Tuesday, January 22, 2019

My 12 Favorite Country House Horror Haunts in Film, From the Thirties to the Sixties, Part 2

You might have noticed in part one in this series that five of the six films were from the Forties.  Here, all six of them from the Sixties.  Fifties country house horror seems kind of flat to me, though I know there are fans of The Maze, for example, and The Bat, a remake of a classic silent film, itself an adaptation of a play, which was adapted from Mary Roberts Rinehart's iconic country house mystery The Circular Staircase (with horror elements added).  One of my favorite horror films does come from the Fifties, however, though it's not really a country house film--yet it is a super-duper supernatural thriller, based on a short story by the greatest master of classic British horror, MR James: Night of the Demon.  I'll have to review it sometime!  In the meantime....

You'll also notice that all of these Sixties films offer horrors in black-in-white.  With all due deference to Hammer Studios and Roger Corman, who indeed made moviegoers see the color of blood, I like my vintage horror in twilight shades.  I don't need to see red.  So without further ado:

7. Psycho (1960)
Source: Psycho (1959), by Robert Bloch

If your house in the country is running down rather a bit, what better way to make it a paying proposition than by taking in paying guests?  Or--this being mid-century America in Alfred Hitchcock's classic horror film Psycho--building a cheap motor court for various weary and unwary travelers (such as pretty blonde absconding secretary Marian Crane, played by Janet Leigh in an Oscar-nominated supporting turn), right below your incredibly creepy, paint peeled, Addams Family Gothic house?  If your name is Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins, not Oscar nominated, in one of most shameful awards snobs ever) it will naturally be called the Bates Motel.

One of your guests may be murdered, very memorably and horribly, in the shower of one of the hotel rooms, but in truth the heart of the darkness at the Bates domain lies within the house itself.  People who invade this sanctum have a way of being cruelly and bloodily done to death.

So is Psycho country house horror?  Sure.  And it takes things to far darker spaces than the earlier films I listed, just as the book Psycho is a far nastier piece of work than the literary sources for those earlier films.  With Psycho lay the future of horror, and the film provided one of my most unforgettable experiences as a movie watcher when I, a mere youngster, saw it in on television for the first time in the late 1970s. 

While the next film on the list is an elegant Sixties throwback to classic country house horror, it has moments that are no less terrifying than the flashing knife strokes in Psycho.

8. The Innocents (1961)
Sources: The Turn of the Screw (1898), by Henry James and The Innocents (1950), a stage adaptation of James' novella by William Archibald

The first term paper I ever wrote, back in my senior of high school, was on Henry James' masterpiece of maddening ambiguity, the novella The Turn of the Screw.  Being a mystery fan (I read my first Agatha Christie novels when I was 8 and never looked back), I was attracted to the central mystery of the story: Is the governess sent by an indifferent wealthy uncle to his palatial country house, Bly, to look after his young niece and nephew, Miles and Flora, actually seeing spirit manifestations which threaten the children, or is she, well, completely off her nut? 

I made the case for ghosts.

Others of course have seen it differently.  That supreme killjoy, the American critic Edmund Wilson, found time, in between bemoaning people who enjoy detective fiction, to opine of The Turn of the Screw, that "the young governess who tells the story is a neurotic case of sex repression, and the ghosts are not real ghosts at all but merely the governess' hallucinations."  Well, he would say that!

I watched The Innocents, the 1961 film version of The Turn of the Screw, back in the 1990s and then more recently, in its Criterion Collection edition, a few months ago.  The second time around I was blown away by it.  What a wealth of talent went into this film!

The Innocents was directed by Jack Clayton, just off his Oscar nomination for Room at the Top, which starred Laurence Harvey and Simone Signoret and was one of the most admired of the then cutting edge "Angry Young Men" movies of the period.  With The Innocents Clayton turned seemingly backward to a formal Victorian ghost story, but The Turn of the Screw was a product of the Decadent Movement and there is a lot of truly insidious stuff going on in the subtext of the book, which the film, which was co-scripted by Truman Capote and William Archibald, author of a stage adaptation of Turn (see above) certainly picks up on.

In discussions with the housekeeper at Bly, Mrs. Grose, the new governess, Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr), learns some disquieting things about life at the country house in former days.  Miles has been sent home from prep school, for undisclosed transgressions which might relate to troubling goings-on at Bly. 

It seems that the former governess, Miss Jessel, was having a torrid sexual affair with Peter Quint, the deceased valet to Miles and Flora's uncle (to whom Miss Giddens, a near forty-year-old vicar's daughter and virgin--going by Deborah Kerr's own age, which was quite older than the character in the book--seemed obviously attracted).  The children are amazingly poised and charming, but gradually they start to seem rather too much so, disturbingly old beyond their years.  Miss Giddens begins to wonder whether the children could have been "corrupted" by their elders, Jessel and Quint, who, she learns, did not trouble to conceal their affair from their charges.  Is this why the youngsters seem so knowing?

However, things take a worse turn when Miss Giddens starts to see manifestations of Jessel and Quint around the estate.  Have the dead returned to take possession of the living?  Miss Giddens now sees herself as contestant in a holy battle with the forces of darkness to save the children's very souls.  Who will win the contest?

This film succeeds on all counts for me, starting with the performances.  It's always nice to see Michael Redgrave (Dead of Night), in his brief scene as the uncle, but everything depends on Miss Jessel and the two children, played by Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin, and this trio is simply superb. 

Of course one would expect such from Deborah Kerr, but Jack Clayton deserves credit for getting such mature performances out of two young children, respectively aged 11 and 10 at the time.  Honestly if Anna Paquin could win an Oscar for The Piano, these two kids should have been taking home a pair of them back in 1962, yet they weren't even nominated!  Stephens only did 14 films, including his famous role as the lead "child" in the sinister scifi thriller Village of the Damned the year before, and Pamela Franklin briefly enjoyed a promising film career, which oddly fizzled.

In the event the film was entirely ignored by the Oscars, despite the literate script by William Archibald and the great Truman Capote (it did win an Edgar, however, dear mystery fans) and the masterful cinematography, by ultimate Oscar winner Freddie Francis.  Really, the whole thing is a model of how a classic ghost story should be filmed.  (Just note the scenes where the "ghosts" of Jessel and Quint make their appearances.)

It's a far darker ghost story than The Uninvited, listed in my previous post, which makes it feel more modern, yet it is based on a book that is 120 years old.  Which just goes to show you don't have to be "modern" to be dark.  Take note, Agatha Christie adapters!

9. Carnival of Souls (1962)
Source: Likely inspired by Lucille Fletcher's radio play The Hitch-Hiker (1941)

An extremely low budget, independent film that made little impression at the time, but has since become a horror cult favorite; and I'm one of its cultists.  It's about a woman, Mary Harvey (Candace Hillgloss), who survives a terrible car accident in Kansas which killed the two other occupants of the car.  She continues on her way to Utah, where she has secured a job as a church organist.  She gets a room in a boarding house with an oily, unctuous fellow lodger who keeps trying to score with her, to her frigid distaste.

Still she does like playing the organ, even though she has no religious faith and has terribly odd and unsettling visions when she plays.  Things are okay, though--until she starts seeing a ghoulish man who seems to be pursuing her!  She finds herself oddly drawn to an abandoned pavilion by the Great Salt Lake--the now destroyed Saltair Pavilion, a mesmerizing, haunting structure once located 15 miles from Salt Lake City.

The scenario of the film is familiar and I would think must have been inspired by Lucille Fletcher's 1941 radio play, which was televised as a highly-regarded Twilight Zone episode in 1960.  (Fletcher also gave us Sorry, Wrong Number and Night Watch, the latter of which I reviewed on this blog here.)  But the devil's in the details, and the details are devilishly superb in this film.  The cinematography and organ score are really impressive--and really eerie. 

People have criticized the often wooden acting in the film, and I can see that; but to me this gives it, up to a point, an air of Middle American authenticity.  Fortunately Candace Hillgloss is effective.  She only has one other film to her credit, the similarly low budget The Curse of the Living Corpse (better than the title, in my opinion), but with cultivation might she have been one of Alfred Hitchcock's icy blondes?  She makes me feel her character's plight, wanting to be part of society, but also feeling ill at ease with it, and pursued by visions she doesn't understand and which no one else sees.  Her pushy greaseball neighbor, who sadly is her closest contact with the everyday world, isn't bad at all either.  He is played by the late Sidney Berger, who you can read about here.  

The country house in the film?  Definitely the Saltair Pavilion.  Wait to you see just who, um, lives there!

10. The Haunting (1963)
Source: The Haunting of Hill House (1960), by Shirley Jackson

The American ghost film The Haunting is very similar to the British ghost film, and why not?  Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House is quite reminiscent of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw.  Both are triumphs of teasing, maddening ambiguity and psychological terror.

The film is quite faithful to the novel.  In both the leading character is shy, downtrodden Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris, adept at playing such characters), who when the story opens is living in cramped discomfort with her grudging married sister, her demanding invalid mother, with whom she previously lived, having recently died.  (Truly, Eleanor is one of the saddest characters in fiction.) 

Because of a psychic experience--a shower of stones pelting her family's house--which occurred when she was young, she has been invited to participate in a study being conducted at a purportedly haunted mansion with a history of deep unhappiness and macabre death: Hill House (It's "not sane," as Shirley Jackson scarily tells us).

At Hill House ("not sane," mind you) Eleanor is joined by swinging lesbian empath Theodora, memorably played in sexy Sixties style Claire Bloom; the skeptical and scoffing playboy heir to the mansion, Luke Sanderson, pertly played by snub-nosed, curly-haired Russ Tamblyn of West Side Story and Peyton Place fame (both West Side Story and The Haunting were directed by Val Lewton horror alumnus Robert Wise); and sober team leader Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson, whom I feel I must have seen in something before, I'm just not sure what.) 

Once the group settles in at eerie Hill House ("not sane"), uncanny things start to happen--strange sounds in the night, cryptic writing on the wall--but is this the doing of whatever might haunt the house, or of psychic Eleanor herself, who seems increasingly unstable--perhaps dangerously so?

Some have criticized this film as too subtle and sparing in its scares, but others have praised the virtuoso fright scenes.  Put me in the latter camp.  And there is quite a climax, I think.  Russ Tamblyn dropping that bottle is far more effective than the cgi decapitation of Owen Wilson in the truly horrific--in a very bad way--1999 cinematic re-imagining.  Bring back subtlety, for pity's sake!  Well, at least there's always the recent Haunting of Hill House series.

11. Hugh, Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)
Source: Whatever Happened to Cousin Charlotte? (novella and scenario for the film), by Henry Farrell

What better for a scary country house setting then a decaying, white columned Louisiana mansion? 

Inhabited by Bette Davis, acting crazy as a loon.  Not to mention chewing the scenery like no loon ever did.

Her house is visited by a barking mad ax murderer--are they one and the same? 

For more see my post on the Oscar-nominated fright film, a follow-up of sorts to Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, here.

12. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Source: Supposedly inspired by I Am Legend (1954), by Richard Matheson

That the "country house" in Night of the Living Dead is a dumpy old Pennsylvania farmhouse that never for a moment had any pretensions to grandeur or anything more than bare utility tells us we are at the end of the road...just like the characters in this film.  "They're coming to get you Barbara!" the teasing brother shouts to his sister in the cemetery at the beginning of this classic frightener.  What a great shout-out to vintage horror master Boris Karloff, who starred in the first house on our list, The Old Dark House.  But where the menace come from within in The Old Dark House, the menace in Living Dead, lies without--or does it???

In summary, we have

The Old Dark House (1932)
Rebecca (1940)
The Uninvited (1944)
Dead of Night (1945)
The Spiral Staircase (1945)
Dragonwyck (1946)
Psycho (1960)
The Innocents (1961)
Carnival of Souls (1962)
The Haunting (1963)
Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)
Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Sweet country dreams! TPT

"They're coming to get you, Barbara!"


  1. Richard Johnson was in KHARTOUM.

  2. What a fine collection - wouldn't that make a great weekend of watching. Hard to pick a favourite, but I love Turn of the Screw in any format - story, play, film and opera, and have done since first coming across it as a young pre-teen, when I didn't really undstand all the nuances...

    1. I need to reread the novella again, it's such a masterpiece of insidious ambiguity. First read it 35 years ago!