Director: Peter Medak
Starring: George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Melvyn Douglas
Duration: 107 minutes
The first time I saw this film it took me completely by surprise. I was pretty sure that a horror film that looked this dated could hold no fears for me, and I considered myself pretty hard to scare. Maybe that complacent assumption helped the film sneak up and tap me on the goosebumps. Despite my best efforts to pooh-pooh every event, I found myself being gradually drawn in to the mystery that the characters were trying to solve, whilst being more and more creeped out by the spirit haunting the old Chessman Place.
Here’s the quick breakdown –John Russell (George C. Scott) is a renowned composer, recently bereaved of his wife and daughter, and relocated to Seattle to take up a position as a University lecturer. A friend puts him in touch with Claire Norman (Trish Van Devere) who, on behalf of the local historic society, sets him up in the vast and empty house that is “the old Chessman place”. It’s huge. It’s pretty ugly in places. But it has a music room that is all the enticement a composer needs, and John moves in.
Slowly a presence makes itself felt. Minnie Huxley (Ruth Spingford), a Historical Society busy-body, warns that the house doesn’t want people in it. But slowly John becomes convinced that the opposite is true, and that whatever is in the house is trying desperately to communicate with him.
At the suggestion of a fellow lecturer he brings in a medium, and there is a long (and one of the best I’ve seen) session with a clairvoyant and her husband. There’s automatic writing, the only spirit trumpet I’ve seen included in a film, and a flung crystal glass. And it doesn’t stop there – John has recorded the séance, and once everyone has gone home he plays back the tape to discover the haunting voice of a small child, breathing “my father”, “my room”, “my medal” mournfully in response to the medium’s questions. This recording snatches John into a trance where he sees the small boy murdered in a tin bath by his father, and when he comes to, he has resolved to get to the bottom of this mystery, a decision that takes him to libraries, another haunted house, a threatening detective, and eventually leads to a rich and powerful senator.
If Henry James is credited with coming up with the Turn of the Screw – the idea that making a child central to a horror tale winds it up a scare notch – then this film gives it another half a turn. The victim is not only a child, but a frail cripple in ill health. The murder scenes are truly horrible, and the ghost’s wavering young voice makes his early communications even more eerie. Those who love this film know that a soft “Joseph” whispered at the right time will put the willies up just about anyone. As the film progresses, the boy, so powerless when alive, seems to start to get to grips with what he is capable of as a ghost. But even as his ability to manipulate physical objects grows, it becomes clear that his years of haunting haven’t aged him. Essentially he is still a small child, and a privileged one at that. Tantrums are always ugly, but these are out of control.
George C. Scott makes an unlikely hero by most horror film standards. He’s greying, stocky (there is a definite paunch), and has a mournful and craggy face. But he also brings an authority that means you completely believe his ability to stay alone in a huge and empty house, to investigate hidden rooms by himself, and to sit down after a séance and play back the recording of what just happened. His age and his situation give him a thoroughly plausible level of courage and tenacity that perhaps a younger actor wouldn’t be able to bring as effortlessly.
The first moment that should raise the hairs on your arms is about eleven minutes in. John is playing a piano in the music room of the Chessman House and discovers a dud key. Playing it only produces a dull thud. He shrugs, wanders away, and the camera zooms in on the key until a ghostly presence forcefully plays it, and a well chosen note echoes through the room.
After that the creeps come thick and fast. There’s very little telegraphing (a thing I hate about modern horror films, who have got their jump-inducing timing down to such a fine art that most of the time you can conduct them from your armchair). Instead there is a feeling of being persistently unsettled; music and sound effects build a melancholy air whilst the set pieces (did they have those in the 80’s?) are effective at pushing the story along as well as upping the chills.
Trish Van Devere (Scott’s real life wife) is a great female lead; feminine but not cowardly – she gets involved in the mystery and throws herself into proceedings despite it eventually threatening her job and, towards the end of the film, her life. She’s strong, independent, and, despite being afraid, continues to delve into the mystery this house has brought to light.
But for me the real hero of this film is the music and the sound design. Music is a pretty central theme to the film. John Russell’s career as a composer is prominent, since it leads him to a lullaby and a music box that are just two clues in the mystery Joseph is trying to share with him. This lullaby, alongside the score and the sound effects, turn (for me, anyway) a good horror film into a great one. When I watched it again recently I noticed how unrelenting the music is, and how this completely frames some of the scarier moments because their accompanying silence is so unexpected. The banging that echoes through the house is alarming. Joseph’s whispers are spine tingling. And the strange fluting sound that heralds either a new discovery or a ghostly strop, are unusual but completely fitting.
This film – which is seldom mentioned in a list of “best horror films” – is a bit of a gem. If you’ve heard of it or seen it, you should be feeling pretty smug, since I think you’re in a pretty elite little band. It’s not a complete unknown though. Alejandro Amenabar cites it as a strong influence, and even went so far as to name a character in The Others after the Chessman Place handy man. Martin Scorsese recently included it in a list of his scariest films of all time.
I’m no Martin Scorsese or Alejandro Amenabar, but it’s in my top scariest films list too.
Verdict: 5 out of 5
Reviewed by Charlie Boucher
Charlie Boucher is the author of “Hiding the Smile” and “Zauberjackl”, a radio 4 play about witch hunts in Salzburg. She is one half of the BoBo Bleeds horror podcast, coming soon to a media player near you.
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