Random Musings: That was no Martian; it’s Halloween.

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Innocents
Halloween will soon be with us and on Halloween night, the Great Pumpkin rises out of the pumpkin patch and—

Oh, sorry. I was channeling Linus for a moment there. This time around, a few really good ghost story/suspense movies to enjoy on or around Halloween:

The Innocents. 1961. Based on The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. Deborah Kerr stars as Miss Giddens, the newly-hired governess to two children— Miles and Flora— whom she comes to believe are under the influence of the spirits of two deceased household employees. Given carte blanche by the children’s uncle, who lives in the city and wants nothing to do with raising them, Miss Giddens decides that drastic measures are required to save the children from the ghosts’ baleful influence.

But what’s real and what’s the product of her imagination? The film lets you decide.

Changeling

The Changeling. 1980. George C. Scott stars as John Russell, a music teacher who buys an old house shortly after the deaths of his wife and daughter. Turns out he’s not the only resident. The ghost of a child is also in residence, a ghost who leads Russell to discover the truth about a powerful senator (Melvin Douglas).

One of the things that makes The Changeling such an effective film is that we don’t see the ghost except in two brief scenes, one of which is a flashback to the murder. But we’re very much aware of its presence. In one scene, Russell comes home after failing to turn up a particular lead and all the doors in the house start slamming. In another, he returns one night after having thrown his daughter’s ball into the river. From the top of the darkened stairs comes a THUMP.

And another. And another. And another. THUMP. THUMP. THUMP.

Until a wet ball stops at his feet.

Near the end of the film, an (apparently) empty wheelchair chases a woman down a passage in the house. You don’t see the ghost in any of those scenes and you don’t need to.

Haunting

The Haunting. 1963. Based on book The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson and Russ Tamblyn star as four people who visit a “haunted” house to determine if it really is. They get more than they bargained for.

As with The Innocents, we’re left to wonder how much of the supernatural activities— especially those experienced by Nell (Harris)— actually happened.

The Haunting was remade in 1999 and underwent a number of changes. Those changes, frankly, only reinforce that the 1963 version was better.

Case in point: In one scene in the remake, Nell sees her sheet or bedspread form next to her into the image of a child who speaks to her. In the original, nobody ever saw anything. And since Nell was the narrator, the audience was left to wonder whether she imagined everything.

One key scene in the original has Nell in the dark, telling Theo (Bloom) not to let go of her hand as a loud pounding echoes through the room. When the lights come on, Nell finds— to her horror— that Theo is still asleep in the other bed. “Whose hand was I holding?” she asks.

Was Nell holding a ghost’s hand, or did she imagine it all? It’s open to interpretation.

Uninvited

The Uninvited. 1944. Based on the novel by Dorothy McCardle. Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey star as a brother and sister, Roderick and Pamela Fitzgerald, who buy a seacoast home where Roderick, a composer, can work. The house is, of course, haunted. At the center of the supernatural activity is Stella Meredith (Gail Russell), granddaughter of the home’s previous owner, who was very reluctant to sell. Roderick is determined to find out just what happened all those years ago.

The ghost is seen, briefly— and effectively, given the limitations of special effects at the time— but, again, much is left to the viewers’ imagination.

Others

The Others. 2000. Nicole Kidman stars as Grace Stewart, a woman living on the island of Jersey with her two photosensitive children while her husband (Christopher Eccleston) is off fighting in World War II. One day she wakes up to find the servants have all gone, three new servants have turned up at her door unannounced and someone or something seems to be in the house. And it/they start treating the house as its/their own, something Grace will not abide.

Bubba Ho-Tep

Bubba Ho-Tep. 2002. Based on a short story by Joe R. Lansdale. Nursing home residents Elvis (yes, that Elvis) (Bruce Campbell) and John F. Kennedy (yes, that John F. Kennedy) (Ossie Davis) team up to fight an ancient Egyptian mummy who’s feeding on the souls of the home’s residents.

Okay, it’s not a ghost story, but it’s still Halloween-appropriate. And it’s fun.

Switching gears, over the past seven decades, Halloween has also become associated with one particular radio broadcast. In fact, stations, either broadcast or satellite, that play old-time radio tend to air this program either on Oct. 30 or Oct. 31.

Orson Welles directing the Mercury Theatre on the Air.

Orson Welles directing the Mercury Theatre on the Air.

The program was The Mercury Theatre on the Air’s adaptation of The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells on October 30, 1938 on CBS Radio. The program— about a Martian invasion of Earth— caused a panic— though not as big a panic as later reports would claim. In a sense, War of the Worlds is radio’s “fish story.” The “fish” got bigger with each retelling.

Even so, the Mercury Theatre, led by Orson Welles, made excellent use of the medium to tell the story. First, it was transposed from the 19th century England of Wells’ novel to the then-future of Oct. 30, 1939. I wonder how many people listening that 1938 evening caught the comment “in the 39th year of the 20th century”?

Second, forgoing straight narration, Welles and company initially used “news broadcasts”— which interrupted periods of dance music— about “explosions of incandescent gas” on Mars; a shock of almost earthquake like intensity within a 20 mile radius of Princeton University and field reports from Grover’s Mill.

These “news broadcasts” were effective because people— still in the midst of the Depression— were already hearing disturbing reports from and about Europe as World War II loomed on the horizon. Also, there were no televisions, satellite communications or Internet in those days. And most phone calls went through an operator.

True, the “news broadcasts” weren’t taking place in real time, but I doubt anybody noticed. I think it’s reasonable to assume the minority who were panicking were too busy with their panic to pay attention to that detail; while those who were enjoying the drama were too caught up in the story to care that (for example) “Carl Phillips” (Frank Readick) and “Professor Richard Pierson” (Welles) got to Grover’s Mill from Princeton with amazing speed.

Other things that made War of the Worlds so effective:

During his performance as “Carl Phillips”, reporting on the first attack by the Martian heat ray, Readick echoed Herb Morrison’s on-scene broadcast of the 1937 Hindenburg crash.

Several seconds of silence followed when he was cut off in mid sentence. Very effective, that. It’s a good example of how what you don’t hear on a radio drama can be just as significant as what you do.

Kenny Delmar’s “Secretary of the Interior” sounded suspiciously like President Roosevelt.

The “news broadcasts” were timed so that people who switched over from NBC’s The Charlie McCarthy Show when Edgar Bergen brought on the musical guest would tune in to The Mercury Theatre on the Air  just in time to hear what sounded like a major news bulletin.

In addition to being broadcast this time of year by various stations playing “old-time radio”, The War of the Worlds is also in wide circulation on record, cassette, CD and download. If you’re at all curious about old-time radio and how it was very much a “theater of the mind”, you should put yourself in the mindset of someone living in the late 1930s and give War of the Worlds a listen.

Copyright 2014 Patrick Keating

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