Thursday, August 25, 2016

Two More Hauntings, and a Madhouse

My search for haunted house movies continues. I saw a very good one recently: Burnt Offerings (1976), starring Karen Black and Oliver Reed. As it began I resigned myself to poorly lit, foggy-lensed, muffled-sounding, ill-carpeted seventies schlock, but I very quickly got into it. It's underrated and, I think, quite good.

I'll not reveal much about the plot, except to emphasize that it's not a ghost story. The house itself is a character, as it is in the best movies of this kind, from The Haunting to Crimson Peak. It's not enough (and may be a great deal too much) to have creepy carved newels. The Haunting does amazing things with the illusory faces you seem to see in patterns on the wall at night. Burnt Offerings seems to rely mainly on an attic window that stays lit a lurid red at night. It was shot at the Dunsmuir House, where a number of movies have been filmed. There's a pool, unfortunately, but it's used to good effect.

I'm familiar with Karen Black mainly from Trilogy of Terror. That little doll has lived in my nightmares since I saw it as a fourteen-year-old. I thought Black was quite effective in Burnt Offerings, especially in the final moments, which I saw coming from a mile away, but was still genuinely scared by. That's what a good haunting story does well. It lets you in on the secret pretty much right from the get-go, but toys with you, taunting you until just the right pitch of suspense has been reached. Timing is everything.

And there's this chauffeur. With shades. Sometimes he smiles. It's terrifying. And a mysterious locked room that no one can ever go into. That right there is the stuff of bad dreams. In fact, put a sealed room in pretty much any kind of movie, and you've got a ho

All in all, the movie has a weird kind of logic that reminds me of the nightmares I had when I was a little kid. Like the one about the picture in the yellow living room that silently wanted me to go get a candy from the candy dish. Ugh. Everything is out to get you, the movie seems to say. It's watching you. What is watching you? Who knows? But it watches. The world is sunny. It smiles. It smiles at you.

Though marred by one or two cheesy scenes, this is a good movie that I won't soon forget.


And then there's The House that Dripped Blood (1971), one of those horror anthologies released by Amicus Productions. As a haunted house movie it's terrible. The stories, though taking place in the same house, are all quite different, and have nothing at all to do with the setting, except for one or two ominous references shoehorned into the script. Contrary to the advertising, the house doesn't drip blood, and as a matter of fact I don't think there's one drop of blood in the whole production. And it's got vampires, even. What a waste of a good set! A rather nice and creepy little house, murky and slightly run down and with just the right amount of ornament.

Still, it seems a bit churlish to grouse about a movie starring both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Two of the shorts are fairly creepy, one involving waxworks and the other a little witch-girl, and a third is mildly amusing. All were written by Robert Bloch. As a whole the film would have been better if it hadn't been so painfully awkward about linking the stories to the house.

So, as a schlocky horror movie, thumbs moderately up, but as a haunted house movie, thumbs down.


I also happened to watch Asylum (1972), another Amicus anthology written by Robert Bloch, and it's much better. Humorously campy at some points, genuinely scary at others, and delightfully bizarre (or gross! – like that little robot's guts!) at still others. In addition to Peter Cushing, it stars Herbert Lom, an actor I'm fond of. Not a haunted house movie, though.


  1. As someone whose read Tinker Tailor several times, I'm curious about your thoughts on the book. Was the Mole's ID obvious? If yes, what kept you reading? What did you take away from it when done? Can you tell I've thought about this book too much?

    1. Well, I can't say I was surprised, exactly. I mean, it has to be part of the cast of characters. There's only so many to choose from, and only so many to make the discovery momentous enough. And who else could it really have been, practically speaking? In a way, I was surprised it was the person it was, but only because it seemed so obvious a possibility that I assumed it was a red herring. I will say that I was taken aback by the depth of the betrayal, and the nature of its connection to various other strands of the plot.

      In hindsight, I think the real mystery for me was not who the mole was, but the meaning of Smiley's break-up with Ann. The events surrounding that were too complex and enigmatic for it to have simply been what it seemed on the surface. I recall reflecting as much during Smiley's recollection of a conversation they'd had in Cornwall.

      So I feel like the novel had two mysteries, one of which was purely emotional; and the effect of the latter on me as a reader was not unlike the effect it was intended to have had on Smiley. And then there's the more understated but equally poignant mystery of Jim Prideaux's betrayal. By the end, you realize that many of the characters have guessed the truth, more or less, but avoided it for various reasons. So maybe you could argue that the book is not really about who the mole is at all, but the way events forced the characters to confront an unpleasant truth.

      But really, I guess I don't read this kind of book for the unraveling of the mystery. Partly I enjoy watching the protagonist in pursuit. Here the protagonist is a mild-mannered little man who spends most of his time talking to people, reading documents, and remembering. But that's OK. I always wanted to see what he would do next or learn next. And then there's the thrill of reading about spies and secret networks. But more than anything, the author does such a superb job of weaving the tapestry of his world that it's a pleasure simply to explore it, like Tolkien's Middle-Earth, or Chandler's L.A.

  2. RE: the mystery, I was curious how someone with fresh eyes saw it. Reading it so often, I see thru all the mechanical aspects to its heart, that is all the bits you mentioned - Ann, Jim, Irina, betrayal, willing blindness, etc.

    I remember feeling almost hurt the first time reading it. The mole, outside Smiley, was the closest to a likeable character. Much older now, I find the mole's "wit" and sarcasm more irritating than charming.

    The relationship between George and Ann is explained across all the Smiley books, including the two early ones, A Murder of Quality (filmed with Denholm Elliot), and Call for the Dead.

    Betrayal is one of LeCarre's primary themes that he hits on again and again. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is terrifying in the depths of duplicity and murder of trust it explores. Part of TTSP's gut-wrenching, The Honourable Schoolboy, is about how a man struggles with what he does for a living.

    My wife is almost obsessed with these, regularly rereading them and rewatching the Alec Guiness movies.

    1. I really want to watch the Alec Guiness Tinker Tailor. I have a couple of the other BBC productions from that time (I Claudius, Emma) and have watched them a bunch of times.

      I found myself deeply disgusted with the mole at the end. He seemed to shrivel up as a character. I though his anything-but-aesthetic fate fitting.

      I've watched, but haven't read, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and it made a big impression on me. That was added inducement to try le Carre.