CHILLING CLASSICS MONTH: Haunts (1976)

This entry was written by Bill Van Ryn, who is behind the amazing Groovy Doom and Drive-In Asylum. Bill has always been a major inspiration and help when it comes to my love of film, as well as always being awake when I text him at 3 AM to discuss Paul Naschy.

Haunts is one of those low budget films with multiple layers of implications. On the surface, it’s a horror movie about a masked killer stalking a small town for victims, with a female lead who acts as the film’s damsel in distress.

Another dimension unfolds, though, when we realize that the movie is really about the breakdown of the woman’s psyche, seemingly inspired by Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. It gets even deeper when you consider the harrowing performance delivered by lead actress May Britt, who left a promising career in films to raise the children that she had with then-husband Sammy Davis, Jr.

Haunts was made in 1975 (with no theatrical release until 1976) after she’d divorced Davis, and this modest production was part of her attempt to regain the momentum of her acting career. 

Britt plays Ingrid, a woman who has a lonely existence as the solitary proprietor of a small farm in a rural community. Murders start happening in the town, and Ingrid’s paranoia is ramped up to warp factor, especially after she is attacked by the killer. Although she manages to escape, the trauma of the experience triggers memories in her regarding the death of her mother, who committed suicide in a bathtub when Ingrid was very young. The murders also coincide with the presence of Ingrid’s uncle Carl (Cameron Mitchell), who is visiting with her at the farm. Two other possible suspects include a skeezy supermarket bag boy named Frankie (William Grey Espy) and a polite newcomer named Bill (Robert Hippard).  

For better or worse, Haunts is a complicated film where everything is not spelled out for the viewer. The hallucinatory editing style gives us symbolic inserts that cut in on the action. For instance, Ingrid is plagued by memories of sexual abuse, and there are brief moments where we see an adult male touching her suggestively as she sits on his lap, and these are intercut with a scene where she milks a goat. Yeah, it’s that kind of movie. Also, like Repulsion, it’s filled with moments that we come to realize were not reality at all, but rather things that Ingrid imagined as she began to break down mentally. The low budget regional aspect of the production, however, reminds me more of S.F. Brownrigg’s Keep My Grave Open, which is very close to Haunts in terms of its tone, as well as certain aspects of its plot (an isolated woman’s sanity unravels, an entire character may or may not have been completely imagined by the heroine, a murderer who stabs people, complex family relationships involving incest).

Director Herb Freed (Graduation Day, Beyond Evil) keeps the film engaging, although it does suffer from some strange pacing problems. The most notable is the abrupt climax that arrives about 15 minutes before the movie ends, and the remainder of the film is devoted to explanations that somehow fail to answer all of our questions. May Britt was an unusual choice to play the lead in this film, although it’s not a negative in the least. It’s a little jarring to hear her foreign accent among actors who are playing characters in a small American town, but it adds an unusual quality to Haunts; imagine your favorite European horror film relocated to a small rural American community, add some ultra 70s décor and attitudes, and you begin to get the picture. The bizarre qualities of the story are quite unexpected, especially the matter-of-fact references to unsavory subjects like rape, incest and the sexual abuse of minors. I also have to mention that somehow there was enough money in the budget here to commission a score by none other than Pino Donaggio, although this was very early in his career, so maybe his fee wasn’t quite so high.

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