Over the course of a short but prolific career, Ben Wheatley has carved out an interesting niche for himself. Starting in online video making and sit-coms, Wheatley, despite being very adept at horror films waited until his second movie to make his break-out, cult, folk horror Kill List. His stated reason for doing this is that he had seen so many directors like Wes Craven and George Romero make their first features horrors and then get pigeonholed into that genre despite being far more versatile. So he made his first feature a handheld nightmare of a riff on early Mike Leigh with his gangster film Down Terrace. Since then he’s, at least to me, only gone from strength to strength. When I was at film school I was asked to give a presentation on directors who inspired me and I chose Ben Wheatley because I love that he basically can never be pinned down, makes films so low budget that he can make them however he wants and still makes them all incredible. Whether it’s the Ballardian insanity of High Rise that transmogrifies the book into fascinating new shapes that still really honour the source original, or the tripped out & occultist chills of A Field in England, Ben has completely made himself outstanding in his own field when it comes to art horror. I remember the first time I saw Kill List it so viscerally upset me that I hated it at the time. It was only years later I forced myself to go back to it and realised it was just doing its job so well, and I wasn’t up to the movie’s high standard of me at the time. Every time I go back to Kill List it’s like watching a magician at work, but one of the dark arts. He’s even marked himself out as a skilled straight dramatist with the excellent straight to TV Coriolanus modern day adaptation, Happy New Year, Colin Bursthead. So that’s what I’m bringing to this remake of Rebecca.
My other piece of paratext comes in here. I fucking hate remakes. Let me clarify that statement. I like a lot of remakes. For a long time John Carpenter’s The Thing was my favourite horror film, (now supplanted by Suspiria which has its own inferior remake, just as The Thing has a new inferior prequel that no one asked for). The fact is, most of the justifications people give me for our new remake culture, or just the idea of remaking a classic in general I find to be total hogswallop. ‘If there’s a remake then maybe that’ll lead to more people discovering the original or a lovely remaster’ is one I hear a lot that really feels like grasping at particularly flimsy straws. The fact is that it’s not remakes I hate but the culture now of sequelising, remaking, and rebooting everything under the fucking sun. I hate the fact that even great contemporary remakes like The Invisible Man are swallowed up by this behemoth of culture, the stature of which in the industry and world could only possibly be matched if Cthulhu became a film director. I hate that people justify it by telling me that there have always been remakes, like, yeah not shit buddy but this is more insidious, and monolithic. It is the predominant genre as opposed to westerns, slashers, musicals, or whatever we’ve had before. Turning every existing intellectual property into a repackaged and less interesting franchise vehicle is the money maker at the moment, and I fucking hate it. So that’s also some baggage I’m bringing to this Rebecca remake.
The final piece of baggage I need to flag up to qualify my opinion is that I love Hitchcock movies. Shadow of a Doubt, Rear Window, and Psycho specifically. I’m that kind of fan of particularly mean and sexually twisted Hitchcock. I mean for fuck’s sake, I wrote my University dissertation on Giallo, a genre almost entirely indebted in cinematic terms to Roman Polanski, Henri-Georges Clouzot, and primarily Alfred Hitchcock. That being said I don’t exactly love Rebecca. I know it won best picture and other people at my publication absolutely stan it, but I was never swept up in its characters’ psychodrama the way I felt like it was intended. It’s less mean Hitchcock to me and more soupy glammed up Hitchcock, especially in Europe before they go back to Manderley together. That’s not to say it’s bad but like, I’m not a To Catch A Thief enthusiast if that makes sense.
So, in summary, I would be open to the idea of a Rebecca remake in a vacuum, I don’t think it’s impossible to spruce it up for a modern audience and have it work. The thing that’s confusing me is why Ben Wheatley… like, yes, he has more than proved himself in the realm of horror, but his aesthetic is chaotic, handheld, hyper digital, cathartic, messy stories where you feel like you’re thrown into a wood chipper. His thing is the story dissolving into montage that shows a character’s inner turmoil, not Hitchcockian potboilers. Not that he doesn’t try to break out his signature montaging but here it just doesn’t blend very well. The key really is the screenplay by Jane Goldman, who again might appear like a strange choice on first blush. She is primarily known for her Matthew Vaughn collaborations of Kingsman: The Secret Service, Kick-Ass, and X-Men: First Class. Seems totally wrong, right? Then you see that she’s written films like 2010’s gritty Helen Mirren thriller The Debt, and most notably Bill Nighy victorian murder mystery, The Limehouse Golem, which as a side note is very very good and far too under-seen. The story isn’t literally analogous to the Jack The Ripper murders but takes a lot of inspiration. You may remember Hitchcock scored an early silent hit with Jack The Ripper thriller, The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, only his third feature. Also, The Limehouse Golem in general plays very Hitchcockian in the vein of Rear Window. It also worth noting though that Hitchcock hated murder mysteries with a burning passion. Which is strange because he’s inspired so many of them. The fact is, Rebecca is not in the vein of his films like Rear Window and The Lodger. It’s more… soupy than that. Those films are lean and mean, and Rebecca is fraught with rigid emotionality. Not that Wheatley can’t handle that but Goldman’s whole aesthetic is I suppose… flippant. It is also true that every film he’s made previous to this has, in some capacity, been written by him or his wife Amy Jump. Even Sightseers, mainly written based on comedy sketches by Alice Lowe & Steven Oram, had dialogue additions and adjustments by Jump in the background. Wheatley has said very openly that it was the screenplay that attracted him to Rebecca, and you watch the movie and the overall question is basically, why?
It’s not that the film is bad, it’s very competent, but it’s so uninteresting. You watch it and it’s just there, doing its job just fine, but with hardly any flair for the spectacular. It’s shot beautifully, acted well, the dialogue does the story lifting it needs to even if it gets a bit ridiculous and overwrought for my tastes, but it just does nothing for me. Even when I haven’t enjoyed a particular experience watching a Wheatley film I’ve always found him an immensely exciting presence in British cinema, and this brings virtually none of that. It attempts to update the original in ways that frankly verge on the risible, especially the ending, but it’s not like smart ideas aren’t brought to it in other places. For example, it was really smart to flesh out the period of romance in the first act, and it’s shot by Laurie Rose really beautifully, you do kind of fall in love with their romance. It was really smart to flesh out the character of Mrs. Danvers. The production design of the room that the titular Rebecca used to inhabit is immaculate and gorgeous. Here’s the problem. Wheatley’s works in the past have all been profoundly cinematic works, even TV work like Happy New Year, Colin Bursthead. This too is technically a TV film, going straight to Netflix, and it looks and feels the part more than anything he’s ever made. It feels a bit Crooked House, it feels a bit like Mike Flanagan’s TV series ghost stories, and really it feels a bit The Night Manager. It just feels like someone constantly chasing this platonic ideal of a form of cinema that was already perfected and doing it much more cheaply and with so much less panache. This film plays to none of Wheatley’s strengths, and none of Goldman’s. Wheatley just hasn’t honed his craft in anything with the required level of polish for this film, and Goldman’s sharp and spiky qualities that made something like Stardust such an exciting prospect are rendered into boring, heavy handed platitudes here. Armie Hammer, who I like, is abysmal, as if he could live up to Laurence Olivier. You just look at the scene in Marathon Man where all Olivier’s lines are “is it safe?” and he’s torturing Dustin Hoffman by drilling his fucking teeth, and then you look at Armie Hammer trying to be the both inscrutable, magnanimous, enigmatic, and threatening and he flops around like a piece of soggy toast, I… I can’t take him seriously. To the film’s credit, the style of the film is always trying to sell his performance through lighting, shot composition, and colour timing, and it’s doing all the right things. There’s only so much though, that a film can do through the filmmaking when Hammer just utterly lacks charisma.
Thank the Lord for Lily James who actually looks like she’s fucking trying.
So what have we learned here? Ben Wheatley is a really exciting director for a reason. All this film demonstrates is that he has a basic understanding of the principles of cinema. This does not in any way demonstrate why he’s exciting. It just sits there, and does nothing, but it does it perfectly adequately.