An Arkansas Razorback in Queen Elizabeth Country 6

A new arrival in the unit asked me if I was interested in sharing a house with him in a small Suffolk village. He’d rented the house and it was large and had about four bedrooms in it. I went out to the village of Swaffham Prior and had a look at the place.

For starters it was excellently placed in the village as it was right across the street from the village Pub. Don’t get the wrong idea. I liked my drink as much as the next person, but that wasn’t why I was so pleased with the proximity of the Pub.

The Red Lion

Pub’s were, at that time anyway, a meeting place for the village. Through the Pub, you met people, found out what was happening around the area and who was who in the village. That and if the Pub was close enough, you could drink a skin-full of booze and just stagger home.

The house itself was old. It had been a coach house in the olden days. (I cannot for the life of me remember when the house was originally built, but the coach house bit is a dead give away for how old it actually was) It was long, much longer than than the Google earth picture above. And when I lived there with Ralph, it was white.

On the right hand side of the house as you faced it from the street was an agate gravel drive that branched off to the left and led you to the back door. The front door was used only once when I lived there and that was when the local vicar stopped by to welcome us to the village.

When you entered the back door you would find the back hall, bathroom, stairs to the first floor (that’s second floor to denizens of the US) and a smaller hall to the rest of the house.

Nestled in between the drive and the back door path was our ‘sitting’ room. It had a two seater settee, Ralph’s leather recliner, a fireplace and the television. The window faced the front of the Pub across the street.

When you walked out of the ‘sitting room’ you crossed the small hallway and walked past the front door to the huge dining room. If you continued you walked through the kitchen (a perfect square of a room) and on the other side of the kitchen was my massive bedroom. That plus a utility room that housed our washer and dryer made up the ground floor of the house.

My bedroom featured the only other door that opened onto the high street. I say opened, but that is a bit of a misnomer. The massive four inch wide door was sealed shut and could not be opened at all.

The first floor of the house was comprised entirely of bedrooms. The one opposite the Pub was our ‘cold’ store. In the winter we left a window cracked and it kept most of our perishable foodstuff nice and cool.

The first couple of months that Ralph and I lived there we would occasionally both watch the telly in the sitting room. When anyone walked up the gravel drive and the path to our door you could hear them as clearly as if the path were in the room with us. One night we sat there watching the news when, during a break between stories, the volume lowered enough for us to hear someone walking up the drive.

“Looks like we have a visitor.” Ralph said with a smile.

He turned down the volume on the TV. We both sat grinning like a couple of idiots as we listened to the footsteps progress from the side of the house to the back door. The gravelly steps stopped at our back door and waited we for the knock.

Silence permeated the air. No knock. Nothing. We sat there is silence and waited for the footsteps to start their journey back to the street. Still, nothing.

Finally, we couldn’t take the suspense any longer. We both got up and jogged to the back door. Ralph flung open the door with a loud and cheery, “Hi!”

There was no one there.

We had quite a giggle about this turn of events and made jokes about ghosts and possible pranksters having a laugh at the ‘new boys’ in the village. As we walked back into the sitting room we watched the fancy leather throw on the back of Ralph’s recliner start swinging back and forth.

Ralph looked at me with one eyebrow up and said, “The fireplace must be open. I’ll close the draft.” He walked over to the fireplace and knelt down to close the flue. He suddenly stopped and looked up the chimney. He looked back over his shoulder at me.

“Damn thing’s closed already.”

As he stood up, the throw began to sway again. Ralph walked over to it and held his hand by the throw. “Nothing.” He moved his hand fractionally. “Not a breath of air.” We both shrugged and sat back down to finish watching the news.

This occurrence would be a regular event at the house. We used to make jokes about our mysterious sitting room ghost and our invisible house guest who was too shy to knock on the back door.

It was only after we had lived there for about six months that the activity increased and soon shifted it’s focus on to Ralph’s new girlfriend. But that was after it decided to pick on me and after I had moved out of the house and  into  a flat with my new fiancée .

My bedroom and it’s inoperable door.

Poltergeist (1982): Too Much TV is Bad For You

Watching the Tobe Hooper classic again today, I was struck again about how “anti-television” the film is. The family in the film are your typical middle to upper level income family. They have a television in every room and they all watch the ‘boob tube’ until they fall asleep and the stations stop broadcasting.

*Remember the old days before 24/7 TV?*

The littlest child in the family, five year old Carol Anne (the late Heather O’Rourke), is mesmerised by the static that transmits when a TV channel goes ‘off the air’. Towards the beginning of the film, before the family discover the ‘poltergeist’ that will plague them and their house, Carol Anne is watching the ‘mini’ TV in the kitchen. Face right up to the telly, she’s watching the static. Mom as she passes by says, “Dear you’ll hurt your eyes, don’t watch that.” She then turns the channel so that Carol Anne can watch a ‘proper’ program. A war film.

The film begins with the US National Anthem playing as the station that dad has fallen asleep in front of goes off the air. Static and flashing light from the flickering TV screen dominates the scene. The family dog roams around the house snacking on the bits of food that the family have left scattered about.

Carol Anne wakes up and goes downstairs to the family set that dad has fallen asleep in front of. Sitting right up on top of the static filled flickering screen she begins to talk to it. “I can’t hear you,” She says twice before ‘answering questions’ that are apparently coming from the static transmitting TV.

The rest of the family wake up and the conversation is cut short.

Steve and Diane Freeling (Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams respectively) are a ‘modern’ couple. They are smoking pot while they simultaneously read, watch TV and discuss Carol Anne’s little conversation with the static filled screen.

The arrival of a storm ends with both the younger children sleeping with Mom and Dad. Son Robbie (Oliver Robins) sleeps soundly between his two parents. But Carol Anne is again drawn to the TV’s static filled screen and in the film’s most often repeated line says, “They’re here.” Light shoots out of the television and enters the wall over the sleeping occupants of the bed.

At  the beginning of the film Steve and few cronies are watching football on the family set. Next door neighbour Marty has a remote control television that is on the same frequency as Steve’s. The TV’s channel starts changing from the football game to Mr Rogers. Marty and Steve indulge in a battle of remote’s.

Carole Anne refers to the ‘ghosts’ as the” TV people.”  Later in the film when the ‘ghost-busting’ team film some of the spectral visitors and tell the couple that they will have to publicise their findings. Steve says, “As long as it’s not with 60 Minutes.” Debbie then chimes in with, “Or with Ripley’s Believe It or Not.”  Two very popular American television programs of the time.

The family communicate with Carol Anne through the television in most of the film. And at the end of the film when they flee their house for the relative safety of the local Holiday Inn, Steve removes the hotel room television and puts it unceremoniously on the balcony outside.

The Freelings represent the ‘Hollywood’ ideal of the average American family. Dad has a successful job selling houses for the very estate that they live on. Mom is a ‘stay-at-home’ mother who looks after the youngest Carol Anne. Robbie is the highly imaginative ‘middle child’ and Dana is the oldest. Dana (played by the late Dominique Dunne, who was tragically murdered by her boyfriend just five months after the films release) is a confident teenager who skillfully handles the amorous  attentions of the men who are putting in the family swimming pool.

They even have a few pets. One of which, Tweety the canary, dies at the start of the film only to be replaced with two goldfish. Another favourite line from the film occurs when Diane, upon discovering the dead canary, says, “Damn it Tweety couldn’t you have picked a school day?” The family’s other pet is the snacking dog we met at the start of the film.

Of course being Hollywood’s representation of the ‘all American family’ they love their televisions.

Tobe Hooper (who really never made anything else this good apart from his delightfully scary Texas Chainsaw Massacre) does a great job on this film. Unfortunately because it was written by Steven Spielberg, and produced by him as well, it seems more like a Spielberg film. I kept expecting E.T. and company to appear at any moment at the beginning of the film. The film’s soundtrack is also very ‘Spielberg-ish.’

Some of the special effects are a bit dated and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this film doesn’t get marked for re-imaging in the near future. But despite the apparent ageing of the CG, the film still works. The ‘child eating tree’ still manages to scare quite nicely and that damn clown; the type of toy that a well meaning (or cruel) relative gives children that is guaranteed to creep the kid out for years.

The rotting food, the bathroom mirror and the swimming pool scenes still work brilliantly and don’t require too much suspension of disbelief.

It was only upon viewing the film today that I realised that the, not-so subliminal,  message seemed to be that TV is bad for you. Or rather too much TV is bad for you. Too much in that you sit in front of the glass teat until you fall asleep and the stations all go off the air. This obviously gives any ghostly occupants of the house an entrance into our world.

Of course that was the old days, before twenty-four hour telly. I suppose that if ghosts and ghoulies what to find an entrance into our world via the TV nowadays, they’ll have to wait for a long commercial break.

The Devil’s Backbone (2001): Guillermo del Toro’s Tour de Force

Directed and co-written by Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, HellboyThe Devil’s Backbone  is a slow and haunting film that frightens and mesmerises the viewer. Overshadowed by the wildly successful Pan’s Labyrinth, the film is a lesser known film, that despite the success of Labyrinth, is a superior film.

Set during the 1939 Spanish civil war, the film follows Carlos’s arrival to an all boys orphanage located in the war-torn countryside. We follow Carlos in his day-to-day experiences and his interaction with everyone at the orphanage.

The film starts with the camera zooming in on the Orphanage itself, with the narrator, Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi) asking: “What is a ghost? A tragedy condemned to repeat it self time and again?” We see a bomb being sent to earth by a plane and its landing in the orphanage and we see the body of a young boy lying on the ground.

The narration continues. “An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive. An  emotion suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph. Like an insect trapped in amber.”  While the last of the narration continues, we see that the boy’s head is covered in blood and that another boy is with him. We then see the bloodied boy in water, sinking slowly down as bubbles rise around him.

This wonderfully mesmerizing opening goes on during the opening credits of the film. And it sets the mood of the film brilliantly. This narrative by Dr Casares sets up the framework of the film. His questioning of what a ghost is tells us that the orphanage is haunted and just from the opening scenes alone, we can tell it is haunted by several spectres.

Carlos is brought to the orphanage by car, speeding through the dusty and desolate countryside. Carlos is with his guardian and bodyguard who is taking him there for his own safety while the civil war escalates. Upon arriving the first thing noticed is the unexploded bomb. It is half buried in the dusty courtyard of the orphanage. This is the first spectre that both haunts and threatens the inhabitants of the orphanage.

Carlos himself comes from a ‘wealthy’ family and he is convinced that he is there temporarily for his own safety. It transpires that he will be there much longer. Initially, Carlos has trouble fitting in with the other boys and he has trouble sleeping. He sees the ghost of the boy we saw at the beginning of the film. His greatest antagonist is Jaime (Íñigo Garcés) but this changes when Carlos saves Jaime from drowning in the ‘dead-boy’s’ pool. 

It turns out that the real bully of the orphanage is Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega) an alumni of the orphanage who stayed to work there when he grew up. Jacinto is the second spectre that haunts the orphanage. A spectre with a pleasing countenance who is full of bad thoughts and evil deeds. He is also the local ‘stud’ servicing, it seems, all the women in the orphanage. Including the ‘head’ of the place, the one legged Carmen (Marisa Paredes), who is loved by Dr Casares.

Dr Casares is the third spectre of the orphanage. Impotent and a man of poetry and great passion, he loves Carmen but says nothing as he knows he cannot please her as a man. Instead he is haunted regularly by the sounds of her love making with Jacinto. And later in the film Casares will become a ‘real’ spectre who protects the boys and saves them from danger.

The boys of the orphanage tell Carlos that the ghost he sees is that of Santi (Junio Valverde) who went missing the night the bomb fell into the orphanage courtyard. The only person who knows what really happened is Jaime and Carlos (and the audience) believe that Jaime killed Santi. Santi is the  third ‘Gothic’ spectre who haunts the orphanage.

While the ghostly sightings and discussions are going on, we find out that the orphanage is the repository for the rebel’s funds. Gold is kept there to help feed and arm the rebels. Jacinto finds out about this and plots to steal it. Dr Casares goes to town and witnesses Carlos’s guardian and body guard’s  execution by government soldiers and is questioned and insulted by the same soldiers. The civil war is getting closer to the orphanage.

This film was all about ghosts and being haunted. All the characters are haunted by things. Things in their past, their present and their possible futures. And it was about ghosts.

The ghosts or spectres are many, the unexploded bomb, Santi’s spirit, Dr Casare, the gold and the civil war itself are all spectres that haunt the characters in the film. There are other ‘ghosts’ and you will discover that everyone in the film is affected by them.

I believe this film, should be considered the apex of Guillermo’s career as a director. The Devil’s Backbone is a film that does not take one miss step in its execution of the story and the building of it’s characters. It was annoyingly difficult to find at one point, I had several friends tell me, they could not find a copy to view.

If you can find this film. Watch it. You will not be disappointed and you will most likely fall in love with this Spanish film and it’s creator.

Guillermo del Toro