Cult Cinema: The Haunting of Julia (1977) - Reviewed

Images courtesy of Shout Factory
Though mostly working under the radar as an unpretentious film worker, British film and television director Richard Loncraine despite only making films every several years has carved out quite a unique niche for himself that’s only getting recognition now.  From his 1982 adaptation of Dennis Potter’s controversial teleplay Brimstone & Treacle to his Nazi Germany transposition of William Shakespeare’s Richard III, Loncraine’s aesthete represents a cantankerous, sardonic regard for Old Britain and all things Britannia while ushering in a uniquely modern gothic patina to his stories.  Underneath the veneer of British formalities lies a dark undercurrent running through everything with little to no characters you feel comfortable trusting, implying an elderly Great Britain rotting from the inside out.

Which makes Shout Factory’s recent 4K UHD re-release of Loncraine’s largely forgotten but still potent 1977 supernatural psychodrama horror film Full Circle or as it was released in the United States The Haunting of Julia all the more intriguing.  With a renewed interest in the annals of preexisting horror thrillers being unearthed and polished up by a variety of boutique labels, Loncraine’s second directorial effort offers a somber, hallucinatory supernatural shocker that arrives on the cusp of such demon child fare as Don’t Look Now, The Exorcist or The Omen while predating The Changeling by a few years.  Moreover it forecasted the distinctively dynamic visual style that coined Brimstone & Treacle and its mixture of the chamber piece with gothic horror.
Julia Lofting (Mia Farrow) lives peacefully with her husband Magnus (Keir Dullea) when one morning preparing breakfast her daughter Kate chokes to death.  Traumatized, Julia separates from Magnus and camps out in a fully furnished rental home in Holland Park to put the pieces back together again and find closure.  Upon moving in, she grows paranoid Magnus is trying to break into her home to get through to her as she continues to ignore doctor’s orders monitoring her recovery.  Thoroughly grief stricken, she hallucinates seeing her daughter in public and soon strange poltergeist activities begin happening in her new home.  Is it her late daughter Kate or something more mercurial and sinister lurking about?

A British-Canadian co-production based on eventual Ghost Story novelist Peter Straub’s book Julia and adapted by Xtro writer-director Harry Bromley Davenport, The Haunting of Julia is a star-studded slow gothic-horror burn that showcased Loncraine’s craft for the somber gothic horror film that could be another unfinished business child ghost story while also flirting with the notion it could all be imagined by Julia.  Prominently featuring Mia Farrow in a post-Rosemary’s Baby role as an unstable woman in pursuit of (or being pursued by) dark forces that threaten to consume her opposite Keir Dullea in top creepy form, the film skirts a tightrope walk between the occult and the imaginary so you’re never really sure which side of reality we’re on.  More of a creepy ambient mood piece than an outright scare fest despite having some gruesome otherworldly kills here and there predating the Final Destination films, The Haunting of Julia is a classy dose of jet-black bleak realistic horror that establishes Loncraine early on as an understated master of the genre. 
Lensed handsomely in panoramic widescreen by Brimstone & Treacle as well as Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life cinematographer Peter Hannan, the feel of the gloomy, distinctly Old British world of The Haunting of Julia is established immediately.  Filmed gracefully with slow mannered pans and zooms, the look of the film is elegantly downbeat even as it moves in and out of luxurious or occasionally colorful settings.  Furthering the film’s mood is Colin Towns’ largely electronic keyboard soundtrack that was reportedly recorded before a frame of film was even shot, playing a bit like a progressive rock album over the dismal landscapes inhabited by the characters. 
While Mia Farrow herself was tragically suffering from a nervous breakdown that halted production for a couple of days, it is hard to see anyone else more authentically playing this troubled grieving woman.  Keir Dullea post-Black Christmas is so good at playing a politely menacing and adversarial character here it begs the question what kind of A Clockwork Orange Stanley Kubrick might’ve made with Dullea in the role.  Tom Conti is great as Julia’s protective friend who himself isn’t so sure of her present state of mind.  The show stealer unquestionably is An Affair to Remember actress Cathleen Nesbitt as a beady-eyed wrinkled demon with quite the soliloquy to remember.  Also Downton Abbey fans are inclined to look for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it screen debut of chief creator Julian Fellowes.

Originally released in England and Canada in 1978, the film somehow or another went unreleased in the United States until 1981 when it was discovered by a film buff which then led to a limited theatrical release by Cinema International Corporation.  The film all but completely flew under the radar with audiences in America but was nevertheless critically acclaimed including but not limited to winning the Grand Prix prize at the Avoriaz Film Festival for Best Feature.  One of the classiest British horror films of the 1970s you’ve never heard of by one of its best jack-of-all-tradesman who knows all too well how to get under your skin, The Haunting of Julia is ripe for rediscovery and reappraisal by modern audiences.  Boasting great performances, elegant cinematography and a pulsating electronic score, The Haunting of Julia cements Loncraine as perhaps one of the most skillful purveyors of a very unique (and sadly short lived) kind of horror.

--Andrew Kotwicki