I don’t know what to make of Audrey Rose (1977) if, in fact, anything at all should be made of it, but particularly as it is a movie directed by Robert Wise, long since admired as a great cinema storyteller. Yet here is a stupendously misguided effort unable to address the legitimacy of reincarnation; one hell-bent, referenced and, regrettably, grounded in the cycle of demonic possession film fare dominated by William Friedkin’s 1973’s horror classic, The Exorcist. Audrey Rose is not a horror movie per say and that’s part of its problem; rather, an atrociously garbled stab at sentimentality, using the supernatural milieu to tell its tale. Based on Frank De Felitta’s 1975 novel, reportedly inspired by an incident involving the author’s son, Audrey Rose tells of one newly deceased child’s spirit making its leap into a newborn; the transition wreaking havoc on the homogenized, upper class lives of affluent New York couple, Janice and Bill Templeton; ineffectually played by a perpetually tear-stained Marsha Mason and a thoroughly leaden John Beck. If only De Felletti’s screenplay had steered clear of its rather transparent references to the aforementioned William Peter Blatty masterpiece about demonic possession, and Wise too had been able to resist drawing even more embarrassing cinematic parallels between Friedkin’s Exorcist and Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), then Audrey Rose might have had the proverbial ‘snowball’s chance’ to evolve into an intense and legitimate critique of reincarnation. Regrettably, subterfuge is not Audrey Rose’s thing.
Everyone is trying much too hard to be overly sincere; their fakery even less persuasive as a direct result. Victor J. Kemper’s brightly lit cinematography is totally incapable of generating trepidation. If anything, the screenplay is even less inspired than the acting, although Susan Swift’s inadequate turn as the spiritually haunted dual personality remains a milestone in bad acting from which the rest of this kinetic mobile of featured players are perpetually left to dangle. Point blank: Swift is no Linda Blair (The Exorcist’s terrifically possessed Regan). In fact, she’s incapable of pathos, her shrillness as the victimized fatalist, Ivy Templeton (nee, Audrey Rose in a past life) wearing thin on the patience almost immediately. Whether coached or un-, Swift is so discernibly trying to channel Blair’s possessed innocence she cannot help but be compared (and regrettably, judged as inferior) to its template.
Let us set aside Swift’s physical likeness to the aforementioned Blair; right down to her inquisitive orbs and banged haircut: also, to pretend – at least for the moment – the film has no invested interest to recapture the harrowing experiences conjured in Friedkin’s flummoxing chef-d'oeuvre. Audrey Rose is still not its own entity, but a clumsy claptrap of horror and suspense-laden clichés gleaned from time-honored cinema scares used to better effect elsewhere. What starts off as a foreboding tragedy quickly devolves into an intimate drama, revealing chinks in the Templeton’s family unity. From here, we segue into an overwrought court room soap opera. Even before the penultimate psychological experiment goes wrong, Audrey Rose has degenerated into a snare of narrative threads never achieving their diabolical fusion. This isn’t an A-list horror/shocker, or even a B-grade cult/camp classic.
Let us at least be fair in acknowledging Robert Wise as one of the preeminent directors of his or any other generation, exceling at just about any genre he set his mind and camera to capture. There is a certain cache stemming from any retrospective of his work: also, more than a modicum of expectation for another sure-footed effort put forth. This, unfortunately, is sincerely lacking in Audrey Rose. By any measure of artistry one may wish to ascribe it, the film sinks like a stone. Both the mood and tempo are decidedly off; the overall sense of foreboding mislaid. It’s a genuine shame too; a film so richly populated with marvelous actors like Marsha Mason, Anthony Hopkins (as Audrey Rose’s father, Elliot Hoover), Philip Sterling (Judge Langley) and Norman Lloyd (as benevolent regression hypnotherapist, Dr. Steven Lipscomb), who could have made better/given better material to work with and more expositive screen time to explore their characters. But no; instead, Wise seesaws between bouts of familial normalcy and night terrors; Swift’s screeches, while frenetically hopping about the room, are as effective as grating nails against a chalk board. We don’t wish for her salvation. We’d just like to slap her, shake her, smack her head against the wall and tell her to stop behaving like a manipulative little brat.
Audrey Rose is less of a fright-fest than either its poster art or premise would suggest; far less affecting too, even as standard melodrama. It’s because I respect Robert Wise as a meticulous craftsman, holding his art to a higher calling as one of the beacons in the industry, that I find myself becoming increasingly incensed about my viewing experience with Audrey Rose; 112 minutes of my life that I can never get back and Wise’s fourth to last movie in an illustrious canon of screen achievements, yielding more than a handful of gemstones; his best years (as the éminence grise of such legendary entertainments, The Day The Earth Stood Still 1951, Executive Suite 1954, West Side Story 1961, The Haunting 1963, and, The Sound of Music 1965…to name but a handful) decidedly behind him. In hindsight, the entire movie plays with abject tediousness, as though Wise were phoning it in while lounging poolside at the Beverly Hills Hotel. The picture bears none of his hallmarks. We get neither style nor substance here. As such, Audrey Rose could not have been a more displeasing and disagreeable surprise.
The picture opens with a windswept, rainy freeway wreck; two automobiles colliding head on, sending one over an embankment where it overturns and catches fire, trapping the juvenile Audrey Rose inside. From this auspicious opener, Wise segues to a main title sequence depicting the serenely contented Templeton family. It’s all just a romp in the park – Central Park, that is; Wise intent on giving us the lay the of Templeton’s affluent and cosmopolitan lifestyle. But from here, Audrey Rose will steadily devolve into a thinly veiled British ‘drawing room’ comedy of errors; Ivy experiencing bouts of mania in the witching hours. She screams like a banshee, flailing as a chicken having lost its head; only to awaken from each ordeal with no recollection of the moments only just past. A better child star could have perhaps made something more of the part. But Susan Swift gives us a superficial reading – all surface and zero internalization.
We trudge onward: Janice, the first to notice a forlorn and brooding Elliot Hoover lurking outside Audrey’s private school; his panged presence unsettling as she hurries Audrey home to the relative safety of their ersatz-European apartment. Director Wise may not know it, but his picture is already in trouble. There is, as example, no setup to Elliot’s discovery of Ivy; no explanation for his intuitions, that she is the reincarnation of his late daughter, Audrey Rose. Exactly how Elliot has found Audrey, or knows the Templetons by name; enough to trace them to an apartment or even locate their number in the New York telephone directory is also left unexplained. It’s clumsy visual storytelling and it doesn’t work. Worse, Anthony Hopkins delivers a remarkably restrained performance; discussing Audrey and his suspicions about Ivy with the Templetons over a glass of chardonnay as coolly and calmly as one might make personal observations about the weather. He’s emotionless; bloodless, even and incapable of stirring our empathy.
More scenes of strained domesticity, more contact between Elliot and the Templetons (which Bill vehemently resents) and more screaming in the middle of the night. It all adds up to a sort of chronic ennui. Ivy’s ‘condition’, as example, doesn’t get any worse. It’s already pretty bad. Janice is beside herself and invites Elliot into their home; his voice calling out ‘Audrey Rose’ in a commanding manner, enough to stir the child free from her hallucinations and fits. Bill is perhaps jealous of this unholy power Elliot has over his daughter. Certainly, he increasingly resents Janice’s implication Elliot is the only one who understands Ivy’s condition. At the apex of Ivy’s nightmarish mania, Elliot intuitively arrives on the Templeton’s doorstep; warding off bodily harm as Bill attempts to prevent his entry into the apartment before making off with Ivy through the servant’s entrance and upstairs to an apartment he has rented in the same building. Bill and Janice pursue and summon the police. It all ends benignly, but with a courtroom drama to determine Elliot’s claim that Ivy is the reincarnation of Audrey Rose.
To spare their daughter this lengthy battle and the embarrassment of a public trial, the Templeton’s place Ivy in a Catholic private school outside the city. Regrettably, news travels fast and Ivy is found out by her fellow classmates, who ostracize her from their group activities. In one of the film’s most bizarre vignettes, the school girls create an elaborate snowman on the school’s playground they intend to melt by building a massive bonfire. While the others form a daisy chain around this decaying pile of ice and snow, Ivy is inexplicably drawn to approach the flames, crawling into the blaze before being rescued by the school’s administrator, Mother Veronica (Mary Jackson). In the meantime, Janice sabotages the trial when she dutifully admits under oath she believes Elliot Hoover is Ivy’s real father. Bill has had quite enough. He contacts Dr. Steven Lipscomb to perform hypno-regression therapy on Ivy to validate his daughter’s sanity and dispel Elliot’s claim to her. Alas, the session turns tragic, Ivy regressing into Audrey’s memories of the wreck and unable to be resurrected from its’ trauma. Ivy’s heart stops and she dies, the film concluding with a montage of still images and Janice, writing Elliot a note of gratitude and bizarre apology for losing his daughter twice.
Audrey Rose is so horrendously thickheaded and silly it seems like a cruel joke; if equally as un-amusing and stultifying to the senses. I wouldn’t have expected such an aesthetic implosion of half-baked ideas about reincarnation from a first year film student’s class project, much less an accomplished cinema grammarian like Robert Wise. The film is worse than ghastly. It’s common, failing on even seeming to attempt at the most basic level to entertain: a fairly shoddy effort and no two ways about it. Again, if only the screenplay stayed more true to its source, or rather, had not so badly mangled its altruisms - Vishnu for Satan – as critic, Nick Schager astutely points out, trading “Christian claptrap for Hindu hokum,” then Robert Wise might have had another Curse of the Cat People (1944) to add to his illustrious repertoire. Alas, there’s nothing even remotely highbrow or spooky about Audrey Rose – and definitely little to inspire such devotion to the film. It’s as though Wise and De Felitta’s screenplay can never quite make up whether Audrey Rose is a thriller, a good ole-fashion ghost story or some badly mangled mumbo-jumbo about the indestructibility of the human soul.
As if to punctuate this latter point – rather heavy-handedly, I might add – Wise concludes the film with a poker-faced quote from the Bhagavad Gita. Audrey lived in Ivy for a brief wrinkle in time and, as the soul travels in circles, seemingly able to find new hosts to occupy among the living at random, only to thoroughly unhinge, disturb and destroy the serenity of those touched by its tragic visitations, we are meant to believe the Templetons ought to be indebted to have shared – and sacrificed – their only offspring to help Elliot heal his emotional wounds. Is Wise serious?!? Apparently, so. But the exaltation is queerly disturbing, not nearly as much for having punctured the last vestiges of suspense from an already weak-premised thriller, but rather because, in the final analysis, it remains in such decidedly poor taste.
We could say the same about Twilight Time’s Blu-ray; hands down one of the worst examples of hi-def mastering yet seen. Well aware TT is not responsible for the contents of this 1080p transfer, MGM/Fox has ported one of their most abysmally flawed and ragged transfers to Blu-ray with unanticipated, lethal results. Is it an improvement on the old MGM DVD? Hardly. We’ll give them an ‘A’ for making it anamorphic. If only the rest of the report card was as promising. Alas, no. Where to begin? First, color fidelity is severely flawed and de-saturated. The image is much too bright. Flesh tones are piggy pink at best. Interior scenes adopt a warm reddish/pinkish hue that is decidedly unnatural. Worse: what’s with the grain structure?!? It veers wildly from distractingly thick to practically non-existent, not from scene to scene, but cut to cut. The elements used for this image harvest are in a delicate state of disrepair. There’s so much built-in flicker and intensely unstable grain during dimly lit interior scenes it becomes the focus of the visuals; the image breaking apart under its duress. How frustrating! The 2.0 DTS-HD is more appealing and stable, dialogue and Michael Small’s score sounding agreeable enough. TT sweetens the pot with their usual commitment to an isolated score and Julie Kirgo’s stellar-as-usual liner notes. But honestly, this disc is a Frisbee or coaster for your coffee mug at best. In content it fails to generate the necessary (even, the essential) thrills you’ll want to revisit, and, in presentation, it’s an absolute fail. Pass and be glad that you did.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)