Written by: Paul Harrison, Thomas J. Kelly
Directed by: Paul Harrison
Starring: John Ireland, Faith Domergue, and John Carradine
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“Trust me... dying's easy! Living is hard."
Characters in horror movies—and god love ‘em for it—just cannot stay away from a haunted house. Whether they’ve unwittingly decided to vacation at one or if they’ve purposely sought it out to investigate its sordid history, they’ve been routinely showing up, only to have a malevolent entity—be it a ghost, a demon, a zombie, whatever—dispose of them for our viewing pleasure. Special commendations are in order for those movies that dream up creative ways to stage this mayhem, like The House of Seven Corpses, where a production crew has dared to make a horror movie on haunted grounds. What could go wrong? We can only hope everything, of course.
We open with a fake-out, as a woman (Faith Domergue in her final role) presides over a black mass that ends with her frantically putting a gun to her own head after she summons a demon. “That’s not how it happened,” a voice intrudes from off-screen, shattering the illusion and revealing that we’re watching a cast and crew film this horrific scene. The voice belongs to Edgar Price (John Carradine), the caretaker of the Beal house and its sordid history, both of which are being exploited by this film. We come to learn that it’s been the site of a slew of mysterious homicides and suicides throughout the years, and Mr. Price at least wants the crew to accurately portray it, much to the consternation Eric Hartman (John Ireland), the cantankerous director who just wants to get this thing wrapped. He and his crew trudge along without much incident until one of them uncovers an actual Tibetan Book of the Dead, begins reading from it, and, well…you know.
It’s not a spoiler and yet kind of is in this context, since The House of Seven Corpses confines all its nasty hellraising to the last 20 minutes. But it’s also a spoiler from 1974, so I’m going to level with you: writer/director John Harrison kindly asks that you patiently sit through an hour of peeking behind the curtain of the filmmaking sausage factory before he unleashes one (1) ghoul to dispense of the increasingly skittish cast and crew. To be fair, the name of the movie isn’t The House of Seven Ghouls, and it eventually does serve up seven corpses—you just have to wait for a little bit. You can’t eat your dessert before you’ve had your vegetables, you know? Then again, I’m sure most people also like to know exactly what their dessert is; the ending here is a murky, hazy head-scratcher that we’ll have to come back around to.
In the meantime, enjoy a mixed bag of haunted house ambiance, dead pets, and plenty of on-set bickering between the fictional cast and crew. To its credit, The House of Seven Corpses bounces some fun personalities off of each other, with Ireland and Domergue’s characters proving to be a couple of powder kegs. The two have a long history: it’s implied that Hartman plucked his star from prostitution, setting her on the path to becoming a model and star. Her best days are now behind her though, at least according to Hartman, who bullies and harasses her between takes, constantly reminding her of where she came from and the power he holds over her dwindling career. It’s an unusually stark portrayal of the dynamics of abuse for this sort of thing, and is maybe a half-step away from being a haunting look at what it means to be an aging actress in Hollywood (Domergue’s long career coming to a close here even adds a meta touch to the whole thing). Sunset Boulevard it ain’t, though, especially since I don’t remember Gloria Swanson having a confrontation with a murderous zombie.
Besides, Domergue eventually splits time with Carole Wells, her ingénue co-star on the fictional movie they’re shooting. Don’t get too excited about this turning into an All About Eve riff either because The House of Seven Corpses doesn’t have that much on its mind. Instead, Wells is mostly the unwitting catalyst for the horrific events that slowly begin to unfold at the Beal house. It’s her boyfriend (Jerry Strickler) who finds the Book of the Dead and starts reading from it, putting her on edge and causing her to suspect that Mr. Price might be up to no good. After all, the old coot sure spends a lot of time in the graveyard, and what’s the deal with him actually crawling into one of the coffins? Carradine is a delight in the role, serving as both red herring and a sort of demented horror host that provides all of the twisted lore that’s unfolded on the grounds. As he so often did, Carradine provides a spark for an otherwise stiff production that leans on exposition, atmosphere, and minimal shocks for much of its runtime.
But to his credit, Harrison staked out a killer, moody locale in the Utah’s Governor’s Mansion that serves as his house of horrors. Within, the interiors are a lavish staging ground for occult murders, both real and fictional, with a portrait of a positively Satanic cat serving as an offbeat highlight. Outside, a chilly, gothic atmosphere billows through the grounds, especially the mist-shrouded graveyard that seems to the nexus point of the horrors lurking about. Between its sleepy, moonlit climax and the chalky ghoul it eventually produces, The House of Seven Corpses feels like a distant cousin to the Spanish undead pictures that emerged throughout the 70s. This extends to the bursts of gore that erupt in spite of an inexplicable PG rating that belies the presence of both the imagined, in-movie murders and the actual bloodshed that spills forth during the final 10 minutes. (Fair warning for animal lovers: a severed cat provides the first ominous sign that something is amiss.)
Now, your guess as to what is actually happening during the climax is as good as mine, not to mention some of the folks working on the damn thing who still aren’t quite sure what Harrison was going for. In a remarkable turn, The House of Seven Corpses lurches from a lucid, workmanlike bit of conventional haunted house horror into a bizarre, dreamy fit of ambiguity. It’s almost like watching something that could easily be a passable studio feature transform into an idiosyncratic regional horror right before your eyes. For an hour, you wait for The House of Seven Corpses to deliver on the promise of its title, only to see it do so on its own weird terms. In doing so, Harrison’s film shifts ever so slightly from derivative, dismissible genre fare to this eminently strange, singular experience. Even if it only lasts for about five minutes, it’s just enough to give this one a modicum of distinction from all of those other movies about ill-fated groups descending upon haunted grounds.
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