By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
Under the opening titles of director Nick Willing’s occasionally engaging, if undeniably tawdry, thriller Close Your Eyes, a young girl in a nightgown is pursued by an unidentified assailant through a bleak industrial landscape before jumping from a train trestle and plunging into a chilly ravine. This same girl, we soon learn, haunts the dreams of London Detective Inspector Janet Losey (Shirley Henderson), though not because the child is, like those ghostly young femmes of The Ring and The Sixth Sense, some restless specter seeking to settle a score. No, this one is very much alive — and, so far, the only abductee who has managed to flee from the clutches of a serial child-killer whose M.O. involves injecting his own blood into his victims’ veins and tattooing zodiac symbols upon their arms.
Alas, wee Heather (Sophie Stuckey) hasn’t uttered a word since her daring escape, and the police are stymied. Enter Michael Strother (ER’s Goran Visnjic), a hypnotherapist who’s recently relocated, under a cloud, from Seattle and whose powers extend beyond those of mere hypnotic suggestion. He can read minds, too, something Losey picks up on when she consults him about her smoking addiction. She proceeds to bully him into consulting on the case. He, of course, ends up managing to get through to Heather in a way no one else has. And of course, before long — the only good cops being rogue cops — Strother and a moonlighting Losey have teamed up to track down the bad guy on their own.
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The plotting here is as creaky as the floorboards in the fixer-upper occupied by Strother, his disapproving wife (Miranda Otto) and their daughter, who is, ominously, about Heather’s age. Yet as Willing moves the movie along its well-worn, Ruth Rendell–ish path, it accrues a certain fusty British charm, along with the requisite (and, for this reviewer, most satisfying) amounts of satanic symbolism, creepy mute children and abandoned gothic churches. On top of all that, Close Your Eyes offers up a smattering of Jacob’s Ladder–derived waking-dream sequences, a kind of pop-up-castle-in-a-briefcase that resembles a cross between a backgammon board and that weird multidimensional cube from the Hellraiser movies, and, not least of all, the great Fiona Shaw, caked under respiration-restricting amounts of old-lady makeup, as a potentially sinister professor of the occult. It’s all rendered by Willing (whose debut film was the respectable hoax drama Photographing Fairies) with an overdose of smash zooms and wide-angle effects — his idea, one assumes, of what scary looks like.
But there is one not-so-guilty pleasure in Close Your Eyes, and that’s the sublime Scottish workhorse Henderson, who’s just as credible playing a hard-bitten policewoman as she was recently playing the mustachioed wallflower in Intermission and the struggling single mom in Wilbur Wants To Kill Himself. (Which is to say nothing of her fine work in films released in years prior to 2004, including Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy.) The enigmatic charisma of this petite, wood-eyed lass lies, I think, in the fact that whatever role she plays, the character always seems rooted in a sense of herself as an ugly duckling and an outsider, a bland face in the faceless crowd. Yet whether she knows it or not, Henderson exerts her own hypnotic pull, like some mysterious stranger glimpsed at the far end of a crowded dance hall. I here admit to finding her one of the most compulsively watchable actors in movies today.
Another suspense tale, more artfully crafted, if less contagiously kitschy than Close Your Eyes, Morlang concerns a famous British artist (Paul Freeman, in the title role) who takes up residence with a sexy Irish siren (Susan Lynch) following the suicide of his cancer-stricken wife (Diana Kent). Naturally, there’s more to the story: In flashbacks that smash upon us like waves breaking against rocks, we see Morlang’s busted-up marriage reassemble itself, and learn that both spouses had good reason to be suspicious of each other’s fidelity. Meanwhile, back in the present, something sinister is afoot. Morlang finds himself besieged with mysterious phone calls and post cards that seem like messages telegraphed from six feet under. “Don’t feel guilty,” they pretend to comfort. “It’s nobody’s fault.” What’s nobody’s fault? If you think it has something to do with the death of Mrs. Morlang, you’re right. But rest assured, Morlang has surprises up its sleeve that even the seasoned genre fan may not see coming.
The debut feature of the Dutch television and commercials director Tjebbo Penning, Morlang jumps around in time and only in its final stretch reveals just how its jagged fragments fit together. And like many such exercises in nonlinearity, if the story were told in a more conventional fashion, it wouldn’t be nearly as gripping. Morlang purports to be loosely based on a real-life Dutch scandal known as the “Van Bemmelen affair.” For lack of any Internet sources of information about such an affair, we’ll just have to take the filmmakers’ word on that — especially since, by the time it reaches its twisty finale, Morlang has taken on the quality of something salacious read about in the morning papers and forgotten by supper.
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