As the clocks approached midnight on Thursday 25th April with a full moon hanging over the chill streets outside, Adele Banks, organiser of the Dead by Dawn horror festival, opened her twentieth season by telling the audience at the Edinburgh Filmhouse that they were in for “such a treat,” and that the four debut features to be screened over the weekend could herald new voices in the genre, and as she unveiled Rodrigo Gudiño’s The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh, she made good on her word.
Following the death of his estranged mother, antiques dealer Leon Leigh prepares to spend a few days at her home to sort her belongings, a house he has never before visited yet which is filled with memories, a sprawling mansion inhabited by exotic artefacts, statues, carvings, mirrors, clocks, headstones, stuffed birds, chairs, mannequins, skulls, books, swords, all of which are familiar to him – his mother has been the anonymous purchaser of every item he has found in his travels.
Leon’s father had been involved with a cult known as God’s Messengers who believed “angels are among us,” and when he was a child Rosalind forced Leon to play “the game of candles” in order to make him say he believed, something he refused to do even when the last candle died and was warned the angel would turn its back on him and withdraw its protection. In her belongings Leon finds evidence that his mother was still heavily involved in the cult up until her death, and in dreams and waking nightmares of frosted saturated blue he begins to see terrifying images related to the cult drawing closer to him.
The two overwhelming presences of the film are the house, a stained glass monstrosity of claustrophobic corridors and packed rooms, a close proximity menagerie, and Rosalind herself, Vanessa Redgrave’s haunting voiceover as she remembers her husband, whose suicide is implied to be the factor that drove her son away, and thoughts of her absent son and her own life – “Sometimes late at night you can still feel the loneliness like an animal in the dark, waiting to pounce.”
Sublimely realised through the visuals of cinematographer Samy Inayeh whose prowling camera tracks Leon through shadow and soundtracked by ominous bass rumblings, the pulsating menace of Mercan Dede counterpointed by soaring choral pieces, this is not a generic horror for the multiplexes of jump cuts and loud noises but a pensive trawl through the troubled soul that has departed the house, at least in the flesh, and the one that has returned to it, footsteps in the darkness punctuating the sparse dialogue.
As the man behind Rue Morgue Magazine and Canada’s Festival of Fear, Rodrigo Gudiño knows which sources to draw from without committing wholesale larceny, and here there are aspects of Robert Wise’s superlative The Haunting in the way house itself becomes a character, unbearable to stay within yet impossible to leave, but also Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People, both of which create fear and tension through the audience’s inability to see what lurks in the shadows while implying that it may be something they have put there themselves.