Saturday, September 29, 2012

Come Full Circle: "The Haunting of Julia" (1981)

Based on a novel by Peter Straub, this film is one of the creepiest haunted house films of all time, despite a major flaw that shorts it out of perfection.

After Julia (Mia Farrow) loses her daughter in a violent choking incident, she leaves hubby Keir Dullea and settles into an old house in London. She keeps company with antique dealer Tom Conti, and hosts a seance in her new home. The medium flips out, mutters about a dead child, and Julia assumes she is talking of her lost daughter. Wrongo. It seems Julia has moved into the one house in the neighborhood where the local evil child lived and died years before. Julia then investigates the forty year old murder of a little boy in the local park, and the question is posed: who is haunting Julia? Her daughter, the murdered boy, or the evil child?

In the film, both men in Julia's life, Conti and Dullea, are dispatched with, as is the grown up witness to the little boy's murder. In a triumph of acting, Julia visits the evil child's mother, who killed her own daughter. Cathleen Nesbitt is the maniacal old woman who is sweet and seemingly senile on the outside, but full of venom when her child is mentioned, taking pleasure in her murder and saying the immortal line quoted often in horror films since: "Evil never dies."

The music here, by Colin Towns, is a creepy blend of simple piano and basic instruments, but it will send chills up your spine, almost becoming a character itself. Dullea is okay as the paranoid husband, but Conti's "best friend" character seems to have been written just to add someone to the victim's list. His death in a bathtub during the song "Speedy Gonzalez" is not soon forgotten, however.

While the script's pacing is a bit slow, too many questions are brought up that are never answered. Without revealing too much, who keeps turning on the heater in the bedroom and why? What happened to the piano salesman who also witnessed the killing? Why didn't he die like the murdered child's mother suggested he would?

Another problem, without giving away too much, is the identity of the killer, who is tipped off right away by the film makers. The film makers kill this bit of suspense early, and yet still act as if the audience is still in the dark as to who is committing the murders. A final chilling shot, with end credits off to the side, really makes this film.

The dreary London settings work here, as do the rest of the cast. Dullea, who should have had a long and noble career after "2001: A Space Odyssey," is good with what he is given. Farrow should also get back to the horror genre, with this and "Rosemary's Baby," she has a proven track record. After "Alice" and "September," I cannot bear to watch her in much of anything.

This film, and "Ghost Story," are the only two films based on Peter Straub's works, and that is a shame. I read a novel years ago, cannot remember what it was, but I thought for a popular writer, his fiction has been slighted cinematically.

"The Haunting of Julia" is definitely a creepy little chiller, without the blood and boobs overdose that marks so many scary films today. I highly recommend it. (* * * * *) out of five stars.