genuine threat to one’s life, the inevitable response being to demonise women who don’t conform to traditional WASP values. A decade later, when the AIDS panic had somewhat receded, the genre came full circle with the underrated The Game (1997), followed by a flurry of superior pre-millennial films about repressed white collar men indulging their darker instincts. Fight Club and Eyes Wide Shut are undeniably the artistic high point of the genre, acknowledging that the chaos is not Out There - unconsciously projected onto the Other - but within ourselves, though they lack the playful romance of their progenitors. Not that you’d know this from Desperately Seeking Susan - a forgettable, lumpen mess that squanders its cast with bland direction and a meandering narrative.

 

Alien³ (1992)

Alien³ (1992)

It could have been so very different. The future director of Se7en and Fight Club paired with a beloved science fiction title at the height of its popularity. Sadly, 20th Century Fox had different plans, which have been well documented elsewhere and which I won’t go into here. Suffice it to say I’ve seen the theatrical release version and the extended version, both since disowned by David Fincher, and neither works. Fincher's intention, as a devotee of the original Alien (1979), was to return the series back to basics, hence the radical decision to ban 'weapons of any kind' from the scenario, much to the chagrin of Aliens fans with a hard-on for Cameron. Although the concept had potential - the Alien as a monster of the Id, unleashed after Ripley crash lands on a male-only prison planet - the hotchpotch of half-baked ideas fail to cohere into a compelling narrative. The ropey visual effects also don’t help. 

Curiously, another of Fincher’s key influences on Alien³ was Withnail and I (1987), of which he was a huge fan at the time and which manifested itself in his casting decisions - specifically Paul McGann and Ralph Brown, while Richard E. Grant was Fincher’s first choice to play the part that went to Charles Dance - and in the penal colony’s dim lighting and foul weather, which recalls the candle light and incessant rain at Crow Crag, the cottage in the Lake District owned by Uncle Monty. This latter fact is not so strange when you consider that Blade Runner’s dystopian cityscape was inspired by the industrial landscape of the Tees Valley (which, by the way, you can see on the homepage of this very website).

 

Dark City (1998)

Dark City (1998)

I knew exactly what this film’s problem was within five minutes upon seeing it in the cinema nearly twenty years ago, and after rewatching it again recently on Amazon I haven’t altered my opinion: it’s all in the editing. The rhythm of the cutting is all wrong, it’s too fast. If only the film was ten minutes longer it would make all the difference, the scenes would have time to breathe. Sometimes this is a deliberate choice by the filmmaker - Ang Lee springs to mind - but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was studio interference in this case. It’s a shame, as the film has lots to recommend it: a cool concept, lavish production design, and a solid cast that includes Rufus Sewell, Ian Richardson and Jennifer Connelly. To be honest, how anyone could cut away from Jennifer Connelly at all is mystifying to me. She’s typically stunning in Dark City, but blink and you’ll miss her.

 

(Dis)honourable Mentions:

Bringing out the Dead (1999)

Domino (2005)

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

Miami Vice (2006)

Elysium (2013)

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

'Tis the Season to Make Lists

My Best Films of 2016*

 

It hasn’t been a vintage year but there were still some gems. All but one of the films in my list I’ve seen just once, but I’m looking forward to seeing them again. Also of note, I think, is the manner in which I saw them: five were streamed at home and five I saw in the cinema, but of those five only one was an actual film projection. A subject for another blog perhaps. 

* officially released in the UK in 2016

 

A BIGGER SPLASH (Amazon rental)

A BIGGER SPLASH (Amazon rental)

I’m a sucker for films about middle class bohemian types living it up in remote, exotic locations (wishful thinking on my part I expect). A Bigger Splash is loosely inspired by La Piscine (1969), which was remade once before, memorably, as Swimming Pool, by François Ozon in 2003. In all versions, the plot centres on passions swirling beneath a placid surface - hence the swimming pool motif. A Bigger Splash is, as the title suggests, a much more raucous affair than its glacial predecessors, with a dialed up to eleven Ralph Fiennes facing off against a literally muted Tilda Swinton.

 

THE BIG SHORT (Netflix)

THE BIG SHORT (Netflix)

A compelling hybrid of Oliver Stone and Michael Mann but with a much lighter touch than either of those heavyweights. The film pushes its need to make us sympathise with the protagonists a little too far towards the end, but up until that point this is a blistering takedown of the circumstances behind the 2008 financial crash which is as entertaining as it is disturbing. We can only hope there’s never a sequel.

 

BLUE JAY (Amazon rental)

BLUE JAY (Amazon rental)

A moving two hander filmed in just one week without a conventional script (there was a ten page story outline by leading man Mark Duplass), featuring my favourite performance of the year, by Sarah Paulson. It’s a simple but richly nuanced story about two former high school sweethearts who meet again by chance after many years and wind up reminiscing about innocent times together and the unfortunate circumstances in which they ended. A beautiful film that aches with regret for all of its 85 minutes.

 

CAFÉ SOCIETY (DCP)

CAFÉ SOCIETY (DCP)

Café Society is, not atypically for Allen, a melancholy film drenched in longing for a lost golden age. However, whilst thematically consistent with his oeuvre - particularly his 1987 masterpiece, Radio Days - this film is something of an aesthetic departure for Allen. Working with legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro for the first time, its saturated colour palette resembles a Bernardo Bertolucci film at times. This stylistic discord is compounded further by the director’s migration to shooting digitally, thanks to the influence of Storaro who has since gone on to shoot Allen’s next film. If even Woody Allen - bastion of analogue nostalgia - has abandoned celluloid, then this truly is the end of an era.

 

DE PALMA (DCP)

DE PALMA (DCP)

More striking and memorable than the technically superior and engrossing Hitchcock/Truffaut (also released this year), partly due to its eschewing of that film’s more highbrow cinephile aesthetic. By stripping away the artifice Jake Paltrow and Noah Baumbach’s fanboy enthusiasm revels in the minutiae of the subject, revealed here in all his sardonic charm. It’s also a striking reminder that his best work belongs on the big screen - most notably Casualties of War and Carlito's Way.

 

THE HATEFUL EIGHT (70mm & Blu-ray)

THE HATEFUL EIGHT (70mm & Blu-ray)

After a series of geographically expansive films, Tarantino returns to his roots with a non-linear homosocial mystery-thriller set in one room (although there are some truly epic exterior scenes at the start). As with Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino avoids staginess via precise and inventive mise en scène in the mould of his heroes, Brian De Palma and Sergio Leone (with a dash of John Carpenter), expertly photographed by Robert Richardson in 70mm Ultra-Panavision. Many reviewers were left cold by the rampant nihilism but it feels to me to be quite a moral film - by Tarantino standards - thanks to a touching, if twisted, finale that acts as an earnest plea for racial harmony amidst all of the bigotry and bloodshed. Perhaps if the film had been released after the recent US election it might have struck a chord.

 

THE INVITATION (Netflix)

THE INVITATION (Netflix)

The best directed horror film I’ve seen since The House of the Devil (2009), anchored by a brilliantly understated performance by unfairly maligned ‘Tom Hardy lookalike’, Logan Marshall-Green. After an excruciatingly tense and gripping slow burn, the explosive last act isn’t quite as satisfying, despite a striking apocalyptic coda.

 

LOVE & FRIENDSHIP (DCP)

LOVE & FRIENDSHIP (DCP)

By staying true to Austen’s voice, avoiding the error of previous adaptations which overplay the romance and sentimentalise gentility, Stillman’s film is a reminder of the literary origins of his own voice: parlour-based social satire. Stillman’s elliptical narratives foreground conversation over so-called ‘action’ (bar the occasional dance), a potentially uncinematic approach made captivating by the charisma of his cast - in this case led by Kate Beckinsale, who it has to be said has been greatly missed.

 

THE NICE GUYS (DCP)

THE NICE GUYS (DCP)

A variable but mostly enjoyable romp set in an impeccably recreated 70s L.A., featuring Russell Crowe’s most amiable performance since State of Play (2009). There’s much to enjoy about the love-hate buddy routine between Crowe and Ryan Gosling’s ill-matched detectives, but the true star of the film is Angourie Rice as the latter’s daughter. After The Last Boy Scout and Last Action Hero, dysfunctional father-daughter relationships are something of a Shane Black speciality, but as a result of Black directing his own material it’s more tonally resonant here, as the notion of a deadbeat dad redeemed by his daughter is one he evidently cares deeply about.

 

VALLEY OF LOVE (Amazon rental)

VALLEY OF LOVE (Amazon rental)

This subtle road movie is another two hander set in a remote location. Gérard Depardieu and Isabelle Huppert play a divorced couple reunited in tragic circumstances after the suicide of their son, who has left mysterious instructions for them to follow in Death Valley. There’s a general tendency to over-complicate the medium but this is cinema in its purest form: two actors on a car journey, their great faces juxtaposed against an epic backdrop. No other art form can do this.

 

 

My Best of 2015 (for comparison)

 

Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg)

The Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas)

Ex Machina (Alex Garland)

The Gift (Joel Edgerton)

Irrational Man (Woody Allen)

It Follows (David Robert Mitchell)

Listen Up Philip (Alex Ross Perry)

Manglehorn (David Gordon Green)

Mistress America (Noah Baumbach)

Sicario (Denis Villeneuve)

I Ain’t Afraid of No Ghosts

“Horror really works when you’re young. It challenges you.” ~ John Carpenter

 

I have a peculiar history with the horror genre. I was raised by very strict Christian parents who considered anything vaguely mystical or supernatural to be ‘demonic’. Fortunately, despite a natural curiosity for anything deemed taboo, my personal interests skewed heavily towards the science fiction genre. The upshot of this is that I can count on two hands the number of occasions when I recall being scared by a film or television show. And when I say scared, I mean genuinely spooked, in some cases feeling compelled to turn the thing off midflow.

Most of these occurred during childhood, as these days - ironically now that I have the freedom to watch what I want - I’m rarely scared*. So I thought it would be fun to recount the formative scares which were so potent they were indelibly imprinted onto my mind. If they seem a little goofy you have to bear in mind that I was shielded from the hard stuff while growing up. Although to be fair, I was an impressionable child. NOTE: I’ve listed them in (approximate) chronological order; that is, the order in which I experienced them.

* I attribute this less to adult maturity and more to the nature of my profession: I can too readily discern the craft and see through the illusion (through no fault of the filmmakers). I didn’t see The Shining or The Exorcist until I was in my 30s, by which time I was relatively immune to their powers, although I admire The Shining  greatly.

 

The Black Hole (1979)

A film which epitomised Disney’s identity crisis during the period of decline that followed the death of Walt Disney and prior to the Michael Eisner era. It was conceived on the one hand to capitalise on the recent success of Star Wars but, as with the same year’s Star Trek The Motion Picture, seems tonally indebted to 2001: A Space Odyssey, without ever doing justice to either influence. This discord is reflected in the score, composed by the legendary John Barry, which works well for the most part with its atmosphere of ominous mystery, but for a jaunty recurring overture which jars massively (a late addition to lighten the tone for families?) and sounds nothing like Barry.

Cute robots notwithstanding, this is the creepiest Disney film ever, as lobotomized drones wander about a derelict Gothic spacecraft, with a metaphysical climax in which the evil scientist apparently passes into the afterlife where he is incarcerated inside his Satanic razor blade-wielding robot henchman in a burning, hellish landscape populated by dark robed spectres. Certificate PG.

 

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-80)

Broadcast on ITV in the early evening Saturday tea-time slot, this show was a big deal at the time, beating the BBC’s Doctor Who in the ratings. It was utter nonsense, but then most beloved genre shows of the time were: Six Million Dollar Man, Wonder Woman, Knight Rider (Have you seen any of these recently? Unwatchable dreck.) Buck Rogers was your standard disco-era space camp - all spandex and lip gloss. But I liked anything with robots, spaceships and matte-painted futuristic cityscapes, while slinky Erin Gray certainly sparked my pre-adolescent imagination. But did you know the entire series was all just a dream? At least according to the pilot episode’s Bondesque opening title sequence in which a cryogenically frozen Buck (Gil Gerard) apparently fantasises a whole two seasons worth of serialised prime time telly in a psychogenic bower of bliss that plays like a kitschy fusion of David Lynch and Hugh Hefner... in Space.

But I digress. There was a creepily effective sequence in the pilot when Buck is pursued in the ruins of old Chicago at night by violent mutants - the radioactive survivors of a nuclear holocaust - which may have been inspired by Richard Matheson's I Am Legend. The sequence climaxes in a cemetery where Buck discovers the graves of his long deceased parents, provoking a rare moment of emotional depth. The subsequent series was much lighter in tone, that is until the season 2 episode, ‘The Guardians’, which featured a mysterious glowing box that induced our characters to experience horrific visions - such as suddenly seeing zombified colleagues wandering the corridors. Shudder.

 

No Place To Hide (1981)

Broadcast on ITV as part of their ‘Murder, Mystery and Suspense’ movie-of-the-week anthology series. As I recall this was the first installment and it gave me nightmares. After the aforementioned sci-fi scares, this was evidently my formal introduction to the horror genre proper: a young woman, Amy, is stalked by a mysterious man in black (whispering 'Soon, Amy. Soon...'), who may or may not be a mere subconscious delusion. It was De Palma Lite and starred Kathleen Beller, whose previous claim to fame was a small role in The Godfather: part II and who later went on to star in Dynasty.

The most chilling moment occurs ten minutes before the end when Amy, who earlier in the story we’d seen murdered and dumped in a lake as part of an inheritance swindle, return, Carrie-like, from the dead to the great surprise of her stepmother and the audience. I’m fairly sure I didn’t make it to the end, and yet if I had I would have been almost immediately reassured by the reveal that her murder and return had been staged as part of an elaborate ruse to traumatise her duplicitous stepmother into a confession - a plot twist no doubt inspired by Les Diaboliques. Instead, I had to live with the memory of that shocking moment. Sidepoint: the following week’s installment was a 1971 pilot episode of Columbo, called ‘Ransom for a Dead Man’, which was also pretty chilling as I recall.

 

The House in Nightmare Park (1973)

Given the circumstances, it probably makes sense that my introduction to the haunted house genre should prove to be a harmless parody that slipped under the radar of my otherwise vigilant parents. Despite the tongue-firmly-in-cheek approach, the film has its fair share of creepy atmos and jump scares, but also a spine-tingling coda that has stayed with me ever since.

 

The Ghost Train (1941)

A very silly but enjoyable adaptation of a popular stage play, starring an irritating/entertaining Arthur Askey as one of a group of hapless passengers trapped in a remote, allegedly haunted train station one dark and stormy night. The legendary ghost train turns out to be a hoax staged by Nazi ‘fifth columnists’ - a fact I only learned recently upon rewatching it on YouTube, since the 8 year old me had turned the film off in terror prior to this crucial plot twist. Ah well.

 

Fame (1984; season 3 episode, ‘Lisa’s Song’)

Another relatively harmless romp that I turned off in terror. This was a ‘Halloween Special’, in which the ensemble reluctantly rehearse a ‘haunted play’. There were two moments that I specifically recall giving me the creeps: the sighting of a ghostly apparition in an empty theatre and a chilling scene in which Doris Schwarz, the lead in the play, is suddenly possessed by a restless spirit called Lisa. I didn’t make it beyond that point, but I needn’t have worried as the episode soon descends into sub-Andrew Lloyd Webber theatrics.

 

Scrooge (1970)

There have been numerous adaptations of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but this version has never been singled out as noteworthy. Yet it’s my favourite, perhaps because it was the first version I saw, but also because it seems to me to capture an authentic spirit of Christmas, thanks in part to the Dickensian production design which recycles sets from Oliver! created at Shepperton Studios two years prior. Also, Albert Finney’s performance as the elderly Scrooge was so convincing that I didn’t realise he was only in his mid-30s until many years later (despite him appearing as the younger Scrooge in a flashback); and there are a series of strikingly macabre sequences, most of them fairly faithful to the text, particularly the appearance of Marley’s ghost (Alec Guinness), translucent, wrapped in chains and with a handkerchief tied around his jaw - a burial ritual that prevents the jaw from disconnecting from the skull. The sequence climaxes in a spooky flight through a London night sky haunted by the damned. However, the most disturbing sequence was pure invention: after descending into the bowels of Hell, Scrooge is adorned with a huge chain made of his past sins by demons, a vision straight out of Dante’s Inferno. Merry Christmas!

 

Thriller (1983)

Another one I never watched all the way through, but on this occasion it wasn’t my choice. I was at my aunt’s house and my cousin played a VHS recording of it (they were early adopters), but because my mother was also present she vetoed it just as it was getting interesting. This was hugely frustrating because it was so hyped and I was at the age when peer pressure had a big impact on my interests. However, the controversy went beyond its alleged horrific content. You see, at that time Jacko was a member of the same religion I was and it was heavily rumoured that the higher-ups in the organisation were appalled at his apparent endorsement of the ‘occult’, which they considered demonic, and threatened to excommunicate him unless he repented - which he apparently did, hence why the video is preceded by a disclaimer. Anyway, I finally saw it properly many years later, by which time it was more laughable than scary. Great song though, even if he does sing ‘diller’ and not ‘thriller’.

 

Ghostbusters (1984)

I never saw Ghostbusters at the cinema (I wasn’t allowed!), but it was impossible to avoid its impact on popular culture at the time; the logo was omnipresent and Ray Parker Jnr’s theme song was a colossal hit in ‘84. Frustratingly, my only exposure to the actual content of the film was via official merchandise and promotional clips on TV (it was the same story with Gremlins fml), and I remember being captivated by the imagery: the old lady in the library was a beautifully rendered vintage ghost, but Slimer and Mr. Staypuft had no basis in traditional ghost iconography, which added an uncanny element. The optical effects were produced during the golden age of Industrial, Light & Magic and these creations were both utterly convincing and downright bizarre - an intoxicating mix to an impressionable mind. The scene in the hotel corridor when Dan Ackroyd first sights Slimer was one of the most weirdly disturbing things I’d ever seen.

 

Psycho (1960)

I’d been an obsessive admirer of Alfred Hitchcock ever since chancing upon a season of his films on Channel 4 in 1989, called Hitch on Four, during which Psycho hadn’t featured despite it arguably being his most famous film. I’d heard of the title but knew nothing about it, except that it was darker than his usual output. But despite my obsession - how very Hitchcockian - I’d not been in any rush to see Psycho since at that time I was much more drawn to his Jimmy Stewart/technicolor romps (Rear Window was a revelation and Vertigo was life changing). But I corrected that error eventually. I had the house to myself one night, a rare honour, turned all the lights off and pulled my armchair up close to the television for maximum effect. Let’s just say the lights didn’t stay off that night.

Interestingly, it wasn’t the shower scene that shocked me the most, since by that time in my Hitch education I was primed to expect it. Rather, it was the climax in the fruit cellar when ‘Mrs. Bates’ is finally revealed and a knife-wielding Norman bursts in, grinning maniacally and dressed in her clothes. The moment is punctuated by a reprise of Bernard Herrmann’s iconic shower scene music cue - a last minute decision in post-production - and it’s absolutely chilling. It’s little wonder that 1960 audiences had bolted for the doors and fainted in their seats.

I’ve seen scores of horror films since, a few excellent, but this for me remains the outstanding example of the genre. Aside from a few creaky moments due to the low budget, virtually everything about it is perfect: the plot, the music, the set, the hero/villain - all working harmoniously thanks to Hitch’s mastery of mise en scène - and, crucially, none of the shocks are cheap, unlike almost all horror films since. But a large part of the genius of Psycho is the supplanting of the supernatural with the psychological: Norman Bates is possessed by his dead mother only in the Freudian sense, a conceit that roots the horror in a real-world line of psychotic mummy’s boys, from Ed Gein to Jimmy Savile. Truly the stuff of nightmares.

 

Honourable Mentions:

 

Doctor Who (1974-1981)

Although ostensibly science fiction, it possessed a surreal creepiness - at least in the heyday of the Tom Baker era. A product of its time, no doubt.

 

Invaders from Mars (1953)

My introduction to the ‘body snatchers’ sub-genre and the resultant terror at seeing one’s loved ones change into cold, distant automatons. It Came From Outer Space was released the same year and had a similar effect when I caught it late one night.

 

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971)

The bit when Augustus falls into the Chocolate River and is sucked up a pipe is a cautionary lesson I certainly never forgot.

 

The Amityville Horror (1979)

That damn music.

 

Hammer House of Horror (1980)

No specific moments spring to mind, just a pervading sense of doom. There’s something comforting about knowing from the outset that a story will end badly for everyone.

 

Return to Oz (1985)

Look me in the eyes and tell me you weren’t traumatised by the Wheelers and/or headless Princess Mombi.