Friday, November 2, 2007

Funeral Home (1980): or, It's Hard to Stay Calm When You Might Get Embalmed

You know that movie Psycho? The one directed by Alfred Hitchcock? It was made sometime in the 60s, I think, and had a guy in it who went on to do crazy roles in a lot of movies…Tony? Anthony! Anthony Perkins, that was it! And Janet Leigh too, looking pretty hot.

Man, that was a good movie!

Apparently, the makers of 1980’s Canadian flick Funeral Home thought so too. So they decided to make their little low-budget “thriller” an homage to Hitchcock’s most famous work.

And by “homage” I mean “totally shameless and uncreative ripoff”!

The movie actually starts out promisingly, with young Heather--played by sort-of Kathy Ireland lookalike Lesleh Donaldson (“Lesleh! LES-LEHHHHHH!”)--arriving in the small town of Northampton. Katheh is there to spend the summer working for her Grandma Chalmers at the “tourist home” she’s opened in what used to be the family business--the town mortuary! When Grandma and her ‘tard farmhand can’t get the ol’ pick-em-up started to meet Heather at the bus stop, the plucky young girl starts walking the long dusty dirt road to Grandma’s house.

(A note about the 'tard--the actor portraying him either has Downs Syndrome, or deserves an award for his incredibly realistic portrayal of it; and on top of that, in all seriousness, he looks a LOT like George W. Bush! And I'm not just saying that to be mean to our president. Or at least, not very much.)

On the way to Grandma's house, Heather sees a black cat about to cross her path and TOTALLY FREAKS OUT. She’s obviously a very superstitious chick, so much so that she jumps without hesitation into the first bitchin’ blue van that drives by, which luckily for her is driven by Rick Yates, local sports star, feathered hair-do model, and all around nice guy. (In a fairly funny bit of costume design, Rick is ALWAYS dressed to match his blue van--I guess so you remember which character he is.) Rick gallantly agrees to take the obviously wigging chick to the old funeral home.

"Make one 'pussy' joke and I'll swallow your SOUL!"

Meanwhile, Rick’s brother Joe, a newly-christened deputy in the Northampton PD, is investigating an abandoned Porsche found by a crusty old farmer who looks and sounds like Mickey Rooney after a three-day bender. The Porsche, hidden in one of Farmer Hardy’s haystacks, belonged to a real estate developer who’d been trying to buy up land in Northampton to the tune of 6000 acres. He’s been missing for some time, and after finding all his papers and luggage in the haybound car, the police chief jumps to the one obvious conclusion: the guy dumped his own car and ran away to start a new life! It’s really amazing how steadfastly both the police and the townspeople refuse even to consider foul play--it’s not even one of the list of possibilities in their minds. Joe, however, isn’t so sure.

Meanwhile, back at the, “tourist home,” Heather has reunited with Grandma Chalmers and met the ‘tard, who serves as the worst guest-welcomer in history when a traveling salesman and his “wife” arrive and ask for a room. Heather makes a quick date with Rick, then goes in to show the guests around. Unfortunately the “wife” is QUEEN OF THE HARPIES, and doesn’t mind letting Grandma know how little she thinks of the accommodations. Grandma starts to display some signs of mental illness, talking constantly about her disappeared-and-presumed-deceased husband and how he “wouldn’t like that kind of talk AT ALL.” Bum-bum-BUM!

When it comes out that the Harpy is not in fact the salesman’s wife, but his mistress, Grandma heads downstairs to discuss things in whispery voices with a very frightening-sounding but unseen fellow, hidden in the basement. This is actually a pretty creepy and well-done scene, with some nice camera work as we stroll past dusty coffins and left-over embalming equipment stored below, with scary sounds aplenty. In fact, the camera work is pretty good throughout the flick. At this point I was totally digging the movie and thirsty for more.

"What, me crazy?"

I don’t know what the tourist attractions in and around Northampton are supposed to be, but whatever they are, they’re obviously a BIG FREAKIN’ DRAW, as Grandma’s Tourist Home is constantly filled to capacity. After Grandma tells the salesman and his slutty woman they have to get out and receives a callous rebuff from the city slickers, it’s not long before the two of them are sleepin’ with the fishes at the bottom of the local quarry. This led to a sigh of disappointment from me, as the salesman and his mistress were the most entertaining characters in the movie. (In one particularly memorable scene the bored woman actually makes a game of seducing the 'tard, with hilarious results. This 'retard seduction' theme is surprisingly revisted on two other films in the 50 Chilling Classics set, Devil Times Five and Lady Frankenstein--which not-coincidentally both appear on the same disc as Funeral Home! I guess somebody at Mill Creek has a fetish.)

Unfortunately there’s no one to step in and take up the slack, and the rest of the movie goes downhill in a hurry. We get a long and boring recount of Joe’s investigation, where he still can’t manage to get his superiors to consider that the six (SIX!) missing persons reports they’ve had in this small town/tourist hotbed in the last year are anything other than folks disappearing themselves to start new lives. (“You know how man people go missing in the United States every day?” the gruff police chief asks. “Thousands!” Really? Thousands? Every day?)

When Heather innocently questions Grandma about where the salesman and harpy went, Grandma shows why she never plays poker, totally freaking out and warning Heather and her “young man” never to go down to the cellar. (They’d been nosing around, but Grandma’s warning is very pointed.) Meanwhile a guest at the house reveals himself to be the husband of the woman ol' Grandpa supposedly ran away with years before, leading to more psycho-wigging from Grandma.

Any tension the movie might have laid claim to is completely and utterly destroyed by the time the old man gets bludgeoned to death, and when the inquisitive ‘tard follows the black cat to the basement (the cat has been a recurring motif in the movie, though no more is done with Heather’s paralyzing superstitiousness) and gets himself punctured with embalming needles, the last possible red herring is gone. From there it’s a long, slow, DULL slog to the final confrontation, and even the climax of the film gets boring after a few minutes creeping around in the basement. Speaking in Grandpa’s voice, Grandma jumps out, makes short work of Rick (she totally kicks his ass! How embarrassing!) and stalks Heather for another five minutes, doing her best “Oooh! Lookitme! I’m KEEE-RAZY!” bit. Somewhere, a black cat yawns and licks itself.

It’s not over yet, though, as Heather crawls into the infamous closed-off room with an oddly familiar hanging light shade to make the Psycho ripoff TOTAL. Yes, it’s Grandpa’s desiccated corpse, EXACTLY like Mrs. Bates but without the wig, and when Grandma arrives on the scene she even hits the hanging light to make it swing EXACTLY like in the climax of Hitchcock’s movie. The cops come in, the rescue is made, the cat stares, and the credits roll. Over the credits we get a long scene of Joe talking to a reporter, detailing the intricacies of the not-at-all-intricate plot and what happened after, while holding--you guessed it--the cat. The end.

Ma Bates, meet Master Bates.

Like I said, the movie started out with promise, but the dullness, the tedium, the total lack of tension or suspense and the shameless ripoff of a much better movie just killed it. It’s worth watching up until the salesman gets it, and for any scene in which the ‘tard appears, but other than that, you’d be better off just rewatching Psycho. Also, the movie is inexplicably rated R, even though there’s minimal blood, no nekkidity, and if I remember correctly no swearing either. Therefore I give this one my 1 thumb, “Poor” rating—a few good things, but overwhelmed by the bad.

1 comment:

Heath said...

Predictable, perhaps, but still enjoyable, especially the plot thread about the man searching for his wife, finding the car in the quarry, and the conflicting stories about what happened to the grandfather. A slow pleaser. Great to find your writeup while watching; keep up the good work!

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