FINAL GIRL explores the slasher flicks of the '70s and '80s...and all the other horror movies I feel like talking about, too. This is life on the EDGE, so beware yon spoilers!

Jun 13, 2024

Chilling Classics Cthursday: HAUNTS (1976)

I'm thanking my big bowl of lucky stars that it took me until this very week to get around to the 1976 film Haunts, because I'm sure I wouldn't have given it a fair shake. Given it's a film from Herb Freed and Anne Marisse (the husband-and-wife duo behind Graduation Day, the masterpiece featuring the football-with-a-sword-attached and the mostly-rollerskateless roller skating party) and pitched as something of a slasher flick featuring a maniac-with-scissors-attached scissor-wielding maniac, well, that's what I would have hunkered down to see. Instead, Haunts is an unabashed women's (horror) picture that's all about loneliness, isolation, and unchecked trauma. (Apparently they made horror movies about that stuff before A24 came along...? Weird.) I stand (well, truth be told I am sitting) before you today to spread my Haunts agenda. "Criminally underseen" may be an overstatement--though really, how could it not be underseen when it's pretty much only available as a Chilling Classic with potato-levels of picture quality? But the right audience for this film is out there, and that audience needs to get eyeballs on this one.

The rape and murder of a young woman sets a small, rural California-that-feels-like-Pennsylvania town on edge. The amount of  prurient gossip ("They found one arm clear down by the lake!") is exceeded only by the number of suspects, as the town is full of a veritable Rogue's Gallery of men. From the leering rockabilly bad boy grocery clerk Frankie (William Gray Espy) to new nerd in town Bill Spry (Robert Hippard), nearly anyone could be the scissor-wielding killer. 

The Sheriff (an understated Aldo Ray)--who also seems to be the town drunk--is in way over his head with the investigation, as evidenced by the fact that said investigation seems to consist solely of asking a few people "Have you seen anything strange lately?"

In the midst of all of this is Ingrid (May Britt), a quiet, church-going woman living an unassuming life on a farm with her reclusive uncle Carl (50-Pack King Cameron Mitchell), coping as best she can with hazy intrusive thoughts about childhood traumas. Though she tries to suppress her memories, her lingering doubts and fears about men prove true, but she gets no support from law enforcement, her fellow townsfolk, or even her church elders. "Continue to pray" is about all anyone can offer her.

Things twist and turn as Haunts plays out at a leisurely pace. That may scare some of you away, but I was luxuriating in the sad small-town drama of it all. Everyone knows everyone there, but nobody really knows anybody. Ingrid deals with the violence she's faced by not dealing with it, leaving her healing in the Lord's hands. Local gossip/barfly Nel (Susan Nohr) laments the lack of "classy" men in town, all while having too many drinks and settling for anyone who pays her some attention. 

As she endures and endures, Ingrid unravels more and more, increasingly isolating herself even as she tries to figure out who's behind the murders. Like the Sheriff, you may find yourself unsure of what to believe, or maybe not. Haunts is compelling, in part, not simply because of its reveals, but when those reveals happen, and the fact that it leaves many dots for the viewer to connect.

It's no surprise that Haunts is informed by films like Repulsion and Carnival of Souls and, like those films, it's anchored by a terrific central performance. Ingrid is a woman on the outside of her community, even if she's always been there. She's marked as different in many ways, whether it's the traces of her Swedish accent, her piousness, or her reticence to mingle with friends or potential romantic partners. It's hard to resist thinking of the parallels between the character and the actress who came out of retirement to portray her, as Britt herself was no stranger to outsider status thanks to her 1960 marriage to Sammy Davis, Jr. At the time, interracial marriage was illegal in more than half of the country, and the controversy their pairing stirred up caused the Kennedy administration to revoke Davis's invitation to sing at JFK's inauguration. (It's insane to think it was ever illegal, but even insane-ier that it was still illegal in many states when the Supreme Court finally ruled laws disallowing it as unconstitutional in 19fucking67. 1967!) 

Whatever her reasons were for signing onto Haunts, Britt scuttled back into retirement after Haunts, emerging only once again for one episode of, oddly enough, the 80s sci-fi show Probe.

Again, I'm spreading my Haunts agenda because hot dang, it deserves more love. It's got a score from Pino Donaggio, who rose to even greater heights later in 1976 with his work on Carrie. After loving Graduation Day and the (wonderfully) cheesy Lynda Day George-led possession flick Beyond Evil, I never expected this kind of film from Herb Freed, but I'm sure glad I got it.


Riccardo said...

I watched it and it reminded me of IMAGES, which you covered here last SHOCKtober, but I'd have to give the nod to IMAGES since it's more confounding but more logical. To me at least. :-)

Stacie Ponder said...

Yes! Images is another one in what ever this great little subgenre is.

Kristina said...

Such a good one, agree about Images, Carnival of Souls, etc. Have you seen Men? When that came out I rewatched this right after, both tons of symbolism, both about women alone in the sticks dealing with tons of toxic masculinity, but different trajectories (and spoiling to recommend it if you haven’t seen: in Men things are satisfyingly set right with an axe).

Stacie Ponder said...

I haven't seen it yet, unfortunately. It's been on my list for a while though and it's come up several times in conversations so I really need to get on it!