Monday, November 20, 2017

"A Veil Over Reality" - House of the Dead (1978)

As you may have realized, here at Senseless Cinema we are of the considered opinion that many regional films are much better than their big-budget Hollywood counterparts. For examples, see Kansas City's The Chilling (1989), Michigan's Frostbiter (1995), Texas' Mark of the Witch (1970), or any of the Wisconsin-set classics of Bill Rebane, such as Blood Harvest (1987), The Game (1984), and The Capture of Bigfoot (1979).

Such is the case with Oklahoma's The House of the Dead (1978)--not to be confused with the more recent House of the Dead (2003)--but also known as Alien Zone. (Only a small part of the film's charm comes from the fact that the narrative is not set in a house--of the dead or otherwise--and likewise it features neither aliens nor zones.)

This anthology film has received some mixed reviews in your universe. On IMDB, reviewer Bezenby writes, "The real problem is that the stories are barely there at all!" Gridoon2016 writes, "only a few steps up from the quality of your average home movie....but three things they [the stories] all have in common are poor production values, tedious scripting, and amateurish acting." Junkmonkey writes, "The dialogue is dreadful: leaden, repetitive, and pointless...The whole movie has the feel of a bunch of student/ amateur shorts nailed together with a framing device to make a feature."

While some anthology films would deserve these baseless insults, The House of the Dead is not one of them.

The film opens with a wonderful song, whose lyrics I must record for posterity here.

"The last star of night,
That simply fades away,
The crest of a wave
As it washes out to sea.
Where does it lead to,
And who knows why?
The saddest melody
Is the sound of goodbye.

The soft satin wind
That leaves behind a chill.
The last olive bud
As it withers on a hill.
The distant drummer
Who tries to bely
The saddest melody
Is the sound of goodbye.
The saddest melody
Is the sound of goodbye."

(Sung by Steve March, written by Ayn Robbins, music by Stan V. Worth)

The film itself opens in a bedroom as a man and a woman make love. "I wasn't sure you'd be coming," says the woman.

"I got here as fast as I could," says the man.

(Despite this opening dialogue, the film is not in actuality a sex farce.)

It emerges that the two are having an affair; the man, Mr. Talmudge, is married. He cajoles the woman to call him a cab and he leaves into the rainy night.

In the taxi, Talmudge says cleverly, "Seems like it's been raining for a week. I've only been here two days."

He asks the cabbie to drop him off at his hotel, but when he gets out of the taxi, Talmudge finds he is on the wrong street. The taxi drives away.

Strange things happen. A newsstand attendant looks at him funny, and he can't seem to get into a bar.

Finally, an elderly man finds him and offers him a warm place to spend some time. They enter an unmarked building and make their way to the elderly man's small apartment. "The rain's a deceiver, a veil over reality," says the old man.

"Do you live here?" Talmudge asks.

"Live? Work. This is where I do my work." The old man refuses to elaborate, but then he bursts out with, "Embalming, actually. Embalming and such. I'm a mortician."

The mortician, over Talmudge's frequent protestations, insists on showing Talmudge around the facility. He shows Talmudge his latest acquisitions.

"Her name was Miss Sibler," says the mortician. "She was a teacher."

This introduces the first story of the anthology. Miss Sibler is a nasty teacher at an elementary school. She finds boys innocently sitting on the hood of her car in the parking lot; when she honks the horn, she frightens them and tells them, rather sharply, to get off her car. (Her character truly is a heartless shrew, not even allowing schoolchildren to sit on her car.)

Once home, she hears noises outside on the front lawn, but when she checks, nothing is there.

In a mesmerizing shot, the camera slowly pushes in toward a toilet as Miss Sibler prepares to take a shower.

Miss Sibler appears truly happy only when taking a shower.

Shockingly, she sees a shadow pass across the shower curtain, and somebody has turned off her radio.

Miss Sibler runs through the house for several minutes, checking doors and windows, and discovering the telephone cord has been cut. Then the basement door opens slowly to reveal...

...children dressed as the famous comedy team of Little Orphan Annie, Bozo the Clown, and Uncle Sam!

"Oh my God," she says. "Children! Just children! What kind of a stupid prank is this?"

More children in plastic masks enter the house making odd squeaky sounds. They remove their masks and reveal that their teeth are misshapen.

These monster children converge on her, presumably causing her death.

The film cuts back to the mortician and Talmudge, who says quite accurately that the story is ridiculous. The mortician replies, "Perhaps. Yet it's all very true."

The mortician introduces the next story and its main character, a man who "had a rather extraordinary predilection for, all that sort of thing. He did some very nasty things."

This second story is an early example of a found footage horror film, mostly shown from the point of view of a running movie camera in a man's apartment. This is intercut with footage from news cameras as the man is arrested for murder.

We watch as our photographer brings a blind date home. "There's one of your cameras right now," the woman says, pointing right at the camera. "Just like a model airplane or something, kinda mounted on its own stand."

"A model airplane?" says the man, highly offended. "Photography is a serious endeavor."

(The film does not address the difference between still photography and cinematography.)

The woman, instead of running from the apartment, gives the man the benefit of the doubt. He tells her he also studies magic, but he needs a pair of pantyhose for a trick.

Thinking nothing of it, she takes off her pantyhose and gives them to the man for his trick. "This is a disappearing trick," he says. "A marvel of prestidigitation."

"I like that kind," she says.

Of course, he simply strangles her on camera.

We watch as he kills two more women, strangling one and knifing the other.

Then we return to the mortuary. "A year later, he was executed," says the mortician.

He moves on quickly to the third story, which he calls "a very intriguing situation."

The scene opens on an apparent suicide by hanging, attended by various police officers and detectives.

A bearded Columbo-like detective, played by the always-excellent Charles Aidman, moves through the room gathering clues. He announces the man was murdered, and provides various pieces of evidence that it was not a suicide. In fact, he knows who the murderer is based on the smell of a particular brand of cigar.

Mr. Aidman is confronted by another detective, played by the redoubtable Bernard Fox as Scotland Yard's Inspector McDowell.

The two detectives explain that they are the greatest detectives of their respective countries, and though they have never met they are incorrigible rivals.

Over dinner at an exclusive club, the two rivals are surprised to receive an anonymous note consisting of pasted letters from newspaper headlines: "In 3 days, someone you know will die a horrible death. You are the only one who can prevent this tragic occurrence. Don't you think you should?"

"Elmer's Glue," says Mr. Aidman, smelling the paper. "Very middle class."

Mr. Fox asks to tag along as Mr. Aidman addresses the mystery. The next day, the two detectives discover some clues, but the case fails to progress. At one point, Mr. Aidman becomes angry at his rival's meddling, and we suspect that Mr. Fox's smugness may imply he is behind the mystery.

Days later, Mr. Aidman calls Mr. Fox to his luxurious home. Mr. Aidman explains with great certainty that the victim is to be Mr. Aidman himself, and the perpetrator is to be Mr. Fox, as the audience has been suspecting.

"Bravo, well done," says Mr. Fox. He shoots Mr. Aidman, but Mr. Aidman reveals that he had time to booby-trap the chair Mr. Fox is sitting in with a spring-loaded knife. Mr. Fox falls to the floor, dead, and Mr. Aidman reveals his bullet-proof vest.

But there is one more twist, as Mr. Aidman, for unexplained reasons, opens the briefcase Mr. Fox has brought to the house. Who will have the last laugh? (Spoiler: Neither, because both detectives end up dead.)

The fourth and final story begins with a busy businessman, Cantwell, working in his office. His co-worker invites Cantwell to lunch at a restaurant that serves 23 different kinds of hamburgers, but Cantwell is too busy. "Why do they keep pestering me?" Cantwell thinks. We clearly hear his thoughts.

On his way home, he stops at a stationery store. "Do you have any gum?" Cantwell asks. When the clerk says no, Cantwell asks again: "You really don't have any chewing gum?"

"What do you think this is, a delicatessen?" retorts the clerk cleverly.

We hear Cantwell's mental assessment of the clerk: "Slob." (Although we are growing used to hearing Cantwell's thoughts as a clever device to reveal his character, we will not hear them again and they will not factor into his story at all.)

Outside on the street, Cantwell brushes off a homeless man, telling him to get a job.

Cantwell next finds himself trapped somehow in an empty storefront. He peers down an empty elevator shaft, and then for no apparent reason he falls into the shaft. The fall does not injure him seriously, but a descending elevator nearly crushes him.

Cantwell's situation becomes more surreal when walls drop down to surround him, trapping him in a cube. One of the walls has sharp nails pointing outward, and of course the wall moves toward him, nearly killing him yet again.

Of course, the next step in the trap is to supply Cantwell with bottles of beer. He drinks a dozen or so bottles, after which a door opens and he staggers into an alley.

He attempts to get help from a businessman walking down the street, but the businessman brushes him off. "Why don't you get a job?"

Cantwell lets out an extended "No!" In a gravelly voice.

We cut back to the mortuary. "Eventually, he died," explains the mortician.

The mortician continues because we in the audience are not perceptive enough to understand the irony of these stories. "All these people were the victims of their own frailties, their own petty foibles."

"Mr. Cantwell," says Talmudge, "he had no feelings at all." (The lack of feelings is to be inferred, correctly, from Cantwell's refusal to go to lunch with his co-worker.)

"He was blindly insensitive, sir," says the mortician. "His failing? He simply didn't care."

There is one more closed coffin in the mortuary. "What was this person's fate?" Talmudge asks.

"I don't know. Infidelity, I suppose. Like to see?"

The mortician opens the coffin. Shockingly, it is empty.

Talmudge says he must go. He understands the implication of the empty coffin, and of course the charge of infidelity. He runs away, and suddenly finds himself on the street in front of a hotel.

Coincidentally, he is found by the husband of his lover, who shoots him twice.

As our hero dies in the gutter, we hear the opening song "The Sound of Goodbye" again. The song plays over shots of an ambulance collecting Talmudge's body, and we see that the mortician is sitting in the ambulance's passenger seat. This is a shocking, brilliant twist because we thought the man was just a mortician, but we find out he is moonlighting as a paramedic as well.

Like all the great anthology films produced over the years, The House of the Dead emphasizes the moral flaws of its central characters and provides appropriately poetic justice for their sins. In the first story, the teacher objects to schoolchildren sitting on the hood of her car, so grotesque children break into her house and kill her. In the second story, a murderer films himself killing women, so the police arrest him using the films as evidence. In the third story, two detectives are arrogant enough to believe themselves the greatest in the world, so they kill each other. And in the fourth story, a man fails to give a homeless man money, so he is tortured and forced to become an alcoholic. The comeuppance is delicious.

Perhaps this theme extends to the wraparound segment as well, in which not only is the adulterer murdered for his adultery, but also the cadaverous mortician is forced to become a paramedic riding in an ambulance.

It must be noted that the third story features the most recognizable actors in the film, Charles Aidman and Bernard Fox. Mr. Aidman not only appeared in the "Little Girl Lost" and "And When the Sky Was Opened" episodes of the original Twilight Zone, he also narrated the 1980s version of the series. His appearance here in this classic anthology film is no doubt a reference to his performances in the great TV show. As for Mr. Fox, while he did not appear in the original Twilight Zone, he did play a hotel detective in the episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show where Laura Petrie gets her toe stuck in a hotel bathtub. No doubt, Mr. Fox's appearance in The House of the Dead is a reference to that memorable performance.

When all is said and done, this film presents at least two lessons in morality that everyone must remember. First, do not commit adultery in Oklahoma. The consequences of such an act are dreadful, to say the least. Second, as the fourth segment teaches us, be kind to homeless people. Otherwise, a brief encounter on the street could lead to an extended period of torture and forced alcoholism by a shadowy organization whose purposes and funding are unclear. If nothing else, The House of the Dead imparts these two solid pieces of advice, and I for one will never forget them.