I’ve not done a tally, I can’t back this up with any painstaking research or figures, but it’s a safe bet that horror has more films to its name than any other genre. You can point the finger firmly at Sam Raimi (Evil Dead), Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez (The Blair Witch Project), as well as Oren Peli (Paranormal Activity), if you’re looking for people to blame. Their low budget, worldwide box office decimating films inspired hundreds, if not thousands of filmmakers to pick up a camera, get a little bit of money together and try to scare people. Thanks to digital filmmaking, social media and straight-to-DVD aisles at the likes of HMV, it feels like dozens of horror films crop up each week. The problem here is that, while the majority of horror films out there are talentless trash, there are one or two titles that slip through the net, never to be seen or heard from again, and never reaching the audience they deserve. What follows, just in time for Halloween, is a list of horror films you probably won’t have a clue about, but are definitely worth your time, especially if you like jumping out of your seat or trying to watch the screen with your hands over your face. If you agree, disagree, or have any other suggestions, then please feel free to leave your comments/rage-fuelled rants below.
Colin (UK/English dialogue/97 minutes)
Back in 2009, Marc Price’s feature film debut, Colin, made the news headlines for having been produced on a near non-existent budget of £50 and, discovered at Aberystwyth’s Abertoir Festival, managed to get a limited release in cinemas (the truth is, while the filming of Colin cost a mere £50, the budget for post-production was a lot more).
Colin is another zombie film, but what makes this one different is that it’s entirely from the zombie’s point-of-view. Colin (Alastair Kirton) is a freshly reanimated corpse. As we watch Colin learn how to move around now that rigamortis has set in, as well as getting used to the taste of human flesh, we find out what he was like when he was alive, leading up to the heart-breaking circumstances which led to him ending up as one of the undead.
The budget for Colin is a huge strength as well as being a massive flaw. Price manages to do a lot with very little money; the violence is satisfyingly icky (zombie impaled on an umbrella is one of many highlights), plus there’s some imaginative sound design (Price stuck a microphone outside a window on Bonfire Night and plays this back throughout the film, sounding like faraway gunshots). On the downside, the lighting is occasionally atrocious, there are times when you’re squinting to see what’s going on, or a scene looks bleached out. Also, the editing is sometimes haphazard (you get the sense that Price had neither the time or money to do re-shoots), jumping to the next scene or cutting to another frame that, instead of feeling smooth and goes unnoticed, is jarring and disorientating.
What saves Colin is the script, which, considering there is very little dialogue except grunts and moans, is a perfect lesson in subtlety, as well as how to drip-feed information to the viewer. Colin shuffles through places he has visited before, stops and stares at objects that once meant something to him; inside this walking corpse, a tiny trace of the man is still there. Cleverly, all these locations, everything Colin has seen, ties up in the final scene where we are shown how he died.
Kirton’s performance in the lead role is something genuinely special (leaps and bounds ahead of Nicholas Hoult in 2013’s Warm Bodies). He does more than snarl and chomp on the living, there are tender moments where Colin sees something he recognises, lengthy close-ups showing him struggling to remember; not all the lights are switched off upstairs. If you don’t feel something during the closing scene with Kirton and Leanne Pammen, then you really are a zombie. It’s impressively well-acted, made even more upsetting because you are shown a day-to-day life we all recognise and we’re waiting for the inevitable to happen.
If you can stick with Colin through the technical gaffs, you’ll be handsomely rewarded. It’s intelligent, inventive, and you’ll be surprised at just how unashamedly it wears its heart on its sleeve.
3 out of 5
Dead of Night (UK/English dialogue/99 minutes)
Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) is unprepared for a meeting with a group of people that he recognises, but has never actually met. As the guests tell each other their own supernatural tales, Craig realises that they are all part of his recurring nightmare, which, little by little, is coming true. Craig’s nightmare always ends the same way, with murder and madness; will the same thing happen now he is awake?
Dead of Night is the first and easily the best example of the horror anthology. Plenty of films have tried to recreate what Ealing Studios came up with back in 1945 (Twilight Zone: The Movie, Creepshow, V.H.S.), but what has always been the problem with portmanteau films is that not all of the short films are up to the same standard; there is always at least one story that is weaker than the others. Dead of Night is the exception: all of its ninety-odd minutes are inspired and fiendishly creepy. The reason that Dead of Night, which regularly features in online Best Horror Films Ever Made lists, has been mentioned here is because when I talk about it with friends, they have never seen or heard of it. It’s as if Dead of Night is this big secret amongst horror fans; only the genuine film buffs know about it.
Five stories make up Dead of Night, based on works by, amongst others, Hitchcock’s screenwriter Angus MacPhail, and HG Wells. All of these stories are of varying length, but never outstay their welcome. A racing driver who escapes death when he has a premonition of a bus driver dressed as an undertaker, avoiding the crash by refusing to get on the bus; A woman discovers the ghost of a murdered child during a game of hide-and-seek; Two golfers play for the hand of a woman they both love, except the winner cheated, causing the other golfer to commit suicide and return as a vengeance-seeking ghost. The two best tales are the story of Peter, who sees a different reflection in the mirror his wife bought (a Victorian room instead of their plush flat), sending him mad, his personality changing to that of the mirror’s original owner, and the final – and most infamous – segment which stars Michael Redgrave as a ventriloquist whose dummy takes on a life all of its own (Redgrave’s performance still, nearly seventy years on, manages to unsettle viewers. When Redgrave and Hugo are together, you struggle to work out who’s controlling who). Forget Child’s Play’s Chucky or The Conjuring’s Annabelle, Dead of Night’s Hugo is still the scariest doll ever to appear on film, who can still talk and move when Redgrave is out of the room. Everyone thinks it’s a clever parlour trick, but only Redgrave knows the truth.
If these stories sound clichéd or done-to-death, that’s because Dead of Night did it first. It might show its age with how stiff-upper-lip British it is, but for a studio famously associated with quaint, inoffensive comedies, arguably their most enduring film is a near-perfect example of subtle, intelligent frights. When the wraparound story involving Craig and the guests is concluded, even the most addicted horror fans will be shaken up. Dead of Night was an experiment for Ealing Studios, to try something new – hence the stylised use of lighting to give the film this sense that you’re watching a waking nightmare; what you’re seeing looks real, but it doesn’t feel quite real enough – and it came up with a template not just for horror anthologies, but for the genre as a whole. Dead of Night’s may have been imitated, its ideas blatantly stolen, but it still has the power to get right there underneath your skin.
5 out of 5
Donkey Punch (UK/English dialogue/99 minutes)
For a while, Oliver Blackburn and David Bloom’s screenplay, Donkey Punch, was stuck in development hell; no one would fund it and no one was willing to star in it. Why? Well, take a look at the subject matter…
At a Spanish resort, three girls meet up with a group of posh lads who have their own yacht. Despite the fact that the lads may as well have “Dodgy” tattooed on their foreheads, the girls join them for a party on said yacht. Much drink and drugs later and two of the girls end up in an orgy, during which one of them violently (and graphically) dies. The lads become obsessed with saving their own skins, while the remaining girls try to make it off the yacht alive.
Let’s clear one thing up first; the orgy scene, which caused uproar amongst critics, censorship, and anyone else who wanted to throw their two-penneth in. Did it justify all the fuss that was made back when Donkey Punch was released? Honestly, no (it’s not 9 Songs or Y Tu Mamá También). What makes the scene so shocking is the donkey punch itself, shown during an uncomfortable close up and featuring some retch-inducing sound design.
Blackburn’s film is an unremittingly cynical look at current and future generations of teenagers, where porn is freely available through social media, body image is put under the microscope and preached about in glossy magazines, and young adults are peer-pressured into binge drinking and drug taking. Donkey Punch is about as far from comfortable, family-friendly Byker Grove as you can get.
What makes Donkey Punch stand out amongst the teeming number of teenage horror films is the script. Once the set-up is out the way, this is when the tension kicks in, the lads scheming and double-crossing each other. Friendships, even family ties, mean nothing as they each try and get away scot-free. Praise has to go to Blackburn and Bloom’s screenplay for having two teenage female leads that aren’t constantly whimpering and showing their cleavage. Kim and Tammi are both feisty and smart. The boys think they can lie to and intimidate them, but the girls hatch their own plot to escape the yacht with the evidence they need. This is uncomfortably credible stuff, Blackburn and Bloom knowing exactly how young people interact.
It’s a tiny bit disappointing when, in the third act, the gore and the running-around-screaming that Donkey Punch cleverly avoids gets chucked at the screen. There are plenty of didn’t-see-that-coming twists as everyone is lying and scheming, while the last fifteen/twenty minutes is predictable –
if fast-paced and frantically edited – girl trying to stay alive horror (including a scene with an outboard motor that feels like an outtake from Evil Dead). The train doesn’t exactly come off the tracks, you just wish Blackburn and Bloom had somehow managed to keep the slow-burning dread going for the length of the film.
Is Donkey Punch an exploitation flick? No arguments there. It is also a smartly written, ridiculously intense thriller. Donkey Punch isn’t some nasty, grubby little film; Blackburn is a talented director who makes good, claustrophobic use of his one location. Tired of the same old formulaic horror? For the most part, Donkey Punch puts a line straight through the seen-it-all-before clichés.
4 out of 5
Fear(s) of the Dark (France/French dialogue with English subtitles/85 minutes)
Fear(s) of the Dark is a portmanteau piece from the imaginations of some of the big names in graphic art and cartoon animation (Lorenzo Mattotti, Richard McGuire and Charles Burns, to name just three). Everyone involved in this project was given the same brief, to come up with a short film inspired by their most twisted and disturbing nightmares. Considering the number of people involved and how loosely the film is constructed, the results are, by-and-large, outstanding.
The first short film, from the mind of Charles Burns, is fidget around in your seat, unsettling Cronenberg-style body horror, as a nameless boy, obsessed with collecting bugs, discovers an insect he’s never seen before. He keeps it in a glass jar in his bedroom, but when the jar breaks, the creature has gone. Grown up, the boy takes his childhood bed with him to university, where he falls for fellow classmate Laura. Having spent the night in the boy’s flat, Laura wakes to find a nasty-looking cut on her arm. Gradually Laura begins to change, both in personality and appearance. The twist here is that Burns takes all the usual traits with body horror, but also throws obsessive love and controlling relationships into the mix. Burns’ twenty-odd minute contribution is both bizarre and ridiculously uncomfortable to watch.
Film number three is good old fashioned horror, relying on atmosphere to scare you rather than sudden jolts. Drawn by Lorenzo Mattoti, a narrator tells us of an incident from his childhood. People and animals have gone missing from the village where the narrator would spend his summer holidays. At the same time, the narrator makes friends with another boy, who only appears when the two of them are alone; no one has ever seen them together. The narrator starts wondering if his strange friend and the disappearances are connected.
Mattoti’s short film is one of the strongest, visually, as his traditional hand drawn illustrations are moving in front of you; there are moments where you will stop and take in how impressive the animation looks. This, combined with sparing and smartly used sound design (there is no orchestral score, instead we hear the wind blowing through fields, church bells chiming, rasping breaths – all minimalist and pared down) makes for an eerie several minutes. You never see this monster that’s stalking the village, but you’re constantly reminded that it’s somewhere unseen and nearby.
The strongest and most frightening piece comes from Richard Maguire. It’s a simple enough plot: a man takes shelter from a snow storm in an old, abandoned house. He thinks he’s alone, but begins to suspect otherwise. With a palette of black and very little white ink, Maguire pushes the animation as far as it will go. Not only will you be on tenterhooks while you watch the closing part of Fear(s) in the Dark, you will also be wondering how the hell they managed it, Maguire having some twisted fun with his silent protagonist who explores a pitch black house, having only a candle to help him. Maguire’s film also has the best sound, dotting it with lingering strings that suddenly give a short, shrill stab to make you jump. Footsteps are heard from somewhere close by (followed by a blackout on screen, just to raise the unbearable tension even more); a bottle rolls across the floor, only to be stopped by something unseen; the almost constant wailing gales that are heard inside the house. The end of Maguire’s story (and the film as a whole) has a nasty sting in its tale that plays with the animation you’ve been watching; it’s hard not to have a wicked smile on your face as the credits roll.
Tragically, not all of Fear(s) of the Dark’s films are up to the same standard. Marie Caillou’s attempt at Asian horror throws one jolt straight after another at you and more-or-less repeats this over and over. There is virtually no plot to speak of (a little girl is experimented on to make her nightmares come to life), which wouldn’t be so bad if the scares were well-paced, but it’s impossible not to become numb to the loud noises and clichéd ghosts and spectres that fill up the majority of Caillou’s running time.
In-between all of the short films is Blutch’s tale of a ghoulish, evil marquis who wanders the landscape with his vicious hounds. Everyone the marquis comes across is torn to pieces by his pet pooches. Blutch’s pencil drawn segments look fine and you can’t help but wonder where this is going. In the final part of Blutch’s story, it’s hard not to be disappointed as it’s not a case of seeing the twist coming a mile off, you can see it from outer space.
Thrown in amongst all this are Nicole Garcia’s rants as she ticks off near enough all the fears and worries that psychiatrists are forced to listen to from their patients. Accompanied by various, ever-changing shapes that move across a white background, it’s anyone’s guess as to why Garcia appears in the film. Her scenes aren’t terrifying, or strange, or disturbing; they’re just annoying.
The best way to watch Fear(s) of the Dark is to have it on fast forward. Skip Marie Caillou, skip Blutch if you have to, and definitely skip Nicole Garcia. Once that’s all out the way you can enjoy some fiendishly imaginative horror, and rewind those set pieces where the animation is like something Walt Disney’s monstrous, evil twin would come up with.
3 out of 5
Grabbers (UK/English dialogue/94 minutes)
Flesh eating aliens versus the Irish – Grabbers is every bit as fun and laugh till your guts hurt funny as it sounds. A meteorite lands off the coast of Erin Island, warning the arrival of a giant tentacled alien that feasts on human flesh. Fighting to stop the invasion, Gardas Ciarán O’ Shea (Coupling’s Richard Coyle) and Lisa Nolan (Love/Hate and Primeval’s Ruth Bradley) discover the one way to kill the alien: alcohol in the blood. Lots of alcohol in the blood.
Jon Wright’s Grabbers is a smart homage to the so-bad-they’re-good monster movies you find late at night on some never-heard-of digital channel. Yet unlike these films, Grabbers has a page-after-page perfect script written by Kevin Lehane that pokes fun at itself, has plenty of tense, sometimes scary, set pieces, and characters that aren’t just onscreen so they can be killed off.
The whole cast are clearly having fun and are all in on the joke. Richard Coyle plays a cop who enjoys his job for the sole reason that nothing ever happens, meaning he can drink all the time. On first appearance, O’Shea seems like a waste of space in a policeman’s uniform, but when things take a turn for the weird he’s fearless, able to come up with a plan, and has a Bruce Campbell smart answer for everything. Ruth Bradley is a by-the-book cop with bigger balls than any of the men. She does everything by the book, obsessing over red tape, but when the locals start getting chewed up, that’s when Bradley gets her hands dirty. Surprisingly, for a horror film, Bradley does very little cowering or screaming, instead finding whatever weapons she can to turn the alien into gooey mush. Russell Tovey (Being Human, Him and Her) has made a career out of playing anxious, whingeing characters, doing the same here as biologist Dr Adam Smith. Tovey is brilliant in these roles, again giving us plenty of laughs here as he struggles to maintain order and professionalism when the alien is discovered, ultimately ending up getting drunk with everyone else.
For a low budget horror, the CGI in Grabbers is impressive to watch. Having its tongue firmly in its cheek, you could forgive the film if the special effects were a bit ropey, yet the alien manages to look more convincing than most of the monsters you’re supposed to believe are tearing down buildings in the big budget summer blockbusters.
Cinematographer Trevor Forrest manages to set up plenty of scares, whilst also showing off just how stunning Erin Island is. In one of Grabbers’ best set pieces, the camera follows a woman running round her bungalow, forced to listen to her husband’s screams as he’s ripped apart by an alien on the roof; it’s startling stuff. Forrest also gives us plenty of Michael Bay sunlit shots of fields, hills and beaches that span for miles. Grabbers was made on a fraction of the budget of US horror films, but it proves you can still be creative with the visuals instead of doing what a lot of zero budget productions rely on: point and shoot.
Grabbers is top-drawer horror. Kevin Lehane has written minute-after-minute one-liners and sight gags, whilst never giving a second thought to killing off the main characters without any warning. If you like your scares alongside some big, howling laughs, then you need to treat yourself and find a copy of Grabbers on DVD.
4 out of 5
Pontypool (Canada/English dialogue/96 minutes)
As Alexandre O Philippe’s documentary, Doc of the Dead, explained, zombies have become so commercialised now (you have 12A-rated films, cuddly toys, TV shows, video games, real-life thrill seeker experiences – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg!) they have gone beyond the point of saturation. Everyone is so familiar with the living dead – how it all works, their weaknesses, what you should or shouldn’t do when the dead no longer fancy staying dead – that it’s a tough job now to scare or surprise audiences when you’re coming up with a new zombie film.
Amongst the countless horrors featuring flesh-eating corpses that were released over the last decade, Bruce McDonald’s Pontypool is up there at the top-end of the list. Set in Pontypool, Ontario, rather than Pontypool, South Wales (although that would make for an interesting film), the local radio station realises that a zombie virus is infecting the town. The difference here is that the virus is passed on by “infected words,” which, when heard, turn you into an undead monster. The survivors at the radio station have to somehow work out what those words are, without making the problem worse.
What makes Pontypool such fun to watch is that Tony Burgess’ script (adapted from his novel, Pontypool Changes Everything) meddles with the zombie ethos in such a small, smart way, then runs away with it, exploiting this new take on walking corpses for all it’s worth. The zombies themselves only turn up in a handful of scenes, instead the radio station relies on outside help to work out what’s going on: their ‘eye in the sky’ reporter spies military vehicles blocking all roads in-and-out of the town; a 911 call is played back live on air; a report comes in of fishermen fighting with police. Set largely within the four walls of the studio, this is claustrophobic, uncomfortable, mess-with-your-head stuff.
Stephen McHattie (A History of Violence, Watchmen) is the star of the show as the station’s cynical, deadpan DJ who relishes a shocking news story, instead relegated to the early-morning slot due to his drinking and letting his mouth run away with him. McHattie is sick of the bland, run-of-the-mill radio show he has to present, so when he tries to cover the events that are taking place in-and-around the town, desperate to make sense of what’s happening, you quickly realise he is far from prepared for the big news story he’s been aching for. McHattie’s expressions seize hold of you, his rubber-like face contorting throughout the film, from snarls, to wide-eyed stares, to all-out panic. The visuals might be low budget, repetitive, but it’s McHattie who keeps you watching.
It’s not all tense, grim horror. Tony Burgess dots the film with some quotable one-liners as well as the odd visual gag. McHattie delivers the dour humour like a seasoned stand-up comic (“Do we really want to provide a genocide with elevator music?”), while Hrant Alianak’s entrance tells you all you need to know about his kooky, played solely for laughs, character, Doctor Mendez, as he fights his way out of an air duct. Mendez’s job may just be to fire off reams of exposition, but Alianak has a lot of fun as the eccentric doctor.
Pontypool is a suspenseful, brilliantly original horror film. McHattie gives everything he’s got to the role, delivering his lengthy monologues with venomous spite and a sneer. It’s not all about atmosphere either, there’s plenty of subtext on the media’s responsibility, the thin line between sensationalism and reporting the facts (McHattie hounds a reporter to get as close as he can to a zombie), as well as the banality of language. People put messages on Facebook about what they’re eating, or how long they’ve spent at the gym; all these people engaged in meaningless conversation that almost amounts to a plague. McDonald and Burgess are also quick to point out the other side of the argument; meaningful words that are used to divert us from or disguise the facts
Pontypool has plenty of brains instead of the run-of-the-mill gore and set pieces you usually see in zombie films. It’s also unusual in horror to say that something is one-of-a-kind, but McDonald and Burgess do just that. This is a smart, off-the-wall ninety minutes that you’re guaranteed to enjoy. Also, stick with it until after the credits, there’s a self-contained short film that follows; Sin City with its tongue firmly in its cheek.
4 out of 5
A Tale of Two Sisters (South Korea/Korean dialogue with English subtitles/114 minutes)
Loosely based on the Korean folk tale Rose Flower, Red Lotus, sisters Su-Mi (Im Soo-Jung) and Su Yeon (Moon Geun-Young) return home, having spent time in an institution recovering from a recent ordeal. It’s clear from the outset that the girls’ stepmother (Yeom Jeong-A) has something to do with what happened, as she begins a tirade of physical and psychological abuse. As the stepmother’s actions become more unpredictable, it’s as if something is waking up within the walls of the isolated family home, something ghostly and evil.
Kim Jee Woon’s A Tale of Two Sisters is infamous amongst horror fans, yet the reason why its made this list is, when I speak to friends who love going to the cinema and being scared out of their minds, they haven’t the first clue what it’s about. A Tale of Two Sisters was the first Asian horror to get a major release in the US, as well as getting a hatchet job remake by Charles and Thomas Guard under the name The Uninvited. Woon’s film is one of, if not the best example of South Korean scares. It is a textbook lesson in not just how to frighten the viewer, but leave them cowering in their seats when the credits roll.
Most of the jolts and uncomfortable levels of dread is thanks to Lee Mo-gae’s cinematography, having been influenced by Kubrick’s The Shining and Wise’s The Haunting in making the haunted house a character in its own right. Here, Su-Mi and Su Yeon’s home is literally tainted by their past, corridors and rooms looking like they’re being swallowed up by shadows and darkness. The only bright colour in an otherwise muted palette is red, suggesting terrible things have happened inside these walls. Mo-gae’s slow-moving tracking shots suggest the camera is stalking the characters, watching intently as we view the sisters and the girls and their stepmother in space invading close-up. Accompanied by some smart sound design, the old house banging and creaking through the night, Jee-Woon makes you question whether the sisters have been driven mad, struggling to tell what is real.
Yeom Jeong-a gives arguably Asian horror’s finest performance as the volatile, at times truly scary stepmother. Even when she’s calm, smiling in front of her husband and stepchildren, it’s not a comfortable smile, as if this brief moment of kindness is merely an act that she is struggling to carry on with. The real person, the real stepmother, is the one who locks Su Yeon in the closet, tinges of rage and desperation in her wide eyes.
Im Soo-Jung and Moon Geun-Young are both startling as the sisters. Im is the only person who will challenge, even lash out at her stepmother. At times Im’s hostility is uncomfortable to watch, and you wonder just how much of this toxic family history is really Jeong-a’s fault. Moon, on the other hand, is the complete opposite; cowering and submissive, dependant on her sister. Moon has very little dialogue in the film, withdrawing into herself, becoming almost mute as her stepmother’s abuse escalates. It’s only in those brief moments when her and Im are alone that she behaves like a typical, care-free teenager.
Kim Kab-Su has to get a mention as the girl’s eerily passive stepfather. You suspect that he knows more about what’s happening, his aloofness, almost stranger-like behaviour in front of his children a way of coping, shunning the truth.
Jee-Woon’s screenplay is insanely maze-like and complex; those not paying close attention will probably end up wondering what the hell’s happening by the time the credits come up. Not all of the details add up when you stop and think about them, but there are one-or-two twists here that will leave you dazed and bewildered. You get the sense that, while Jee-Woon does a near perfect job with the script, his mind is on the atmosphere and the scares, which you cannot fault.
Asian horror is now a film industry in its own right, yet Jee-Woon has crafted a number of set pieces that will stay with you and make you flinch whenever you think of A Tale of Two Sisters (the girl under the kitchen sink!). Jee-Woon’s film will have you shuffling round in your seat thanks to its squeezing, tightening tension as it reaches its horrid climax, quite likely letting out a pit-of-your-gut moan as you witness some of the horrific – but inspired – imagery. A Tale of Two Sisters will give both your brain and your underarm deodorant a serious workout; the closest you’ll get to David Lynch translating one of Grimm’s fairy tales to the screen.
5 out of 5
Whistle And I’ll Come To You – 1968 and 2010 versions (UK/English dialogue/1968 version: 42 minutes; 2010 version: 52 minutes)
Another entry here that always makes the Scariest One-Hundred lists, but I’ve only chatted to a couple of people who have seen it, is Jonathan Miller’s short film adaptation of Montague Rhodes James’s most famous ghost story, Whistle and I’ll Come To You, My Lad, which was shown on the BBC back in 1968. While Andy de Emmony’s version didn’t trouble the viewing figures when it was shown on Christmas Eve 2010 (M.R. James would read his work to his students at King’s College Cambridge on Christmas Eve), and is unlikely to be remembered as fondly as the original, both versions are smart, imaginative interpretations of James’s work.
In Miller’s retelling, we’re introduced to Parkins, a professor who is on holiday in East Anglia. Whilst walking along the Suffolk coast, he finds an ancient-looking whistle. Blowing the whistle, Parkins is convinced that someone or something is following him along the shore, his dreams plagued by surreal, fearsome nightmares. In James’s story, Parkins is young and articulate. Here he is played by Michael Hordern, who comes up with a disturbing portrayal of an aging man out of place with the world. This Parkins is someone usually surrounded by books and artefacts, he does not come into contact with people or the outdoors. You question whether Parkins is eccentric or if he is suffering the early onset of dementia, struggling to convey the thoughts in his head, sometimes getting angry and frustrated in social situations.
Dick Bush’s cinematography is what creates such a bleak, choking atmosphere in the 1968 adaptation. The landscape of East Anglia isn’t just a backdrop for what’s happening; it’s just as much a character as Parkins. Shot in black-and-white, there are times when the sea, the sand, and the sky all look as if they have merged into one. For most of the time, Parkins is the only person seen walking across these external shots, suggesting that not only is this desolate coastline beginning to crumble, so too is Parkins’ mind. Unusually, there is no score in Miller’s film, instead the wind and the waves make up the majority of the sound, adding to the protagonist’s feelings of unease and isolation.
Miller’s Whistle and I’ll Come To You is well-known for its climactic scene, where Parkins sees someone or something rise up from the bed in his room, hidden by a sheet, making its way towards him. A mixture of slow motion shots of this thing slowly standing up in the bed, as well as close-ups of Parkins’ horrified expressions, are combined with Hordern’s wild, animal-like whimpering. Whether you watch the scene for the first time, or you’ve seen it several times, it is always intense and unnerving.
In James’ short story, there is no question that Parkins witnessed something supernatural, whereas Miller has you question what you saw, never providing any answers. Could everything we’ve seen have come from the mind of a man who has no way of coping with the outside world, who would rather mumble and talk to himself than interact with other people? Miller leaves you to decide.
When first I saw Andy de Emmony’s interpretation in 2010, I wasn’t keen. While the basic plot of M.R. James’ story was there (Parkins wandering the beach alone, convinced he is being followed), it was too different; there was no resemblance to James’ Whistle and I’ll Come To You, My Lad, or Miller’s one-off drama. It wasn’t until I watched it again that I appreciated it, and the more I watched it, the more I enjoy it.
In Neil Cross’s screenplay we start off by seeing Parkins moving his wife, whose mind has been wiped away by dementia, into a care home. He feels guilty, heartbroken; the head nurse suggesting he should go on holiday, try to take his mind off things. Parkins goes to the seaside town where he and his wife spent their honeymoon. Walking along the beach, he finds a wedding ring (not a whistle) with the Latin words “Quis est iste qui venit” (“Who is this? Who is coming?”) inscribed on the inside. Once Parkins picks up the ring, he believes he is being followed by someone on the shore. He runs, yet they still manage to keep up with him. In his hotel room at night, despite being the only guest there, he hears someone stood outside his room, banging on the door, demanding to be let in.
In the 2010 version, Parkins is played by Jon Hurt, in what is, I would argue, one of his best screen performances. Hurt’s Parkins is haunted not by ghosts or demons, but by grief and guilt. “There is nothing inside us,” he tells hotel manager. “There are no ghosts in these machines. Man is matter, and matter rots.” Parkins is angry at what happened to his wife, forced to watch the woman he loves taken away from him. This is why he refuses to believe in the afterlife, or ghosts; the world is what it is, there is nothing mysterious or supernatural about it. Even as events on the coast and in the hotel become even more frightening and hard to explain, Parkins refuses to believe that this is anything out of the ordinary.
This time, instead of East Anglia, Parkins wanders the West Country shores. Rob Hardy’s visuals are both spectacular and haunting: windswept beaches that spread out for miles, jagged cliffs, and no one around except Hurt, a tiny figure in this vast landscape. The Edwardian hotel where Parkins is staying, with its long, dim corridors, dust sheets covering the furniture, reinforces the theme that everything is eventually a shadow of it what it once was.
Like Miller’s original film, the sound design in de Emmony’s reimagining is eerily brilliant. There is almost no dialogue here, a few pages at most. A score accompanies a number of scares this time round, but its sparingly used, understated, quivering electronics. In the hotel, Parkins is tormented by natural sounds such as knocking, the rattling of the door handle, fingernails scraping across the floor; all accompanied by the whistles and moans of the wind outside. For most of the film, you don’t see what is after Parkins, you only get glimpses, such as a figure wrapped in white sheets stalking him on the beach, or long, bony fingers appearing under the door to his room. Otherwise you only hear whatever this thing is, which is what makes Emmony’s tale so powerful. When you finally see this “ghost,” it’s nowhere near as haunting as the ending to Miller’s film, but you will still end up cowering in your seat.
Both Miller and de Emmony’s adaptations of Whistle and I’ll Come To You are staggering examples of using landscape and sparing sound design to create atmosphere. I’ll even stick my neck out and say that de Emmony’s version stands virtually shoulder-to-shoulder with Miller’s original film. Both versions have the power to scare viewers in totally different ways: Miller’s version uses dreamlike and bizarre imagery, as well as a performance from Michael Hordern that stays with you long after you’ve seen it; de Emmony’s vision is less a ghost story at times, and more like a psychological study on grief and human frailty, using motifs and images that are common in James’s writing. There’s no cheap shocks or anything predictable to be found in either film, just good old-fashioned slow burning tension that British cinema has a history of doing so well.
Whistle and I’ll Come To You (1968): 4 out of 5
Whistle and I’ll Come To You (2010): 4 out of 5