(1995, dir: Lewis Gilbert, cast: Aidan Quinn, Kate Beckinsale, Anthony
Andrews, John Gielgud, Anna Massey, Alex Lowe, Geraldine Somerville, Victoria
Now that Pearl
Harbor has put British actress Kate Beckinsale on everyone's radar,
it's appropriate that we review her work in horror -- Haunted. Although little- known, this film features big stars, is based on a James
Herbert novel, and is executive produced by (among others) Francis Ford
Haunted opens in 1905, in the picturesque English countryside, when a young David
Ash (Peter England) inadvertently kills his sister, Juliet (Victoria Shalet). During a moment of horseplay, she strikes her head and falls into a stream. David jumps in to rescue her, but fails. Juliet drowns.
forward to 1928, and the adult David (Aidan Quinn) is now an Oxford professor
and professional skeptic. He not only discounts ghostly sightings
in his well-received book, he spends off-campus hours exposing charlatan
spiritualists. Although he's still haunted by guilt and grief, he's
accepted his sister's death; now he wants to help others rid their emotional
crutches of belief in an afterlife. It's more than a job; it's his
an author is David, he is deluged by fan mail, including from the elderly
but wealthy "Nanny Tess" Webb (Anna Massey), who asks David to exorcise
her country manor of ghosts. Dismissive at first, David is convinced
to try and help the old woman by his kindly secretary. Not to rid
the manor of ghosts, but to prove to Nanny Tess that there are none, and
to convince her to seek therapy.
in the country, David is met by Nanny Tess's niece, Christina (Kate Beckinsale). David soon meets Christina's brothers (Anthony Andrews and Alex Lowe),
and the hauntings begin.
matters, whatever spirits are tormenting Nanny Tess are now joined by a
rival ghost, that of David's long-dead sister, Juliet, whom only David
can see. Just as, at times, only Nanny Tess can see her ghosts.
complicating matters is a burgeoning love between David and Christina. Complicated, because it inflames the jealousies of Christina's older brother,
who paints nude portraits of Christina. The other brother prefers
to spy on Christina, when he's not skinny-dipping with her. And Christina,
well, she's not as innocent as David may like to believe. (If you're
hankering for nude scenes of Beckinsale, this film delivers.) Those
English aristocrats do have their dark wild side, and it is the Roaring
Twenties, and David can be such a square...
despite its risqué content, Haunted has the ambiance of an old-fashioned English ghost story. Languid
pace, period piece decor, classy English accents, rich musical soundtrack,
sumptuous cinematography of the English countryside. If Merchant
Ivory were to do a horror film, it would look like Haunted.
is enough ghostly terror to please horror fans. But there are also
lyrical interludes of horseback riding along the white cliffs of Dover
in glorious telephoto, lovers galloping through autumnal colored woods,
then tumbling in the hay in some absent yeoman farmer's barn. And
capping an afternoon so visually resplendent it could be used for a high-fashion
photo shoot, along comes a rustic fortune teller. Her red weather-beaten
face and peasant teeth evoke so much local charm, we expect the romantic
interlude to end with a prediction of marriage for our young lovers. But instead, the fortune teller's ominous palm reading (reminiscent of
the one in Jacob's
Ladder) returns the story to unsettling terror.
Haunted has many unexpected twists, especially as events cascade in the final reel,
culminating in a surprise revelation that packs a powerful punch. David's final discovery is an unexpected shock, yet it all suddenly makes
most Americans didn't know of Kate Beckinsale until she appeared in Pearl
Harbor. In previous films, I found Beckinsale's onscreen persona
to be both compelling and annoying (e.g., Cold
Comfort Farm, The
Last Days of Disco). In Haunted,
Beckinsale is ... compelling and annoying. Compelling, because she
is attractive, occasionally even sympathetic. Annoying, because her
characters are often persnickety, and always conceited, scheming, and manipulative.
not to describe Beckinsale, but it's the role she often plays. (She
was nobler in Pearl
Harbor, but also blander.)
Ash is the main character in Haunted,
and Aidan Quinn effectively predominates the film. His David is sympathetic,
courageous, sensitive, multi-textured, buffeted by events as he struggles
to understand and aid and comfort, fighting for new love while still grappling
with guilt and grief over his past.
and Beckinsale both perform splendidly, but so too the entire cast. One expects slick craftsmanship from a Merchant Ivory film, and Haunted delivers that (although not a Merchant Ivory film). But Haunted also succeeds as an entertaining and atmospheric English ghost story, full
of mystery and terror and suspense, and a powerful surprise ending.
Review copyright by Thomas
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