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A review of the Final Cut Entertainment DVD, currently about £12 on amazon, but bound to fall in price in the months to come.
Pete Walker was one of the last interesting directors working on British horror during the late 70s, when the horror boom that had begun in the 50s was on its last legs. His best films - Frightmare, House of Mortal Sin - have a grimy, suburban aesthetic, combining a very British petty-mindedness and despair with brutal gore and astoundingly downbeat endings.
His last film, House of Long Shadows (1983), was a very different affair. Not the film he wanted to make, he was obliged by producers Golan and Globus to make a traditional horror film, an affectionate tribute to most of the surviving horror stars. Unfortunately, the film never really hits a consistent tone, and is ultimately disappointing.
Kenneth Magee, an American writer (seemingly of raunchy 'bonkbusters') bets his publisher that he could write a horror novel in just 24 hours. The publisher arranges for Magee to have access to an old abandoned mansion for the night to create the correct ambience. But just as he's settling down to work, Magee is disturbed by his publisher's secretary, Mary, who tries to scare him off with wild talk of terrorists. Although he pretty quickly establishes that she's been sent to distract him, soon the mansion starts to fill up with sinister old folks. Most of them are members of the Grisbane family, which used to own the mansion. There's a terrible family secret involved, and something nasty lurking in a locked bedroom.
Clearly, this isn't a film that takes itself too seriously. The plot is self-consciously referencing plenty of old dark house clichés. The script was written by Michael Anderson, who had also written the self-aware sex comedy Eskimo Nell (he also directed a couple of poor horror movies, including Mark of the Devil). The problem is that, although the script is clearly meant to be light-hearted, it isn't terribly funny. There's one moment that actually made me laugh, when Vincent Price gets a fantastic pastiche of the kind of overwrought monologues he used to do in the Roger Corman Poe movies. Otherwise, while there might be the odd wry smile at the latest horror movie convention shamelessly paraded in front of us, it won't really make you laugh.
The other main problem is that Pete Walker is not a naturally comedic director. His earlier films had generally used a few old-school horror tropes (like the old dark house scenes in The Comeback), but were otherwise aggressively modern and unpleasant. Consequently, this film doesn't feel entirely right.
It is almost all filmed in darkness, for one thing. While this certainly creates plenty of long shadows, as the title would have us expect, it doesn't necessarily make the film easy to watch. Worse is the fact that the film requires a lightness of touch when it comes to the violence. Inevitably, after a certain point, characters start to get murdered. Pete Walker being Pete Walker, the deaths are far too gruesome to work with the film's tone otherwise. The poor girl who splashes acid in her face believing it to be water has a particularly nasty death scene. The violence is obviously not strong enough to earn this an 18 certificate, but it makes it too horrific to laugh at.
The plot is also very, very stupid. There's one twist at the end that is pretty good, but it's immediately followed by two much bigger twists that leave you feeling a bit cheated and irritated. Because the film was quite playful to begin with, the ending isn't quite the slap in the face that something like Switchblade Romance's ending is, but it's in that kind of ballpark.
The one thing the film really does have in its favour is the cast, or at least the old-timers. Younger cast members tend to over-enunciate slightly, which is a bit distracting. Desi Arnaz Jr, son of Lucille Ball, plays Magee. He isn't too bad, but the joke of having a modern American cynic dropped in the middle of a corny old dark house movie wears a bit thin after a while. The main selling point for the film, though, was its elderly stars. John Carradine, looking very old and wizened, is his typically reliable self. Sheila Keith, Walker's stock sinister old lady, is also very good, although she's not playing a particularly evil character for a change (her part was originally offered to Elsa Lanchester, but she was not well enough to participate).
But the three big stars are all on great form. Vincent Price gives his usual performance, camp and slightly sinister, but offers no real surprises. It's still great to see him, even if he seems the most aged of the three compared to the last time he'd made horror movies. Christopher Lee comes across as irritable and generally looks like he doesn't want to be there. But that's pretty much always true of Lee in horror movie roles after about 1970, and he rallies and becomes a great deal more interesting towards the end of the film. Peter Cushing probably gives the best performance of the three, playing slightly against type as a cowardly drunkard with a speech impediment. Whatever the shortcomings of the film otherwise, it's a lot of fun to watch the three great horror stars of the sixties appear together. Whether they could still be relied upon to sell a film in 1983 is less certain.
Walker retired from making films after this, and I can't entirely blame him. The British film industry was pretty much dead in the water, and no one was interested in his kind of horror anymore. This film feels like a throwback, and must have seemed creakingly old fashioned even at the time of release, given its reliance on geriatric horror stars who'd stopped pulling in the crowds years before. Walker builds the horror stars up when they first arrive, but they kind of blend into the background a bit as the Desi Arnaz character is meant to be the film's main focus. The film only just works as a tribute to its ageing stars, and they provide the only possible reason for wanting to watch this.
The picture quality on the DVD is surprisingly good. This film has obviously had quite a bit of attention lavished on it; perhaps more than it really deserves.
The main extra is a very long making of documentary. This is 95 minutes long, the same length as the film itself. It's very thorough, as you can imagine. Pete Walker and Michael Anderson are both quite appealing personalities, and are no strangers to DVD extras. Most surviving cast members contribute (no Christopher Lee, but he is 90 now). There's even some footage of Sheila Keith talking about the film in what must be her living room, filmed a few years before she died.
The cast all insist that the older stars were very professional, and don't really want to say anything bad about any of them. But you definitely get the impression that, while Cushing was obviously the nicest man who has ever lived, Lee was a lot more difficult. He was probably the only one still in demand at the time, and there's a definite subtext that of all of them, he was the most demanding and arrogant. Which is all kind of amusing, and predictable, but when a documentary is as long as the film it's telling us about, things have clearly gone too far, and some editing is desperately needed. There's also a commentary by Walker, which replicates a lot of the information from the documentary.
This can be seen as the last gasp of traditional British horror films, several years after it was likely to be successful. It is nice to see Cushing, Price and Carradine wheeled out for one last gothic horror (Lee too, of course, but he had a lot more films left in him than his co-stars). I just wish they'd had a better vehicle than this. There's a sense that everyone involved, including director and writer, knew that this was rubbish, and so no one really brought their A game. The film feels like a wasted opportunity.