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DVD Review: Haunted

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Although the dreadful Pearl Harbor put British actress Kate Beckinsale on everyone’s radar, before that she did the far superior Haunted. An impressive film featuring big stars, based on a James Herbert novel, and executive produced by (among others) Francis Ford Coppola.

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.

Flash 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 calling.

So renowned 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.

Upon arriving 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.

Complicating 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.

Further 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…

And yet, 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.

Yes, there 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 sense.

Much as in The Sixth Sense.

Haunted is an obscure film, especially compared to the wildly successful Sixth Sense. Yet it’s hard to believe that Haunted did not influence The Sixth Sense.

Odds are 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.

This is not to describe Beckinsale, but it’s the role she often plays. (She was nobler in Pearl Harbor, but also blander.)

But David 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.

Quinn 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.

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About Thomas M. Sipos