It was a dark and stormy night... That's how a classic scary story is supposed to start, or at the very least it should open in a graveyard. In The Halfway House it's sunny most of the time, though it's still a ghost story. Also, it doesn't take place in a graveyard, but in a cosy little Welsh inn. Actually it's not even really a scary movie. Puzzled? Not a problem, but hold that thought...
It's 1943 and the world is at war. A random group of travellers converge on the idyllic Welsh countryside, to stay at a picturesque inn.
An elderly couple, struggling with the loss of their son. A young couple nearing a crossroad in their lives. A terminally ill conductor, with only three months to live. A couple on the verge of divorce, with a teenage daughter, hellbent on bringing them back together. A recently released prisoner, and finally a nefarious black market dealer.
They're met by the proprietor Mr. Rhys and his lovely daughter, Gwyneth, who both seem strangely aloof, as if they're not really there. Soon the travellers realize something is wrong. Why are all newspapers a year old? Why is there no sign of the terrible fire that destroyed the inn a while back? Why doesn't Mr. Rhys have a reflection?
Find your room in a hurry and get your bags unpacked. You don't want to miss this.
It's such a fuzzy, pleasant feeling to catch up with films from the 40's or 50's. There's just something about them, a kind of - I don't know - calm confidence? They're often patient in a way modern films aren't. They're not constantly trying to please the audience at the expense of characters and story. The Halfway House is one such film.
Though billed as a thriller or ghost story, the film initially plays out like a classic disaster movie. First we're introduced to each individual character and their unique set of problems. Then all the characters are transported to the inn, they're introduced to one another, and by then we're halfway through the film. After this, rather than developing as a mystery - the kind Agatha Christie might have written - the film turns into a series of therapy sessions, where each character's problems are brought to life, with the mysterious Mr. Rhys carefully applying the right kind of pressure to push each person in the right direction.
Surprisingly, the movie makes no attempt to hide the fact that it's a ghost story. This is revealed as soon as the first travellers arrive at the inn, and underlined by Mervyn Johns' otherworldly portrayal of the innkeeper. So the object for the viewer is not to guess "if" something strange is happening here, but rather "why". Why have we ended up in this ghost story? Why these characters? Meanwhile the big question of "what in poo-perfect hell is really going on here?" is left to simmer away on the back-burner.
This unusual approach extends to the stylistic agenda, another point where this film is distinctly different from other ghost stories. Most of it takes place during the day, in bright sunshine. There's an absence of dark and ominous music, and the film even throws in a weird slapstick moment or two, just to mess with us. Even during the climactic séance the film refuses to surrender to classic horror-movie clichés, it sticks to its guns and keeps its sunny disposition. That's because at the end of the day, the focus here is on the characters, the darkness in their lives, and the journey they must take.
All this adds up and makes The Halfway House an entertaining 90 minutes, nothing like what I expected, but enjoyable nonetheless.
Optimum in England is responsible for this release.
There's no bells and whistles on this disc, no extra features, no subtitles or anything, just the film. Which is fine. I could have used some subtitles in one or two scenes when all the characters were speaking, but otherwise the dialogue is clear and easy to understand.
The picture quality is also fine. Most of the film looks quite spiffy, but every now and then the film includes a damaged shot, or a scratched sequence. That's unavoidable for such old source material, luckily it never distracts from the viewing experience.
The Halfway House never gets scary or flashy. It's simply not that kind of a movie. The first act requires a bit of patience, and it's not quite the dark and sinister high concept story the setup would have you believe. Rather, this is an intriguing little puzzle of a film, and well worth checking out.
AcknowledgementsThanks to Optimum Releasing and Edith Chappey for making this review possible.