October 25th, 2015
|10:46 pm - 31 Days of Halloween: House of the Long Shadows|
1983’s House of the Long Shadows contains no shadows to speak of, long or otherwise. Maybe it’s supposed to, but the print on Amazon Prime is so dark that it’s often very difficult to tell what’s going on. Most of the time the audio is sufficient to let you know what’s going on, but it’s difficult to take seriously the climactic moment where one of the characters reacts in abject terror to what appears to be empty darkness.
I try not to be hard on movies when they are presented poorly by a third party, but this is really difficult because after watching that scene twice, I still can’t figure out what’s going on. Wikipedia says it’s a murder (which, to be honest, I could have guessed from the rest of the precedings), but I want to know the details.
I believe I started to watch House of the Long Shadows once a few years ago, and gave up. I can’t remember why, but I think I just decided I wasn’t in the mood. Returning to it tonight, I managed to finish it. In spite of a poor reputation, it’s not a bad flick--to a point, anyway. We’ll get to that in due time.
Desi Arnaz, Jr. plays Kenneth Magee, a successful novelist whose agent is lamenting that the era of Great Books is over; the Wind has Gone, we’re all out of Mohicans, the 22s and the Rye have all been caught, and every last Height has been Wuthered. "Pfft, whateva," says Magee, "Wuthering Heights is just overwritten nonsense. Anybody can do that." They make a bet: If Magee can produce a Wuthering Heights-calibre novel, he wins $20,000. If not, he must forfeit the funds to his agent. He has 24 hours to complete the task, and his agent packs him off to the old Bylldpaetwr, a Welsh manor whose name no one can pronounce. They all call it "Baldpate", and I’m probably misspelling it.
Baldpate is supposed to be deserted, but Magee is first interrupted by the elderly caretakers, and then by a an attractive young woman who turns out to be his agent’s secretary, sent to the manor to act as an obstacle to Magee. Three more people show up separately and apparently by happenstance. Just around the time Magee decides that someone is putting him on, he stumbles upon a wall of family portraits. One is missing, but the others clearly depict the travelers and caretakers downstairs. All have the last name Grisbane, and upon confronting them with this information, Magee learns the truth: the missing portrait belongs to Roderick Grisbane who would have become a father at the tender age of fourteen, had he not murdered the pregnant mother first. Fearing disgrace and scandal, the Grisbanes locked Roderick in an upstairs room and have been keeping him there ever since. Tonight is the night they will let him out.
Things do not go as planned. The upstairs room where Roderick has been held is discovered to be empty, and his escape seems to be recent. One by one, Roderick begins murdering his family members.
I went into House of the Long Shadows expecting it to be a horror movie, and that classification is appropriate, but you’ll find a lot of websites only describe it as a mystery. Horror or mystery, the major selling point of the film is its cast which includes John Carradine, Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Sheila Keith, and would have featured the Bride of Frankenstein herself, Elsa Lanchester, had she not had to decline for health reasons. If you have heard of all of these actors but not of this movie, then you have probably inferred that it’s not very good.
The performances are great, as you would expect them to be. Carradine is strong and forceful as ever, Lee is detached and menacing, Cushing does a lot of nervous quaking, and Price cool and debonair. Unfortunately, the Old Dark House story they populate is so clichéd and worn-out that they only just barely manage to save it. The ending is so painfully stupid that when you watch it, you’ll think you recognize what I’m referring to, and then it’ll become stupider.
I am of two minds about this. On one hand, House of the Long Shadows is disappointing in that it assembles all of this great talent in one place, and then fails to do anything good with it. On the other, I can concede that the same movie would be considered a classic if it had been made twenty years earlier by, say, William Castle, who would have insulted your intelligence by adding slide whistle and boi-oi-oi-oi-oing! sound effects. One of the problems with movie nostalgia is that we’re very forgiving of old garbage, but we think new garbage made in a more enlightened time should know better. I am very guilty of this.
The film was directed by Pete Walker who is mostly known for adult films with really silly names like For Men Only and School for Sex, and he’s the director who almost made the ill-fated Sex Pistols movie. Shelia Keith worked with him frequently, and I have a difficult time imagining her in any sort of porn film; she comes off here as matronly and respectable. Desi Arnaz, Jr. is a milquetoast leading man, and apparently everyone else thinks so, too--he hasn’t worked since playing his father in 1992. It’s a Golan-Globus film. Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, in case you’re unfamiliar, are cousins who spent the ‘80s producing a ridiculous series of action movies, ninja movies, breakdancing films… Basically, if you associate it with the ‘80s and you can’t take it seriously, Golan-Globus had something to do with it. House of the Long Shadows feels like their unsuccessful attempt to break into Serious Drama. Apparently it’s based on a novel from 1913, and I doubt very much that the novel is any better--although it’s probably missing the stupid ending and the wraparound story involving Magee’s bet with his agent.
Here’s the trailer: