Monday, 15 October 2018

October Horrors #8:
(Michael de Gaetano, 1977)

I’ve been interested in seeing this film ever since I first caught a glimpse of the poster reproduced above. I mean, just look at it. “It began the day they installed that telephone booth in the cemetery!” What? Crazy, man.

If the same warped mind-set that created this poster to some degree played into the making of the film itself, it surely must be worth a watch.

Such was my thinking when I set out to track it down earlier this month, but, now that I have watched it, I’m sad to say that the craziest thing here is probably the fact that someone actually had the balls to offer this motion picture to cinema-goers as a commercial horror film.

It’s not that I’d consider ‘Haunted’ an objectively terrible film (many probably would, but, as discussed below, I feel a certain warmth toward it). It’s more that… well let’s just say that what we have here is really more of an independent character drama that occasionally hints at the possibility of supernatural events, rather than a horror film.

You know all those regional U.S. horrors from the early 1970s that just feel a bit… zoned out? I don’t mean the really effective and acclaimed ones like ‘Let’s Scare Jessica To Death’ (1971) or ‘Messiah of Evil’ (1973). I mean the really sketchy, marginal ones that are just waaay out there. Things like ‘Death by Invitation’ (1971), ‘Blood Sabbath’ (1970), ‘Moonchild’ (1974), or ‘Track of the Moonbeast’ (1976). Well, despite being fairly late to the game in ’77, ‘Haunted’ has this feeling in spades… just without any actual horror content to balance it out.

Although no hippies or drug users appear on screen at any point, the “action” here feels as if it was orchestrated from behind the viewfinder through a thick haze of quaaludes, marijuana and blinding desert sun. It is reeeeally zoned out. By which I mean, it is slow, basically. Reeeal slow (and I’ll stop filling this review with unnecessary repeated vowels at this point, I promise).

Like the similarly somnambulant ‘Death by Invitation’, the film begins with a jarring and unconvincing period prologue in which a Native American woman named Abanaki (played, unaccountably, by Ann Michelle of ‘Twins of Evil’/’Virgin Witch’/’Psychomania’ fame) is accused of witchcraft by some obnoxious frontier settler types. As punishment, she is stripped naked and sent out into the desert on a horse, to presumably wander alone until she succumbs to the elements.

It’s all quite odd. I’m afraid to say that Michelle seems to have been “browned up” for the occasion, and I’m not really sure whether the extensive exposure given to her undoubtedly impressive hooters was intended as exploitation, or just some kind of dazed historical verisimilitude.

Once that’s all over with, we cut to present day Arizona, and learn that the same locale is now a struggling, family run ‘movie ranch’ built around a standing western town set. When I say the business is ‘struggling’, I mean, it doesn’t seem to have had any business whatsoever for many years. It does have a genuine frontier-era cemetery in the middle of it however, and when the film opens, the phone company are indeed in the process of setting up a call box in the midst of the headstones.

Watching this installation are several people, including a pair of teenage boys, the younger and nerdier of whom is in the process of installing some kind of radio receiver on the roof of one of the buildings, and a burly middle-aged handyman / caretaker guy (played by ‘50s tough guy stalwart Aldo Ray) who seems to be quite agitated by these goings on.

It subsequently becomes clear that the two boys are effectively the heirs to this moribund ranch, upon which they also live. It seems that their father, along with their aunt, perished under traumatic and slightly mysterious circumstances in an automobile accident some years ago. Their mother (former Hollywood starlet and character actress Virginia Mayo) was blinded in the same accident, and seems to spend much of her time wandering around in a state of delusional reverie. Angry old Aldo – a case study in barely articulate redneck frustration – is their uncle.

The older boy, Patrick, played by Jim Negele, is quite athletic and outgoing – he likes cycling and swimming and has a nifty muscle car – whilst his younger brother (Russell, played by Brad Reardon, who went on to achieve immortality in the role of “punk” in ‘The Terminator’) is more introverted, seemingly devoting most of his time to his ham radio set up.

One of the film’s more engaging scenes (relatively speaking) takes place in a disconcertingly authentic looking local bar, where the sheer dearth of activity in the area is highlighted by the fact that the installation of the new phone booth is a lively topic of conversation. Aldo drunkenly argues with some guy over the phone company’s intentions whilst a harried, long-haired barman tries to keep the peace. The legend of Abanaki (who of course left a curse) is also discussed.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch (and how I cherish the opportunity to use that phrase literally), the family’s unhappy status quo is about to be upset forever – not that you’d know it from the lackadaisical pacing and affectless performances – by the arrival of a young woman with an English accent who is having car trouble.

Yes, it’s Ann Michelle again, now with her natural skin colour. She’s an aspiring actress en route to Hollywood, funnily enough, and, amid much scintillating discussion of whether or not her car will need to be towed to Tucson and when and how she might be able to pick it up, she begins to form a romantic bond with Patrick.

Seeing new possibilities for his adult life opening up before him, Patrick makes the decision to close down the ranch and move on. Mother will go to a care home, where she will get the help she clearly needs. Patrick and Russell will move to Phoenix with Ms Michelle in tow, and Aldo can do whatever the hell he likes, because he’s a jerk, and no one likes him anyway.

In brief, this turn of events pushes Aldo over the edge. He imagines that he receives a call in the cemetery phone booth from Abanaki (or does he actually receive it? – AMBIGUITY ALERT!). Though rather evocative, her words are mystifyingly obtuse (“If you try to look at me, you shall see nothing, yet cast your glance into the night and you shall see, I am that light which reflects across the face of the glass, the bit of day which cuts itself against the darkness of the night..”, and so forth), and poor Aldo seems confused.

The voice on the phone says something about an “old hag” having the answer, and so, clearly in search of more helpful advice, Aldo goes to visit an Indian fortune-teller, who lives in a kind of tepee made from repurposed industrial junk, on an island in the middle of a mountain lake(!) Seemingly a bit of a stirrer, the fortune-teller tells him that “the spirit of Abanaki is reincarnated in the body of the girl”, and sets him loose to do as he pleases.

Needing no further encouragement, Aldo kidnaps Ann Michelle whilst the boys are off in town having a burger, and ties her to a chair in his workshop. Rambling on in a generally incoherent fashion, he menaces her with a knife, and reveals some dark family secrets. She escapes, and, after a few minutes of running around, takes shelter in the phone booth. Whilst attempting to recapture her, Aldo somehow manages to accidentally impale himself on a sharpened broomstick handle and sets himself on fire. It’s a horrible way to go, but it’s probably for the best in the long run.

And, that’s all that happens in ‘Haunted’, really. That’s the end. I’m sorry for spoiling it for you, but as you’ll appreciate, it’s nothing too earth-shattering.

I’ll admit, I really don’t know what’s going on with this movie. Although Aldo Ray, Virginia Mayo and Ann Michelle weren’t exactly what you’d call top line stars in 1977, their appearance at least indicates the participation of a professional casting director or talent agency, not to mention the promise of enough money to make an extended trip to Arizona worth their while.

This sits oddly though with the fact that, in all other respects, the film is only a notch or two above the kind of thing that some ambitious (and chronically stoned) high school students might have thrown together during a long, slow summer holiday. Why would director Michael de Gaetano go to the trouble to sign up ‘name’ actors for his film, but otherwise appear totally unconcerned with including anything that might help sell it to a paying audience?

On the plus side, ‘Haunted’, in common with many films shot on remote and evocative locations, can at least boast a wealth of atmosphere. The ‘movie ranch’ (an apparently genuine one) looks authentically decrepit and sinister, and the natural beauty of the surrounding country is remarkable, even (perhaps especially) via the washed out transfer currently under review.

At one point, we see Patrick emerge from a beautiful mountain lake, jump on the bike he has left on the side of the road and begin cycling home, without even needing to dry off or change his clothes. Filmed in long-shot with an off-hand naturalism that suggests he didn’t even know he was being filmed at the time, this sent me off on a few minutes of delightful reverie, reflecting on what it would be like to grow up in a place like that.

Likewise, the scene in which Patrick reveals a previously undisclosed musical talent, serenading Michelle by the campfire with a genuinely beguiling psychedelic folk number on a 12 string guitar, has “hippie horror” vibes to burn. (Man, what a find he is for her – a gentle, talented hunk of untouched, mountain-raised masculinity; I hope she didn’t go on to corrupt him with her cynical Hollywood ways in the non-existent sequel.)

There is also, it must be said, a lot of intriguing imagery scattered through ‘Haunted’. The phone booth in the graveyard, the radio wires and phone lines somehow intersecting with the past of the mouldering frontier town and Indian curse myths that seems to be trying to invade the present; and the suggestion that the younger characters are trying to escape it, whilst Aldo and Mayo - sad, doomed victims of past trauma - are consumed by it.

In his surprisingly positive write-up in ‘American Nightmare’, Stephen Thrower praises the oblique nature of the film’s plotting, and even floats the possibility that it may have been conceived as an Antonioni-esque reflection on the impossibility of human communication, but… nothing along these lines ever really comes together, to be honest.

In the right frame of mind, the film’s slow drift of non-sequiturs and barely cogent, half-explored ideas could prove rather intriguing I suppose, but de Gaetano’s disengaged direction and the vacant performances (from everyone except Aldo, who seems authentically out to lunch) fail to make any of it very compelling, whilst the fact that de Gaetano’s only other credits comprise a 1974 UFO expose and a 1980 sex comedy tends to mitigate against the possibility that he was actually some kind of inarticulate, backwoods auteur.

If ‘Haunted’ is about anything at all, I suppose at heart it must be about the two young men attempting to overcome familial tragedy, and to find a place for themselves in the adult world and so on… but even pulling that much out of the images and words presented here feels like a stretch.

It’s curious to note that, two years later, a day-or-so’s drive in the direction Ann Michelle was presumably driving in before she broke down, a younger director than de Gaetano would take these same potent themes, together with a similarly disconnected atmosphere and sense of post-gothic American surrealism, and would emerge with results that I can say without any sense of hyperbole were at least one thousand times more effective.

‘Haunted’ meanwhile remains a dustbowl lost in the breeze; a cinematic question mark that no one can be bothered to resolve. A 2.2 IMDB rated 100 movie box-set filler that seems to be trying to say something about something… but who knows what?

GREAT poster though, huh?


Maurice Mickelwhite said...

Wait, Ann Michelle in ANOTHER film with a hippy psych folk tune being played to her??

Now, it won’t top Riding Free, but this is clearly a sub genre in waiting!

Patrick said...

For aficionados of the weird the thing with the phone on the graveyard immediately summons up Randolph Carter associations, doesn't it? Great fun to read your October series by the way.