The long-awaited get-together of the classic horror stars of yesteryear still leaves a bit of a bitter taste thanks to a plot twist that is a slap in the face for the viewer.
It’s impossible to discuss House of the Long Shadows without discussing the end. Call that a spoiler if you like – though many would argue that the ending itself spoils the rest of the film anyway. Whatever your thoughts, we’ll be discussing it at length, so consider yourself forewarned.
If House of the Long Shadows set out to show that there was still an audience for old-fashioned horror cinema in 1982, then it ended up doing just the opposite. Despite (or possibly because of) being sold as the first film to feature all four living horror film legends of the time – that’s Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Vincent Price and John Carradine – the film crashed and burned at the box office, barely having a proper release and quickly ending up on VHS where it sat gathering dust in rental shops. In the cinema, the film was wildly out-of-step with audience requirements from a horror movie. On home video, the film faced the additional hurdle of immediately looking like something that had been made in the 1960s to the casual rental browser who was unfamiliar with its history. Sitting alongside modern horror films of the era, it barely stood a chance.
Forty years on, it remains a film that has never quite found its place. For fans of its writer and director, it feels like a strange, far-too-cosy anomaly in otherwise edgy and challenging filmographies. For fans of the main actors, it feels oddly unsatisfying – like a misguided comeback album by an old band who perhaps should’ve continued to live on past glories. And as a 1980s horror movie, it stands out like a sore thumb. There isn’t the same sense of nostalgia for the film that there is for either 1980s horror or the work of Lee/Cushing/Price in their prime because it was already nostalgic when made and now seems to be a bit of a fudged compromise. You watch the film today and there is still a sense of displacement, as is no one was quite sure what it was that they were making. And then there is that ending…
Much of the blame for the film has been placed on Cannon Films and producers Golan-Globus, who instigated the project after turning down a rather more typically nihilistic Walker movie. As the story goes, the two Cannon heads were wildly out of touch with modern horror trends and assumed that a lightweight Lee-Cushing-Price-Carradine combo would be box office gold. While there is clearly some truth to this, the idea of Cannon being stuck in the 1970s – or more accurately the 1960s – is wildly inaccurate. We should remember that in the years prior to this film, Golan-Globus and Cannon had already produced X-Ray, New Year’s Evil, Schizoid and The Godsend – all rather more of-the-moment movies – and a couple of years later were making The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. Not to mention their violent and sleazy non-horror films like Death Wish II and Enter the Ninja. The idea of the Cannon bosses being some sort of out-of-touch and prudish Milton Subotsky types is laughable. Yet clearly, there was some sort of blind spot that allowed this film to be made, and that’s one of the many curious aspects of the whole affair.
In fact, House of the Long Shadows didn’t entirely exist in a vacuum. In the last few years of the 1970s and creeping into the 1980s, there had been several films that attempted to revive the old-fashioned adventure thriller. The period between 1977 and 1981 was full of failed British remakes of The Lady Vanishes, The 39 Steps, The Cat and the Canary as well as vintage romps like The Riddle of the Sands and TV reboots of Dick Barton and Sexton Blake. In this context, perhaps yet another remake of the 1913 play Seven Keys to Baldpate made more sense than it otherwise might have done. However, by 1982 it must’ve been clear that – regardless of the individual qualities of these various productions (some of which, for the record, we are very fond of here – Radley Metzger‘s The Cat and the Canary always feels like a safe bit of enjoyable, lightweight viewing when it turns up on TV, which it currently does with alarming frequency in the UK) audiences were not exactly lining up around the block to see these nostalgic tales and so there still seems to be something of the mad folly involved in this whole project. It’s worth noting that the only really successful revival of these boy’s own adventures of the era was Michael Palin and Terry Jone’s spoof series Ripping Yarns, which played with the clichés of the format with loving reverence. Of course, we can see House of the Long Shadows as satire too – clearly, it is supposed to be humourous – but given that the ‘old dark house’ story already had a long tradition of mixing humour and horror, from The Old Dark House itself and the 1939 Cat and the Canary to What a Carve Up! and The House in Nightmare Park – this is hardly an innovation. More notably, the film really struggles to mix comedy and straight-faced horror, as if no one was really confident that the film would work as a spoof or else help an obligation to do something a bit more classical given the cast.
The oddest thing about this oddly old-fashioned affair is the team behind it. Peter Walker had risen to infamy in the 1970s first as a pioneering sexploitation director – moving from 8mm striptease loops released through his Heritage Films label to censor-baiting nudie-cutie features like For Men Only, School for Sex and I Like Birds and then, unexpectedly, showing some actual talent with the Swinging London sex drama Cool It Carol. As the sex film market became more flooded, Walker began to shift his attention towards horror – or, as he called them, ‘terror’ – films. After a bit of a half-baked start with The Flesh and Blood Show, he hooked up with screenwriter David McGillivray for a series of films that pointed the way for a new generation of horror filmmakers in a post-Hammer world. House of Whipcord, House of Mortal Sin (yes, he liked the word ‘house’), Frightmare and – to a lesser extent – Schizo threw aside the cosy gothic world of the Hammer film in favour of gritty urban reality, sadism and brutal violence. Admittedly, Walker was already looking a bit directionless by the end of the decade – his psycho movie The Comeback, starring crooner Jack Jones, seemed oddly dated and he was soon pushed back into the sexploitation world with the sensationalist Home Before Midnight, a throwback to the purse-lipped social commentary sex melodramas of the early 1960s. Like many a filmmaker, Walker suffered as the British film industry collapsed and the only money available was from public bodies like the BFI – who were certainly not about to give money to anyone as crassly commercial as him. After Cannon (who by the early 1980s were one of the few companies still funding populist cinema in the UK) turned down his project, perhaps it was desperation that pushed him into accepting this idea – though it seems that all Cannon actually wanted was a film, any film, with the big four stars. Presumably, it was thought that the best way to get all four to sign up was by offering them something out of step with the bloody, nasty horror of the age. This would be Walker’s last film and he seemed dispirited by the whole thing, leaving the industry and moving into property development.
Signed on to write the movie was Michael Armstrong, who was a contemporary of Walker’s and – if his luck had been different – might have been seen as one of Britain’s hot young filmmakers. Unfortunately, his plans to have David Bowie star in his horror film The Dark were scuppered when producer Tony Tenser decided that Frankie Avalon was who the kids of 1969 would respond to and then released the film as The Haunted House of Horror, ensuring that no one would take it seriously. Armstrong went on to direct Mark of the Devil, one of the grimmest of the Witchfinder General copies – it was banned in Britain and his disputes with producer Adrian Hoven meant that he never quite got the credit he deserved for it (claims that Hoven directed most of the film abound, but a quick look at the entirely dismal Mark of the Devil Pt 2 – the one officially directed by Hoven – should make it clear who was behind the first movie). Armstrong would never direct a feature again but his writing in the 1970s is remarkable – Eskimo Nell, in which he also stars, is a savagely funny attack on the British film industry while the controversial Black Panther remains one of the most criminally misunderstood true crime movies. Okay, Armstrong also wallowed in the Adventures… sex comedy series but still – this was someone who again seemed to represent modern British cinema. To see him then grind out a remake of a seventy-year-old, done-to-death old dark house movie is still bizarre. He had, of course, written the film that Cannon had turned down for Walker; this, it seems, was the consolation prize for everyone. It’s hard to imagine that either had much real enthusiasm for it.
Still. Let’s look at the positives. Getting the main stars together was no mean feat. While Cushing and Lee had worked together regularly from the mid-Fifties until the early 1970s, Cushing was by this point semi-retired and Lee, having moved to Hollywood and finally shaken off his past, was disinterested in making more horror films. The big three – let’s accept the bitter truth that Carradine was not really in their league as a horror star (and, indeed, here get’s fifth billing behind Desi Arnaz Jr) – had famously all been in Scream and Scream Again in 1969, which effectively wasted the opportunity by throwing away Cushing’s appearance in a cameo without even having any screen time with the other two. That film’s producer, Milton Subotsky, had tried to get all the big horror stars together a decade later in the disastrous The Monster Club, but Cushing, Lee and Klaus Kinski were not remotely interested – had they appeared, presumably once again they wouldn’t actually have appeared in the same stories anyway. According to Walker, they were all flattered by this, which was pitched as a tribute to their careers and a final chance to all work together – and you can see why. The strength of House of the Long Shadows is that it allows each actor their own dramatic entrance and then gives them the chance to all interact together – and you can tell that they are having fun. The film is worthwhile for that reason alone and during the central part of the film, when all four are bouncing off each other, it’s actually a great little movie. We should add a fifth name to the list – Sheila Keith was an actress that Walker had done his best to turn into a horror star in the 1970s, featuring her in most of his best films. Of course, no one else in the industry saw what he saw and everyone else continued to cast her in supporting roles. But Walker was right – she was brilliant at playing sinister and should have been a star. Here, she fits in perfectly with the four horror veterans and in that sense, the film also seems a fitting tribute to her – here she is in the company that she deserved to be in.
It’s odd that the ending of the film – and yes, we’re coming to it – seems to get less criticism than the film’s actual lead actor, Desi Arnaz Jr. Yes, I get it – the son of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz is not very cool and hardly a cinema heavyweight. But films like this all have a bland, younger lead and he’s really not awful. I mean, he’s not great – but as the bemused everyman who is at the centre of the story and has to try to work out just what is going on, he’s fine. Compared to his romantic lead, Julie Peasgood, he’s actually a towering acting talent. But frankly, Tor Johnson could probably out-act Peasgood. This is the sort of film that you imagine her blushing over as her Loose Women colleagues or interviewing journalists chortle over it – “oh dear, you were in a trashy horror film” – though, of course, many might argue that this is the glittering jewel in an otherwise dismal career that includes Brookside, Emmerdale, Hollyoaks, Casualty and Doctors. In any case, she is unquestionably the worst thing in the film, giving one of the most stilted and wooden performances you’ll ever see – there isn’t a moment where she convinces you that she is doing anything other than reading off cue cards and at no point does her character show anything remotely resembling a personality. Yes, she’s surrounded by a collection of consummate, heavyweight professionals – but if Desi Arnaz can effectively hold his own in such company, it doesn’t seem too much to ask that Walker found an actress capable of… well, acting.
Anyway, enough procrastination. Time to get into the meat of the thing.
The story of House of the Long Shadows is pretty simple. A conceited author, who believes himself to be above popular fiction, boasts that he can write a better novel than Wuthering Heights (an odd choice of gothic story to pick, you might think) in 24 hours. His publisher accepts the bet and so off our arrogant young novelist goes to the Welsh wilderness of Bllyddpaetwr (pronounced Baldpate) Manor to write his masterpiece in seclusion. Except that there are a steady string of introductions from his publisher’s secretary and a collection of old people who turn up with feeble excuses as to why they are there. It soon turns out that this is a reunion of the family that used to own the manor, brought together to carry out the final act in a terrible legacy involving a black sheep brother who has been locked away for forty years. Unfortunately for all concerned, it turns out that he has already escaped…
Or has he? because – and here comes that spoiler – it turns out that the whole thing is an elaborate prank concocted by the publisher to either put his writer off and so win the bet or simply teach the young whippersnapper a lesson – it’s all rather vague. But basically, it reveals that everything that we have seen – every bit of the story that the viewer might have become involved with, eager to see what happens next – is one big joke. Haha. Except that no one seemed to be laughing.
It’s not just that this ending throws away any good feeling that might have been built up during the rest of the film or that it is the sort of ludicrous cop-out that went out in the 1930s. It’s that the film is so lazily constructed that the ending doesn’t even work narratively. To be specific – if this is all an extravagant gag to teach the arrogant author a lesson, why do some of these dramatic moments – notably Lee revealing his ‘true’ identity, hacking up Price and then terrorising Julie Peasgood, but also in other moments – take place when he is in a different part of the house and so won’t even see them? These scenes are clearly designed to keep the audience fooled but that makes no sense because, in the context of the story, there is no audience. This is not the first film to make this kind of continuity error – plenty of movies have flashbacks by characters who would have no memory of events – but it is especially jarring here because the ending is insult enough without further muddying the waters. It’s the sort of thing that might pass you by on first viewing because the twist is so appalling that you forget what happened just before – but watching the film a second time makes it glaringly obvious. Given that repeated viewings of the film hardly make the ending any more palatable – you know it’s coming but that hardly helps – we really don’t need more reasons to pick holes in the story. But there it is.
It’s also worth noting that the film does nothing to hint at what is to come. This isn’t a film where you can go back and spot little clues and hints that escaped you the first time. Not at all. This is not a twist that has been seeded quietly through the movie – it just feels like a lazy, sloppy and rather insulting cop-out by people who didn’t know what to do with the story and, worse still, have no respect for the viewer.
I think a crappy ending is all the more insulting in a film with promise. After all, when something is terrible from the get-go, what difference does it make? A film by Walker and Armstrong with four cult movie icons in the lead roles leads you to expect better. At the very least, you hope that it will be a good send-off for the beloved stars, a final hurrah that ends their careers on a high. For a while, it seems as though House of the Long Shadows will do just that and so when it throws everything away for a plot twist that feels like a slap in the face, it leaves a rather bitter taste because it’s not just us who feels cheated – you also think that Lee, Cushing, Price and Carradine, not to mention Keith, all deserve something better. For all I know, the actors might have loved the ending – actors do love playing actors, after all. But as the last hurrah for the cast and the ‘traditional’ British horror, it’s a real disappointment. The fact that even now, after all this time and after seeing the film a good few times, it still irritates me is telling.
All this said – is the film worth seeing? Of course. For a good hour, it’s very good, charmingly nostalgic and a fitting tribute to an era that was already sliding into ancient history when the film was made. All four of the legends are on top form and there’s a good-natured charm about it that makes it ideal comfort food viewing. Some of you might not even mind the ending – if I’ve done anything here, hopefully it is to perhaps over-egg just how terrible it is. I mean, it really is that terrible but perhaps you won’t take against it quite as viscerally as I do. Hey, you might even like it – some people do, showing how there is no accounting for taste. And for all its faults, I’ll still take this over most of the cynically elevated horror being ground out today.
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