House Of The Long Shadows (1983)

FEBRUARY 8, 2018


I've repeatedly explained the main reasons I started Horror Movie A Day (eleven years ago this week! Happy birthday, me!), mostly involving catching up on movies I missed and working on my abilities as a writer. But there was another one I don't talk about as much: hoping to find "that movie I saw on HBO when I was a kid", though in reality I probably only saw a few minutes, because only one scene really stuck with me: some people (including a blond woman) on the stairs, sunlight streaming through, and a body turning to dust. This memory had me thinking it was a vampire movie of some sort, but my vague description was not good enough for anyone to help me identify the film. But thanks to Twitter, I discovered that old HBO listings were collected online, and so using my memory of what I was doing at the time (watching TV while my dad packed up our RV for a trip to Canada) and a family photo album that helped me find the date we left for that trip, I was finally able to determine that the film was House of the Long Shadows.

So I asked if anyone had a copy, with my friend Amy coming to the rescue, and then in typical Collinsian fashion I didn't get around to watching it for another six months or so. But that's fine, it was nice to check off this box to celebrate HMAD's latest anniversary, even if I had to "cheat" to find the film. See, my hope was that I would just end up watching the movie in the same random fashion I watched at least 80% of the films I watched for the site, totally unaware that a 30+ year mystery was about to be solved, and freaking out when that vivid memory appeared in full on my television. However, as it turns out, my memory was quite off; I know for sure this was the movie I saw, but the "body turning into dust" was actually a little doll that was filled with maggots spilling everywhere when it was toppled over, and while the staircase of my memory was indeed in the film, they were not on it during the dust/maggot scene. Likewise, there was no sunlight coming through at all, and given the time it was on (around 630-7pm in May) I suspect it was actually just the actual sunset coming through the window near the TV. But that's just how memories work, especially over time - they jumble and get combined, and I suspect if we were to get a Blu-ray of any ten "vivid" memories of our childhood showing us how they actually happened, they'd be much different than they occur in our minds.

What's funny is that when I got older and would start trying to describe the movie online to people who might be able to help, I'd say that it might be a Hammer movie, because now that I'd seen a bunch of them (via HMAD) I realized that the tone - as best as I could a. recall it and b. really consider it as a 5 year old - was similar. So when I finally identified the movie, it tickled me to see that not only was it indeed a British film (again, the sort of thing a 5 year old would have no way of comprehending), but it starred the two premiere masters of Hammer horror: Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, making it probably the first time I had seen either man in a film, nearly a decade before I'd know who they were. While it wasn't actually a Hammer movie, describing it as one was inadvertently a better clue than my description of the scene I remembered - I mean if you say "Hammer" obviously someone's gonna start rattling off Lee and/or Cushing movies.

What's even funnier is that it's not even really much of a horror movie, and that I lucked out and remembered one of the few scary bits in the entire thing. Watching now I have even more doubt I watched it all as a kid, because it's too slow and talky for me NOW let alone as someone who probably should have been watching cartoons. Despite the incredibly distinguished claim of being the first film to cast Lee, Cushing, and Vincent Price in a film where all three actually interact with one another (with John Carradine for good measure), the (spoiler for 35 year old movie ahead) "all a set up" nature of its plot leaves very little opportunity for terror, and it takes a while for all three of the actors to even show up in the movie, despite their billing. The plot concerns a writer (Desi Arnaz Jr, fifth billed even though he's in pretty much every shot) who is dared by his publisher to write a new novel in 24 hours while staying at an isolated creepy old house, a bet he gladly takes and sets off with what is supposedly one of the only two keys to the joint. However when he arrives he finds two housekeepers (Carradine and Sheila Keith), and then after a while the other big stars show up one by one roughly every five to ten minutes. The movie is half over by the time everyone's there (second billed Lee being the last to arrive, at the 50 minute mark), so it minimizes the amount of time these titans can really bounce off one another.

Worse, the script has Price and Cushing as brothers (Carradine being their father - a curious casting choice since he's only five years old than them) but Lee as a real estate jerk of some sort who doesn't trust them, keeping them apart for a big chunk of the remainder of the film. And even though they're all top-billed the real stars of the movie are Arnaz and his love interest (Julie Peasgood, the "blond woman" of my memory), so their roles are basically glorified cameos as opposed to the leads. Anyway, once everyone's there it gets more fun, with the family gathering to finally release a murderous brother who has been locked in the attic for forty years after murdering a village girl, only to discover his room is empty. Clearly, it must be him that starts killing everyone off one by one, mostly off-screen, right? Well, if you've seen a movie before, or even just a trailer for a movie, you might know exactly who the brother is, and in order for that plot point to work (i.e. why his family members don't recognize him when he arrives saying he's someone else) Walker and screenwriter Michael Armstrong pull another twist on us: it was all a ruse put on by the publisher to make sure he either won his bet, or gave his writer enough inspiration to write a new book, winning either way.

Of course, for this sort of thing to work, the horror stuff has to stop with fifteen minutes left, so that everyone can "come back to life" and explain how it worked. Makeup! Fake weapons! A lot of sleight of hand tomfoolery! We can ignore the fact that our hero could easily have killed any of these people (or at least the real culprit) at any time - indeed he actually throws the villain down the stairs - but not the fact that the movie runs a too-long 103 minutes and after about 90 they tell us most of what we just saw was complete bullshit. It's one thing for a movie like April Fool's Day where a. it's pretty fun at least and b. it's kind of expected considering the holiday setting, but here it's a bit of a dick move that they didn't fully earn. Even if we ignore the number of times that the horror icon guys were going along with the story even when Arnaz wasn't present to hear it (staying in character, I guess?), the movie is just too drawn out to forgive the ruse.

To be fair, the film is paying homage to "Old Dark House" movies (not "Haunted House", a distinction Walker makes on his commentary), and most of those had "it was all fake" kind of endings too - but in those, there was still a legit danger to the characters. In those, most of the time it'd turn out that the "ghost" or whatever was just a guy who was murdering everyone - for real - in order to collect an inheritance or steal their jewels, but there's nothing nefarious at all here, with the body count set firmly at zero. It's also usually not that easy to figure out who the bad guy is (The Bat, for example - which has Vincent Price! - fooled me), whereas here it's pretty obvious the instant the actor appears since he is claiming to be someone boring and they wouldn't hire him for that. Long story short, the reveal that it was all a game didn't even bother me all that much at first, because I figured they were up to something equally sinister, but instead it ends with everyone throwing a party congratulating each other on their performances. That scene does have Vincent Price calling Christopher Lee a "bitch" (in good humor), which is hilarious, but still.

So, ironically, it's almost a perfect "horror" film for a 5 year old, since the movie itself tells you that it was all make believe, saving the child's parents from having to do it. If it were only like 85 minutes and threw in a bit more spooky business (even the older films had more on-screen action), it'd actually be something I'd want to show my kid in a year or two (not to mention a safer way to introduce him to Price, Lee, etc. than their other films of note). But I think he'd be bored; I'd rather wait a bit longer and let him see these titans in their glory rather than in their twilight (I think this was Cushing's last genre film, actually). As for me, my favorite thing about the disc (besides the trailer, narrated by Price and adding "That's me!" when rattling off the list of actors) was Walker explaining that the film was profitable because HBO paid good money for its broadcast rights - the very thing that allowed me to catch one of its highlights as a young lad. It also helps me realize that the rat movie I saw probably WAS Of Unknown Origin (next to last paragraph explains) and like this, my memory was likely just mixed up with other things, so thanks, movie. Wish you were better, but you've done your part and now you can move on in this world.

What say you?


Post a Comment

Movie & TV Show Preview Widget