Horror Double Feature: The Shuttered Room / It! Review
There is a fair amount of promise in a film called It!. After all, Jack Arnold’s It Came From Outer Space is a classic 50s SF movie and It: The Terror From Beyond Space, while little more than routine, proved more influential than might have been expected. I’d even put in a word for Tommy Lee Wallace’s fondly remembered adaptation of Stephen King’s It. Sadly, within five minutes of the beginning of Herbert J. Leder’s 1966 film of the same name, give or take an exclamation mark, it becomes swiftly apparent that any virtues will be both marginal and deeply, hopelessly camp.
The original poster for the film screams, “Bullets can’t kill it! Fire can’t burn it! Water can’t drown it! How can we destroy IT before IT destroys us?” That’s a pretty fair summary of a plot which mixes up the old Golem legend with a rip-off of Psycho - the latter point is presumably meant to be a twist but it’s totally obvious from the opening scenes. Mother-fixated and unlucky in love, Arthur Pimm, played by Roddy McDowall, works at a London museum and is keen for a promotion but can find no way to get one. When his boss dies in an apparent accident, Pimm thinks he will take his place but fate conspires against him and he is forced to find other ways to satisfy his ambition. His solution arrives in the shape of a huge stone statue from the 15th century – a Golem - which can be brought to life and forced to do its master’s bidding. But Arthur soon realises that it is easier to unleash a monster than to control it.
In look and feel, It! reminds the viewer of one of Hammer’s Mummy movies from the 1960s and, indeed, the Golem is fairly interchangeable with one of its Egyptian cousins. Apparently, Herbert Leder set out to make a film which was like a Hammer film and has succeeded to a certain extent – the use of Hammer regulars such as Philip Martell and Scott McGregor, the English locations and the anaemic American actor as supporting love interest are all very familiar. But he completely misses the Gothic chill which infuses the best Hammer movies and which even a misfire like The Curse Of The Mummy’s Tomb occasionally captures. There’s also a second-string supporting cast in which the likes of Ernest Clark and a rampantly overacting Aubrey Richards have to deputise for Hammer regulars such as Andre Morell and Michael Ripper.
That the film remains watchable is down to three saving graces. Firstly, the very engaging make-up job sported by Alan Sellers as the Golem which. Secondly, the attractive cinematography by Davis Boulton – perhaps best remembered for The Haunting. Finally, the entertaining central performances from McDowall and Jill Haworth as the dolly-bird who is loved from afar by Pimm. Roddy McDowall was never what you might describe as a subtle actor but he’s highly enjoyable to watch, especially when his customary case of the jitters turn into full-blown hysteria.
The Shuttered Room 6/10
Some authors are virtually impossible to adapt to the screen, or at least adapt faithfully. Vladimir Nabokov is one notable example, despite brave attempts by Stanley Kubrick and Jerzy Skolimowski, and William Burroughs is another. But one of the most notable genre writers whose work has stubbornly refused to translate into film is H. P. Lovecraft, the brilliant American horror writer whose inventions of the Cthulhu Mythos and the Necronomicon have proved widely influential in the field. The main problem with adapting his work is that Lovecraft’s writing largely depends on highly florid atmospheric writing which frequently culminates in an awe-inspiring reveal of unimaginable horror. However well the former is achieved – and films such as The Dunwich Horror have done it with considerable success – the latter is always disappointing because the imaginative scale of the ‘monster’ is usually way beyond anything which can be adequately put on screen without looking silly.
The Shuttered Room is based on a piece that HPL co-authored with August Derleth, one which is a good example of the authors’ ability to create a potent sense of creeping dread. It’s not a Cthulhu Mythos story but it places at its centre the theme of inherited guilt which so fascinated Lovecraft. The story concerns the return of a young woman, Susannah Whately Kelton (Lynley) to her family home in New England. As a child, she was attacked in her bed by something which claimed the lives of her parents and led to her being sent away to school by her Aunt Agatha (Robson). Upon returning with her husband Mike (Young), Susannah senses a strange and unwelcoming atmosphere, intimately connected to the activities of her cousin Ethan (Reed) and his gang of layabouts. Not forgetting of course, the problem of what exactly is lurking in the attic.
David Greene was a director who did vast amounts of work for television, some of it good (Friendly Fire), some of it appalling (Princess In Love). But this was his feature film debut and it’s a good one in terms of pace and style. Although the English countryside is meant to be America, Greene and his cinematographer Ken Hodges manage to create some of the sense of sunlit terror which John Coquillon brought to similar rural locations in Witchfinder General and Straw Dogs. Although the film never quite manages to be frightening, it is occasionally unnerving thanks to the use of Oliver Reed at his most unpredictably obnoxious in the role of Susannah’s would-be rapist cousin. There is sufficient emotional involvement in the central situation created by the performances of Carol Lynley and the excellent Flora Robson to keep our interest for much of the running time. Particularly enjoyable is the presence of the great Gig Young who manages to be breathtakingly cool even when he’s given very little to do.
There are, however, two major problems with The Shuttered Room which no amount of stylish direction can disguise. The first is the setting which is all too patently rural England trying to seem American, complete with British character actors doing accents with varying degrees of incompetence. Flora Robson and Oliver Reed come off best but it’s not much for them to be proud of. Secondly, and perhaps more seriously, the final disclosure of what lies in wait in the eponymous room are disappointing to say the least. It would have been well nigh impossible for the special effects in a film of 1966 to do justice to the awesome scale of a Lovecraftian nightmare, even one as diluted as this, and the revelation is so banal as to be unintentionally comic. That is, incidentally, also a problem in the original story but at least the reader’s imagination can fill in the blanks.
Warners released two horror double bills towards the end of 2008; this one and another which features The Brides of Fu Manchu and the irresistible Chamber Of Horrors, the latter resplendent with the Horror Horn and the Fear Flasher. The DVD under review consists of one dual-layer disc containing It! and The Shuttered Room, both of which are accessed from the main menu.
The picture quality of both films is pretty good, as tends to be the case with Warner releases of films from the mid-1960s onwards - most recent problem transfers from the company seem to be on titles dating from the 1950s. Colours, one of Warners' main stumbling blocks at present, are excellent throughout and there's plenty of detail to savour on both films. No serious artifacting problems are evident and the level of grain is suitably filmlike. The mono soundtracks are absolutely fine throughout. There are no extras at all unfortunately, not even trailers.
Overall, this double-bill is good value for money with the limitations of It! being mitigated by the qualities of The Shuttered Room.