Thursday, September 11, 2014

Census Bloodbath: At Death's Door

Year: 1981
Director: Alan Beattie
Cast: Patricia Pearcy, David Hayward, John Dukakis
Run Time: 1 hour 20 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Now this brings me back. Now that summer has wound down and school has wound up, many of my special features have taken hiatus or drawn themselves to completion and I can return to my school routine - namely, jamming in slasher movies during any long break in my day. 

And the first to receive such treatment is a decent throwback to some of the better movies of my 1980 run - more focused on mystery and intrigue than gore and sleaze (love those things though I do) - The House Where Death Lives, also known by the vastly inferior title Delusion.

A movie apparently so rare that this is the coolest screenshot I can find of it.

Meredith Stone (Patricia Pearcy) is a Final Girl wrought from the days of yore - she doesn't drink, she's quiet and amiable, and she has the relaxed good looks of a time-warped Amy Adams. When she takes a nursing job for the wheelchair-bound Ivar Langrock (Joseph Cotten, whose pedigree includes a little-known gem of a film called Citizen Kane) at Fairlawn, his grand estate, she has no idea what she's getting herself into.

You see, Langrock's son has just passed away and his grandson Gabriel (John Dukakis) is coming to live with him. But, having grown up on a commune in Tucson eating snakes, his uncouth and strange behavior is like a cross between between Eliza Doolittle and an avalanche. When people in the house begin dying soon after his arrival, it's no cramp on the imagination to assume that he is the culprit.

But is he really? Meredith isn't sure. Partly because Gabriel's strange magnetism has awakened a dark sexual desire in her. Partly because Langrock's mentally challenged and violent son Wilfred (Patrick Pankhurst) is currently locked up on the second floor. Or is it someone else entirely?

It is up to her to discover the truth as everyone in the house is put at risk, including Duffy (Alice Nunn, also of the same year's Dark Night of the Scarecrow), the Irish cook who despises protein and makes killer granola; Alex (Abraham Alvarez), the groundskeeper; Jeffrey Frasier (David Hayward), womanizer and Langrock's personal attorney/mustachioed friend; and Phillip (Leon Charles), the Langrock's devoted butler who is also devoted to draining every single wine bottle kept down in the cellar.

Here are... some of them. Screenshots are hard, guys.

The House Where Death Lives is a fascinating curio, somewhere between a slasher Jane Eyre and a classic Agatha Christie mystery. It's not exploitative by any means - the deaths don't start until long after the halway point and are quite demure when they eventually arrive. And there's somehow no exposed flesh, despite featuring a sex scene and a two minute bathtub scene. It's like they were trying to prove how chaste they were.

But The House Where Death Lives is not quite so far from the slasher genre as you might think, including but not limited to that terrifically flamboyant title. It also features several classic slasher tropes like dream sequences and cheap jump scares, but when it's surrounded by such a, dare I say, classy atmosphere, it surprisingly works. It's astonishing how engaging these moments end up being, and I'm embarrassed to admit I was caught up in them hook, line, and sinker.

But I have an excuse, for the film as it stands is far from typical. Name me one other slasher film smart enough to name their main suspect after the Angel of Death. It's not Shakespearean genius, but the brain pulsing under the surface of The House Where Death Lives makes it a wild card, drawing you into its heady vapors.

Much like... Oh, I give up. She IS pretty, though.

It's not quite a romp, but it's a remarkably decent effort. There's not enough gore, behind-the-camera talent, fun, and/or thrills to render it a true lost classic, but it absolutely doesn't deserve to be as overlooked as it is. The House Where Death Lives is a murder mystery populated with a sheaf of well-rounded characters played by capable performers (the late Leon Charles is a standout, fabulously underplaying a character that could have been an obnoxious drunk), which immediately ranks it higher than most of the dreck I've had to sit through, at least on the storytelling level.

It is undone a bit by a sluggish third act and a predictable ending, but the movie holds out at least one solid gut punch for its finale, proving once again that despite its generic tendencies, someone involved in the film was actually trying. And despite the massive withering effect the final moments have on the tension of the piece, that's something worthy of respect.

SPOILERS [The ending is interesting. It's predictable that Meredith is the killer thanks to her dark past - her mother was committed to a mental institution after being raped by her father, but the ultimate reveal throws in an unexpected third element. The mother is actually her, utilizing a Psycho-ized split personality to shift her shame. It's not groundbreaking and the way it comes about is remarkably clumsy, but it does justice to the solid mystery that came before it.]

The House Where Death Lives won't be remembered in twenty years as a great film, even by me. But for those 80 minutes I spent hunched over a computer in my empty Broadcasting classroom, I was transported to another world that I couldn't bring myself to want to leave.

Killer: [Meredith Stone (Patricia Pearcy)]
Final Girl: Meredith Stone (Patricia Pearcy)
Best Kill: Phillip is crushed by a wine rack - an interesting metaphor for his alcoholism (or, you know, it's cool).
Sign of the Times: Just look at this tool.

Scariest Moment: Wilfred charges at Meredith when she investigates his room.
Weirdest Moment: For two minutes, the film briefly becomes a film noir interrogation scene.
Champion Dialogue: "Take a look at this supermarket art. A cripple is driven to it."
Body Count: 6; Not including Nicholas the Dog and a poor poor snail.
  1. Wilfred is bludgeoned and tossed out the window.
  2. Phillip is crushed by a wine rack and bludgeoned. 
  3. Detective Harmon is stabbed.
  4. Alex is stabbed with a pitchfork.
  5. [Gabriel is stabbed with a table leg.]
  6. Jeffrey is bludgeoned with a table leg.
TL;DR: The House Where Death Lives is not a particular standout in the genre, but is a remarkably engaging watch.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1089

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