This cut-rate release from the English studio Tigon, best known as a producer of second-tier horror (the terrific Witchfinder General and Blood on Satan’s Claw) and sexploitation (Au Pair Girls, which is actually a bit of fun, and the SF-themed Zeta One), has the makings of an enjoyable countryside romp through ritualism and witchcraft, but it suffers from a split personality. Half of the film plays as a surprisingly straightforward nudie picture, with sisters Christine and Betty (Ann and Vicki Michelle, respectively) appearing reliably in various states of partial and utter dishabille. And the other half plays as a somewhat ambitious psychological horror movie about young Christine, the title character, who first submits to and finally dominates a coven of witches holed up in the woods outside London.
Never having read a Harry Potter book nor seen a Harry Potter movie, I was keen to see exactly how confusing this fifth installment in the wildly popular young-wizard saga would seem. Happily, this is the kind of movie where nearly every character is identified by name (and loudly!) as they make their first appearance on screen. It doesn’t take much knowledge about the complicated backstory to enjoy the cracking coming-of-age story about responsibility to your conscience, the importance of friendship, and the evil that can be done by corrupt bureaucrats. (Alternate title: Harry Potter Fights the Power.) The picture is derailed occasionally by that rushed, strait-jacketed feel associated with slavish adaptations, and the last reel is a bit anticlimactic, but this is still an engaging yarn with some gorgeous special-effects work. There’s also a special pleasure in seeing so many very young actors holding their own in scenes featuring their prodigiously gifted elders—Fiona Shaw, Ralph Fiennes, Brendan Gleeson, Gary Oldman, David Thewlis, and Maggie Smith, just for starters. (Even Helena Bonham Carter shows up in a frightwig for what amounts to a cameo as a “Death Eater” named Bellatrix Lestrange!) Not a great film, but an ideal family matinée.
Christopher Nolan helped refine the gimmick thriller with Memento, in which Guy Pearce starred as a man with short-term memory loss trying to find his wife’s killer in a story that unfolded entirely in reverse. That film was all about disconnects between perception and reality, mind and the material world. Nolan has made a couple of more conventional genre pictures since then (Insomnia and Batman Begins), but his engrossing, fascinating The Prestige marks a decisive return to form. It’s a film about two magicians, once part of the same act, holding a mutual grudge. Each goes to extraordinary lengths trying to disrupt the other’s career in a story that is, itself, full of illusion and misdirection. The result, revamped substantially for the screen from a novel by Christopher Priest, goes deep, using its source material as an excuse to ruminate on identity and obsession in a turn-of-the-century milieu that’s cocked slightly to one side of actual history. The despair Nolan finds at the heart of his story is positively existential, but the film is still a lot of fun. It’s that rare thing in multiplex movies, an entertaining star vehicle with lots of flash and style—and a philosophy.