Ghosts of Hanley House (1968)

Author: Wes R.
Submitted by: Wes R.   Date : 2008-03-20 11:03

Written and Directed by: Louise Sherrill
Starring: Elise Baker, Barbara Chase, Cliff Scott, and Wilkie de Martel

Reviewed by: Wes R.

“I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with the old Hanley place that a good bucket of paint
and a little scrubbing couldn’t fix.”

The sixties were a turbulent time in America. They were also a turbulent time for the horror genre. Filmmakers were trying to get away from the monster movies of the 50s, but really had no direction in which to go in. With regional distribution, there were no real champions to lead the way. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho started out the decade, and before its ending, the genre would see the emergence of "the Godfather of Gore" Herschell Gordon Lewis, and the low budget chiller, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Gothic chillers about old castles, haunted houses, psycho killers, the occasional monster or two…the 1960s were a scattered time for horror fans. One extremely low budget ghost chiller to see a regional release during this time was Ghosts of Hanley House.

This one doesn’t waste much first. Right before the credits, we open on a house filled with loud shrieks and screams, clocks running backwards, doors opening and closing, mysterious silhouettes, thumping footsteps…all, of course, during a thunderstorm. Soon, we’re at a café watching a pair of friends make a bet. One of the friends owns the old Hanley place, the town’s most notorious house and one with rumors of being haunted. Due to the rumors, he has been unable to sell the place, so he makes a bet with his skeptical pal to stay a whole night in the house, and in return they’ll trade cars (an MG for a Ferrari). That’s quite a bet. Much better than similar bets in other haunted house films. I know I’d spend the night pretty much anywhere if there were a chance to take home a Ferrari. An old woman tells the man who plans to spend the night a couple of stories of previous people who had tried to stay the night. Each story, of course, has a less than happy ending: One woman went crazy and another man hanged himself months after his experience. The man spending the night decides to gather a group of people to stay with him (you would think this would void the bet with his buddy), among which are psychics and other disbelievers. Will the ghosts manifest themselves for the group, or are the stories about the old Hanley place only the results of overactive imaginations?

The exterior of the house itself is pretty ordinary and isn’t nearly as intimidating to look at as Hill House was in The Haunting. Some of the lighting setups give the inside a sort of spooky, abandoned charm. Each room is filled with antique furnishings, eerie statues, artifacts, and paintings. The cast is a very dull group and the acting ranges from passable to pretty lousy. Not that the dialogue they were given by writer/director Sherrill is all that great, because it’s not. The lines are pretty obvious and serve only to further the story of the house and its history, not to give any of the characters anything even remotely close to personality or characterization. The film is black and white, although the Alpha Video version I watched on DVD has a transfer that is closer to black and blue for some reason. The film also features occasional flashes of red, but I’m not sure if this was done by the original filmmakers or an effect added by a video distributor somewhere along the line. It didn’t really add or detract from the film at all, and one has to wonder why it was added in the first place. Despite the film’s relatively short 84 minute running time, the action crawls at an unbearably slow pace at times. With all that happens and is accomplished, the filmmakers could have easily edited the film into a lean 45 minutes. The special effects are pretty sparse. Really, the budget for this one couldn’t have been much over $300 bucks, and that’s probably overestimating it. You have a house, you have actors, and that’s about it. There is one buried skull prop and a little bit of fog (maybe dry ice). That is the extent of the props/effects. While Roger Corman was making minor cult classics on budgets such as these, these filmmakers just didn’t have a clue on how to tell an effective ghost story.

The film's music is very dated, but at times quite effective for a film made in 1968. During the scary scenes, it sounds closer to something you would've heard in a horror film of the 70s. At other times, it sounds like something you’d hear at a hipster’s mod party. Of course, I suppose this musical choice for its time is about the same as filmmakers today putting Britney Spears and Linkin Park in their films. It’s what the teen crowd at the time enjoyed, and though it’s dated by today’s standards, the music probably worked back then. The film’s scares are pretty lousy. In one scene, you can actually see a wire moving one of the paintings that is supposed to be moving by unseen forces (unless of course, the unseen forces are moving the wire). For most of the running time, the extent of the scares are not much more than strange sound effects (various animal noises, glass breaking, insects, etc.) It almost sounded like the sound guys just put on an effects album and let it play at random. Then, there’s the bizarre white silhouette which makes random appearances (often accompanied by the flashes of red). One scare element that did actually work to some degree was a creepy, almost inaudible whisper calling to one of the characters, but this was only for one scene. A sure-fire scary scene should have been the séance, but even that was devoid of tension and scares. The hauntings in the Hanley House are the most reminiscent of your standard poltergeist accounts. Once the main haunting spirit of the house begins speaking to the group, I had to fight to quiet a laugh.

The oldest screenwriting lesson that aspiring writers are taught is to “show rather than tell.” It’s a shame that this common mantra evidently wasn’t around when this film was written. The filmmakers seemed more interested in creating lengthy scenes where characters talk about the history and backstory of Hanley House rather than showing very much of it. We get one flashback sequence and that’s it. The rest is told in dialogue. Extremely slow, badly delivered, and poorly written dialogue. It’s really no surprise that this film never found an audience. Most films that become lost or rare do so because of their poor distribution and often laziness on the behalf of the original rights holders. The facts are, though, if a film is one that people enjoy (even in s small cult way) there will generally be others wanting to see it. All it takes is one good review or blog about a film, and suddenly there is a need to watch it, and if you’re the rights holders, there suddenly becomes a need to get it released on video. Well, Alpha did release Ghosts of Hanley House on DVD, but I’m sure being a public domain title, that it took basically no money out of their pockets. The film's greatest sin, however, is that the ghosts of Hanley House just aren't scary. They are treated mostly as poltergeists, and not very frightening poltergeists at that. They are playful and noisy, but more of an annoyance than a threat. If the characters on-screen don't seem to be too frightened, why should the audience?

Overall, this one was extremely bland. If you want a truly great 60s haunted house movie, without such a dated feel, try The Haunting. For a cheesier, but infinitely more fun 60s ghost offering, watch the original House on Haunted Hill. Ghosts of Hanley House never seems to rise above its shortcomings. The actors are generally lackluster, the scares nearly non-existent, and the plot just isn’t engaging enough to hold one’s interest for very long. People who think some of the more recent ghost movies like The Sixth Sense and White Noise are slow really should take a look at this. At least in those two movies, things happen to further the plot and there are reasons why we care about the characters involved. No such luck in Ghosts of Hanley House. A film like this would have been understandable in the 50s, but by 1968, you’d think that the filmmakers could’ve at least tried a little bit harder to make a halfway interesting and watchable film. It is interesting to note that the director of this film was a woman. Female directors aren’t exactly the norm today (though they are more common than they used to be), so in the 60s, this was virtually unheard of (especially in horror). I don’t think it affects the film either way, but I did find this interesting. I would say that the budget was most likely the biggest obstacle for the film, but the filmmakers didn’t really seem to have much ambition for the story anyway. The ground they cover has been covered a hundred times before by both larger and smaller budgets to much greater results. As it stands, unless you are a collector, a 60s horror completist, or are just curious because of the film’s rarity (as I was), I simply cannot recommend this movie to the serious horror fan. Trash it!

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