Bay of the Living Dead: Daphne DuMaurier At the Movies
Welcome to Bay of the Living Dead, a twice a month column about the horror genre.
In the recently released film My Cousin Rachel, Oscar winner Rachel Weisz stars as a mysterious widow who may have bumped off her husband for his loot. My Cousin Rachel is based on a novel by Daphne du Maurier, who is best remembered as the author of Alfred Hitchcock’s terrifying chiller The Birds. While the swarming seagulls who terrified Tippi Hedren in The Birds remain among the most frightening stories du Maurier created, it was not typical of her work. The author’s specialty was Gothic romance, always with a touch of horror or the supernatural.
Such was the case with My Cousin Rachel, a spooky drama set in a desolately creepy manor along the coast of 19th century Northern England. Weisz offers wonderful work as the mystery woman who may–or may not–have done it. Weisz told B.A.S that she’s still unsure as to whether or not Rachel did it, but cautions moviegoers not to draw conclusions about her character’s guilt or innocence.
“I’ve not made a decision,” the actress said. “I’m still on the fence about it.”
Weisz added that Rachel’s period attire made it easy for her to get into her character’s psyche. “You feel very restrained in a corset,” she said. “It makes you more formal, more poised. It’s very intense–a whole other feeling than if I were in jeans or a t-shirt.
When she’s on the set, Weisz pointed out that she’s present and in the moment. “Acting is a form of concentration,” she said. “But I’m not a method actor,” she said. “I have a family–I have kids–so I don’t bring the character home. But it does affect you.”
As a film, My Cousin Rachel is a beautifully shot romantic chiller. Shot on actual locations along the British coast, the film is a suspenseful melodrama which looks and feels as though it ought to be a ghost story even though it’s not. It’s interesting to compare the current film with the 1952 version, which stars cinemas Olivia DeHavilland and Richard Burton, in his first major role.
The 1952 film beautifully captures the mystery and terror of du Maurier’s spooky fable. Shot on cavernous studio sets, this Rachel lives in a house which looks like it could be Count Dracula’s lair. As DeHavilland weaves her mystical spell on Burton, the waves crash behind them. As they make their way through the dark, drafty halls of their castle, thunder and lighting shakes the ground beneath their feet. It’s the kind of over-the-top melodrama which made Old Hollywood’s reputation–this is very much a horror movie.
“Is she woman or witch?” says the film’s characteristically over-the-top trailer.
Hitchcock’s Rebecca is a Gothic mystery similar in tone to My Cousin Rachel. Also based on a spooky du Maurier tale, Rebecca is set in a desolate, cavernous country estate. Joan Fontaine stars as the unnamed heroine who marries the master of the house, only to find out that her deceased predecessor, Rebecca, is still very much a presence in the house. Like My Cousin Rachel, Rebecca is unnervingly spooky and hints at being a ghost story. But there are no ghosts, only an obsessed lesbian housekeeper (Judith Anderson) who might have loved her dead mistress a little too much.
Hitchcock’s The Birds remains the best known big-screen adaptation of a du Maurier tale. This is an all out horror movie, and fifty years later the film has not lost its power to get people to scream in the aisles. The Birds is the tale of a small town being terrorized by a rather large flock of seagulls. Thousands of birds, seagulls, black crows, swarm down upon their victims, smothering them, sometimes pecking them to death–hey, if you lose enough blood….
The tension in The Birds is unforgettable, almost unbearable. There are many memorable sequences, most notably when Tippi Hedren sits having a smoke in a schoolyard while behind her, hundreds of crows quietly gather on the monkey bars. As the school attempts a discreet evacuation of the students, the birds attack in what remains one of the most iconic and terrifying sequences in 1960s cinema.
Du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now was filmed by Nicolas Roeg in 1973. Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie star as a bereaved couple mourning the loss of their daughter in a drowning accident. They temporarily relocate to a rain swept Venice, where dad is working on the restoration of a centuries old church.
There, a blind psychic approaches them to tell them that their daughter is well and happy. Soon it become apparent that the dead girl is reaching out to them with a warning…
Another horror film, albeit a quiet and subtle one. Don’t Look Now is slow and eerie. You can almost see and hear the little girl ghost behind every corner or down every alley. Venice in this film is a dark and spectral city, it’s waterways and the rain becoming characters unto themselves.
There have been many ghost story’s produced on film. Few will get under your skin as deeply as Don’t Look Now.