The Haunting of Julia (1977)

I’m going to forgive myself for not fully getting THE HAUNTING OF JULIA (a.k.a FULL CIRCLE) when I first watched it many years ago. I knew nothing about grief back then and chances are great that I was under the influence of cheap beer and surrounded by wisecracking knuckleheads. I’m also sure the pan and scan VHS presentation did it few favors. Watching it late last night in HD (on Fearnet On Demand) it struck me as easily worthy of being included among the best ghost stories ever put to film, so much so that I watched it again this morning to confirm. See, it’s important to forgive yourself whenever you can, otherwise you risk being left behind in an ever darkening “once was” while the rest of the world blooms ahead. It’s like being one of those tiny marshmallows that stink up the Jell-o. You should especially take it easy on yourself if you are a failure at giving your child an emergency tracheotomy or if you are not familiar with the Heimlich maneuver because it’s the mid-seventies and not all that popular yet. These things happen. If you don’t let go of the past you just attract more of the same but worse.

Julia Lofting (MIA FARROW) watched helplessly as her kid Kate choked to death while she and her husband Magnus (KEIR DULLEA) had what appeared to be a contest to see who could be the most spazzy and useless. After a brief stay in a mental hospital, Julia decides that without her daughter she has no one to pretend she likes her husband for, and so she moves into a place of her own to clear her head. As fate would have it, Julia picks the exact worst place in the world to move into for someone who is trying to get over the death of a child. It has 2 bedrooms, 2 baths, 2 closely linked mysterious child deaths and a great view of her impending madness! Is the place really haunted or is Julia losing her marbles? Remember folks, those two things are NOT mutually exclusive. Understandably Julia begins to believe that if she can help the troubled spirit in her house, she can make up for that crappy day she played OPERATIONwith her daughter’s neck and lost big time. It’s a plan that backfires when everyone in her vicinity begins to die tragically and she slowly becomes the unwitting semi-possessed tool of an evil presence so heinous it has no issue putting into service, a wind-up clown doll with sharp clashing cymbals.

THE HAUNTING OF JULIA demands to be seen more than once to read its vaporous code. It trudges lethargically at times but that’s all the better to conjure a melancholic tsunami. Look closely and a figure darts past a mirror or an intangible shadow spills across the screen, for long moments you are kept in pitch black with only a glimmer of an eye as your guide. Allow yourself, and there are intense moments of anticipation for what might break through- yet never quite does. It’s subtle, probably too ambiguous for most but it seizes territory larger than itself, where anything in the imagination might materialize and the usual mental guardrails disappear. At one point Julia decides to visit the ghost girl’s crazy ma in the nuthouse and the crone is wheeled out with purple hair and a smile that’s impossible to pin down. Is she pretty, hideous, happy, evil, or insane? It’s like an ever-changing Rorschach smile you wouldn’t think possible outside an animated cartoon. Finally she lets the cat out of the bag, “I’m dead! And safe! Safe and dead!” That’s not what I wanted to hear. I’m sorry but old ladies are the scariest. If you are an old lady you should just know that and try to refrain from cackles and grimaces.

THE HAUNTING OF JULIA scarcely solidifies its spectral presence but who needs ghostly effects when gauzy MIA FARROW is wraith-ing up the joint? Apparitions in the know realize that it’s not what or why you haunt but whom. FARROW is always an interesting screen presence, even if I’m not sure what’s going on with her only sometimes British accent. Her translucent skin and abandoned eyes beg the question “Who haunts who?” and lo and behold, that’s much of the point. As is often her way, she goes through the emotional ringer here and it’s difficult not to feel something while witnessing her crippling heartbreak become eclipsed by cold solace found in an impossible goal that leads nowhere but down. I also need to praise the consistently dank and maudlin cinematography with its no fear attitude toward tenebrosity and the supremely mesmeric score by COLIN TOWNS that I could easily spin in an endless loop when playing solitaire or whist working on filing off my ankle bracelet. Maybe it just comes down to seeing a movie at the right time and in the right frame of mind in the end but I’m grateful this one didn’t hold a grudge due to my first impression and selected to creep back in my life. Maybe once long ago it flew over my head but this time it crashed right into it.

Scream of Fear (aka Taste of Fear, 1961)

I don’t get it. 1961’s SCREAM OF FEAR (TASTE OF FEAR in the UK) was apparently both a critical and commercial hit upon release, so why does it so frequently get overlooked? How is it that this film, still gripping and creeptastic today, is not mentioned alongside the usual classics? I’m serious, I don’t get it. It’s s-o-o-o-o good. It’s the title isn’t it? Folks you have to give your movies memorable titles! I can’t stress that enough. Just because my advice is half a century too late is no reason not to heed it.

SUSAN STRASBERG is wheelchair bound Penny Appleby. She travels to France to visit her estranged father and get a load of the stepmother she’s never met. Once there she is informed that her pop is away on business, which is believable enough until she starts coming across his wide-eyed corpse in every other room in the house. The set up is familiar indeed. Is Peggy a fruitcake or is somebody effing with her head? The large inheritance that hangs in the balance seems to suggest the latter. I guess I’m a mental slowpoke because as much as I thought I knew what was going on, I didn’t. This movie has more twists than a…think of something twisty for me….that!

What I find so exceptional about S.O.F. is the fact that even though it is a grounded in reality thriller, it huffs and puffs like a supernatural yarn and is just altogether haunting. The incredible black and white photography is partially to blame but the story itself leaves giant spaces for you to come to your own conclusions at times and you won’t be blamed for suspecting something otherworldly is going down. One scene in particular that involves Dad’s corpse being spied in a swimming pool is just a blaring punch of full-on horror. That scene should track down the scene from NIGHT OF THE HUNTER with SHELLEY WINTERS at the bottom of a lake and then propose marriage to it. They are the perfect couple because they both flip me out equally.

SCREAM OF FEAR is directed by SETH HOLT (THE NANNY 1965) and written by HAMMER regular JIMMY SANGSTER who deserves to be a household name in the world of horror. (Please just take a moment to gawk at his credits HERE.) STRASBERG is marvelous as brittle screamer Penny; ANN TODD, as the stepmom, is cool as a cucumber where most would have camped it up; RONALD LEWIS is top notch as the ever so helpful chauffer and guess who else shows up? CHRISTOPHER LEE. Man, I love seeing LEE in his earlier roles. Here he plays a French doctor who has the nerve to suggest that Penny’s wheelchair routine is all in her head. Yeah, tell that to the horse who fell on her and broke her spine in three places Doc! LEE is in this about as much as he’s in HORROR HOTEL (where he played an American) but as per usual, he’s all you can look at when he’s on screen.

This is a must-see thriller on par with the best and if you are a LEE groupie like I now realize I am or an appreciator of the glory of black and white, double that must-see. I tell you this because if you should happen to have the FEARNET Channel it’s on twice today both at noon and at 10 PM. See, I caught it a couple days ago and I saved this review just for today. How do you like that? I’ve always thinking of you. If you don’t have FEARNET you can find SCREAM OF FEAR shamefully hidden in a HAMMER DVD boxset. Why it does not have a special edition of its own, again, I have no frickin’ clue. It’s exemplary and I’m not just saying that because I love wheelchair movies.

Official Traumatizer:: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973)

There’s a re-do of the classic 1973 T.V. flick DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK right around the bend so let’s say we take a closer look at the original. There’s something about this relatively simple tale that allows it to forge a significant mark. The premise, a woman fighting for her existence against tiny, Smurf-sized fiends is on the surface silly and yet the minimal production hits an uncanny tone that feels as old as the hills and bewilderingly familiar. Tiny monsters aside, we’re dealing with a haunted house and a haunted house is usually a prop to depict a haunted mind. There is a bounty of horror movie titles that begin with the cautionary word “Don’t” but none whose suggestion is as difficult to achieve wholly. We can choose not to go in the basement, in the house or in the woods when titles warn against it but the human fear of darkness is planted in our DNA. It’s primal and it’s permanent even if what we dread to find in the blackness alters with age.

For many, the fear of darkness is born in their earliest of memories. It doesn’t come as a surprise that this film would have its strongest effect upon those who viewed it at a tender age. The thing under the bed and the thing in the closet are both given ample room to run and play here. In fact, we have sort of an all-star cast of classic terror instigators, an old dark house, whispering voices, howling winds and ink-black shadows that could easy ensconce our worst nightmares, they all make an appearance before the curtain closes (and when this curtain closes it closes hard.) The childhood horrors traipsing around in this movie are as plain as day, they scatter like roaches when the lights go on but what I think makes the film special are the larger adult horrors that lumber in the background. They’re reluctant, abstruse and somehow even darker.

Sally Farnham (KIM DARBY) seemingly has all of her ducks lined up in a row. She and her upwardly mobile husband Alex (JIM HUTTON) have recently inherited a dream home from her grandparents. While Alex is busy piling up promotions at work, Sally spends her day with her interior decorator, maid and handyman setting up house. Problems arise when Sally discovers her Grandpa’s study in which lies a bricked-up chimney. The handyman warns her that “some things are better left alone,” but she delves just the same. She opens the chimney’s ash chute and peers into an absolute abyss. Now she has inherited something new. Demons have been freed to taunt and take down Sally. Of course nobody believes these entities are real and soon her world is in shambles. Nothing has changed but everything has. Her husband seems suddenly a work-consumed jerk and the house she once loved grows smaller and smaller and darker and darker. Her ducks are frustratingly no longer in a row.

The prune faced whispering gnome gremlins of DBAOTD are certainly memorable but if you were to edit them out of the picture you’d have a story about a woman crashing face first into a wall of denial. I’m not discounting the trolls as nuisances but it’s interesting to note just where the fabric tears in Sally’s life occur and the many loaded symbols the mini-goons utilize to frazzle her.

First of all, it’s obvious that the Farnham marriage is not as perfect as once thought. It turns out maybe Sally isn’t feeling as fulfilled in her set-up as she originally planned. Alex is never around and when he is, he’s barking out orders, mineralizing her needs (and troll concerns) and critiquing her party hosting abilities. Holy crap, she’s a trophy wife in a gilded cage and why did she never realize this before? Spending her husband’s money to replace ashtrays destroyed by goblins doesn’t even fill the void! Sure Alex is on the fast track but where the hell is Sally going? At this rate she could end up trapped, growing old in this house forever! (Note: Alex has some reasonable fears too, like that his wife will pull him into the quicksand with her.)

“Some things are better left alone.” If Sally had just gone with the flow and refused to examine that which she was warned not to, would life had continued on a smooth gnome- free course? Are the walnut headed midgets that hand Sally razor blades, slip her sleeping pills and leave her with gashes in her palms the real problem or just creeps who want to accentuate those that already exist while forcing an accelerated outcome?

It’s easy to conclude that Sally’s “nervous” disposition masks resentment towards her authoritative husband and her unsatisfactory domestic life but that doesn’t explain why her grandfather succumbed to the same demons when he retired to his study. If we are to take the little monsters at their word then they have already explained what is at stake and what Sally needs to fear losing in the dark, namely her spirit. Sally ultimately fears the same thing from her husband, her house AND the creatures, that she will be consumed and lost within them. One might assume that she has not only inherited the knowledge of her dormancy but the dormancy itself. Whose life is she living?

Hope you’ve seen this because now I’m going to talk about the ending. It’s a favorite. Some folks might find Sally’s ineffectualness annoying, but it’s rather the point of the story. Sally looses. Drugged, she puts forth a somewhat valiant effort attempting to fight back by casting light (a camera flash) upon her darkness thriving tormentors and yet still she fails. She is dragged into the chimney and the aid of her husband and close friend are too little and too late. It’s not unlike the conclusion of THE HAUNTING or THE YELLOW WALLPAPER and frankly, I’m all for it. Horror stories are in no way required to be tales of empowerment and conquest. It’s not their job to boost your ego. Please pick another genre if you want to see your fantasies fulfilled.

DONT BE AFRAID OF THE DARK is about a woman who ostensibly has it all. She’s living the dream or at least the dream of 1973 and it’s not enough. The hubby is placated and the rooms are decorated just so but an emptiness, a “darkness” remains. She’s sold herself out really to stand in somebody’s shadow not realizing just how cold and dark shadows can get. There’s a Pandora’s Box element for sure with Sally daring to look where advised not to but what she finds is only the truth exaggerated (and miniaturized). In the end, Sally’s voice joins the chorus of the lost; her spirit forever trapped in a house living a life that is no longer her own. In a weird way though her dilemma is solved and her feeling of disconnect is no longer an issue. Depersonalization cures all. Now she is an integral part of something.

Many who return to DON’T after being traumatized by it as kids find it less than what they remember and there are those who, having heard tale of this flick, track it down only to find it laughable. I can understand that but I wonder if perhaps they are investing too much in the micro-ghouls as literal beings. If you instead read them as representatives of a privileged woman’s swept under the rug internal demons, this is an exceptionally strong outing (especially considering its 74 minute running time and two week shooting schedule.) In the alternate dimension of genuine reality, I don’t believe that Sally was dragged into the chimney to disappear forever but I do believe she indeed lost her battle to find a meaningful place for herself in the world and succumbed to a suffocating status quo, trapped, diminished and ultimately snuffed out like a candle. Whether it’s worse to shrink into a wrinkle-faced troll or transform into “the perfect party host” is up to the viewer to decide.

Images of Film:: Darkness

I got tagged by the JOHN KENNETH MUIR to do a meme (check out his “Images of America” HERE.) The concept comes from over yonder at CHECKING ON MY SAUSAGES and THE DANCING IMAGE. The idea is to pick a theme and to select images that, “Stand for so much of what makes cinema such a rich and exciting medium.” I took it easy on myself and chose “darkness” as my theme and the images I selected are below. I put the titles of the films in the comments section.

Before I forget, I’m supposed to tag five more folks to keep this thing going. Don’t feel obliged to comply if you are listed. If you like, just take it as a compliment on your screen-grabbing charms! ARBOGAST ON FILM, LOVE TRAIN FOR THE TENEBROUS EMPIRE, BAKING WITH MEDUSA, MY NEW PLAID PANTS and THE HAUNTED CLOSET!