Readers of this blog will no doubt agree with me that October is the very best month of the year (and if you don’t agree, I fart in your general direction). The dark promise of Halloween lies ahead, the weather begins to get cooler and the days darker, and seemingly every channel on television becomes a horror fan’s treasure trove for thirty-one straight days. Here in Florida, where there are really only two seasons (dank-ass-mosquito-swamp-fug and slightly-less-humid-but-still-fucking-sweltering-even-though-it’s-almost-Christmas-for-fuck’s-sake-oh-god-WHY), the transition into fall is pretty much non-existent, but yesterday we had an unexpected temperature drop into the upper 50s with attendant cool breeze, and slanted golden sunlight coating the landscape like sparkling honey. Brothers and sisters, it was SPECTACULAR. It felt like a real fall day, and I tried to squeeze as much autumn goodness out of it as I possibly could, opening the house up for the first time in months, brewing pot after pot of pumpkin spice coffee, and settling down in the evening, wrapped in my red and black blankie, to watch some classic (and often criminally underappreciated) 70s chillers, one of which is the subject of today’s post.
Before I get to that, though, please allow me the indulgence of a short commercial. Just a reminder, my novel Red Menace is now available in ebook, Kindle, and print formats. If you’re in the mood for some spooky Halloween reading, you could certainly do worse than this tale of witchcraft and serial murder, so pick up your copy today, won’t you? Also, keep watching this space, as I’m thinking of holding a contest in the next few weeks where you could win a signed copy of Red Menace as well as a few other goodies. And now, on with the show, and again, there will be massive spoilers below, so you have been duly warned.
The Haunting of Julia was released in 1981 in the US, but came out in the UK in 1977 under the confusingly generic title Full Circle. It was based on the novel Julia by the phenomenal Peter Straub, who needs more film adaptations of his work, goddammit. It’s a low-key, atmospheric ghost story of the type that doesn’t really get made anymore; every aspect of its production, from the gorgeously somber cinematography to the subtle tightening of tensions and disturbing repetition of themes to the beautifully evocative background music, is engineered to deliver a delightfully eerie experience that is almost hypnotic in its unsettling excellence.
The movie tells the story of Julia Lofting (Mia Farrow), who lives in a swanky London suburb with her eight-year-old daughter Katie (Sophie Ward) and her condescending jackwagon of a husband, Magnus (Keir Dullea). At the beginning of the film, as the family are seated around the breakfast table, Katie begins to choke on a piece of apple (symbolism!). Her parents desperately try to save her, but the apple will not be dislodged no matter what they do. Magnus calls for an ambulance, but Julia, fearing it won’t arrive in time, frantically attempts to perform an impromptu tracheotomy. Katie dies on the kitchen floor, though it is left unclear whether the ambulance would have got there in time to save her, or whether Julia has effectively killed her child by cutting her throat. And before anyone in the peanut gallery shouts, “What about the Heimlich maneuver,” keep in mind that it was not developed until 1974, and was not widely known at the time this movie was made. So just roll with it, folks.
Anyway, Julia understandably has a mental breakdown after her daughter’s death, and is sent to a hospital to recover. Two months later, she is deemed fit for release. Magnus comes to pick her up, being his insufferably dickbaggy self, and Julia decides she’s having no more of him. She gives him the slip and hails a cab out in the street, and in a later scene we see her purchasing a beautiful furnished home on her own. The only personal objects she brings to the gorgeous old place are a picture of Katie in a silver frame, and one of Katie’s toys, a wind-up Harlequin doll with sharp cymbals that cut Julia’s finger as she’s placing it on the nightstand (foreshadowing!).
One afternoon shortly after her move, Julia is having lunch with Magnus’s sister Lily (Jill Bennett). Julia wants Lily to tell Magnus that she is doing fine, but that she is not going back to him, as their marriage had been bad from the beginning and became intolerable after Katie’s death. She begs Lily not to tell Magnus where she is, and Lily seems to agree, reluctantly. As Julia is walking home from the restaurant, she stops in a park to watch some children playing. Suddenly, she sees a little blonde girl who resembles Katie hunched over something in the sandbox. When she looks again, the little girl is gone, but in the sandbox, Julia finds a tiny knife like the one she used for the tracheotomy, and buried below that, she finds a mutilated pet turtle. As she stands there shocked, the knife and turtle in her hands, the other mothers in the park see her and think she has killed the turtle, and tell her to get her freak ass out of the park before they call the police.
When Julia arrives home much later, it is just getting dark, and she finds she has lost her keys. As she is going around the outside of the house looking for a window to crawl through, she hears furtive noises that lead her to believe that Magnus is lurking in the hedges. And indeed, we find out in short order that Lily has ratted Julia out, and Magnus begins to call her incessantly, berating her for leaving him and telling her she is bonkers and needs a doctor. He even approaches Julia’s antique-shop-owning best friend Mark (Tom Conti) and tries to get him in on Magnus’s scheme to get his wife back, but Mark is no Magnus fan and tells him to get stuffed.
Magnus then enlists Lily in a weird ploy to try to frighten Julia back into his clutches: Lily is part of a spiritualist group that meets regularly for séances, and she subtly bullies Julia into letting the group use her house for their next dalliance with the spirit world. Julia and Mark sit out of the actual séance, but the medium, Rosa Flood (Anna Wing) becomes very distraught and the session has to be cut short. Another member of the group, Miss Pinner (Damaris Hayman) apparently sees something in the upstairs bathroom that frightens her so badly that she falls down the stairs, though she is not seriously hurt. Later in the evening, Mark and Julia drive the medium home, and Julia asks what she saw in her vision that so upset her. All Mrs. Flood will say is that she saw a child, and that Julia must get out of the house because it isn’t safe. Julia naturally assumes that the child the medium saw is Katie, and even though she has no idea why Katie’s ghost would be making the house unsafe, she decides to sleep on the couch at Mark’s apartment, just in case. Mark is sympathetic to Julia’s distress, but does not buy any of this ghost bullshit and tries to talk Julia out of her delusions. Julia, however, is adamant that Katie must be trying to contact her and vows to try to get to the bottom of things.
Meanwhile, not knowing that Julia is staying with Mark, Magnus straight up breaks into her house (told you he was a winner). A neighbor sees him and there is a short altercation, though the imperious Magnus comes out the victor. He creeps around Julia’s house, noticing the photo and the Harlequin toy in her bedroom. He also notices the heater that always seems to be on, no matter what Julia does to disconnect it. He begins feeling hot and uncomfortable, clawing at his collar as though he is choking, and then he hears noises downstairs. Presuming it is Julia, he follows the sounds down to the basement, calling to his errant wife. He hears someone moving around in the basement and thinks he sees a glimpse of someone. He bitches at Julia for “hiding” from him, speaking to her as though she is a child, then immediately apologizes for his douchiness like the raging yuppie schizo he is. He begins to get angrier and angrier that “Julia” will not come out of hiding, and eventually he stumbles (or is pushed) down the stairs and lands on a broken bottle that slits his throat. Exit Magnus, and good riddance.
Elsewhere, the plot is thickening big time. Julia returns to her house the next day, unaware that Magnus is rotting in the basement in his thousand-dollar suit. The wife of the neighbor that Magnus punched out comes over to inform Julia that her terrible husband has been sniffing around. Julia invites her in for a chat, and over coffee, the neighbor talks about the people who used to live in the house. There is seemingly nothing interesting about the two sisters who occupied the house before Julia, but things begin to get weird when the neighbor mentions the tenants who lived there before them, a single mother named Heather Rudge (Cathleen Nesbitt) and her blonde, eight-year-old daughter Olivia (Samantha Gates), who died in the house, apparently by choking, just like Julia’s daughter. Thinking that perhaps it is Olivia who is haunting the house, Julia goes back to visit Mrs. Flood to ask her again about the séance. All the medium will say is that the child she saw at the séance was a little boy, not a little girl. She mentions the park, and that the boy was “all bleeding,” but she gets too upset to talk any more, and the medium’s niece kicks Julia out of the house.
A bit of research at the library confirms that a little boy was indeed murdered, thirty years before, in the same park where Julia found the turtle. The boy’s name was Geoffrey Braden, and he had been bullied by the children at school because he was a German. Digging a little deeper, Julia discovers that the boy’s mother is still alive, and she goes to visit her. The intensely creepy Greta Braden (Mary Morris) tells Julia that even though a vagrant was executed for Geoffrey’s murder, she believes that the real killers were a group of children from Geoffrey’s school. Greta says that they are all dead now except two, and she gives Julia their names and addresses. Julia visits the first guy, Paul Winter (Edward Hardwicke), who tells her he went to school with Geoffrey Braden but doesn’t know what she’s talking about otherwise before he orders her out of his place of business. She has better (?) luck with the second guy, a scuzzy lowlife named David Swift (Robin Gammell), who tells her that Olivia Rudge was responsible for the boy’s murder. Apparently Olivia had some sort of power over the other children, making them kill animals under her direction, and making them watch as she smothered Geoffrey at the park and then cut off his penis. He then tells Julia that Olivia’s mother is still alive in a convalescent home before trying to put the scumbag moves on her. Julia hightails it out of the creep’s apartment and goes to visit Mark. She tells her friend that she’s planning to go see Heather Rudge the next day, and even though Mark still thinks Julia is completely deluded, says he will go with her. She protests, but he insists, and she finally relents. Julia then goes back home. Later in the night, Mark relaxes in his bathtub and is electrocuted when a lamp somehow falls into the bathwater. His death is intercut with a shot of Julia yanking the cord of the always-on heater out of the wall at her house, causing a shower of sparks.
The next day, Julia, not even bothering to check why Mark didn’t show up, drives out to the nursing home alone to visit Mrs. Rudge. The woman is very old and pants-shittingly frightening. In answer to Julia’s queries, Heather gleefully admits that her daughter Olivia was pure evil, and that she strangled the life out of the kid with her own hands. “She choked on her own wickedness!” the old woman cackles. She also somehow knows that Julia killed her own daughter, though Julia vehemently protests this interpretation of the events. The old woman is getting so worked up that Julia starts to leave, but Heather Rudge shouts out to her, and then sees that Julia’s eyes look like Olivia’s. The old woman drops dead from an apparent heart attack.
And now we come to the final scene, the creepiest and most effective of the film. Julia arrives back home, still distressed from her encounter with Heather Rudge. She is in the bathroom, rubbing her hair with a towel that covers her face. She pulls the towel away, and her hair is all disordered, as if she has chopped some of it off. She stares at herself in the mirror, then opens the medicine cabinet. The mirror moves, taking in the bathroom behind her, and suddenly, there is Olivia, standing in the doorway. Julia turns to look at her. “Hello,” she says, calmly. She then makes her way downstairs, where she sees Olivia sitting before the fireplace, the Harlequin doll on the floor in front of her.
Julia sits in a chair and looks at the little girl. “My toy,” she says, and Olivia hands her the doll. Then Julia opens her arms. “Come,” she whispers. Olivia approaches slowly, looking unsettlingly like a porcelain doll herself. There are alternating shots of Olivia getting closer, and of Julia’s kind face and open arms. “It’s all settled,” Julia says reassuringly. She leans back in the chair. “Everything’s right now.” The camera pans around the back of the chair so that we can see neither Julia nor Olivia. “Stay with me,” Julia pleads. “Stay with me.” When we pan slowly back around to the front of the chair, we see that Julia is now lying very still, and as the camera pans back, we see that her throat has been cut, and blood is pulsing slowly out of the wound and dripping down her chest. The Harlequin doll is held in her lap, its sharp cymbals presumably the method of her death. Olivia is nowhere to be seen. It’s a beautiful final shot, made even more stunning by that fantastically eerie background score.
I haven’t read Peter Straub’s novel in years, but I seem to remember that the book was more explicit that Julia’s experiences could be contributed to an actual haunting. The film, though, takes a far more ambiguous route, and this is what I feel makes it such a wonderful adaptation. At no point are we certain that Olivia’s ghost is real, and indeed, many scenes in the film seem to suggest that Julia is actually delusional and may have performed the killings herself, and may have committed suicide at the end. For instance, after Magnus is killed in the basement, we never see Julia asking about him, she never goes down to the basement and finds his body, and Lily never calls to find out where he might be. Also, before Mark is killed in his bathtub, we see a strange shot of Julia sitting on the front stairs of her house, then after he is killed, there is another brief shot of the stairs in Julia’s house, which are now empty. Additionally, Julia never calls Mark to see why he didn’t show up for their excursion to the nursing home. Lastly, near the end of the film when Julia is leaving the nursing home after talking to Mrs. Rudge, the fact that the old woman looks at Julia and sees Olivia’s eyes could either suggest that Julia herself is the evil one, or that Olivia’s ghost is real and has taken over her body. (This is likely the most correct interpretation, as Mrs. Flood makes an offhand comment early in the film that ghosts need to act through a living person in order to do any harm.) Throughout the film, there is certainly a lot of back and forth between Julia and the male characters where they insist she is imagining things, and there are many scenes of Julia alone in her house behaving in a very strange, childlike way (building card houses with pictures of her daughter, singing and giggling to herself, and so forth). Julia is, of course, mentally fragile due to the death of her daughter and is racked with guilt because she apparently feels deep down as though she DID kill Katie (even though the girl probably would have died anyway), but how much of what we see is in Julia’s mind, and how much of it is truly supernatural? The film gives us no easy answers and is open to multiple interpretations. For this reason, I feel that it is one of the best neglected gems of the 1970s, and definitely deserves a wider audience.
Until next time, Goddess out.