For a late October weekend– two movies whose houses are haunted: REBECCA and THE NEST.
I have always loved the original– Alfred Hitchcock’s Oscar-winning gothic masterpiece REBECCA based on Daphne du Maurier’s novel about wealthy widower Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier) who brings his new wife (Joan Fontaine) home to his sprawling English country estate, Manderley, which is presided over by the most foreboding housekeeper who ever kept a house, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson). The house remains haunted by Mrs. Danvers obsessive attachment to her late mistress as well as everyone’s recollections of the first Mrs. de Winter, the glamorous, worldly beauty, Rebecca. It’s hard to imagine why or who would want to remake this dark, gleaming gem of a film, and having seen the remake, I wish it would fall into the sea and be washed away forever…
The sumptuous black and white 1940’s original is a thrilling amalgam of psychological horror, romance, mystery, and suspense. Every shadow draws you deeper into a labyrinth of hidden meaning, suspicion, and sexual decadence. For once, Olivier’s theatricality suited the cinematic role and material; Joan Fontaine’s second Mrs. de Winter was perfect as a timid but luminous soul whose true heart carried the day, and Judith Anderson’s terrifying ghoul of a housekeeper is burned into memory as an almost vampiric presence feeding off the memory of her late mistress Rebecca, with an undying passion of unholy proportions. George Sanders creeping into the action as Rebecca’s lover intensified the forbidden thrills.
The just-released, fully decked-out 2020 remake REBECCA, shot in color, pales beside the silvery glamor of the original. A spectral gothic romance has been replaced by obvious romantic melodrama, dated and flat. Armie Hammer plays a jaunty Maxim de Winter, a blonde god whose sudden outbursts seem to signal a personality disorder rather than a dark secret. Lily James as the perky new Mrs. de Winter, cavorts through Manderley in loose trousers and a beret, alternating between spunk and funk. Her character here makes little emotional sense; a girl this impulsive, independent and inquisitive would have challenged her husband early on– but that would have been a different movie. As it is, James can’t find a coherent balance between the mores of the time that required her to tolerate her husband’s out of nowhere moodiness, and the modern sensibility with which she’s invested this performance.
The screenwriters and director Ben Wheatley have botched a consistent or compelling tone and sensibility, and at moments left us stranded in time and space. Near the climax, the second Mrs. de Winter traipses over the wild landscape (presumably to show off the scenery) and into the night for hours, and we have no idea where she’s going or why, what time it is, or when she last ate. I will say, Kristin Scott Thomas takes a decent stab at the austere and now faintly attractive Mrs. Danvers, about whose background and motives we learn more. But the overwrought ending was laughable, and the secrets uncovered felt un-horrifyingly half-baked. REBECCA 2020 has turned Daphne du Maurier’s novel into a Nancy Drew mystery. REBECCA is a NETFLIX FILM now released in selected theaters.
BUT THERE IS an excellent, recently released, psychological and “emotional” gothic horror film that you may have overlooked but is just right for the times: THE NEST. Jude Law turns in a complex, gripping performance as an ambitious financial entrepreneur who returns to London with his American wife (Carrie Coon) and family (Oona Roche, Charlie Shotwell). After they move into a sprawling country manor, the family begins to fall apart and everything turns dark. Tensions escalate between the couple, the children start to go astray, and the walls themselves seem to harbor ghosts.
Writer/director Sean Durkin (“Martha Marcy May Marlene“) meticulously calibrates the tone– that of lurking dread–as the film gradually zeroes in on the source of the creeping disturbance. Every inch of this house feels cold, every corner an abyss. Is the danger within or without? As tension builds, the couple’s interactions ebb and flow with the jagged undercurrents of their troubled marriage. The writer/director demonstrates an intimate understanding of the fallout of a damaged human heart, and the house becomes a metaphor for festering psychic wounds bubbling up from the past to infect the here and now. The denouement leaves us a shard of hope. There are excellent performances all around and Law’s performance is among his best, perfectly capitalizing on this actor’s ability to simultaneously convey disturbing charm and simmering cruelty. SEE “THE NEST.” An IFC Film released in theaters on September 18 and VOD November 17.