The Haunting of Julia aka Full Circle: An Unsung Masterpiece of 70s Ghost Cinema

The following article, as featured on Crane’s Cabinet of Kinetographic Curiosities, was originally split into four parts, each dealing with a different aspect of a film for which my appreciation has grown considerably the more I watch it. From personal history to origins, execution to modern availability, the attempt of the article was and is straightforward: To properly convey The Haunting of Julia‘s status in my eyes as a hidden gem of 1970s horror, one that is all too often panned outright or overlooked for failures that rest, in my estimation, with the viewer and not with the work itself.

Reproduced below is the entire article, with addenda and errata retrofitted to make the article flow in a way that never happened at Crane’s Cabinet but was always intended.


Originally posted in serial format between 02/02/2018 and 02/28/2018.

Introduction: A Brief Personal History

Last summer, I had a chance to see The Haunting of Julia (also known as Full Circle in some…er, circles) at my cousin (and fellow writer) Cynthia Lee Sheeler’s house.  The Haunting of Julia was and is one of Cynthia’s favorite horror films, and other family members who viewed the film previously panned it continuously for about a year or so as the “most boring” and/or “most confusing” thing they’d ever had the displeasure of witnessing.

Imagine my shock when I discovered that it wasn’t bad.  At all.  Challenging, yes–but it was a visually stunning, excellently composed, and exceedingly atmospheric ghost story, with great acting by Mia Farrow and a memorable, haunting (ha!) soundtrack. I mean, I cannot communicate enough how the film’s soundtrack as conducted by Colin Towns is absolutely fantastic.  After viewing the film as a group, that’s the one thing on which we all were able to agree.  Arguably, this film is worth a view for the soundtrack alone. But I digress.

After seeing it, I had to know where I could buy a copy.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t. Not if I wanted a legitimate commercial copy, anyway.

What is it?

Okay, so let me back up a bit. The Haunting of Julia is a horror film directed by Richard Loncraine and based on the novel Julia by Peter Straub.  It is a British-Canadian joint effort; the leisurely pacing, cerebral story-telling, evocative camera work, and stellar acting attest to the movie’s British DNA.

If I had to compare this film to a better-known movie, I’d say that The Haunting of Julia is a bit like The Changeling (1980), another Canadian-made (then) modern ghost story starring George C. Scott and Trish Van Devere.  But whereas The Changeling certainly has more mainstream appeal (helped by its traditional narrative structure and faster pace), I can’t help but feel that the folks who made The Haunting of Julia attempted to draw in a niche/independent film audience.  We’ll get into why I think this as the article grinds onward.

A Rough Summary

“So what the fuck is this movie about?” you ask.  Whoa, there.  No need to be so vulgar.

When affluent housewife Julia Lofting (Mia Farrow) accidentally kills her daughter Kate (Sophie Ward) by performing a tracheotomy in an attempt to save her from choking to death, Julia suffers a nervous breakdown and is committed by her husband Magnus Lofting (Keir Dullea).

A short time later, Julia is released–and promptly separates from her husband.  She attempts to start anew in London, where she moves to a house with a creepy attic littered with children’s toys.  As she attempts to mourn in isolation (not really true as her friends still stop by every now and again), strange occurrences become more frequent: A Polaroid picture taken of an empty room shows it instead filled with children’s toys; the old radiator in the house gets warm but the room in which it sits remains cold; appliances turn on and off by themselves; and Julia starts to see a phantasmic young blond girl (Samantha Gates) who reminds her of her deceased daughter in the local park playground where, in her mourning, Julia weirdly watches other children at play. 

It is during one such excursion into the park playground that Julia sees the girl and decides to approach her.  The girl runs off/disappears, and Julia finds a dead turtle where the girl stood.  Julia inspects it to find that it has been stabbed in the belly with a pocket knife.  Before Julia can fully comprehend what has happened, parents and children alike scream at her, calling her a sicko and demanding she leave the park immediately.

A short time after the incident, Magnus’s sister Lily (Jill Bennett)–who is still on speaking terms with Julia–asks Julia’s permission to host a seance in her home.  Julia agrees.  Prior to the seance, the medium Mrs. Rosa Flood (Anna Wing) explains that in order to impact the physical world, spirits must first control someone living.  During the seance, Mrs. Flood freaks out and tells Julia to flee from the house immediately–but before Mrs. Flood can elaborate, one of Lily’s friends (an attendee of the seance) falls down the stairs, disrupting the event.

From there on, all hell breaks loose as Julia learns more about the history of her house, the little blond girl, and a murder that took place in the park playground thirty years prior.

My Thoughts

The Haunting of Julia is, prima faci, a relatively straightforward ghost story: A mother is haunted by an entity that reminds her of her late daughter, and misadventure and tragedy follow her as she investigates the facts surrounding who this ghost is and why it’s haunting her.  Straighforward, indeed–on the surface, which is what “prima faci” means (so I’ve just repeated myself).  But as many who are familiar with ghost stories will attest, the Devil is always in the details.  It’s not just a ghost story; there’s a mystery to be solved in The Haunting of Julia, and the details of the eponymous haunting are mired in a heavy dose of psychological horror and suspense.

But this film isn’t for everyone.  It’s a slow burn… a very slow burn.  Nothing happens quickly, and little of what does actually happen, happens overtly.  Most plot-related questions are clearly answered by the end of the film, but some of them must be inferred and deduced by the audience.  And those mysteries that are outright explained are done so through dialog and exposition. That’s not to say that the film is a disjointed mess; it isn’t.  Far from it. Arguably, the inversion of the “show, don’t tell” rule of creative writing is a stroke of genius.  By revealing details necessary to understanding the nature of the haunting via exposition, the audience is forced to unravel the mystery not as some omniscient voyeuristic third party, but with Julia, at the ground level, in real time, as additional information is revealed–no sooner, no later.

Frankly, I like the fact that there are no flashbacks or musical cues with heavy bass to let audiences know that what they’re hearing is important to the understanding of what the hell is going on.  You want to watch The Haunting of Julia and walk away feeling like you didn’t just waste two hours of your life?  You have to pay attention.  Those who can will likely feel as though they’ve experienced something approaching art.  I certainly did.

“But, Randall,” you say in a much calmer tone–for which I thank you, “I’ve watched the film and paid close attention, but I still didn’t understand some of the plot points or catch all of the necessary information.  As I’m not a goldfish with a thirty second attention span, how do you account for my lack of understanding?  Am I stupid?”

Probably.

I’m just joking.  As I said at the beginning, this film is challenging.  I had to look up a few reviews after watching the movie myself in order to fully understand what had just happened.  It’s not just you.  Now, normally, this sort of thing would mean that a film’s continuity is faulty–an important scene was left on the cutting room floor, or the script omitted a key piece of the puzzle that existed in Peter Straub’s original novel.  But that isn’t necessarily true in the case of The Haunting of Julia.  Sure, the novel is a bit different from the film, but that’s not why the confusion exists.

You see, the version of this film that most people have seen isn’t the version that was first released.

Yes, indeed.  We have one of those cases on our hands.

Let’s take a step back for a moment and address the source material.

Show of hands: How many out there knew that The Haunting of Julia is based on a novel (simply entitled Julia) written by Peter Straub, of Ghost Story and collaborations-with-Stephen-King fame?  Considering I said so a few paragraphs ago, everyone’s hand should be up…and considering I can’t see any of you, I’ll just presume that no one’s hand was up.

Well, it’s a true, honest-to-goodness fact.  Published in 1975, Julia was actually the third novel written by Peter Straub, but is often treated as his second as it was his second published work.

Straub had earned a degree of fame with his first novel, Marriages, though no one is really sure why–not even Straub.  According to various Amazon.com and Good Reads reviews, Marriages is a melodramatic mess of a novel with no likeable characters, and Straub himself said in an interview with the folks at the Projection Booth podcast that his first novel was “not so good.”

Straub’s second written novel, Under Venus, was too similar to Marriages and was rejected by publishers.  Since neo-gothic horror was big in both fiction and Hollywood at the time (specifically films based on Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist), Straub’s agent suggested that perhaps he try his hand at writing something similar.   As he and his wife were living in England at the time, Straub spent much of those early brainstorming days walking around London, looking for inspiration.  It finally came when he visited a small park where children were at play, and he conceived of a little girl committing an unspeakable crime in a dark corner of the playground.

The Aforementioned Devil in the Aforementioned Details

Julia shares much in common with the film, but as is the case with most adaptations, there are details that–for one reason or another–are lost in translation.  Some of these details are arguably crucial to the plot, and their absence may be why some find the film to be confounding at times.

Some of the key differences are thus:

  1. Mark is merely a friend to Julia and Magnus in the movie.  In the novel, he is Lily and Magnus’s step-brother, and thus Julia’s brother-in-law.
  2. The playground/park just across the street from Julia’s new home is also across the way from sister-in-law Lily’s home, thereby becoming a sort of connective hub for key events in the novel.  This geography (at least, any indication of it) is not present in the film.
  3. Magnus Lofting is an older man in the novel, and a bit larger in physical stature than (relatively young) actor Keir Dullea, who portrayed Magnus in the film.  This is in part due to the character’s nature as a surrogate father for Julia, but his age specifically serves an important plot function in the novel–namely…
  4. …that Magnus is ghost girl Olivia’s biological father.  This connection in the novel explains why Julia mistakes the ghost of Olivia for the ghost of her daughter (as common parentage sometimes means a degree of physical similarities between siblings).  This connection also places the key background events at about a decade prior to the events of the novel.  The film’s background events, however, take place shortly after WWII–eliminating any possibility of a familial connection.

The Potential Impact

The re-interpretation (or outright elimination) of some of the key elements of the book–use of geography, relationships between characters–may lend credence to the argument that the changes are what makes the film inscrutable for some viewers.  Admittedly, on the first viewing, the film does feel a bit like a jigsaw puzzle with a few missing pieces.

Perhaps the filmmakers thought these details to be unnecessary; perhaps they wanted to put their own spin on Straub’s story.  Precisely why these details were altered is anyone’s guess, but these alterations provide only one possible explanation as to why the film might be a challenge.  As stated previously, we’re not just dealing with an adaptation gap between film and novel. We’re dealing with the reality of the existence of an alternate cut of the film.

But before we talk about that, it’s important to understand the history of the film and how it came to be.

The Film

Since Julia was influenced in part by neo-gothic horror films of the late 60s and early 70s, the novel was written with a potential future film version in mind.  It wasn’t long after the novel’s publication in 1975 that the movie rights were picked up by Fetter Productions Ltd. (London) and Classic Film Industries Ltd. (Toronto). Wait–Toronto? Why Canada?

Back in 1968, the Canadian government had the brilliant idea (no sarcasm) to promote film production in Canada by offering a tax shelter to film companies that had a base of operations in Canada, operated within Canada, and/or joined in a production with a Canadian film company.  Predictably, this led to a boom in Canadian film output–referred to as “Cansploitation,” “Stu Hart-sploitation,” or “Nuggetsploitation” (the latter two are terms invented by me right now).  Some great films saw the light of day during this new golden age, such as Black Christmas (1974),  Porky’s (1981), The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974), The Changeling (1980), and Meatballs (1979).  The Haunting of Julia is among these titles.

The project was granted a small budget and a short shooting schedule.  Budding young director Richard Loncraine (who most famously directed the 1995 film Richard III, starring Robert Downey Jr., Annette Benning, and Ian McKellen) was chosen to helm the project.  Harry Bromley Davenport (who Peter Straub recalled was also possibly in charge of the film’s lighting) was given the task of adapting Julia, and Dave Humphries was charged with cleaning up said adaptation and writing the screenplay.   Music master Colin Towns was hired to score the film, which, as said, even people who hate the film agree was a great decision.

Mia Farrow, best known at the time for her role in the 1968 Roman Polanski hit Rosemary’s Baby, was approached to play the part of Julia Lofting.  Though she balked at first, she eventually took the part after hearing the film’s theme as composed by Towns.  Keir Dullea, best known at the time for his role as astronaut Dr. David Bowman in the 1968 Stanley Kubrick sci-fi epic 2001: A Space Odyssey, was hired to play Julia’s domineering husband Magnus Lofting.  British rising star Tom Conti was hired to round out the major players of the cast as Mark Berkeley, friend to the Loftings (but mostly Julia Lofting).

A Run More Like a 5K Than a Marathon

The film debuted on September 11, 1977 at the San Sebastian International Film Festival under the title Full Circle, and was released to both the Cannes Film Market and theaters in the UK that same year.  In 1978, Full Circle won the Avoriaz Fantastic Film Festival grand prize, narrowly defeating David Lynch’s bizarre masterpiece Eraserhead (also 1977).  Unfortunately, news of the win wasn’t enough to help the film at the box office. Due to a non-existent marketing budget, the movie was hardly advertised, and so very few people saw it.  A second chance at box office success came when the film was released in the United States in 1981 under the title The Haunting of Julia, but poor marketing again ended the movie’s run prematurely.

The film didn’t fare much better on home video, either.  Having never received a commercial release during the 80s and 90s, a muddy, truncated print was shared/sold on gray market, bootleg VHS tapes for the longest time.  One would think that in the modern age when every movie in history seems to have received a DVD release–or is receiving one in the very near future–an announcement of the official, first-time-on-home-video release of The Haunting of Julia would be forthcoming.

But that is incorrect. Or is it? It’s… both, sadly.

Though author Kier-La Janisse and the people at film distributor Arrow Video tried for years to locate someone, anyone, who may hold the rights to a commercial home release of The Haunting of Julia, their searches (individual and unrelated to each other) were in vain.  The producers didn’t know who owned the rights, and didn’t have the paperwork themselves.  The director didn’t know who owned the rights, but knew it wasn’t him.  Peter Straub didn’t own the rights.  Justin Trudeau didn’t own the rights, nor did Theresa May.  The only party that owned any sort of rights to the movie that anyone knew of for certain was Sony, and even then they only owned the television rights to The Haunting of Julia (though it should be noted that their print wasn’t half as muddy as the others).

Eventually, Simon Fitzjohn from Movie Ramblings located the actual rights holder, but negotiations on a commercial release have been glacial due to the rights holder behaving exactly how you would expect a rights holder to behave (like an asshole).

And so, if you wish to see The Haunting of Julia, you’re relegated to gray market DVD-Rs burned from a showing of the film on the Sony Movie Channel.  That, or YouTube (which has the same Sony Movie Channel print available for free).

The Alternate Cut

As hinted at above, another possible reason that a film–any film–may confound or frustrate some viewers is because pieces available in an alternate version of the movie are missing in all currently available copies, and so certain aspects of the film lack context. But is The Haunting of Julia a victim of the cutting room floor? For a time, there was some dispute as to whether or not an alternate version of the film actually existed at one time.

The question of alternate versions and deleted-or-alternate scenes was seemingly put to rest when during his interview with the Projection Booth podcast’s episode dealing with the The Haunting of Julia, Richard Loncraine expressed that he did not recall there being sequences filmed or shown that were additional to or different from what’s in any available version of the film.  Further, Loncraine stated that he did not believe there would have been enough money to even facilitate the shooting of any extended or alternate scenes anyway.  This assertion came in stark contrast to people who claimed to have seen the film when it was originally shown at Cannes World Market.  To their collaborative recollection, the original cut of the film featured the following:

  1. Better pacing, as the film was cut differently…
  2. A larger, more substantial role for Magnus Lofting, allowing for better understanding of his motivations and personality…
  3. A scene where Magnus Lofting discusses Julia’s trust fund fortune over a game of backgammon at the local gentleman’s club…
  4. A love/sex scene between Julia Lofting and Mark Berkeley, further cementing their relationship…
  5. A question as to Magnus Lofting’s final fate…
  6. …and more!

So, who was right in the end? As it turns out, the Cannes-goers were proven correct, and all thanks once again to the diligence of Full Circle expert Simon Fitzjohn. In the August 1977 issue of Films Illustrated, Loncraine mentioned in an interview with David Castell that, upon suggestions left by movie-goers at the World Market, he would remove certain scenes (specifically the bedroom scene between Julia and Mark) and make others a bit less ambiguous (specifically, Magnus’s fate) for the theatrical release.

Unfortunately, these scenes are seemingly lost forever, as neither Loncraine nor anyone else possesses a print containing the original cut of the film as it was shown in 1977. So if missing scenes are what’s keeping a person from liking this film, that won’t likely change in the near–or far-flung–future.

But Even Without Context…

The Haunting of Julia isn’t exactly like the novel, and it is missing a few pieces that might have helped viewers figure out what the connections are between certain characters and what motivates a few of the more major players in the film. But all that said, it’s still worth a watch. And though it admittedly may frustrate someone on the first viewing, subsequent viewings will expose the film’s rich set pieces, excellent acting, and subtle/nuanced storytelling.  Watching it the right way helps, too–in a dark room, in complete silence (you and anyone with you–not the film), fully awake, aware, and alone (or with maybe one other silent person), so as to experience the melancholy that hangs over the movie like a blanket of gossamer London fog.

Some things to note while watching, as doing so may help alleviate some potential frustration with a perceived lack of context (plus, these are just fun things to notice):

  1. Mirrors: Their use, predominance, and sheer number
  2. Stairs: Ascent, descent, and the role they play
  3. Doubling: Doppelgangers, reflections, and similar-sounding names
  4. Identity: Mistaken identity, ideal roles versus actual roles (e.g. childish mother/motherly spinster), and conflicting roles similar in form but not in function (i.e. “two sides of the same coin”)
  5. Linked tangentially to doubling, the appearance of the number two
  6. Settings at night versus settings during the day
  7. Which hand Julia is using at any given time (Hint: The opening scene establishes that she’s right-handed)
  8. Where Julia is and what she’s wearing at any given moment

Conclusion

After languishing in obscurity for forty-two years, it is finally starting to get its due.  I’m honored to be able to, perhaps, help that along in my own small way. The film is truly a cinematic experience that rivals the best offered by Polanski (Repulsion, specifically), Kubrick (The Shining, specifically), and Zulawski (Possession, specifically).  That’s not hyperbole on my part; it’s a cold hard fact (in my honest opinion). 

When I think of The Haunting of Julia aka Full Circle, I’m reminded of comedian Joel Hodgson’s words to network executives when they expressed doubt at his concept for Mystery Science Theater 3000: “The right people will get it.”  And, ten basic cable and two Netflix revival seasons later, the right people are still getting MST3K.  In a similar fashion, the right people get The Haunting of Julia–and as word spreads by mouth, by print, and by blog, more right people are getting it everyday. 

The Haunting of Julia is a beautiful puzzle box of a film that rewards dedication and multiple attempts to unravel its mysteries–and is a product of true artists.  Those who’ve worked on it have every reason to be proud, without qualifier and without apology.


SOURCES:

The Projection Booth Podcast: Episode 81 – The Haunting of Julia

House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films by Kier-La Janisse

Whatever Happened To Haunting of Julia? – The Classic Horror Film Board

AN INTERVIEW WITH PETER STRAUB by Michael Berry for Horror Magazine

Simon Fitzjohn’s Full Circle Facebook Group

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