Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Art of Ambiguity in Film

By Jerry Chandler

So, starting with the shameless plug… We were recording an episode of The Assignment: Horror Podcast focusing on 1977’s The Haunting of Julia. On the podcast, another film came up as we were discussing films that had a very well executed aspect of intentional ambiguity about them. When done right, it’s something I love to see in a film. 

When people discuss ambiguity in films, they’re usually discussing something or another about how the film ended. A quick search of the internet will get you hundreds- probably thousands –of articles discussing the great and not so great ambiguous endings in cinema history. That’s not without good cause.

A well-crafted story that brings you to a finale that then leaves you wondering what actually happened as the credits roll can be a wonderfully effective way to end a film and to drive your audience towards being the best kind of annoyed/crazy over it. What happened to Michael Myers at the end of Halloween? Did the alien survive to the end of The Thing and what ultimately happened to our two survivors? Did the origami unicorn at the end of Blade Runner mean that Deckard was a replicant? Did Cobb make it back to reality by the end of Inception? These ambiguous endings and many more like them have fueled fan speculation and debate for years; some even very heated debates. There’s something a lot of moviegoers enjoy about endings where you don’t absolutely know what the ending was and can insert your own belief about matters into the ending. Well, at least when the ambiguous endings are done properly.

However, for me at least, the far more enjoyable form of ambiguity in filmmaking is the one that’s harder to pull off. It’s not when someone tells an essentially straight forward story for almost an hour and a half and then gives you two minutes before the credits roll an ending that leaves you wondering if the film actually went where you thought it was going or went somewhere else. While I love that as much as everyone else, I really love it when you watch the entire film and know exactly what you saw right up until you realize with later viewings that the entire film might not be what you first thought it was.

There are a great many things in The Haunting of Julia that made this topic come up in our discussion about the film. I’m warning you now, I’m going to be getting way into spoiler territory on this film.

The Haunting of Julia is essentially a ghost film. That’s how every fan write-up describes it and that’s what most (and I say “most” here only because I have not seen all of them) official promotional materials make the film out to be. A mother loses her young daughter in a terrifyingly tragic way and it breaks her. She and her husband split up, she leaves her home, and she moves into an old house away from the life she had in order to try to escape the tragedy she’s experienced.

Unfortunately for her, the house was the center of another tragedy many years ago, and it’s become something of a dark local legend in the town. It’s believed that the spirit of a very evil little girl still lives there, and once Julia takes up residence in the home the spirit begins to pray upon her. She begins to see a girl no one else can see on the local playground. She hears things no one else can hear. It impacts her waking hours in unusual ways, and it seems to have an effect on her sleep.

It also has an effect on the people around her. The local psychic goes into hysterics whenever she gets near Julia, people seem to act different around her the longer she stays in the house, and then various people around her start dying. Eventually, this leads to her coming face to face with the child ghost and delivering to us an ending that’s dark no matter how you interpret it.

But then you notice something else after a few viewings. The film might not actually be a ghost story at all. Each early incident where Julia sees the spirit of the evil little girl who is tormenting her might be something else entirely. The girl looks like her deceased daughter, and the shots where we see what Julia sees don’t allow us to see clearly which girl Julia is actually seeing. The reaction of the locals to her now that she’s "cursed" by this dark spirit are not entirely out of line with how some eccentric locals who believe in local ghost legends might act. You even realize after your initial viewing that the deaths brought about by the ghost are rather mundane deaths. How mundane? A human could easily do them, and they’re shot in such a way as to not be clearly the one or the other.

The Haunting of Julia is a ghost film with a particularly evil little ghost. However, it’s equally valid to see it as a film where Julia is having a complete mental breakdown with no paranormal assistance whatsoever.

As I already noted, the early scenes where Julia sees the ghost aren’t totally clear on who she’s seeing. It could be her seeing her own daughter, but as the early signs of her breakdown and not as a spirit. The ghostly activity Julia experiences increases in intensity as she learns more about the local legends of her house and meets the locals who are believers. Is that simply her mind feeding on the local legends as she descends deeper into madness? The deaths of the people she knows could actually all be caused by Julia herself. Even the final scene of the film can work either way. We finally see the ghost girl in all her glory before Julia’s death. But, her actual death looks like it could just as easily be the final moment of her complete mental collapse leading her to take her own life.

Other than a few scenes that really do tilt a little more towards it being a ghost story, the film can be easily interpreted as either of these two things and have each interpretation be largely valid. Nothing that happens in the film is truly definitive, and this was likely a deliberate creative choice.

The film this aspect of The Haunting of Julia caused me to reference is my favorite example of a film that completely convinces you it’s the one thing on a first viewing and then hits you around your third viewing with the realization that it might be the other. This film is the nice little bit of Australian exploitation cinema from 1978 known as Long Weekend.

Long Weekend seems at first blush to be one of many films that came out in the 1970s where nature rebels against humanity. Except, well, in this case it’s only a couple of members of humanity rather than an entire village, town, city, or continent. There’s also something very specific about this couple that makes the film work the way it does.

Our couple are married and going through a very rough patch in their relationship. There are times that they’re almost a loving couple, but most of the time they’re indifferent to each other’s needs if not actually going at each other’s throats. They are not in a particularly great emotional or mental place, and even the idea of going camping in the wilderness is a subject of arguments once they’re out there.

The movie pushes your POV along by marrying it to the perception of the two lead characters. Their anger, their stress, and to a degree at times their paranoia color how they see the world around them, and it impacts how the viewer sees everything the first time the film is watched. The first few incidents of bad interactions with the wildlife around them seem fairly tame, and the couple seem more annoyed than scared. But, slowly, the encounters get worse and, well, stranger. Eventually, their encounters with the wildlife around them become more violent and dangerous and the two of them begin to see every creature around them as potential threat. This brings them together for mutual survival as much as the stress of it puts them at each other’s throats even more than before.

It becomes obvious that, eventually, nature will win the battle. It’s the entirety of their isolated corner of the outback vs just the two of them, after all. Besides, unlike the forces of nature, the two of them are just as likely to kill each other depending on the moment.

But, you start to notice something with later viewings. Nothing is actually quite what it seems. The film’s story might not be nature going insane and attacking humanity, but rather one of this couple’s paranoia and anger shading their view- and by extension the audience’s view -of the events happening around them. The film works on multiple levels causing you to realize that you can walk away from it with different ideas of what actually happened and many of them are equally valid.

It takes an enormous amount of skill for a filmmaker to create an entire story that completely steers you towards an obvious conclusion, but then rewards you on subsequent viewings by allowing you to realize that there’s an entirely different story hidden there waiting to be found. Skillfully crafted movies like these and more like them are well worth seeking out.

Jerry Chandler is a lifelong geek who, while enjoying most everything fandom has to offer, finds himself most at home in the horror, dark fantasy, and science fiction genres. When not wasting too much time on social media, he can be found writing regularly here at Needless Things, but has also written for websites like Gruesome Magazine as well as remembering to put up the occasional musings on his on blog. He’s been a guest on several podcasts from the ESO Network, Decades of Horror, and the Nerdy Laser. He has also recently become a regular cohost of The Assignment: Horror Podcast

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