Horror Movie Homework: “The Haunting of Julia” (1977)

So I had pneumonia this fall and, as a result, as soon as I could keep my eyes open for more than 45 minutes at a time, I watched a lot of movies. One of them was The Haunting of Julia (also called Full Circle) with Mia Farrow and Keir Dullea as well as a lot of people with vaguely familiar faces most of whom turned out to be unfamiliar after all. Except for Tom Conti.

It’s based on a novel by Peter Straub who, for a moment, I had confused with Dean Koontz. Don’t ask me why; I was sick, okay? In case you’re like me and momentarily baffled, Straub wrote Black House and Talisman with Stephen King; Koontz…well, he didn’t; mostly I think of him as the dude who always has a golden retriever somewhere in the story.

Haunting is basically a one-woman show; if you don’t like looking at Mia Farrow, don’t watch this movie. It’s a very quiet, low-key little ghost story which is never quite a ghost story because you’re not entirely sure if the woman is being haunted (and if she is being haunted, who is actually doing the haunting), lost in her memories, going insane, finding out the awful history of her house, or some combination. It even seems at times as though she may be switching between each state separately. The poster I’ve used to illustrate this post is almost entirely misleading which is partially why I chose it; it makes the movie look like your pretty standard child haunt story which it really is not.

The catalyzing event for the whole thing is the death of Farrow and Dullea’s daughter by choking. It’s a rather horrible opening, made no less horrible by the quiet, clean filming that focuses on the girl slowly gagging to death. It’s implied although not shown that Farrow may have gone slightly batshit and, perhaps, cut her daughter’s throat in an attempt to remove the obstruction. The offending object is, in fact, a piece of Disney-bright green apple. You can make of that what you will.

Farrow then retires to or is put into a nursing home to recover from the event and, when her husband comes to take her home, prefers to dash into the street and escape from him and buy a completely fresh house for herself. There are definite signs of marital stress right from the beginning of the movie, but Dullea plays the husband throughout in a state of barely controlled rage that seems a little inexplicable. I’m not sure if we’re supposed to feel that he isn’t affected by the death of his daughter, if he’s relieved by it, if he wants to torment his wife by bringing her back to the old house, if he simply misses his wife and wants to go back to the old pattern (as much as he can)– He’s really not given enough screen time for any of this to become clear.

As time goes by, it becomes clear that something odd is happening around Farrow; it may be her memories of her daughter, it may be something connected with the house into which she has moved which proves to have a mysterious little girl of its own. As Farrow digs into the history of the house, the story of its little girl is partially unveiled and is really quite nasty. Part of this story seems very interested in the idea of what horrors children can commit — commit and get away with because they are children. It’s a shame this isn’t explored further since it’s a very interesting idea that doesn’t get a ton of play, at least not in my somewhat haphazard wanderings through the genre. Anyone with recommendations along this line, please! Leave me suggestions.

Since it seems that Farrow’s character is aiming to die one way or another from the time of her escape from the nursing home, it doesn’t come as a huge surprise when she manages to get there. The closing scene, though, is striking. It almost looks like something from a Polanski film, very clear, directed, but with a luminescence of color and light.

Anyway, if you’re getting over pneumonia, or have a rainy afternoon to while away, give it a shot.