Horror fans should know better than to waste precious Hallowe’en hours on tepid fright flicks, but someone had to review Mickey Liddell’s The Haunting of Molly Hartley. Experiencing lackluster horror on the big screen on October 31 just doubles our disappointment, though — maybe our expectations for horror are artificially high around Hallowe’en, and we get bitter when we’re let down. There are some good ingredients in Liddell’s film, but they’re wasted by inept execution. Liddell and his writers (who I won’t shame by naming) borrowed from horror standbys like Carrie and The Omen without understanding their sources. They dab religion and parental angst and scary voices and Satanism onscreen without coming up with a cohesive painting — not even a half-decent expressionistic one. What’s worse, the movie seems to have been focus-grouped to a pack of pearl-clutchers; there are edits in Molly Hartley that suggest the filmmakers intended to show or tell us more about scenes that wound up getting torn out or watered down by Liddell’s overlords. Add to this dialogue that would have been sniffed at by an ’80s-TV audience, six (six!) faux screen-startles, contrivances good horror directors learned to avoid decades back, and acting that can be called, at best, unenergetic. I’m not sure even the teen demographic the movie was intended for will take much home from this one, except maybe crushes on Haley Bennett (who plays the title role) or Chace Crawford (under hair and eyebrows so Zac Efron, they’ve probably been trademarked).
Molly Hartley opens in a forest in 1997, where a teenager named Laurel (Jessica Lowndes) is following a clothes-line decorated by notes that read Follow and Keep going. The line leads her to a cabin, and when she steps inside, we get our second screen-startle in the form of Laurel’s boyfriend (we’ve already been startled by wildlife), whose idea of romance is a Blair-Witch shack and a piece of jewelry. Laurel is creeped out, but she’s also touched. Their kiss is broken by a searing pain in Laurel’s head and by the appearance of her father (screen-startle number three), who drags his daughter off in his truck and starts ranting about The Darkness. Laurel, on the edge of eighteen, is about to Become something her father can’t stomach — he rams the truck into a tree and finishes his kid off with a shard of glass. Cut to the Present Day, where Molly Hartley (Bennett) suffers from the same kind of headache Laurel experienced — we know it’s the same because it’s accompanied by the same high-pitched reverb sound effect. She also has auditory and visual hallucinations, and multiple nosebleeds — just the sort of baggage welcomed by any teenager about to deal with her first day at a new school. She and her father (Jake Weber, who’s dialed to the same harried-parent frequency he adopts in “Medium”) have just relocated to a new town, and Molly’s been enrolled in a tony prep academy. She’s not a happy kid — she hates her uniform and her dad when we first meet her, and she’s sick of nightmares.
From here on in, it’s a lazy game of connect-the-dots on the part of the filmmakers: Molly attracts the attention of the class heartthrob, Joseph (Crawford), who naturally has a jealous girlfriend (AnnaLynne McCord), who in turn harasses Molly, whose only allies are the two most unpopular girls in school: Alexis the Christian wingnut (Shanna Collins) and Leah the tough-chick outcast (Shannon Marie Woodward). Molly’s social trauma is aggravated by the fact that her mother, who tried to kill her with a pair of scissors, makes her home in the local nuthouse. It’s also aggravated by the fact that Molly’s on the cusp of her dirty-pillows years — like Laurel (and countless screen teens before her), Molly has a parent who would rather kill her than let her grow up. That parent may be locked away, but Molly’s link to the dead Laurel suggests her mother may be more martyr than psychopath. Pitting parent against child — generation against generation — is a tried-and-true horror trope; sometimes the commentary takes the elder’s side (like in The Omen) and sometimes the offspring’s (my favorite example in this vein is Bob Balaban’s Parents, which deserves a Pajiba retrospective). Sometimes filmmakers tap into our fear of authority and sometimes our fear of unfathomable teens and the disconnect between generations. Liddell, it turns out, is dealing with the latter, but he doesn’t deal with it in any memorable or coherent way — and if he’s trying to form complex or detached resolutions, he only ends up looking muddled.
He also seems a little muddled on the religion front. Liddell may have set out to make a Christian horror movie, or a movie partly about the horror of Christianity, and the fact that I can’t tell what he was trying to say about religion (if he was trying to say anything, which is also debatable) makes his filmmaking seem even wobblier. Self-respecting horror fans are aware of Christianity’s place of honor in the genre, often as a sanctuary from the terrors onscreen. In the venerable horror flicks of the 1970s and ’80s, priests and churches were usually cast as benign foils to the Devil — refuges whose virtue and authority were unquestioned by filmmaker or audience. But other horror films, like Carrie, make fundamentalism their devil. Molly Hartley pulls from the Protestant wingnut tradition rather than the Catholic one, but the presentation is the same. It makes sense for an American horror director in 2008 to replace Catholicism with Protestant fundamentalism, considering the latter’s cultural visibility these days; though he isn’t the first, props to Liddell for updating the old Satanism sub-genre with today’s loudest strain of soul-saving (the smells and bells of Catholicism seem positively mousy in comparison). I don’t care what flavor of religion is represented in a horror movie, or whether it’s deployed as a positive or a negative or even as a neutral — unaccompanied by commentary — but I do care about confused filmmaking. We can’t tell if Liddell gets the difference between religion and religious zealotry, or if zealotry is something he privileges or critiques. The character of Alexis is unresolved, and (at the risk of spoiler-ing), her death (?) looks like it fell prey to one of those studio-commanded edits, as if someone told Liddell to soften her outcome for Bible Belt viewers. Alexis’ pushy brand of devotion comes off offensive in some scenes and justified in others — it’s a curious nuance unlikely to be deliberate in the hands of Molly Hartley’s hacks, so it’s probably the result of weak filmmaking or studio interference. In any case, it inexplicably got up my nose, and it’s really the only thing worth discussing about the movie.
Nothing else makes any kind of impression. Not the lifeless lead nor the rest of the C-List fame-chasers involved (Weber’s presence in Wendigo suggested he might have a nose for good off-the-beaten path horror scripts — not so). Not the barely-there frights or atmosphere. Not the Crawford-imported “Gossip Girl” dynamics of high-school life. Definitely not the stupid stupid stupid screen-startles that should be grounds for having Liddell’s horror-helmer card rescinded. Molly Hartley is worse than generic — it doesn’t communicate any passion for story or genre, but it’s also too corny and clumsy to beg for inclusion in the breed of quiet, subtle, and thoughtful somewhat-horror films I kind of love. It doesn’t do anything well, which even “good” bad or mediocre horror movies sometimes pull off: There isn’t a fine soundtrack, or a great death scene, or an appealing character, or a patch of originality, or an accomplished homage, or a stunning piece of composition, or a convincing atmosphere, or an interesting subtext to be found here. I got served a mouthful of raw pumpkin flesh yesterday by a horror director who couldn’t even be bothered to pass the salt. – Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published on Pajiba.com on November 1, 2008.)