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Haunts3Like The Legend of Lizzie Borden, Haunts of the Very Rich is an ambitious made-for-TV film from the  1970s that tries to punch above its weight and misses. Unlike Lizzie, however, it is not very difficult to determine the cause of failure.

The story centers on a group of characters visiting an exclusive vacation playground, “The Portals of Eden.” At first, everything seems to be as advertised, but after the resort is hit by a hurricane, things go downhill very quickly as the power fails and communication with the outside world becomes impossible. With nothing else to do, the guests start to talk with one another and learn that each has recently had a close-call with death. As their situation becomes ever more frustrating and unpleasant, some begin to suspect they are, in fact, dead, and that this “Eden” is literally hell.

It’s a nifty premise, but it presents three problems. First, the limited budget of a made-for-TV movie makes it virtually impossible to satisfy our vision of the wild excesses available to the rich. Since the movies themselves contribute to our collective fantasies of material decadence, it is tough to satisfy our expectations with only a dime to spend. Too many big budget memories obtrude. The director, Paul Wendkos (who also directed Lizzie) tries to compensate with soft-focus photography and much tropical humidity, but the sketchy sets and mail-order luxury feel distinctly plaster and plastic.

Secondly, television censorship makes it impossible for the characters’ lifestyle choices to offer anything more exciting than slight smudges on an otherwise squeaky clean, middle-class morality. There are no drugs, no kink, no vices at all in “Portals” aside from a wee bit of infidelity. If these are the “very rich,” their indulgences are disappointingly commonplace. You’d think that so much expensive indolence would excite fantasies just a little more entertainingly fetid.

The third problem is more subtle and fundamental. With enough money and the freedom to revel in wilder notions of libertine excess, the story of Haunts could conceivably work as a triumph of atmosphere. Television’s clockwork story-telling destroys that possibility. The commercial breaks and false climaxes remind us of the filmmakers’ inability to let the material play out in its own time and rhythm, to immerse us languidly in the moment, to answer the demands the setting and story seem to make in ways a lushly upholstered feature could deliver.

The plot does have innate, if contrived, suspense. The characters are stock and played by actors whose familiarity adds to the dulling patina of mediocrity, but complex characterization would probably get in the way of the story’s undeniable chills, just as a truly swanky environment might alienate an audience that views Vegas as the measure of class. There’s therefore little point in roasting Haunts of the Very Rich for failing to be what no one wants. If nothing else, it provides the piquant pleasures of a diverting story effectively, if not very distinctively told.

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