This 1967 British Horror not only terrified me as a child it also set the mould for things to come in the genre. The relocation of city dwellers to isolated countryside settings would echo in later films such as ‘The Wicker Man’ and ‘Straw Dogs.’ It also played on the mysteries that surrounded these country folk with minds full of superstition, bellies full of whiskey and a penchant for ritual abuse.
The film is loosely based on the August Derleth and H.P Lovecraft story of the same name. The tone is quickly set by literally driving the story of the newly married couple, Mike and Susannah Kelton (Gig Young and Carol Lynley) through the bucolic landscapes to a counterpointed soundtrack of free form jazz.
Susannah has been left an old mill that was her childhood home on the remote Island of Dunwich. She reluctantly revisits in the hopes of putting her demons to rest and possibly renovating the dilapidated building into a summer home for the couple. But trouble lies across their path when her cousin Ethan, (Oliver Reed) is enraged to see ‘his’ mill being passed to somebody else. Their Aunt Agatha, played stoically by Flora Robson, mocks him by saying he’d never set foot in the place anyway, not even for an afternoon. He informs her he’ll burn it down to use the land and ridding it of the Whately curse that hangs from the rafters like the old mill chains.
It’s not only the chains that are rattled either. What lurks in the attic is the crux of the mystery that has haunted Susannah all her life and what keeps the inhabitants of the island away more effectively than a hungry Rottweiler. Agatha warns the newlyweds to return to New York. To stay in the mill would cost their lives she tells them, once again reinforcing the myth of the demon that a one eyed islander said possessed, “ The hot breath of hell.” Each time we see the world through the POV of the trapped beast in the attic the jolly jazz breaks into rapid conga rattles reminiscent of a moth caught in a lampshade. The layers of claustrophobic captivity are stacked throughout the film.
The main theme is being trapped and trying to break the chains to freedom. We have a visual metaphor with Aunt Agatha’s tied up bird of prey that she loves, “Because it’s wild and would bite her if were free, but that’s the way God made her.” There’s also the thing chained up in the attic that attacks anything that comes close to it; not to mention Susannah being trapped by the gang intent on raping her before she leaves. Meanwhile Aunt Agatha discloses the real secret of what rattles in the shuttered room to Mike and admits she invented the curse to keep out strangers and islanders alike. She’s been trapped by a duty that has been the real curse of her own life and the peace of the island.
This pursuit of his beautiful cousin is the death warrant of Ethan who searches for her with a burning decapitated teddy bear between the rafters. Whatever monster is up there switches the game and Oliver Reed is now the mouse hanging from the chains that dangle from the lucam. Mike also escapes from his own trap after the men in the gang ambushed him to allow Ethan to have his way with Susannah. He arrives to find Ethan dead in the dust below the mill and the place smoking with fire….
A great locked door mystery that was a leading light for British Horror and one film that still manages to terrify even after all these years.
Review by Tony Cowin
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