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Posts Tagged ‘Desi Arnaz Jr’

Complaining that some of the final films of the great old horror legends are a bit unworthy of their presence almost feels like missing the point, given that (arguably) one of the reasons these actors are so celebrated is because they were performers of genuine charisma, talent, and technical virtuosity, who happily put all that to work in the service of rather variable, usually low-budget genre movies. Nevertheless, of all these performers – and I am thinking, of course, of Peter Cushing, Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, and perhaps Donald Pleasence – only Lee lived long enough to see many directors who grew up on his films become successful figures, and reaped the benefit of numerous great roles in his final years as a result.

Nevertheless, when it comes to a movie like House of the Long Shadows, your expectations understandably become higher, as soon as you see the poster (or failing that the credits). Pete Walker’s film achieves the notable coup of assembling Cushing, Price and Lee, together with John Carradine. All the lines on the map of classic horror movie acting converge here, one way or another – the only other film to come close is Scream and Scream Again, which had Price, Lee, and Cushing in it, albeit never all in the same scene.

However, it soon becomes clear that the great men are all playing character roles: the lead character, Ken Magee, is played by Desi Arnaz Jr. Magee is an American novelist visiting London to see his publisher (another veteran actor, Richard Todd). After a disagreement over the value and quality of some of the great old classic novels, particularly Wuthering Heights, Magee and his publisher make a bet – if Magee can produce the completed manuscript of a publishable gothic novel in twenty-four hours, he’ll win $20,000. So he can work undisturbed, and perhaps soak up a little atmosphere, the publisher offers him the chance to work at a remote country house in Wales known as Baldpate Manor (the actual name being in Welsh and thus unpronounceable by anyone else). So off he trots.

(Quite apart from anything else, I feel obliged to raise an eyebrow over the whole writing-a-novel-in-24-hours stunt. How long’s a novel? NaNoWriMo suggest 50,000 words is a reasonable word-count, which is still on the short side compared to the average book. Now, on the most productive day of my life, I managed to write roughly 15,000 words in about ten hours. So the idea of writing a whole novel, of any real quality, in twenty-four-hours, is surely bunkum. But there’s a sense in which this is amongst the least of House of the Long Shadows‘ problems.)

Magee arrives at Baldpate and soon discovers he is not alone: there are a couple of creepy old caretakers (played by Carradine and Sheila Keith) and an attractive young woman (Julie Peasgood) who says she’s been sent to warn him he’s in danger and should leave. (Who is Sheila Keith, you ask, and how has she blagged a way into the distinguished company of the other character performers in this film? Well, apart from appearing in Crossroads and various comedy shows, she was a regular in Pete Walker’s other horror movies: House of Whipcord, Frightmare, and so on.) Magee rightly twigs that at least some of this is a distraction organised by his publisher to ensure he loses the bet.

But soon, and many would say none too soon, other eccentric characters start showing up at the manor: Cushing arrives, supposedly as a lost motorist, while Price makes a grand entrance as the heir to the property and Carradine’s son (the dates don’t really work, but go with it). Price manages to deliver a fairly indifferent first line – ‘I have returned’ – so it’s genuinely very funny, and suddenly the whole film seems to be lifted onto a higher level for a moment. Finally, Christopher Lee arrives as someone thinking of buying the house.

It turns out that Magee has arrived in time for the reunion of the Grisbane family, for the first time since 1939 – Cushing turns out to be Price’s younger brother. But it is a not entirely joyous occasion: the family have reassembled to release the youngest Grisbane brother, who has been locked up in the attic for forty-odd years since committing a terrible murder as a teenager. However, it seems that he has already escaped, and is on the loose in the vicinity, intent on vengeance against his brothers and father…

Well, quite apart from all the gothic tropes – which are quite cleverly woven into the script – House of the Long Shadows contains no fewer than three significant twists, of which two are infuriatingly risible and one is so obvious you will see it coming a mile off. This film has a terrible ending. In fact, it has several terrible endings in quick succession. But in a weird way, the rotten ending isn’t as much of a joy-killer as it could have been, because the rest of the film is pretty dreadful too.

I would have been prepared to suggest that the whole script was assembled just as a vehicle to get this particular group of actors together – but oddly enough that isn’t the case. This is just the most recent of many adaptations of the 1913 novel Seven Keys to Baldpate, which may explain why the film feels so old-fashioned and chintzy in its plot and structure. As we have already noted, the premise is hard to take seriously, and it doesn’t get any more plausible as it continues. It’s just possible that the film might have worked better if it had really tried to emphasise the campness and archness of the story; the big-name quartet certainly have the talent. But maybe the constraints of the film – it’s clearly been made on a very low budget, with a tiny cast – precluded even that.

There is undeniably some pleasure to be had in seeing Lee, Cushing and Price together on screen – but these are essentially supporting roles, in the end, and too much of the film is given to Arnaz Jr and Peasgood to carry. Occasional diversions into the gory territory of early-80s horror effects are also a bit of an issue. The film is ultimately depressing rather than funny or scary – there have been many disappointing low-budget horror movies, but few which have made such little use of such tremendous potential.

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