Monday, February 6, 2017

"I Heard About All the Terrible Goings-On" - Haunts (1977)

I was surprised to learn recently that 1977’s Haunts is not considered one of the classic suspense dramas of the 1970s in your universe, as it is in mine. Directed by Herb Freed—veteran of subtle, thoughtful horror movies like Graduation Day (1981) and Beyond Evil (1980)—this classic features performances by both Cameron Mitchell and Aldo Ray. How could it not be a masterpiece?

But the respected critics of your universe fail, as ever, to understand the film’s understated brilliance. Trashgang, on IMDB, writes, “It's made just before the heydays of the slashers and maybe that's the reason why it flopped. Nothing is creepy or scary there is even no red stuff to mention in it.” Also on IMDB, jfgibson73 writes, “Nothing really stood out, not much was memorable.” The eloquent reviewer vegeta3986 writes, “Once again, the 70's feels like being really weird with its titles and have them have nothing to do with the actual story. i love it. oh wait. no i don't, it's STUPID. oh well.” While I applaud this eminent critic’s prose style, I must take issue with his or her conclusion. In fact, Haunts is far from STUPID.

In the gritty, suspenseful opening, a family dinner is intercut with a shocking scissor murder in a barn. At the dinner table, a little boy named Eddie, who wears a helpfully captioned sweater, says he wants his jelly. He has already finished off an entire jar.

The adults ask Eddie’s teenage sister Bridget to go to the pantry to get the jelly. She whines but eventually agrees, heading outside the house to journey to the distant pantry. Her mother even chases her outside to tell her to get plum preserves as well as jelly.

When Bridget finally reaches the pantry, which resembles what those from my universe would call a barn, she discovers a headless corpse and a ski-masked murderer inside. Shocking! Bridget screams at the top of her lungs.

The killer runs away but one of Bridget's adult relatives chases after him. (The audience never finds out the result of this chase, and our attention never returns to this family.)

The local sheriff, played coughingly by Aldo Ray, is called away from his bowling to investigate the murder. Soon, what appear to be the police forces of a dozen towns converge on the scene of the murder. The police identify the body as that of a young girl, then they transfer the corpse to an ambulance and disperse, but not after the sheriff sits in his police car swigging alcohol from a bottle wrapped in a paper bag, as sheriffs frequently are known to do.

The next morning, we are introduced to Ingrid, played by May Britt, a Swedish woman who milks a goat while dreamily fantasizing about sex.

After her somewhat messy transaction with the goat, Ingrid drives along the foggy northern California coast and into town to do some grocery shopping. A gossipy woman fills her in on the details of last night’s crime, which involved the rape and dismemberment of a young victim. As the woman describes the gruesome details of the murder, Ingrid watches the town's dreamy young butcher, Frankie, cutting up some meat.

In a brilliant display of cinematic style, director Herb Freed intercuts Ingrid's drive home with two visions: one of the butcher cutting meat and another of sexy groping and a shattered mirror. Two things are clear. One is that Ingrid suspects the town's butcher of murder. The other is that Ingrid has had sex at some time in the past.

When she arrives home, Ingrid is startled by the sheriff, who is checking out all the houses and farms in the area. Ingrid tells him, "I heard about all the terrible goings-on" and invites him inside. Surprisingly, he accepts. He sits down in her kitchen and she gives him a glass of milk. He tells her that the only evidence the police found at the Olsen farm were some scissors.

"Ingrid," the sheriff tells her, "there's a maniac lose out there and at times like these, we all have to keep an eye out for one another."

When he leaves, Ingrid rifles through her sewing basket. "Now where the devil are those scissors?" she says in her charming Swedish accent.

After church choir practice, Ingrid is introduced to a newcomer in town, the spectacularly awkward and hunch-shouldered Bill Spry, a young man who is clearly interested in connecting with Ingrid. She brushes him off--twice--with a fair measure of brutality.

Ingrid walks home in the dark with her church friend Margaret. They are offered a ride by Frankie the butcher, who invites them for a ride in his red pickup truck. Ingrid refuses and Frankie drives away. "He's disgusting," she tells Margaret. "The way he looks at me through those beady eyes. He makes me feel dirty all over. I don't trust him."

Margaret thinks Ingrid is paranoid. Ingrid responds, ”Well how can you help it, knowing there is a maniac out there waiting to jump on you?”

Their conversation piles suspicion not only on Frankie but also on Ingrid's Uncle Carl, an untrustworthy family member who is staying with Ingrid for an undetermined period of time. Ingrid tells Margaret she wouldn't want to meet Uncle Carl. "What is he, the devil?" Margaret asks.

Ingrid, ominously, does not answer.

After Margaret reaches her house, Ingrid must walk home through a dark forest alone. She is stalked and chased by the man in the black ski mask. He shoves her to the ground but she escapes by bashing his head with a convenient rock.

Once home, she races into the arms of Uncle Carl, played by the great Cameron Mitchell. He dismisses her account of being stalked by a masked man. "It was probably just a rabbit, or a deer."

Uncle Carl ventures out into the night to investigate. Ingrid calls the sheriff at home, interrupting his alcoholic vomiting session in the bathroom, where his clearly long-suffering wife spoons medicine into his mouth.

After the phone call, Ingrid has a meaningful, dreamy flashback to herself as a child, when she walked in on a couple having sex. The flashback also involves someone's severed body parts, as well as broken glass and a swinging iron gate. What can it all mean?

We must step back at this point to review the fascinating number of murder suspects the film has already presented so skillfully. Of course, there is Frankie the butcher, and now we have Bill Spry the newcomer and the unpredictable Uncle Carl. And what of Ingrid herself, with her strange flashbacks of broken mirrors and repressed sexuality, not to mention her missing scissors? As the film moves into its second act, the audience is excited by numerous possibilities of suspense and terror.

Then the film almost immediately dispels the suspense by revealing that Frankie the butcher has a bruise on his temple, as if struck by a rock during a pursuit in the woods.

Later, we follow a woman named Nell as she leaves a bar, having unsuccessfully attempted to pick up Bill Spry the newcomer. She climbs into her car and starts it up, but  we see a figure in the back seat strangle her. Her car is out of control for a few moments--reminding the audience that a murderer who kills the driver of the moving car in which he is a passenger may not be exhibiting flawless judgment--but then the car drives off, presumably under the control of the killer.

In the morning, Ingrid discovers Nell's dead body in her chicken coop. The body is literally being henpecked.

"My God, it's like a butcher shop," says the medical investigator, reminding us again about Frankie's potentially incriminating profession. Aldo Ray’s alcoholic sheriff immediately asks the doctor if he has any pills for him.

The sheriff questions Ingrid forcefully. "Can you think of anyone who might have taken the scissors from your sewing basket?" Director Herb Freed and composer Pino Donaggio score the question with loud, suspenseful strings. "No, no one," Ingrid says, and the music stops.

To clear her head, Ingrid takes a walk in the deep forest. She has more flashbacks of herself as a little girl: sitting with her father, then being brushed aside as a woman embraces the father and disappears with him up a staircase, then broken glass and a bloody bathtub, and finally closing gates.

Ingrid's reveries have led her to the oceanside, where Uncle Carl finds her. He waves his arms wildly and calls to her, but she runs away. She races home and locks Uncle Carl out of the house.

For unknown reasons, Ingrid burns her clothes in a barrel while her goat bleats. She says to the goat, "Yes, yes. You're absolutely right. Too much attention to the dead and not enough to the living. That's the trouble with this world today."

Yes, Ingrid, you are correct, and wise, as is your goat. The world's problems truly are a direct result of paying too much attention to the dead.

Next transpires one of Haunts's signature scenes. While milking the goat and concentrating on its udder, Ingrid has a vision of a few drops of goat's blood spilling onto her dress. She kicks the pail over and races into her house, ripping off her clothing and running to the shower. We watch a man's shoes climb the stairs. A figure appears outside the shower curtain while Ingrid cleanses her body. The figure is Frankie in a red silk shirt! He threatens her with scissors--the same scissors missing from her sewing basket!

Frankie tosses her to the bed and rapes her while she screams.

But Uncle Carl returns to the house and interrupts the rape by standing outside the bedroom and knocking. Ingrid is forced to say that she is all right.

Frankie threatens that if Ingrid says anything, he'll return. Then he walks away.

Ingrid immediately goes to church. She tries to explain the attempted rape to a minister dressed in a business suit who can only be described as extremely pervy. "Open your heart," he says. "Show all the blackness inside." The minister, who looks like a combination of Vic Tayback and Werner Klemperer, wants to hear all the details of Ingrid's ordeal.

The two are interrupted, however, by none other than the perpetrator of the crime--Frankie the butcher!

The minister and Frankie speak in private, but Ingrid moves up a few pews so she can overhear their conversation. Frankie says he meant no harm, and he can't go to the sheriff. He leaves through the graveyard exit, unsuspiciously pulling on black driving gloves.

Ingrid leaves the church through another door but ends up in the graveyard anyway. She is stalked by a gloved man. Who could it be? He grabs her by the neck and she screams.

The minister opens the church door. "Who's out there?" He is able to interrupt the second attempt to rape Ingrid in one night. The perpetrator runs away.

While Ingrid lies in a hospital bed, the sheriff, the town doctor, and the minister confer. Something unusual has happened, but the audience is kept in the dark for now. "It just doesn't seem to add up," the doctor says. With characteristic sensitivity, the sheriff says, "Maybe he just didn't have a chance to...give her the full treatment."

Next comes a clever twist. The minister pulls the sheriff aside to talk about Frankie. We believe he will reveal information about Frankie's attempted rape of Ingrid, but instead, in a no less serious a breach of ethics on the part of the minister, he informs the sheriff that the sheriff's daughter is pregnant with Frankie's child. This is what Frankie and the minister were discussing in the church, not the attempted rape!

Clearly, we are in the hands of master storytellers.

The crime spree continues that very night. A man attacks a shopkeeper in full view of two sheriff's deputies. One deputy fires his weapon, but the attacker escapes.

The twists continue, worthy of an episode of Baretta, Barnaby Jones, or even Speed Buggy. When the sheriff confronts his daughter along with Frankie, the deputies call--somehow knowing the sheriff will be at Frankie's house--to inform him that the killer is trapped somewhere in the old sawmill. Apparently, Frankie the butcher is not the rapist/killer after all, despite what we have seen with our own eyes.

Down at the old sawmill, which is in full operation even in the middle of the night, though unattended by any workers, the town's police force corners the ski-masked attacker.

There is a gunshot and the masked man falls to the floor, dead. The deputy rips off the mask to identify Bill Spry.

In an interview with a TV news reporter, the sheriff says he got verification from a nearby prison that Spry was a psychopathic killer, wanted for quite a while.

Case closed. Or is it?

No, it is not.

Ingrid, watching TV at home, has her suspicions. She rushes to the sheriff's house. He is not home, but his daughter answers the door angrily. "You've got the dirtiest mind in town," she tells Ingrid. "All those lies you've been spreading about Frankie!"

Ingrid hatches a plan to prove that Frankie was the rapist/murderer. At home, she finds her old clothes with Frankie's fingerprints on them. She rushes downstairs to show Uncle Carl, only to find him bound and gagged in the living room.

Frankie enters, brandishing the sewing scissors. He snips the buttons off her dress while Uncle Carl is forced to watch.

But Ingrid grabs a fireplace poker and gets free. She confronts Frankie, ironically with a butcher knife, stabbing him in the back.

Case closed. Again. Or is it?

No, it is not.

Uncle Carl convinces Ingrid not to call the sheriff, arguing reasonably that Ingrid murdered Frankie so she will be punished. "Leave everything to Uncle Carl," he says, embracing her. Then he goes outside to dig a grave for Frankie, and from outside he just happens to watch her undressing in her room.

Suddenly, we see Ingrid in the shower. Uncle Carl enters the room and opens the shower curtain--like everyone else, it appears, he wants Ingrid for himself.

She rejects him, then reports Frankie's crime and murder to the authority figures--the sheriff, the doctor, and the minister, all in the same room.

Surprisingly, however, the authorities do not arrest Ingrid for Frankie's murder. Instead, the police force searches the grounds of Ingrid's farm for the fresh grave. They have a great deal of trouble finding it.

It is here that I must follow the customs of your universe and warn the reader in advance of “spoilers.” (As if this film could possibly be spoiled!)

Early in the morning, as the police continue searching, more puzzle pieces are revealed, and they are truly shocking! First, Frankie drives up to the house, alive and well. And second, when the grave is found, the body inside is none other than Ingrid's goat!

As is the case with many great dramas, all is not what it seemed. Ingrid, we now know, was a highly unreliable narrator.

The sheriff races into the house to search for Ingrid, only to find her bloody body in the bathtub. Suicide!

At Ingrid's funeral, the minister intones solemnly, "We will meet again, when we are all united on that distant shore to which we are all bound."

But the twists have not ended, even with Ingrid's death. A car pulls up late to the funeral and Cameron Mitchell's Uncle Carl climbs out. The sheriff shakes his hand. "You're Carl Anderson, Ingrid's uncle, aren't you?' asks the sheriff, meeting Uncle Carl for the first time. Carl has just flown in from New York--he was never staying at Ingrid's house after all!

The film ends with another staple of great movies--a rational explanation for everything, this time delivered by the sheriff as he drives Uncle Carl through town. The sheriff reveals that Ingrid was never raped; she died a virgin.

"You mean she made up everything? The attacker? Frankie? Everything?" Uncle Carl asks.

No, the sheriff explains helpfully. She was attacked the first time, presumably by Bill Spry. The attack made her snap. She fantasized being raped by Frankie and extracting her revenge at the end of a butcher knife.

Uncle Carl has more to explain after they get out of the police car at the seaside: his own sister, Ingrid's mother, committed suicide when Ingrid was five.

Here, Cameron Mitchell's performance imbues his statements with such importance that the audience has no choice but to speculate about further hidden secrets and twists. His statement that Ingrid's father never appreciated her mother leads us to believe that Carl himself might be her true father, so strongly was he devoted to his sister. His hurried description of Ingrid's father's accidental death makes us even more suspicious of foul play--could Carl have killed the father? Or was it Ingrid?

The ambiguity is mostly dispelled with a final flashback from Carl's point of view, revealing who Ingrid found in bed when she was a child, but ignoring the blood and broken glass from her earlier visions. Ingrid walked in on her mother and Uncle Carl in bed. The only mystery left unexplained is that of Ingrid’s father’s death.

While Haunts has many high points, the performances by the experienced cast members are perhaps the best part of the film. Cameron Mitchell is wonderful as Uncle Carl, first seen as rather grumpy and uncivilized in Ingrid’s imagination, but later revealed to be gentlemanly and sophisticated in real life. If there is one flaw in the film, it is that Mr. Mitchell’s screen time is so limited. Aldo Ray, while not as charming as Cameron Mitchell, makes the most of his role as the alcoholic, pill-popping, vomiting town sheriff. Mr. Ray coughs and clears his throat throughout the film, and by the end the audience is concerned that the man might drop dead at any moment.

But it is May Britt who owns the film as Ingrid, the seemingly innocent Swedish farmgirl who has many secrets to hide. In most scenes, Ingrid is either bewildered by all the “terrible goings-on” or angry at the lecherous men around her. Despite hints that she might be the killer, such as the missing scissors, Ingrid never seems capable of doing harm to herself or others, until the end, when it is revealed she killed her own goat (the trigger of some of her many sexual fantasies) and eventually herself. Ms. Britt is full of surprises in this movie, and her performance is made all the sweeter by her charming Swedish accent.

The music of Haunts must also be singled out as a high point. While an uncharitable critic might complain that director Herb Freed often uses Pino Donaggio’s score as a bludgeon, the score itself is beautiful and the director can be forgiven for turning it up during scenes of tension.

It is the ambiguity of the film, too, that pushes it into the realm of the masterwork. We are left with many questions at each point in the film, questions that will never be answered. For example, what exactly happened to Ingrid’s sewing scissors? Were they stolen by the actual rapist/killer, Bill Spry, at some point before the start of the film? And why was Nell’s body found in Ingrid’s chicken coop. Was Spry trying to frame Ingrid, possibly for turning him down twice when they first met? Or was Ingrid truly involved in the murders? If Frankie the butcher wasn’t the real killer, why did he have a bruise on his forehead after Ingrid escaped her masked attacker with a rock to the forehead? The questions go on and on, the mark of a truly successful film. Until a sequel is written, the ambiguities raised in Haunts can only be pondered…and savored.