By Cleaver Patterson.
Films that sell themselves as horror movies generally fall into one of two camps. They either go for all-out viscerals, leaving little to the viewer’s imagination as they try to outdo what has gone before with evermore graphic and gory visuals, or they rely on subtlety and suggestion to create ambiance and atmosphere. The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh, the feature debut from writer/director and all-round horror entrepreneur Rodrigo Gudiño, starring Aaron Poole and the voice of Vanessa Redgrave, is definitely a film that falls into the second category, emphasizing style and substance over the instant gratification offered by many modern horror movies.
Leon (Poole) is left a house by his estranged mother Rosalind (Redgrave) who has recently died. An antiques dealer, Leon goes to the house intending to take inventory of its contents and see for the first time the home in which his mother, a woman deeply religious (to the point of fanaticism), spent her last years. However, as his first night progresses, Leon begins to realize that Rosalind was involved in some sinister practices and that both her spirit, and that of something much worse, haunts the empty rooms and corridors of the rambling, isolated mansion.
To create impact in today’s saturated film market, particularly in the field of horror in which fresh ideas are increasingly sparse, new releases must either be strong in originality or tackled with such verve that any shortcomings are outshone by their visual impact. Though The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh may be weaker on concept—haunted houses, religious cults and the unspoken influence of a dead mother are popular horror staples—but it more than makes up for this with the sheer panache and freshness of its approach. Despite a creature that is one of the film’s few nods to populist horror conventions, but whose manifestation is largely unnecessary, overall this is an effective exercise in slowly rising disquiet and palpable unease.
Persuading someone of Vanessa Redgrave’s caliber to become involved in not only a first time project, but also an independent production, is a feat in itself. However, when her role involves no physical appearance onscreen (Redgrave is only heard in voiceover), the part requires an actress with presence and depth to bring it alive. This is where Redgrave—whose mellifluous tones are pitch perfect for those of Rosalind and her lingeringly insidious presence—steals the show. Never actually seen, it’s the character of Rosalind brought alive by Redgrave that lives in the viewer’s memory long after the film ends.
Save for a couple of enigmatic brothers and the members a religious cult with whom Rosalind was involved, but whose sporadic appearances remain something of a mystery, the film’s only physically visualized human character is that of Leon. Poole’s interpretation of Leon’s mounting fear and increasing paranoia, as the horrors of the house reveal themselves over the course of the night, is played with just the right degree of initial nonchalance developing into full-on mental disintegration during the film’s climatic scenes. The fact that his friends with whom he has telephone contact during the night, as well as an obscure neighbor who visits the house but gets invited no further than the doorstep, are only heard as voices simply adds to the film’s underlying air of disjointedness and separation from reality.
The other star of the show is undoubtedly the house that Rosalind bequeaths to the unfortunate Leon, and where the story unfolds. A mock medieval fortress—furnished with a grotesque array of pseudo-religious imagery in the form of gothic angel statuary and church iconography, reproductions of John William Waterhouse’s Pre-Raphaelite goddesses and paraphernalia from the beyond—this home is both beautiful and terrifying. Lent an unearthly quality by the dreamlike cinematography of Samy Inayeh, this is a house where anyone with an imagination would be intrigued yet reticent to be left on their own in for anything more than a couple of hours, let alone a night or longer.
When you analyze the man behind the production of The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh, it is perhaps less surprising that his first feature lays such emphasis on visual impact. Before embarking on a new career branch as a filmmaker, Gudiño was best know as the founding editor and president of the Canadian based horror themed entertainment empire Rue Morgue. Since its inception in 1997, the company’s flagship publication, Rue Morgue magazine, has established itself with a more sophisticated and polished take on horror coverage than many fellow genre periodicals. Those who know the magazine and its focus on horror’s subtle nuances will recognize this approach filtering into Gudiño’s film, finding it equally unsettling.
In a horror market where new films are released on a weekly basis and just as quickly forgotten, it is increasingly works which take the more mature route of suggestion over blatant visuals which are proving their longevity. On this basis, Gudiño’s first effort is a potential classic in the making.
Cleaver Patterson is a film critic and writer based in London.
The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh was released on DVD in the UK on the 5th of August, 2013.