The Haunted Hotel
Mark Anthony Ayling reviews The Haunted Hotel, a British supernatural anthology film from FILM Suffolk...
The British horror anthology has long been accorded a special place in the hearts of native genre fans, from Ealing’s Dead of Night (UK, various directors, 1945) to Amicus Productions’ celebrated run of horror portmanteaus in the Sixties and Seventies.
In recent years, the format has experienced something of a resurgence, primarily as a result of the televisual exploits of League of Gentlemen alumni Mark Gatiss, Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton, whose fascination with the milieu partially inspired the development of Crooked House (BBC, 2008) and the black comedy series Inside No. 9 (BBC, 2014 – ).
The big screen has also witnessed renewed interest, with Jeremy Dyson (also of The League of Gentlemen) and Andy Nyman’s Ghost Stories (UK, 2017) receiving critical praise. Abigail Blackmore’s breakout horror comedy Tales from the Lodge (UK, 2019) won its director the Screen FrightFest Genre Rising Star Award for 2019, indicating that love for the format shows no signs of flagging anytime soon.
The Haunted Hotel is an altogether less starry affair than Ghost Stories or even Tales from the Lodge. Made on a tiny budget of £10,000 by FILM Suffolk, and shot across two weeks in the summer of 2017 at the Great White Horse Hotel in Ipswich, the film draws on the classic anthology staples of Amicus and A Ghost Story for Christmas (BBC, 1971 – ), as well as a veritable slew of haunted house films and horror comedies, to tell the tale of an eerie guesthouse overrun by supernatural phenomena.
The film kicks off with a smartly assembled title sequence, followed by a quote from Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers about the Great White Horse Hotel. The action then commences with the first story, Watching, written by Daphne Fox and directed by Jean Hogg, a kind of farcical Victorian ghost story involving Charles Dickens and a sinister coat. Next up is 40 years, set in 1985, written by Thomas Winward and directed by Joshua Carver. This one focuses on an older couple meeting up at the hotel to celebrate their ruby wedding anniversary. After that is comedy ghost story The Contraption, set during the jazz age, written by Robbie Sunderland and directed by Amy L. Feeley. This is followed by The Writer, written by Feeley and directed by Joshua Dickinson, a tale focused on the psychological horrors experienced by a washed-up author.
Room 27b, written by Victoria Manthorpe and directed by Adam Collier, is an unsettling story set in 1952 about a young couple who have taken a room at the hotel to engage in an illicit liaison. Nineties mystery Housekeeping, meanwhile, written by Joshua Dickinson and directed by Deveril, concerns itself with a haunted room and the cleaner tasked with cleaning it. Penultimate offering Ghost of a Chance, written by Paul Saxton and directed by Jane Gull, is a quirky comedy about an incompetent ghost on the hotel’s payroll in the Sixties. Finally, there’s Devil Inside, written by Stephen Henning and directed by Toby Roberts. Set in 2019, this final tale is a grim crime story of sorts that pitches an ageing robber against the ghosts of his criminal past.
The best of the bunch is Housekeeping, which makes the most of its short runtime to tell an amusing tale about a hotel employee tasked with cleaning a messy room by her dismissive boss. When the room refuses to stay clean, and it becomes apparent that some kind of weird reset is taking place whenever the aforementioned cleaner leaves the room, things take a turn for the decidedly uncanny.
Featuring sterling photography from DP Tom Rout to complement the periodically creepy and amusing narrative, Housekeeping is a low-key winner. It might feel a bit gimmicky on first pass, but it’s a well-executed short, buoyed by some smart performances and a clever eye for detail.
Another standout is The Writer, an M. R. James-style yarn that recounts the struggles of burnt-out alcoholic Peter Fearless, played with hangdog determination by Geir Madland. Fearless returns to the hotel – the setting for one of his most successful novels – in search of inspiration for his next magnum opus.
As a knowingly rendered psychological horror that fully understands the genre it subverts, The Writer scores top marks. The short features a haunted painting, a well-placed nod to anthology classic Dead of Night, and an increasingly neurotic performance from the lead as he battles against demons real and imagined, in a race against the clock to complete his next manuscript.
40 Years is a strong segment elevated by the anthology’s most impressive performances. Hugh Fraser and Judith Sharp are genuinely affecting as an older married couple meeting up in a hotel for a night of quiet reminiscence and entertainment. By turns whimsical, romantic and a little bit heart-breaking, 40 Years deals with issues of loss, memory, ghosts and ageing in a mature and endearing manner, jettisoning the horror-comedy trappings of the rest of the anthology in favour of a more contemplative tone.
Room 27b, meanwhile, is a well-considered and empowering, if forgettable, period short about a sexual predator being spurned by an uncertain lover with the help of a sympathetic staff member. It features the anthology’s most satisfying denouement, despite the fact that the performances are a bit flat from the principal leads.
Whilst many of the best anthology films feature a wraparound tale to bind the different segments together, allowing for a satisfying and emotional pay-off in the final story of the sequence, The Haunted Hotel does not. Instead, the film is composed of a series of eight independent shorts, bound together by the hotel and the supernatural genre to which the anthology pays homage.
Given that the aim of the film’s producers – Julien Mery, Nick Woolgar and Matthew McGuchan – was to provide an opportunity for local filmmakers to showcase their talents, the lack of a wraparound narrative makes sense. However, there’s no getting away from the fact that it has implications for the pacing of the film, which is, as a direct consequence, erratic and lacking in momentum.
It also has implications for the stories themselves. On the one hand it allows individual segments to stand on their own two feet, freed from the constrictions of an overriding narrative arc. On the other, the lack of a single authorial voice to unite the disparate elements results in a disjointed final product, which never fully coheres into an integrated whole. As you’d expect in an anthology that seeks to cram eight individual stories into a running time of ninety-five minutes, there are a couple of filler vignettes and some weaker entries to be got through, though the film’s stronger elements don’t disappoint.
Weaker additions include the broad farce of opening feature Watching, which feels undercooked and incomplete, despite an interesting historical premise. Devil Inside, meanwhile, plays like a shouty straight-to-DVD cockney gangster flick as opposed to a psychological horror about an older criminal tormented by the ghosts of his past. Ghost of a Chance – which ought to have been a lot funnier, given that it’s a story about a crap ghost who is rubbish at frightening people – is memorable more for its swinging Sixties muzak and period savvy décor than anything the narrative has to offer. Roaring Twenties ghost-hunting tale The Contraption, meanwhile, struggles to balance laughs with the plot’s supernatural elements, resulting in a tonally jarring piece that struggles to come together.
In summary, while The Haunted Hotel lacks the star power of a Martin Freeman or the comedy chops of a Johnny Vegas, it remains, for the most part, an entertaining and sometimes chilling genre confection. The structural choices ensure that that it plays like a TV miniseries of late night vignettes, but there’s still plenty of fun to be had in exploring its tonally incongruous corridors. A competently assembled assortment of weird tales for genre and non-genre fans alike.