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A Haunting Image (2010)
Director: Lee Hardman

review by Paul Higson

I first saw Lee Hardman's A Haunting Image at the Salford film festival, when it became a late addition to the support programme for Leslie McCarthy's Moon Stalker (1987), another horror film with a northwest England setting. The programmers had been misled by some keen party that the running time was shorter than it actually was and we spent the next 43 minutes in a low-fi Manchester ghost story. Made on a pittance if not five pence, with little post-production means, a cast of three and a crew that only adds another two bodies to the number involved in the making, it was unlikely that it would change the face of the horror genre. But what it does achieve within the constraints of the production is considerable per capita, per se and certainly in terms of value for money.

To get the faults out of the way, technically, shot in guerrilla fashion, it is often a one-take deal, particularly when on location and there is little done to address some of the problems that come with the live sound in those moments. The diegetic element will in turn work against and in favour for the film. The rooms that the protagonist occupies are almost bare and unlived in whereas conventionally décor would further inform on a character. The absence of details suggests a shell of a man which may be correct at the time we enter the story but his activities would imply that there should be more history and evidence of it.

Occasionally the framing is a little off so that even a nail left embedded a blank wall attracts undue attention. You can also hear a whirr in the gate on the camera that has not been removed because post-production is limited to an edit exclusive of dubbing or cleaning (though a musical soundtrack is assuredly laid here and there). There is languor, unforgivable in a short film, and though we are introduced to a secondary character, a concerned friend, early in the film, that character fails to return during the rest of the story which imbalances the film thereupon to be carried by the one character alone. It is, however, only in the last ten minutes, with flashbacks that include a retrospectively introduced third character that you miss the errant friend and this in part because the concerned friend is so barely drawn. Projected onto a large screen the flaws are magnified but the problems are equally apparent on a small screen.

There is an advantage to being trapped with the film and it is important that breaks are not taken with A Haunting Image and, at 43 minutes, there is no need for a toilet break. The film begins promisingly, although it is with disturbing sounds rather than a haunting image. The screen is almost white, with a hint of a movement in it, but a blur. And what are those noises? I have a terrible idea, and so might you, so it may not be right for me to impose my interpretation on them here. But I am mistaken, because in this impenetrable fog there is a haunting image. Nothing before your eyes, but those disturbing sounds have the power to create an image that is indeed haunting, and so what an ironic start to the film this is. But what is that sound? I break my promise here and share my imaginings. Are they the sounds of half-occupied clothing falling from the back of a chair, a fight for breath during a relentless pursuit and the terrified protestations from someone reduced to an animal condition?

The story backs up ten days and we meet our principal player (David Lawton), a photographer in Manchester city centre making his way to the cathedral. In one shot he is positioned on the near end of a backstreet and at the other end of the street is a shadowy observant figure. Almost certainly, the shadowy figure is a member of the public sticking his nose in on filming at the other end of the alley but even so the still being becomes a serendipitous phantom. The cathedral photography is done without permission and is accomplished. The voiceover relates the loner's possible intrusion at the same time that it raises the filmmakers' transgression. "No surprises, no-one to expose me. Is this a trespass? Does he feel mocked by my presence? There's a reticence here, an admission of doubt. If he exists he has become introverted and impotent and tricks in the shadows... I see only objects and architecture... a museum for the tourists... all donations appreciated."

In processing the images one shot of the altar reveals a ghostly image, a faceless flash white approximation of a figure. He becomes obsessed with the image and researches other haunting images and local history, trying to determine what qualifies the images as uncanny and the stories disconcerting. The images chosen for the montage includes several that are familiar, the occupant in the backseat of the taxi and other famous ghost pictures, and supernaturally themed paintings, but to an image they are well chosen and each fit the description 'a haunting image'.

Before the end of the film Hardman will add to that gallery of haunting images. A friend (Gavin Hardman) visits him concerned about his absence from the usual social circles and trying to encourage him back into the world. But something other than the spooky presence in his photograph has forced him into his self-imposed solitary confinement. Something set him off in the direction of the cathedral and his guilty quest. Bizarre details are flaunted. In his investigations, we can read on a page the story of headless dog, a hound that drowned in the River Irwell and haunted the streets of Manchester in the 19th century.

Bad dreams follow, and the night becomes a place of dread. A broken ventriloquist's doll with the back of its head missing terrorises him before the film goes into flashback and we witness the shocking event that led to his current torment. His unforgivable role in that and his demise leave the viewer in oblivion. It is not that we enjoyed his company but he was the only character throughout and the only one to identify with and therefore forced to connect with him, with the result that his crime is a genuine jolt.

Hardman himself is not a fan of his own film. Some filmmakers cannot see what is wrong with their films whereas others see too much wrong in them and, in their over-familiarity, fail to recognise what works for the innocent viewer. Hardman is embarrassed by some of the faults, but is also perhaps a little too involved in the process to recognise how successful he has been with his aims. The film has successfully updated M.R. James where others have failed, particularly in the recent BBC remake of Whistle And I'll Come To You (2010), which flat-lined bleakly.

Jonathan Miller's classic adaptation of the same story Whistle And I'll Come To You (1969) has more in common with Hardman's film. It is driven by a single character that visits local places of interest and takes a souvenir pulling in a wraith with it. Miller will always argue that Michael Hordern's protagonist was not haunted by a dead man but by his own mind, and so too could Hardman's photographer be similarly accursed. Structurally, there are similarities but for A Haunting Image shooting its horror lode too early in scary dream sequences and the last ten minutes left to a grim, morbid and disturbing departing confession and fatalist finale. It is a portrait of depression and leaves on a nihilistic and stark note. M.R. James relied on the power of the reader imagination and so does Hardman. Nobody could argue that A Haunting Image is a modern classic but this minimalist offering delivers several striking and worrying moments.

A Haunting Image




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