The 13th Floor

Beware the Ghosts of Grief: DON’T LOOK NOW, THE HAUNTING OF JULIA and THE CHANGELING

Throughout human history, tales of horror and the supernatural have always been an important medium for addressing our shared fear of death, expressing the pain of loss, and finding the strength to battle one of the cruelest monsters of all: the all-consuming beast of grief. The classic tales of Edgar Allan Poe, in particular, deal almost exclusively with the fear of losing all that we love, and the fleeting, all-too-brief time we spend on earth, trapped in our fragile, aging bodies.

With the advent of motion pictures, horror films tackled the fear of death and the anguish of loss on an even grander scale, and classic genre entries like THE INNOCENTS and THE HAUNTING to more recent fare like THE OTHERS, ANTICHRIST, THE BABADOOK and WE ARE STILL HERE have examined the subject through an entire spectrum of storytelling and imagery, often using the classic framework of the ghost or haunted house story to illustrate the psychological stages of grief, including our stubborn emotional resistance to accept the inevitability of death — even our own — and our desire to connect to something beyond our physical lives.

Oddly, during the ’70s, a trio of otherwise unrelated supernatural films tackled the concept of grief in almost the exact same manner: by forcing parents to face their worst nightmare — the sudden death of a child — only to short-circuit the normal grieving process by suggesting that their deceased offspring is attempting to communicate with them from beyond the grave. Those films, in chronological order, are Nicolas Roeg’s DON’T LOOK NOW, Richard Loncraine’s THE HAUNTING OF JULIA, and Peter Medak’s THE CHANGELING.

All three of these films affected me profoundly — and while each one has its own distinctive tone, texture and mood, they are in essence the same tale told in three different ways. I’m going to re-examine each of them individually, and in case you haven’t had a chance to see all of them yet, I’ll try to keep the details as spoiler-free as possible to ensure your viewing experience is as memorable as mine.

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DON’T LOOK NOW (1973)

Once a cinematographer on classic films like MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and FAHRENHEIT 451, Nicolas Roeg blazed his own trail as a director with his distinctive non-linear approach to cinematic storytelling, which he employed brilliantly in this moody adaptation of the short story by Daphne De Maurier. It revolves around an affluent, once-happy couple, John & Laura Baxter — played to perfection by Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie — whose storybook life is instantly destroyed when their young daughter drowns on their property.

When John accepts an assignment to restore an ancient cathedral in Venice, he and Laura are confronted by two mysterious elderly women — one of whom professes to be in psychic communication with Christine. While this is the essence of the plot, it’s really just a framework for Roeg’s elaborate use of visual cues to suggest that John, himself a pragmatist and skeptic, may in fact have powerful psychic sensitivities himself… and the strange, disjointed images we see (but he dismisses) are actually foreshadowing his own doom.

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Roeg focuses on the color red as a potent reminder of death, using it sparingly and in stark contrast to the somber gray skies and narrow, darkened alleyways of Venice; Christine is seen wearing a bright red raincoat in her final moments of life, and both John and Laura spot a mysterious figure in a nearly identical red outfit walking the streets. Also the theme of water as an embodiment of doom is referenced frequently, linking the child’s drowning to a local serial killer’s victims being dredged from the Venice canals.

Both elements of death come together in a recurring vision, which we first see just before Christine’s drowning: John knocks over his drink onto a photographic slide of the old cathedral, causing the red emulsion to literally “bleed” across the image. Ironically, while Laura has been seeking comfort for her grief by attempting to contact Christine in the spirit realm, we learn it is John, harshly critical of this idea, who is truly in communication with the beyond — but by immersing himself selfishly in his work to escape his own pain, he ignores the grim premonition… until it’s too late.

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THE HAUNTING OF JULIA (a.k.a. FULL CIRCLE, 1977)

No doubt the least seen of these three films, this more subdued variation on the concept of grief is nevertheless one of the most unsettling — and well worth seeking out, despite being annoyingly unavailable on newer home media (apart from a terrible pan-and-scan VHS release from Media). The intimately chilling tale is based on the novel Julia, the first horror story by celebrated Ghost Story scribe Peter Straub; it centers on fragile young Julia Lofting — played by an equally brittle Mia Farrow, already beloved to genre fans for ROSEMARY’S BABY — whose marriage to the insensitive and self-centered Magnus (Keir Dullea) is irreparably shattered after a failed attempt to save her daughter Kate from choking to death.

Out on her own and renting a large, quaint old house in London, she begins to feel a presence living there with her, and eventually seeks the aid of a psychic to find out if Kate is attempting to reach out to her from the other side. Blinded by her emotional torment — and possibly delusional from her trauma — she ignores the increasingly disturbing warnings she receives from those who claim to know the true identity of the spirit occupying the house… a presence that may be pure evil.

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This film will always be one of my favorite ghost stories — not only for the strange, softly dreamlike look and feel in which Loncraine imbues every frame, but also for the sweetly haunting score by prolific English composer Colin Towns. Crafted almost entirely from piano, flute and electronic instruments, the music bathes many scenes in a soothing warmth, even despite the heavy undercurrent of melancholy.

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THE CHANGELING (1980)

The final entry in our “Grief Trilogy” is probably the most beloved of the three among fans of haunted-house horror, and it’s developed a strong cult following in the decades since its modest theatrical reception. The only film of this trifecta not inspired from an earlier work of fiction (though it is reportedly based on actual events), THE CHANGELING stands up as a prime example of how the film medium can be used to create an atmosphere of absolute dread without any overt shocks, violence or excessive exposition.

George C. Scott, in one of the highlights of his distinguished career, plays celebrated composer John Russell, whose life is turned upside-down by the death of his wife and daughter in a horrible road accident. Torn apart by grief and unable to summon his creative instincts, he moves to a sprawling mansion in the Pacific Northwest (one of the spookiest locations in any haunted house movie) and takes up teaching, all the while questioning his ability to compose new material.

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He finally finds the inspiration while transcribing a simple and plaintive melody he remembers from a dream. Only later, hearing strange noises in the house’s dusty, cobweb-shrouded upper rooms, he finds an antique music box… which, to his amazement, plays the exact same melody. Driven both by curiosity about the house’s horrific history and a strong desire to settle his grief-stricken mind, John seeks the help of the real estate agent (Trish Van Devere) who rented him the house. After meeting a surprising amount of resistance from older residents of the town, he consents to allow a group of psychics to conduct a séance in the house… and while playing back a recording of the ritual, he begins to realize the property may be haunted by the spirit of a murdered boy.

Usually remembered for his brash, gruff characterizations, Scott turns in a nuanced and touching performance here, and deftly carries the dramatic weight of the story. The moment where his rocky exterior finally gives way to sorrow marks the plot’s first turning point, when the restless spirit occupying the house — sensing his deep emotional pain — decides to reach out to the world of the living, desperate for release. While the core of THE CHANGELING’s plot involves a murder mystery implicating the influential Carmichael family, including wealthy senator Joseph Carmichael (Melvyn Douglas), it’s John’s inner journey that drives the story forward; solving the mystery holds the key to his emotional salvation, enabling him to begin his life anew.

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