Wednesday, February 11, 2009

This House Possessed (1981): or, Sensitive You're Not

Riddle me this, Man-Bat: why, oh WHY has no enterprising executive at one of the former Big Three networks stepped up at a board meeting and proposed dipping into the store of made-for-TV horror movies of the 70s and early 80s to produce an extras-laden super-deluxe box set? The generation of TV-addicted kids from that era are now hitting their mid-life crises, and are desperate to possess totems of the formative events of their lost lamented youth--which are uniformly TV shows and movies. And since no cash cow is more ready to be milked of its creamy nostalgia than middle-aged horror freaks, it's really a license to print money.

Yet apart from the prodigious output of the periodically great Dan Curtis, much of the excellent made-for-TV horror of this era still languishes on bootleg tables at horror cons, late-night regional cable programming, and the deep dark subconscious chambers of those now-grown children they traumatized ages ago. No amount of clamor for an SE of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark has yet borne fruit. Only a few entries, like Dark Night of the Scarecrow, have seen the light of day.

Case in point, today's case study: 1981's well-made haunted house flick, This House Possessed.

Full disclosure: this is a movie with which the Vicar-ious family has a History. Back in the dark ages before DVD, before Cable, before even VCRs had become standard equipment, the lil' Vicar and his brothers used to watch anything and everything the Big 3 networks offered, particularly any Movie of the Week that looked exciting or spooky. The Vicar's younger brother was so traumatized by one particular scene in This House Possessed that the movie has become something of a family legend. So when I got a chance to see it again after so many years of myth-building and brother-teasing, I had to wonder: would it hold up?

StoneHENGE! Where the Demons dwell!

There's something to be said for the commercial TV strictures director William Wiard had to work in--when you have to grab your audience's interest before the first commercial break, there's no time for screwing around. As the opening credits roll under an excellent, dissonant toy piano and wailing strings score, we follow two horny young kids as they try to break into the gated grounds of the palatial titular house. Apparently mid-day makeout spots are in short supply, and the hormone-wracked young'uns soon scale the fence and head up to the front door. The perky blonde girl (in tiny shiny gym shorts) peers through the front windows and muses, "It'd be great to play house here!" Her partner, however, is more interested in playing Doctor.

Failing to breach the house's deadbolt defenses, the kids decide to lie down on the front lawn and let nature take its course. Unfortunately their attempted B&E has awakened the house's more supernatural anti-vandalism measures: an ominous security camera follows their every move and the monitors in the dust-covered, abandoned guard room flicker to life. As the lovers bump bellies on the Bermuda, a snakelike hose slithers from the flower bed out to their chosen picnic spot. Just as our boy is about to slide into Third Base, the hose rises up--LIKE A COBRA!--and sprays superheated water on them, driving them off the lawn as you would a pair of copulating dogs! Mission accomplished, the hose puts itself away with the aid of reverse filming and an almost-invisible fishing line.

Having economically established his basic "The House is Alive and Cranky" premise, Wiard now flexes his directorial muscles a bit, giving us some nice moody shots of the very desolate exterior. Though the house's architecture is less of the Macabre than the Mike Brady school, the long pillar-lined hallways and shadowy rooms full of sheet-draped furniture do create a sort of modern Gothic atmosphere. The consistently creepy, excellent score by Rocky Moriana helps too.


In one of the aforementioned darkened rooms, a television set turns itself on, joining a disco-lit pop concert already in progress. The man on the mic is Gary Straihorn (former Hardy Boy Parker Stevenson), a rock star of the "Jim Morrison meets Pat Boone" school. His hair feathered to dreamy perfection, his black satin shirt open to the belt buckle, Straihorn rocks the flare-trousered crowd with a bitter breakup song I guarantee will be stuck in your head for days afterward, "Sensitive (You're Not)":
I could have danced all night! Unfortunately, the festivities are interrupted when in mid-chorus Gary collapses to the stage. Whether this is the effect of the House's maleficent powers, or merely the result of ROCKING ENTIRELY TOO HARD, the unconscious tunester is rushed to the hospital, where he is quickly diagnosed as suffering from exhaustion and prescribed a long vacation from the rocking.


Ensured the best possible care by his manager Arthur Keene (the legendary Slim Pickens), Gary is assigned his own personal nurse, Sheila Moore (Lisa Eilbacher). Sheila shows her SENSITIVITY by calming Gary when he wakes up from a nightmare, from which he awakens belting out an incredible Walt-Disney's-Goofy yell. But she has spunk too--when Gary's model friend and sometime lover Tanya shows up (an awesomely self-centered Shelley Smith) and tries to bully her way into his room, Sheila calls the big black guards to toss her (the fuck) out. Caring, protective, and an excellent physical therapist (Gary charms her with the pick-up line, "Are you a fugitive from a massage parlor?" SMOOVE.), Sheila seems to be just the kind of girl the rock star's been pining for.

Lest we forget the reason we're all here, we now cut back to the abandoned house, where the security monitors are somehow tied in to the hospital's closed-circuit camera system, eavesdropping on Gary and Slim while they plan the rocker's downtime. Gary decides he'll use the vacation to write some new songs, but Slim insists that his meal ticket hire a personal nurse to keep him healthy while he's not onstage. Of course Gary offers the gig to Sheila, who readily accepts. However, an ominous warning from one of Sheila's bosses hints at some dark, mysterious secret in the good girl's past that you just KNOW is going to become important later.

Cut loose from the hospital, Gary and Sheila take off in his bitchin' Ford Bronco in search of a suitable place to shack up and make sweet, healthful music. No points for guessing their eventual destination--drawn toward the House like a compass needle to Magnetic North, Gary and Sheila immediately pronunce it "Sensational!" and look up the local real estate agent to make an offer. The broker tells them the house has been abandoned for 20 years, but was designed at least that far ahead of its time. "You don't need any help taking care of it--It's almost as if the house was planned by someone who never wanted to hire a housekeeper!" Oh reeeeaaally? Among the house's futuristic features are solar panels that provide all the energy, windows made of unbreakable glass, and a central control room from which you can run the ac/heater, monitor every room via security camera, and even electronically lock all the doors and windows! Handy, no?

"Oh, little Turner South logo...whatever will I do with you?"

They move in immediately, and it doesn't take long for the creepiness to set in--in fact, on their very first night, Sheila is awakened by a mysterious voice calling the name "Margaret." The curious nurse, clad in a negligee by Barbara Steele Underthings Ltd., goes walking down a covered outdoor walkway in the moonlight, the wind blowing her dress to the side in textbook Gothic splendor. When Gary jump-scares her to full awareness, though, the voice is silenced. Was it all in her head?

Gary gets to work on his music, Sheila dispenses migraine pills and massages with equal aplomb, and soon young love is blossoming. The insectoid security cameras continue to follow them everywhere in a pleasantly chilling way, clearly paying more attention to Sheila now than to her rocker boyfriend. When the security monitors start displaying b&w pictures of a young girl next to shots of Sheila about her business, and a Crazy Ralph-esque bag lady in town also calls Sheila "Margaret," well gang, it looks like there's a mystery afoot.

As things hot up between Sheila and Gary, the House starts to act out even more--and in at least one case, with cause. In a scene that could be an excerpt from the "How to Get Busted for Sexual Harassment" corporate training video, Gary gets rather forward with his nurse, smothering her with kisses and pushing her down on the couch, despite the fact that she keeps saying "No!" and trying to push him off. When it becomes clear Gary doesn't understand the words "Do NOT hold me down and force your tongue down my throat!", the House takes action, setting off the burglar alarms and flashing all the lights. "I guess that kinda blows the moment, doesn't it?" Gary huffs to his weeping employee. What, you mean the rapey moment? Yes, Gary, I guess it does.

Her's a tip, guys: if she's keeping her arms tight against her sides while you make out with her, you should probably stop and reassess.

It has to be said that, despite the questionable sexual politics (it's never suggested that the house had anything to do with his attack, nor are any hard feelings evinced), Wiard's direction here is really top-notch. The aforementioned neo-Gothic set pieces bring a smile to my face, and Wiard has a real handle on how to build suspense. In one particularly effective scene he runs through some classic haunted house tropes--the mysterious self-playing music box and the discovery of a CREEPY CHILD'S DOLL (a personal fave), using camera movement and Moriana's afore-praised music to really amp up the unease. It's spooky, even in broad daylight.

Another interesting technique is Wiard's use of repeated "screen-within-a-screen" shots, and by this I mean a television or monitor screen centrally framed within the larger frame of the television set. (I'm picturing this in its originally intended method of display--i.e., my family's sofa-sized TV/turntable combo). Wiard often puts us right in the control room where the spirit of the house is "watching" the hapless heroes through the security monitors. The whole "watching TV on TV" thing is funhouse enough, but it also serves to put the viewer in the malevolent spirit's point of view, unable to see the horror because we are within it. Maybe there's a paper to be written here about the audience's complicity in the horrors perpetrated on the protagonists, since like the House we WANT to see them suffer (otherwise why tune in?), but that's out of my scope here. What I really want to talk about is the scene that made my brother ruin his little footie pajamas.

Smile--you're on Candarian Camera!

The day after Sheila spurns Gary's advances, who should show up but that beautiful bitch Tanya, who somehow got their location from Slim Pickens. (I'm guessing all it took was a low-cut blouse and a fifth of Wild Turkey.) Pretending not to remember Sheila from the hospital, Tanya immediately starts lording her status as "your boss's fuckbuddy" over the nurse, sweetly demanding she carry her bags to her room, where "she's not planning on getting much sleep anyway" IYKWIM. Sheila is obviously threatened by Tanya's beauty and her history with Gary, and Tanya twists the knife with eeevil condescension: for instance, when she asks Sheila to leave the room while she changes clothes, Tanya says sweetly, "Do you mind, dear? I know I make my living standing around half-naked, but I don't like to do it in front of the help." BAM. That's cold, baby.

Despite Gary's tepid reassurances ("Tanya is like booze--too much can make you sick, but the first couple of shots are TERRIFIC."), Sheila decides to leave the two glamor dolls to it and goes into town for supplies. There she has another run-in with the Rag Lady, gets some helpful exposition about the house's past from a chatty librarian ("Years ago--trouble out there. People dying, like that!"), and a promise of more mysteries to be unfolded.

Meanwhile, back at the house, Tanya is setting up for THE SCENE. Not noticing the angry crack in her bedroom mirror, she steps blithely into the guest shower, humming the song Gary played her the night before. She wets down, washes her hair, luxuriates in the warming spray of water--and then of course, the BLOOD comes.

It's a cliche to have blood coming out of the faucets/shower/electrical outlets by now, I know, but Wiard does a couple of things here that really make this a standout. First of all, his buildup of suspense and Moriana's music really get you ready. Secondly, there's not just a little blood. There are BUCKETS of it, pouring down over the naked and screaming girl, flooding up around her feet, staining the opaque shower doors that of course she now can't open. It's really a shocking amount of red stuff for TV, even by today's standards--I'm not sure they could get away with this today. And finally, Tanya's trapped animal fear, pressing her face against the glass, sinking slowly into horrified shock as we fade into a commercial break, is just perfect. It's a powerful scene, and it's easy for me now to see why it had the profound effect on my younger brother that it did.*

*For weeks afterward he would not take baths or showers unaccompanied, and would get very upset whenever anyone else in the house took a shower. He would stand at the bathroom door, wringing his hands, shouting every few minutes, "Are you all right?" It was cute, in a "my childhood is permanently scarred" kinda way.

The rest of the flick follows Gary and Sheila on their rocky road to true love, and the House's attempts to thwart them in their journey. We get a car crushed in the front gates, a woman boiled in a swimming pool, and even one kill via a remote-control mirror bomb! And when Gary pops the question to Sheila and promises to whisk her away to Europe, the spirit of the House decides if IT can't have her, NO ONE CAN...

"Damn you, Tiger Beat paparazzi! LEAVE ME ALONE!"

I was expecting This House Possessed to be a delicious slice of Nostalgia Pie, but I was pleasantly surprised to see how well it holds up as a movie. This was definitely a top-shelf network production with excellent production values, not to mention Stevenson in the lead, who was very big at the time (and perhaps struggling to step out of fellow Hardy Boy Shaun Cassidy's long, feather-haired shadow with his pop-star pretensions here). While neither he nor Eilbacher deserved Emmy consideration , they do have a nice natural chemistry that makes their romance believable and gets you worried for their well-being. It's also fun playing "spot the past-and-future stars": Slim Pickens, Joan Bennett, character acting legend Barry Corbin, David Paymer and Philip Baker Hall all make appearances, and all do very well in their roles.

Wiard delivers the haunted house creepiness and suspense in several well-made set-pieces, and if the explanation for the spirit's existence and its motivations is a bit silly, it's no more so than the climax of Legend of Hell House, which always makes me laugh. The possessed-technology set-up gives us a little of the old and a little of the new. And I really can't say enough about Rocky Moriana's score here--just fabulous.

Anyway, I found This House Possessed both a surprisingly effective haunted house flick and a wonderful trip down memory lane. 2.75 thumbs--set your TiVos to be on the lookout for it, as it shows up on Turner cable channels now and then. But it really deserves to be resurrected, slapped on DVD, and put out before an appreciative, traumatized audience.

If it ever is, I know what SOMEBODY'S getting for Christmas!

"You're doomed, you know. Have a nice day."


The Duke of DVD said...

A stellar review, dearest Vicar! I, too, have memories of watching this on ye old television, late at night whilst the parents ignored me. For years I had muddled memories of watching this movie, and my young mind had invented some scenes that weren't even there when I ended up watching this later in life.

Ahh, imagination. Where would I be without you?

Trix said...

I'm not just stopping by because I need a Parker fix...I'm givin' up on myspace tonight. That message I sent you was a real message, but I received an error saying it didn't pass their spam filters and then I was locked out because I, too, had phished my own account.

You can always use the email I have on my profile here...just in case myspace completely implodes.

Now...back to Parker...(kidding!!!)

CarelessWhisper said...

What a fabulous and funny review! I stumbled over it whilst trying to acertain whether 'This House Possessed' was available for purchase... I was literally laughing out loud at parts of it... you have a wickedly enjoyable wit!

The Vicar of VHS said...

Thanks for reading, CarelessWhisper! I'm glad you enjoyed the review. We just hit 200 reviews, so there's plenty to choose from. Hang around!

The Vicar

Mike Nobody said...

No link to download? Awwwww maaaaaan! Searching forever for it (sigh).

Anonymous said...

how come reviewers never mention the breathing chimney? that's the part that traumatized me! anyway, some fabulously enterprising person finally posted this movie on youtube. WOOHOO!!!!!

April said...

I was 5 years old when friends dad thought it would be an ok idea to watch this with the kids in the room. I was scarred for life by that shower scene. It's actually the only thing I remember from the movie. My mom would have shit if she'd known I'd watched the movie!

Derek said...

Wow... It seems that only the kids ages 5 or 6 were allowed to watch this movie. I was one of them! I remember very little in my childhood. But I certainly do remember each of the scary scenes in this movie!!! Blood in the shower - check... crushed car - check... boiling pool - sure... exploding mirror - you bet... only the breathing bricks escapes my memory. Probably because I was busy in the bathroom throwing up at the previous scenes that would prove to be traumatizing.

Quite vindicating to see I am not alone on this.

The internet did this for me on another occasion... I have a hatred of celery. One that everyone seemed to not understand. But, alas, there are a few of us out there who share this hatred. The world is a smaller place for me now.

Daedalos said...

The internet is amazing! Sitting down in front of my computer I had little hope of finding this movie. I didn't remember what the title was or even who played in it! But lo and behold.. a quick keyword search of "horror movie breathing wall" was all it took to bring me blasting into the past! Watching it after 30 years, it wasn't as traumatizing as I remember but it does hold up well as a movie compared to many big-budget flops of today.

I can now scratch this movie off my bucket list of must-see childhood-scarring movies. The last movie scratched off my list was The Gate. This is another movie that definitely held up well over time and I highly recommend it!

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