The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh (2012) ***
Dir. Rodrigo Gudiño
Starring: Aaron Poole, Vanessa Redgrave, Julian Richings
Review By Greg Klymkiw
Review of Extra Features
(original review of film below):
THE COMMENTARY TRACK:
Now available on DVD from Anchor Bay Entertainment Canada, Rue Morgue Magazine founder and publisher Rodrigo Gudiño's feature length debut as a director comes as an extras-packed DVD for fans of the film. First and foremost is the superb commentary track with director Gudiño which focuses on practical aspects of the production as well as thematic issues with respect to the tale he chose to tell (and the manner in which he chose to tell it). Part of the success is due to the expert moderation/interview technique of Stuart Andrews who nails every question on would hope to get answers to as one watches through the feature (well most questions were covered, but knob that I am, there were a few I wanted to ask). For me, the most interesting aspect of the commentary is just how much emphasis Gudiño places on thematic elements. This is a fine goal for any filmmaker and one I especially appreciated listening to. That said, I made a point of seeing the film three time prior to wending my way through the film with the commentary on and prior to listening to the track, I made a special point to examine my major speed bumps in the middle section and I feel I need to stick with my original reaction when I first saw/reviewed the film for its Sinister Cinema theatrical launch across Canada. When I listened to the track, I was able to pinpoint a common mistake first time feature filmmakers make wherein they put more emphasis on thematic layering rather than narrative and in so doing, tend to muddy the works. That said, the film still works in its first and final third extremely well and Gudiño's responses to Andrews are always intelligent and deeply considered. My ONLY disappointment here is that nobody thought of including (or if they did, exigencies of time, money and/or availability prevented it) a commentary track (perhaps also moderated by Andrews with lead actor Aaron Poole who delivers a brave performance and who might have added a very unique perspective on the film.
THE OTHER EXTRAS:
Other extras include the de rigueur "making of" documentary which is well enough done, but ALWAYS my least favourite element of any DVD extra. I find they zap too much out of the magic of both the film and movie making process. Included on the DVD is Gudiño's short film (co-directed with Vincent Marcone) which is certainly a very interesting cinematic experiment, and as such, is mercifully short. All of the usual publicity materials are included, but one of my favourite extras is an interview profile with Turkish-born Canadian composer Mercan Dede which presents a compelling portrait of this highly creative musical artist and, though NOT the intent, still offers enough incentive for someone to be possessed with a sudden need to get as many of his CDs as possible. I enjoyed the transfer a bit better this time round and suspect my original fears about the darkness and contrast not being high enough. Still, it's probably a matter of taste, but I balanced my monitor to add 3 points below the zero mark on the brightness control and upped the contrast to about the 2/3 point. This afforded me a viewing that was far more atmospheric and did indeed address my concern with the look of the house itself and to add a bit more depth and richness to the superb cinematography. The price point on this DVD is indeed worth considering the purchase if you're a genre fan and look forward to watching a very unconventional approach to haunted house movies. In its own way, it's far more interesting, original and intelligent than the overrated James Wan feature "The Conjuring".
AND NOW, THE REVIEW OF THE FILM ITSELF.....
A voice from the dead - at times determined, at others tremulous - cascades through the large, dark and cluttered house as if it were a living, breathing, moving thing. It is as much a will and testament as it is a warning - infused with portent - rendered for the benefit of one who's been gone for too long, but has now appeared to both claim and dispense with a lifetime of worldly goods.
You, Sir, will spend the night.
This is perhaps not the wisest move when, in life, you broke away from your mother for the longest time and have returned, after her death, to profit from an antique-filled treasure trove. You're riddled with memories of a difficult childhood past, a strained relationship, a fundamentalist - nay, downright fanatical upbringing. As much as you want to rid yourself of all the things that bring back flashes of a pain long-repressed, your mere presence in this, your recently deceased mother's house, infuses you with second thoughts, upon second thoughts.
You will slowly seek truth, but if the truth finds you first, it could kill you.
And, dear sir, there appears to be a creature you don't want to mess with.
Suffice it to say that Rue Morgue Magazine's founder/publisher Rodrigo Gudiño has crafted an unexpectedly restrained genre picture for his feature length debut as a director. Restraint in horror can be a very good thing and The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh is nothing if not restrained. Fans used to a preponderance of gore, lightning bolt pacing and an emphasis upon cheap shock tactics will be less than enthralled, but if patient, many of the film's rewards will creep up on them and bite them most indelicately on the ass.
That said and in spite of the picture's considerable virtues, it would only be fair to point out that the film is saddled with a few elements that don't quite gel. In terms of narrative and pace, the film takes a profound dip in its middle portion. We're treated to a slow, measured and riveting first act and a final act that delivers very nicely in the drawer-filling department. Part of the problem stems, I think, in Gudiño's screenplay. Not adequately tying the central character Leon (Aaron Poole) to his late Mother's mania (or at least rooting it more firmly within the mise-en-scene) is something the film has a hard time shaking. This is one of the causes for the movie to sag in its second act.
Another problem is the house itself. An exterior shot reveals a standard and seemingly (or at least relatively) modern suburban home. Once inside, the decor of the structure itself shrieks modern or at least, modern reno. As well, many of the set decorations and props feel out of place - either in and of themselves or within the context of the interior's physical structure and look. Given the character of Rosalind Leigh herself, the "antique pieces" are not (at least for this fella') reflective enough of who we think she is. When Leon steps into that house, we expect, but do not experience the kind of bygone atmosphere necessary for us to check our thought process at the door because the stately and (often) effective pace give us too much time to notice when touches like these are amiss. Where this hurts the film most is that it loses a lot of the "creepy" factor in the middle act that both the pace and narrative are begging for.
A major speed bump that keeps the movie from attaining stratospheric heights might seem unfair to level at Gudiño, since the picture is what it is at this point, but here goes. Maybe it's just me (I don't think so, though), but even genre-bending efforts like this gain a whole lot more mileage when you have the presence of a female lead. A young, hot, preferably nightie-and/or-undie-adorned babe is what I'm talkin' about here. Think Catherine Deneuve in Polanski's Repulsion, the final half hour of Ridley Scott's Alien and a goodly portion of one of my all-time low budget faves, Richard Stanley's Hardware.
Just do the math:
Hot babe + monster/ghost/robot/weird-shit = Unbeatable Combination.
Not that Gudiño's lead Aaron Poole doesn't acquit himself nicely - it's a finely textured performance, but changing the character to a woman and having a babe in the role would have worked wonders. Even when Polanski re-imagined Repulsion as The Tenant and cast himself in the perverse twist on Deneuve's loner in the apartment role, he made damn sure to find numerous opportunities to slide the ravishing Isabel Adjani into the picture (in addition to putting himself in drag).
More math: Polanski in Drag + Hot French babe = DynOmite!!!
Not meaning to be a Philistine here, but I do think something changes when you have a woman in peril - not in a stereotypical, misogynist sense - but to actually address a myriad of issues within the framework of cinematic storytelling that ultimately allow for more compelling viewing. Then again, I always recall the hilarious story of a genuinely famous Canadian producer who once cautioned a young filmmaker about to embark upon his first feature with a litany of Old Country advice. It culminated with: "Goddamn son of bitch, you want to show man too much! Is not to my taste. Is to be truthful, very distasteful to have too much man. But I tell you something for sure, everybody like to see the woman. The man, he like to see the woman. And the woman, she like to see the woman too."
Sage words from a wise member of the Eastern European diaspora.
Aside from my aforementioned niggles, this is a worthwhile effort that signals a directorial talent we'll want to hear more from. In fact, Gudiño's displayed enough filmmaking savvy and chutzpah here to make you grateful you got in on his ground floor, so to speak. On the level of fashioning an ideal low budget movie, the screenplay cleverly approaches a few supporting roles that not only work perfectly within the context of the narrative, but allowed the filmmaking team to affordably cast and get a super performance from Vanessa Redgrave (not to mention fine work from the inimitable Julian Richings and Steven Eric McIntyre among others).
My dissatisfaction with the look of the house and its interiors notwithstanding, I was delighted with cinematographer Samy Inayeh's work. His compositions are first-rate, his moves infused with grace and his lighting is both delectably and suitably moody. Frankly, I think there's a lot of latitude in his footage to go back into the colour timing suite and darken the picture substantially to deal with the less than stellar interior design. Inayeh has done his bit to make the house's interiors look like Miss Haversham's home in David Lean's Great Expectations or the mysterious house the old crone in Val Lewton's Curse of the Cat People lives in, but he's only able to go so far and I'm really convinced one could safely heighten contrast whilst maintaining detail in a John Alton noir style. (By the way, every filmmaker, D.O.P. and production designer needs to read Alton's great book "Painting with Light".)
"The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh" can be purchased from Anchor Bay Entertainment Canada).