Tag Archives: ghost

DVD Review: The Halfway House (1944) from Ealing Studios


If you are yet to enter the competition at Flickering Myth to win a copy of Ealing Studios production The Halfway House on Digital Versatile Disc, I do suggest that you hurry up and get a move on. This is a film worth seeing for three very good reasons. Pay attention ladies and gentlemen and I shall outline them for you.

Firstly The Halfway House is a fragment of history, a slice of our country’s past, and an especially engaging and vivid one too. For those of you enjoying the developments in three dimensional cinematic viewing or perhaps partial to the high definition of your colour television sets, it might be rather off putting that this is a film presented in mere black and white. I readily admit that I am not an avid viewer of black and white pictures myself.

I can assure you though that the lack of variation in colour is more than made up for by numerous other qualities. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that it added to the charm of the film. In any case, this is top notch black and white, because The Halfway House has been digitally restored to a wonderful standard, so that it is, to all intents and purposes, as good as a modern day release.

This film was originally released in 1944 and judging by references to the date during the plot, filmed in 1943. It is therefore significantly influenced by the context of the ongoing Second World War in Europe. A number of the characters have lost friends, colleagues and relatives during the conflict. Others are affected in other ways.

The Halfway House is somewhat inaccurately and crudely labelled as a horror but in reality it is an interesting infusion of ghost story, fable and propaganda. The propaganda element is particularly fascinating and marks the film out as a genuine historical artefact. It is not overdone to affect the level of satisfaction for a modern audience, but certainly during the conclusion an Irishman’s change of allegiance from neutrality to supporting the Allies is noticeably underlined.

The second principal reason you should see The Halfway House is the impressive and rounded characterisation, forming part of a touching and timeless narrative. Whilst the historical background to the plot is crucial to setting it apart from modern releases, the quality and nature of the storytelling is also no longer replicated by studios today.

The first half of the film introduces a wide range of characters across Britain (showcasing unusual scope and variety of outdoor locations for Ealing Studios), each with their own problems, from terminal illness to divorce and criminality. The second half then brings all of these characters together at The Halfway House, a Welsh inn that may or may not have been destroyed by fire. The kindly and wise owners of the inn, who speak almost poetically at points, help the guests to help each other. Gradually they all gain perspective on their issues and worries by taking time out from the everyday grind. Such an intricately woven moral is still just as relevant today.

The Halfway House is superbly acted, even by modern day standards. It has a marvellous script that seems to transfer something from the original play by Denis Ogden. Primarily that something is dialogue which allows characters to breathe and grow convincingly, as they would on stage. Somehow The Halfway House is full of excellently fleshed out characters, despite the ensemble cast.

The third key reason for seeing The Halfway House is that it is tremendously amusing. Part of that humour arises inadvertently from the old fashioned and outdated formal register of the dialogue, which I have tried unsuccessfully to mirror regularly throughout this review. In certain situations the tone and accent of 1940s British speech, along with that persistent formality, is unavoidably hilarious.

However most of the comedic moments are intentional, with a mixture of fabulous and average one liners on show, alongside character humour enabled by their believability. One moment in the opening segment, in which we meet a dodgy dealing crook, is amusing due to role reversal; our criminal dismisses an employee for NOT having a criminal record and lying about it. This is also an example of one of many moments where the war has turned things upside down.

As if those three major reasons alone weren’t enough to at least have a go at the competition, there are also too many minor points of interest to mention. Director Basil Dearden has been underrated for years, only to be steadily recognised more and more recently as a groundbreaking filmmaker, with films like Victim starring Dirk Bogarde challenging taboos long before that was easy to get away with and just an arty saying. His direction here is simple for the most part, with the exception of one smartly edited action sequence which could fit into a modern film, but effective and professional. It’s remarkable enough they were making films as entertaining as this with the war raging on.  

Good luck in the competition! But basically make sure you see The Halfway House when it’s released on the 20th of June. It’s an unseen and unappreciated classic of British cinema.

Unconventional style: Inglorious Basterds, Juno and The Ghost


(some spoilers)

The most stylish person in a room looks different to everyone else. Often the first step to style, the boldest move towards quality, is doing something different and distinctive. A lot of the time these risky moves will end in tears but some people just have the knack for it.

Three such people are directors Quentin Tarantino, Jason Reitman and Roman Polanski. Recently I’ve watched some of the best known, latest works of all of these men and it’s clear they’re endowed with the lucky gift of success when embracing the unconventional.

Firstly Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds is such a fascinating, intriguing picture. Events within the plot and elements of the execution bear Tarantino’s sensational touch – leading Nazis weren’t slaughtered in reality in a cinema in Paris – but that does not mean there aren’t serious elements to this film too. On the surface it’s a simplified, warped version of history, with a non-existent band of American Jews exacting revenge for the Holocaust, which wasn’t widely known about until the discovery of death camps at the end of the conflict. But at the very least it’s a sumptuous exercise in the best of filmmaking and with its faithful use of various languages, does say something factual rather than fictionalised about the misunderstandings and deceptions of war. It’s also, somehow, hilarious.

As the film’s star Brad Pitt says in one of the interviews on the Blu-Ray disc, this film plays out more like a novel. It’s broken into chapters, the first handful of which establish the characters and the rest bring them together for an explosive, visually stunning finale. Only a few of these characters are typical and expected for the wartime context; the French farmer in the marvellous opening scene for example. But the rest are Tarantino creations. They’re extremely vivid and engaging but also wild, sometimes implausible extremes, almost as if plucked from the pages of a striking graphic novel. Somehow the director/writer makes them wonderfully believable and then gives them bags of room to play in his chapters, which often consist of one, long and extended scene.

The opening scene establishes the marvellous character of the “Jew hunter” played by Christoph Waltz. There are some splendid, picturesque shots of the French countryside, followed by a wonderfully tense dialogue scene indoors. The interrogative German is sinister through his politeness, only to reveal the true nature of his visit. Other scenes in the film get similar space to breathe and come to life, in particular another edge of the seat, tense encounter in a tavern. This is the film’s longest scene and is incredibly realistic and satisfying as the spies, including the wonderful Michael Fassbender, attempt not to blow their cover. Language again plays an important role, and does so throughout, becoming almost another character. Often Inglorious Basterds feels more like a play, only for some explosive action to remind you that only a film could deliver such thrills, laughs and intrigue. Ultimately the spot-on dialogue, lengthy scenes, exploration of language and sensational characters and events, is not only stylish but says something worthwhile about the war.

All of these films say something worthwhile. Juno chips in with messages about taking people at face value and what really makes relationships work, as well as challenging views of young people. And The Ghost, whilst being primarily an impressive exercise in storytelling rather than a substantive study of politics, does have some underlying messages about identity and ethics.

If you had one word to describe Juno, chances are it would be “quirky”. Anywhere you look online you’ll find this label plastered to the film’s witty face. Personally it seems an unfair, limiting term for such an intelligent, funny, well-acted production. But I guess it is undoubtedly true. Juno isn’t your average teenager. She’s witty, quick and cynical. She wasn’t used by some sex mad male but got knocked up by banging the best friend who’s crazy about her out of boredom. She sets about helping a deserving couple, rather than unthinkingly obliterating the fledgling life inside her.

The couple she decides to “donate” her child to are almost as important to the story as Juno. Played by Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman, they are the grown-up heart of the film, the crucial counterpoint to Juno’s usually happy exuberance. All the cast deal superbly with fast, funny dialogue, including Juno herself, Ellen Page, as well as her Dad and Step-Mom, J.K. Simmons and Alison Janney. And of course the love that suddenly blossoms at the end with Michael Cera, is wonderfully touching and encompassed by the duet which ends the film.

Of all these films it’s The Ghost with the most stylistic flourishes, perhaps ironic given the everyman Brit accent adopted by Ewan McGregor. There are no jaw-dropping stunts in this film; all the drama comes from the story and suffocating, tense locations. When crucial, potentially stunning events occur in the plot, Polanski deals with them with the utmost style. The film starts by simply showing an abandoned car to heighten the mystery surrounding the death of the previous Ghost Writer, rather than showing a spectacular murder scene. At the climax of the film McGregor’s character is abruptly hit by a car out of shot; we only see papers scatter and swirl in the traffic, littering the street.

Rich in detail, in The Ghost we learn surprisingly little about anything ever. Polanski somehow captures the Dan Brown like, page-turning twists of the novel and distils them on film, whilst also adding a layer of intelligence to the swerves of the plot. You are gripped, determined to keep watching for the big reveal. A reveal cunningly disguised throughout and then stylishly unveiled with an anticipation building close-up of a gradually passed note. The Ghost is immensely enjoyable and stylish; I couldn’t take my eyes off it.

So filmmakers do something different, unpredictable and restrained if you want to make it big and be lavished with praise.

Daily Telegraph Ghost Story Writing Competition


In my idle hours today I stumbled across The Daily Telegraph’s ghost story writing competition. I decided to while away my time contributing an entry, but had little idea what I wanted to do, other than something different. The result of my endeavours I entered into the competition, but I suspect it is nowhere near as cleverly composed and close to the original genre as required. I wanted to challenge the idea in the article by the Head Judge that comedy kills a ghost story, but my efforts may prove her right. I think the tension builds a bit too slowly and in the wrong places and the finale is rushed. But I like some of it and will post it here as evidence of my development and boredom

Link to competition here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/8093081/Telegraph-ghost-story-writing-competition.html

“May I sit here?”
“…”
“Excuse me, may I sit down?”
“Oh yes…ah, sorry. Of course.”

He was reading, wading through the thickets of what looked like a cross between an ageing government dossier and an academic paper. Thumbing down the page, he let the bulky scroll slap onto the table and hoisted his bag, a rustic looking holdall bursting at the seams, with a solitary wire peering out from within like a periscope or antennae, onto the seat next to him. I shuffled gratefully into the vacated space. I commenced a brief wriggling and squirming search for comfort. Ritual complete, I fixed my new companion of circumstance with my widest polite grin. His eyebrows flicked briefly in acknowledgement before darting back down to the task at hand. I remember thinking that he resembled Father Christmas on a business trip, a tedious contractual quest for toys that sucked the joy out of his life’s passion. Or Dickie Attenborough in Jurassic Park. Funny that even then his kindly, disinterested face had monstrous associations.

I didn’t so much as glance at the man with the white beard sitting across from me, with the mysterious bag and endless reams of type, for the next hour and a half or so. Once or twice I sensed him slowly twirling his neck in my peripheries but for the most part I was absorbed in my marking and he in his mammoth read. I had only bothered the poor guy, for that’s all he was to me then, a stranger I had briefly inconvenienced, so I could use the table to mark my lower sixth’s Crimea essays. I should have done them days ago but had got caught up in her company, as usual. It was typical of me lately to have left things for a last minute slog on the train, but at that moment I didn’t much care. I scrawled my half-thoughts in the margin, racing to finish and bathe fully in recollections of the weekend. I was oblivious to the gradually darkening sky outside and the black clouds amassing in the distance. I didn’t watch as the night was born prematurely of a congealed, thickening, all consuming blob that would quickly engulf the train galloping towards its jaws. I was blissfully unaware of the twitching forks of lightning flashing electric blue warning signals on the horizon. I did not then regard him or his eccentric belongings as suspicious. I did not regard him at all.

The next thing I knew the carriage’s sickening sway had jerked me awake. Shamefully my head was lolling lifeless on my shoulder, oozing an indulgent drool. The last essay lay untouched on the table in front of me. I wiped the slobber on the back of my hand and scrunched the sleep from my eyes. He was hastily stuffing wires back into his bag, snatching glances at me from the corners of his eyes. I observed him groggily in the black sheet that used to be the window. Total, absolute night had fallen during my slumber. The never-ending blackness was only interrupted by the occasional shaft of sinister blue, winking at me, warning me again. Again I was ignorant; choosing instead to gaze dreamily at the distant amber twinkle of streetlights, rendered a blur by the patchwork of water droplets. He was reading again, deep in thought. A frown furrowed his forehead as I watched his reflection in the mirror of night.

The wobble of the carriage really was unusually vigorous. So I was relieved when the automated squawk of an announcement about suspicious bags was interrupted by the neutral, but alive, voice of the on duty guard. He said something about stopping at the next station for maintenance in a barely audible mutter, laced with boredom and tiredness. I looked briefly about the carriage to find empty seats everywhere. The poor guy must know how few passengers he was addressing and how few were left awake to care what he was saying. I briefly considered hopping across the aisle to the now completely vacant table opposite. But my unintended sleep made this more awkward than staying put, I thought.  The wind howled.

The promised pit stop seemed to stretch on and on. At first I was curious, then concerned, about a series of loud bangs and jolts that didn’t normally accompany such maintenance in my experience. Dickie too, was bothered; even pushing aside his report or whatever it was, going all alert like a Meerkat.  Still though no words were spoken. Eventually sleep crept up on me again, tempting me to embrace the boredom and the rhythmic, soundless splashing of water visible through the gloom on the platform.

This time I woke up dying for a piss. We were no longer stopped. In fact we seemed to be hurtling through the blackness, the whole carriage snaking to the sounds of a gale. I think he was reading as I staggered past him to the WC, but now I’m not so sure. He might have already started. On reaching the toilet I find a makeshift “OUT OF ORDER” notice plastered across it. For some reason I decide it would be embarrassing to retreat past Dickie to the other end of the carriage and the other WC, so I head onward to the next carriage and salvation on the horizon. I considered simply going back to my seat, but I literally felt as if I was about to burst. I jabbed a finger impatiently at the button for the door to the next carriage. The doors didn’t open and the darkness beyond yawned at me through the glass as I hopped and jigged on the spot, frantically pushing the button and then scrambling ineffectively at the join in the door. I wheeled around in a complete circle; no one around to help, no one official. Suddenly the intensity of the blackness in the empty, unreachable next carriage struck me as odd. I peered through the glass at the rows of red seats shrouded in gloom, all the while shaking stupidly. Was there something wrong? Something going on here?

I walked briskly back into our carriage, Dickie now the solitary occupant. He had definitely stopped reading by this point and he had his wires out. This time there was no attempt to hide the contraption he cradled on his lap. The luminous green digits on the carriage clock had faded out to almost nothing, with the exception of a “1” and a “7”, which flashed on and off every few seconds, broadcasting the message “17”. Despite my still swelling bladder, I can’t help but stand rooted to the spot, transfixed by this. I hadn’t been following the time, but I’m sure it must have been approaching midnight when I got up for the toilet. I still needed the toilet. This basic urge and the spectacle of the clock meant I didn’t hear Dickie speaking.

“Spooky isn’t it.”

At first I ignore him and make to head off down the carriage towards the other toilet, but something held me back. I didn’t want to be alone. So I flopped, no for fear of an embarrassing mishap I eased myself back into my seat, and indicated his pages and pages of text.

“Quite the mountain you’re climbing.”
“Oh this? It’s alright really; I’ve read it all before but needed to recap some things. I might have missed something important…”
His voice trailed off. I was about to ask what exactly he was reading when he spoke again, raising his eyes from the device he was fiddling with for the first time.
“You went to the toilet and it was out of order.”
“Yes…” full marks Dickie, I thought.
“Would you like to know why it was out of order? Why so many things have been malfunctioning, why they’ve discretely cordoned off these three carriages, why it feels so cold, why the power fluctuations? Why the number seventeen?”
He reeled off these enticing questions not with any air of mystery or power, but with one of indifference, whilst he went back to manoeuvring wires and turning a large dial at the centre of his gadget, his toy, his gizmo. 
“How can you…? Do you work for the train company? Did I miss an announcement? The number is just a coincidence…”
“Oh no it’s all connected. And I work for humanity.”
“…”
“That is to say for the good of mankind. For its protection.”
“…”
I stared at him blankly. I still needed to pee and didn’t have time for this old guy’s games. Just my luck, Dickie was insane. Bad choice for a partner in a power cut. I started to get up with the intention of finally relieving myself in the other toilet. I told myself to man up and get over my stupid irrational fear of the lonely rattling murk.
“A paedophile slashed his wrists in that toilet almost six months ago and this train has been plagued with problems ever since. It’s riddled with faults. They refuse to admit that the issue is supernatural. I’ve told them again and again they would need my help. The number just confirms it.”
“What!? What are you…?”
Dickie wasn’t finished.
“His case notes show that the deceased consistently claimed that the girl he raped and later murdered, claimed she was seventeen years of age. She was eleven.”
I had frozen in the aisle. Dickie was sick, I thought. Could Dickie, I wondered, also be dangerous? At that moment the dial on his blob of wires clicked loudly into place. My whole frame shuddered involuntarily. Dickie twisted the dial and a high pitched beeping began.
“Yep. He’s here.”
The remaining lights went out.

*

I’m pretty sure a lot of what happened after that is still suppressed somewhere in my mind. She keeps telling me I should get some therapy to sort it out. But why inflict that on a therapist? They’d either label me insane or join me in the madhouse if they truly understood. I don’t understand what happened, neither could they. Why spread the misery? I do remember Dickie telling me not to move. For quite a while I remember him urging me, in a low, gentle voice, how imperative it was not to move, not to disturb his “zone”, not to anger him. Then the monologue began.

It was definitely Dickie’s voice doing all that ranting and raving, and yet it was not Dickie’s voice. Every now and then what sounded like the real Dickie would break through and manage to say something to interrupt the flow in a choking, rasping croak. Distressingly though whenever it did really sound like him, he simply reiterated the same unhelpful advice; do not move. I wanted to run and keep running. I remember staring at the only source of light left; that blinking 17, trying to block out the tortured tale emanating from Dickie’s body, which I could feel writhing in its possessed state over my shoulder. My natural defences have done a reasonably good job of deleting that twisted monologue, but certain phrases still come to me at night in dreams, vivid and alive like he were whispering in my ear. Then I wake up, sticky and warm all over with sweat. And in my half-awake, half-asleep state, I imagine I am covered in blood, his hot, dirty, vile blood in that clattering WC. Then I vomit and an attendant comes in with a mop.

I really wish I could remember how Dickie came to be on top of me, covered in blood, a cold corpse. How the window came to be smashed, how his beeping gizmo had vanished. How the howling tube, speeding through the storm, came to be serenely waiting at the platform, undamaged, unblemished. How the knife got into my pocket, covered in my DNA, my fingerprints, Dickie’s blood. But I don’t need counselling, therapy doesn’t work and I don’t believe in ghosts.