Brian over at Horror-Movie-a-Day (if you haven't visited his blog, get clickin'!) wrote something I thought was very perceptive about why some movies, even when you can't in any way define them as "good," still get inside your brain and under your skin with their weirdness. For me he struck perceptive gold when he wrote of the 1973 oddity Scream Bloody Murder (the Duke's review of which to follow soon, I hope!):
"...the true highlight of the film is the strangely angry tone in much of the dialogue. Lines ...are delivered with such intense hatred, one has to wonder what the hell the writer’s problem is."When you've watched as many obscure movies as I have, you start to pick up on these little strangenesses of tone, the things that pervade a movie and make you wonder, as Brian said, just what the hell the writer or director's problem is. Often the psychological mysteries presented by these observations add another level to the film you're watching, and elevate what some would see as a sub-par genre exploitationer as something else entirely--a psychological portrait of a possibly fringe personality, an expression of the filmmakers' unique philosophical psychoses. Which of course makes it all the more interesting to a b-movie nut like me.
So while 1977's Haunts might not be quite the desperate, despairing cry for understanding that something like SBM or Abel Ferrara's The Driller Killer so plainly are, it's still got that little something going on under the surface that is just a bit, well, off--
Luckily, it also happens to be a pretty good movie.
We start off with a family sitting around the table, having a good old-fashioned family dinner. It's typical East cost-to-Midwest Americana circa 1977--the sideburned, frizz-haired dad with tinted spectacles and a plaid shirt; the similarly bespectacled and stringy-haired mother; the kids in softball shirts with 3/4-length sleeves; the youngest kid with his name, EDDIE, printed across his chest in 3-inch, iron-on, doubtless velour-textured letters. Enjoy this scene, because it's the last time we'll see a group comprised of happy, well-adjusted people in THIS movie.
Meanwhile, outside, a ski-masked killer stalks. The straight-haired dowdy daughter is sent to the outbuilding to get something or other, and from the killer's POV we watch her go. (Am I wrong to think this is a conscious emulation of Tourneur's famous girl-goes-to-the-store sequence from The Leopard Man? Probably.) The masked one attacks, but luckily is driven away before the girl can come to too much harm. The credits finish up. Family harmony established and then disrupted: hey ho, we're ready to go!
Next we meet Aldo Ray as the sheriff trying to deal with the sudden rash of sex killings in his small town, assisted by the town doctor, a man with some of the most amazing eyebrows I've seen this side of Ox Baker. Stress of the job has apparently driven Aldo to alcoholism, or maybe he's was that way before. A few weird exchanges with Dr. Eyebrows and I was starting to feel that weird, something's-not-right-here tingle.
In the next scene, FINALLY, we meet our protagonist Ingrid, played by May Britt. Ingrid is a tall blonde Swede in early middle-age but bears the signs of having been a real Nordic beauty in her youth, and in fact still looks great (or did, in 1977). She lives alone on her parents' farm--they died when she was young, and she inherited the place after she came of age. Her first scene is a doozy, as milking a goat apparently makes her feel both nostalgic and sexy--we get strange imagistic flashbacks mixed in with some of the most suggestive creamery ever committed to film. Again, something's off here, but we won't know quite what for a while.
We follow Ingrid around town, shopping, hearing rumors of the attempted rape/murder in the credit sequence, and meeting some of the eccentric people who populate the town. First there's Ingrid's Uncle Carl (a restrained performance by Cameron Mitchell), who doesn't like fraternizing with the townsfolk and is strangely secretive. There's also the creepy butcher/Lothario who apparently stole a young Harrison Ford's DNA, the chunky-but-vivacious town tramp, and the couldn't-possibly-look-MORE-suspicious out-of-towner who just joined the church choir where Ingrid is the star singer. In fact the town is full of piggish men to suspect of the killings, so the who-dunnit lover in me perked up his ears and started taking notes, eager to figure it all out.
We don't have to wait long for action, as on the way home from choir practice Ingrid is attacked and nearly raped by the ski-masked stalker. When she fights back and escapes back to her farm house, she tearfully tells Uncle Karl what happened. His response? "It must be your imagination--probably a rabbit or a deer." Again, her clothes are torn, she's visibly upset, and her only blood relative tells her it must have been a bunny that startled her. Something is off here, and it serves to disorient and disquiet the viewer.
And things just get weirder from there. We learn almost as an aside in a police interview that Ingrid is a total religious nut; again, something's weird about that. Later, when she's raped by the butcher/Lothario guy, once again no one believes her. Why? Even the priest, her comforter, responds to her confession about being attacked by threatening her with hell. And what do these weird, disturbing flashbacks she keeps having mean? All becomes more or less clear by the end, but along the way I never felt truly comfortable or aware. Which actually is the film's big strength.
So that's a plot summary, and it's not bad--but there's a lot more to this movie bubbling just under the surface. Completely apart from the main plot, there are some really weird things going on in this town. For instance, when Ingrid calls the sheriff to report her first attack, we cut to the sheriff's house where his wife has answered the phone. She nods and carries the phone into the bathroom, where Aldo Ray is on his knees by the toilet PUKING DRUNK! To coin a phrase, WTF? Though he takes a few nips through the rest of the film, nothing is ever made of his obviously rampant alcoholism. So why's it included? Was the writer's dad/director's mom a drunk, and he had to get it out there? Was there some other reason for it I missed? That's one of those mysteries I was talking about.
Furthermore, relationships between the sexes in this movie are uniformly, inexplicably, and completely and totally NOT GOOD. The butcher/Lothario who rapes Ingrid and may or may not be the killer also has a jailbait girlfriend he smacks around, calls a bitch, and dumps on the side of the road. When creepy choir guy tries to make time with the town tramp in the local watering hole, it ends in a venom-filled screaming match. And when Ingrid meets up with the Lothario's girlfriend later, she also gets an earful from the little girl, a hate-filled warning to stay away from her man. The sexual antipathy in this goes beyond the plot reasons for it revealed in the startling final scenes; there's some other thing going on here.
Oh, btw, the butcher/rapist's girlfriend? She's the sheriff's daughter. In another not-central-plot-related scene, Aldo finds out (from the priest!) that his daughter is pregnant with butcher-boy's seed, and he storms to the boy's apartment, busts in, and handcuffs him to the bed. Then he turns to his daughter, screams "You dirty little BITCH!" and smacks her! Again, WTF? Where does this come from? Why is it necessary?
Haunts is a movie that I find...well, haunting. The film itself is very artfully done--a great creepy soundtrack, some nice visuals and cinematography (particularly in the flashbacks and a few red/white color motifs), and a genuinely twisted twist ending (you'll THINK you know what the twist is...). But as much as I enjoy it on those levels--and I do--it's that seedy underbelly of the film that keeps me thinking about it.
Anyway, I give it 2.5 thumbs, because I really think it should be seen by more people. And since you can get it on the mad movie deal of the year, the 50 Chilling Classics pack which also includes Scream Bloody Murder, Driller Killer, and many of the other movies I've reviewed or will be reviewing here (check the post labels!), there's really no excuse. Buy it now, thank me later.
And if you figure out what the Haunts peoples' deal is...let me know.