Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

Three the Hard Way: Price, Lee and Cushing in House of the Long Shadows (1983)

Posted by CinemaPsycho on June 19, 2010

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I have a confession to make: over the years, I’ve developed a serious thing for old-fashioned, Gothic-style horror movies. The kind of stuff that modern audiences find hokey and lame. Not that I don’t enjoy modern horror films – of course I do. But there’s a secret part of me that goes gaga over spooky old houses, creaky doors, cobwebs, secret passageways, fake-looking skeletons and great character actors hamming it up. And it’s not a nostalgia thing either: I didn’t really get to see a lot of these films growing up, so I’ve had to catch up with them here and there, mostly through late-night cable showings and the occasional DVD rental. Needless to say, I’ve become well-versed in the old Universal monster movies, Hammer and Amicus, the Corman-Poe AIP films, the works of William Castle, etc. These movies just have an old-school vibe that can’t be recreated in the modern era, no matter how hard they try (look at the Dark Castle remakes, or better yet, don’t). The rise of more violent horror in the 70’s, and let’s face it, the blatant copying and kiddie-fication of the aesthetic in Scooby-Doo pretty much killed off the style, and perhaps it’s for the best. It’s a much more cynical time, and kids today aren’t likely to be scared by this kind of material. But there was once a time when Gothic horror was as edgy and disturbing as films got, even if it’s hard to picture that now.

I love digging up old obscure titles in this genre and having a blast with them, especially if they feature Vincent Price, Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing, or some combination of the three. That’s why I was totally psyched when Amazon on Demand and MGM Home Video made House of the Long Shadows available on DVD for the first time. It’s the only film in which the three horror icons appeared together (well, technically they were all in 1970’s Scream and Scream Again, but the three of them didn’t share any scenes together) and I’ve recently become familiar with the films of its director, British cult horror and sexploitation schlockmeister Pete Walker. Like most of Walker’s work, it’s a bit of a mixed bag, but an interesting one at least.

Shot in England in 1983 and released in the US by Cannon Films a year later, House is Walker’s attempt to make a Gothic horror film while kind of sending up the genre at the same time. Walker’s films were generally more of the modern variety (albeit relatively tame by today’s standards) and made during the 70’s, when the popularity of British production companies like Hammer and Amicus was beginning to wane. Walker was part of the “new wave”, one might say – his films were usually set in swinging 70’s London and had teens and young adults at the center, the antithesis of the aesthetic of the old guard. So it’s kind of curious that he would make this film at all (especially as his final directing credit), given that’s a kind of winking tribute to the films he basically helped to destroy. His attempt to “modernize” the genre seems half-hearted at best, but again, Walker seems only interested in making a Gothic horror film if he doesn’t really have to make one.

The plot concerns a young American writer (played by Desi Arnaz Jr.) who is challenged by his agent to stay in a supposedly haunted house for one night, during which time he will crank out a Gothic horror novel of the type he disdains. His agent wagers that he can’t pull it off, but the cocky young writer is positive he won’t be too frightened to do the job. Here we see the conflict between the sneering, “know it all” youth and the older “seen it all” generation which was a recurring theme with Walker. Within no time Arnaz is at the house and encountering an attractive secretary (supposedly there to help him write his novel) and the former residents of the place, the eccentric and seemingly cursed Grisbane family.

It wouldn’t be fair to reveal any more, but suffice it to say that nothing is quite as it seems. Sadly, it’s a good half-hour before one of the horror icons shows up on screen (come on, they’re the actors we want to see!) and Arnaz isn’t much of a lead, coming off like a typical smart-alecky sub-Guttenberg 80’s wisecracker. Once things get going and we’re finally introduced to the real stars of the picture, however, House of the Long Shadows is kind of awesome, simply because they are so awesome. Price, Lee and Cushing each get plenty of chances to chew scenery, separately and together, and it’s a wonderful sight indeed. It’s almost worth tracking this thing down just to watch these old pros at work, apparently relishing the chance to show a (potentially) new audience what they’re capable of. They certainly didn’t phone this one in, and if you’ve ever had any affection for these guys at all, this is one you’re going to want to see sometime.

Unfortunately, the disc quality is not particularly good. Now, I wasn’t expecting Criterion-level quality from what is essentially a full-screen DVD-R, and I can forgive a lot. But given that I paid $20 for a copy of this thing, I expected at least to be able to see what’s going on on screen most of the time! The problem is that much of the movie is shot in varying degrees of darkness, as Gothic horror tended to be, and the picture as presented is quite literally too dark, often irritatingly so. It’s not “shadowy” dark, it’s “I can’t see a fucking thing” dark. When the picture is light enough, it’s relatively watchable. But given the kind of movie this is, you really need a decent transfer to make it worth a purchase. If you told me they burned this straight from an old VHS copy (not even the master), I wouldn’t be at all surprised. I know, it’s an On Demand purchase for a select audience who specifically orders that title, but still. Given classic horror film buffs’ interest in these actors, you would think that the folks at MGM Home Video might have considered this worthy of a regular DVD release, at the very least as part of one of their double-feature Midnite Movies releases. I don’t tend to be an absolute stickler for things like image quality (at a time when tech-heads are upgrading to Blu-Ray, I’m raiding closing-down video stores for their cheap inventory), but it would have been nice to see this title cleaned up a bit. Come on. This is one step above those cheap-ass collections where you get like 50 movies for $5, but they all look like shit. What a deal, huh?

So while I can’t exactly recommend a purchase here, I can say that House of the Long Shadows is a very entertaining little film that fans of Gothic horror will likely get a kick out of. Since it never shows up on cable, I would recommend checking it out on Amazon’s Watch on Demand service online rather than buying a copy like I did. It’ll still look like crap, but you’ll get to see it and you won’t be out $20. Guess I’ll know better next time. For the record, I’m glad that obscure titles like this one are being made available to collectors through services like Amazon on Demand and Warner Archive, but I’d still like them to be watchable copies. Otherwise, they might as well stay in the vault, and no one wants that.

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