13 January 2010

Movie review: The Shuttered Room

The Shuttered Room (1967)
Directed by David Greene. Starring Gig Young, Carol Lynley, Oliver Reed, Flora Robson.

I will give the screen adaptation of The Shuttered Room this much: as a film of the Anglo-horror cycle, at least it doesn’t try to slavishly imitate the Hammer style. The naturalistic outdoor photography, U.S. setting (faked, admittedly), and unusual score are far removed from the Hammer product of the period.

I won’t give The Shuttered Room much else; it is a tepid film with scant atmosphere and manages to disappoint on most levels. The August Derleth story (which I’ve written about here) is no classic in the gallery of Lovecraftian pastiches, but the movie ignores all the aspects of the “weird” that give the original its memorable qualities. What was there, exactly, about this story that would work if the horrific elements were removed? Very little, as first-time director David Green shows. After a reasonable start, the film moves glacially with almost nothing occurring, veers off into an unwelcome different genre, and then delivers the least interesting revelation for its “monster” that it possibly could. Worst of all, The Shuttered Room is not scary or even slightly spooky except for its pre-title section.

Not much of the short story survives, although during the first ten minutes D. B. Ledrov’s screenplay creates the illusion that it might tackle its source in a straightforward manner, with a gender switch for the main character and a romantic interest to broaden events to feature length. Abner Whateley is now Susannah Whatley (Carol Lynley), losing the second “e” in her name in the process of changing from a man to a woman. She’s come to Dunwich—now an island in an unidentified part of rural New England—with her husband, Mike Kelton (Gig Young), to take up residence in the old house she has inherited. She hasn’t lived there since she was four years old, when something dreadful locked up in the titular room attacked her in her bed (the subject of the interesting and therefore deceptive prologue). The memory has scarred her since then, but she wants to see if she and her husband can make a go at turning the cobwebbed stone block into a summer home. The locals, led by the thuggish Ethan (Oliver Reed), aren’t welcoming to the new couple, and Susannah’s Aunt Agatha (Flora Robson) warns them that a curse lies over the old Whatel(e)y place.

The movie rapidly forgets about the “haunted house” concept, and instead focuses on Susannah moping around and staring at trees in between bouts of Ethan and his gang terrorizing her and Mike. A few years later, Sam Peckinpah would take this idea of a displaced couple under assault from the local roughnecks and make a feverish masterpiece of it in Straw Dogs, but The Shuttered Room handles the whole affair limply and without a sense of any real danger. After all, if Gig Young can beat you up with Kung Fu moves (I’m not joking), how much a threat do you actually pose? When the focus of the film should be on the oddness of what’s occurring in the Whatley house and the horror of Susannah’s past, it instead turns on these hapless New England pranksters.

Almost hapless. At least Oliver Reed is leading them; Ollie has an ideal brute quality for the part, the same that he would show in next year’s Oliver! Unfortunately, he and the rest of the British cast are unconvincing as rural New Englanders. Too often their (Old) English accents waver through their performances, making it difficult to believe the film is occurring anywhere in the U.S. for even a moment. Flora Robson does the best with her accent, but everybody else acts as if they’re ready to drop by the pub to get a pint and watch the Manchester United game. Setting the movie in New England was a strange move on the filmmakers’ part. Since the screenplay changes so much from the story, shifting the location to a place like Cornwall would have made more sense, and not damaged the plot at all.

I enjoy Carol Lynley as an actress, but her “built-in depressed look” (as Mike Nelson once put it on Mystery Science Theater 3000) works against her here, giving the film a dour cast when it needs a shot of tension and fear to keep it from droning on. The script hardly gives Lynley more to do other than wander around and gaze absently at leaves blowing in the wind.

The climax… well, there’s no horrid human/Deep One miscegenation living in the shuttered room, I’ll tell you that much. But even if the movie couldn’t afford a shock like that, couldn’t it have least tried to tap into a dollop of the ghastly family secret of the short story? The script delivers the least surprising solution to the mystery it can, one that’s so easy to guess that you hope throughout the film that you’re wrong and the story will take a surprising turn. Sadly, no. All the jittery POV shots of people wrestling with “it” or cowering from its deadly claws are just a way to hide how truly uninteresting the beast of the Whately family actually is.

The one place where The Shuttered Room excels is the strange percussive jazz score by Basil Kirchin. Although speciously out-of-touch with Anglo-horror and the rural setting, the music is invigorating and brings a touch of the bizarre that the film needs. It’s certainly nothing like the James Bernard scores heard in the Hammer films, or even John Barry’s brassy James Bond music. It’s as if Charles Mingus in a particularly wicked mood invaded the film.

It’s unfortunate that more weird didn’t invade it. The Shuttered Room is damnably ordinary, a slightly violent domestic drama that promises more and never gives it.

Thankfully, The Shuttered Room comes on DVD as a double feature with a film all full of weird, It! Prepare to hear about that later….