Color, 1973, 91 mins. 18 secs.
Directed by Kevin Billington
Starring David Hemmings, Gayle Hunnicutt, Lynn Farleigh, Russell Lewis
Indicator (Blu-ray) (UK/US R0 HD) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9)
Long before 28 Days Later jolted viewers with its mixed-media approach to horror by shooting on film and predominantly video, there was Voices, a low-key ghostly vehicle for then-married British acting power couple David Hemmings and Gayle Hunnicutt (who had already appeared together in 1970's Fragment of Fear). Still a hot name but anxious to expand beyond his alternative heartthrob status cultivated by Blow-up, Hemmings decided to embark on this adaptation of a stage play by horror writer Richard Lortz (that dated back in various forms to the 1950s including two TV versions but had just played on Broadway with Julie Harris and Richard Kiley) as an early project for the company he'd co-founded, Hemdale, hot on the heels of films ranging from The Amazing Mr. Blunden to Pete Walker's now-elusive Tiffany Jones.
In an opening sequence that can't help recalling the same year's far more famous Don't Look Now (while also anticipating Lars von Trier's Antichrist), Robert (Hemmings) and Claire (Hunnicutt) take their son to the seaside for a vacation on a houseboat. Unfortunately a moment of passion inside distracts them, resulting in the drowning death of their son. Claire spirals into depression and attempts suicide multiple times, which results in a stay in a sanitarium. Upon her release, they head to her aunt's long-empty country estate to decompress together. Unfortunately that turns out to be a big mistake as their civil veneer drops and the getaway escalates into bickering and mental abuse, exacerbated by inexplicable ghostly voices and appearances of other people in the house including a spooky little girl playing with a white ball (something that will no doubt amuse a lot of Italian horror movie fans).
Anyone familiar with more recent ghost-themed horror films will recognize similarities to this earlier effort, including a late-act twist replicated in a much more popular 2001 release. However, this isn't really a traditional spookshow as the focus here is far more on the strain experienced by the main couple with factors far beyond the death of their child chipping away at the foundation of their marriage. Both of the stars do good work, with Hemmings playing the less sympathetic of the two by a long shot. The film certainly won't be for all tastes with its concept of marriage therapy by way of the supernatural, an aspect that was probably easier to sell on stage at the time. What really makes this stand out is the decision by director Kevin Billington (Interlude, The Light at the Edge of the World) and cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, who shot this between Cabaret and Zardoz, to capture all of the outdoor scenes on film and then switch to video for everything inside the house. It's an ambitious gambit that probably drew a lot of confusion when this opened in theaters, but now it gives the film a cozy texture in line with horror and mystery anthologies throughout the '70s like Supernatural, Dead of Night, and Brian Clemens' mighty Thriller. Keeping things from feeling too stagebound is the interesting and often very dramatic score by Richard Rodney Bennett (not a composer normally known for horror), who would get paired up with Unsworth again soon after for 1974's Murder on the Orient Express.
Though it received a handful of VHS releases in the first half of the '80s in countries like the U.S. and Australia, Voices has mostly languished in obscurity and barely earned any attention at all unless you happened to stumble across it through gray market channels. The 2002 Indicator Blu-ray marks its first appearance anywhere in ages and features a new 4K restoration from the original separation masters for the best possible quality; obviously the presentation is limited by the nature of the source with the film material looking much better than the video portions, but it's a massive jump over anything we've had before. The LPCM 1.0 English mono audio is also true to the source with satisfying clarity, featuring optional English SDH subtitles. The reliable team of Barry Forshaw and Kim Newman provide another upbeat and packed audio commentary in which they touch on the metamorphosis of the source material over the years, its connections to other significant English ghost stories, the backgrounds of actors and crew members, and various thematic and symbolic thoughts along the way as well as additional literary and cinematic connections. In "Wide Boys" (17m45s), film historian Vic Pratt explores the early years of Hemmings’ production company Hemdale formed with film producer John Daly over a game of darts in 1967, which eventually morphed into the entity that would bring the world The Terminator, Platoon, and The Last Emperor, among many others. It's a thorough and fascinating account of the company's history, including Hemmings' "messy" departure from the company after an ill-advised remark on television and eventual reunion with Daly. In "Mon Brave!" (7m26s), filmmaker Peter Crane offers his own account of working with Hemmings on the TV series Masquerade, which kicked off a friendship that continued when they lived close to each other in California. Finally in "Voices from the Past" (3m39s) looks at the tricky process of restoring the film from the aforementioned separation masters with a thorough demonstration of how it was achieved. Finally you get an image gallery of 28 images including the original pressbook, while the insert booklet features a new essay by Julian Upton, archival interviews with Hemmings and Hunnicutt, a brief history of the source play, and sample critical reactions.
Reviewed on February 3, 2022