Director – Lewis Gilbert, Screenplay – Lewis Gilbert, Robert David Kellett & Tim Prager, Based on the Novel by James Herbert, Producers – Lewis Gilbert & Anthony Andrews, Photography – Tony Pierce-Roberts, Music – Debbie Wiseman, Special Effects Supervisor – Peter Hutchinson, Production Design – Brian Ackland-Snow & John Fenner. Production Company – Lumiere Pictures/Double ‘A’ Pictures/American Zoetrope.
Aidan Quinn (Professor David Ash), Kate Beckinsale (Christina Meriell), Anthony Andrews (Robert Meriell), Anna Massey (Nanny Tess Webb), Alex Lowe (Simon Meriell), John Gielgud (Dr Henry Doyle), Victoria Sharel (Juliet Ash)
1928. David Ash, a professor at Camberly University and a fierce debunker of spiritualists and mediums, accepts an offer from brothers Robert and Simon Meriell and their sister Christina who want him to come to their Sussex country estate to prove to their elderly nanny that the ghosts she insists she can see do not exist. As David investigates, he is not so sure that what the children reject as the phantasms of a wandering mind are as easily dismissed.
James Herbert has been a popular British horror writer since his emergence in the 1970s with the book The Rats (1974). The films made of James Herbert’s books – The Survivor (1981) and Deadly Eyes (1982), which was adapted from The Rats – have mostly been singularly dull affairs. The problem is blindingly obvious to anyone familiar with Herbert’s work. The selling point of Herbert’s work is an unfilmable parade of extreme sadism and once you take away what censorship would cut, all that you are left with are dull and ordinary plots. The great irony is that the Herbert adaptations that have worked the best – Haunted and Fluke (1995) – are the least characteristically Herbert-like, as well as the subsequent ghost story tv mini-series The Secret of Crickley Hall (2012) and the film The Unholy (2021).
This adaptation of Herbert’s Haunted (1988) belongs to a genre that has almost entirely out of date these days – the British ghost story. It is certainly a well mounted production with a decent budget and there are good performances, especially from a then unknown Kate Beckinsale who is a delight whenever she is on screen. Despite this, the film has a predictability and sedateness.
Haunted was directed by Lewis Gilbert, previously best known for James Bond films such as You Only Live Twice (1967), The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and Moonraker (1979). Gilbert seems more interested in the burgeoning romance between Aidan Quinn and Kate Beckinsale than he does in developing the ghost story. The scares that do appear – a gas lamp explosion, a fire that later appears not to have happened, salt that blows into the shape of a person – barely hold one’s interest. The casualness of the pace is infuriating.
One can almost entirely prepared to dismiss Haunted but at the very last moment, the film is transformed by a genuine left field surprise ending – one of the sort that were popularised by The Sixth Sense (1999) a few years later and copied by subsequent ghost stories to the point of cliches – and this almost entirely makes the rest of it worthwhile.
It is of some surprise that Haunted managed to obtain a theatrical release at all. (Moreover, it was co-produced by Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope production company). It is a film that belongs far more on video or television. (Indeed, the idea for the book was originally planned by Herbert as a tv movie for the BBC). It feels more like an episode of an anthology series spun out to feature length – it would have a greater cosiness and a greater succinctness if it had been conducted as a tv episode on the small screen. Unfortunately, as a theatrical film, it is so slow and old-fashioned that it is no surprise that it did no business at all.