On its fog-shrouded surface, Kevin Billington’s VOICES (1973) is an unusual supernatural thriller involving ghosts and a haunted house but if you take the time to look beyond its spooky exterior you might be surprised by what you find there. This fascinating horror film has a rich and winding history that first took shape in 1953 and its roots are coiled through many horror classics that have borrowed its premise and visual language without crediting the source.
VOICES is based on the work of the accomplished horror author Richard Lortz (Lovers Living Lovers Dead, Bereavements, Dracula’s Children) and it introduces us to a young couple played by David Hemmings & Gayle Hunnicutt whose idyllic existence is turned upside down when their young son accidentally drowns. Through a series of flashbacks we learn that the mother, Claire Williams, was deeply traumatized by the loss of her child and after numerous suicide attempts she was finally hospitalized. Her husband Robert has been trying to cope with the stress as well but it is plainly apparent that the grim circumstances of their situation have become increasingly difficult to bear.
After Claire is released from the hospital the couple plans a trip to the country where they can relax in a large manor house that was left to Claire by her recently deceased aunt. It seems like the perfect setting for the couple to rekindle their romance but things begin to disintegrate quickly after their trip becomes hindered by the foggy weather. And things reach a breaking point after Claire begins hearing strange unidentifiable voices in the house once they arrive. Eventually these voices take shape and Claire comes face to face with the ghostly figure of a young girl playing with a toy ball who doesn’t seem aware of the couple’s presence. But she isn’t the only ghost haunting the old house and before the film is over both Claire and her husband Robert will experience a series of unexplained supernatural events that leave them questioning their sanity as well as their very existence.
This leisurely paced thriller takes time to develop its characters and tell its story. We learn about the couple’s history as they engage in an intimate battle of wits and words while trying to come to terms with the horrific events that have brought them both to the house. Some will undoubtedly find VOICES a tough slog but I was drawn in by the couples painful and occasionally all too familiar bickering that weaves this tale together. If you’ve been married for as long as I have or have been in any kind of relationship for a lengthy period of time you know how contentious a loving couple can suddenly become given the right circumstances. It’s a sad truth that we often hurt the ones we love the most and Robert and Claire attack each other as if they’re storming the beaches of Normandy. Their verbal sparring is interrupted by quick cuts that emphasize the trauma they share, made particularly powerful by Kevin Billington’s hyper editing style and intimate direction. But VOICES dose get stagy at times, which may be distracting if you’re not fully engaged with the unfolding drama. And the look of the film is somewhat hampered by its low-budget. But overall, this an extremely effective and atmospheric little horror movie with a twist ending that should catch more than a few viewers by surprise.
As I mentioned previously, the film features David Hemmings and his real-life wife at the time, Gayle Hunnicutt. The two talented actors were undoubtedly one of the most attractive and style-conscious couples of the swinging sixties but they only appeared in a few films together, the fascinating psychological thriller FRAGMENT OF FEAR (1970), LOVE MACHINE (1971), and VOICES. During this period both Hemmings and Hunnicutt individually appeared in some surprisingly good horror films and suspenseful dramas such as EYE OF THE CAT (1969), UNMAN, WITTERING AND ZIGO (1971), THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (1974) and Dario Argento’s DEEP RED (1975). These movies made good use of the actor’s abilities to express fear and deep-seated paranoia. After appearing in Antonioni’s BLOWUP (1966), Hemmings seemed ideally suited to portray men caught up in a series of circumstances that they can’t fully understand or control. He brought a real sense of gravitas to his roles but for reasons unknown to me, Hunnicutt never achieved the same kind of success or critical attention as her husband. She’s particularly memorable as Ann Barrett in THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE and together, both Hemmings and Hunnicutt deliver two of their most considerate performances in VOICES. Their verbal sparring is especially poignant and may hint at the underlying stresses that eventually caused them to divorce.
Deciphering the film’s fascinating plot points and exploring the rich back story of how Richard Lortz’s work was adapted for the big screen became an increasingly complicated task once I decided to share my thoughts about the film. So please excuse my need to play film history detective but VOICES triggered my inner Nancy Drew.
The ghostly apparition of a young girl that first appears before Claire will remind some keen-eyed viewers of the devilish young girl seen in Mario Bava’s KILL BABY, KILL! (1966) and Federico Fellini’s TOBY DAMMIT (a segment of the horror anthology SPIRITS OF THE DEAD; 1968). She’s the first real threat to Claire’s fragile sanity, signaling that the world Claire inhabits isn’t as firmly grounded in reality as she may have assumed. As Claire’s grip on her surroundings slowly begins to unravel it’s impossible to forget the menacing bouncing ball clutched in the little girl’s hands. Although these scenes are undoubtedly made more ominous in Kevin Billington’s film, Richard Lortz also mentions the young girl and her ball in his original play. What the young girl and her ball represent is anyone’s guess so I’ll leave that up to your imagination but it is an image that has found its way into a small handful of noteworthy horror films.
Heck Harvey’s exceptional independent shocker CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962) also shares some surprising similarities with VOICES in the way that both films end. And the drowning death of a child was the catalyst for Nicolas Roeg’s highly regarded horror classic, DON’T LOOK NOW (1973), which was a script choice the director made that varies from Daphne du Maurier’s original story. The progression of Roeg’s film and various story elements are also very reminiscent of Lortz’s VOICES.
Did Bava see a television or stage adaptation of Lortz’s play before writing KILL BABY, KILL! and LISA AND THE DEVIL (1974), which also shares similarities with VOICES? Was Harvey familiar with Lortz’s work before making CARNIVAL OF SOULS? And did Nicolas Roeg’s DON’T LOOK NOW borrow any of its ideas from Lortz? It’s doubtful but possible.
VOICES first came to life as a screenplay in 1953 for an episode of the SUSPENSE television series, which Lortz originally titled THE OTHERS. Lortz then went on to write a stage play based on THE OTHERS, which apparently opened in 1967 and featured Donald Houston and Margaret Lockwood in the roles of Claire and Robert Williams. Later the writer re-titled THE OTHERS as VOICES and the play opened in the US with Julie Harris and Richard Kiley in the starring roles. Lortz’ screenplay for THE OTHERS was also adapted for an episode of the British television series, ARMCHAIR THEATRE, which was directed by Piers Haggard (BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW; 1971, THE QUATERMASS CONCLUSION; 1979, VENOM; 1981, etc.) before Kevin Billington (THE RISE AND RISE OF MICHAEL RIMMER; 1970, THE LIGHT AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD; 1971, etc.) made his feature-length film version using the title of VOICES.
Billington’s film is faithful to Lortz’s original play but the setting is slightly different. Lortz originally had his characters caught in a snowstorm instead of dense fog. The convoluted history of how Lortz’s work was developed for television, stage, and screen seems shrouded in mystery and is hard to decipher with the limited resources I have but I think it’s worth recounting. Lortz’s stage plays were met with good but somewhat reserved reviews. Piers Haggard’s television adaptation of THE OTHERS seems to have made an impression on British audiences who refer to it repeatedly on the IMDB chat boards but the 1973 film adaptation is almost forgotten. It’s gotten very little attention in the UK and the US but VOICES seems to have found a slightly more appreciative audience in Italy where it was released under the title E SE OGGI FOSSE GIA DOMANI?
Despite its lackluster reception, VOICES must have made a notable impression on some American and European filmmakers because there’s no getting around the fact that director’s like M. Night Shyamalan (THE SIXTH SENSE; 1999) and in particular, Alejandro Amenábar (THE OTHERS; 2001) were probably familiar with Lortz’ work before writing and directing their own supernatural thrillers. I hate assuming anything but some of the similarities between their work and VOICES are, for lack of a better word, uncanny. From the ghostly fog that enshrines the large ominous house, Claire and Robert become trapped in, to the surprise twist endings, and in the case of THE OTHERS, its all too familiar title. It seems highly improbable that Amenábar was unfamiliar with VOICES before making his film. THE OTHERS owes too much to Kevin Billington’s 1973 movie for the similarities to be merely coincidental.
Of course, VOICES isn’t without its own influence. Lortz’s original screenplay undoubtedly found inspiration in many classic supernatural stories and the cruel banter shared between Robert and Claire is undeniably reminiscent of George and Martha in Edward Albee’s play, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Besides the cutting dialogue, they also share strikingly similar themes. Both plays stress the importance of living without illusion and being responsible for the choices we make. They also use dead or unborn children as a symbol of everything that is missing from the couple’s marriages when the truth is in fact much more complicated and compelling. And both couples act out their personal drama in front of “others.” In Edward Albee’s play the “others” are another couple that reluctantly bears witness to George and Martha’s personal drama and in Richard Lortz’s work “the others” are ghosts of the past that must silently endure the Williams’ inability to come to terms with the present.
It’s easy to assume that Lortz may have been inspired to expand his short story into a stage play focusing on a couple’s deteriorating marriage after he became familiar with Albee’s work. And although VOICES is a horror film with supernatural elements, it would make a fascinating double feature with Mike Nichols’ Oscar-winning film adaptation of WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (1966).
After watching this thoughtful horror film for the first time I couldn’t help but wonder why it wasn’t more widely known and appreciated. Apparently, it was released on video in the US as NIGHTMARES but it’s never been released on DVD so that may explain why it’s been relatively ignored among horror enthusiasts. The film definitely deserves a wider audience and hopefully, a restored print of Kevin Billington’s movie will find its way onto DVD in the future. In the meantime, you can watch the film on Youtube, which is where I saw it. It’s not an ideal viewing experience but one well worth having.
by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally published at TCM.com in 2011