Horror Bites - Bump in the Night


Time for something with a little more class that the usual stream of endless schlock covered here. Whether it's actually written better or is as well constructed just as a story may be debatable of course, but for the most part this is a stylish affair. It's also a movie where George C. Scott yells at a ghost; which you know I have time for. But for the most part this haunted house story is fairly restrained with an emphasis on sinister atmosphere and eerie corridors. So get ready for a lot of spooky noises in the dark and plenty of unexplained phenomenons - though it's a film from the beginning of the 1980s this is certainly more a product of the previous decade right down to the slow burn mystery and the bleak colour palette.

In a shock opening right out of The Omen classical composer John Russell (Scott) loses his family and finds himself alone. Unable to cope with the familiar surroundings of his home he tries to lose himself in his work, but it just doesn't help. Eventually he decides to pack up and start over by moving house. As luck would have it his friend Claire (Trish Van Devere) works for a historical society in Seattle that has vacant properties available while they're being restored. The location is a good match for his work, but it's unclear if a huge creaky old mansion is the best choice for a grieving man without any other apparent relatives. But of course he moves straight in anyway.

There's a lot of gliding camera work and some pretty effective editing to evoke the sense of someone lost in memory, and the style of the film accentuates the John's sense of isolation. Just as a haunted house film this has a lot going for it even before strange occurrences begin to plague his morning routine. To begin with things seem to be going well and his new piano composition starts to come along naturally as he writes. But it's obvious that other forces are at work in the building, and it's not just the old architecture or the hot water pipes. Some of the angles used suggest he's being watched, and it's not long before other inclusions hint at the same thing.

There are plenty of simple horror movie tricks involved as John has frightening visions and hears sudden banging sounds in the house. After peeking into the darker rooms of his new digs he uncovers even more weirdness. There's something particularly strange going on with the bathtub in one nightmarish scene in which he sees a face submerged in the water. Later he finds out that there are bizarre forces hiding behind secret boarded up doors that have been disguised as book shelves. The film is at its best when things are allowed to flow naturally and there are less characters involved. But of course that means when more actual plot is introduced things are a lot less effective.

The main bulk of the storyline involves the mystery of the house and a local senator John sees at a historical society get together while chatting to Claire. How this is all linked to an abandoned attic room containing a child's belongings and what it all has to do with the music John has written all falls together as things progress. A lot of it is less a supernatural tale than it is a simple detective story with a few conspiracy elements added for good measure. However the film's structure is front loaded with creepy happenings before it reveals way too much about the house somewhere around the half way point. It gives away a lot and there are no real secondary twists.

The problem is that John finds out so much information by chance and there are a lot of lucky discoveries and guesses. During one particular hallucinatory scene he even sees exactly what happened in his new home all those years ago. They also hold a seance which of course tips him off even further when the recordings of the event are played back. These are all pretty striking sequences, but it feels all too easy and often rushes to reveal details that could have been held back until a more dramatic moment. For a house that nobody has lived in for years it sure has a lot of detailed files stored at the city archives, and all the right microfiche newspaper records are within easy reach.

The conclusion feels less like cathartic than it does by the numbers as they throw in sudden deaths and fiery spectacles to fill the third act. A sudden car crash feels like something from another movie. With all the murder mystery elements covered all that's left to do is add a few set pieces I guess. It would have made a lot more sense to tie everything together and have the opening of the story and John's grief have some kind of pay off, but strangely there are only a few call backs to the instigating incident. His connection to the presence in the house feels oddly disposable once the action starts. It ends up being a far less emotional story than it first suggests.

Overall this is an entertaining and slick haunting story, but it never quite reaches the heights that the stylish presentation promises. There's a huge sense of loss initially that is never really developed into a full theme and the narrative is often jumpy and inconsistent. It's a film that has a lot of influence that can still be felt today (see Hideo Nakata's Ring, which arguable does this better despite the call backs being very blatant) and there are dozens of ghost stories still cribbing from this premise. But despite these shortcomings it's still worth seeing for a sombre ghost story with a few chilling scenes and plenty of atmosphere. Just be sure to make it a George C. Scott double bill with The Exorcist III.