THE HAUNTING OF RADCLIFFE HOUSE
Nick Willing has preferred to work in television and has rarely ventured out onto cinema screens. Altar is only the third feature film he has made since Photographing Fairies in 1997 and the first he has made in nearly the decade between The River King and now. None of his theatrical films have done widespread business in most cases receiving release directly to dvd. The backing for Altar was raised by crowdfunding only for the finished film to end up premiering on television in the UK and going directly to dvd in all other territories it did not, as far as I am aware, play any theatrical screenings.
It quickly becomes apparent that Altar has been intended by Nick Willing as an old-fashioned ghost story. There are many overt references to classic haunted house films at times the floor-level tracking shots following Adam Thomas Wrights remote-controlled toy car through the house evokes the similar Steadicam shots following Danny Lloyds tricycle through the halls of the hotel in The Shining (1980); Matthew Modines slow descent into brooding obsession reminds of James Brolin in The Amityville Horror (1979) and, of course, Jack Nicholson in The Shining; while the big, gloomy manor in the English countryside has been a staple of the haunted house genre ever since.
The ghost story has been making a strong comeback in the last decade. The genre has largely been dominated by the left field twist ending interpretations offered by M. Night Shyamalan and The Sixth Sense (1999) and then the Found Footage approach offered by Paranormal Activity (2007). As it becomes apparent that Nick Willing is returning to make an old-fashioned ghost story, the expectation is that he will do something that redefines or turns the genre on its head.
The great disappointment of Altar is that he never does that. The atmosphere built through the lead-up seems promising but muted and quiet. There are some astonishingly beautiful shots of the remote Yorkshire moors. Although his leads are both capable actors, the cast are not up to much. I have always found Olivia Williams a cold and closed-off actress and she is at least okay here, while Matthew Modine has always been anything but closed-off but chooses to give a performance where he spends most of the show brooding and angry. However, the eventual payoff and jumps that Willing produces are nothing standout and in the end surprisingly unmemorable. The entire show winds up on the same sort of body predation plot that Willing pulled in Doctor Sleep but when the twist ending comes it is a surprise that falls into the utterly routine and feels of monumentally indifferent consequence.