❉ The Red Door is opened one more time…
A question to ponder. How many times should you watch a film in order to decide if you like it or not? This is something which has bubbled up recently with a film I first saw in 1981.
I was eight years old and completely obsessed with horror films. Mainly old ones. My constant companion at that time was Alan Frank’s Horror Film Handbook and to me it was the King James Bible of horror film reference. I still have it now, minus a dust jacket, and filled with ticks and notes ➡️
A measure of my obsession can be distilled into a moment in 1979 when I saw the trailer for Phantasm. That was when everything became clear and I begged my parents to take me to see it. Obviously my parents weren’t going to take me as I was a little over six years old so I filled my drawing books with sketches of flying balls drilling themselves into the heads of men. Such a delightful young boy I was.
So when BBC2 started showing horror double bills my parents allowed me to stay up late to watch them. Thanks to Headpress I have the complete listings at the time and I can also see that Night of the Demon in 1980 may well have been the first true Horror film I ever saw. Anyway we move on a year to the next season which began with one of my favourite films of all time in I Walked With A Zombie. I can remember the Radio Times having a lovely double page feature with a shadowy outline of a zombie in the background.
Later in the series (8 August!) I stayed up to watch another Val Lewton favourite in The Leopard Man. At this point I was only favouring the older films and leaving my older brother to stay up a bit later to watch the second film, which was almost always a little more modern and often more scary. This night it was The Shuttered Room.
I was very aware of Oliver Reed so I was going to stay up for this one but it didn’t work out that way in the end. The pre-credits sequence of a point of view camera creeping through an old house was enough to leave a young lad a little too unnerved so once the creature had been put behind its red door I felt it was the time to go to bed.
So viewing #1 was short and left me scared. I guess that must mean it worked as a horror film!
For years though it has been nudging me. Although it was based on a Lovecraft story I never really grasped the importance of this writer until Jonathan Ross’s Incredibly Strange Film Show filmed on the set of Re-Animator. This led me onto reading everything he’d ever written, including his duet with August Derleth, The Shuttered Room.
Much later on in the early 2000s Channel 5 showed it. I encouraged some work friends to watch it too and they all agreed it was very disappointing and not scary at all. I had to agree – I was disappointed also.
It was also only relatively recently I found out it was shot all on location mainly in Kent and the mill was a genuine mill they burnt down for the finale. This again stoked my interest a little more.
To cap it off I had a Twitter discussion with friend and fellow We Are Cult contributor Jon Dear. He liked it and so I decided to take a third look. Off some funds went off and a few days later the region one disc arrived in my postbox. It isn’t available in region 2 sadly but you might be able to stream it somewhere.
The original story and the film don’t share a lot of similarities to the point where the film is a “suggested by” rather than a “based on”.
However the general theme of the plot remains true. Carol Lynley plays Suzanne who along with her husband Mike visit Dunwich to see if the family (dark satanic) mill she has inherited is a suitable holiday home. Gig Young plays Mike, the metropolitan cosmopolitan magazine editor who remains the voice of reason and sensibility throughout. We are introduced quite early to a gang of local thugs led by Ethan (Oliver Reed) who seem to be happy indulging in dangerous stunts and some light gang rape.
Aunt Agatha played by Flora Robson is the “wise old woman” who lives in an old lighthouse and seems happy feeding the locals with tales of superstitious notions and powerful potions. She continues to warn them off the mill and eventually has to come clean to Mike what has been going on. The performance is as expected, faultless and doesn’t over work the supernatural edge at all.
To cut the story short and announce a few plot spoliers (hey the film is over 50 years old, where have you been?!), there is nothing supernatural. The evil in the mill is Suzanne’s insane sister who has been chained up behind that shuttered red door since birth. Mike tries to rescue the poor girl from the mill fire but Aunt Agatha drags her back in to the flaming building with a farewell of “It’s better this way.”
Quite a finale.
So did I like it the third time round?
Yes. There are lots to like about it and nothing to do with any Lovecraft references. There are too many differences between the two stories to really draw a parallel.
The cinematography by Ken Hodges is outstanding. Given the open location and greenery you’d be half tempted to take sweeping shots of great vistas and close ups of wildlife. It’s quite the opposite. The whole film feels claustrophobic and distorted. Often shots are framed by barbed wire or eye holes or use oblique angles to keep the atmosphere off kilter. I’ve looked at his previous work and frankly there’s nothing which would indicate a surrealist tilt to his taste. I have a feeling given the location and perhaps a little more freedom he was able to do the location and story some justice.
The music score is perhaps the most unusual aspect to the film. Basil Kirchin is the credited composer who was mainly a drummer along with being an early exponent of electronic music and sampling. There isn’t much evidence of the latter here as the music sounds largely improvised on set. There’s a sort of reactive freedom which makes it a little more intimate adding to the claustrophobic and unpredictable mood.
The director is David Greene who much in keeping with the rest of the crew isn’t one of horror genre’s venerable custodians. The Shuttered Room was one of his earliest directorial efforts and perhaps this is why the film feels a little loose. And not in a bad way either. I would guess that after many years of TV mini-series and a few feature films you are trained into being a little safer!
The casting of the main parts is quite a surprise. Carol Lynley who mainly made her career in TV and always looks beautiful, plays Suzanne with a haunted quality which feels natural. Then there is the steadying influence of Gig Young who is much older than her and a fact not ignored by the other characters. They all realise he’s a father figure as much as her husband. I think he knows it too.
However his stoic “normal” and educated rationality works a treat as it balances off the weirdness of Dunwich’s locals. Even when Ethan’s gang are attempting to kill him he manages to use martial arts to fight them off rather than a straight punch-up. He embodies the very threat of modernity and culture to the backward and primeval Dunwich.
Flora Robson’s mysterious Aunt Agatha is superb and draws a parallel with her performance in Black Narcissus (1947). Finally we must add Oliver Reed into the mix as Ethan. His is quite a guttural piece with almost so much energy he’s barely able to contain it. His reaction when Suzanne faces him off during the rape scene is bristling with angst and frustration. It’s one of his best performances without a doubt. The four actors cover a wide brush stroke of history, ability and emotion and manage to create a tight ensemble in the centre of the story.
Then there is the location itself. The Norfolk and Kent outer limits become the living embodiment of an isolated and backward society, only reachable by a ferry. They are cut off from the modern world to the point that Gig Young’s car becomes a symbol of desire and fantasy. There are plenty of jokes about places such as these – a lot of them inferring inbreeding and antics with animal husbandry but leaving them aside, the locations are a fantastic visualisation of Lovecraft’s New England universe. The accents are sometimes a little ropey but you can forgive it because the whole place is filled with oddities such as the old woman in the lighthouse and the unwelcoming ironmonger, even the ferryman who lives across the bay from Dunwich is odd.
There is very little if any Lovecraft reference apart from some family names. One would wonder how Gig Young and Carol Lynley would deal with the image of Cthulhu is beyond my own comprehension. The film also has a TV movie feel to it. Perhaps this is why the film looks so tight and claustrophobic as if it was almost already aware of the small screen it might eventually be consigned to. The casting of Young and Lynley would indicate this further as both had various TV credits and Young’s career was certainly on the wane.
In fact as a horror film with no supernatural aspect at all the only true monster is Oliver Reed and his gang. Their attempted rape of Suzanne is emotionally graphic if not physically. The closest anything supernatural happens is when Lynley mimics the actions of her sister trapped in the burning barn much like when you read of twins knowing what their “other half” is feeling or thinking. Mike brings her back to earth and they watch the mill burn to the ground, freeing her from her haunted past and allowing them to return to their city life – no doubt never to return.
I think the main fault, if perhaps the only fault, with The Shuttered Room is the pigeon holing as a horror film. This is too simplistic and certainly too sophisticated for a young boy to appreciate fully. There are elements of gothic horror with repressed memories and sexual deviancy, coloured with the more modern notion of folk horror. It is a film which was a genuine pioneer in the genre attempting to modernise literary adaptions along with established genre language. Right from the off with a skewed point of view shots from the “monster”, this is something rarely seen before the 1970s which eventually became the mainstay of the stalk n slash sub genre.
I’d say it has a closer kinship to Straw Dogs (1971) which must owe a debt of gratitude for its images of the menacing locals with a distrust of outside folk. It is this similar distrust that has purveyed itself again and again until we see it maturing into Royston Vasey’s “Local Shop for Local People”. I guess you could call it Folk-Horror-Nimbyism. If such a thing exists. If you look at the reactions to unwelcome visitors by some of the locals of areas of Wales and Cornwall during the pandemic lockdown you can see this distrust and malevolence isn’t something supernatural and is perhaps bubbling under the surface of every rural community.
I live in a rural community. I am one of them now.
Headpress for their invaluable BBC2 Horror Double Bill Listing:
Various websites detailing the shooting locations. Thank you for your research:
❉ ‘The Shuttered Room’ (1967). Starring Gig Young, Carol Lynley, Oliver Reed, Flora Robson. Directed by David Greene. Distributed by Warner Bros-Seven Arts. Running time: 1h 39m.
❉ Dan Roberts is usually found protecting his vegetables and watching wildlife. Every so often he manages to write something, usually about old films you’d forgotten about or didn’t know existed. Follow him on Twitter: @trampilot