And then, when I listened to the opening narration again, the one about "real evil" existing in this world, I considered the opening narrations of The Twilight Zone, One Step Beyond, even Tales from the Darkside. Pondering these comparisons, I suddenly realized that A Haunting - though it presents as a documentary - is actually the latest in a long and noble line of TV horror anthologies.
Only here's the rub: this series utilizes the prevailing styles popular today rather than the rather staid-seeming approach of yesteryear. In other words, A Haunting manipulates the "real" or "true story" approach of the Blair Witch Project, coupled with the currently in-vogue documentary format we've enjoyed in mainstream theatrical hits such as Fahrenheit 9/11, Supersize Me! and March of the Penguins. I can hardly get angry at A Haunting for claiming to be "based" on true stories. Why? Well, uhm, Last House on the Left, The Amityville Horror, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and even The Legend of Boggy Creek all exploited the very same technique. It's a good, fast way of scaring an audience. Most recently, I guess it was The Exorcism of Emily Rose that brought the "true story" card out of mothballs.
But make no mistake, this is a TV program that is designed to scare the pants off you; and to my delight, it works more often than it doesn't. A Haunting is edited and constructed with a tip of the hat to (and a thorough understanding of..) at least the last fifty years of horror cinema history. And that means you've got your P.O.V. subjective shots (from the viewpoint of the spook!), you've got your high-angle shots (which mean doom and entrapment), and you even have the classic "Stay Awake!" shot (wherein a character - after suffering a nightmare - bolts up in bed, sweating profusely...). It's all here, combined and vetted in expert fashion to create an experience that I suppose you might believe is true...if you're gullible. But for me, the show is enjoyable because it's scary and well produced.
Watching "Echoes from the Grave" I realized how infrquently TV is really scary these days. And more to the point, how infrequently stylistic editing techniques are deployed on a TV series to make one so. Night Stalker is sometimes scary. Supernatural every now and then. But so far (and I've only watched three episodes...), A Haunting manages to be scary more often than not.
"Echoes from the Grave" tells the story of Ron and Nancy Stallings in the year 1965. They believe they've found the perfect house, a historic home built in 1920 near Baltimore. But when they move in with their six children, things start to go wrong. A faucet spigot opens by itself. Heavy footsteps are heard in the hallways at night. Nancy's cousin Bill, an attorney, feels an "overwhelming sense of dread" when he tries to walk to the second floor. A priest comes to bless the house, but inconveniently forgets to bless the porch (D'oh!). The ghostly presence(s) continue to raise a ruckus, spurring Nancy to call on the services of renowned paranormal investigator Hans Holzer (from Austria) and his "trans-medium." Perhaps the most disturbing information comes from a notation Bill sees at the Hall of Records: every previous family living in that house has seen a loved one die there before escaping...
My favorite moment on A Haunting this week was that little scare sequence set on the front porch. An innocuous-seeming red-and-white tricycle starts driving around - back and forth - by itself, and the moment is guaranteed to make you shiver. And then - my god - there was that totally insane closing montage. The episode's editor deserves some kind of bonus for the apoplectic burst of nutty, frenetic cutting here. The set-up is that Ron and Nancy (Hey, Ron and Nancy? What kind of joke is that?) have finally sold their house and are ready to leave, when Nancy forgets something important in one of the upstairs bedrooms. Of course, she goes back into the house alone, and the place terrorizes her with two or so minutes of unremitting terror. Faucets turn on and off. Windows lock and unlock. Doors slam and open. A chair races across the floor of its own volition. This was a crazy, inspired, nearly Raimi-esque moment of horror and I really dug it. Again, I'm not going to say I believe in any of this stuff, only that it is vetted exceptionally well by the production company.
Viewed as a spooky anthology about haunted houses, A Haunting is a lot of fun, but I do wonder how the creators of this show can possibly maintain this pace(!) and adhere to a fairly limited format over time. The story structure is a familiar one to fans of haunted house movies, and I'm not sure how to overcome that. Let me diagram the outline: There's the honeymoon stage, wherein a happy couple buys a "fixer upper" that they shouldn't be able to afford. Then there's the uncertainty stage, wherein the family moves into the haunted house and begins to experience feelings of apprehension, nightmares and a general sense of wariness. Then there's the recognition stage, where the occult is acknowledged and steps are taken to get help (either moving, conducting research at the Hall of Records, or bringing in an expert like the Warrens or Holzer). Finally, the beleaguered family achieves a sense of safety after escaping from the house, in the Let's-All-Take-A-Deep Breath Stage.
The Haunting is a young show, so repetition isn't a factor at all yet, and hopefully the writers will mix it up a little bit, given the above-noted ironclad structure. How about beginning a show with the departure from the house? How about other haunted venues (mausoleums, cars, boats, I dunno...). How about conflicting eyewitness reports? And a dramatization of the same happening from both perspectives? We'll watch over the course of the next dozen weeks or so and see if A Haunting maintains this crazy momentum and visual style, along with story originality...