Thirty years of horror: The Haunting of Julia (1977)

Chris: Here’s a movie that I had figured out from the start. The Haunting Of Julia is clearly going to be a very British drizzly afternoon stately haunted house movie. Put on a spot of tea, have a scone, and settle in for 90 minutes of perfectly telegraphed nonsense about seeing the ghost of a dead loved one and having a bittersweet epiphany about letting go and moving on. All I really knew about this movie going in was that it was based on one of Peter Straub’s earliest novels. I couldn’t believe he’d write something so mawkish and obvious and gentle.

After the jump, he didn’t…

Chris: Imagine my surprise then, when this movie turns out not to be any of those things. It starts off formulaic enough, the story of a family who suffers a terrible, sudden loss and splinters as a result. Mia Farrow–separated from her husband–buys a drafty old house. (In the book, Farrow’s titular character Julia is a rail fortune heiress; the movie doesn’t do nearly a good enough job explaining that she’s the person in her marriage with the money, although in a very early scene her husband asks her to sign some paperwork related to her trust.) She cries a lot. She thinks she sees the ghost of her dead child here and there. I’m wondering about finding synonyms for “meditation on grief and sorrow” to use for my writeup here, counting down the time to our heart-tugging final scene.

Tom: Actually, I thought they set up the financial angle pretty well with the confrontation between Tom Conti and Dave Bowman. It was almost a reveal. But so far, you’re spot on. “Stately” is a polite way to put it. I like to think of it as an hour where nothing happens. Well, almost nothing.

Chris: Something totally unexpected happens on the playground. I had to rewind to make sure I didn’t miss anything. This was unexpected and out of the blue. From that point forward, the movie takes a turn to a much darker and more sinister tone. A seance has an interesting end. Old secrets that were meant to stay hidden come to light. There’s a marvelously weird mother who thinks she knows the secrets, and has a vendetta. We even get the old refrigerator door scene, this time executed with a medicine cabinet mirror…although come to think on it, this being 1977, perhaps we’re ahead of the curve and this was an early example? No matter, it works. Nothing is quite what it seems, and nothing that happens is what I expected when the movie began.

Tom: I can tell you’re going to be a lot more charitable than me. Haunting of Julia takes forever to get to the creepy. It’s restrained to a fault. This is probably what British horror would be like if it weren’t for Hammer’s camp. But the opening scene is weirdly disturbing as what must be one of cinematic history’s earliest impromptu tracheotomies. See America’s sweetheart Sandra Bullock in The Heat for my favorite recent impromptu tracheotomy. Tom Tykwer’s The Princess and the Warrior uses an impromptu tracheotomy as a meet cute. But in all seriousness, it’s a pretty disturbing scene for how the choking girl’s parents fumble helplessly. Holding the little girl upside down? Jamming fingers down her throat? Did no one know the Heimlich maneuver back then?

Chris: The Haunting Of Julia (which is a terrible title) seems to have had a rather tortured life. It premiered at a Spanish film festival in 1977 (thus the release date via Netflix and IMBD) under its original name, Full Circle. It got a limited European release in 1978. It showed up in the United States under the new title in 1981, played for a week or so, and was gone from theaters. The movie, a joint venture between Canadian and UK studios, was then sold directly to television stations for a bit and forgotten about. That seems a rather cruel fate for a movie made this well.

Tom: We’re on the verge of the 80s and it shows. The electronic soundtrack, the soft lighting, the sudden edits, Tom Conti’s astonishing hair. I admit there are some effective scenes. I really like the turtle murder you mentioned, the fingerdream sequence, and the final scene. Conti’s apply-table-lamp-to-penis moment is nothing if not, uh, memorable. But it’s all so slow and — these days — predictable. And perhaps because we’ve so recently marveled at her performance in Rosemary’s Baby, I don’t buy Mia Farrow pretending to be British. Or much else of what she’s doing. It seems to me director Richard Loncraine was mostly interested in how the light hits Farrow’s face.

Chris: I feel Loncraine — then a young director on the rise — does a nice job of reining in some of his more pretentious tendencies here. He shoots this in a lovely soft focus that played to my misapprehension for this being a tidy, benign little rainy-day ghost story. The cast is mostly solid as well, and negotiate some awkward dialogue here and there with aplomb. The supporting cast is gloriously batty and British and fun to watch (look out for Downton Abbey’s Julian Fellowes making his screen debut as a librarian). I enjoyed this movie immensely, and thought it did most of what it set out to do quite effectively.

In the end, however, we’re left guessing. I rewatched it to see if my interpretation of some events in the film holds up and it does, mostly. Still, I can’t help but feel a bit frustrated, since I really enjoyed so much of this movie overall. It feels like a misstep that even on a rewind so much is left so open and vague. Compare this to how the plot clamps shut on a movie like Lake Mungo when you rewatch — and how much it elevates the entire film as a result — and it can’t help but feel like an opportunity missed here.

Tom: Forget it, Chris. It was the 80s. The world won’t be ready for Lake Mungo for another thirty years.

The Haunting of Julia is available from Netflix’s instant view catalogue. It’s not available on Amazon.com, but this pretty cool movie is:

(So what’s this “thirty years of horror” thing?)

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