Estranged (2015) Gothic Horror Returns to Its Roots – Review

Amy Manson as January in Estranged

Directed by Adam Levins from a screenplay by Simon Fantauzzo (who co-wrote the original story with William Borthwick) “Estranged” features some of the best of British in this Gothic horror returned to the genre’s roots.  James Cosmos, Craig Conway,  Nora-Jane NooneEileen NicholasJames Lance  and Amy Manson  star in this dark, twisted  and oddly intimate horror film.

Starting in Brazil; January (Manson) and her boyfriend Callum (Simon Quarterman) are riding a motor scooter in Rio and get into an accident. She ends up in a wheelchair suffering from amnesia. With nowhere else to go, January and Callum go to her home. 

The crippled woman left six years previously and is apparently estranged from her family.  Once the couple arrive things get strange rather quickly.  The rundown mansion has moldy walls in the bathroom and the house is falling apart. Yet the family can afford to retain a butler.

January can remember nothing about her childhood and her father Albert (Cosmos) dislikes Callum. One day her boyfriend disappears and  January’s life takes a a severe downswing.  At first her mum Marilyn (Nicholas), sister Katherine (Noone) and brother Lawrence (Lance) continue to act like her family.

Later, a guilt stricken Thomas (Conway) reveals the truth to January who then tries to escape.  She is made a prisoner in her own home and her life becomes a living hell.

Levins makes “Estranged” more than just intimate. The film is claustrophobic and cloying. Manson’s character is run through the wringer. As the story progresses her trials continue to get worse and she discovers that what she has been told is not true.

Conway is brilliant as the servant who has obviously been beaten into submission by Albert. Cosmos, as the bullish patriarch, is massive and powerful looking and acts like an alpha male on steroids.

The film’s pace is languid to the point of standing still in places but it is necessary. It makes January’s predicament not only disturbing but frustrating as well. This oddball family, so determined to control her every move are strange and annoying. Gradually the theme bypasses strange and enters firmly into the world of the weirdly scary.

As events slowly play out the viewer guesses at what must really be going on in this quirky  country estate where everyone seems to be a more disturbing version of either the Addams family or criminally insane.

When the truth is finally revealed things are worse than imagined and the ending is fitting, if not a little unsatisfying.  In a nutshell, this film allows its stars to shine. Cosmos is scary as hell and Conway plays against type to be the most sympathetic character in the film.

Noone is at turns disturbing and childlike while Lance is just creepy full stop.   Eileen Nicholas is also spot on as the doting mother who has definitely seen better days.  Her Marilyn is spacey and disconnected to everything going on around her.

Manson goes through hell  in this film and it is all too easy to imagine the actress being covered in bruises for some time after shooting the feature.

The lighting and camera work combine to make the film look dark and claustrophobic.  “Estranged”  is a cracking horror film that, while slow, does hit all the right marks and delivers in the end. A full four  stars for this one,  missing the fifth as the pace really is a tad too slow at times. Streaming on Netflix at the moment in the US but not easily found due to the awkward category browsing system.

Watch this one and see why British horror is some of the best in the world.

Stonehearst Asylum (2014) Old Fashioned Gothic Romance Story

Stonehearst Asylum Film Poster
Directed by Brad Anderson (The Call, Transsiberian) and adapted for the screen by Joe Gangemi (Wind Chill, Inamorata) from an Edgar Allen Poe short story (The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether) Stonehearst Asylum stars Kate Beckinsale (Underworld, Total Recall), Jim Sturgess (Cloud Atlas, Ashes), David Thewlis (Macbeth, The Theory of Everything) along with Michael Caine and Ben Kingsley as well as some of England’s finest character actors like Jason Flemyng and Sinead Cusak. Set in 1899 just as the world is slipping into the 1900s; Beckinsale plays Lady Eliza Graves, a woman driven mad by her brutish husbands sexual demands on their wedding night.

This is the reason given for her incarceration, but in reality, she attacks her husband with a comb and puts out one of his eyes when he attempts to force her into sodomy.

A doctor known as an Alienist, played by Brendan Gleeson (28 Days Later, Safe House) parades Graves at a medical lecture where he induces her to have a fit by touching her “inappropriately.” Later, a young Alienist, Dr. Newgate, comes to Stonehearst Asylum to become the latest member of staff in the madhouse. The stone structure is out in the middle of nowhere and the first person the young doctor meets is Mickey Finn (Thewlis) who is disturbing to say the least.

Once inside, Newgate meets the Asylum head, Dr. Lamb (Kingsley) and learns that the doctor does not give drugs to the incarcerated patients and practices new and unusual treatments. The new doctor meets Lady Graves and later finds that Lamb and Finn are actually patients who overpowered the real staff and taken over. Dr. Salt (Michael Caine) and the remainder of the asylum’s professional care takers have been locked in cages in the building’s basement.

The look and feel of this 2014 film is a mixture of mystery, thriller and a good old fashioned romantic Gothic love story. Enough of the real inhuman treatments of the clinically insane are featured in the film and this marks the second time that Kingsley and Caine have worked together, the first being their Holmes and Watson double act in the 1988 film Without a Clue.

The sets and the lighting combine to create what looks to be a perfect recreation of the back end of the Victorian Era. Cinematographer Tom Yatsko (Gotham, The Day After Tomorrow) pulls out all the stops to make this film moody, atmospheric and Victorian. The only anachronism is the reference to slipping someone a Mickey Finn before the phrase became well known, as the setting is just prior to 1900 and the saying did not become popular until 1915 according to Wikipedia.

All the actors deliver brilliant performances. David Thewlis, who repeatedly plays roles so full of menace, does not disappoint as the mad lady-killer and Sturgess gives a wonderful turn as the love struck medico. Sir Ben Kingsley shows once again why he is an award winning actor and Michael Caine does the same. Beckinsale is appropriately stressed as the woman who freaks at a too-familiar touch and Brendan Gleeson is seen far too little.

A little nepotism is apparent in the casting, although not a lot as he does not appear until towards the end of the film, as Kingsley’s son Edmund plays the role of Sir Charles Graves, Beckinsale’s brutish screen husband whose sexual tastes drives her into the madhouse.

For anyone who adores British cinema (And who does not?) this is a 5 star film. Despite being set, very loosely, on a Poe short story, the movie feels as English as London fog. Streaming on US Netflix it is worth the time spent to watch it. Pop yourself some corn, grab a glass of fizzy and enjoy.

1 June 2015

Michael Knox-Smith