Tuesday, September 14, 2010

House of the Living Dead (1973): or, Revenge of the Ghost Pony

I have to hand it to director Ray Austin and writers John Brason and Marc Marais: they do pack their 1973 mad science/voodoo-ish flick House of the Living Dead (aka Curse of the Dead, availabe on the Mill Creek Nightmare Worlds 50-movie set) with some interesting Mad Movie ideas. Soul transference, animal ghosts, evil twins and voodoo, not to mention a bit of Oedipal family ickiness and some of the better CrazyFace Acting I've seen in a while--seems like a winner from the get-go, right?

Unfortunately, despite this smorgasbord of madness spread before them, the filmmakers apparently just don't know what to do with it all. Misplaced narrative emphasis, momentum-draining red herrings, and an almost pervasive lack of energy hamstring the proceedings badly, and the movie's few strengths are just not strong enough to pull it out of the hole it digs for itself. I can applaud the filmmakers' ambitions, and credit them for a certain amount of vision, but sadly it just doesn't add up to an entirely enjoyable movie.

That's not to say there aren't some good things about it, however--as you know, the Duke and I pride ourselves on finding the tiniest scraps of treasure in even the most foul-smelling cinematic dung heaps, and House of the Living Dead does have a bit of the glittery stuff in it. You just have to be judicious in your use of the fast-forward button to find it. Or else just read what follows.

Quality CrazyFace
Our tale is set sometime in the Victorian era, in the wilds of British colonial Africa, where the aristocratic Bratley clan is keeping its deep, dark secrets. Lord Michael Bratley is the man of the house, a well-loved plantation owner on good terms with both his native field workers and his Anglo and Australian foremen. His brother Breckinridge ("Breck" to his friends, of which he has none) is a former medical doctor ostracized for his wild ideas about the nature of the soul and also for his shameful physical disfigurement. (He's got a club foot. The horror!) Mother Bratley is a sour old dowager who can't stop harping about the Bratley's genetic predispostion to Murderous Insanity--that is, when she's not coddling Breck to a rather disconcerting degree.

Things get iffy when Michael announces his impending marriage to Mary Ann, a girl he met in England during his education. She's traveling to Africa to become his wife, a fact Momma is none too happy about. "You, Breck, and I are the last of the Bratleys," she fumes. "We should be sure there are no more!" Noble thoughts, or Freudian jealousy over loosing the reigns to a younger, prettier woman? Since Mom is a grade-A bitch from scene one, you'd be forgiven for questioning her philanthropic motives here.

Sam Raimi called--he decided to go with someone younger.

To cut the long story short, Breck has been conducting experiments on capturing the souls of living beings, which he reckons to be organic, physical things rather than intangible spiritual vapors. This makes the natives restless, including the creepy old voodoo priestess Aya Kutt (I'm just guessing at the spelling here), who says Breck is "marked by the devil." When people as well as animals start winding up dead, it's not long before a torch-bearing mob descends on the manor house demanding answers. Intrigue, a police investigation, mysterious goings on and a final shock reveal all happen in roughly that order, leading us to our expected Mad Science Monologue and the accompanying climactic lab destruction/comeuppance.

Despite having so much to choose from here, the movie still somehow manages to be deadly dull throughout most of its 90-minute runtime. Part of this is the strange decision by the writers and director to keep Breck in the shadows for much of the film, his experiments spoken of, but almost never shown. This leads to a de-emphasis of the mad science plot and leaves the movie floundering for focus. In its place we get a completely unbuyable romance between Mary Ann and a local doctor set up as the hero, and a lot of rigmarole about an escaped stallion named Saracen who is being blamed for the brutal killings.

"I just can't go on, Johnson! My nipples are far too chafed!"
Actually, the "murder pony" subplot is one of the more interesting facets of the film, taken on its own. We see Breck setting Saracen free to frame the horse for the first murder, which works surprisingly well--when a body with a crushed skull is found, one of the field hands nods sagely, "Musta been Saracen. Horses DO turn killer, sir!" However, the killings continue after the horse is found dead, a ghostly whinny accompanying them. Horse of the Baskervilles? Color me intrigued!

Unfortunately, that's all just a side-plot, and never developed as strongly as it should be. There's lots of boringness that's meant to generate suspense, but doesn't, and even the wicked-looking voodoo lady is given short shrift. In fact, apart from the tangential interest generated by the Killer Stallion idea, there are really only two reasons to watch this movie.

Okay, four reasons then.

The fact is, bookending all that boring pointlessness are a grab-you-by-the-throat opening and a slam-bang finish that give us a tantalizing glimpse of what House of the Living Dead COULD have been. As the movie opens we see a cloaked figure we'll later identify as the Mad Doc capturing a baboon in the vineyard, courtesy some nasty steel traps. He cradles the primate in his cloak and limps on back to the lab, which is a nicely appointed Victorian Mad Scientist laboratory by any standard: all the beakers, copper coils, and mysteriously glowing jugs you could wish for. Once there the dog sedates the baboon and proceeds to engage in MMMMONKEY TORTURE--which I think (hope?) is not of the "actual" variety seen in many other films of the era. He does something to the beast's head--we later learn he's EXTRACTING HIS MONKEY SOUL to be stored in one of those glowing jugs--and hey presto, opening titles! It's a pretty great opening actually--it gets the viewer asking questions, wondering what's up, leaning forward to see what happens next, just as a good opening should.

"Do you expect me to talk?"
"Why NO, Mr. Boon! I expect you to DIE!"

Unfortunately, it takes the movie another solid HOUR to get back to that lab, totally squandering the interest it gained with that excellent start. Breck's ideas about the soul are mentioned only in passing once, and the idea isn't revisited until it becomes necessary for the final confrontation, which (taken on its own) is a doozy. Having extracted his brother's soul offscreen, Breck has Mary Ann strapped to a table and is ready to get his soul-extraction on, with the idea of "marrying" her to his brother by storing their souls in the same jar! "Think of it! A SPIRITUAL marriage!" he raves, and I have to admit, it's one hell of a plan. The actor also manages some truly top-drawer CrazyFace Acting of the kind we love so much here at the Vicarage, which made me wish again the mad science plot had been central throughout.

Best of all is when the default hero busts in to save Mary Ann, and in the ensuing struggle Breck breaks a few of his soul jars, containing the spirits of the aforementioned baboon, a couple of dogs, and Saracen the Murder Pony! As disco lights blaze around the convulsing doctor, reverbed-out animal sounds let us know he's being attacked by the spirits of the animals he killed, until eventually the lab is destroyed and the mad doc has taken a dive off the balcony--actually a BACK SOMERSAULT, which is pretty good for a gimp! As the survivors look out across the field the next day, they see and hear the ghost of Saracen heading to his great reward...which makes this one of the only horror movies I've seen where the hero actually ends up being a horse, so kudos for that bit of originality.

Even the Russian judge scores it a 10.

Nota bene: director Austin went on to direct 3 episodes of the TV series "The Adventures of Black Beauty" in 1974--I'm wondering if this flick was part of his tryout reel?

In fact, with some judicious editing you could really put together a 30-45 minute short film version that would totally rock--that opening, a couple of short dialogue scenes introducing Mary Ann and the hero doc, and then that ending. It would rule! Sadly, though, there's a lot of other crap here that does nothing but subtract from the bottom line total.

I'm not sorry I watched House of the Living Dead--I liked the opening and ending, and the murder pony idea was a new one on me. (Plus, let's be frank--I got nothin' better to do.) I'm just frustrated because I see where it could have been so much better. Still, 1.5 thumbs is about right for my enjoyment level.

Of course, of course


The Duke of DVD said...

Bravo, Vicar! Once again, you bring the churning masses something which most likely would have gone unnoticed. I highly suspect that your review is roughly 1000% more enjoyable than the actual film in question.

This one sounds like it does indeed rank high on the "coulda/shoulda" list. How do you fuck up the ripping of souls from monkeys, killer ghost horses who end up saving the day, and a club-footed gimp named Breck?! Apparently by putting in a rough hour of filler, I suppose.

Note: I would beggar my kingdom for a monkey's soul contained in a vial or small, ornate coffer. *Xmas hint*

Samuel Wilson said...

It still sounds like there was more to the film than I read into the Mill Creek sleeve copy -- just not much more. Thanks for being my mineshaft canary on this one, Vicar.

TURKAOR said...


JamiSings said...

Gee, if I was going to do murder ponies I'd do it all about those horses in that one myth about Hercules - the horses that were trained to eat human flesh who's stables Hercules had to clean out, so he diverted a river to do so.

The Vicar of VHS said...

@The Duke--Sadly I can't hire Breck to provide you with simian soulstuff, since his impressive swan dive took place over 100 years ago in movie time. But there's bound to be a mad scientist out there somewhere who can help. Here's my want ad:

"HEY YOU! Are you interested in SCIENCE? Do you have your own lab? Do you talk to yourself, and get into arguments that sometimes come to blows? Do you cackle maniacally when neighbors post 'Lost Pets' posters? The Vicar has a job for you! Send resumes and homonculi to MMMMMovies1" ;)

@Samuel--The Mill Creek synopses are sometimes, shall we say, "wildly inaccurate"? And this is such a case. There's very little correspondence between the blurb on the disc sleeve and the actual plot. But for me, that's just like a surprise party! ;)

@TURKAOR--Wow, that's awesome! I'm listening to the soundtrack collection right now! Thanks! To my other readers, check out that site for a collection of cheesetastic 80s movie songs, including a couple of numbers from VICIOUS LIPS!

Now, you wouldn't happen to have an AEROBICIDE (KILLER WORKOUT) soundtrack lying around, would you? :D

@Jami--It's important to know history, particularly that pertaining to gods and heroes. And who knows, maybe Saracen was a descendant of those very horses! Plus, I think we might need to divert a river through the Duke's dungeons just to purge it of the odor of melted Roquefort and sex stank. Get on that, Duke!

The Duke of DVD said...

You can have my sex stank when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers, sir! As for the Roquefort reek, you can blame that one on an emissary from Moldovia I was entertaining.

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