Ghosts come in all shapes and sizes, and are well documented as appearing in animal as well as the more common human form. But seldom do you see or hear of a spectral building. Well such is the basis for a little seen British fright film, which has been unjustly neglected in the light of many of the genre’s better known examples.
Anyone who claims to have even half an interest in British cinema (or horror films in general) will have seen Ealing’s classic compendium chiller Dead of Night (1945). Widely considered – amongst those who know – as one of the greatest ghost films ever, it’s a celluloid experience which haunts the memory, and once seen is never forgotten. Such is its reputation that, since its release following the end of the Second World War, it has overshadowed a similar and equally disturbing Ealing production from the previous year.
The Halfway House could be seen as a dry run for Dead of Night – sharing, as it does, many of the same elements, including several members of the cast and production team. A difference however – and the fact which has perhaps been the main reason why it has not attained the same reputation as its illustrious successor – is that this film does not go for such obvious elements of the macabre; Dead of Night‘s ‘The Haunted Mirror’ segment makes no pretence at being anything other than a mini, self-contained horror film, and as such is one of the most powerful embodiments of all out terror ever committed to celluloid. The Halfway House on the other hand, is the perfect example of suggested and insidious disquiet – though nothing really horrific (in the commonly accepted understanding of the term) actually happens in the film, it nonetheless instils as much unease in the viewer as any number of more blatant genre entries.
The film follows ten disparate individuals who find themselves, for one reason or another, staying at a hostelry situated at the dip of a remote valley, nestled deep within the Welsh mountains. Each of the guests has occasion to avoid the ravages of war, which are causing turmoil in the world outside. At The Halfway House life seems to stop once you cross the threshold, and the landlord and his daughter (played by real-life father and daughter Mervyn and Glynis Johns) give each of their visitors an hospitable and friendly welcome. But there is more to these hosts and their idyllic home than meets the eye, and those who have just booked in are about to see their past lives and possible direction of their futures, in ways they could not have previously imagined.
As already pointed out many of the film’s cast and production team would also be involved in Dead of Night. A young Sally Ann Howes joined Mervyn Johns in front of the camera, whilst direction by Basil Dearden (with Alberto Cavalcanti in an uncredited role), editing by Charles Hasse and with the legendary Michael Balcon acting as producer – all of whom reprised their roles the following year – resulted in both films being imbued with a similarly deceptive sense of effortless style and air of the uncanny.
Inevitably though the viewer finds themselves constantly drawn back to the character of the inn itself – like a Welsh equivalent of Brigadoon, the legendary Highland ghost town which appears and disappears as quickly as Scotch Mist. The first sighting of The Halfway House, appearing as if from nowhere in the midst of a pastoral scene of rolling hillsides and babbling brooks, reminds the viewer of a different world – as if it sits just the other edge of reality; released as the Second World War was entering its final stages, the sense of escape from the harshness of people’s everyday lives, as well as the underlying currents of patriotism which run throughout the film, would not have been lost on its audiences. Here is a house – with its Arts and Crafts appearance of gabled roofs and white washed walls, hiding a panelled interior of bohemian country chic with narrow, sunlit corridors – in which the weary traveller would be pleased to rest a while, when considering their next move in this world or entry into the next.
The Halfway House is a film which is a reminder of an era of filmmaking long consigned to the annals of cinema history but which, like the building and its owners at the centre of the story, is worth a visit if you desire some respite from and reflection upon the travails and turmoils of life.