Friday, September 26, 2014

A Dreadful Decade (Part IX): The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh (2012) dir. Rodrigo Gudiño

Logline: After inheriting the estate of his estranged mother (Vanessa Redgrave) upon her death, Leon Leigh (Aaron Poole) visits her empty home to gain a sense of closure to their unresolved relationship. Alone in the house and surrounded by her collection of occult relics and decorations, Leon begins to recall his traumatic childhood, during which his mother incessantly tried to induct him into the bizarre cult of angels that she and her husband belonged to. Over the course of the night, the ghosts of Leon's past and the monsters of his present will converge in order to test the strength of his disbelief.

Analysis: There are two different interpretations that we are encouraged to read from Leon Leigh's journey back through his tortured personal history and decayed family relationships. Rather than being antithetical to one another, these separate readings are both required pieces of the same sad puzzle.

At first, we're encouraged to read the haunting that Leon experiences while spending the night in his mother's home as symbolic of him confronting the trauma of his childhood spent with her. We learn as the film progresses that Rosalind subjected the juvenile Leon to borderline sadistic "games" that sought to pressure him into becoming a believer of her occult faith in the power of angels. The rift that formed between mother and son was caused by Leon's steadfast refusal to "play" his mother's game and his eventual flight away from the oppressive coercion she placed upon him at home. Now, separated from his experience for many years, Leon begins to subconsciously doubt his decision, despite his outward gestures demonstrating his continued agreement with the conclusions of his younger self (e.g. putting his cigarette out in an angel statue's stone eye). Leon begins to fear that his mother was right, and that by turning his back on the angels of her faith he has encouraged the angels to give up protecting him from the horrors of the world. Thus, the horrors of the world come scraping at the front door, in the form of a snarling, impossibly long-limbed cat-beast, a creature that could have oozed its sickeningly hairy form from the pages of one of M. R. James's tales. Thanks in part to the rationalizing psychological advice of his girlfriend/therapist as given through various phone conversations over the course his harrowing night, Leon is eventually able to shake off his frightening hallucinations and renew his conviction in the falseness of his mother's beliefs, ridding himself of her cloying spirit and his lingering self-doubts in the process. As a final gesture indicating that he's ready to move on, Leon announces his intentions to sell off every bit of Rosalind's property. This chapter of his life has been completed.

But the film's final moments provide us with the second interpretation of the events that have transpired. Rosalind, who has been speaking to us throughout the film as a disembodied voice on the soundtrack, finally reveals her words as emanating from beyond the grave, rather than from the written last will and testament of the title. From her restless spirit, we learn of her suicide, and how it was motivated by her son's unwillingness to forgive her, the loss of faith that accompanied her belief's inability to set things right, and the subsequent loneliness that crept up on her, "like an animal ready to pounce," over the years spent without her beloved son. We learn that in her continuously cruel desperation to coerce and control her son's feelings, she leaves Leon a suicide note reading, "Do you miss me as much as I miss you?" Finally, we learn that Leon never reads the note, for he never deigns to visit her accursed home, even after she bequeaths it to him. The Leon of the film is Rosalind's fantasy, an imaginative torture she puts herself through nightly as she watches, again and again, her son abandon her and her beliefs, even as she cries out pitifully for him to stay. The ghost becomes the haunted, and rightfully so. Rosalind's inability to understand the effect of her actions on her son, and thus her unwillingness to seek forgiveness or change her ways, marks her for her haunted fate. We could call this existence Rosalind has made for herself a sort of hell, but perhaps not: in her imagination, at least Leon wills himself to remember her, if only for a night.

Technical Merits: The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh is writer/director/Rue Morgue Magazine founder and president Rodrigo Gudiño's first full-length feature film, produced after creating only a handful of short films prior. Though inventive, his shorts lack the substance to elevate them above their visual gimmicks. What is so surprising about Rosalind Leigh, then, is how confident, controlled, and deliberate its style feels, and what a boon it is to the film's realization of its narrative. Though minimalist by design and budgetary necessity, the film hardly feels like an apprentice effort. Gudiño effortlessly blends long takes, voice-over storytelling, found footage, single location shooting, dodgy (but well-masked) CGI, and documentary-esque explorations of visual space as if to do so were his second nature. You could label the film's freewheeling, ever-evolving style as the product of an overeager first-time filmmaker wanting to cram all of his newly learned tricks in at once, but that feels to me like the wrong assessment. There's a clarity of purpose in the film's every wild and unexpected stylistic shift, as it seeks to make strange once again the horror stories and situations that we've become overly familiar with. I don't necessarily understand every one of Gudiño's stylistic choices (uh, opening credits over the little brother of Kubrick's cosmic fetus?), but I suspect he has his reasons. And, even if not, the cumulative effect of the film's technical experimentation is a breed of weird I can still get behind

Pared down to its bones, Rosalind Leigh contains no plot development or horror set-piece that we could call wholly unique, but the myriad ways in which these familiar elements are presented to us sure make them feel that way. An example: a character calls up a home security company to review the footage from the camera outside the front door of the house he's in. We've seen this scene before in other horror films, and we know it might (very likely) end with the discovery of some fiend or creature barely visible somewhere within the frame of the blurry footage. Gudiño makes this typical scene strange by a) implying vaguely, and without future consequence, through religious music on hold and creepy amateur web design that the security company is run by the mysterious angel cult, b) presenting the customer service representative on the other line as a strangely lifelike computer-generated voice that can seemingly respond to complex human language commands, and c) having this impossibly strange computer be voiced by the very same actor who is speaking to it over the phone. Nothing of any particularly horrific value occurs during this scene, plot-wise -- unless you find a man on the phone sitting at a computer to be a terrifying sight in and of itself -- but the film's off-kilter presentation of the action makes it one of many uniquely disquieting scenes sown throughout the film, sprouting strangeness.

Relevance: As a single-location, (more-or-less) single-actor horror film, Rosalind Leigh bears a certain resemblance to the excellent middle portions of the two adaptations of Susan Hill's The Woman in Black (1989; 2012), in which our lone protagonist wanders around the dreary home of a now-deceased occupant and uncovers curiosities, documents, and recordings that reveal a macabre secret history underlying the present day narrative. But unlike both versions of The Woman in Black, Rosalind Leigh realizes that the isolation and anxiety produced by this haunted ramble can be intensified by never leaving the property. We're given no respite from the subtle terrors lining the walls and lurking behind every door of Rosalind Leigh's unheimlich abode, and this helps make the film one of the stronger examples of horror cinema fascinated with architecture and physical space. Like The Shining's Overlook Hotel, The Innkeepers' Yankee Pedlar Inn, or Session 9's Danvers State Hospital, Rosalind Leigh's grotesque home is essentially the film's secondary protagonist, and exploring the very form and atmosphere of this space provides many of the film's most suffocating terrors. (And, again, unlike those other films, Rosalind Leigh never allows us to fill our lungs with the air from any other location, not even for a moment.)

Also of interest to horror fans is Rosalind Leigh's exploration of the relatively untapped potential of angels as objects of horror. Sure, we can't help but see shades of Doctor Who's Weeping Angels in the possibly animate angel statues of Gudiño's film, but the defining characteristic of Rosalind Leigh 's angels (besides them not being, well, time-energy feeding aliens) is how creepy they act while ostensibly trying to save our souls from an afterlife of torment. That's an impressive feat. The film employs its angels as symbols of the uneasiness you feel when a little old lady on the street hands you a church pamphlet while cheerily informing you that you're going to burn in hell. The horror of these angelic figures is generated from the jarring disconnect between the dual religious messages they impart to their victims, alternately turned towards them with open arms and turned away with grimaces carved upon their faces: If you believe in me, I will comfort and protect you; If you disbelieve, fear the worst. These are the sort of benignly horrific angels that cinema could use more of. They're a welcome development away from the mopey badass angels of The Prophecy (1995) and Legion (2010), and they're just about as frightening as a winged John Travolta in Michael (1996).

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