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The Shuttered Room

In the realm of fantasy cinema, the novels and short stories of H. P. Lovecraft have provided us with numerous examples of his bizarre imagination though fans may debate over which films best exemplify the writer's vision. Certainly the Lovecraft movie adaptations of director Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator [1985], From Beyond [1986], Dagon [2001]) are considered among the genre's most twisted, but earlier efforts such as The Haunted Palace [1963, based on "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward"), Die, Monster, Die! [1965, based on "The Colour Out of Space") and The Dunwich Horror [1970] have their merits as well.

The Shuttered Room [1967], one of the more intriguing adaptations to emerge from this earlier period, isn't really an authentic Lovecraft story at all. It was actually penned by August Derleth, Lovecraft's publisher (Arkham House) and literary executor, and first appeared in 1959. Although Lovecraft died in 1937, Derleth's story "The Shuttered Room" was based on the horror writer's notes and ideas, particularly his interest with hereditary disorders, tainted bloodlines and physical and mental deterioration in his stories. The film version opens with Susannah Kelton (Carol Lynley) and her husband Mike (Gig Young) traveling to her ancestral home which is located on a remote island off the coast of New England. Susannah, who was sent away by her parents at a young age to be raised in New York City, has returned home to transform the old family mill into a summer home. The local villagers, however, seem not only sullen and unfriendly but try to discourage Susannah from inhabiting the property. She soon learns the mill has a dark and violent history but, despite warnings, Susannah and Mike move into her family's house where she begins to suspect they are not alone. And she's right! Something horrid is in the attic, shackled with chains, but it doesn't stay chained for long.

Despite the New England setting, The Shuttered Room was actually shot on location in Cornwall, England and completed at Twickenham studios. The project was originally slated as a project for Ken Russell (Women in Love, 1969) but abandoned until David Greene agreed to direct it. Greene, who had several years of television experience behind him on such series as Espionage [1963-1964], The Nurses [1962-1965] and The Defenders [1962-1965], made his feature film debut with The Shuttered Room and he followed it with two well received British films - Sebastian [1968] and The Strange Affair [1968] - before returning to a prominent career in TV with occasional feature films on the side.

If nothing else, Greene brought a fresh, distinctive visual style to The Shuttered Room and gave it a contemporary feel that set it apart from previous Lovecraft film adaptations with their fog-enshrouded sets and art direction that placed the story in the early twentieth century. Some aspects of the movie are too modern and stray far afield of the Lovecraftian universe such as the confrontation scene between Mike and some village thugs in which Mike easily defeats them all with his jujitsu skills! The frenetic jazz score by Basil Kirchin also seems to belong to another movie but often produces disparate emotions in relation to the action.

The casting is admittedly offbeat and Carol Lynley (in a dual role) and Gig Young make an unlikely married couple. Lynley plays the part of Susannah as someone who vacillates between deep introspection and nervous anxiety while Young brings a sense of bemusement to the role of Mike, the true outsider in the story and the only one who keeps a wry, detached perspective on the strange events. The rest of the cast is composed of British actors speaking with American accents and Flora Robson is impressively stern as Aunt Agatha, the keeper of the dreaded family secret. Oliver Reed, on the other hand, gives a hyperactive performance as Susannah's hooligan cousin who has lecherous designs on her but also greatly resents Susannah for reclaiming the property he thought he was going to inherit. In the role, he exaggerates all of the menacing mannerisms he displayed in other villainous roles such as the Teddy Boy gang leader in Joseph Losey's These Are the Damned [1963] or the wealthy psychopath in Paranoiac [1963]. Leaping, running, swaggering, throwing temper tantrums or trying to contain his volcanic rage (notice the quivering lower lip and the tormented brow), Reed is the ultimate scene-stealer/scene-chewer and if you're a Reed fan, he's mesmerizing here, even if his attempts at an American accent results in one of the oddest dialects and delivery you've ever heard.

Offscreen Reed had quite the reputation as a brawler and skirt-chaser and his behavior during the filming of The Shuttered Room was no different. According to biographer Cliff Goodwin in Evil Spirits: The Life of Oliver Reed, "Within weeks Oliver and Lynley had started a passionate affair. To celebrate the New Year, the actor invited John and Nita Hogg out for the night. When the couple arrived in London Oliver and his latest girlfriend [Lynley] met them. 'It was obviously a very serious and intimate affair,' recalls Hogg. 'Anyone who did not know Ollie was already married would have assumed they were very much in love.'

Gig Young was having his own problems prior to filming The Shuttered Room. His alcoholism was affecting his work and his marriage was in jeopardy because of it. He saw The Shuttered Room as an opportunity to make a fresh start and arranged for his wife Elaine, their child Jennifer and her nanny to join him in England for the shoot. The change of locale, however, didn't help alleviate the problems in the relationship and by the time The Shuttered Room opened at cinemas, Gig and Elaine were already divorced. The actor would marry once more (to Kim Schmidt) in September 1978 but it would end tragically a month later when he shot and killed her and himself on October 19th. But following the release of The Shuttered Room, Young's film career took a sudden upward turn with his acclaimed supporting role in They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969), a role that won him the Best Supporting Actor Oscar®.

The Shuttered Room was not a critical or a commercial success upon its initial release. The New York Times proclaimed the movie "terrible," drawing particular attention to Reed's "atrocious" performance, and added, "For the simple eeriness of the story, whatever else Mr. Lovecraft conjured, is squashed into absurdity by an anvil emphasis on brutality, sexual trimmings and haunted-house spookery, replete with a thump-thump musical score." The Variety reviewer was more favorable, stating "With a good quota of shudders and a neat suggestion of evil throughout, this is an efficient entry in a somewhat old fashioned vein of melodrama...The script is adequate in the plotting but feeble in the dialog department, sparking off untoward laughs in the wrong places. Lynley is competently scared throughout. And Reed brings a brooding touch of lechery to the over-excited Ethan." While the movie might not be the best cinematic representation of Lovecraft's brand of horror, its reputation among genre buffs is considerably better and more forgiving now than it was forty years ago.

Producer: Philip Hazelton
Director: David Greene
Screenplay: D.B. Ledrov, Nathaniel Tanchuck; H.P. Lovecraft, August Derleth
Cinematography: Kenneth Hodges
Music: Basil Kirchin; Jack Nathan (uncredited)
Film Editing: Brian Smedley-Aston
Cast: Gig Young (Mike Kelton), Carol Lynley (Susannah Kelton/Sarah), Oliver Reed (Ethan), Flora Robson (Aunt Agatha), William Devlin (Zebulon Whateley), Bernard Kay (Tait), Judith Arthy (Emma), Robert Cawdron (Luther Whateley), Celia Hewitt (Aunt Sarah), Ingrid Bower (village girl), Anita Anderson (Susannah as a child), Charles Lloyd Pack (Bargee).
C-101m.

by Jeff Stafford

SOURCES:
Evil Spirits: The Life of Oliver Reed by Cliff Goodwin (Virgin)
Final Gig: The Man Behind the Murder by George Eells (Harcourt)
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