Gather round for a ghost story that will make you tingle and doubt your sense of sanity and leave you happy as the credits roll at the end of this psychological little gem. Haunted is a simple, yet complex film that manages to grasp the crux of a situation and embroiders it from a single thread into a maze of shadows and half truths that can and do terrorize.
David Ash (Aidan Quinn), a professor of the paranormal at Oxford, has made it his life's work to debunk anything to do with the supernatural world. He takes great delight in exposing frauds, until he receives a series of letters from an elderly woman, claiming she is being haunted by ghosts and needing his assistance. Ash travels to Edbrook House, a gothic wedding cake confection situated in the English countryside. He meets the author of the correspondence, Nanny Tess Webb (Anna Massey), but not before making the acquaintance of a very strange trio of siblings who also inhabit the manor house -- the Mariells, Christina (Kate Beckinsale), Robert (Anthony Andrews) and Simon (Alex Lowe). Christina is the epitome of the 20's era flapper or 'It' girl, blase in her attitudes and living for the moment. Robert, the eldest, is the resident artist, reserved and aristocratic, while Simon is the practical joker. Into this seemingly innocent equation, the action slowly melds into a quagmire of herculean proportions.
The question that Ash must answer is whether or not Nanny Webb truly does see her ghosts or is she simply stressed, overworked or losing her own mind. Skeptic that Ash is, he assumes it is the latter three solutions. What he fails to realize is that the house and all who dwell within it are frozen in time, and that his own grasp on reality will be called upon to joust with ghosts from his own past.
The Mariell siblings are portrayed as eccentric aristocrats, heedless of any real function in the world except to have fun and 'exist' for the moment as they see it. One key element that was puzzling was the fact that an incestuous theme runs rampant throughout the course of the film and yet when Ash is confronted with blatant evidence of the fact at the beginning of the film, he does nothing to question it, and the viewer is left wondering just why.
Into this eerie Utopia, Ash has brought his own ghosts, although he would be loathe to admit it. His twin sister died years before in a drowning accident that he blames himself for. When the stories that Nanny Webb tells, along with Christina's, are combined with those of Ash, we have a lethal cocktail being brewed for consumption.
Aidan Quinn presents the perfect foible and sounding board for all things that go bump in the night. His on screen chemistry with Kate Beckinsale is perfect, although the relationship they portray is somewhat overworked and exhausted before the end of the film. Anthony Andrews is simply being Anthony Andrews -- the consummate British aristocrat in most all film work that he does. There is that touch of evil and diabolical doings in his performance that causes concern, telegraphing to the viewer that something is rotten in the state of Denmark. Just what it could be is the $64,000 question.
Anna Massey as Nanny Webb, is not called upon to do anymore than her character suggests. Distressed, hearing voices, looking frail and put upon about sum up the matter. There is a strange cameo by Sir John Gielgud as Dr. Doyle, the elderly, village physician, and his performance lasts no longer than it takes to sneeze. Why he agreed to appear in this production remains a mystery, as any number of British character actors could have filled the bill quite adequately.
Haunted is based on the novel by James Herbert, who parlays a career from gothic horrors. Lewis Gilbert, the director, has fashioned a tidy horror pleasure, that predates The Others by several years, and has garnered performances from his cast that draw the audience into the maelstrom before allowing them to breathe the air again. An interesting sidenote is that the executive producer of this film is Francis Ford Coppola. His early career betrays a fascination with the element of horror.
The cinematography by Tony Pierce-Roberts is superb, and he captures elements of the English countryside and the plays of light and dark as they echo paths between night and day and that grey area that inhabits another dimension.
Haunted is a little film that parlays our love of horror and toys with us as a cat does a mouse before tiring of the game and ending all the confusion with a swift slap of the paw. Just when one assumes that they have all the questions answered neatly, another scenario presents and plants itself firmly, sweeping our convictions aside. The ending moments in this production border on the maudlin, but just when we take that deserved sigh of relief, we are cast again onto the rollercoaster for another harrowing ride on the wild side. The twist ending has been done before, but it does provide for goosebumps relating to the possibilities that will happen for the seemingly relaxed Ash in the future.
A good time is to be had by one and all. Haunted is a concerted film that did the job. It came, saw and conquered.