The Black Gloves (2017)
Last month, the colour version of Lawrie Brewster’s horror melodrama, The Black Gloves, became available to stream on Amazon. Mark Anthony Ayling reviews the film for Horrified...
After contemporary genre efforts Lord of Tears (UK, 2013) and The Unkindness of Ravens (UK, 2016), Scottish director Lawrie Brewster and writing partner Sarah Daly delivered yet another well-considered horror yarn under the Hex Media banner. The Black Gloves (UK, 2017) is a black and white period chiller set in the Highlands of the 1940s, with a colour version following in 2020.
The story begins in Edinburgh, where conservative Scottish psychologist Finn Galloway is ruminating over the untimely demise of a troubled former patient. In a bid to unravel the mystery of the ‘Owlman’ that haunted her, he embarks on a hastily conceived rescue mission to the Scottish Highlands in search of a reclusive ballerina, Elisa Grey, who is reportedly experiencing a similar delusion. Holed up in a Manderley-style manor house with her controlling guardian for company, Elisa presents an opportunity for the doctor to achieve closure. In doing so, he seeks to exorcise his own demons and unravel the mystery of the Owlman apparition into the bargain.
Unfortunately, on his arrival at the house, the doctor finds himself out of his depth. He tries to counsel the former dance prodigy and pry her from the grip of her domineering protector, Lorena Velasco, but inevitably, his own fragile psyche starts to disintegrate in the toxic environs of the estate, where the spectre of the Owlman circles like an augur of doom. What follows is a nightmarish descent into madness as the cabin-fevered characters all struggle to come to terms with their individual experiences of trauma.
Predominantly, The Black Gloves is a nostalgic callback to the classic Goth melodramas of mid-Twentieth Century cinema. All the key elements are in situ: there is a mystery that must be solved, a haunted stately home gone to seed, ripe dialogue, a terrifically overwrought central romance, moments of gloomy foreshadowing, an increasingly unhinged central protagonist, some supernatural stuff, and a veritable stew of sexual repression.
As a knowingly rendered homage to all things goth noir, the film excels. This is particularly notable in the monochrome version of the film released in 2017, which harks back to a time when horror films were shot in black and white and often featured melancholy manors, decorated with creepy furnishings and populated by repressed obsessives whose backstories were invariably problematic.
The film differentiates itself from the classics and elevates itself from the slush pile of budget genre flicks doing the rounds, through its willingness to experiment. Not content to serve up a lukewarm pastiche of The Innocents (UK, Jack Clayton, 1961) and Gaslight (USA, George Cukor, 1944), the film playfully blends psychological and goth horror elements with the sensory room aesthetic of Dario Argento’s technicolour giallo oeuvre, along with the folk horror sensibilities of uncanny local legends, to jarring and fearful effect.
In the colour version of the film released in 2020, Argento’s influence is particularly conspicuous. The haunted grandeur of the Baldurrock Estate – a former orphanage located in the Scottish Highlands – is given a vibrant makeover, evoking the interiors of the Tanz Dance Academy from Suspiria (Italy, Dario Argento, 1977). Deep reds and moody lighting strike a discordant note in keeping with the film’s anxieties.
In less capable hands, this wildly inharmonious mixture of conflicting horror aesthetics might have destabilised the narrative, resulting in a tonal mash-up too confusing to appreciate. However, in the case of The Black Gloves, the film’s gothic, psychological and folk horror components are rarely overwhelmed. If anything, the fusion of Italian exploitation’s garish terrors with the morbid atmospherics of classic horror, and the film’s eclectic score by Joni Fuller – composed of moody synths, shrieking strings and melancholy piano intervals – make for an unsettling and disorientating viewing experience. This approach fully exploits the emotional uncertainty and post-traumatic psychological distress of its key players, even if, at times, it’s hard to keep up with what’s real and what is imagined.
The players themselves are an interesting group. Jamie Scott Gordon gives a determined performance as a psychologist experiencing a breakdown in the traumatised (and traumatising) setting of Baldurrock. Spanish genre mainstay Macarena Gomez is so ludicrously over-the-top as Lorena Velasco that, at times, her pantomime mannerisms threaten to overpower the production. Then there’s the prima ballerina herself, Elisa, played initially as a catatonic music box figurine by American actress and dancer Alexandra Hulme. As the plot develops, Elisa attains a kind of empowerment as her personality thaws and she achieves independence, both from her guardian and Dr Galloway’s objectifying infatuation. She also gets to perform a terrifyingly choreographed dance sequence in the film, which is a high point of the production and deeply unsettling. Finally, there’s the sinister figure of the Owlman himself, whose manifestation is integral to the film’s climax. The Owlman is an ornithophobe’s worst nightmare, and, in a film packed with disturbing images, his is most likely to linger with the viewer once the final credits have rolled.
While the film may lack some of the production quality of similar modern horrors to feature cracked dancers and traumatised protagonists, such as Black Swan (USA, Darren Aranofsky, 2010) and the divisive remake of Suspiria (USA, Luca Guadagnino, 2018), it does manage to achieve, with limited resources, an admirable level of intensity. Kudos to the writer/director team of Daly and Brewster, who continue to deliver eccentric and intelligent indie horror films on tight budgets, when the user-friendly route of exploitative slasher gore would likely have proved a more lucrative creative option.