Written by: Harry Bromley Davenport, Dave Humphries, Peter Straub (novel)
Directed by: Richard Loncraine
Starring: Mia Farrow, Keir Dullea, and Tom Conti
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
She had no one to play with for thirty years...
When done correctly, ghost stories arguably make for the most effective kind of horror film, as they can tap into emotions beyond pure fear: reflecting on the likes of The Uninvited, The Changeling, and The Devil’s Backbone stirs up melancholy feelings of grief and despair. They’re downers, but that’s what makes them linger. The Haunting of Julia begins in this mode and seems set to at least join the conversation with these sorts of films: there’s a palpable sense of loss and despondence hanging over the proceedings, at least until it begins to dissipate once the film becomes more preoccupied with more ghastly, visceral stuff.
But it’s depressing as hell right out of the gate. Julia (Mia Farrow) and family are enjoying their breakfast when daughter Kate (Sophie Ward) begins choking on an apple. Out of desperation, Julia attempts a tracheotomy that goes horribly awry and leaves her covered in blood once paramedics arrive. After a stint in a psychiatric clinic, Julia attempts to start over by leaving her husband (Keir Dullea) and buying a new house. Upon moving in, she discovers a room with children’s toys and begins to sense a presence among her: is Kate reaching from beyond the grave or is something even more sinister afoot?
The Haunting of Julia feels like a bit of a bait-and-switch because you imagine it’s going to be the former: here’s a woman haunted by grief and possible psychosis looking to reckon with an unfathomable loss. With her marriage also in shambles, she’s just looking to survive each day with her mind intact (an early scene where she finds herself holding a slaughtered turtle indicates she’s fighting an uphill battle). Farrow is reaching into the same depths Rosemary’s Baby sent her a decade earlier, only it’s a slightly more muted form of hysteria; if the film works at all, it’s due to her gravitas. Julia’s condition here might be familiar within this genre, but Richard Loncraine’s direction is especially suffocating: it feels like some hidden doom lurks around every corner, even when the nature of the mystery is completely shrouded.
Once the shroud begins to lift, the misdirection becomes more obvious: conveniently, a group of conjurers wishes to hold a séance in Julia’s new house, and their leader senses something horrific and insists she should move out immediately. From here, the film transforms into a mystery film, as it’s not Kate who’s haunting the house but rather a restless spirt from decades ago. Its connection to Julia is tenuous at best, but that doesn’t keep her from following a grisly paper trail leading back to a tragic playground incident that occurred during World War II. Suddenly, the film feels less about Julia and more about this vengeful wraith looking to exact revenge, which leads to a slightly repetitive final act that finds Julia questioning the remaining survivors to uncover more information about just what’s haunting her.
What’s clear is that it’s pretty well pissed off, whatever it is. Julia’s investigation coincides with a series of fatal accidents involving both her circle of friends and those she encounters. These scenes are handled well by Loncraine, whose steady hand remains mannered throughout: though The Haunting of Julia all but degenerates into the stuff of schlocky pulp, it never quite feels that way. It’s consistently eerie, as Loncraine’s camera crawls and creeps in concert with Colin Towns’s moody score. Each death sequence is rather suspenseful, and the fact that they all seemingly go unnoticed is additionally disturbing: Julia truly has no idea what she’s gotten herself into (for example, a corpse rests in her basement for several days unbeknownst to her or anyone else). Loncraine’s steadfast approach sometimes feels a little too stuffy considering the film almost treads into slasher movie territory, but it pays off with a couple of pointed outbursts during the film’s climax.
Appropriately, the film closes on a haunting shot; arguably its best, it manages to deliver both a clever twist and refocus on Julia’s own tragic life. Without it, The Haunting of Julia probably isn’t quite as memorable, and, with it, the film still feels like a bit of a letdown given the lineage: Farrow is one of the most captivating performers ever, while the film was based on Peter Straub’s novel Julia. Straub, of course, would go on to become a renowned and well-decorated genre author, with one of his most famous efforts (Ghost Story) serving as the inspiration for a fine film a few years later. Coincidentally, The Haunting of Julia actually found itself in competition with Ghost Story in 1981; originally released in the UK as Full Circle, the film was rebranded years later, where it still didn’t find much of an audience. With the film still unavailable on DVD in Region 1 and soon to expire from Netflix, The Haunting of Julia seems destined for further obscurity despite its obvious appeal for genre fans. Rent it!
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