Monday, November 5, 2018

"The Voice of His Blood Crying Out to Me from the Ground" - Haunted (1977)

Let us turn to the Arizona-set film Haunted (1977), a fine example of one of the most difficult of subgenres: the ghost story without ghosts. Instead of a horror movie, Haunted is a deep psychological drama set in an abandoned wild west movie ranch. As if the concept were not enough to establish the film as a classic, it also stars as romantic partners the 51-year-old Aldo Ray and the 57-year-old Virginia Mayo.

Reviewer BA_Harrison calls Haunted "A dull, perplexing mess that makes not one iota of sense." Reviewer aftermathsystems, who worked on the film, writes, "Working the set I felt like a high school drama class could have done a better job." Reviewer jeopelkarma writes, "This is bad. Really bad. Bad acting, script, sets, everything." (It must be argued, however, that, objectively, the sets in the film are quite good.)

The film opens with narrative text explaining that a Native American ghost named Abenaki, left to die in the desert, reincarnated as a girl named Jennifer Baines. As tradition dictates, we then move on to the Civil War. In a fort, a monk attends the burning of Abenaki. The monk is highly eloquent in addition to speaking quite naturally; he tells the Army officer (referred to as a lieutenant at one point and as a captain later in the same scene): “Might I remind you that it was you who demanded, in your perverse way, this episodic and rather romantic manner in which to dispose of the young savage?”

“Bring out the horses,” replies the officer. Abenaki is tied to a horse and stripped naked. She curses the men, and then, topless, she is exiled into the desert at night.

Later, in confession, the monk speaks with a soldier, played by the great Aldo Ray. The monk explains that they framed Abenaki in a complex plot to steal gold. The monk says, “Our necks are as safe as the gold” as the titles appear.

The opening titles (in a typeface almost universally known as Mary Tyler Moore font, aka Peignot) appear over shots of the topless Abenaki riding through the desert. The titles are accompanied by the brilliant song “Indian Woman” by Billy Vera, whose lyrics are transcribed here:

“Somewhere out in the desert sands,
A poor lost soul washes blood from her hands.
She seems to be blinded by the moon’s cold light
As she and her stallion ride, ride, ride off
Stop the night.

Now some folks say she’s a hundred years old,
The truth of the story has never been told.
She rides a road where death never ends.
Revenge is her only friend.

Indian woman,
Loving, hating, coming back to clear her name.
Indian woman,
They took her life for gold, now she’s searching, tracking down the ones to blame.
Indian woman,
Indian woman,
Indian woman.

Seconds pass like a thousand years.
She screams in pain as she reappears.
Her spirit is searching for a soft new home
In a new warm body she’ll use, use, use, use
For her own.

She rides the wings of the curse she lives.
Her hatred keeps her going, she’ll never forgive.
She tricks her victims with a lover’s eyes
That lasts as she watches them die!

Indian woman,
Loving, hating, coming back to clear her name.
Indian woman,
They took her life for gold, now she’s searching, tracking down the ones to blame.
Indian woman,
Indian woman,
Indian woman.

Proud as an eagle,
Revenge is her only goal.”

The film then moves on to modern Arizona, where the monk’s descendant is a doctor who is introduced speaking to a young man named Patrick. The young man’s mother is dying, and Patrick must break the news to his brother. This conversation is immediately followed by another soft rock song, along with images of Patrick swimming in a lake and riding his bike shirtless through his small Arizona hometown.

When Patrick reaches his house (called Apacheland Movie Ranch, which resembles an entire Western ghost town), he finds his bespectacled brother Russ fixing an antenna. Patrick helps him, and the two are watched by Aldo Ray, who is ineffectively raking the dirt.

In an entertainingly comedic interlude, two men drive up to the property, which features a cemetery. One of the men says, “What the hell? You know, this company’s put phones in some of the craziest places in the world, but this time it outdid itself.”

His partner says, “It’s really brilliant. The most brilliantly obscene installation ever. The culmination of technological madness.”

The first man retorts, “Hey, listen, smart ass. You know what your education got for you that I ain’t got? Hundred dollar words, and that’s nothing.”

Surrealistically, the men are installing a phone booth in the middle of the cemetery.

“Your pals here won’t have to haunt all over town to make a phone call,” the educated man jokes as the two leave, the phone booth installed.

Later, Aldo Ray strips down to his undershirt and explains to the brothers that the antenna they’re installing will act like a lightning rod. He also harasses Virginia Mayo, the brothers’ blind and dying mother, who plays the same song over and over on an organ.

“The more I play, the more I see,” says the blind Ms. Mayo, and we see a flashback of a sexual encounter she had with her late husband. She speaks poetically and erotically (if not anatomically): “I can feel the shortness of breath I felt when I first collided with my dream, and he eased into me, almost touching my heart. At least, I thought that. And then, that sensuous rush of unlived lifetime flowing into me, buried deep inside of me for a few moments. Then washed away in carelessness and stupidity.”

“Stop it,” Aldo Ray says. He reveals he is Ms. Mayo’s late husband’s brother, and he is uncomfortable talking about her sex acts, however poetically.

A redheaded young woman drives up to the house because her car has been having trouble starting (there is no indication she has mistaken the “movie ranch” for a service station). She is attended by the still shirtless Patrick.

In fact, she explains, quite plausibly, that she is Jennifer, an actress from England who used to work at this movie location. Mr. Ray suddenly interrupts. “She’s gonna stay in your grandmother’s room,” he says. Ms. Mayo welcomes Jennifer into her house, where Ms. Mayo implies that Jennifer knows who she is, though Jennifer is unaware of the fact.

Seconds later, a tow truck appears to take care of Jennifer’s car, though it appears that in your universe a tow truck is called a “wrecker” (a fact of which I was unaware). Curiously, after the wrecker has towed the car away, Jennifer comments on a wooden statue in front of a building. “I’ve never seen a cigar store Indian before,” she says, despite the fact that she has been here before, and despite the fact that it is no Indian but a bearded white man.

Patrick explains that Andrew makes these statues. “He says he wants the place look like it’s being used every other day.”

Jennifer laughs, probably at the inexplicability of the remark.

Then the filmmakers show a shock cut of the statue’s odd face with a musical sting. The statue looks both horrified and horrifying.

Patrick then tells Jennifer the complex story of the Indian woman Abenaki, who discovered that the priest had stolen gold from the Indians and hidden it in the Lost Dutchman gold mine somewhere in the mountains. The story takes roughly ten minutes to tell; fortunately, it takes about ten minutes to walk across the movie ranch. “I suppose the gold could still be up there somewhere,” Patrick says, “but I doubt it.”

At dinner, Mr. Ray explains that Ms. Mayo hasn’t been the same since her accident, which he says was caused by “that high plains drifter.” Ms. Mayo adds to the explanation that he is referring not to Clint Eastwood but to Abenaki’s ghost. She explains the story while her children roll their eyes. Her husband Anthony was killed when he lost control of a car due to the naked Abenaki’s horse rearing up in front of him. “Even now, on certain days when the wind is right, I can hear the voice of his blood crying out to me from the ground. That accursed place. That small bit of earth that opened up its mouth to drink his blood.”

“Mother,” Patrick says, “can’t you talk about anything else?” He wants to think of the future, while Ms. Mayo focuses only on the past.

“I’m putting a stop to it,” Patrick says. “Now. Tomorrow. It’s over.” He wants to send his mother to Hillcrest Sanitarium, and close down the movie ranch.

Throughout most of the middle of the film, all the characters talk about reincarnation and how they feel they are reliving things they can’t remember. Ms. Mayo says, “I’ve relived that night so many times, but the truth still evades me.”

Sensibly, Mr. Ray replies, “You’ll never find it. It’s tangled in all our lies.”

Ms. May adds, “We can never fill the gap between our lonelinesses.”

The psychodrama between Aldo Ray and Virginia Mayo (which include the admission they had an affair) is intercut with Patrick and Jennifer making out by the side of a lake.

Surreally, Aldo Ray turns into a much, much younger man while Ms. Mayo says, “I know I’m going to lose Patrick. Tomorrow or the next day, he’ll move inside the same soft folds of flesh in another belly, but as a lover, and other hands will pull him closer and closer, becoming one.” As the music swells, the younger man takes Ms. Mayo to bed, though the man flips back between appearing as the young man and as a hairy Aldo Ray.

The next day, Patrick and (for unexplained reasons) Jennifer drive Ms. Mayo into town to drop her off at the sanitarium.

Aldo Ray watches them go, and as he does so he reminds us that it is one of life’s great tragedies that he was never allowed to play Fred Flintstone.

Also, he stares at the mysterious phone booth in the graveyard.

After finding out her car will take a few more days to repair, Jennifer and Patrick go to a pizza place equipped, as are most pizza places, with a giant pipe organ. Patrick blurts out, “You know, nowhere on earth is the power of life felt as deeply as it is here in the desert.” This leads to a romantic interlude between Jennifer and Patrick at night beside the lake, where Patrick shirtlessly sings a song and plays a guitar.

Of course, Jennifer cannot resist such a seduction. She asks Patrick, “Are you gay?”

“No,” he replies, “I don’t think so.”

They make love on the rocks by the lake, but they are watched by someone crunching loudly through the dirt on the hill above them.

Meanwhile, the phone booth in the graveyard starts ringing, so Mr. Ray answers it casually. The female voice on the line says something poetic and possibly meaningless. Then the voice tells Mr. Ray that an old woman waits beneath a purple rock in an ancient city. Of course, Mr. Ray knows exactly where to go. He takes a small motorboat across the lake. Once across the lake, he goes into a hut where a woman named Proserpina asks him what he wants. He wants to know the truth. She performs a ritual with sand in which her voice does not match her lip movements, and finds out that the spirit of Abenaki is reincarnated in the spirit of Jennifer.

“You must kill her,” says Proserpina, “and it’s been four years since I gave you the map.” She wants her share of the hidden gold.

Mr. Ray strangles the old woman to death.

In the morning, Mr. Ray confronts Jennifer and abducts her. In a shot perhaps intended as humorous, we see Russ in his room listening to a short-wave radio while Mr. Ray drags Jennifer across the movie ranch.

Mr. Ray then attempts to strangle Russ, though he relents when Russ says, “Let me go.”

“They should have put you in the nuthouse too!” Russ says, but he just walks away to search for Jennifer by riding around the movie ranch on his bicycle.

Fortunately for the audience, Mr. Ray explains most of the plot to the tied-up Jennifer. He loved Virginia Mayo, who married his brother. Mr. Ray killed his brother out of jealousy, blaming the murder on Abenaki, though he still believes Jennifer is the reincarnated Abenaki. If it weren’t sublime enough to hear the aged Virginia Mayo speaking poetically about sex earlier in the film, we are treated to an equally aged Aldo Ray saying: “In the night, when I put my ear to the wall and I could hear them in their bed, their naked bodies pressed against each other—stealing, stealing what belonged to me!”

In another tense shot, when Patrick returns, Mr. Ray explains that Jennifer has gone away in a taxi, though we can see her gaggedface in the window behind them.

Patrick and Russ drive off to town to catch Jennifer. They stop at a bus station that is clearly a motel lobby to find out when the last bus left. They figure they can catch Jennifer’s bus at the naval air station, the bus’s next stop, so they park on the other side of the motel, near a nondescript wall with the sign “Naval Air Station Bus Depot.”

(Oddly, the orange bus that comes by sports a sign for the motor hotel rather than a traditional bus line.)

Jennifer, of course, was not on the bus. She is tied up back at the movie ranch, where she manages to untie her knots, though unfortunately for her Mr. Ray starts dousing the room with gasoline. She manages to escape, bathing him with gas. He stalks her through the movie ranch with a knife.

She finds the phone booth in the cemetery, but she can’t get a connection. He terrorizes her but she quite sensibly keeps the door closed.

In the climax, which does not involve Abenaki or any kind of haunting, Mr. Ray, doused with gasoline, breaks the light in the ceiling of the phone booth and bursts into flame.

The filmmakers save the most horrifying image for the film’s resolution: a bare-chested Russ with a yellow shirt tied around his shoulders.

The equally bare-chested Abenaki continues to ride her horse through the desert as the final song plays.

One intriguing aspect of Haunted is its ability to set up and pay off numerous supernatural and surreal occurrences without letting the audience know if anything supernatural is actually occurring. The phone booth in the graveyard is set up and paid off twice, once when Aldo Ray receives a phone call telling him about Proserpina, and again when Jennifer is attacked in the phone booth by Mr. Ray. Abenaki herself is set up and paid off to some extent: We see her riding topless through the desert at the beginning of the film and at the end, and Mr. Ray attempts to murder Jennifer because he believes her to be the reincarnation of Abenaki. The gold, however, is set up but never paid off, and we are never certain whether the stash of gold actually exists. Perhaps this was meant for a sequel that never appeared.

According to IMDB, director Michael de Gaetano wrote and directed three films in the mid to late 1970s. These are UFO: Target Earth (1974), Haunted (1977), and Dribble aka Scoring (1979). It is clear that Mr. de Gaetano had his finger on the pulse of commercial cinema in that long-ago decade, trying his hand at a UFO film and a comedy about women's basketball in addition to the psychological thriller that is Haunted. It is unfortunate Mr. de Gaetano did not continue looking for popular trends into the 1980s; surely a slasher film with the style and atmosphere of Haunted would be an entertaining diversion indeed.