THE SHUTTERED ROOMSarah (Carol Lynley) brings her husband to visit her childhood home on a remote island. Even though the Old Mill is legally hers, the islanders try and warn her away, saying that the building is cursed, and anyone who goes in there is savagely attacked by a demon… But because Sarah is young and attractive, some of the young men, including her cousin (Oliver Reed) don’t mind if she stays a little longer. If only her husband (Gig Young) wasn’t around… The hostile, closed community of the island, and their menacing treatment of outsiders is a weighty subplot to the story of the thing in the attic.
Very sixties, not very Lovecrafty, but a little Straw Doggy
As part of a short thread on early H.P. Lovecraft movies, I revisited this movie last year. This has been a favourite of mine ever since I got a special dispensation from my parents to stay up late to watch horror films on TV in the mid 1970’s. But despite my nostalgia, I’d say it’s still holding up strongly.
The Shuttered Room takes its name from H.P. Lovecraft, but is really only a distant relation, based on one of the ‘joint’ stories that August Derleth wrote from Lovecraft’s unfinished notes after his death. Though there are namechecks of Lovecraft favourites 'Dunwich' and 'Whately', there are few other nods to its origins. But once we’re past the disappointment that it's not very H.P. Lovecrafty, which is how most people discover the film, it’s still a strong and original horror thriller.
Watching it again, the film strongly reminded me of Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971) with it’s central theme of the threat of sexual assault in a remote village. Also shot in the UK with an American lead, Straw Dogs caused a storm of controversy with it’s heavy-handed use of sexual violence.
But The Shuttered Room isn't nearly as sexually obsessed as Straw Dogs, with most of the action serving the story. That's not to say that there isn't any gratuitous violence, or that Oliver Reed isn't gratuitously filling out his exceedingly tight blue jeans with a rolled up sock. Seeing it again, the film made a very strong impression as experimental in many ways. The cast is fifty percent of the film’s success. The music, location and photography makes up the rest.
The beautiful Carol Lynley appeared in much American TV but not many films - but it was always a treat when she appeared. To me, her best roles were as damsels in distress, as also seen in The Night Stalker pilot movie, The Helicopter Spies (a Man From UNCLE movie) and The Poseidon Adventure (1972).
The camera just has to point at her, wandering around with the sun in her hair, and movie magic is happening. Her performance occasionally shows a little strain, especially when she’s under duress. But that’s understandable because she’s on a set with Oliver Reed on heat.
She seems almost too young to be playing Gig Young’s wife – there’s more than a touch of Baby Doll about her look - but the two work well together. Young shows a genuine rapport with Lynley, defending her with what looks like karate, as he convincingly tackles the local bullies head on.
Gig Young’s screen career peaked shortly afterwards with an Oscar win for They Shoot Horses Don’t They? playing an alcoholic, which wasn't much of a stretch for an actor actually in decline. Even in one of his last roles, as Robert Culp’s dapper sidekick in Spectre (1977), his performance was likeable and witty. Sadly, he committed suicide the year after.
Oliver Reed was still playing mostly supporting roles in 1967, his confidence severely knocked by the extensive scarring to his face from a pub brawl (he had been ‘glassed’). With his popularity rising, this was the last horror film he had to appear in until Burnt Offerings. That is, of course, if you don’t include the films of Ken Russell, like his barnstorming performance in The Devils. One possible distraction here could be Reed’s American accent, which sounds okay, but it’s not for me to say. Yes, although the film is shot in England, it’s supposed to be set in Lovecraft’s usual New England. Many of the supporting British actors do their best accents, but it also looks very English.
After a pre-credit sequence that makes you think you’re going to get a traditional horror film (something ghastly living in the attic), the title sequence takes you somewhere else. With constantly crossfading shots of Lynley's face shot through the reflections on a car windscreen. Together with Basil Kirchin’s freewheeling jazz score – the effect is quite ethereal. Besides the jazz cues, Kirchin also delivers some brooding menace with the familiar ‘bass string plucking’ that added menace to his score for The Abominable Dr Phibes.
The photography includes some expert handheld work, back when the camera was only handheld when it was someone’s (or something’s) point-of-view. The use of extremely wide-angle lenses, together with the fast moving camera, make for some dizzying views.
With extensive location work, cinematographer Ken Hodges takes the opportunities to connect Carol Lynley with the countryside where she grew up, fleshing out the plot by suggesting her strong ties with her family house, just by showing her hanging around.
The 'Old Mill' was an actual millhouse near Norwich in south-east England. It was a huge, fantastic-looking building, the type of architecture that lingers in nightmares. Similarly, the lighthouse (see below) also looks like a character in the film. There’s an amazing watermill website that chronicles the old mill's history and even has behind-the-scenes shots of the film being made, though it does contain photos of a major plot SPOILER!
UPDATE, November 2013:
The lighthouse seen in the film (pictured above, as the home of Flora Robson's character) recently went on sale as part of an estate. There are several lighthouses in South Foreland, but this particular one is called the Lower South Foreland Lighthouse. More photos and details here on The Steeple Times.
Released on DVD in 2008, on a double-bill with the Roddy McDowall golem horror IT! (1967), this was the first ever release of The Shuttered Room in 16:9 anamorphic widescreen.
Avoid any alternate version of the film going under the title Blood Island (an old US VHS release), because it’s been edited down to a much shorter running time.