13 O’Clock Movie Retrospective: Ghost Story

On this week’s installment, Tom and Jenny discuss the 1981 film Ghost Story, a loose adaptation of the 1979 novel by Peter Straub. We also talk about the book a fair bit, too!

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THANK YOU TO ALL OUR SUPPORTERS! The show is made possible by: Amanda, Anthony, Antonio, Arif, Ashley, Ben, Brandon, Christopher, Cody, Corinthian, creepy crepes, Damian, Dan, daninreddy, Dean, Denise, Duncan, Dwayne, Ed, Elizabeth, Eric, Feeky, Ginger, Greg, Ima Shrew, Jake A., Jake S., James, Jamin, Jana & Scott, Jason, Jeanette, Jen, Joanie, John H., John M., Jonathan, Joseph, Justin, Katrina, Kieron, Knothead Studios, Kool Kitty, Lana, Lars, Liam, Lindsey, Mary Ellen, Matt, Matthew, Maximillian, Melanie, Michael, Mike, Mother of Beasts, Natalia, Nathalie, Oli, Paul, Richard J., Richard & Sheena, Rik, Rob, Robina, Samantha, Sandra, Scarlett, Sean, Sophie, Tabitha, Tara, Thomm, Tina, Travon, Valtrina, Veronica, Via, Victor, Victoria, and Weaponsandstuff93.

13 O’Clock is hosted by Jenny Ashford & Tom Ross.

Channel art and audio & video editing by Jenny Ashford. Music & sound effects courtesy of freesound.org users jamespotterboy, corsica-s, enjoypa, capturedlv, luffy, kiddpark, and justkiddink. Video clips courtesy of Videezy & Videvo.

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The Goddess’s Top Ten Horror Novel Adaptations

I can’t believe it’s been a week since my last post! Sorry about that. I really do try to keep up with this thing, but sometimes I get busy with all my other endeavors (writing, book promotion, graphic design work) and run out of hours in the day. When it finally came time to do a new post, I was scrabbling for a subject, so I just decided to do something fairly pedestrian by discussing my ten best horror films based on novels. I’m not dropping my nuts here and proclaiming that these are the BEST ADAPTATIONS EVAR, but they’re certainly my favorites, and before anyone argues, YES, I know there are lots of other great horror films that were based on books, but I wanted to showcase great movies that were made from novels that were themselves fantastic and familiar to me (for example, while John Carpenter’s The Thing is one of my favorite horror movies of all time, I’ve never read the book it was based on, and as far as The Exorcist goes, I actually thought the movie was light years better than the novel). So now that we’ve got all that out of the way, allons-y.

GirlNextDoor

10. The Girl Next Door (2007)
Based on Jack Ketchum’s horrific, you’ll-need-a-shower-afterwards novel (made all the more squicky by the fact that it was based on a true story), this 2007 adaptation mostly doesn’t shy away from the more terrible aspects of the book, and is all the more powerful for it. While I admit I found the novel a great deal more disturbing, the film is a worthy addition to the evil-that-humans-do canon. Some of it is a little too aw-shucks, fifties-stereotypical, but Blanche Baker is chilling as Aunt Ruth, and the mostly young actors are great, particularly 21-year-old Blythe Auffarth as the doomed Meg.

Hellraiser

9. Hellraiser (1987)
Adaptations of Clive Barker’s infernal works are generally hit or miss, but I think we can all agree that this is the best by a mile (though I have to say that Candyman is also in the running). Based on his 1986 novella The Hellbound Heart, and directed by Barker himself, Hellraiser is filled to the brim with sadomasochism, buckets of gore, that genius puzzle box conceit, and one of the most recognizable horror baddies of all time. While the sequels couldn’t begin to approach the original classic, it’s easy to see how the detailed world Barker created in his short work demanded much more screen time. Jesus wept, indeed.

GhostStory

8. Ghost Story (1981)
As much as I adored the spooky, low-key adaptation of Peter Straub’s 1975 novel Julia (known as The Haunting of Julia in the US and Full Circle in the UK; you can find my analysis here), I find that Ghost Story, based on his 1979 book of the same name, just barely edges it out. The novel is so rich, complex, and over the top that the film couldn’t help but streamline the thing and leave several plot tendrils out, but I love it anyway, and I think director John Irvin was wise to focus solely on the central conflict of the book, that of the men of the Chowder Society battling the shapeshifting she-demon known by different names through the years. Some fantastically eerie scenes, and it was nice to see a band of dignified old codgers playing the heroes.

StirOfEchoes

7. Stir of Echoes (1999)
I’ve talked about this criminally underrated film before, but I try to pimp it at every opportunity, because it’s so great and I’m still pretty bummed that it sorta got lost in the shuffle due to its simultaneous release with The Sixth Sense. Somewhat based on Richard Matheson’s short 1958 novel A Stir of Echoes, the film takes the basic plot of the book and builds an intensely frightening tale of hypnosis, psychic visions, and murder upon it. I’m not scared easily, but seeing this film in theaters gave me the heebie-jeebies big time, and it holds up remarkably well. Props also for the very Lynchian sound design, which ramps up the scare factor considerably.

TheInnocents

6. The Innocents (1961)
Directed by Jack Clayton and starring Deborah Kerr as governess Miss Giddens, The Innocents is one of those rare films that wrings the scares from subtle atmosphere. Based on Henry James’s classic 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw, with a screenplay co-written by Truman Capote, the movie is chock full of spooky children, secrets, ghosts, and eerie goings-on, amplified into skin-crawling terror by the use of music, lighting, and ambiguity.

TheOther

5. The Other (1972)
Based on former actor Thomas Tryon’s 1971 debut novel (and if you’d like to read a rundown of the lackluster adaptation of another of his fabulous novels, Harvest Home, I’ve got you covered), this Robert Mulligan-directed film is one of the best examples of the good/evil twin trope. Set in 1935 and starring Chris and Martin Udvarnoky as the conflicted Holland twins, the movie is a golden-drenched slab of uncanny mystery and horror, painted in hues of perverse nostalgia. Tryon, who wrote the screenplay, was reportedly not happy with the adaptation, but for my money the film more than did the novel justice.

HellHouse

4. The Legend of Hell House (1973)
Another Richard Matheson adaptation (this time of his 1971 novel Hell House), this one takes obvious cues from The Haunting, but goes in a splashier direction with much effectiveness. Directed by John Hough and featuring great performances from Roddy McDowall and the impossibly adorable Pamela Franklin, the story takes the standard horror-movie plot of a group of ghostbusters investigating a scary house and does all kinds of weird shit with it. Baroque, overwrought, and lots of creepy fun.

RosemarysBaby

3. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Capturing the sly, blackly comic edge of Ira Levin’s 1967 book while maintaining a sense of slowly building tension and paranoia, there’s a reason this Roman Polanski-directed classic ends up on so many “best horror films” lists. I absolutely love Ruth Gordon as the lovably terrifying Minnie Castavet, and Mia Farrow is perfect as the fragile, waifish Rosemary, a protagonist you can’t help but sympathize with and be afraid for as everyone in her life seems to turn against her. If you’re a fan of Polanski’s films, check out my previous writeup on his deliciously creepy 1976 movie The Tenant.

TheShining

2. The Shining (1981)
What can I say about this masterpiece that hasn’t already been said? (Well, I said this and this, but y’know.) Taking what is arguably Stephen King’s best novel and using it as a springboard to explore universal themes, myths, and existential terror, Stanley Kubrick created a timeless, iconic piece of art that still has the capacity to enthrall and horrify, more than three decades later. Easily one of the five best horror films ever made.

TheHaunting

1. The Haunting (1963)
You just knew this was gonna be my number one, didn’t you? I admit I talk about this book and film a lot (such as here and here, for example), but that’s only because I am in awe of the subtle dread and psychological depths this story plumbs in both mediums. Based, of course, on the hands-down best haunted house novel ever penned, 1959’s The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, the casting in Robert Wise’s masterful adaptation is spot-on, and he deftly drenches the film in chills and atmosphere while essentially showing nothing, an astounding feat and one that is right in line with the source material. I really can’t recommend book or film enough, in case you hadn’t noticed. Oh, and I mentioned this before, but skip the lame-ass remake.

And just because I can, here are twenty more that were eliminated for the sake of brevity:

The Exorcist (1973, based on the 1971 novel by William Peter Blatty)
The Hunger (1983, based on the 1981 novel by Whitley Strieber)
The Birds (1963, based on the 1952 short story by Daphne du Maurier)
Nosferatu (1922, based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, 1897)
Frankenstein (1931, based on Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel)
The Phantom of the Opera (1925, based on the 1910 novel by Gaston Leroux)
The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945, based on Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel)
House of Usher (1960, based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Fall of the House of Usher,” 1839)
Duel (1971, based on Richard Matheson’s 1971 short story)
Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983, based on Ray Bradbury’s 1962 novel)
The Entity (1981, based on the 1978 novel by Frank De Felitta)
Village of the Damned (1960, based on John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos, 1957)
Masque of the Red Death (1964, loosely based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, 1842)
Re-Animator (1985, based on the H.P. Lovecraft novella Herbert West—Reanimator, 1922)
Cemetery Man (1994, based on the 1991 novel Dellamorte Dellamore by Tiziano Sclavi)
Misery (1990, based on Stephen King’s 1987 novel)
Carrie (1976, based on Stephen King’s 1974 novel)
The Prestige (2006, based on the 1995 novel by Christopher Priest)
The Lair of the White Worm (1988, loosely based on Bram Stoker’s 1911 novel)
Horns (2014, based on Joe Hill’s 2010 novel)

Keep it creepy, my friends, and until next time, Goddess out.

The Goddess’s Favorite Creepy Movie Scenes, or Do You Have a Magnificent Problem?

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.

HauntingofJulia_4
I think I may have made a slight miscalculation.

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.

Ladies and gentlemen, England's most punchable face.
Ladies and gentlemen, England’s most punchable face.

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.

Does anyone know where our waiter is? Give us a sign.
Does anyone know where our waiter is? Give us a sign.

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.

This kind of shot never bodes well.
This kind of thing never ends well.

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.

Come to mama, evil child.
Come to mama, evil child.
Yeah. Par for the course.
Yeah. Par for the course.

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.