Release Year: 1967
Country: Great Britain
Starring: Gig Young, Carol Lynley, Oliver Reed, Flora Robson, Judith Arly, Rick Jones, Ann Bell, William Devlin, Charles Lloyd Pack, Bernard Kay, Celia Hewitt, Robert Cawdron, Murray Evans, Cliff Diggins, Peter Porteous, Anita Anderson, Ingrid Bower
Screenplay: Nathaniel Tanchuck, D.B. Ledroy
Director: David Greene
Including The Shuttered Room in a Lovecraft-themed month of reviews is admittedly a bit of a stretch. To the extent that its source story is considered by anyone to be part of the Lovecraft canon, it is thought of as being only very peripherally so, with many of the author’s followers disdaining to give it even that distinction. The story originally appeared in the 1959 collection The Shuttered Room & Other Pieces, which was compiled by author August Derleth and published under his own Arkham House imprint. Derleth, a longtime friend and supporter of Lovecraft’s during his lifetime, is a bit of a controversial figure among Lovecraft devotees. While his championing of Lovecraft’s work is inarguably responsible in part for the author being as well known as he is today, some of the liberties that Derleth subsequently took with that work is seen by many as being of a considerably less laudable nature.
The Shuttered Room & Other Pieces was an odd hodgepodge, consisting in part of an assortment of Lovecraft’s unpublished odds and ends, including notes and sketches of ideas for stories that he never got around to writing. Beyond that, it anthologized a few of the author’s short stories that had previously seen publication in magazines, and filled out the rest of its three-hundred-some pages with Lovecraft-centric essays and memoirs written by other authors, as well as with a couple of tales completed by Derleth himself. These last were claimed by Derleth to be based on Lovecraft’s own notes, and were characterized by him as “posthumous collaborations”, which he dutifully credited to “H.P. Lovecraft and August Derleth”.
That many were skeptical of the degree to which these stories –- one of which was The Shuttered Room –- could actually be considered Lovecraft’s work is understandable. Not only had Lovecraft been dead for over twenty years at the time of their writing, but those examples of his notes included in the same volume clearly demonstrate that many of his story ideas consisted of little more than single sentences that had a lot more to do with suggestions of tone than any kind of specific plot details. As a result, these particular efforts on Derleth’s part came to be seen by many as nothing more than a distasteful bit of coattail-riding.
Now I have to confess to not having actually read The Shuttered Room, but if the 1967 movie adaptation of the story is any indication (which, admittedly, it very well may not be), it’s thematic relationship to Lovecraft’s work is –- on a superficial level, at least –- pretty explicit. Or, at least, I should say, it’s relationship to one specific piece of Lovecraft’s work, because the movie seems to rely pretty heavily upon The Dunwich Horror for many of it key elements. The setting is an island off the New England coast (which is actually parts of Norfolk, in the old England, standing in for New England) called Dunwich, which, to the scant extent that it is inhabited at all, is populated mostly by descendents of the Whateley family, that clan who figured so prominently in the action of the original Dunwich. There is talk of a “Whateley Curse” and, most importantly, some kind of unspeakable horror locked away in an attic room in an old house belonging to the family.
Like Daniel Haller with his later screen adaptation of Dunwich, the makers of The Shuttered Room attempt to introduce a bit of very un-Lovecraftian sexual heat into the mix, using the arrival on the island of the young Susannah Whateley (Carol Lynley), a former native returning for the first time since childhood, as a kind of erotic accelerant. Susannah’s youthful pulchritude can’t help but stand out against the island’s dreary and oppressive backdrop, and as a result it is not long before a fire has been set in the collective loins of a gang of randy local hooligans. The toughs are undeterred by the fact that Susannah’s new husband is along for the trip, due to the fact that her husband is played by aging Hollywood star Gig Young and, being a good thirty years her senior, doesn’t strike them as a particular threat. Age issue aside, this combination of story elements has the interesting effect of making The Shuttered Room seem like a hybrid of two films that hadn’t even been made yet at the time of its production: In other words, not just Haller’s take on Dunwich, but also Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs.
The odd and somewhat unsavory pairing of Carol Lynley with a Hollywood old guard figure like Gig Young is fairly emblematic of the kind of ambivalence the established studios felt about catering to the burgeoning youth market at the dawn of the flower power age. The presence of Lynley, lank-haired and lissome, the edgy, abstract jazz score by Basil Kirchin, and the occasional sun-dazed look of Ken Hodges’ cinematography all seem like gestures toward hipness, but the presence of Young in the cast is so clearly a sop to older viewers that one has to wonder if the film didn’t end up shooting itself in both feet as far as its potential audience was concerned. This is especially at issue in those scenes where the fifty-something Young is shown to teach his younger antagonists a lesson by way of some pretty wanly applied karate moves. (Think of the fight choreography in a typical Avengers episode, but without Diana Rigg in a catsuit to distract you from how ridiculous it looks.) That said, however, the movie should at least be credited for defusing the age difference between its stars’ potential for distraction by acknowledging it within the story and actually making it something of a plot element.
As for the rest of the cast, this being a British production, they are mostly familiar faces from British genre cinema of the era, all of whom are doing their professional best to stand in for the inhabitants of a small New England village. Chief among them, of course, is Oliver Reed, who steals the show despite struggling with an especially odd attempt at one of those indeterminate regional American movie accents. I don’t know if it’s just the way that cinematographers of the day liked to shoot him, or the man himself, but Reed’s face always strikes me as being literally enormous, looming gigantically over the camera like some big, sweaty Macy’s parade balloon. And that plays to his advantage here. Any close-up on him has the same disconcerting effect as a stranger pressing himself too far into your comfort zone, which suits his portrayal of alpha hooligan Ethan, a man who comes across as a roiling mixture of inarticulate man-boy rage and bestial sexual menace.
The presence of both Reed and Young, two of the acting world’s most notorious alcoholics, in its cast makes me wonder if the true horror of The Shuttered Room lies not in the film itself, but in the sloppy shenanigans that undoubtedly took place behind the scenes. In a way, the combined examples of Reed and Young serve as a kind of lesson in how to be a drunk in the movie star world. While Reed’s drinking lead, as Young’s did, to a fair share of botched opportunities, there always seems to be an element of awe to even the most condemning accounts of Reed’s exploits, whereas Young’s story seems to simply fall within the realm of the tragic and sordid. Of course, the real lesson is probably that, if you are going to be an alcoholic movie star, it would be best to avoid ending your days in a horrific murder/suicide, as Young did, and instead follow the example of Reed, who merely croaked of a heart attack in the middle of a blockbuster-scale bender during the filming of Gladiator.
Anyway, the first encounter of Susannah and her husband Mike with Ethan and his gang occurs shortly after the couple’s arrival on Dunwich. Susannah’s return to the island is a reluctant one, as she is still traumatized by hazy memories of an attack that occurred upon her there when she was still a little girl –- an attack that, as we are shown in the film’s prologue, was perpetrated by whatever the mysterious thing locked in the Whateley’s attic room is. The circumstance that has finally occasioned her visit is that, in accordance with her parents’ will — and with the passing of her 21st birthday — she has become the proud owner of the family’s foreboding and dilapidated old mill house, complete with that mysteriously locked door at the top of the stairs ornamented with a nasty-looking, nail-encircled peephole. As attractive as that sounds, though, you still get the clear sense that it’s Mike who has goaded her into making the trip, as he doesn’t seem to take her fears all that seriously. In fact, Mike seems to be something of a smug old tool, responding to her every expression of anxiety with some glib therapeutic bromide or other generally patronizing rejoinder.
No doubt sensitive to the fact that, coming from New York city as they do, they might be seen as big city interlopers by Dunwich’s inhabitants, Susannah and Mike decide to ease their way into backwoods society by throttling Mike’s brand new Thunderbird convertible along the island’s narrow country roads. In the process of doing this, they are almost run off the road by local yahoo Ethan and his rowdy crew, who are tearing along the road in a beat up pickup truck, towing one of their number behind them on a makeshift land ski fashioned from a wooden plank.
And it is with the introduction of Ethan and company that The Shuttered Room provides us with an element that, in my experience, is sorely lacking in Lovecraft’s fiction, though I had not realized it until that very moment. You see, in the portraits of those blighted townscapes in which so many of his stories play out, Lovecraft provides ample description of those adult inhabitants whose lives of constant fear have sapped them of their vitality, but neglects to also address those surly and restless young people, driven to ever stupider acts of pointless thrill-seeking, that such a stifling environment would also certainly produce. Sure, Dunwich may not have had a 7-11, but if it had, you could bet that its parking lot would have been full of disaffected teens huffing air duster and plotting to deface the nearest foreboding, gambrel-roofed structure with graffiti. Ethan and his band of feral yokels are just such people — though admittedly, rather than disaffected teens, they all look to be somewhere in there thirties. That could conceivably just be the result of hard living, though.
Though Ethan is quick to take a shine to Susannah, his feelings toward her soon grow to be a bit more complex, as it is revealed that he also expected to inherit the Whateley’s mill. This is, at least, what his witchy Aunt Agatha (Flora Robson) has been telling him for all of these years, and since no one expected Susannah to come back in the first place, there was little expectation that it would be otherwise. Until now, or course. Thus begins Ethan’s perpetual stalking and menacing-from-a-distance of Susannah, threaded throughout Susannah’s seemingly endless wanderings about the island and throughout the interior of the old mill, and punctuated by the locals’ frequent warnings of the dire but unspecified consequences that Susannah and Mike’s refusal to leave the island immediately will bring down upon them. Scattered amongst this are frequent anonymous POV shots that suggest that Susannah is being watched by someone or something other than Ethan. But what? Is it Cthulhu? Or is the beast in the attic just some ham-handed Freudian metaphor for all of the repressed sexual energy that Susannah’s presence on the island has unleashed?
And that is pretty much all that happens during the first hour of The Shuttered Room, which isn’t a whole lot. Though it’s not nearly as bad as it sounds. In fact, given the largely television-bound credentials of its main creatives (both director David Greene and screenwriter Nat Tanchuck have an exhaustive array of small screen credits, with Greene responsible for such TV movie chestnuts as Lucan and Vacation in Hell) I had come to the film expecting the kind of stolid but unadventurous display of bland competence that such personnel usually churn out, but was instead pleasantly surprised. While by no means visionary, the film is suffused with a considerable amount of style, and is marked by an admirable willingness on the part of its makers to take the time necessary to establishing a sustained mood of creeping unease. Those expecting a monster movie dotted with neatly timed kill sequences will no doubt be disappointed –- in fact, nothing even approaching that happens until the final quarter of the movie –- but if you’re content to groove along to a sure-handedly constructed exercise in unsettling ambiance, and don’t’ require that you actually be scared at any point in the process, there’s definitely enjoyment to be had.
In fact, I liked The Shuttered Room enough that I don’t want to spoil its ending for you. Though I will tell you that it is a bit shocking, and not for the reasons that you might expect. The reveal of its central mystery ends up being, at least relative to Lovecraft’s work proper, so prosaic, so downright un-Lovecraftian, that it almost comes across as an outright rejection of the author’s whole sensibility. As a result, the films is ultimately a bit of a letdown as a piece of Lovecraftian cinema. Though, depending on your perspective, being a disappointment to Lovecraft’s fans could also be seen as an actual defining characteristic of most Lovecraftian cinema.
In any case, I enjoyed the film. The competence and solid professionalism of all involved was like a breath of cool Winter air after the obnoxious wankery of Beyond the Wall of Sleep, and it was great fun to watch Oliver Reed leer and sweat all over everybody. In addition, the young Carol Lynley was quite lovely, and Kirchin’s bopping score struck me as a surprisingly adventurous alternative to the typical gothic meanderings you might expect. And Gig Young… well, Gig Young was alright, too, as long as you don’t feel like you need to like his character. All in all, this is probably not one to break out on Halloween night, but perhaps a nice low-investment watch while you’re coming down from the party the day after.