Monday, April 23, 2018

"It's What Farm People Do for a Present" - The House Where Death Lives (1980)

Films with self-contradictory titles are always fascinating, and The House Where Death Lives (1980), also known as Delusion, is no exception. We find out, in fact, that death does live in the house where death, along with some other people, lives.

Reviewer coventry writes, "There's not a trace of suspense, the supposedly ingenious twist-ending is hugely derivative and the murders are uninspired and bloodless....I've seen episodes of my mother's daily soap opera that were more exciting than this turkey. One to avoid at all costs, unless of course you suffers from a bad case of insomnia." Writer Rich Wright writes the "writer...writes dull characters and sets out the most boring set-pieces for murder imaginable, before that incomprehensible conclusion." Reviewer lemon_magic writes, quite uncharitably, "I will always remember the way 'The House Where Death Lives' seemed to suck the life right out of my body."

Needless to say, these criticisms are ridiculous. If anything, contrary to lemon_magic's statement, The House Where Death Lives may be said to blow the life right into the audience's collective body. Let us start from the beginning...

The film opens in dramatic fashion, with a nurse sitting at a desk, staring out the window. She narrates a letter she is presumably writing, though her hands never move.

“Dear father,” she narrates, “Although it has been 15 years since we had any contact, I feel I must write you now to tell you that Mother is dead. I’m not sure you’ll care, but I thought you should know.”

Then she thinks: “To tell you how she died, I’ll have to start at the beginning, with my first job at Fairlawn.”

The film flashes back to the woman, the appealingly Julie Hagerty-like character Meredith Stone, in a taxi. She is driving to the home of an elderly man so she can serve as his caregiver. When she arrives at the house, she finds it is a big Tudor mansion.

She is met by Philip, Mr. Langrock’s presumably British secretary, who tells her, “Things have been a little grim around here these past few days.”

Mr. Langrock is played by Joseph Cotten, most famous of course from Island of the Fishmen (1979). “Don’t be fooled by my shoulders, or my tan,” he tells Meredith. “When you nurse a man who has lost control of his...well, certain primitive human functions, you get to know him very well.”

Philip next introduces Meredith to Alex the gardener and to Duffy the cook, played by Alice Nunn, best known of course as Large Marge from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985). (In deference to Ms. Nunn, I will refer to her respectfully as Ms. Large Marge hereinafter.)

For no apparent reason, Philip takes Meredith down to the wine cellar, where Philip, clearly an alcoholic, uses the tour as an excuse to finish off a bottle of wine. “Mr. Langrock can make no use of the supply in his condition, so I...I invaded.”

(I must interject that at this point in the film I was unclear why Meredith was describing her job in so much detail in a letter to her estranged father to explain her mother’s death, but rest assured the reason will be revealed by the film's end.)

In true Gothic fashion, when Philip is showing Meredith her bedroom (the most wallpapered room in the house), Meredith asks about a certain room where, from outside, she saw someone staring out. With a practiced grin, Philip tells her the room is shut down. Unoccupied.

Later, Mr. Cotten’s mustache-bearing lawyer Jeffrey and his beautiful girlfriend Pamela arrive to meet the new nurse. When he sees Meredith, he says, “You don’t look like a nurse. Not how I pictured.” (The audience senses something suspicious, as Meredith in fact looks exactly like a nurse—a frumpy nurse.) Jeffrey’s beautiful girlfriend is jealous and pulls Jeffrey away because they are late for the opera.

Fortunately for the audience, Pamela and Jeffrey stay long enough to deliver some helpful exposition, despite being in a hurry. “It’s not Langrock who’s scary,” says Pamela, “it’s those kids.”

“This is the second son Mr. Langrock has lost,” says Jeffrey.

“And he was the sane one,” says Pamela. “Used to live out in Arizona on some commune eating snakes and chanting in the desert.”

At night, perhaps feeling pressured to adhere to Gothic conventions, Meredith wanders the halls in her frumpy nightclothes. She enters the previously locked room and finds a wall covered with childish drawings.

She is startled by a man in the room; apparently the man, who wears striped pajamas, had not noticed her exploring his bedroom. Philip enters immediately and controls the man, whose name is Wilfred. Philip calms the man grabbing Wilfred’s head.

In the morning, Ms. Large Marge calms Meredith down by explaining that Wilfred is the brother who did not die, though everyone believes him to be dead. “Poor Wilfred,” she says. “Imagine a story like that. Dead. Although he’d probably have been better off that way instead of the way he’s been living.”

With the Gothic secret revealed less than 20 minutes into the film’s running time, Meredith settles into the Langrock family life, which centers around the developmentally delayed Wilfred being treated as a pitiful, worthless outcast.

Mr. Cotten gets to show his acting chops during a scene in which Meredith is lightly massaging his shoulders, after they are told his grandson will be visiting from the commune in Arizona. “I wonder what it’s like to see your parents die,” says Mr. Cotten slowly. “They were hiking, all three of them. He saw them fall. I wonder what he thought.” (This clever line suggests to the audience all the myriad different things such a boy might have been thinking as he witnessed his parents falling to their deaths. Perhaps “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaah!” Or perhaps “Noooooooooooo!” The possibilities are truly endless.)

A few minutes later, the 16-year-old grandson Gabriel is delivered to the house. When he sees Meredith he says, “How do you do? I’m Gabriel. I’ve lost my parents.”

“I’m sorry,” says Meredith, understandably.

Mr. Cotten gives Gabriel a “welcome home” present, a gaudy skateboard.

“What is it?” asks 16-year-old Gabriel.

Mr. Cotten turns to Meredith. “Uh...what is it?”

Gabriel says he would prefer a rifle, for shooting squirrels.

Later, Meredith’s narration continues, reminding us that the entire story is being typed to her father. (Perhaps her mother. I forget.) She narrates, more than a little creepily, about Gabriel, “He certainly wasn’t like any 16-year-old I’d ever seen. Everyone had expected a boy. Gabriel was no boy.”


Thus, the second act of the film develops a series of inappropriate romances, with the frumpy nurse ogling the 16-year-old grandson and the mustachioed lawyer flirting with the frumpy nurse. Oddly, however, the inappropriate romances do not include a relationship between Joseph Cotten and Large Marge.

In the garden, Mr. Cotten explains his wealth to Meredith in wonderful detail. “I’m an inventor. I take completely unrelated objects and then I put them together in various combinations and suddenly they perform functions that nobody ever dreamed of.”

He adds that he can make it work in reverse. “I can take a thing, a person—you for instance—I could watch you function, and then pull you apart into your basic pieces.”

Instead of reacting to this statement with abject terror, Meredith is flattered.

Mr. Cotten attempts to psychoanalyze her. She admits, “My mother is mentally ill.”

“Perfect!” says Mr. Cotten gleefully.

She also admits her father raped her mother while she watched. “I haven’t seen him since,” she says.

They decide to return inside. For some reason, Meredith pushes the wheelchair while Mr. Cotten works its wheels, an entirely redundant means of propelling a wheelchair.

They react in horror when they see one of the dogs hanging from a tree, murdered.

Of course, in the next scene following the discovery of the bloody dog, the 16-year-old Gabriel enters Meredith’s bedroom at night and makes love to her, though the filmmakers imply it is only a dream.

The next day, Gabriel gives Meredith a handmade present: a cardboard flower sculpture that opens to reveal the sex organs of the flower as a man and woman embracing. “You made this?” she asks him. (It is difficult to tell if she is horrified or curious.)

“It’s what farm people do for a present,” he responds.

Wilfred, the mentally challenged man, is suddenly murdered one night, which results in a mild depression among the family living in the house. Suspicion falls vaguely on Gabriel, a situation not helped when Gabriel confronts Meredith in her bathtub. “Why are they coming down on me?” he asks her, a little confusingly.

She replies even more confusingly, “They...they think that...they was what they think...that you...killed Wilfred. It’s crazy. I don’t know.”

He gives her another present, which appears to be a small knife.

In one of the cleverest scene of the film, the filmmakers have Meredith narrating her letter to her father from the framing sequence, only for her to narrate writing a letter to her mother, apparently to explain her attraction to a 16-year-old boy: “I tried to write her a letter. ‘Dear mother, I’ve met a man here. I don’t think you’ll understand. He’s not like anyone I’ve every known.’” Thus, in her letter to her father, Meredith tells the story of writing a letter to her mother.

The next murder victim is the butler Philip, killed in his beloved wine cellar after a rack of wine bottles is pushed over on top of him.

Again, suspicion falls on Gabriel, but the savvy audience knows this means Gabriel must not be the killer. Cleverly, the filmmakers know the audience knows Gabriel is a red herring, so instead of building up the possibility of the other family members’ guilt, they present Gabriel as the only suspect. In fact, it can be said that the audience knows that the filmmakers know that the audience knows that Gabriel cannot be the killer.

In a suspenseful sequence made only slightly less interesting by the fact that it involves characters we have barely seen previously, the mysterious killer mysteriously kills a police detective and someone else who I believe to be Alex the gardener.

Grippingly, the filmmakers return to the letter-within-a-letter device as Meredith begins another missive to her mother about the man she has met, though she is quickly distracted by the thought (mentioned explicitly in the first letter, though not the second) that she has missed a clue to the killer’s identity.

Meredith solves the mystery by, again, wandering through the house. She finds the murder weapon, which we have been unable to see due to darkness, and it turns out to be the leg of a table. She also finds a body—that of young Gabriel, suggesting once and for all that Gabriel was not the killer.

I will not reveal the twist ending, which involves some helpful exposition from the lawyer, Jeffrey. (I would also suggest that you refrain from viewing posters of the film if you do not want to know the identity of the murderer in advance.)

I will reveal that the climax includes a scene of Ms. Large Marge cowering in fear from the actual murderer, though fortunately she survives the gruesome events.

I will also reveal that the coda of the film subverts the audience’s expectations, as Meredith continues to narrate her letter to her father, but we do not hear its ending. She simply discloses her desire to return to Fairlawn, Mr. Cotten’s estate, and the film ends.

Few movies can extract tension from a scene in which nobody knows what a skateboard is, but The House Where Death Lives is one of them. On a similar note, I am aware of few movies in which the entire narrative structure of the film is the writing of a letter, but that also include scenes in which a different letter is being written within the overall narrative structure. Had the filmmakers decided to include a letter within the letter within the letter, perhaps this film would receive its due and be considered a classic by the fickle critics of your universe.

Among the many unique touches of The House Where Death Lives, it must be pointed out that the film was released in 1980 at the beginning of the slasher craze, and it is perhaps the only slasher or proto-slasher movie from that time period to not only feature a table leg as the primary murder weapon, but to feature the discovery of said table leg as a plot point revealing the identity of the killer. For that, The House Where Death Lives should be revered, or at the very least remembered fondly.