Friday, December 12, 2008

IT! (1966) d. Herbert J. Leder & THE SHUTTERED ROOM (1967) d. David Greene

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

The 1960s are held up as a time when titanic changes in culture and society made it so that almost anything seemed possible. To a large extent that was true. Immense shifts in race relations and gender roles began to emerge. An amazing generation gap became crystallized. Rock & Roll left its infancy and transformed itself into the Music of America. Art and literature continued to challenge ethical and political stances, but did so in far more aggressive manner. What was even more interesting to the film buff was that you could see almost anything on the Big Screen during most of the 60s. Studios were still making all kinds of “standard fare” using tried and true formulas, but there were a lot of boundaries being pushed back and a lot of molds being smashed in the movie business. Warner Home Video has brought out a “Horror Double Feature” of IT! And THE SHUTTERED ROOM, both of which came out in the middle of the decade, when life was changing faster than any American could really grasp. This inspired double feature exhibits many reasons why it is worth your time to watch, not the least of which that these two films are an example of how disparate in style and substance two enjoyable, well-made films could be, made by the same company, both filmed in England, both starring recognizable actors and brought out within a short time of each other. While not cinematic Shangri-La, IT! And THE SHUTTERED ROOM are wonderfully emblematic of how diverse 1960s films even within the same genre could be.

IT! is the story of Arthur Pimm, a somewhat sniveling assistant curator of a London art museum, who stumbles upon a strange statue after a warehouse fire. Mr. Pimm soon realizes there is something very strange about the statue after a pair of mysterious deaths occurs in connection with it. Before long, Arthur discovers the secret of the statue and falls victim to the lure of ultimate power that it could bring him, even as his mind is subverted by an immature infatuation with his lovely co-worker Ellen Grove coupled with an unresolved Oedipal complex keeping him tied to his dead mother. Jealousy, ambition and unrequited feelings tip Arthur towards insanity forcing those around him to scramble as the powers of the statue are unleashed.

THE SHUTTERED ROOM is the story of Susannah Whately Kelton and her husband Mike Kelton, who return to the island of Dunwich where Susannah spent her early childhood. For mysterious reasons, Susannah was sent away from the Island by her Aunt Agatha and now fears but is also curiously attracted by the prospect of a return. The couple’s stay on Dunwich Island is marred by a loathsome group of rowdies led by Susannah’s cousin Ethan and by the growing sense of threat the longer she stays within the walls of the family millhouse, the secret of which has cast a pall over the Whately family and the Island for years.

IT! is the example in this double feature of a film written and created using very classic techniques and methods. Do not think for a second that such practices would render it “old hat” or dull in any way. IT! is a lot of fun as a tale and is great to look at along the way too. One of the film’s greatest strengths is a story that combines the wonderful old legend of The Golem with a slice of The Bates family dynamics from PSYCHO grafted onto a sinister version of the “Walter Mitty” persona and story. Such a hodge-podge might seem unwieldy, but it is one of the reasons IT! is so enjoyable and works so well. The story is patient, but gripping in its steady accretion of suspenseful pace and mood. It is a little complex as characters are woven in such a way as to be a bit less predictable, even as the story itself has a splendid inevitability to it. Added to the riveting narrative is a performance by Roddy McDowall that may be among his best in a long career of exemplary and memorable roles. Between the myriad of facial expressions, the effortless shifting of moods and tone as well as the intense yet delicate delivery of his lines, Mr. McDowall crafted a character that is at once despicable and conniving, but tragic and ineffably sad, one that you hope will find a way out of his predicament. The rest of the cast blend well with the central character and while somewhat overshadowed by Mr. McDowall, Jill Haworth, Paul Maxwell and a plethora of instantly recognizable English faces make IT! a very character-driven motion picture. Visually, IT! has a stateliness about it that makes it feel so very “Old England” even though it is set in modern times. Between the dignified, elegant and attractive interiors, fashions and d├ęcor, the magisterial feel of England’s cityscapes and countryside and the well-lit, very well shot, framed and composed scenes, this is a supremely watchable movie. It blends some “old school” monster-rama appeal and a thoroughly human tug that makes it hard to resist.

THE SHUTTERED ROOM is not quite as strong a film, but it may be more visceral is many ways. The strengths of this film are in its strange blend of very old-style Gothic elements successful spliced with the predominant avant-garde characteristics. The story is based on an H.P. Lovecraft tale of spooky houses and family curses, but right from the beginning there is an immediate effort to update the old Gothic tale. Instead of a castle in the French countryside, it is an old mill in “New England” where the story is set. Instead of lace-trimmed and brocade fashions worn by the leads, it is Gig Young and Carol Lynley in the trendiest New York threads of the mid-60s. Instead of a violin ensemble creating sinister strains, the soundtrack is decidedly jazzy and very experimental in its style. Instead of eerily lit stone hallways, THE SHUTTERED ROOM blends some remarkable photography that contrasts beautiful sylvan and idyllic natural scenery with dilapidated and scabrous abandoned or ramshackle interior and exterior sets. The camera work is a blend of quirky angles, stark close-ups and hand-held work with some interesting point-of-view compositions that go a long way to giving THE SHUTTERED ROOM its nouveau feel. Lovely and shapely Carol Lynley was never a blazing performer but she was well cast to portray and haunted damsel-in-distress and set alongside stoic and granite-chinned Gig Young, their pairing evokes some old Hollywood glamour even as their fashions whisper “hip”. It is Oliver Reed’s portrayal of Ethan that steals the show however. Mr. Reed was never one to back down from an offbeat role or unwilling to give a bizarre and somewhat over-the-top performance. His character adds more of a sense of menace to the film than does the primary story element of “The Whately Curse” and it is the dichotomy between the human and “supernatural” dramas in THE SHUTTERED ROOM that makes this a somewhat atypical horror tale. While the pacing of the film was occasionally uneven and the ending was a bit anti-climactic, and leaves the viewer a little at a loss for its lack of punch, THE SHUTTERED ROOM is still a worthwhile film experience.

Sadly, there is no bonus features menu on this disc. Being that both films are a hit older, neither was ever considered a major hit and/or a classic of the genre, and large percentage of both the casts and crews of each film has long since gone to their heavenly reward, it is not surprising that there was little to be unearthed. It might have been nice to see Warner Brothers sit Carol Lynley and Jill Haworth down for a short interview each about their experiences though. Since both actresses are still with us, and in their 60s, taking advantage of such an opportunity to capture some first-person account film history is always a good idea since time slips away from us all and once the chance is lost, the moment is gone forever beyond recall. Such a failing is never something we can forgive ourselves for.

IT! And THE SHUTTERED ROOM are very much like a classic Porterhouse steak served with an side of eclectic and inventive herbed and seasoned mashed sweet potatoes. On one hand you have something very tried and true that you know will go down smoothly. On the other hand, you’ve got an addition to your plate this is not typical but will likely be very rewarding even though it is a little different. Too often double feature combinations were commonly hitched together because of their similarities and the likelihood that if you like one, you know you’ll like the other. What I enjoyed most about my afternoon with IT! And THE SHUTTERED ROOM was the diversity of the entertainment, the disparity of my intellectual and emotional responses to two well-done films and the joy of knowing I spent a sizable amount of time in a manner that was thoroughly satisfying. I hope you will too.

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