Shutter Island (2010): A Scorsese Screamer

Shutter Island (film)
Shutter Island (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Director Martin Scorsese’s film Shutter Island was touted as ‘Scorsese does horror’ by the studio marketing department. The teasers and trailers that cropped up in theatres and television as early as 2008 slotted the film firmly in the scary screamer category.

So I was a little bit more than confused when I finally got to watch the film in 2010. Munching my popcorn in the darkened theatre, I expected to lose at least half of it from jumping and jerking at the scary bits. Thankfully, that was not to be (thankfully, because I love eating popcorn while watching a movie, it is as perfect a combination as say, peaches and cream).

Instead I found myself watching a damned good psychological thriller.  There was a mixture of mystery, drama, horror and tragedy thrown in for good measure, but, it was undeniably a thriller. So despite the studio publicity hacks best attempts at dooming the picture because of misrepresentation, Shutter Island shot straight into the Blockbuster category.

I mean was there ever any doubt that Scorsese, the Wunderkind who grew up, wouldn’t pack the cinema’s with his ‘tribute’ to Hitchcock?  Not in my mind. Scorsese has hit more out of the metaphorical ball park than Babe Ruth. Okay, time to move on from the Scorsese fan-boy stroking.

The film opens with US Marshall Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) on a ferry heading to Shutter Island. They are going to Ashecliffe Hospital and institution for the criminally insane based on the island. They’ve been sent there to investigate the disappearance of a patient, Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer).

Rachel was imprisoned for murdering her three children by drowning them. As Ashecliffe Hospital is, despite it’s name, a maximum security prison located on an island, the disappearance has a ‘locked room’ mystery air to it.

On the journey out to the island, we learn that Teddy is a decorated war hero and that this is the first time he has worked with his partner. When the men land on the island they are met by a hostile group of  ‘prison officers’ who demand that they hand over their weapons.

The two Marshall’s are then escorted to a meeting with the head psychiatrist, Dr. John Cawley (Ben Kingsley). Dr Cawley is oddly reluctant to deal with the investigating Marshall’s and refuses to hand over medical records of the missing woman. He explains that Rachel’s doctor is on holiday and he refuses them access to the ward that she went missing from.

Cawley then explains that they have already searched the island and it’s broken lighthouse, he is of the opinion that the officers have wasted their time coming to the island.

We learn that Teddy suffers from migraines and he also has flashbacks about the war and the death of his wife. The war flashbacks are from his unit coming across a ‘death camp’ and his subsequent ‘execution’ of the SS Commandant who ran it. The flashbacks of his wife’s death involve the man who killed her, an arsonist that had a grudge against Teddy, Andrew Laeddis (Elias Koteas).

While the meeting is going on, Teddy and his partner Chuck meet Dr Naehring (Max von Sydow) who questions Teddy about the war and makes certain assertions about him and his personality. Teddy reacts aggressively and his flashbacks about the war increase as does his migraine.

Teddy and Chuck questioning the staff.

Teddy starts questioning the staff and patients who, like Dr Cawley, are reluctant to help. The staff come across as bored and hostile, the patients unfocussed. Only one patient appears to be ‘with it’ and she slips Teddy a note telling him to run.

Teddys get frustrated at the lack of cooperation and decides to break into Ward C. Teddy’s migraine gets so bad that he passes out and when he wakes up he has been given ‘hospital’ clothes. He begins to think that the entire hospital is engaging in a conspiracy to hide what really happened to Rachel and he has found evidence that his wife’s murderer is a patient there.

Teddy thinks that a trap has been laid for him and his partner, but they are both stuck on the island as a hurricane blows in.

As a thriller Shutter Island works brilliantly. The plot twists and turns and as we follow Teddy around on his investigation, we get as lost as he is. The truth is hidden behind lies and misdirection. There are scary bits in the film as well as disturbing ones.

We grow to like Teddy and his partner, although, as the film progresses we start to mistrust Chuck and begin to question his motives and his loyalty to Teddy. We struggle with Teddy as he finds clues as to what is really going on at the hospital and we share his frustration at the many dead ends and false leads he encounters.

Shutter Island is Scorsese at his best. He masterfully weaves the threads of this tale and neatly ties them up at the end. The cinematography of the island and the hospital is dark, uncomfortable and unsettling. When Teddy has his many flashbacks the scenes are brightly lit and jarring. The music suits the mood of the film and helps to sell the finality and  sadness that the doomed Teddy faces.

Shutter Island

I feel that Shutter Island is a thriller, but Teddy’s own story could very well be classified as horror. The film is a worthy adaptation of the novel by Dennis Lehane it manages to evoke the same feelings and reactions about Teddy and his predicament.

I mentioned that I love the combination of popcorn and movies. Well, I can generally measure how good a film is by the amount of time it takes me to consume a large bag of popcorn. The better the film, the faster the popcorn runs out.

I ran out of popcorn before a quarter of the film had gone by and I lost not one kernel to ‘jumps’ or ‘scares.’

The Ward (2010) Deja Vue All Over Again

I was really excited to see that John Carpenter had made a new film. This is his first full length feature since he made the mediocre Ghosts of Mars (2001) and by anybodies reckoning nine years is a long time between films. The films release was not well received by critics who generally mauled the film. I imagine John is wondering why he came back.

The films cast is well rounded with actors that have pedigrees to be proud of. Main protagonist Kristen is played by Amber Heard (who made such a big splash in All the Boys Love Mandy Lane ) and her psychiatric nemesis, Dr Stringer is played by Jared Harris (who sounds so much like his father Richard that it is almost disturbing).  The rest of the cast includes Lyndsy Fonseca fresh form the brilliant Kick Ass, Mamie GummerDanielle PanabakerLaura-LeighMika Boorem all actors with a list of credits as long as your arm.

The “Readers Digest” version of the plot is as follows:

A Girl is hiding   in the woods wearing a slip and house slippers. A police car is in the area answering a call. The girl runs from the police and sets a house on fire. The police catch her and she is put into an insane asylum.  We find out her name is Kristen and she  is placed in a room that the previous occupant vanished from. Her first night in the room something steals her blanket while she is sleeping and she finds a broken bracelet that spells the name Alice. The next day she meets the other five  occupants of the mental ward. What follows is a series of scenes where Kristen bonds with her ward-mates, interacts with Dr Stringer and repeatedly tries to escape.

Several short scenes show a pre-pubescent girl in chains who is about to be sexually abused by a large bearded man. intermixed with all this is the appearance of a gruesome looking wraith who is dispatching the ward occupants in very nasty ways. We also find out that Dr Stringer is using some sort of ‘new’ treatment on the girls in the ward. The wraith we find out is a previous girl from the ward that no one will talk about initially. The girls finally reveal that her name is Alice and they all killed her, because she was mean. With the dead Alice busily wreaking revenge on her killers, the six occupants of the ward have now been whittled down to just Kristen and Zoey and together they make one last bid for freedom.

I enjoyed the film but I could never really get invested in it. It felt more like a mystery thriller than your bog standard horror film. The “plot twist” at the end of the film was good enough, but unfortunately it has been done before. Comparisons to Shutter Island have been made and I can see why but, I felt, however, that the film had more in common with the 2003 film Identity. It is not a stretch to say the film is perhaps a mix of the two.

There were very few ‘jump’ moments in the film. The times I did jump had more to do with the sound being so loud versus the action being so scary. The interaction between Kristen and her ward mates was good, but not terrific by any means. I did like the scenes between Dr Stringer and Kristen. Stringer always made me feel uneasy. As the audience we don’t trust Stringer and question his motives. He comes across as a caring sensitive man one moment only to turn into a figure of apparent cruelty.

The cinematography is good and the FX on the wraith was superb. The hands alone were quite possibly the creepiest thing about the entire film. Over all, I felt the film was missing something. Perhaps it is because this has been ” a horror weekend.” My daughter and I have been glutting ourselves on three horror films and one science fiction film.

In all honesty, all the films have ‘brought something to the table’ but Carpenters film did not quite deliver. I have no idea why he decided to wait nine years before making another film, but, I don’t feel as though the break improved his film making capabilities. It is a shame that the last film he made before his break garnered the same sort of reception that his most recent film has.

The film is worth a look, if for no other reason than to admire the talented cast’s performances. Just don’t expect to be too surprised by the films ‘twist’ ending.