Monday, March 14, 2011

Movie Monday: House of Long Shadows

For this week's Movie Monday is the 1983 almost-classic House of Long Shadows!

I say "almost classic" because, as we'll see, this films comes so close to be a completely winning, ghoulish good time of a movie: after all, its the first, last, and only film to have horror icons Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, and John Carradine all together.
The film opens on our main character: a top-selling mystery novelist named Kenneth Magee (Desi Arnaz Jr.) as he is being escorted around London on one of his book tours. Despite his fame and wealth--or maybe because of it--Magee seems bored and more than a little spoiled.

He has dinner with his publisher (Richard Todd) who challengers Magee to try something new (clearly, this movie is a fantasy). Magee boasts that if properly motivated, he could dash off a Wuthering Heights-esque classic potboiler in less than 24 hours. His publisher bets him $20K he can't, and offers to put Magee up in a remote castle so he'll have total solitude. Magee agrees to the bet.
Magee heads there on the proverbial dark and stormy night, running into a young couple at a bus station, as well as a mysterious figure who utters grim, tight-lipped warnings about Grisbane Manor.

Magee ignores all this, arriving at the manor ready to work. But he finds the place isn't quite so uninhabited: living there is a woman named Victoria (Sheila Keith) and her uncle, Lord Grisbane (John Carradine):
Apparently Lord Grisbane and Victoria have been taking care of the place for decades, but they won't quite say why such a vast, empty manor needs such devoted housekeeping. Magee sets down to work, but the interruptions are just starting: there's a knock at the door, and on the other side of it is Lord Grisbane's son Sebastian (Peter Cushing):

Soon after Lord Grisbane's other son, Lionel, arrives, played by Vincent Price:

(I wonder how Carradine, who was only six years older than Price and eight more than Cushing, felt about playing the father of his fellow boogeymen. Considering some of the utter garbage Carradine appeared in, maybe he was just happy for the work)

Anyway, more people arrive--this place is like Grand Central Station--like Magee's publisher's assistant, sent there to scare Magee out of staying and working on the book, as well as a potential buyer of the property, a creepy guy named Corrigan (Christopher Lee):
One of the main problems of the movie becomes very evident at this point: we've finally got Carradine, Cushing, Lee, and Price together, but we're already forty minutes into a 100-minute movie. So much time was wasted on set-up and the vain attempt to make Desi Arnaz Jr. a leading man.

Anyway, the Grisbane brothers reveal why they are here: to release their other brother, Roderick, who has been imprisoned in the manor for over forty years. Apparently Roderick killed a young girl when he was 14 and the family dealt with it by imprisoning him.

But when they go to Roderick's cell, they find...its empty!
They decide to call the police (oh, now they do it!), but the phone is dead. Then it all goes to hell: Lord Grisbane dies of a heart attack, Victoria is found strangled, and the tires of everyone's cars are slashed.

The young couple Magee met at the bus station have also arrived, only for them to be killed: the young woman washes her face with what turns out to be acid, in a fairly gruesome sequence:
The young man is killed by drinking poison punch, leaving the remaining group to search the hidden passageways of the castle to find and kill Roderick.

Sebastian is killed after he gets separated from the group and ends up hung by the neck. Corrigan reveals he is, in fact, long lost brother Roderick, killing Lionel and then going after Magee:
Sebastian is killed after he gets separated from the group and ends up hung by the neck. Corrigan reveals he is, in fact, long lost brother Roderick, killing Lionel and then going after Magee.

Magee manages to knock Corrigan down the stairs (Desi Arnaz beating Christopher Lee in a fight? Sure), seemingly ending this whole nightmare. But then something happens--which I will not reveal here, though it doesn't take Sherlock Holmes to figure out--that shocks Magee:
This scene of Arnaz digesting what's really been going on seems to be about five minutes long.

In the end, Magee wins the bet by writing a new book, one that, this time, he's really proud of:
...The End!

The idea of putting these four horror icons into one movie is great, and the plot, while not great, is serviceable enough to be carried by these legends. Ironically, other than the acid scene, this movie isn't very gory: relying more on shadows (long ones, yes) and creepy noises, director Pete Walker makes this movie more of a throwback to the haunted house horror thrillers of the 1930s--right at the time when mainstream horror was hitting its apogee of blood and gore.

So all those elements work, and the movie gets a lot of mileage just by having Lee, Price, and Cushing all the in same shot several times--its just a real kick seeing these guys all together.

But like I said above, it takes too damn long to get them all together, and Desi Arnaz Jr. is just not enough of an actor to fill the space while we're waiting for the creepy guys to show up. He acquits himself well enough, but in retrospect it seems so odd the movie didn't cast someone more familiar and comfortable with horror, someone who doesn't stick out like a severed sore thumb in a film like this.

And while it remains a big missed opportunity, House of Long Shadows is still a lot of fun if you're an old-school horror fan.


Wings said...

Why have I never heard of this one before??? Sounds almost-great, Arnaz aside. I have to wonder if his mother played some hand in getting him into the lead here. Cause, like you said, WHY Arnaz Jr? Gonna look for this one at Netflix!

Butch said...

Great summary here Rob! For anyone who thinks they might like this movie, just go ahead and check it out. Everything Rob says is spot on, even less positive side (It DOES take too long to get the Horror Icons together). Still, it's worth checking out.

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