The Underground Railroad (2021)

Where’s it on? Amazon Prime

The Underground Railroad (2021)

Dropping onto Amazon Prime this weekend, The Underground Railroad is an imposing 10-hour mothership of event TV. The largest project yet from Moonlight (2016) and If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) director Barry Jenkins, it’s an epic imagining of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2016 novel about two slaves in the American south who escape their plantation via the ‘railroad’ of the title – a clandestine network aiding the liberation of enslaved African-Americans. The great imaginative leap of Whitehead’s novel was to envision this system as an actual railway, a freedom express, and Jenkins’ distinctive, in-the-moment lyricism makes a perfect fit to bring this magical realist coup into being on screen. The first episode, a little over an hour long, introduces us to Cora (Thuso Mbedu, a discovery from South African TV) and Caesar (British actor Aaron Pierre) and their life on a Georgia plantation, where the iron rule of the slave-owning Randall brothers makes for distressing viewing.

Drag Me to Hell (2009)

Where’s it on?  Film4, Saturday, 11.10pm

Getting a late-night Saturday airing on Film4, 2009’s Drag Me to Hell saw Sam Raimi doing a victory lap after his Spider-Man trilogy by returning to the bloody blend of frights and laughs that he’d made his own with the Evil Dead films. Released a year after the financial crash, it offers as our ostensible heroine a bank loan officer (boo! hiss!) who – in a bid to prove her mettle at a time of possible promotion – refuses to extend an elderly Roma woman’s mortgage. The decision backfires a tad when the woman issues a curse on Christine (Alison Lohman), promising her three days of torment before she’s dragged off to damnation. Leaning heavily into negative stereotypes of Gypsies, with a heavy dose of gerontophobia mixed in for good measure, Raimi’s film strikes some old-fashioned notes even as its serving of gore, yucky effects and full-throttled heebie-jeebies proves largely irresistible. Bits with an eyeball inside a slice of cake or a fly disappearing up Christine’s nostrils while she’s sleeping keep us viewers exactly where Raimi wants us.

Death Line (1972)

Where’s it on? Talking Pictures TV, Friday, 9pm

Death Line (1972)

There are chills of an older vintage over on Talking Pictures TV. Death Line, which was known as Raw Meat in the States, is one of the great British horror films of the 1970s, but still counts as something of a hidden gem. The concept is brilliant. Back in the Victorian era, there was a tunnel collapse in the London underground network and, in the present day, its survivors live on at Russell Square tube station. Muttering phrases like “Mind the doors” that they’ve picked up during their subterranean existence, they emerge like hungry zombies from the dark tunnels to attack tube passengers. Donald Pleasence is the copper assigned to investigate, while Christopher Lee is kept unusually down the billing as an MI5 operative. The director was American Gary Sherman, an ad man who was here making a rather impressive directorial debut. He’d go on to make Poltergeist III (1988) but perhaps nothing to match the macabre thrills and odd pathos of Death Line. 

Archipelago (2010)

Where’s it on? BFI Player

The Souvenir Part II, Joanna Hogg’s sequel to her 2019 autobiographical film tracking her sentimental education as an arts student in 1980s London, must rank among this year’s most anticipated releases. At least for anyone who loved the original, and there were lots of us. This week, two of Hogg’s earlier films have been added to BFI Player’s subscription package. The Slits’ Viv Albertine stars in Exhibition (2013), Hogg’s most experimental film to date: a chamber drama about an artist couple putting their long-time home on the market. Archipelago is an easier proposition – a film that developed the themes of her 2008 debut Unrelated in examining the foibles of a family on holiday. Here the location is the Isles of Scilly, where a middle-class family (that is, middle-class enough to have hired a cook for the occasion) has come away to spend time together before 20-something son Edward (Tom Hiddleston) heads off to Africa on a volunteering mission. Tensions, resentments and awkwardnesses play out under Hogg’s quiet, observational watch, but erupt during one deliciously fractious restaurant lunch.

The Outlaw and His Wife (1918)

Where’s it on? Netflix

The Outlaw and His Wife (1918)

Back in February, this column noted a surprise influx to Netflix of vintage Swedish cinema, particularly silent films. Works by Victor Sjöström and Mauritz Stiller suddenly appeared in pristine copies. They’ve provided an odd little backwater on a platform that traditionally ignores film history – there’s almost nothing from Hollywood pre-1970. But still the Swedish films keep coming, and this week sees another handful of additions, including Stiller’s The Song of the Red Flower (1919) and Sjöström’s 1918 film The Outlaw and His Wife. Both are typical of early Swedish cinema’s taste for big landscapes and big emotions, with The Outlaw and His Wife perhaps the most luminous of all Sjöström’s Swedish films (he later moved to Hollywood to work with Lillian Gish on 1926’s The Scarlet Letter and 1928’s The Wind). Drawn from a 1911 play by Jóhann Sigurjónsson, itself based on the legend of an 18th-century Icelandic outlaw called Eyvind of the Hills, it uses the crags, waterfalls and outcrops of northern Sweden as an elemental backdrop for a very early example of the lovers-on-the-run archetype.