Monday, January 10

Some quick thoughts on Haunted (1995)

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At the dawn of the 20th Century, professor and snake-oil debunker David Ash (Aidan Quinn) is requested to a grand English manor to assist in calming the unexplainable paranoia of an aging nanny (Anna Massey). The woman intensely believes she's witness to the ghosts of the mansion's past and a series of quietly otherworldly occurrences spur David to stay and investigate. That and beautiful young Christina (Kate Beckinsale); a libertine free spirit in a strange control relationship with her older brother (Anthony Andrews). As David falls deeper for his new love, family tensions begin to boil over while memories of boyhood tragedy resurface...

If this Lewis Gilbert adaption of James Herbert's 1988 novel of the same name isn't one of the best horror films of the '90s, it's at least in tow with the decade's most underrated. Gilbert creates a pleasantly regal mirth while avoiding the stuffy pomp and circumstance that can creep into these period pieces. The vast haunted manor is a place you would love to visit, but probably not wish to stay. And that's the point, as the story unravels around David, the place and its inhabitants seem to be inescapably drawing in on him. It's not hard to decipher the climatic twist early-on, the old Hotel California theme, but the quaint atmosphere is hard to resist.

Fittingly handsome Aidan Quinn is perpetually stuck in the wide-eyed glare seen on the video's cover as David eventually finds more in common with the dead than the living while chasing dusty apparitions and being threatened by phantom fire. A ghostly pale Kate Beckinsale is drop-dead gorgeous, not looking like the alien she does nowadays, as she tightens her seductive allure upon David. The actress's presence helps out considerably, anchoring the picture with Quinn, and she even appears in the nude three times. Needless to say, these scenes should be forever enshrined in the Library of Congress's National Film Registry. The others, like Andrews and Gielgud, aren't given any real meat yet assist in maintaining the classy whimsical tone.

Another endearing aspect is how Haunted can be viewed as the spiritual sister film of Michele Soavi's Dellamorte Dellamore (Cemetery Man) (1994). Both concern a learned man under "soft" imprisonment by his surroundings and a mysterious woman that he's simultaneously in lust and contention with. Both Lewis and Soavi also strike an earthy phantasmal quality through natural cinematography that's a nice respite from today's irritating abuse of digital color correction. The place where Glbert's film stumbles is the hurried last reel. The obvious twists are compacted too closely together and hammered over the viewer's head beguiling the measured deliberateness of what came before. In contrast, Soavi never flounders with his film's sublime ambiguity, making Dellamorte Dellamore's impact lasting through repeat viewings. Haunted's mystery is too overexplained to be as nearly as rewarding.

Sadly, Gilbert's penultimate directorial effort is still mistreated on home video in America. First released on full screen VHS and LaserDisc by Evergreen Entertainment and October Films (who also distributed Cemetery Man), the two present DVD releases, from Pioneer and Artisan, retain this cropped transfer taken from an old video master. These discs have no other extra features and are currently out-of-print. The tape is cheaper and easier to find. There's a Danish DVD from Studio Canal/Universal with a 1.66:1 anamorphic presentation, stereo English track, and Making-of featurette.
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2 comments:

Anonymous said...

"...Kate Beckinsale is drop-dead gorgeous, not looking like the alien she does nowadays..." FINALLY someone said it! I saw this on cable way back in the 90's and thought she was amazing, and so beautiful-while I've liked some of the stuff she's done off and on since then (Laurel Canyon)I've really wondered what the hell happened to her face. And you're right again: this is a terrific movie!
Rob

Erik (Drunketh) said...

I'm on the hunt to see this. Your comparison to Dellamorte Dellamore really set it off... not to mention the nakedness of Kate Beckinsale.

...do you dare tread upon the staircase?
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