Edinburgh International Film Festival – Raging Grace

Edinburgh International Film Festival – Raging Grace,
Directed by Paris Zarcilla,
Starring Max Eigenmann, Jaden Paige Boadilla, Leanne Best, David Hayman

Joy (Max Eigenmann), is an undocumented Filipino immigrant in the UK, part of the all-but-invisible army of people who often do the most laborious, low-paying, manual work that is so necessary to keep everything in our society running, but with none of the legal safeguards others workers have the right to, ripe for easy exploitation, unable to ask anyone in authority for help. With her young daughter, the eponymous Grace (Jaden Paige Boadilla), she goes from one gig to the next, usually cleaning homes, cooking and tidying for wealthy families.

The pair appear to be living in a storage room in an apartment block, secretly, their domestic life as hidden as their work life, although when some of her rich clients are away on nice trips abroad, they sleep over in their homes, carefully tidying everything before the family returns (leading to some tense “will they get caught” moments early on), while Grace amuses herself by playing practical jokes, like swapping gravy granules for the coffee powder, one of the child’s few outlets for fun.

Behind on her payments to the fixer who arranges for the immigrants to get into the UK for a large fee, she is feeling desperate, when she is offered what seems like the perfect opportunity – housekeeping duties at a large, isolated mansion, while also looking after its terminally ill owner, an elderly gentleman, Mister Garret (the always-excellent David Hayman). Garrett is dying of cancer and is largely comatose – his niece, Katherine (Leanne Best) is taking care of his affairs meantime, and offers Joy not only a large wage, but paid in cash, no questions asked, and free lodgings in the large country house.

Best does an amazing job of showcasing the casual condescension of the very wealthy, upper parts of society towards immigrants like Joy, giving her Katherine that arrogance that clearly thinks “I am a nice, inclusive person” while being anything but (yes, phrases like “you people” will be deployed). Joy, of course, simply has to nod, smile and say “yes, miss” to all of this because Katherine has all the power. Joy is also dismayed to see how Katherine treats her comatose uncle, forcing his daily pills prescription into his mouth, holding his nose to make him swallow while still asleep. This is all further complicated by Katherine not knowing about Grace, who has to hide her presence.

What starts as an interesting drama about vulnerability, exploitation, race, class and privilege starts to morph into more of a thriller and horror, drawing on the Gothic tradition and also the classic Old Dark House, very effectively using both the grand house location, and the small but excellent group of actors. Snooping around secretly, young Grace finds some disturbing, hidden facts about the house and those who have lived in it, and there are hints that perhaps the medicine Katherine is giving to her uncle may not be what she claims. Hayman, when he does waken from his coma, essays an especially fine performance, managing to take us from twinkling-eyed, gentle, loving older uncle figure to radiating menace (a simple scene where he tells Joy not to call him “mister” but “master” is powerful and chilling).

Edinburgh International Film Festival - Raging Grace 04
(Director Paris Zircalla with some of his cast, on stage after the EIFF screening, pic from my Flickr)

This was one of the EIFF screenings I really wanted to catch, and it did not disappoint, with some amazing performances from the small cast (young Jaden stealing many scenes as Grace), and beautifully shot, making the best use of that large, creaking old country home location, mixing horror and drama. The subtexts about past colonialism and echoes in modern day exploitation of immigrants is well done and powerful, and as the director remarked at a Q&A after the screening, much of what was seen on screen is drawn from what many experience in their day to day lives, and it is something that applies not just to the immigrant experience but across society, where those in the poorer-paid jobs are often badly treated and seen as disposable. A brilliant, Gothic-tinged horror-drama with some serious social commentary woven into its structure.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: lush, erotic, Gothic fantasy in A Dowry of Blood

A Dowry of Blood,
S.T. Gibson,
Orbit Books,
Hardback,
Published October 2022

My in-built book radar started pinging as soon as I was offered a sniff at this book, and I am happy to report that instinct is still steering me to books I find I absolutely love. Fair disclaimer at the start: a lifelong Gothic fiend, I am a sucker for a good vampire tale, although to be fair, that also means having read a lot of them, I can also be quite critical – as with, say, fantasy, it can be too easy for new novels to simply trade on well-worn generic tropes. Which makes me all the more delighted when I find one which is taking a fresh angle (while still maintaining a number of the elements you would expect), and, even better, that approach also has a lot of socio-cultural relevance to debates in our own contemporary society.

Constanta is a simple peasant girl in Eastern Europe; her family and village are all but wiped out in an attack, while she is abused and left for dead – until he shows up, like carrion, attracted to the leftovers of the slaughter field. This darkly handsome, powerful nobleman offers her a choice – she has to ask him, he will not compel her (shades of Louis and Lestat) – an offer of a new life of power and privilege, or to slip away into the darkness, just another anonymous victim of another small battle, which history is sadly replete with.

It isn’t much of a choice, and unsurprisingly Constanta chooses life – in her case immortal life – and her battered, abused body heals itself, raising her from certain death, and, satisfyingly, allowing this previously powerless peasant woman the overwhelming strength to take revenge on those who harmed her and cut down all those she knew and loved, while at the same time quenching her new-born thirst for human blood.

In the following chapters we see Constanta settle into her new life – her noble husband, centuries old (a serious spin on the older man / younger woman dynamic!) seems so sophisticated to her, wise, well-read, intellectually curious, so keen to look after her and make her happy. We see, from Constanta’s perspective, the passing of years and centuries, of the two settling into a life together, both domestic and, of course, vampiric, the home scenes contrasting with the depictions of the pair hunting and feeding on humans across various European centuries

Cracks start to appear in her husband’s mask though – his temper, a callous, arrogant streak he tries to keep hidden beneath his cultivated persona. She slowly, across time, comes to realise he used his greater age, experience, power and wealth to impress her when she was most vulnerable and impressionable. Like many in such relationships, she often convinces herself this is all in her mind, or if something offends him, it must be her fault (and he is an expert in ensuring she does – this man could use the entire North Sea supply for his gaslighting).

Across the decades, then centuries she starts to see him more for what he is, as their family grows – a second ‘wife’ with the strong-willed Spanish noblewoman, Magdalena, who challenges him intellectually as well as physically, and much later, Alexi, a young Russian. They become, in effect, his harem, there to satisfy him, and god forbid they act outside his precious rules and wants. This creates an interesting dynamic, not just between the lord and his harem, but between the three of them, Alexi, Magdalena and Constanta.

As the ‘original’ (she finds that there were in fact some before her, who have vanished) Constanta feels, understandably slighted by these later additions, but at the same time, she also feels a kinship – I found this far more realistic and satisfying emotionally, more like real groups of friends and families, the push and pull of love and jealously, possessing but also wanting to be possessed, while other times desiring freedom. And then there’s the sex, centuries of sex; male, female, bi, in a group or pairs, wonderfully lush and erotic – even in later years as Constanta questions everything in their lives, the sex and the hunting as shared and enjoyed and binds them together. The eroticism hinted at in the likes of Interview With the Vampire is out here in full, earthy form.

The story is written from Constanta’s perspective, as if she is writing a series of letters to her husband, who is never named, a deliberate choice, I am sure, and a part of her, now older, wiser, more assured, coming into her own power and realising she doesn’t have to be what he wants, that she can be herself, make her own choices. Dowry drips in deliciously decadent High Gothic, sensual, erotic, dark; it doesn’t shy from serious subjects like spousal abuse and male abuse of privilege either, all areas we’ve all been increasingly aware of in recent years (as we should be), or why some remain so long in such relationships, and I think this very much added to the novel’s power and in drawing the reader into it emotionally.

A deliciously decadent, erotic romp in some places, a darkly, deeply emotional tale in other places, as much a tale of a survivor of abuse as it is vampiric novel, nodding its head to Bluebeard or the 1970s films like The Velvet Vampire, as much as the influential Anne Rice Vampire Chronicles. Perfect reading for the dark autumn and winter nights.

This review was originally penned for Shoreline of Infinity

Quoth the Raven

Quoth The Raven

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.
” Edgar Allan Poe

Snapped this with long zoom, simply looking out of upstairs window back at the family home on a very dark, grey-skied day, seemed very brooding and Gothic, so Poe came to mind.

The Facts in the Case of Mister Hollow

This is another short film in the Cannes/YouTube/National Film Board of Canada award shortlist you can vote for over on the NFB’s YouTube Channel; I think this one is fascinating, well worth repeat viewings as essentially the viewer is studying an old photograph, but as the camera moves in and around the different parts of the image we see more and it becomes increasingly disturbing, creating, without any dialogue or real movement, a rather Southern Gothic narrative in the viewer’s mind. You can vote for the films in the running until May 20th. The Facts in the Case of Mister Hollow (which sounds a bit like a short story for a Neil Gaiman or Poe tale, I thought) is co-directed by Rodrigo Gudino and Vincent Marcone.