I still think of Alice Krige first as Alma Mobley, the vengeful murdered woman who manifests many times in John Irvin’s Ghost Story – a brilliantly-cast but disappointing adaptation of Peter Straub’s novel. Here, she’s equally cannily cast as Veronica Ghent – an actress who, in the world of the film, became famous at thirteen in a 1969 movie from wild man auteur Eric Hathbourne (Malcolm McDowell). Director Charlotte Colbert, who also co-wrote with Kitty Percy, doesn’t need to underline the disparity between the subsequent careers of female star and male director … in the narrative present, fifty years on, Veronica has just had a double mastectomy and is checked into a New Agey Scots highland wellness retreat while Eric is giving TV interviews about his search for a new starlet to appear in his greenlit remake of their breakthrough hit (not even a sop about giving Veronica a cameo as her former character’s grandmother).
Accompanied by young nurse Desi (Kota Eberhardt), Veronica is demanding, pointed (‘I’ve had a mastectomy not a lobotomy’), rueful (noting that androgyny only works for the young) and a little bit of a diva … especially when it turns out she’s not going to get the solitude she hoped for since overripe guru Tirador (Rupert Everett) has a bunch of other patients around, none of whose inner pains (if any) she is interested in and whose solicitudes irritate her. Veronica and Desi aren’t in the main house, but put up in a shack in the woods … where the genre switches from bitter showbiz/ageing observational drama to creeping horror, as the healthgiving mud of the region turns out to be permeated with the ashes of the witches who were burned here long ago (the mud also creeps and oozes like the Blob and leaves more residue than you’d find in an Amityville basement) and the modern witch woman has visions of victims of the scold’s bridle and other implements for punishing outspoken women.
Veronica eventually starts wielding psychic powers, and even seeking revenge from afar, while Desi – in a slightly too on-the-nose sub-plot – goes to the pub with a local who is obviously a wrong ‘un and accordingly gets got by the goo before he can do too much harm (as if to forestall criticism, a character who snickers when a woman complains about the patriarchy gets set on fire by pyrokinesis). Much of the film depends on Krige’s sheer presence – Colbert keeps her face and body centre screen, and as in much of her work from Ghost Story on (including an outing as the Borg Queen on Star Trek) she’s as often terrifying as she is beguiling. In tiny roles, Amy Manson and Olwen Fouéré – who also have CVs studded with witchy work – are present as other possible witches of this region.