(1977) Directed by Richard Loncraine; Written by Dave Humphries; Based on the novel Julia by Peter Straub; Starring: Mia Farrow, Keir Dullea, Tom Conti, Jill Bennett, Robin Gammell and Cathleen Nesbitt; Available on DVD (Import)
“I’m happy. Excited about everything being suddenly new, like all this, and I’m more frightened than I’ve ever been in my whole life. It’s like stepping out on a window ledge and feeling so alive, because all the time, part of you wants to jump. Sometimes I feel I’ve already jumped.” – Julia Lofting (Mia Farrow)
“Evil never dies.” – Heather Rudge (Cathleen Nesbitt)
Before I delve into this week’s movie, here’s a much-deserved shout out to Gabriela of Pale Writer for hosting The Magnificent Mia Farrow Blogathon. Be sure to check out the posts from other bloggers, showcasing the talented actress and her work. I’m pleased to contribute to this blogathon (and as the opening post for Ghost Month) with a discussion of Farrow in the seldom-seen supernatural film, The Haunting of Julia (aka Full Circle). WARNING: There are some spoilers ahead.
There are few events that come close to the all-encompassing trauma of a parent losing a child. The Haunting of Julia depicts a woman in mourning over her daughter’s death, and her attempts to come to grips with life afterwards. Director Richard Loncraine (working with a script adapted from the Peter Straub novel Julia) adopts a simple approach, short on effects-laden spectacle, but big on atmosphere and nuanced performances. As suggested by the title, it’s as much about how a person, rather than a musty old edifice, can be directly affected by a haunting.
The film opens on a tragic note, with Julia Lofting’s (Mia Farrow) daughter Kate choking on an apple. In a moment of panic, Julia attempts to save her by performing an impromptu tracheotomy with a kitchen knife. To this viewer it’s a bit of a chicken-or-egg dilemma that we’re not sure if the daughter dies from choking or her mother’s botched attempt to save her. The end result is the same, as the daughter expires before the paramedics arrive. The story jumps forward several weeks later, after Julia is released from the hospital. Instead of going home with her husband Magnus (Keir Dullea), she actively avoids him, purchasing an old house instead. Not long after she’s moved in, however, Julia begins to notice a series of unusual occurrences: her bedroom’s heater turns on by itself, during a séance, arranged by her sister in law Lily (Jill Bennett), a medium (Anna Wing) becomes inconsolably disturbed, and one of Julia’s guests is pushed down the staircase by an unseen force. Julia learns about the morbid history of her home, where a young girl, Olivia Rudge, died under circumstances similar to her daughter, nearly 40 years ago. She takes it upon herself to learn more about the girl, and her connection to a group of kids who tortured and killed a young neighbor boy.
Farrow, sporting the same pixie cut as her title role in Rosemary’s Baby a decade prior, is the embodiment of all-consuming grief. A cloud of depression looms over Julia’s head, coupled with overwhelming guilt over the death of her daughter. She finds some solace in her new home, away from her loveless marriage. Now that Kate is gone, she and Magnus have lost the only thing they had in common. When her sister in law Lily (Jill Bennett) nudges her to reconcile with Magnus, Julia simply replies, “Needs me? There’s a side I haven’t seen.” In her new, independent life, she’s determined to find meaning in her daughter’s death. Julia’s trajectory shares some interesting similarities with John, the main character of another ‘70s supernatural film, Don’t Look Now (1973). Both films featured protagonists who suffered the death of a child, and both had visions that formed the basis of an obsession, which in turn led to their personal destruction (both meet their end in a strikingly similar, bloody fashion).
Tom Conti shines as Julia’s friend Mark, a ray of sunshine in her otherwise gloomy life. As the film’s most likable character, he displays the compassion her husband is incapable of showing. It’s a credit to the filmmakers that they didn’t try to turn their relationship into something else. A lesser film would have played up the implied romantic aspects, forcing the characters into a perfunctory love scene. As it stands, there’s an undeniable chemistry between them; if events in the film would have played out otherwise* it seems plausible that a romance would have eventually blossomed. What we see on the screen, however, is strictly platonic.
* Random Observation: Mark meets his untimely demise in a bathtub, no thanks to a malevolent spirit and a radio. It just goes to prove if you listen to Pat Boone while bathing, prepare to suffer the consequences.
Keir Dullea is icily effective as Julia’s emotionally distant husband Magnus. He doesn’t understand her behavior subsequent to Kate’s death, and thinks she should move on with things and return home. At the same time, he believes she’s mentally unstable, and intends to hire a psychiatrist to have her institutionalized. Magnus’ lack of empathy is evident in his delivery of a non-apology, when he says, “Whatever it is that you think I did to you, I’m sorry.” In the end, he’s more concerned about losing her money, and by extension his prestige, than reconciling their damaged relationship.
The film has a few narrative hiccups along the way, which suggest that some sequences might have been truncated or omitted entirely. In one of the most glaring gaps, her husband meets his end halfway through, while sneaking around Julia’s basement. No one questions why his harassment of Julia suddenly stops, or notices any strange odors emanating from downstairs. In a similar vein, Julia doesn’t seem to be concerned when Mark fails to show up at her doorstep, even though he emphatically stated he would accompany her on a visit to Heather Rudge (Olivia’s now elderly mother, who resides in a sanitarium).
As with many supernatural films from the 1970s, The Haunting of Julia doesn’t rely on jump scares, elaborate visuals, or immersive sound effects that have become so prevalent in today’s storytelling. Instead, it maintains a slow burn throughout, starting with a feeling of unease in the opening scene, gradually escalating to a solemn conclusion. In one of the most chilling scenes, a ghostly child’s hand runs across Julia’s face as she sleeps. Much of the horror is conveyed through the actors’ expressions and intonations. The audience is prompted to fill in the blanks when Julia speaks with two of the individuals (now grown men) who were in Olivia’s twisted circle, providing a glimpse into the girl’s awful nature. The Haunting of Julia illustrates how ghosts can manifest themselves in myriad ways: as a memory that refuses to die, wish fulfilment (seeing the deceased individual), or a bridge from the realm of the dead to the living. We’re reminded that ghosts are as much (if not more so) a manifestation of the mind than a spectral being. When most people think of Mia Farrow and horror, Rosemary’s Baby immediately springs to mind, but I suggest there’s another title equally worth talking about.
* Side Note: Unfortunately, you might have to dig around to find this film. As of this date, it’s only available as a French import DVD or for download/streaming through Amazon or iTunes. Hopefully someday we’ll see a remastered Blu-ray through Arrow, Criterion, or similar.