HAUNTED. Ghosts need erotica too

There are almost no screams in Haunted.

Odys Korczyński

8 March 2023

James Herbert’s book, on the basis of which the film was made, fell into my hands somewhere in the eighth grade of primary school. It didn’t impress me as much as, for example, Jonah or Fog by the same author. However, it made me realize that horror in literary form has many faces. In order to scare, monsters do not necessarily have to roam the pages of the novel. Fear can have a spiritual dimension, related to Thanatos, Satan, hell and, in general, human fascination with the afterlife. The realization that the horror genre in film could follow the same, slightly calmer and less bloody path, and still be scary, came to me many years later. Haunted is an intricate example of this type of production, using our imagination and more or less real fears created in the course of the history of civilization to scare us. But can everything be rationally explained?

This is the opinion of the hero of the film and Herbert’s novel series, David Ash, a professor of psychology, which was developing dynamically at the beginning of the 20th century, by means of which he proves that all supernatural phenomena are only a product of the human mind. In addition to teaching at the university, he is busy exposing psychic hoaxes until he stumbles upon Tess Webb, a strange old lady who regularly writes him increasingly dramatic letters asking for help. It is said that ghosts haunt her, or actually live with her under the same roof. Ash finally decides to go to the Mariell family estate, where Tess Webb is caring for three orphaned and now grown siblings.

This is how this seemingly non-horror story based on the prose of James Herbert begins. From the very beginning, viewers are struck by the so-called Englishness of the production – Victorian stylization, country house, theatrical scenes. The movie is a bit like a drama series. The narrative moves forward slowly, very accurately showing the world of English high society with one difference compared to, for example, Downton Abbey – there are no servants. At the beginning, the only accent taken from a classic horror movie is the sudden opening of the eyes of the main character’s sister, who drowned in a coffin. David Ash has been carrying guilt since childhood, and his fight against paranormal phenomena largely serves to relieve childhood pain. A visit to the Mariells’ haunted house turns out to be an opportunity to come to terms with the suffering she has cherished for so many years.

Director Lewis Gilbert, known for such hits as Moonraker, Educating Rita or The Spy Who Loved Me, also as a co-writer of Haunted, proposed a rather loose approach to the adaptation of Herbert’s prose, but he saved the core of the story, and above all its atmosphere and the function of forcing the reader to constantly wondering what is true and what is only a hoax. In the film, we are almost to the end not sure whether the situation will not turn around soon, and the alleged ghosts will not turn out to be people who only want to take revenge on the unwitting living.

In Haunted we will not see decaying corpses, blood, skulls with worms coming out of their sockets and similar permanent elements of set decorations in horror movies. We will be accompanied by a mixture of curiosity and uncertainty, additionally seasoned with romance and eroticism. The two main characters, David Ash (Aidan Quinn) and Christina Mariell (Kate Beckinsale), will surround us with the sensual atmosphere of life in a different world, a bit supernatural. It only becomes fearful when someone starts asking too many rational questions. You believe in ghosts or you don’t. The worst thing, however, is sometimes to start proving that they do not exist or vice versa. David Ash fell into this trap, mainly due to childhood trauma. So in order to deal with ghosts as an adult, he had to settle accounts with the ghost of his dead sister. It is impossible to express in words this clever mixing of personal, rational and parapsychological threads in the film. As a viewer, you have to experience how intelligently they can be combined, following the guidelines of James Herbert from his novel. These changes to the plot were necessary to make the story more suitable for the screen. That’s why I’m not going to complain, for example, about eliminating the professor’s assistant thread, treating his personal life differently or reducing the meaning of dreams. The director’s and screenplay techniques well emphasized the personality of David Ash, while not allowing the viewer to get lost in an overly complicated story.

There are almost no screams in Haunted. Whispers will be heard everywhere, trying to tell us that reality is not exhausted in what we can experience with our biological senses. However, they can give us so many fantastic impressions that we don’t need special effects to scare us of ghosts. Engaged actors and classic tricks of wind, tapping, creaking and voices in the dark are enough. In addition, the controversial erotic thread and a bit of nudity add an unusual taste for the genre. If there were even blood and monsters, I’m afraid that the production would lose its thriller atmosphere. It can’t be called horror because it mixes horror with romance too much.

After the screening, I will long remember Aidan Quinn’s tired eyes and the two-faced innocence painted on Kate Beckinsale’s face. Haunted is the first in a series of novels featuring the character David Ash. It is a pity that Herbert’s other books in this series did not see the light of day. Ash as a horror movie hero had the potential to become a more iconic hero of the memorable kind, like Robert Langdon from The Da Vinci Code. He was gifted with both courage and skill, and his life was marked by a personal tragedy. Ghosts and the riddles associated with them like such complicated personalities in which good is mixed with darkness. Unfortunately, so far few of the directors even refer to the work of James Herbert. Currently, the genre is dominated by slasher, although, for example, the series The Haunting of Bly Manor breaks this long-term dominance.

Odys Korczyński

Odys Korczyński

For years he has been passionate about computer games, in particular RPG productions, film, medicine, religious studies, psychoanalysis, artificial intelligence, physics, bioethics, as well as audiovisual media. He considers the story of a film to be a means and a pretext to talk about human culture in general, whose cinematography is one of many splinters.

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