Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS (1983)



Directed by Pete Walker, House of the Long Shadows (1983) belongs firmly to the classic horror genre of the old dark house movie, with special emphasis on the dark. The 1983 incarnation represents only one of many film treatments of Earl Derr Biggers’ novel, Seven Keys to Baldpate, which was first adapted for performance as a stage play by none other than George M. Cohan. Despite its interesting pedigree, the movie’s cast is probably the real attraction for genre fans. Four great horror icons – John Carradine, Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, and Christopher Lee – unite for this entertaining horror comedy, making it a must-see for serious devotees.  It’s not a perfect movie, but the performances of these stars more than make up for its faults, even the baffling presence of Desi Arnaz, Jr., as its uninspiring protagonist.

Arnaz plays writer Kenneth Magee, who makes a bet with his publisher, Sam (Richard Todd), that he can write a Wuthering Heights sort of novel in 24 hours if given the proper atmosphere. The Gothic ambience is duly supplied by a supposedly abandoned mansion in Wales, where a violent storm becomes the least of Kenneth’s distractions as a series of unexpected companions arrives. The ancestral residents of the house, the Grisbanes, are returning to perform a final act relating to a tragedy that took place some 40 years ago. Their secrets slowly unfold as the corpses pile up over the course of the night, and even accidental visitors to the home are not safe from the murderous presence that stalks the darkened halls. Kenneth might not survive until morning, much less finish his novel in time to win the bet.

It’s often too dark to see anything as the characters bump about the house, and one has to wonder why nobody seems to have thought to pack a flashlight. Desi Arnaz looks out of place in such a film, and his character falls flat in comparison with the house’s more colorful guests. Kenneth is neither likable nor really unlikable; he’s just a dull American with an inflated ego and a habit of offending other people’s sensibilities. We have to wonder what Mary (Julie Peasgood), the frightened English love interest, sees in this guy, aside from his being the least creepy thing inhabiting the house.

The horror depends mostly on suspense as the characters wander through the shadowy house, although the acid burning scene makes the PG rating questionable. The comedic side remains muted until the final series of twists, but viewers who know their horror icons will laugh at Peter Cushing’s lisping, timid Sebastian Grisbane and the marvelous spectacle of Christopher Lee going after Vincent Price with a battle axe. Cushing, Lee, Price, and Carradine are the real stars of the film, and the action really picks up once they have all arrived. Sheila Keith, a veteran of several other Pete Walker horror pictures, completes the family group as the only daughter, Victoria Grisbane.

You’ll have to watch the movie for yourself to decide if the twist endings work, but there’s a final, quick exchange between Price and Lee that really cracked me up. House of the Long Shadows is devilishly hard to track down on VHS or DVD, but you can, as of October 2012, watch it on Amazon Instant Video, and it’s even free for Prime members. For more horror reunions, try The Comedy of Terrors (1963), Scream and Scream Again (1970), and Madhouse (1974), or check out the stars’ earlier appearances in cult classics from Roger Corman and Hammer Films. Find out more about the 1917, 1925, 1929, 1935, and 1947 film versions of Seven Keys to Baldpate to get a better sense of the story’s long cinematic history.