Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Ghosts of Hanley House (1968)

A strapping young man in a small Texas town makes a bet with a friend. If he will spend a night in the notoriously haunted Hanley House at the edge of town, his friend will give him his brand new Ferrari (which is not the sort of car anybody involved in this production could actually afford, so it is never appearing on camera). That's fine by our young man, given that he doesn't believe in ghosts at all.

Because these are the 60s and not the stuffy old times of Gothic horror, our young hero decides to invite some people to spend the night there with him in a very free interpretation of the word "party". After some difficulties, he finds a handful of willing co-victims (some older guy, the mandatory medium, the new girl in town, and his betting partner - although he'll have to hide the last one's car keys to make him stay), and a black maid to clean up the house for them (oh yes, this is definitely Texas in '68), so project spook house can start.

Unfortunately, our hero is very wrong not to believe in ghosts. Everybody will have quite an unpleasant night, full of barking, knocking, strangling and highly unpleasant revelations about the cause of the haunting which will lead to the need for some gravedigging.

The Ghosts of Hanley House, the only directorial effort by Louise Sherrill, is another film among the seemingly endless number of US local independent productions of the 60s and 70s. It's a film belonging squarely to the weird amateur school of filmmaking. As such it suffers from some typical problems many productions of its type share. There's the usual assortment of sound problems (dubbed lines aren't always spoken by the actors and are much louder and clearer then the poor location sound, the sound effects have a strange position in the mix, that sort of thing), ropey acting, and awkward dialogue.

The most productive among the movie's flaws are the visual consequences of the combination of an inexperienced director with a decided lack of funds which leads to scenes full of static camera set-ups (cameras can move, you say?) that are only interrupted by peculiarly lit close-ups of actor faces wearing way too much make-up and so can't help but remind of expressionist silent movies. The latter shots are often used to let the actors stare disquietingly into the camera while uttering their lines, as if they weren't talking to their peers but directly to the audience.

Sherrill also has a weird tendency (born from inexperience or indifference) to show reaction shots a few seconds too late and seems to try to make up for it by letting them linger just a little too long. This, the staring, and the film's not-quite black and white (that looks slightly tinted blue to me; it might just be the state of the print, though) in combination aren't bad for the movie, however. It's quite the opposite, in fact: These technical inadequacies help give the film a mood very much of its own - as if something about what Sherrill is showing the audience is not quite right, a feeling of strangeness a good horror film should strive to evoke.

Now, don't get me wrong here, I don't think for a second the director was purposefully going for an effect this avantgarde in its conception for her cheap little horror movie done with amateur actors. It's rather one of those things that can just happen to a movie when outward circumstances combine in just the right way. "Those things" did happen to local independent productions more frequently than they did to other film, as if the lack of experience (sometimes of ambition) of the people making them made it easier for those films to become interesting instead of professional, and purposelessly strange instead of well thought-through. Obviously, I don't think purpose matters much in art. What matters for this particular film is that the peculiar mood of slight wrongness is there, and is as strong as I could wish for.

That's what I look for in a movie like this, and that's what The Ghosts of Hanley House delivers.


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