Chris: Often in the last month, we’ve thrown out the term “slow burn” to describe a movie that works deliberately towards its scariest moments. It’s an effective technique, and one that informs some of the best pictures we’ve watched over the last few weeks. Unfortunately, often the slow burn ends up being a slow flash in the pan, or worse, a slow fizzle. All the work building to a great scare happens and then either we jump and move on and a movie’s given us all it’s got, or the scare doesn’t particularly pay off, and all that work goes for naught. The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh is more like a slow forest fire. It sets things up slowly and beautifully, with a craftsman’s precision. Then it pays off those bets, delivering scare after scare throughout a tremendous final section of the film.
After the jump, the soul lives on, long after death
Barac: I first watched The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh in order to have an informed opinion about it during the selection process for this feature, and it’s easily one of my favorite things to come out of this whole affair. What a fantastic exercise in mood and subtle inference. Even the closest the movie gets to exposition (the voiceovers that bookend the film and crop up periodically between) hint without simply handing out information. And they’re a hell of a way to open things, too. That slow, sad monologue over scenes that should be bright and lively but feel ominous and sad between the music and the complete lack of human presence.
Chris: You’re so right. There’s exposition in that opening and closing voice over, and we learn as much from what isn’t said as what is. I’m not sure how first-time director Rodrigo Gudino managed to get Vanessa Redgrave for the titular role here, but what a score. Her voice trembles and falters, so that even just the way she’s saying things tells us something about who she is and how she felt about her son. There’s so much longing and loneliness and sadness in her voice that we can’t help but sort of hate Leon a little bit as the film opens. How could he have walked away from someone who so clearly loved him? We get our reasons later.
Barac: I said in the comments to the entry on Session 9 that we had another film coming where the set was as much a character as the actors. This would be that film. The house in this movie is fantastic, layered with creepy knickknacks and strange, cool bits of detail, including some unconventional folk wisdom (“If the tap drips, it is the sign of a storm.” And sure enough…) I’d also argue that in some sense it might even be the main character of the movie. There’s only one actor on screen most of the time, playing Leon Leigh, Rosalind’s estranged son, but it’s notable that the camera doesn’t necessarily track him, and it certainly doesn’t follow him outside the confines of the house and its backyard. We do see places outside that, including the front of the house, at times, but these are in the context of the voiceover narration, and these seem to be memories rather than real-time events.
Chris: The house in this film is one of the most amazing places I’ve ever seen in a horror movie. It’s such a triumph of set design and decoration that it becomes one of those places that anyone who loves movies should see this film–even if only to luxuriate in this wonderfully odd, gothic home. The museum pieces give the feel of being in the weirdest 1980s TGI Fridays anywhere, one with bizarre, frequently religious doo-dads jammed cheek by jowl into the house in every which way. Ready for the really crazy reveal? The house used in the movie is a real place (exterior and most of the interiors) and is located in a suburb of Toronto. What’s so well done here though is just how the movie crew arranged those horrific sculptures and creepy angel statues around the house (while the collection is part of the house, many pieces were stored). Although things are a bit crowded with this stuff, all the bric-a-brac feels carefully placed. Rosalind Leigh may have been a hoarder (and we find out fairly quickly why she collects the weird and diverse things she does), but she’s a hoarder who also was interested in keeping up a home and living in it.
There are some decorations for the house brought in as props for use in the film. Some items–like a carefully placed book–are put where they are for us to notice immediately. A would-be art geek like myself, I noticed a prominently placed print of John William Waterhouse’s Lady of Shalott in the living room. In a bedroom is another Waterhouse print, this one his painting of Ophelia. Both are incredibly symbolic and don’t seem accidental or haphazard additions, given what will transpire in the film.
Barac: Leon seems to be at the heart of events, making unpleasant discoveries about who’s been buying his work, having unsettling dialogues with offscreen (“neither man nor woman”) visitors, conversing with someone who seems to be either an ex or his psychiatrist (I’m betting on the latter, or perhaps both), and confronting childhood traumas. But the voiceovers, especially at the closing, and the nudges towards the “Communicate With the Dead” book and tape suggest we may actually be following another party entirely, and while Leon ends the night having apparently confronted his demons and emerged victorious (and still atheist, a conclusion I can entirely support), our real protagonist has a bleak future to look forward to.
The other element I found fascinating and more than a little unsettling was the angel cult (“God’s Messengers”?) that kept cropping up. The severe twins talking about God’s wrathful side. The messaging that “faith is fragile” and the black beast waiting for those who don’t believe. And that candle game. Brr. Obviously it’s not intended to represent any real version of Christianity, but I do kind of wonder how that stuff plays for someone who would ordinarily be inclined to find that sort of iconography comforting (which I do not, personally.)
Chris: I loved all those creepy details, the little angel statuette in particular. Maybe I’m as nuts as Leon, but the eyes on that figurine look menacing and judgmental in shadow, warm and protecting in regular light. I also think the ghost of Rosalind Leigh definitely lurks within that house. In fact, I buy into that so much that I’m going to float this one out there: for all the religious symbolism on display in the film, I don’t think The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh is about religion at all. There’s so much pain and heartbreak and sorrow in Rosalind’s voice on those voice-overs that I realized at the end of the film that this was a movie about loneliness.
We’ve actually done a ghost story about loneliness in this feature when we talked about Lake Mungo. This feels like a different kind of loneliness, although one no less awful and dreadful. In Mungo, a grieving family has difficulty accepting the death of their daughter. The spirit of the daughter desperately wants to be present with the family. Death prevents that. In this movie, it’s different, and perhaps even more human and relatable. We learn that in life, Rosalind Leigh’s devotion to her quasi-Christian cult drove her beloved son away from her, forever. Consumed by grief and loneliness, she eventually takes her own life. When he comes to the house following her death, she again tries to draw him close to her. She gets inside his already fragile mental state and leads him to believe that the only way to save himself is to draw into her weird home and its crazy angels, art, and even that old candles ritual. He rejects her in death as he did in life, walking away for the final time, leaving the spirit of his poor mother forever behind. All she wanted in life and death was to bring him closer to her, but her methods of trying to do that drove him away both times. This movie does aging mother guilt and grief beautifully, somehow managing to allow us to see both sides of what causes that estrangement and alienation.
Barac: I absolutely agree that the core of the movie is loneliness. But I think the religious imagery and the cult are still very important aspects of both what the movie is saying and who Rosalind Leigh was. And it certainly seems to be what ultimately robbed her of everything else she cared about, both the husband that we only see in photos (and always paired with that high bridge that he presumably jumped off), and Leon. Mostly, though, I just wonder if the imagery reads quite as creepily to someone for whom angels and crosses and so forth evoke more positive associations than I have with them.
Chris:Setting that rather heavy interpretation of the movie aside, I don’t want it to seem like this is some sort of preachy or polemic film about regretful guilt and separation. Those angles are there, but they’re subtle. What’s less subtle is the amazing and bonkers final night that Leon spends in the house. This is where that slow burn blazes bright and long. Director Rodrigo Gudino (when he’s not making movies and short films) runs a website and magazine dedicated to all things horror called Rue Morgue. He puts his horror fiction vocabulary to good use in that final night. It’s as if he decided at each turn “What would be the thing that would scare the hell out of people the most right here?” Then he puts that stuff into the movie. Not since I watched [REC] earlier this month has the final half hour of a movie scared me so much.
Barac: PS: For those who enjoyed The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh, or for those who’d like to get a sense of the director’s style before giving it a go, he did a fantastic little short called The Facts in the Case of Mister Hollow.
(The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh is available to rent or purchase through the usual VOD outlets. Support QT3 and buy it through the Amazon link on this page!)