Monday, October 31, 2016

The Haunted for Halloween

Supernatural hauntings are a source of endless fascination for me. Not that I even remotely believe in ghosts, marauding spirits, demons, or other inhuman entities, but there's something about the prospect of them that have, since I was a little kid, sent the most wonderful shiver down my spine. I generally prefer stories rooted in the supernatural to those based on the mundane, regardless of twists, turns, and degrees of probability. It's when the improbability of the supernatural is portrayed as ultimately believable that I most tend to stand up and take notice.

A good many years ago, I found myself watching a TV movie called The Haunted with my ex-wife, initially drawn in because it starred Jeffrey DeMunn, whom I've always admired as a character actor. At first, I took it to be just another low-budget, cringe-worthy melodrama, the kind that dominated the Lifetime network and its ilk in the 1990s. But as I continued to watch, I found myself feeling less contemptuous and more unsettled. And when it comes to movies, unsettling is a pretty admirable quality.

The story, supposedly based on actual events, is commonplace enough: the Smurl family moves into a new home and strange things begin happening to them, such as household items disappearing and reappearing somewhere else, unplugged appliances catching fire, light fixtures crashing down on unsuspecting children, and — finally — formless apparitions frightening family members and then vanishing. At first, the weirdest events only happen in Janet Smurl's (Sally Kirkland) presence, so that her husband, Jack (DeMunn), is initially skeptical. But one night, while they're lying in bed, Janet hears whispered voices seemingly coming from her pillow, and when Jack lays his head on her pillow, he hears them as well. Being devout Catholics, they seek help from their church, but the best that good Father Larson (John O'Leary) can offer them is marriage counseling and an offer to bless their house. He comes to perform his blessing ritual, only to discover there actually is some dark presence in the house. After reporting his finding to the church, he is forced to inform the Smurls, with some obvious personal relief, that the bishop will not allow him to help them with their spirit problem.

Not knowing where else to turn, the Smurls make contact with paranormal investigators Ed (Stephen Markle) and Lorraine Warren (Diane Baker), who agree to check out their claims. The Warrens, who came to prominence as investigators in the case of The Amityville Horror (and have since appeared in numerous other fiction-based films, such as The Conjuring and Annabelle) confirm the Smurls's worst nightmare — that an actual demon has latched onto them with the intent of destroying the family. The Warrens attempt to drive the demon and its minions out, but this endeavor appears only to anger the supernatural visitor, for after a brief period of silence, just long enough to make the Smurls believe it has been defeated, the entity returns with a vengeance.

A sympathetic priest from an Episcopal church attempts a full-fledged exorcism, but this attempt also backfires. Having alerted the press to their plight — in hopes of finding someone who can vanquish the force that seems determined to overwhelm them — the Smurls are dismayed when, instead of assistance, all they receive is an onslaught of reporters, cranks, and vandals, who allow them not a moment's peace. At last, a group from the Sacred Heart Society comes for a visit and, in a vast show of love and affection for the family, appears to be successful in driving away the evil spirits.

The Smurls, no longer able to live in their house due to endless invasions of their privacy, move to a new community, seemingly free from any further supernatural torment. As they are settling into their new house, however, they receive a rude reminder that escaping a demon's wrath may not be as easy as all that.
Jack (Jeffrey Demunn) and Janet Smurl (Sally Kirkland)
The fact that The Haunted doesn't rely on a big-budget special effects or lavish sets works measurably in its favor. Over the first hour of the movie, tension rises because of the increasing transformation of the familiar and safe into the unfamiliar and dangerous. One of the best moments in the movie is an early scene of Janet hearing the voice of her mother-in-law, Mary (Louise Latham), calling her from another room. When Janet replies that she is in the kitchen, the voice calls out again, louder and more plaintive. Impatient, Janet repeats her call to her mother-in-law, but now Mary's voice comes from inside the otherwise empty room. A reprise of this scene at the end of the film makes for perhaps an even more chilling effect, since we now understand the disturbing significance of this fakery.

Another effective scene takes place in the Smurls's bedroom, while they are asleep. Janet wakes up hearing whispering voices, seemingly from her pillow. At first incredulous, Jack insists that she is merely imagining things, but when he places his head on her pillow and a soft voice whispers something indecipherable to him, he reacts with near-violent fear. Shortly afterward, Janet feels cold fingers touching her leg. Jack places his leg over hers and then he feels the questing fingers, prompting another strong, fearful reaction.

The first apparition of the demonic force is its best — it's merely a dark, formless shadow that creeps across the screen, only briefly revealing contours that appear more or less human. In a couple of scenes, we see very typical, translucent human figures that are not particularly scary, though it's rather refreshing, even for the film's time, that they are not accompanied by garish light shows or other spectacular, over-the-top special effects. The only true physical manifestation of the entity comes when a rather maniacal-looking young woman spontaneously appears on the stairway and assaults Jack Smurl. The woman transforms into a heavyset, ogre-like brute who seems intent on sexually molesting a disbelieving Jack.

The actors in the production are uniformly convincing, with DeMunn and Kirkland standing out in their parts (Kirkland received a Golden Globe nomination for her performance in this movie, though she lost to Judy Davis for One Against the Wind). Granted, the whiter-than-white, 1980s middle-class characters might ring less true for today's audiences than they did at the time, but the verisimilitude of characters, setting, and events in The Haunted outshines that of most far bigger productions of similar theme, such as The Conjuring and Annabelle, which I mentioned above. These characters are people you know — perhaps they're your family — and the fact they are not exaggerated, as is too often the case, makes them both believable and sympathetic, traits too rare in too many horror movies. You don't have to be religious — or a believer at all — to understand the natural compulsion for these people to seek assistance from the church, which proves itself not only impotent but irrelevant. Even paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, who may in real life be seen only as opportunistic frauds, are portrayed with respect and depth, which for the purposes of this fiction adds another, agreeable layer of verisimilitude.

The Haunted was based on the book by the Warrens, along with Jack Smurl and Robert Curran, supposedly the true chronicle of events at the Smurl house. I don't believe the movie is available on DVD, though it can be viewed in its entirety for free on YouTube.

The Haunted makes for some mighty fine Halloween viewing, I can tell you. Four out of five Damned Rodan's Dirty Firetinis (at least one of which I am currently due for).
The first apparition of the demon — a dark, moving stain in the air that passes through walls
A face only a mugger could love? A sex-starved demon appears to menace hapless Jack Smurl.

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