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We’re all haunted, to some degree or another, by the past. For some, this haunting is a prison, forcing them to constantly relive past traumas, heartbreaks, defeats and lost loves. For others, the past is something more sentimental, a fond memory to be returned to in the same way that one remembers the smell of freshly baked bread or the unmitigated joy of a snow-day. Each of us must deal with the past in our own ways but few of us, thankfully, are actively hunted by our pasts, forced to look over our shoulders for that feared reminder of what’s coming for us. Sometimes, the past can come back not to haunt us but to tear us limb from limb. In the Haunting of Julia, based on horror icon Peter Straub’s novel Julia, the past is not only a terrible reminder of our own failings but a reminder that we know so little of the mysterious world around us as to know nothing about it at all.

Few popular authors, if any, have made as much of a cottage industry of the inherently sad, frightening nature of the past as Peter Straub has. Beginning with Julia (1975), many of Straub’s best novels have dealt extensively with the ramifications of the past: If You Could See Me Now (1977), Ghost Story (1979), Floating Dragon (1983), The Talisman (1984) and the Blue Rose trilogy of Koko (1988), Mystery (1990) and The Throat (1993). Most of these novels deal with a protagonist who must confront some long-buried past trauma in order to deal with a current threat, usually some sort of vengeance-seeking specter. In this respect, Julia is a pretty typical Straub novel, although The Haunting of Julia ends up being a pretty mixed-bag, as far as films go.

The film begins in happier times, with Julia Lofting (Mia Farrow), her husband Magnus (Keir Dullea) and daughter Kate (Sophie Ward) sitting down for a cozy breakfast. In short order, however, Kate is choking and, in a split second, Julia makes one whopper of a bad decision, leading her beloved daughter to bleed to death in her arms. Needless to say, this puts the final nail in the unhappy coffin that is Julia and Magnus’ marriage, leading her to flee to her own apartment, while Magnus’ sister Lily (Jill Bennett) attempts to maintain some sort of presence in Julia’s life. Julia, still shell-shocked from the traumatic death of her only child, only wants to glide through the rest of her life like a ghost

After Julia begins to experience odd things, including some stereotypically haunted incidents at home and increasing visions of her dead daughter, Lily decides to help by organizing a séance. This goes about as well as can be expected, especially if you’ve seen any other films that feature a séance, and leads the medium, Mrs. Fludd (Anna Wing), to issue one of those classic haunted house warnings: leave this place immediately. Julia doesn’t, of course, and begins to investigate the history of her new abode, with the assistance of her good friend Mark (Tom Conti) and a helpful next-door-neighbor (Pauline Jameson). The more she learns about the mother and daughter who formerly lived there, however, the more that Julia becomes convinced that something very sinister is going on, possibly involving the decades-old murder of a young boy. She’s right, of course, but the truth is a lot more terrible than she figures…and a whole lot more deadly, to boot.

The biggest problem with The Haunting of Julia (alt title: Full Circle), a problem that prevents the film from being completely satisfying, is how similar in tone, plot and look the film is to a grip of existing film. The film has a look (ultra-gauzy camerawork, sepia-tones) that immediately recalls the similarly paced Burnt Offerings (1976), while Julia’s first meeting with Mrs. Braden looks strikingly similar to one of the attic scenes in The Sentinel (1977). Most tellingly, however, is the fact that The Haunting of Julia bears more than a passing resemblance to Nicholas Roeg’s classic Don’t Look Now (1973). In certain ways, The Haunting of Julia is almost a companion piece to Don’t Look Now: both films have similar looks and color palettes, camera movement, pacing and settings, as well as the obvious connection that both films deal with parents coping with the death of a child. I’ve never been the biggest fan of Don’t Look Now, to be honest, mostly due to the ridiculous “twist”ending that still makes me smack my forehead after all these years. The ending to The Haunting of Julia is much more poetic and “serious,” although it’s just as non-sensical.

In fact, one of the single biggest issues with The Haunting of Julia is how little sense it ultimately makes. Many of the revelations seem to be rather arbitrary and I’m still not sure what the overall point was: I’m inclined to think that the film was a thinly veiled treatise on the inherent issues associated with divorce in the mid-’70s but what do I know? Once the film settles down into its “vengeful ghost” scenario, it barrels ahead boldly, rarely looking back but never bothers to do anything about the rapidly growing plot holes. By the end, the film has, essentially, collapsed into a soggy mess that’s one part Final Destination, one part Don’t Look Now and a little bit Repulsion. While the ending is quite beautiful, visually, and leads to a tremendously effective final image, it makes absolutely no sense. After it was over, I found myself thinking back to see if I might have missed something that would clear things up: although I’m pretty sure I didn’t, it’s also possible that the film’s structure was a bit thornier than I gave it credit for. Regardless, the finale is certainly a textbook example of “style over substance.”

On the plus side, the atmosphere in The Haunting of Julia is genuinely effective and frequently quite chilling. The synth score, which frequently reminded me of Goblin’s work for Argento, was pretty fantastic and the acting is pretty even, although Farrow has a tendency to be a bit hysterical at times (which often suits the character…until it doesn’t). Perhaps I would have enjoyed the film more if it had managed to stake out a little more original territory. As it stands, however, The Haunting of Julia spent so much time reminding me of other, better films that I had a difficult time really appreciating it on its own merits. If you’re a fan of glacially-paced, slow-burning ghost stories, The Haunting of Julia should have enough genuine chills to entertain on a sleepy weekend. Otherwise, you’d probably be better served checking out one of its undeniable influences.