Writer-director Nick Willing’s Altar/The Haunting of Radcliffe House is an old fashioned ghost story steeped in fantastic atmosphere. It hits the mark for those wanting a horror film light on gore and high on tension.
Matthew Modine and Olivia Williams are Alec and Meg Hamilton, a couple with a young family (Adam Thomas Wright and Antonia Clarke). They move to Radcliffe House so that Meg can restore it and Adam, an artist, can work on his sculpting. However, a malevolent force lurks within the house and it begins to affect the family, putting their lives in danger.
Willing’s film riffs on many of the genre classics like The Haunting and The Shining, atmospheric horrors that rely more on mood that gore. It’s a ghost story where the house is one of the film’s lead characters and Willing and cinematographer Jan Richter-Friis create a sense of geography that sees the location envelope the actors. Willing isn’t afraid to let the plot unfold at a deliberate pace, having the actors deliver performances that add an authenticity the spooky goings on.
The cast are kept within close quarters within the haunted house and that means they have nowhere to hide. Matthew Modine is given a role that lets hims shine, delivering a performance that’s as transformative in physicality as it is in character. Olivia Williams is also strong, in the genre’s time honoured tradition as the female lead. Willing also teases interesting performances from the film’s young cast and the actors feel like a cohesive family unit.
The Haunting of Radcliffe House is a rather generic title for this British chiller, but it was filmed under the more interesting name of Altar. This reflects the sacrificial altar at the heart of the film, while also referring to the ways in which the characters change over the course of the film. However, there’s more to a film than a title and distributors often feel that horror movies must wear their hearts on their often bloody sleeves.
Horror is a difficult genre to get right. You have to get the characters and setting right so that the more farfetched elements unfold in a natural way. It’s a promise the filmmaker makes to the audience so that they can believe in the events that take place on screen. The Haunting of Radcliffe House succeeds in this, delivering an emotional pay-off as well as one which ticks-off the genre tropes.
Small in scope, but big on atmosphere, Altar/The Haunting of Radcliffe House delivers everything that you would want from an eerie ghost story. Strong acting helps raise Nick Willing’s film to another level that helps it fit into the haunted house horror sub-genre.