Friday, April 6, 2012

Ghosthouse (1988) dir. Umberto Lenzi

Logline: Little girl is given a clown doll, goes insane, kills her whole family, dies. Twenty years later, her ghost is causing lots of trouble for some needlessly inquisitive ham radio operators.

Ghosthouse is Italian genre director Umberto Lenzi’s late career horror opus, and if you define opus as “formless heap of preposterousness” like I do, then you’ll understand what I mean. He’d only work for a few more years after this (and only shoot a handful more horror flicks, including Hitcher in the Dark, which the unwatched DVD on my rack tells me I’ll take a look at soon) before hanging up his gloves. But by this point we’re not talking about the Lenzi who gave us bonkers giallo classics like Eyeball, Spasmo, Knife of Ice, and Seven Blood-Stained Orchids, but the Lenzi who had matured into crafting beauties such as Nightmare City and Cannibal Ferox. And this film was made eight whole years after those—just imagine how much he grew as a filmmaker in the interim!

The truth is of course that Lenzi was never very good and simply got worse and worse as he went along, but what sets him apart from so many other hacks is how ludicrously enjoyable his films are. Following in the age-old Italian horror tradition of lifting ideas from anything that ever made a dollar, Ghosthouse, a senseless assemblage of various elements from American antecedents like The Evil Dead, House, and Poltergeist, crams as many goofy “scares” as it can into its 90 minute funhouse. And “funhouse” might be the most apt way to describe the film, not only in terms of the general feeling it imparts but because the titular ghosthouse is actually designed like one—when one of the heroines steps inside and almost immediately has flames shooting out of the grandfather clock in front of her path, we’re then surprised when compressed air jets don’t blow up her skirt in the next room. Of course, it’s exactly this dark ride-esque feeling of gee whiz what are they gonna throw at us next that carries us gleefully along. And Lenzi throws pretty much everything: light bulbs and mason jars that expand and pop like balloons, possessed TV sets, deranged fundamentalist groundskeepers, strangle-happy clown dolls with man hands, self-propelling motorized fan blades, and pits of bubbling, milky-white… acid? With all these ingredients in the mix, it’s difficult to be dull—

But it is incredibly easy to be stupid, and this is one dumb cake. Ghosthouse partakes in my favorite filmmaking conceit: it’s one of those truly clueless films that hinges its entire plot on the assumed popularity of some outmoded or completely fabricated device or service. In this particular instance, Ghosthouse takes place in an alternate reality where everyone owns a ham radio and, you know, takes their system with them when they go on vacation and stuff. Our wonderfully uncharismatic hero Paul and his expressionless German girlfriend Martha hear a creepy music box lullaby and some screams of terror over Paul’s radio. After magically triangulating the location of the unresponsive broadcasting radio (computer magic, of course), Paul and Martha set out to uncover the mystery without bothering to alert local authorities because, egads—it could be murder! They then arrive at that feisty old ghosthouse only to meet a group of people in a camper who’ve set their own radio up in the attic. Why? You get a good signal up there, of course. All types of heck breaks loose as a ghost girl and her murderous clown doll from the film’s prologue decide to slaughter the assembled group because… well, something has to happen.

Where the film truly excels is in its über-colorful cast of supporting characters. There’s Pepe, the jocularly aggressive hitchhiker who hates hiking, loves 20-year-old croutons, and never goes anywhere without his withered corpse arm gag. There’s Tina, the film’s requisite 14-year-old younger sister, who has the gall to wear a denim skirt and jacket. More impressively, there’s the police Lieutenant who shows up at about the halfway point, returns briefly at the end, and who may just be a deranged lunatic posing as police (evidence: he recounts the discovery of the ghost girl’s body twenty years previous, claiming that she died in a locked room under “mysterious circumstances” because there were no visible signs of violence, discounting (based on his deductive experience, of course) unlikely scenarios like starvation; at the film’s conclusion he has an entire conversation over a police car radio with no voice on the other end). We are also blessed with an extremely logical, straight-shooting coroner (“from an upward angle”), a narcoleptic gravedigger, and a skeevy mortician who might be John Waters. And this is to say almost nothing of our main cast of characters, of whom Paul is the clear standout. This is the sort of man who admits, after being queried whether or not something supernatural is going on at the ghosthouse, “I don’t know; I only know about computers.” A bit later, he gives Martha a rundown on the history of precognition, to which Martha responds by asking him how long he has been into that subject. Paul, blank-eyed, responds that it’s been around 45 minutes, that he’d really only been catching up while she was in the shower. This is our hero.

I’ve probably already gone on far too long, but Ghosthouse is one of those revitalizing movies, those giving life new purpose. It’s an hour and a half of the finest aged cheddar, and I can even admit that it isn’t totally devoid of scare-value, although very nearly so (points of interest: that lullaby with the squeaky voice layered over top is fairly unnerving and the little girl is creepy enough while never besting her obvious ancestor, Bava’s golden-haired spook from Kill Baby Kill!). But this is a movie whose score tries to sound like Goblin and ends up closer to Ernest Scared Stupid. How could I not adore it? Bless you, Umberto Lenzi, bless your coal black heart.

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