Tuesday, 31 January 2023

The Shuttered Room (1967)

The Shuttered Room is a 1967 horror movie set in America but shot in England. It’s one of those 1960s British films made partly with American money. Fittingly it has a mixed English and American cast.

The Shuttered Room belongs to that interesting horror movie sub-genre, the Lovecraftian horror film. There are surprisingly few movies in this sub-genre and there are very few indeed that can be considered entirely successful. Lovecraftian horror is not easy to translate to film. It should be noted that The Shuttered Room, the short story on which the movie was based, was actually written by August Derleth although apparently based on some fragmentary story ideas of Lovecraft’s. Derleth was more than anyone else responsible for ensuring that Lovecraft’s literary legacy would be an enduring one. Derleth was a fine writer of weird fiction in his own right.

The inhabitants of the isolated island village where the action takes place are clearly seriously inbred and if they ever were civilised they have reverted to superstitious savagery. Whether they’re dangerous because they’re evil or because they’re extremely stupid is not clear. This movie therefore has a very Lovecraftian atmosphere of superstitious malevolence and degeneracy but thematically it’s not truly Lovecraftian. This seems to upset some viewers who see this as a weakness but you have to keep in mind that it’s not based on an actual Lovecraft story but on an August Derleth story. This is Derlethian horror rather than Lovecraftian horror. If you accept that then you’ll enjoy the film more.

Wealthy New York magazine editor Mike Kelton (Gig Young) has brought his young bride Susannah (Carol Lynley) back to her hometown, a tiny village on a tiny island totally isolated from mainstream society. Dunwich Island isn’t just decades behind the rest of the country, in some ways it’s centuries behind. The locals take things like curses and witches for granted.

Susannah was born Susannah Whately and she has inherited a decaying old mill belonging to her family. The Whately family has lived on Dunwich Island for as far back as anyone can remember. Everybody on the island is either a member of the Whately family or related to them in some way. This is the kind of community in which first cousins have married each other rather too often.

From the start it’s clear to Mike and Susannah that the locals are pretty weird and that here’s a vaguely menacing atmosphere. And they have been warned by Susannah’s weird dotty Aunt Agatha (Flora Robson) not to stay in the mill house for even one night, because of the Whately Curse. But Mike and Susannah aren’t worried. They’re sophisticated New Yorkers. They think the locals are colourful and amusing rather than dangerous. They think that the talk of curses just makes the mill house seem more interesting and romantic.

There are two main plot strands. One involves the origin of the curse and the danger this may pose to Susannah. It’s clear that there is something dangerous in the old house but whether it’s a supernatural evil or some kind of monster or a purely human evil is an open question.

The second plot strand centres on sex. Ethan (Oliver Reed) is a wild rather crazed young man and he’s the leader of the young men of the island who are essentially a roaming band of thugs. It’s obvious that Ethan is sexually obsessed by Susannah and intends to have her. It’s also obvious that his gang of thugs expect that after he’s finished wth her they’ll get their turn. It’s a setup that definitely anticipates Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs.

The two plot strands do intersect towards the end and the climax of the movie is exceptionally well managed.

The cast is interesting. Oliver Reed made plenty of horror movies and thrillers in the early to mid 60s so it’s no surprise to see him listed as one of the three stars. It’s also no surprise that he is perfectly cast. The presence of Gig Young and Carol Lynley is slightly more surprising. Both Young and Lynley had moderately successful careers that never quite launched them into stardom but both are actually rather underrated. Lynley is good here. There’s nothing terribly wrong with Gig Young’s performance except that Mike has to do a fair bit of action hero stuff and Young is just too old to do that convincingly.

Director David Greene spent most of his career in television but while he made few feature films those that he did make tended to be incredibly interesting, movies such as his quirky spy thriller Sebastian (1968) and the absolutely superb fairy tale-like I Start Counting (1969). Greene does a great job on The Shuttered Room. He keeps things visually interesting and when he uses an unusual camera angle he does so very for good reasons and it never seems gimmicky. David Greene really should have had a glittering career in film.

As long as you’re not expecting pure Lovecraftian horror The Shuttered Room is thoroughly enjoyable, stylish and creepy.

It was released on DVD in the Warner Archive series paired with another overlooked 1967 horror film, It!

The Shuttered Room is highly recommended.

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