Although most editions of the ABC Movie of the Week are available to watch on YouTube, the state of their visual quality is a crapshoot. There are pleasant surprises, but more often, the image is at least a little fuzzy. Sometimes it’s so bad that it’s hard to discern one person-shaped splodge from another. While Haunts of the Very Rich falls on the worse side of that spectrum, it’s also one of the rare cases in which a hazy picture adds to the experience of a film, rather than detracts from it. As the action quite literally heats up later on in the movie, the cloudy image reads like steam on the lens; the blurriness of it all adds to the woozy, nightmarish quality. Haunts exists on the queasy 3 A.M. plane of reality where you can’t tell if you’ve woken up or are still trapped in your subconscious.
We open in a private plane, ferrying seven strangers towards a mysterious location called The Portals of Eden—no-one even knows which country it’s in, only that it’s purported to satisfy the every whim of its monied clientele. The venue takes that secrecy extremely seriously: The airplane windows are painted black, and the flight attendant rebuffs all the passengers’ attempts to extract information.
They arrive at The Portals of Eden and, at first, the passengers are indeed impressed with the luxurious resort. Soon, things start going wrong. A snake is found in the bed of the group’s honeymooners. A ferocious storm knocks out the hotel’s electricity. The water supply depletes, the food spoils, the staff flee. What at first looked like heaven begins to very much seem like… well…
If you haven’t worked out that the guests of The Portals of Eden have died by the time the opening credits have rolled, then you just aren’t paying attention—and you certainly haven’t seen Outward Bound (1930) or Between Two Worlds (1944), from which Haunts borrows liberally. That this central mystery is so easy to guess so early on might have been disappointing, but Paul Wendkos’ richly evocative Movie of the Week has more going for it than a “twist.”
That cast, for one thing. Welcoming the group to the resort is the formidable Moses Gunn as the enigmatic manager, Seacrist. Though Seacrist presents a convincing façade of hospitality, there’s a quiet menace to his serenity; as the guests get more and more agitated, and he remains resolutely unruffled, he starts to appear downright demonic.
The other major players here are veritable TV movie royalty. Between them, Lloyd Bridges and Cloris Leachman starred in 13 editions of the ABC Movie of the Week. As the group’s soother-in-chief, Ellen, Leachman is as strong as ever, and yet Haunts is really Bridges’ show. Probably best known these days as the dad of Jeff and Beau, the elder Bridges had a film career that spanned over 60 years. He’d lived various cinematic lives by the time of Haunts—he spent years as an extra, graduated to supporting parts in a host of top-flank westerns and lead parts in B movies, and even had his own TV show—but stardom never seemed to land squarely on his shoulders.
That certainly wasn’t due to lack of talent. Although David, his character in Haunts, is introduced as a creepy lounge-lizard type (“Now what in the world would you girls need beauty treatments for?” he oils at Leachman and compatriot Anne Francis, before they’ve even left the plane), his warm gravitas enables Bridges to pull off David’s quick growth. While depth of characterization is far from Haunts’ best asset, Bridges gives David layers of both strength and vulnerability; as he stops his cheesy flirting and starts being honest with Ellen, he plays the mask drop with affecting sincerity. The chemistry Bridges and Leachman share makes their rather rapid fall into romance remarkably believable. We watch them quite literally find love in a hopeless place, and this ill-timed whirlwind affair provides Haunts much of its surprising pathos.
David and Ellen figure out the secret to The Portals of Eden almost as soon as we do; the rest of the group take far longer to catch on. As realization creeps its way into their tortured psyches, they react with nihilism, stubborn disbelief and frantic scrabbling for rescue. Hope is a fragile flicker of a flame that refuses to ever fully snuff out, and that proves to be the greatest torture of them all here; not even allowed the relative peace of accepting their fate, the group have the rug pulled out from under them again and again. To some, hell might be other people; to our gang, it’s a rescue plane that’s forever right around the corner.
At its most frenzied, Haunts feels like all six seasons of Lost condensed into 73 wild minutes, but instead of a whole island, our protagonists just have the hotel and its grounds as the setting for their existential catastrophe. Wendkos’ smart direction and William Wood’s efficient screenplay make great use of their limited location (the movie was shot at the striking Villa Vizcaya in Florida, now open to the public), wresting skin-crawling horror from even the innocuousness of a kitschy hotel dining room. When the group awake the morning after the storm to discover all the fish in the ornamental pond electrocuted by lightning, the resultant stench seems to penetrate the screen. Throughout the entire duration, the eeriness is a visceral, tangible one; the whole film shivers like a mysterious breath on the back of your neck.
If there was much of a contemporary reaction to Haunts, it’s been largely lost to history; little remains today beyond an impassioned write-up in Cinefantastique from Dale Winogura, a few years after it first aired in 1972:
As fantasy, morality play, melodrama, and ambiguous statement of life and death, Paul Wendkos’ film is extraordinary on every level, and it is the only ‘Movie of the Week’ yet made that merits such distinction. It demands to be seen, or seen again, on its next viewing.
Perhaps Winogura’s exuberant review is a tad over-zealous, but it’s easy to see why Haunts of the Very Rich should inspire such enthusiasm. To borrow a similar film title from a certain Mr. Hitchcock, it’s rich and strange; thickly atmospheric and genuinely unnerving. Once experienced, like the most lingering of nightmares, it’s not easily forgotten.
Chloe Walker is a writer based in the UK. You can read her work at Culturefly, the BFI, Podcast Review, and Paste.