Thursday, October 11, 2007
Overlooked Classics: The Shuttered Room (1967)
Director David Greene was already in his mid forties when he delivered his debut theatrical feature, THE SHUTTERED ROOM, in 1967. However, he was no stranger to the horror genre as he had been working on some of the most notable genre TV productions since the early fifties, and he had started out as an actor with one of his first roles being in 1949's DAUGHTER OF DARKNESS. Greene would come of age throughout the fifties and sixties working on several legendary genre series including THE TWILIGHT ZONE, THE SAINT and THE DEFENDERS. In fact, the relatively forgotten THE SHUTTERED ROOM was made my an incredibly diverse and notable group of people as I hope my look at it will make clear.
THE SHUTTERED ROOM began life as a short story credited to famed author H.P. Lovecraft and an August Derleth. I am not a student of Lovecraft but it is my understanding that it was in fact Derleth who wrote the story, by basing it on pieces of Lovecraft's works. A good article detailing this can be found here. Whomever the true author, the book THE SHUTTERED ROOM appeared in 1959 in a collection called THE SHUTTERED ROOM AND OTHER PIECES and the rights to the film were bought shortly after and finally ended up at Seven Arts Productions in the mid sixties.
The basic plot of THE SHUTTERED ROOM, the film, is relatively simple. Troubled Susanna Kelton returns to her childhood home with her new husband Mike in an attempt to find some answers to problems plaguing her adult life. Once there she discovers that a mythical town monster the locals are terrified of is actually her unknown twin sister, who has spent her life locked in an attic room in their childhood home.
Director Greene had just finished up several seasons of work on the legal drama THE DEFENDERS when the opportunity arose to make his theatrical feature debut. THE SHUTTERED ROOM seemed customed made for him, and his POV heavy and oddly nuanced but effective style didn't disappoint.
Joining Greene behind the scenes was a really effective roster of American and British talent. Brian Smedley-Aston, who was just a few years away from his landmark work with the likes of Nicolas Roeg and Jose Larraz, lent his sharp eye to the editing of the film and it does very much foreshadow his incredible work on Larraz's own SYMPTOMS (1974). THE SHUTTERED ROOM'S bright but creepy photography was provided by talented Ken Hodges who had done such memorable work the year before on Michael Winner's THE JOKERS. He would later lense several other genre pieces such as the extreme Suzy Kendall vehicle ASSAULT in 1971.
THE SHUTTERED ROOM'S all important interior design was assigned to art director Brian Eatwell. He would later prove most important, specifically with his work on Anderson's IF (1968), and then as a Production Designer on some of Nicolas Roeg's finest films, including WALKABOUT (1971) and THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (1976).
Key among the film's biggest assets though is the striking and strange score credited to Basil Kirchin. Instead of the usual orchestrated string heavy soundtrack that occupied many horror films of this period, Kirchin's work sounds more like an adventurous free jazz piece in the vein of Don Cherry or even famed Polish composer Krzysztof Komeda. Kirchin, a noted Jazz drummer and composer, was befriended by director Greene in the sixties and it was Greene himself who would pen the liner notes for two of Kirchin's best albums. An excellent look at this collaboration can be found here. In 2003 Perseverance Records attempted to release the score to THE SHUTTERED ROOM on a cd with Kirchin's work on the DR. PHIBES films. This was eventually stopped due to legal reasons, so to my knowledge the inventive and audacious score to THE SHUTTERED ROOM has never been released...pity, as it is one of the great scores from the sixties.
The talent in front of the cameras were no less notable than the behind the scenes artists. The great Oliver Reed pops up in a bristling, electric performance that caught the great man just before one of his career defining performances in Michael Winner's peerless I'LL NEVER FORGET WHAT'S'ISNAME (also 1967). Joining Reed in supporting turns are a creepy Flora Robson (who had just filmed another one of Seven Arts most underrated productions, EYE OF THE DEVIL), the distinguished Bernard Kay and William Devlin in his last screen performance. The film's one weak point does indeed turn out to be in the casting though, as the tragic-but oh so talented-Gig Young is pretty woefully miscast here, and he seems to realize it as he gives one of his most uninspired performances.
The biggest coup of the film though is the magical lead performance by underrated sixties icon Carol Lynley. Lynley, one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful women of the period, is extraordinary in the demanding duel role of the passive and lonely Susannah and her crazed twin sister Sarah. Lynley, too long one of the most unrecognized inventive actors of the period, had just wrapped up Otto Preminger's haunting and troubling BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING (1965) when she signed on for THE SHUTTERED ROOM. She had been in the process of trying to shed her image as a teen star and her work on Preminger's film, THE PLEASURE SEEKERS (1964), and HARLOW (1965), not to mention one of the best Playboy pictorials in the magazines history, had all done that. Unfortunately almost every project she was involved in failed financially and critically.
Unlike other sixties icons like Tuesday Weld and Ann-Margret who exuded an animated electricity, the sullen and quiet Carol Lynley had a real endearing icy calm about her. This was never more apparent than in THE SHUTTERED ROOM where Greene's camera almost seems fixated on her lovely face, as if he is waiting for her cool features to suddenly transform into something completely different, but no less captivating. Lynley, despite a busy and solid career, never achieved the stardom or roles she deserved. THE SHUTTERED ROOM remains one of the great reminders of her charisma, beauty and talent.
THE SHUTTERED ROOM was filmed in the lovely U.K. location of Hardingham, Norfolk. This substitutes nicely for what is supposed to be the Northeastern portion of the United States. A great site detailing the location that includes behind the scenes shots of the film can be looked at here.
Greene's film opened up in 1967 and was mostly ignored by critics and the public. Few saw the directors' inventive and eerie POV shots, although I am willing to bet that both Bob Clark and John Carpenter were among the privileged few who might have caught this film in its brief initial run. A tie-in novel was also published by a Julia Withers which is well worth searching out. It played on TV throughout the seventies and eighties and it was briefly available on VHS in a terribly retitled edited version called BLOOD ISLAND.
I have often wondered if I am alone in my admiration for this film, as I have read many more negative than positive reactions about it over the years. I can't compare it to the original story so perhaps for the film that is a blessing for me, as most Lovecraft scholars tend to dismiss it. For me though, THE SHUTTERED ROOM is a seminal film that really ingrained itself in the dreams of my youth. Every time I revisit it, I realize that more and more I feel like Lynley's character in the film...someone obsessively mining out pieces of their youth in an attempt to unravel the complexity of their adult life. Looking at the film now is a bit like searching through an old childhood trunk filled with reminders of a time that might be gone, but still maintains a supreme resonance.
THE SHUTTERED ROOM is currently unavailable on any home video format, and it rarely plays on the late night tv that I am willing to bet many people discovered it on. Un-official copies are relatively easy to find though, and right now those are the only way to locate this rather remarkable and nearly lost little jewel of a film.