The Haunting of Julia (1977)
Studio: Scream Factory
Release date: April 18th, 2023
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Every couple of years, someone will write an article hailing a new era of horror, insisting that the genre is now suddenly good because a slew of movies carries some thematic weight. They’ll even offer trendy buzzwords to label these movements, like “post-horror” or “elevated horror” for maximum condescension: these horror movies aren’t junk like all of those other horror movies because they’re really meditations on the human condition, wallowing around in grief and trauma in a way horror movies never have before. It’s recency bias run amok in an attempt to validate modern horror movies: it’s not enough that these films are great (and they often are terrific!)—they also have to be heralds of an entire new frontier of respectable horror movies. Long-time adherents know it’s always bogus, though, because, for one thing, respectability is for the birds: once upon a time, horror fans wore the genre’s disreputability like a badge of honor because it’s not for everyone. More than that, though, we can point to innumerable titles through the genre’s long history to prove that horror movies didn’t suddenly become great during the last decade, nor did they just start plumbing the depths of human emotion and psychology. More than a few of them are probably on the tip of your tongue, but, for our purposes here, let’s talk about The Haunting of Julia, a 70s production that’s grown somewhat obscure since its release despite a noteworthy pedigree and some impressive filmmaking that would probably earn it the highfalutin “elevated” label these days.
Adapted from Peter Straub’s novel Julia, the film starts with an idyllic portrait of domestic tranquility. Julia (Mia Farrow) and her husband Magnus (Keir Dullea) are enjoying breakfast, their idle chatter of no concern to their daughter Kate (Sophie Ward), who munches away on an apple. When she suddenly begins choking, Julia and Mangus panic. Unable to dislodge the apple from her throat, Julia brandishes a knife to perform an impromptu tracheotomy that goes horribly awry. Despondent from accidentally killing her own daughter, a traumatized Julia leaves the psych ward and rents a house on her own, much to Magnus’ dismay. It’s a creepy old place at that, still fully furnished and flush with a child’s possessions, which only deepens Julia’s grief and sends her spiraling. Haunted by visions of her dead daughter, she begins questioning her sanity until a group of her friends perform a seance in her home that ends with the medium fleeing in horror, aghast to reveal her visions. Still reeling from the loss of her own daughter, Julia begins to investigate the tragic circumstances surrounding her new home, unraveling a decades-old secret that seems insistent on returning from the beyond.
The Haunting of Julia bears a lot of hallmarks of the sort of horror films that have been en vogue for the past decade or so. You’d definitely call it a slow burn, as Richard Loncraine’s sparse, restrained approach leans almost exclusively on evocative atmospherics and captivating performances. Narrative developments are meticulously scattered through the deliberate storytelling, creating the sensation that we’re merely hovering around Julia and watching her slow descent into madness and the grotesque. A palpable sense of menace—these days I guess we’d call them “bad vibes”—suffocates everything, accented by Colin Towns’ otherworldly synthesizer score. Inexplicable, unreal imagery, like Julia finding a mutilated turtle in a playground, bump up against the banal threat of her husband’s increasingly aggressive behavior, blurring the line between supernatural and worldly threats. Julia is a woman besieged from all sides, with her trauma, psyche, and, eventually, the weight of sordid history colluding to tear her world apart. When the ghost of a young girl (Samantha Gates) materializes, it’s not clear if she represents damnation or salvation, a second chance or a final twist of the knife.
While it’s all quite unnerving, it’s also profoundly sad. The Haunting of Julia is one of those horror movies that operates at the intersection of the macabre and the melancholy, its wispy, soft focus photography transporting you into a hazy nightmare of trauma and regret. Farrow—no stranger to this sort of material in the wake of Rosemary’s Baby, See No Evil, and Secret Ceremony—shoulders the film’s emotional weight with a touching, subtle performance that doesn't resort to hysterics to capture Julia’s desperation. Like the rest of this whisper-quiet chiller, Farrow is understated as she reckons with the bizarre violence unfolding around her (which she may or may not be responsible for herself). Likewise, Dullea simmers with the same smoldering intensity that made him such an uneasy presence in Black Christmas a few years earlier. There’s a sort of caginess about him that you never quite trust, and his dogged quest to reunite with Julia eventually takes on the uneasy tenor of a toxic relationship. While the book eventually reveals his sinister motives, the film—in keeping with its ambiguous, hazy nature—treats Mangus as a pawn in a playful narrative that thrives on misdirection. The Haunting of Julia is a film that’s constantly being knocked off of its axis and continuously slips through the audience’s fingers like an ethereal daydream until the camera slowly creeps around for a stunning final shot, fixing its gaze on one more inexplicable horror.
And it’s all underpinned by grief and trauma, the twin cornerstones of modern horror films whose terrors are often allegorical. The Haunting of Julia operates on this kind of wavelength, and I imagine some would argue that it’s more of an incidental horror film because it’s really about this woman’s desperate quest to put her life back together. After all, its most unnerving shot is the fleeting glimpse of a figure in the background of a decrepit basement, and its fits of violence are few and far between. It’s mostly unnerving by sheer force of stylistic and atmospheric will, as Loncraine deftly harnesses the particular kind of fatalistic somberness that permeates Straub’s writing, allowing the viewer to tiptoe through a downward spiral. The Haunting of Julia is a remarkable reminder that horror has always had the capacity to be stylish, emotional, and thematically resonant. Unfortunately, the film didn’t find much of an audience when it was released (especially in the US, where it was released 4 years later, surrounded by slasher movies), but it’s ripe for a reappraisal in an era that has gravitated towards this kind of horror—which is say if it were released today, The Haunting of Julia would have probably been an A24 joint, meaning, at the very least, we would have had a chance to buy the film’s signature cymbal-banging monkey toy from their website.
Instead, we’re getting the next best thing. After years of languishing in home video obscurity, The Haunting of Julia is making the ultra rare VHS-to-4K leap courtesy of a bevy of home video companies around the world. Here in Region A, Scream Factory is doing the honors with a signature Collector’s Edition release that boasts both UHD and Blu-ray presentations of the film along with some newly-produced supplements. The restoration is quite stunning: the film’s soft look doesn’t lend itself to the kind of razor sharp clarity you might expect from high definition formats, but the transfer excels in every other way. It handles the film’s shadowy photography especially well, treating viewers to solid black levels and shadow detail. The DTS-HD MA mono soundtrack (mistakenly listed as a stereo track on the packaging) is a rich reproduction, with that memorable score given plenty of space to breathe.
It should come as no surprise that film historian and Haunting of Julia megafan Simon Fitzjohn is heavily involved with the supplemental features. For the past several years, he’s run a Twitter account dedicated to the film and has led the charge for its reappraisal and restoration, so it’s terrific that he helms a feature-length audio commentary with Loncraine, who also provides a newly recorded introduction for the film. Fitzjohn also appears on-camera in “Park Life,” a featurette that finds him revisiting the film’s locations, some of which are nicely preserved (while others are unrecognizable). Stars Tom Conti and Samantha Gates appear in separate interviews, recounting their experiences with the film, with both sharing some warm words for Loncraine. Kim Newman also provides a typically erudite exploration of the film by discussing it within several contexts: as an adaptation (he notes some of the major changes from Straub’s novel), as a 70s horror film, and as a Farrow vehicle.
In a nice touch, Scream Factory also provides a reversible cover that restores the film’s original art and Full Circle title for purists (or UK natives, I suppose). And if you jump on this release now, you’ll get a slipcover with the Julia artwork and title, allowing you to enjoy the best of both worlds. Any release that’s been this long in the making (and this title has been among the most-requested for the last decade) comes with an abundance of expectations, and this Collector’s Edition meets them fairly well. More than anything, it’s just nice to cross another one off the list. Believe it or not, I first caught The Haunting on Julia way back when they were still calling it “Netflix Instant,” and I’d been hoping it would come to physical media at some point since it’s one of the more evocative films of the 70s haunting cycle. I never could have guessed it would take damn near a decade, but I can emphatically say it was worth the wait.
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