Friday, May 31, 2013

House of the Long Shadows (1983) dir. Pete Walker

Logline: Kenneth Magee (Desi Arnaz, Jr.), a successful but creatively stagnant writer with a monstrous ego, makes a brash $20,000 bet with his publisher that he can dash off a novel of the same literary significance as Wuthering Heights over the course of only twenty-four hours. Taking up his publisher's offer of an abandoned Welsh manor for an appropriately melodramatic setting in which to write, Kenneth settles into this opulent yet menacing abode and soon finds himself assailed by a parade of uninvited guests, each of whom provides Kenneth with a piece of the estate's lurid, bloody history. And that's when folks start being murdered. 

By re-opening the same vein of metafictionality that was slashed in The Flesh and Blood Show (1972) and then allowing it to bleed out all over the place, The House of the Long Shadows finds Pete Walker splattering the walls with nine pints of meta-fun that soon dries, leaving behind the stain of a meta-headache, a dash of meta-confusion, and eventually a meta-shrug. The screenplay by Michael Armstrong (director of Mark of the Devil (1970) and Screamtime (1986)) is adapted from Earl "Charlie Chan" Derr Biggers' 1913 novel Seven Keys to Baldpate, which was itself adapted into a farcical play by George M. Cohan soon after its release and from there into well above a dozen different film, television, and radio pieces over the ensuing decades. House of the Long Shadows looks to be the latest and possibly last adaptation of the material, and that's not a particular surprise: the basic story has a pulpy, melodramatic, turn-of-the-century levity that must have felt as out of place in '80s genre cinema as it would in today's. Granted, this version of the tale is based more closely on Cohan's play, which-- through a metafictional frame narrative concerning an author's bet with his publisher and certain revelations concerning the play's triple artificiality-- sought to undermine the conventions and stock characters of pulp mystery and crime writing. House of the Long Shadows attempts to do the same, but with Old Dark House murder mysteries and more contemporary horror cinema as the targets of its lighthearted ribbing. 

It's hardly the only film of the '70s/'80s to resurrect the Old Dark House subgenre, but it's telling that the most creatively successful entries were the out-and-out comedies that never really played for gasps (Clue (1985), Murder by Death (1976), Haunted Honeymoon (1986)). Walker's film sort of does attempt to be frightening (by late in the film employing the same sort of gory murder set pieces we could find in any of his more earnest efforts) but this secondary goal is continually undercut by the film's insistence upon being that unfunny-but-pleasant-enough type of comedy that we damn with the label of "amusing." Walker and Armstrong appear confused about what they want their film to be, and this confusion has seeped so deeply into the film's foundations that it comes of not only confused about its tone but also about its intended parody. One might think that the film, with its horror movie updating of Derr Biggers and Cohan's original mystery plot and almost direct references to classic films like, oh, The Old Dark House (1932), is hoping to elicit from the viewer the same wry, knowing response that it does from Arnaz, Jr.'s character when he's introduced to the titular house and its spooky irregularities: "I've seen the movie." Simply placing all of these weathered horror icons on screen together (Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, John Carradine) clues one into the fact that the film is attempting to say something about the horror films of a bygone era.

And, yet, it's not as clear cut as that: after all, Arnaz Jr.'s character is an author of mystery novels, and the novel he takes the bet to write (which in a meta twist becomes the story of the action of him actually trying to write the novel) is intended to ape the Victorian Gothic melodrama tradition of writers like the Brontë sisters. Placed alongside its movie genre mockery, this deliberate narrative association with classic literature (carried over from the play) results in unclear intertextual references: Christopher Lee's character resembles Heathcliff as much as he does his earlier character Kurt Manliff from The Whip and the Body (1963) and we can read as much Jane Eyre as The Old Dark House in the old "madperson locked up in the attic" trope that the film includes. Is this a film about literature or cinema? Is it just about genre itself, as if genre doesn't become complicated when switching between media? You would think the filmmakers-- who were making a movie ostensibly about movies based on other movies that were adapted from a play which was derived from a novel-- would ponder these questions. You'd think.

House of the Long Shadows was Walker's first major-minor-studio effort (a Cannon film, no less!), his last horror film, and his last film to date. It features a hugely impressive cast (minus the dreadful, black hole of charisma known as Desi Arnaz, Jr.), but this same cast is given little to chew on. They seem tired, and the film does no more than fall back on their previously established celluloid gravitas. This is the last time Cushing and Lee would collaborate before Cushing's death, and the film hardly has the two interact while otherwise requiring Cushing to put on an embarrassing elderly Porky Pig voice for the majority. Walker's signature excessive gore is a lot of fun during the murder scenes, but these scenes feel frightfully out of place in this otherwise bland and stagy film, one content to throw down buckets of exposition in place of meaningful action or story. It's a frightfully low note for Walker to go out on: as if the spirit rattling the chains in the spooky mansion attic tried to keep the guests up for awhile before losing interest, allowing his chains to slacken, and nodding off to sleep.

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