The Haunting of Julia directed by Richard Loncraine
You’ve got to feel a little sorry for the characters that Los Angeles-born actress Mia Farrow portrayed in her three big horror outings of the late 1960s to mid-‘70s. Her Rosemary Woodhouse, in the 1968 classic Rosemary’s Baby – surely one of the classiest fright fests of that great decade – was not only set up by her husband and later knocked up by Old Scratch himself, but was later the unwitting deliverer of the son of Satan. In 1971’s See No Evil, Farrow played a character named only Sarah, a blind woman who is pursued by a maniacal killer. And in The Haunting of Julia, she … but more on this unfortunate character in just a moment.
The Haunting of Julia, as it is known today, originally debuted in 1977 at Spain’s San Sebastian International Film Festival sporting the perhaps more apropos title Full Circle. The British-Canadian coproduction would then open the following year in those two countries but never played in the U.S. until 1981, when distributors apparently felt that by changing the film’s title to The Haunting of Julia, more box office dollars would be the result. The film was the first to be based on a book by Peter Straub – in this case his 1975 novel Julia – featured some A-list talent in front of the cameras and some sophisticated filmmaking talent behind them, certainly provided its fair share of creepy moments, and yet, for all that, would appear to be a somewhat forgotten and overlooked film today. Yes, it surely pales in comparison to the Roman Polanski film of 1968 – but then again, not too many horror films can hope to approach the greatness that is Rosemary’s Baby – and is not even as nerve racking as Mia’s underrated suspenser of 1971, but still has some interesting bits to offer to the discriminating horror fan looking for something offbeat.
In the film, Mia Farrow – looking precisely as she did in Rosemary’s Baby, short hair and all – plays the part of Julia Lofting, an American wife living in London. Julia has a pretty, blonde, 8-year-old daughter named Kate, as well as a handsome husband, Magnus (Cleveland-born actor Keir Dullea), with whom, we later learn, she does not get along. Tragedy strikes the Lofting household one morning when Kate chokes on her food while eating breakfast and begins to suffocate. Julia performs an emergency tracheostomy in order to save her daughter’s life, resulting in Kate’s unfortunate death. Julia, needless to say, is devastated by the tragedy, and spends some months in a hospital recovering from the shock of it. Once released, she decides to move into a fashionable Victorian townhouse and separate from her husband, and the viewer really can’t blame her, as Magnus does come off as something of a cold-blooded fish, only interested in Julia for her money, and the fully furnished home that Julia moves into is certainly a stunner. But once ensconced therein, strange things begin to transpire to poor Julia. A heater in the building keeps turning on and off by itself. She repeatedly imagines seeing Kate outdoors, in playgrounds and elsewhere. A séance that she allows her sister-in-law Lily (British actress Jill Bennett, whose earlier horror credentials include 1965’s The Skull and The Nanny, and who would go on to appear, four years later, in the 007 blowout For Your Eyes Only) to conduct in her living room results in the medium’s panicked sighting of both a ghostly little girl and a spectral little boy in the home. Julia’s only true friend, an antiques dealer named Mark Berkeley (the Scottish actor Tom Conti, here in his fourth film), tries to persuade Julia to move out of her new house, but she, for some obscure reason, and despite feeling that something is watching her there, decides to stay. Ultimately, Julia does a bit of amateur sleuthing and brings to light the 30-year-old tragedy that had resulted in her home’s being the haunted abode that it is today; appropriately enough, the film’s promotional poster showed a little blonde girl under the tagline “She had no one to play with for thirty years.” But the spectre that haunts Julia’s abode, as we see, is not merely a passive one, and before long, everyone in Julia’s orbit begins to suffer some pretty horrendous demises…
The Haunting of Julia, it must be said, is never all that frightening (unlike, say, the “dream” sequence in Rosemary’s Baby) and never even that grippingly suspenseful (as was surely the case in See No Evil); it is certainly never more horrifying than in that very first scene, when Kate chokes out her life while Julia stands by trembling in traumatic shock. And yet, the film does manage to offer up any number of eerie little moments. Among these: the gruesome fate of Magnus, as he explores Julia’s apartment unannounced; Julia’s repeated sightings of a little blonde girl outdoors; Julia’s visit to Mrs. Rudge, a previous owner of her current home, and played by British actress Cathleen Nesbitt, here pushing 90 years old; and, of course, that shocking final scene, which has apparently been the cause of both debate and head-scratching puzzlement for many years now. As to that final stunning image, the viewer must wonder whether what happens to Julia at the tail end of the film was a deliberate act on her part, OR whether it was something that she merely allowed to happen to her, for reasons of her own. I tend to feel that the latter is the case here, that the ghosts in her household were indeed very real, and that Julia was happy at the end to be … but perhaps I have already said too much. It is certainly not a happy ending, objectively speaking, and yet, for Julia, who knows?
The film, it must be added, looks just marvelous, and makes good use of its offbeat London locales. British director Richard Loncraine helms his picture with an eye toward maximum freakish effect, despite having not much in the way of objective frights to work with, while British screenwriter Harry Bromley Davenport, I would imagine, has done a fair job of adapting Straub’s original (I’m only guessing here, actually, not having read that book). The picture’s lensing, by Australian DOP Peter Hannan, looks just fine, but perhaps best of all is the film’s wonderfully haunting score by Colin Towns, a fittingly childlike melody that might put some in mind, again, of the similar air to be found in Rosemary’s Baby. This earworm of a melody insinuates itself into the film and does go far in generating a creepy miasma. In his role of Magnus, Dullea, 41 here, is just fine, bringing a nasty edge to this greedy and overbearing character. Dullea, of course, was riding high at this point, having appeared in some true classics of the 1960s and early ‘70s, such as David and Lisa (1962), Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965), The Fox (1967), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and the cult horror classic Black Christmas (1974). But this really is Mia’s picture all the way, and she is just terrific in it, as she was in her other two horror outings. She is just ideal for these kinds of films, her gentle and doelike demeanor contrasting nicely with the terrible events that she is forced to endure. It is a pity that she did not do more of these kinds of films back when; she might have become one of the great “scream queens” of all time. Mia had been only 23 when she essayed the role of Rosemary Woodhouse back in 1968, and here, at 32, she comes across as a bit more womanly, although decidedly just as soft and fragile. She is the single best reason for making it a point to see this unusual horror experience one day.
Now, having said all that, I must confess that I really wanted to like The Haunting of Julia more than I did, and it is proving very difficult for me to understand just why I didn’t have more fun with it. The script is a good one, the acting as professional as can be, the direction and cinematography and music everything that one could want, and yet … somehow, the end result just doesn’t add up to the sum of its many fine parts. Perhaps it is the fact that the film is just never scary enough, that its ending is ambiguous, and that its several homicides are never really all that shocking. When the scariest things about a horror movie are a botched tracheostomy (that is not even shown on screen, although I hear that this scene is more graphically depicted in other prints) and the bizarre look on a 90-year-old woman’s mug, you know that something has gone amiss. This viewer has never been one to require blood and grue to satisfy a lust for cinematic kicks, but it would be nice to experience an occasional cold shiver down the spine during affairs such as this, and sad to say, The Haunting of Julia will provide those frissons for only the most inexperienced of viewers. I’m certainly not sorry to have seen it, especially to revel in another one of Mia Farrow’s marvelous horror performances, but it really does come in third best among Mia’s frightful offerings…