Like many folk, I knew nothing of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren until James Wan’s theatrical release The Conjuring (2013). So as I scoured the TV graveyard to unearth another relic from yesteryear, I came across 1991’s The Haunted – an account of the terrifying (and long) haunting that beset the Smurl family from the mid 70s to the late 80s, and one in which the Warrens helped out. And while it doesn’t quite reach the heights of Wan’s modern classic, it is nevertheless a satisfying addition to the Warren legacy, and a great showcase for Sally Kirkland as the besieged Smurl matriarch.
Originally broadcast on the Fox network on Monday, May the 6th, 1991, The Haunted had tough competition: ABC had MacGyver/ABC Monday Night Movie, CBS aired Evening Shade/Major Dad/Murphy Brown/Designing Women, and NBC had Fresh Prince/Blossom/NBC Monday Night at the Movies. Stiff competition, but it stood out – The Haunted is far removed from making bombs out of bubblegum and paper clips, or chillin’ in Beverly Hills.
And how would our pretend TV GUIDE describe it?
THE HAUNTED (Monday, 8pm, FOX)
A family moves into a home in Pennsylvania, only to be hounded by evil spirits for over a decade. Sally Kirkland, Jeffrey DeMunn star.
Narrated by Kirkland (Two Evil Eyes) as Janet Smurl, a mom of two girls and wife of Jack (DeMunn – The Walking Dead), the telefilm begins with the family moving into a duplex in West Pittson, Pennsylvania in 1974. With the Smurl’s on one side of the house, and Jack’s parents on the other, odd occurrences abound from the start; tools go missing then reappear, Janet hears whispering when no one is there, and shadows move where none should be. Of course no one believes Janet at first, especially Jack; marital strains are hinted at when she lashes out at him during a particularly trying evening. But Jack does come around, when he hears the same voices coming from their pillows that Janet does. After the house is blessed by the church (Catholic division; the film has a very strong sense of faith – more on that in a bit), events still occur, including Jack being raped by a female apparition.
The Smurls decide to get help from the secular world, and they reach out to Ed (Stephen Markle – Invasion U.S.A.) and Lorraine (Diane Baker – The Silence of the Lambs) Warren for help. Lorraine tells the Smurls that there are three spirits and one demon living in the house; after providing them with holy water, they convince the Smurls that an exorcism by the church is required to be rid of the evils. After much media scrutiny, the church does send over a priest to observe, but he finds no evidence of malevolent entities. This goes on for several years before the church authorizes an exorcism after the Smurls have moved to a different home; apparently banishing the spirits for good.
The Haunted wisely focuses on the Smurl family itself instead of the entities’ backstory; director Robert Mandel (F/X) is clearly more interested in how the family unit is affected as opposed to how they are afflicted. He and writer Darrah Cloud (based on the book by Robert Curran, the Smurls, and the Warrens) move things along with a speedy efficiency; Janet’s narration leaps from event to event, year to year, sweeping the audience through their familial battles with the entities in a quasi-documentary style. This grounds the telefilm in a modicum of reality (or tries to, at least) to up the creepy factor. The effects for the most part work quite well; Jack’s rape scene in particular, where a constantly morphing female demon presses him to the ground, is effective and is surprisingly suggestive for network television.
Also setting The Haunted apart from similar TV fare is the emphasis on religion; this thing is steeped in Catholicism, from opening frame until last. The Smurls are a deeply religious unit, with a strong church based community supporting them at every stage of their ordeal; and if it wasn’t for the more lurid acts portrayed, this could practically be a Hallmark presentation. So, depending on your tolerance for portrayals of faith in horror films (hard to avoid where hauntings are involved), The Haunted will certainly provide some chills.
The cast is top notch; all acquit themselves well, but it really is a showcase for Kirkland. Normally known for playing either damaged or brassy characters, she finds just the right notes for Janet, playing her as a strong, determined, yet frightened woman who will protect her family at any cost. It’s a terrific turn, and it netted her a well earned Golden Globe nomination.
A lot of films of this ilk will inject levity into the proceedings to offer more of a ‘rollercoaster’ experience; The Haunted has no interest in creating that effect. What Mandel, et al, wish to do is hammer the viewer non stop for the whole 90 minutes. That’s hard to sustain - but they try, and in their modest way, succeed. It won’t make you forget The Conjuring, but The Haunted does deserve a place in the Warren’s glass case.Next: It Came From The Tube: THIS HOUSE POSSESSED (1981)