Friday, January 6, 2017
TERROR IN THE HAUNTED HOUSE (1958)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
TERROR IN THE HAUNTED HOUSE features no hauntings whatever-- neither real ghosts nor Uncle Ezra putting on an old sheet to scare away the house's new inhabitants. The only thing haunting the house are memories, the memories of viewpoint character Sheila.
Born and orphaned at a young age in America, Sheila is adopted and raised in Europe. The film opens by showing her on a typical psychiatrist's couch in Switzerland, former stomping-ground of Carl Jung. Shelia has dreamed of a house strange to her, but which seems eerily familiar as well, so that its appearance has become a source of terror to her, even though there's nothing overtly scary about the house of her dreams. She tells the doctor that she anticipates returning to America with her husband Philip Tierney, also an American, and she has no ambivalence toward him at all-- until he takes her to their first place of residence, and it's the very house of her dreams.
HOUSE is a talky but reasonably effective potboiler, given a certain charm by leads Gerald Mohr and Cathy O'Donnell, neither of whom are typical Hollywood "faces." Though the scripter has clearly read a little Freud and Jung, the memories that Shelia must recover don't evince any great psychological depth. They serve one purpose: to elucidate the mystery of her background and the question of where Philip-- and a few other strange people-- fit in a purely rational manner.
My system doesn't include any tropes that easily cover the "old dark house" subgenre-- partly because I tend to believe that the dark houses aren't spooky in and of themselves, but because they're (a) sites of bizarre crimes, (b) homes of perilous psychos, or (c) gimmicked up with "outre devices." There is a "bizarre crime" that was committed at this house long ago, and it's part of Sheila's journey for her to find out about it, but it doesn't become a major part of the diegesis,as it would in a William Castle film. Shelia isn't really insane, nor is she a "peril" to anyone, including herself. However, there's enough emphasis on her fragile mental state that she does seem more allied with "passive psychos" like those of SECRET CEREMONY and BLACK SWAN. In addition, the nature of her potential breakdown is so intimately tied to a "bizarre crime" that she doesn't seem anyone's textbook case of ordinary psychosis, such as one sees in the 1949 WHIRLPOOL.