Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Haunted (1991)

When the Smurl family – mother Janet (Sally Kirkland), father Jack (Jeffrey DeMunn and quite a bit of facial hair), a couple of grandparents and an ever increasing number of children – first move into their shiny new house, a couple of horrifying things happen: a hammer disappears, a toaster starts burning, and, well, I suppose some socks don’t make their way back from the washer, but nobody mentions it. Anyway, over the course of the following years, lots of small things make the life of the Smurls more difficult, inducing the make-up department to paint quite some shadows under poor Sally Kirkland’s eyes.

Supernatural activity does increase over time, until black shadows have a bit of a float around, someone makes bathing noises, someone invisible “uses foul language” in Janet’s voice (the horror! the horror!) and so on and so forth. Things turn so bad, Janet becomes convinced the house is haunted. It takes quite some time, but once Jack has the opportunity to hear the whispers coming out of Janet’s pillow, he’s convinced of it, too. Eventually, the Smurls call in Ed and Lorraine Warren (Stephen Markle and Diane Baker), who will, as is their wont, not actually be terribly much help to anyone, as won’t the Catholic Church, who is unwilling to exorcise the Smurls and their house even after the Warrens have churned out their usual diagnosis of “It’s demons! And ghosts!”. There’s other rambling stuff to come, some escalation of the hauntings, but if you are hoping for some form of a dramatic climax, all you’ll get is a prayer meeting and the slow fizzling out of a plot that wasn’t terribly interesting in the first place.

Which is of course not a terribly surprising problem in a film that sells itself on being “based on a true story” and actually means it, for the sort of manifestations generally reported from actual hauntings (full disclosure: I don’t believe in the authenticity of any of this, but I’m perfectly willing to play) tend to be, well, a bit boring, really, so if you have a pretence of realism, you’ll have mostly boring manifestations too, as well as a non-ending where nothing is resolved or explained. However, the film – it was produced for FOX television, after all - does feature some rather spectacular elements. Dad is raped by a demon, after all, and Janet gets up to a bit of levitation action, so there’s really no reason for the film to not also come up with a decent climax or an ending.

The film’s true problem, I think, lies in the direction of Robert Mandel. A better director could have managed to milk the more quotidian moments for chills pretty well, but in Mandel’s hands, there’s a blandness to much of the proceedings. There is, to be fair, a tense sequence where Janet follows the bathing sounds through darkened corridors that really works wonders, and the business with Janet’s talking pillows is handled rather well, too. The rest, though, just doesn’t work at all. The demon rape sequence is so awkwardly done, it’s even funny, something no rape scene should ever be. In that particular case, it doesn’t help the film’s case at all that DeMunn underplays his character’s reaction afterwards terribly. Apparently, demon rape is not a big thing for him (happens all the time in suburbia, once presumes). The film’s pacing is just off, too, with too many scenes wasted on business like the family calling in the press only to then complain that the press is besieging their house. What did they expect – exorcism by journalists?

The most interesting aspect of this whole thing is probably its connection to a certain rather popular mainstream horror franchise. This is an earlier example of the Warren businesses’ media-savvy, somehow managing to rope perfectly normal filmmakers into making feature length ads for them, though it curiously enough suffers from the same problems that – to my eyes – haunt the The Conjuring films, too. It’s not just the holier-than-though aspect of the characters, or their really boring version of Christian mythology, that makes their popularity in fictional films a bit puzzling to me, it’s also how boring their emphasis on being “normal” makes them as characters. If there were demons in the real world, I very much suspect the people fighting them would be a lot more interesting than these non-entities. Another curious parallel to the The Conjuring films is of how little use the couple actually is to the people they are supposedly helping. They are not quite on the low level of LeFanu’s Martin Hesselius but are generally portrayed as pretty ineffectual in anything they do before a film’s finale rolls around, even though the films themselves never seem to actually realized this and talk throughout as if they were badass conservative demon fighters. A problem The Haunted exacerbates by not having an actual finale.

So, unless you really need to watch all Warren-related horror movies, this is one to avoid.

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