Artisan // 1996 // 107 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gary Militzer (Retired) // September 5th, 2001
You will believe...
Just why we enjoy being scared is one of life's little mysteries that no one seems able to adequately explain, no matter how much psychobabble is offered as rationalization. Fear is one of the essential instincts apparent in all living creatures. However, only man has a sense of imagination. Put these two traits together and you have the crucial ingredients for those man-made ghastly ghost tales of terror that eternally entertain us, even as they make us lie awake in bed, silently listening to seemingly endless nighttime creaks and tappings.
Maybe there really is a hidden wicked side to our human nature that simply takes macabre pleasure in the lingering terror onscreen, particularly when we are securely tucked in our own homes or safely hidden amongst a large cinema audience. Whatever the case may be, we all like a good, old-fashioned ghost story -- the kind told by the dying glow of crackling embers in a midnight campfire, as the wind gently weeps, the tree branches rustle and snap, and an eerie mist drapes across the horizon.
Haunted is one of these spooky little supernatural manifestations, a traditional haunted house/ghost story that you can pop in the DVD player and watch while immersed within the thick, impenetrable darkness of your own living room.
Our tale begins in Sussex, England circa 1905. Twin siblings Juliet and David Ash play tag near a river. As their childish game ensues, Juliet accidentally trips, strikes her head on a sharp rock, and slips into the deep stream. Young David watches helplessly as his sister drowns. The next day, Juliet's body is displayed in a coffin in the family living room, as per tradition of that time. Upstairs, David is awakened suddenly by Juliet's ethereal voice, beckoning him to go to her. As he approaches the casket, Juliet's corpse seemingly awakens...
Flash forward to 1928. Little David is now Professor David Ash (Aidan Quinn -- Legends of the Fall, Benny and Joon, Avalon), and he has returned to his native England to teach psychology at the local university. David has recently written a book on psychic phenomena from the standpoint of suspicious skeptic of the supernatural. His opinion is that there are no ghosts or spirits, "only the longing that there should be, to ease our pain and our fears." He's a cynic and a rational realist, exposing despicable paranormal frauds in the area, but things are about to change, as his dreams are suddenly haunted by visions of mysterious characters from a misty Victorian past.
David is invited by elderly Nanny Tess Webb (Anna Massey) to investigate a haunting at her isolated country manor. When he arrives at the sprawling estate, David is introduced to her three adult grandchildren (chief among them, Kate Beckinsdale -- Pearl Harbor, Brokedown Palace, The Last Days Of Disco) and their mysterious family physician (the late, great Sir John Gielgud -- Arthur, Shine, Prospero's Books), all of whom dismiss Nanny's supernatural claims as mere senile hallucinations.
As David sets about to prove that there are no spirits haunting the grounds, dirty little family secrets emerge, House of Usher-style. Then David continually experiences his own unexplainable ghostly visions, all ostensibly pointing to the traumatic childhood loss of his twin sister. Is this ghost business all just a head game and sanity-sapping mind trip, or are the paranormal truly prancing about the manor? And what exactly is up with all that pseudo-incestuous playfulness displayed between the three Mariell siblings? It's enough to make even Angelina Jolie blush!
Part mystery, part thriller, and part dramatic period piece, Haunted strives to be a complex supernatural tale with allusions to all the staples of supernatural fiction, but it all feels a little stretched out with its padded runtime. That's not necessarily a knock against the film; its leisurely pace helps to build a subtle, effective sense of dread and suspense. It's just one of the minor reasons that Haunted is a good movie, but not a great film. Indeed, it plays like one of those delightful, disposable PBS British mystery presentations that are always worth a whirl every now and again.
Directed by veteran British director Lewis Gilbert, in a moviemaking career that began in the 1940s and spans every sub-genre within (Alfie, The Spy Who Loved Me, Educating Rita), his veteran stewardship behind the camera is amply demonstrated in this cerebral production. Haunted may eschew flashy camera panache, but it has a stately, timeless craftsmanship to it that shows this is not merely some hack quickie, direct-to-video production.
The actors appear to be having a good time making this little film, and they all absorb themselves into their characters admirably. Aidan Quinn, in particular, is a likeable, skilled performer and does a nice job here. Always a dependable character actor, I'm surprised that with his talent and matinee-idol good looks, he never fully sprouted into an A-list, leading American movie star. Kate Beckinsale is suitably fine as the siren-like object of Professor Ash's desire. She's currently on the threshold of arriving as Hollywood's latest "it girl," so it's interesting seeing her in an earlier performance before she became a quasi-mainstream household name. By the time Sir John Geilgud arrived onscreen in a poof of smoke, I was thoroughly entranced by the lively thespian muscle flexed before my eyes.
According to the DVD box, Haunted is presented in the original 1.33:1 full screen format in which the film was shot. Of course, right above that statement is a "formatted from its original version to fit your screen" notation on the package. Talk about conflicting claims, Artisan! But it gets worse. The picture itself is very grainy, unnecessarily dark at times, and uniformly hazy and washed out, with numerous instances of color bleeding. It's like a decent VHS presentation. While Haunted showcases the splendid English countryside, its expansive aristocratic estates, and their lush interiors, this disappointing transfer rarely captures the magnificent beauty of the rolling greens, making everything look bland, blurry and all so very ordinary.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio presentation is functional, nothing more. Dialogue is abundantly clear and free of hiss or distortion, but the rear channels remain underutilized and largely forgotten, which is really unfortunate because a solid surround mix always makes ambient chillers all the more eerie and emotionally encompassing for the viewer. Still, this is an acceptable sound mix, in sync and always easily discernible.
Unfortunately, on top of the substandard pan and scan visual presentation, Haunted is a bare bones disc, right down to the static, bland main menu. That's right, this is one of those rare DVDs released today whose sole 'special feature' is its "interactive" menu, which in turn allows the viewer a whopping two options: play the entire movie or jump to a specific scene. No production notes, supplementary interviews, trailers, or photo galleries are to be found here. Heck, not even the standard talent bios earned inclusion in this hollow offering! Surely something more could have been added to bolster this empty package into a purchase-worthy disc, especially now that quaint little ghost chillers are experiencing somewhat of a hip revival right now, thanks to the success of movies like The Others and The Sixth Sense.
Even with a fairly low MSRP of $14.98, I can't recommend Haunted as a must-purchase; along with its glaring lack of supplements, the film just doesn't possess that intangible replayability factor, as its story is not complex enough to truly warrant repeat viewings. What it is, though, is a solid, traditional ghost story that is well worth a single screening -- the perfect rental for a stormy autumn evening! It may not have a wholly admirable originality, but Haunted capably creates an effective supernatural atmosphere with only the barest of special effects and nary a trace of bombastic, blood-drenched action or monster mayhem, relying instead on good old-fashioned storytelling, haunting mood, and top-caliber performances to frame its unnerving, near-memorable tale of things that go bump in the night.
Haunted chilled me at times, but it is Artisan's barebones packaging and shoddy visual craftsmanship that really scared this judge. I sincerely hope that Artisan's minimal-care attitude, abundantly apparent on this particular release, is not indicative of an emerging, corporate-acceptably blasé approach to its upcoming treatment of titles housed within the studio catalog. As of late, Artisan has emerged as that little DVD company whose product is capable of standing admirably alongside the big boys. It would be a shame to see all that reputable progress now put to waste.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 107 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Rated R