Following an unhappy episode in her life, Anna's (Lara Belmont) father arranges rental of a luscious home in the English countryside for her. It's called Seaview House, and it's just recently reopened following a period of renovation. It certainly looks the part: spacious, modern, light and airy. Well-kept and welcoming. And quiet. Very quiet. Which is what Anna wants. Needs. Not only to recollect her thoughts and self following the recent emotional upheaval in her personal life; a telephone conversation with her father (Bill Fellows) reveals that she's also an upcoming author, there to seek solace and work on the latest instalment of her teen crime series "The Emma Hart Mysteries". She's contracted to deliver the latest chapter by a certain date.
Other than the occasional calls from her caring parents, the noise of the TV, and texts from her estranged partner David (writer-director Jason Figgis), Anna is apparently alone. But we, the viewer, witness seemingly paranormal activity which suggests otherwise: as Anna lies sleeping one evening we see the knob of her bedroom door being slowly turned.
A walk through scenic woodlands on a sunny day sounds like an idyllic way to spend your afternoon, but Anna's experience of this is disturbed by David calling her begging for her forgiveness following an indiscretion on his part. Her agent Stephen (Steven Jess) rings shortly afterwards to check on her latest novel's progress. It seems that for all the solitude the countryside offers Anna, she still cannot escape the pressures of everyday life.
Still, things are on the up for a while. Anna gets into the swing of writing and enjoys the peace that her new surroundings bring. However, she does have reservations. Primarily, voices and bumps in the night that she hears ... leading her to confess to her father over the telephone that she believes the house to be haunted. He, of course, dismisses such a notion as fanciful.
But these subtle hauntings grow into bigger phenomena as Anna experiences incessant knocking at the house's door, a female voice calling her name, supernatural interference coming through the radio and so on.
This eventually leads Anna to investigate further into the house's history. Consulting an online site called "The Paranormal World", she unearths a tragic tale centred on the fates of the house's last real occupants, the ill-fated sea-faring Meeks family.
Prompted by further noises and a growing sense of unease, Anna is compelled to explore the hitherto untapped attic bedroom. Whatever it is that chills the air in there is clearly enough to escalate Anna's nightmares and hallucinations to a state that may leave her in real physical danger.
But is any of what Anna believes to be going on actually real, or simply a figment of her increasingly unstable imagination?
WINIFRID MEEKS is an old-school ghost story very much indebted to the writing of M R James, and the style in which seminal BBC adaptations of his works such as 1968's WHISTLE AND I'LL COME TO YOU were made. Quiet, brooding, not without its fair share of ambiguity.
The ambiguous nature of the goings-on inside Seaview House is one of the film's many strengths, keeping the viewer on their toes, looking for clues as to how to interpret the unfurling drama. Writer-director Jason Figgis finds the fine balance of suggestion early on and never falters.
A languid pace may throw some viewers off at first, but this makes more and more sense as events build in a very carefully measured way, the combination of rich aesthetics and solitary scenes of Anna in various states of reflection lending the whole thing a very "arthouse" vibe.
Shot on location in the Suffolk towns of Dunwich, Westleton, Pakefield and Saxmundham, it must be said that the film's painterly look is another of its strengths. Disciplined shots of waves crashing against cliff rocks, the sumptuous woodland greenery and one startling later moment involving a chance encounter with a deer are a joy to behold: as beautiful as anything an indie horror has delivered in recent memory. The sound design is quite wonderful too, eerie but always inventively so and rarely contrived.
It's also great how the film flirts both with traditional ghost story motifs (trips down the spooky cellar stairs; the cackling of an ethereal female as our home-alone protagonist wanders furtively through the house's old corridors etc) while frequently bucking convention (Anna arrives at the not-remotely-scary-looking abode in broad daylight; the modern decor of its interiors is against our preconceptions of what a "haunted house" should be; characters turn lights on when they enter rooms to explore; our protagonist is actually likeable here [how many modern films are populated by characters either too stupid, arrogant or just plain sullen to truly care about? Anna is a real person - warm, vulnerable, cared about and grateful of that fact]).
Of course, Belmont needs mentioning at this juncture. Since making her audacious debut in Tim Roth's gruelling 1999 shocker THE WAR ZONE, she's marked herself out as a talent to watch. Now, twenty years down the line, she's still instantly recognisable (she's changed surprisingly little) and more than capable of fitting into the handsome cinematography - another string to Figgis's bow, along with his exquisitely slick editing - and single-handedly carrying the drama with a body language that conveys a great deal outside of the sparse screenplay: strength, insecurity, passion, stubbornness, humour, self-doubt, warmth ... As stunning as the photography is and as appealing the prospect of a love letter to the understated ghost story ethics of M R James may sound, the casting of the lead character would've always been paramount to the success of WINIFRED MEEKS. Figgis struck gold; Belmont provides a character you can live with and invest in with ease.
I also enjoyed the lack of jump-scares and shock tactics: this is as much a close-up psychological drama as it as genre film. In fact, the ghostly premise is so understated it weirdly becomes secondary to what's going on for much of the running time. And yet, Michael Richard Plowman's melancholic score maintains a sense of something being not-quite-right, while Figgis's move of having old Sherlock Holmes plays heard on the radio, along with the likes of NOSFERATU: A SYMPHONY OF HORROR and HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL being seen on Anna's television is a reminder that this is developing into a love letter to a largely forgotten style of satisfyingly subtle otherworldly fare.
WINIFRED MEEKS (yes, there is a character with that name featured too - portrayed by Julie Abbott, who even sings on the soundtrack at one point - though whether she's merely figurative or not, you'll have to watch to decide for yourselves) is an intelligent, ambitious slow-burner unwilling to conform to what the Multiplexes tell us constitutes "horror cinema" these days.
We were lucky enough to be sent an online screener of WINIFRED MEEKS by director Figgis, and it looks great in a HD presentation which preserves its widescreen origins, conveying those gorgeous Devon landscapes and lush photography to the full. Detailed, sharp, cinematic and imbued with rich colours, it's a fairly flawless visual experience. The English 2.0 audio was on point too, whether considering the ambient score, quiet spoken passages or superb moments of sound design showmanship.
The film was uncut, at 88 minutes and 8 seconds in length.
Figgis advised that this cut was "hot off the press" but, with the co-operation of an "amazing UK producer/publicist", the film will very likely be finding its rightful place in distribution before too long. It surely can't hurt that the film was co-funded by Screen Suffolk; consequently it's already enjoyed exposure in the last year or so from numerous local publications as well as an article in Starburst magazine several months ago detailing a visit to the shoot's on-location set.
Bring it on. I look forward to WINIFRED MEEKS securing a release and finding an audience who appreciate considered, patient genre cinema that's just as beautiful to observe as it is intriguing to delve into as psycho drama.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Directed by Jason Figgis|