Monday, September 25, 2023

"Whoever Heard of Ghosts Showing Up in the Daytime?" - Ghosts of Hanley House (1968)

It is time to visit Louise Sherrill's minimalist haunted house film Ghosts of Hanley House (1968). Although an obscure 1960's film made by people with little filmmaking experience, the movie is atmospheric and suggestive, a low-key response to Robert Wise's The Haunting (1963).

Of course, some of your universe's critics are unmoved by films as subtle as this. For example, reviewer johnfrum2000 writes directly (if inaccurately), "This is a bad movie." Reviewer planktonrules writes analytically, "The folks who make 'The Ghosts of Hanley House' obviously had little idea of what they were doing." And reviewer artpf writes diagnostically, "The biggest problem with this film is that it just keeps going with nothing really happening."

Read on for an accurate appreciation of Ghosts of Hanley House...

Thunder crashes. Lightning strikes. A woman screams. We see the boarded-up exterior of a suburban house. Inside, doors slam shut by themselves and various clock hands turn crazily. Presaging violence, someone lifts an axe.

Elsewhere and elsewhen, in a bar, two men, Hank and Dick, are speaking about Hanley House, which is reputed to be haunted. Hank says about ghosts, “I didn’t say they don’t exist. I just said I don’t believe in them.”

The men decide to make a bet. However, the terms of the bet are interrupted by dialogue-less shots of other patrons sitting at the bar and still others playing pool. Eventually, the film’s dialogue returns, and the men decide to bet their cars: Dick’s new Ferrari against Hank’s old MG. “All right, I’ll bite,” says Hank. “What do I have to do?”

“Just spend the night. Make sure there are no ghosts.” It turns out Dick owns the place now that the previous owners abandoned the place. “I can’t sell it or can’t even rent it with all this ghost stuff. So you spend the night, and I’ll let you decide if the place is haunted.”

Hank, of course, agrees, and he decides to invite a few friends to spend the night at the purportedly haunted house in hopes of winning a new Ferrari (it must be noted the Ferrari is never seen in the film).

Later, Hank tries to recruit some of his friends to spend the night at Hanley House in front of an art supply shop that features, for unknown reasons, a painting of a Klingon in the window.

Hank has trouble finding people to spend the night with him. He visits an old woman named Miss Lucy to learn about the history of the house. Despite saying “I don’t know anything about the place,” the woman regales Hank with a history of odd goings-on at the house, including the fact that two people spent the night in the house previously—one went insane and the other hanged himself.

Eventually, Hank finds a few townspeople willing to spend the night. Dick, who is dropping off beer, introduces Hank to his cousin Sheila, who “is staying for the party.” Hank glares at Sheila disturbingly, an expression the audience is clearly meant to take as a charming smile.

The visitors are entranced, understandably, by a semi-nude painting of Mrs. Hanley, the previous owner of the house, that hangs in the stairwell. One of Hank’s friends, a middle-aged man named Morgan, reveals that he knew the Hanleys, but not very well.

The group gets to work fixing up the house a bit, and Sheila moves the painting of Mrs. Hanley to a spot above the fireplace. As she dusts, the local psychic Gabrielle asks intelligently, “Did it ever occur to you that someone might want people to think this place is haunted, and someone might benefit by it?”

The first mysterious occurrence occurs: There is a knock but nobody is at the door. The filmmakers cut to shots of the house’s expansive back garden, which is quiet except for a few birds. “There’s no one there,” Sheila says.

Gabrielle writes in her journal that the knocking occurred exactly at six o’clock. Hank says derisively, “Gabby, I hope you get it all down. It’ll be good for your research.” He laughs heartily. “Whoever heard of ghosts showing up in the daytime?”

There is another knock and everybody goes to the door. Nobody is there, and everyone feels a mysterious coldness. Gabrielle sees something she calls “the imprint of a spirit.” She says a troubled spirit is visiting them from another world…”maybe seeking revenge.” She also confides to Hank that she believes he has “psychical powers.”

After dinner is served by Hank’s maid Isabel (a woman who sensibly leaves immediately after setting out the dinner), the friends discover that Dick’s car keys are gone. (The manner in which this is discovered involves each of the friends asking the next one if they have seen Dick’s keys as they sit around the table.) It seems Dick will have to spend the night, as he is unable to drive away in his (unseen) Ferrari.

At ten o’clock, the friends are playing cards and listening to records. Hank dances with Sheila, so Dick tries to dance with Morgan, but he ends up dancing with Gabrielle instead. They dance awkwardly to the classical music playing on the phonograph and laugh at themselves. Hank continues what may or may not be his romantic pursuit of Sheila, explaining he has lived in town all his life. “Nice little town. Nice people getting nicer all the time.” (This might be a sly reference to Sheila being new in town, but it is impossible to tell from Hank’s leering delivery.)

When the others sit down to play cards, Sheila stands by herself and listens to the house. “Don’t move,” she says to the group at the card table. “Just above your heads. A black widow spider.”

Of course, everyone swats above their heads, as if swatting at a black widow on its web would be helpful. The audience never sees the spider, and the companions act as if it has vanished mysteriously.

Meanwhile, a wolf howls outside. Everyone runs to the back door to investigate. The camera prowls through the back garden. Even with a flashlight, however, they find nothing outside. The audience, however, sees the oddly glowing silhouette of a behatted man watching from behind the bushes.

Later, Sheila acts as if Morgan is choking her with ice-cold hands, but Morgan is nowhere near her. The hands of the clocks whirl around while the portrait of Mrs. Hanley falls off the wall.

“Who tried to choke you?” Hank asks Sheila.

“It did. It did.”

“You didn’t see who it was?”

“It wasn’t anyone. Just a pair of ice cold hands.”

When everyone is gathered in one room, Sheila notices what appears to be a toolbox on the floor. Dick looks at it but decides not to open it because it doesn’t belong to him. Hank suggests they go to bed because their imaginations are working overtime, so the group of five people walks single-file up the staircase.

In the ladies’ bedroom, Gabrielle asks Sheila if she believes something supernatural is going on. “It tried to kill me, you know,” Sheila replies.

“Perhaps it tried to warn you, or even to tell you something.”

“But it choked me. It tried to kill me, I know it did.”

“You don’t understand. The spirits work in strange ways. I can tell you this: In all the psychic world, a spirit has never been known to kill anyone. They may have driven them to kill themselves…when they were justified.”

Despite the ominous conversation, Gabrielle encourages Sheila to let the spirits contact her, and the two women go to sleep.

Later, Sheila sees a light and hears a weird whispering voice, so she gets out of bed and searches the house, completely unafraid. She enters a room and sees an empty casket while a female voice whispers, “Sheila…Come, Sheila.” She runs back to bed, not mentioning the incident to anyone.

Still later, everyone hears horses running across the roof of the house. After the sound goes away, a somewhat disturbingly shirtless Hank suggests everyone leave their bedrooms and spend the rest of the night downstairs in the library.

In the library, Gabrielle sets up a seance, placing the traditional big wooden cross on the table.

Gabrielle contacts two spirits she knows on the other side, Neta and Zizi. Neta says that only evil spirits come to Hanley House, then Zizi goes away, frightened. Gabrielle quickly goes into a trance but is unable to channel another spirit. However, there is tapping at a wall and a piano starts playing random notes, causing Sheila to scream.

The tapping and piano notes prove too frightening for anyone to remain in the house. Hank, realizing he is losing the bet, hands Dick his car keys. Unfortunately for everyone involved, however, all the car batteries are dead (we still do not see the Ferrari). “What now?” asks Dick.

“We walk,” says Hank. “Come on. We’ll take a shortcut.”

The five compatriots walk through the moonlit forest. They encounter an aggressive mountain lion on the path, but it runs away without bothering them (or, in fact, appearing in the same camera shot with them). After five to ten minutes of shots of trees swaying in the wind, the group returns to the house. 

As they return to the grounds, a mysterious entity that looks like a fireball appears before them.

“It’s trying to communicate with us,” Gabrielle says. “We’ll go inside.”

Nobody wants to go back inside the house, but Gabrielle says they have no choice, so they all walk back inside. In the library, they hear electrical crackling and knocking. Gabrielle says courageously, “In the name of the Lord, what do you want?”

When it fails to respond, she reasons it wants to contact Sheila, but this proves to be false. Gabrielle says, “It wants someone else. Dick?”

“No,” Dick says, “I don’t want to.”

Hank decides to take matters into his own hands. “In the name of the Lord, what do you want?”

“Who are you?” asks the disembodied spirit.

“Henry McIntyre,” says Hank.

The spirit crackles some more, then explains straightforwardly: “Down the cellar, in the southeast corner, my body is buried. In the garden beneath the rose bush, you’ll find my head. Then go into the attic. In the trunk is the body of my wife. In the square box by the door in the library is her head. If you will bury our bodies and heads together before the sun rises, we’ll never bother this house again. In the cemetery down the road is an open grave beside the plot I’ve been savings. Bury our bodies and we will haunt this house no more. Will you do this?”

“Don’t argue,” Gabrielle says. “Do what he asks.”

The invisible spirit further says, in the manner of a pirate, “A curse upon ye who committed this heinous crime.” (The spirit pronounces the word heinous as “hee-nee-ous.”) “His soul shall not rest in peace. His spirit is doomed to roam the countryside through all eternity.”

They take on the task, though Morgan is somewhat reluctant. In the basement, Morgan confesses, “It’s me they want.” He explains he had to kill the Harley’s. “They wouldn’t let me go, all these years, they wouldn’t let go.” After staring at each of his friends guiltily, he explains further: “It all began when we were boys together. They were putting up a new schoolhouse.” To make a long story short, one of Morgan and Tom Hanley’s friends was buried alive in concrete at the construction site. Tom thought Morgan was responsible for the accident and blackmailed him. “All these years, he’s bled my. My business, my inheritance. It must be close to a hundred thousand dollar.” Eventually, Morgan discovered that it was actually Tom who killed the boy. Morgan had no choice but to kill both Tom and his wife with an axe, beheading them.

Oddly, instead of running, Morgan continues to help his friends excavate the corpses, including a buried box with Mrs. Hanley’s head.

After all this, Morgan decides to run while Sheila faints and the others make coffee. After some searching of the house to find bodies that are not where they are supposed to be, including another head in the mysterious toolbox where the Hanleys’ money was supposed to be, the four remaining friends check out the cemetery to find the appropriate grave. Shockingly, they find Morgan dead on a freshly dug grave. He has a handprint on his face, as if someone has slapped him dead.

In the final shot, the fireball ghost appears and envelops the entire screen.

Directed by Louise Sherrill, best known for acting in Blood and Lace (1971), Ghosts of Hanley House is a fascinating combination of the traditional and the modern. Like the title house itself, which is modernist on the outside but old-fashioned on the inside, the film updates the well-worn trope of people attempting to win money by staying in a haunted house with more gruesome late-sixties tropes like axe beheadings and fireball spirits.

The film's modernist minimalism makes its team of intrepid ghost hunters likable without ever bothering to explain their motivations, except for Hank's desire for a never-seen (and perhaps nonexistent) Ferrari. Hank, though he is the strapping hero, is too afraid to visit the house alone, so he attempts to recruit various people for company. Those who decide to join him include Dick (the man with whom Hank is wagering, who perhaps could have accomplished the necessary task himself for free), Dick's cousin Sheila (who has no reason for staying, unless Dick is trying to set her up with Hank, something that is never explored), Sheila (the local psychic, who has perhaps the best motivation for joining Hank: curiosity), and Morgan (who committed two axe murders in the selfsame house, and has perhaps the worst motivation for ever coming near the place). 

In the end, circling back to the traditional, all mysteries are resolved and the evil character is punished. Presumably, Dick is able to sell the house and Hank is able to acquire Dick's Ferrari...if it exists at all. Perhaps Hank and Sheila become a couple, or perhaps not. A sequel might have answered this question, but alas, Louise Sherrill never directed another film, going on to act in a small number of films and then disappearing from cinema history. It is fortunate Ghosts of Hanley House is available for viewing 55 years after its production, a fascinating mix of the modern and the traditional written and directed by a woman with a multitude of ideas about haunted houses and the skills to put them on film.