Fevered imagination

Tilda Swinton in “The Eternal Daughter”, in which she plays a dual role as an elderly mother and her middle-aged daughter

If you think the spooky season begins and ends with Halloween, think again. For we are now up to our necks in Samhain – or November as we non-Gaelics call the witchiest time of the year. As if to seal the deal, here comes critics’ darling Joanna Hogg, with her own personal take on the English ghost story. Hogg’s The Eternal Daughter features Tilda Swinton in a dual role as an elderly mother, Rosalind, and her middle-aged daughter, Julie.

The film starts with a horseless carriage conveying them through misty woods towards an old dark house in North Wales, a hotel where the daughter will try to tap into her mother’s memories for a screenplay. This opening imagery could be straight out of a nocturnal painting by John Atkinson Grimshaw, whose November Moonlight adorned the cover of the Penguin Classic edition of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, most memorably adapted as The Innocents (1961), a paradigm in the art of striking the perfect balance between ghosts being real or a figment of someone’s fevered imagination.

The shadow of James looms large over The Eternal Daughter, as does that of his near-contemporary, Edith Wharton, no mean ghost scribe herself. Hogg’s film made me think of her story Afterward, in which there’s a ghost, but nobody knows it’s a ghost, “Well – not till afterward, at any rate.” Julie is also seen reading Rudyard Kipling’s They, in which the nature of the haunting is, again, not immediately apparent. Hogg is not shy about incorporating highbrow literary allusions as well as references to her own semi-autobiographical diptych The Souvenir (2019) and The Souvenir Part II (2021); The Eternal Daughter’s mother and daughter share their names with equivalent characters in the earlier films. Meanwhile, Swinton’s dual role seems logical and natural, unlike her gimmicky triple-turn in Suspiria (2018).

Thankfully, The Eternal Daughter is not all po-faced. No sooner have we arrived at the hotel than Julie encounters a receptionist so hilariously unhelpful she ought to come with a trigger warning for those of us with similarly hellish experiences of customer non-service. This is unequivocally a ghost story of the arthouse persuasion. The wind whistles, the spaniel whimpers, and things go bump into the night – but Hogg uses metaphor and suggestion to dig into its central mother-daughter relationship, rather than resorting to audience-goosing jump-scares and special effects.

Simone Simon in “Cat People” (1942)

Wharton, in the preface to a collection of her ghost stories, published shortly after her death in 1937, predicted the “ghost instinct” in audiences would soon be atrophied by “those two world-wide enemies of the imagination, the wireless and the cinema.” But she was writing before the films of producer Val Lewton made a virtue of their low budgets to turn garish titles such as Cat People (1942) and I Walked With a Zombie (1943) into shadowy visual poetry that harness the viewer’s imagination rather than atrophying it. Just as modern horror movies split into opposing camps of inference versus explicitness, so ghost movies can be divided into creepy ambience versus bells and whistles. The 1963 adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House uses nothing more than noises and camera angles to make your blood run cold, whereas the 1999 remake is overflowing with doughy CGI spectres, revolving rooms and possessed bedclothes. No prizes for guessing which film gives you sleepless nights. (Mike Flanagan’s 2018 Netflix mini-series, based on the same source, lands somewhere between the two extremes.)

In the spirit realm, arthouse overlaps with multiplex

Arthouse ghost stories sometimes attract ire from impatient horror fans who don’t feel sufficiently chilled by things just going bump in the night; they would prefer crash-bang-wallop. They especially don’t care for David Lowery’s A Ghost Story (2017) in which Casey Affleck spends most of the film beneath a Casper-style white sheet with eyeholes, while the film unfurls into an existential meditation on love, bereavement and the passage of time. I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House (2016) is another arthouse ghost story that takes its own sweet time. Ruth Wilson plays a live-in nurse who suspects the house where she’s caring for a woman with dementia is haunted. It moves at such a languorous pace you would be forgiven for nodding off, but the film’s atmosphere is so rich and layered that you’re liable to incorporate it into your dreams as you nap. (The writer-director is Oz Perkins, whose father played Norman Bates in Psycho, and whose mother died in one of the planes that hit the World Trade Center on 9/11. No wonder he makes ghost stories.)

Ruth Wilson, Lucy Boynton in “I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House” (2016)

But, in the spirit realm, arthouse overlaps with multiplex more often than you might think. Paranormal Activity (2009) and its sequels are by no means arty, yet I was impressed to see popcorn-munching audiences reduced to nervous silence by the sort of long uneventful takes they would never tolerate in films by, say, Chantal Akerman or Aleksandr Sokurov. Nothing is happening… yet something could happen at any second, so we have to scour the frame to make sure we don’t miss it. It’s at times like this you wish you could summon the spirit of Edith Wharton to reassure her that, despite her fears, the “ghost instinct” in cinema audiences is still going strong.

Anne Billson is a film critic, novelist and photographer

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Arts & Culture, Billboard, November 2023

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