Monday, May 28, 2018

“An Unpleasant Odor You Can’t Exactly Trace” - Last House on Massacre Street (1973)

Let us turn our attention to the 1973 film Last House on Massacre Street, which is also known as The Bride, a more appropriate but much less entertaining title. As you know, we at Senseless Cinema are big fans of minimalist horror films--see A Day of Judgment (1981), Night of 1,000 Cats (1972), and The Prey (1984)--and there are few films as minimal as Last House on Massacre Street.

Some critics, of course, fail to appreciate minimalism sufficiently. Reviewer princebuster82 writes that "the movie is kind of weak from a story standpoint....trods along at a sllooooowww pace, because the plot is so simple..." BA_Harrison writes that the film is "only 50% entertaining, the action suffering from some serious pacing issues, a lack of scares, a dearth of blood and guts..." Michael_Elliott writes, "The direction doesn't add any tension to the film and it just seems very flat. The performances are decent but they all manage to hit a few bad notes throughout."

Let us counter these opinions with some facts. Please read on to experience the existential dread of Last House on Massacre Street...

The film opens with two lovers happily walking through a field of grass. The man points something out in the sky and the woman kisses his hand. They reach a beautifully modern, shake-shingle house, which is not at this time identified as having an address on Massacre Street.

“There it is,” the woman says, referring to the house. “Do you like it?”

“It’s wild,” the man says.

“This house is me,” she says. “I could live in it forever.”

When the couple enters the house, the woman, Barbara, flashes back to a scene convincing her smoking-jacketed father to spend the money so she can design and build a house. The flashback ends with her kissing her father on the mouth—and the filmmakers cut to the present as she kisses her lover, David, on the mouth.

The film then spends the next 10 minutes showing the couple walking through the unfinished interior of the house, before they have a picnic out in the field of grass. They have a quick argument about who should tell Barbara’s father they want to get married, but they decide Barbara has him wrapped around her finger, so she should tell him.

When Barbara tells her father, he warns her, “There is something about David, something negative. I can’t name it, I can’t prove it, but it’s like an unpleasant odor you can’t exactly trace.”

Despite his objections, Barbara and David get married in the next scene, but, proving Barbara’s father correct, David spends much of the wedding staring at his old girlfriend.

The extended wedding sequence is a wonder of 1970s handheld camerawork, complete with a series of awkward closeups. In a candid conversation, some random wedding guests summarize the times. “It’s hard to figure out what’s relevant and what’s not relevant these days,” a man says.

A woman says, “Well, these are times you know. Change and confusion, you know?”

“I’m not confused,” says another woman.

Her companion says, “That’s because you’re not relevant.”

In the middle of the wedding reception, the groom goes upstairs to have a tryst with his ex-girlfriend, leaving Barbara alone to mingle outside. Curious, she looks for David inside the house, only to find him making love to the other woman on a settee.

Barbara grabs a pair of scissors and attacks David. “My arm!” he screams.

She only cuts him, rather than killing him, and then she runs downstairs to the wedding reception, a proverbial blood-spattered bride.

Finally, she attacks the wedding cake and runs away, the proverbial runaway bride.

The film cuts to two weeks later. Barbara’s father meets with David in a restaurant, and the two appear to be fast friends. The father reveals Barbara has been missing for two weeks. He says, “When she was a little girl she used to spend hours at a time in her room, pouting.” Further revealing his  twisted mind (and, the filmmakers imply, by extension the twisted morality of the older generation), he adds, “Two weeks ago, you became my son under the law. For better or for worse. And I feel a moral obligation towards you, David.”

The older man wants David about Barbara: “She’s always had a real streak of cruelty and potential for violence.” He tells David an absurd story of Barbara receiving a chicken as a pet from “some idiot,” and the way she used a straight razor to cut off its head, which apparently took hours.

The filmmakers have a knack for keeping the audience on its toes as it whether Barbara or David is meant to be sympathetic. After learning of Barbara’s psychotic tendencies, we watch David and his attractive ex-girlfriend Helen have a conversation in his home. “Make yourself look human and I’ll take you to dinner,” he tells her coldly.

Unexpectedly, in the next scene, David and Helen attend a craft fair and steal a piece of watermelon. They are observed by an inconspicuous man with a red striped shirt and a massive handlebar mustache. It turns out Barbara’s father has hired a private investigator, a fact he reveals to David at his office, though it is not clear whether the investigator is supposed to find Barbara or follow David.

Later, David comes home to find Helen wearing a wedding dress, which arrived at the doorstep. Helen interprets the wedding dress as David’s proposal, but he says, “Why should I do a stupid thing like that? Take it off. Get rid of it.”

In a chilling sequence, Barbara, dressed in her bridal gown, visits David and Helen in their bedroom and strangles Helen.

However, the attack is just Helen’s dream.

Presumably in order not to play favorites, the film shows us David’s dream, in which shadows perform a slow-paced modern dance on drywall and Barbara’s voice intones, “David, this is my house!” before she appears in her wedding dress.

In a creepily effective scene, in the morning Helen wakes up alone only to find a bloody rooster’s head beside her in bed.

Instead of investigating to see if Barbara is in the house, or calling the police to report breaking and entering, Helen struggles to make a cup of coffee. Then she opens the refrigerator to find the rest of the rooster inside. Of course, she screams and screams at finding chicken in the fridge.

Helen is driven over the edge when she finds a bridal gown covering a skull; she stabs at it with a tiny knife, ripping the dress to pieces.

In the third act, David finds out Helen is missing, so he drives out to Barbara’s house (on Massacre Street) to end things. Breaking into the house, David is reticent and has flashbacks to his dream, in which he wandered through the house shirtless, but he pushes through his fears.

Surprisingly, David is confronted by Barbara’s father. “The house that Barbara built,” her father says. “It’s an accurate reflection of her, don’t you think? Bright windows to let in the light. Corners to trap the...darkness. All of it unfinished, wasted.”

The father shows David where Barbara is: in a coffin in the house, embalmed, wearing her bridal gown. She hanged herself on her wedding night.

It turns out Barbara’s father has been toying with David and Helen. He forces David to life Barbara’s veil, and she rises to life. Her father also takes an axe and attacks David.

The axe attack appears to be less than fatal. David wakes up and finds Barbara wandering her house. When she says she loves the house, he tells her, “It’s a spook house, exactly where you belong.”

She drags him into the bedroom, where the only piece of furniture is a small bed. “You have a duty to perform, husband,” she says.

He realizes he can’t touch anything except Barbara, who feels cold. He sees his own dead body on the floor. David and Barbara are ghosts.

The film ends with Barbara screaming, “Kiss the bride!” over and over, while David screams, “No!”

In our discussion of Last House on Massacre Street, we must first address the burning question suggested by the title. There are two possible explanations for the title:

  1. Barbara's house is on a street called Massacre Street.
  2. The filmmakers believe one murder is sufficient to comprise a massacre.
Unfortunately, we do not see a street sign near Barbara's house, and in fact the house does not appear to be on a street at all, as the only way to access it is to walk up a grassy hill, through a field, and around a fence. The evidence points to the second possible explanation, that a massacre can consist of a single murder. However, there is a third possibility, and that is that Helen was also killed, though we have no evidence of this. Perhaps this is a mystery that will, tragically, never be solved.

In the interest of minimalism, I shall say no more about Last House on Massacre Street.