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[Contains spoilers]

This is one of those movies that should be a ghost story -- all the way through -- but isn't. It starts out pretending to be a ghost story and doing quite a good job of it. The spookiness rings true. But in the end director Anderson veers into Scooby Doo territory and the ghostliness is rationalised, not in terms of smugglers or land developers this time, but via some typically contrived plot twists that come straight from the sort of psychological thrillers that Hammer and Amicus indulged in post-Psycho.

Dominique Ballard (Jean Simmons) is the increasingly neurotic wife of David Ballard, a wealthy businessman, who may very well be encouraging his wife's neuroses in order to get rid of her. Finally, however, in a fit of desperation, Dominique hangs herself. After a token funeral, Ballard -- patently relieved to be rid of the burden -- tries to carry on, only to find that Dominique keeps returning to the house: as a ghostly backlit figure moving purposefully down the corridor towards him, as a piano that insists on playing the only song Dominique played when alive, as a whispered voice in the night, as a ghastly hanging corpse that appears and disappears at random ...

We (and Ballard) begin to suspect that Dominique isn't as dead as she'd seemed to be at the funeral when he digs up her grave and finds the coffin empty. But just as this particular rationalisation, with its logical revenge motif, seems set to become the accepted resolution, the authorities dig her up to make sure and in a surprise turn actually find the decaying corpse in the coffin. Anyway, from there the plot takes another twist or two ... all of them still within the framework of a rationalist universe, however. The twists are quite good, actually, but by then it all seems a bit contrived and the only end that would really have satisfied me would have been the discovery that Dominique really was a ghost after all.

This sort of thing -- where the film-makers try to convince the viewer that this is a ghost story, and then turn it around by revealing that it isn't -- is a bit risky, unless you're very careful and/or clever. One tends to feel cheated. And there is a cheat factor involved. Sure, it's easy enough to explain the mysteriously self-moving bracelet through the use of wires, or the piano-playing via remote-control, but a point arrives when the logistical problem of coordinating it all becomes, shall we say, much less believable than a ghost itself would be. No one bothers to explain just how the person pretending to be hanging in the conservatorium manages to get out of all the harnesses and hide themselves and the physical evidence in the few minutes it takes the victim to duck from the room to fetch a collaborative witness.

As 'clever' as the twisty revelations are, I find it a bit disappointing that what had nudged me effectively into a supernatural frame-of-reference turned out to have been special effects all along! Faked! Damn it! How dare they! The eerie moodiness, the manifestations of spectral guilt, the occasional genuine frisson were better than many of those occurring in movies that intend to remain supernatural throughout. This could have been a good ghost story. Instead it was a failed psychological thriller. And that's just not fair. After all, if I go to the trouble of suspending my disbelief, I want something worth suspending it for!

Incidentally, the veteran cast wasn't too bad at all, including Jenny Agutter who plays a crucial, if fairly thankless (in a thespian sense) role in the proceedings. They manage to convey some conviction -- though more so in regards to the ghost stuff than the rationalised criminal resolution.

Note: I watched this film on a cheap DVD set that includes four old horror films under the title "Four Nights of Terror". The image was at 4:3 ratio, though I don't know whether or not it was pan-and-scanned. The picture quality was awful, the print being faded, scratched and lacking definition -- probably an ancient theatrical print that's been used as a hood ornament for the last 25 years. Yet the film worked to the extent that I cared that it wasn't the ghost story I'd been hoping for.





Country: UK

Language: English


Ratio: 4:3 (?)

Production date: 1978

Director: Michael Anderson

Harold Lawlor (story)
Edward Abraham and Andrew Abraham

Cliff Robertson
Jean Simmons
Jenny Agutter
Simon Ward
Ron Moody
Judy Geeson
Michael Jayston
Flora Robson
David Tomlinson
Jack Warner
Leslie Dwyer
Erin Geraghty
Brian Hayes
Ian Holden
Jack McKenzie
Michael Nightingale

Producer: Andrew Donally
Producer: Milton Subotsky

Production Company:
Grand Prize Productions
Sword & Sorcery
Viacom Productions Inc.

Original Music: David Whitaker

Cinematography: Ted Moore

Rating: 5/10

Cliff Robertson as David Ballard,
looking stonily perplexed

copyright©Robert Hood 2004

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