Emma Stone as Cruella

Cruella, like Maleficent, gives a female baddie an origin story, and ends up in the same cul-de-sac, trying to insist that this is one of the female baddies for the ages, while also asking us also to sympathise with a poor Disney dear who’s been badly treated. 101 dogs’ breakfasts is the result.

Since Emma Stone is one of the film’s producers (as is former Cruella De Vil Glenn Close, interestingly), she is partly to blame for this boring, messy film. Which is a pity because that wonky smile and arched eyebrow suit her magnificently for the role of Cruella, the girl born Estella who, after her mother is killed by Dalmatians, grows up in London with two street urchins, before eventually, somehow, turning her natural gift for fashion into a job with London’s premiere designer, the Baroness (Emma Thompson). The Baroness, another brilliant fashion talent, all Audrey Hepburn poses (but with none of the humanitarian instincts), is also the owner of a clutch of Dalmatians. There are dots to be joined here, and not the ones on the dogs coats.

In a nature/nurture tussle coming down on the side of nature, it turns out that clever and lovely Estella has a wicked alter ego. Enter Cruella, and in the film’s best sequences, a series of this-time-it’s-personal showdowns between her and the Baroness, Estella still hanging on to her day job, incognito, while at night-time terrorising every social event the Baroness attends by making one massively grand entrance after another as Cruella.

An Oliver Twist story about Estella’s life in gorblimey London with pickpockets Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) has become a variant on The Devil Wears Prada (its writer, Aline Brosh McKenna, had an early hand), before morphing again into a Skywalker/Vader face-off, with fashion statements rather than light sabres as weapons. Cruella continues this nervous shuffling, not sure which story it wants to tell, right to the end.

Emma Thompson as fashionista the Baroness
Emma Thompson as fashionista the Baroness

Like Maleficent, Cruella also worries about what to do with a horrible person as the focus of the story. Can we “understand” them and still boo and hiss every time they appear on screen? Every bit of backstory, every humanising gesture, every normal relationship that the baddie is seen to have depletes them as a fount of all evil. Are they, then, to be portrayed as a goodie? Talk about the horns (in Maleficent’s case, literally) of a dilemma.

Cruella is a 1960s Disney movie in most respects. Characters are big and, on the whole, unambiguous. Craig Gillespie’s solid wide-screen direction is in the same vein. The acting is declamatory rather than nuanced. You can imagine Dick Van Dyke or David Tomlinson slotting right in. Panto for all the family.

One mystery is the incredibly poor use of music, a boomer jukebox of pop tunes justified by the 1960s/70s (Cruella isn’t sure which) setting, but which serve no real other purpose. Supertramp seem as out of place as the Zombies, the Doors, Nina Simone or Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra, all of them arriving on the soundtrack seemingly out of nowhere only to be yanked off halfway through the song, only to be replaced by Ike and Tina Turner, Suzi Quatro, Queen or The Clash. At one point, a chaotic heist sequence involving rats scurrying about a grand ballroom and fashion darlings scattering and screaming, is soundtracked to ELO’s It’s a Living Thing. It’s a mid-tempo chugger. Makes no sense.

Some things, though, are perfect. The cast – Stone and Thompson, Fry and Hauser, John McCrea as a very fey fashionista and Cruella co-conspirator, Mark Strong as the valet with the key to Cruella/Estella’s past – could not be improved on. Jenny Beavan’s punk-inflected designs for Cruella’s creations (she also worked on Mad Max: Fury Road) are as showstopping as they’re meant to be.

Music to one side, there’s really nothing wrong with this film that a decent story wouldn’t fix. It’s all a bit fur coat and no knickers.

Cruella – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

In the Earth

A shadowy man with an axe

In the Earth is Ben Wheatley’s most overtly horror of horror films since he did the U is for Unearthed section of the portmanteau The ABCs of Death, though in films like Sightseers, High Rise and last year’s Rebecca horror has always lurked at the edges of his work.

Made during the covid pandemic, and incorporating its disinfecting/distancing precautions into theme and treatment (there’s a covid supervisor in the crew credits), it’s a film all about infection, though the contagion in question isn’t so much microbial or viral as an infection of the rational mind by the spores of unreason. In In the Earth, cool, clear, scientifically trained minds are taken over by pagan beliefs, and lab drills and peer-reviewed publication in sober journals is trumped by the urgings of books of old lore.

Into a forest clearing where a research station is located walks Martin Lowery (likeable everyman Joel Fry). He is scanned and sprayed by masked scientists. After an overnight stay he and fellow researcher Alma (Ellora Torchia) head off on a two-day hike to find Doctor Wendle, who is Colonel Kurtz-like out there somewhere doing hazily understood research into mycorrhizae, the subterranean fungi that both sustain trees in a symbiotic exchange of nutrients and act as a kind of natural information superhighway. Of which more later.

But before going Martin has been schooled in the local legend of Parnag Fegg, a Green Man-style manifestation of the spirit of the forest, a woodcut of whose frighteningly pre-Christian form hangs in the research station. Of which more later also.

Off they go, Alma leading the way because Martin isn’t as fit or tough as he made out to the guys back at the station. Stuff happens, out there in the woods. The duo are beaten up and have their shoes stolen in their sleep. Martin cuts his foot badly and it gets infected. Luckily, Martin and Alma meet a nicely spoken gent, Zach, in the forest and he takes them in. Since Zach is played by Reece Shearsmith, who has a gallery of grotesques on his CV, it’s not long before Zach is revealed as a mad maniac. On Martin and Alma plunge, deeper into the woods, until they meet the good Doctor, who’s obviously gone a bit off her chump while out doing her solitary research.

Wheatley has a refreshing take on the English countryside. Avoiding the two usual representations, In the Earth’s forest is neither grimly horrible nor splendidly bucolic. The Wicker Man stalks this space somewhere, but he’s in the distance, held at bay by a bosky vision of the damp, soft, verdant English landscape – Sightseers, with more trees and the smell of leaf mould.

Martin and Alma
Martin and Alma

A strange film of two halves is what we have here. Part one (everything up to the arrival at the “safe harbour” of Dr Wendle) is a genius display of tension building, with Wheatley’s remarkable compressed, overlapping editing and DP Nick Gillespie’s camera’s differing focal planes adding to a feeling of escalating awfulness. This first half culminates in an Argento-esque frenzy, with a mortally endangered Alma and Martin trying to escape the clearly mad Zach, who seems to have been taken over by irrational, perhaps ancient, urges.

Explication takes over from mood in the second half – enter the good doctor – as Wheatley and regular co-writer Amy Jump attempt to weld the fascinating (but under-explored) scientific notion of sensate subterranean fungae with older lore about the workings of the natural world in the shape of the myth of Parnag Fegg.

There is a lot of chat, most of it coming from Dr Wendle (Hayley Squires) who, in her own way, seems to have gone as mad as Zach out there on her own. Sadly, in much the same way as the swivel-eyed scientist has been infected by ancient lore, so the film seems also to be carrying its own viral load.

Wheatley himself seems to understand that something has drifted in part two, that the genuine originality of the first part has been replaced by boggy horror convention, and so gives us a “greatest hits” montage of the best bits from the first half of the film as things move into a climax which also invokes the psychedelic montage of the end of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

In the Earth is a good horror film that really should be a great one. Its cast is superb, its craft is too, but it drifts from the breathtakingly original and genuinely scary into something much more familiar as it seeks to explain too much. It’s an infection, caught, I’m diagnosing, by exposure to too many Hammer horror movies.

In the Earth – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021