Monday, June 18, 2018

"I Still Got the Sugarplum Fairies Dancing in My Head" - Open House (1987)

It is always interesting when great filmmakers turn their attention to horror movies. Our topic today is the 1987 slasher film Open House, directed by the elite pair of director Jag Mundhra (Hack-O-Lantern) and writer David Mickey Evans (Radio Flyer and The Sandlot). Adding even more prestige to the film are actors Tiffany Bolling (Kingdom of the Spiders), sitcom veteran Leonard Lightfoot, and Don Adams's daughter, not to mention the redoubtable Adrienne Barbeau. A more star-studded production could hardly be imagined.

Despite all the star power, some reviewers in your universe do not understand Open House. For example, reviewer spyse writes, "This movie was the slowest and most boring so called horror that I have ever seen. I would include a comment on the plot but there was none." Similarly, reviewer callanvass writes, somewhat repetitively, "It is filled with laughable dialog and endless talky scenes that seem to go on forever. There is no entertainment value in this movie what so ever. As a matter of fact, it's completely void of it." Finally, reviewer dien simply writes, "The sheer amount of non-sense in this film is just unbearable."

I beg to disagree with Mr. dien, as I find the film bearable. Read on...

The film begins with a teenage runaway, Tracy, calling in to a radio talk show. She has the talk show host’s number: “You go on the radio, and you yack it up, and you get paid. A lot. To pretend like you’re everyone’s best buddy. Then you go home, you listen to your expensive stereo, and you watch your expensive television, and you fool around with your expensive girlfriend.” She hangs up and pulls out a handgun. We hear a gunshot. Tracy has committed suicide. (Ironically, the radio show is called “The Survival Line.”)

After the title sequences, we see some kind of real estate slideshow with pictures of mansions and a narrator that charmingly pronounces the word Jacuzzi “Jac-you-see.” Then we watch a realtor bringing a Japanese couple to see a wood-paneled, Brady Bunch-esque house. “It’s got that quaint, serene, Oriental-type feeling,” the female realtor says. Once inside the house, she tells them humorously, “You’ve got to see this garden out back.”

The house-selling process appears to be going well until the realtor slides back the shower door, only to find a bloody woman dead in the tub.

Written on the shower glass, in blood, is the chilling word “SOLD.”

It turns out the body is the fourth victim of a serial killer already known as the Open House Killer, who seems to choose realtors as his victims. The detectives investigating the case suggest a solution: “Is there any way we can keep these real estate bimbos out of their empty houses?”

“To love for money all the world is prone,” replies his older, more experienced, Michael Pataki-like partner.

Next, we follow real estate broker Adrienne Barbeau in her office as she listens to the radio talk show host responsible for the suicide at the beginning of the film. The host, Dr. David Kelley, talks a complaint brought about him by the APA, identified as the “American Psychologist Association,” due to the suicide. While listening to the radio program, Ms. Barbeau takes a red highlighter and for some reason circles the letters M and L on a printout whose title is “Multiple Listing.”

The filmmakers allow us to watch the serial killer, a homeless man who he steals real estate listings in order to squat in empty houses. He also eats retried beans from a can, though for some reason a sheet of paper with the words “Dog Food, Chicken Flavor” is wrapped around the outside of the can. Quite pragmatically, he also dirties up the houses so they are unlikely to sell.

When an attractive young realtor and her attractive young client view the home in which the killer is living, they begin to make out in the spacious master bedroom, as realtors and clients generally do. They are found by the killer, who somehow cuts off the client’s middle fingers. In an impressive show of makeup FX wizardry, the man’s fingers truly appear to have been chopped off.

The killer takes the severed fingers as a trophy, then breaks down a door and kills the innocent victims with a homemade weapon constructed of a bathroom plunger and a set of razor blades.

The Open House Killer becomes the talk of Los Angeles, as the headline of the Los Angeles Tribune (no doubt under city editor Lou Grant) screams. In other news, water rates are also increasing in South City.

The killer, perhaps unwisely, begins calling in to Dr. Kelley’s radio show using the name Harry. He says the victims of the Open House Killer deserved what they got, and that they didn’t deserve to have homes when other people are starving.

As if to counter such serious business, the filmmakers move on for comic relief to another caller, a woman named Mary Lou who uses a phony Southern accent to flirt with Dr. Kelley, asks for a “sexggestion,” and sprays perfume onto her feet. In a startling twist, however, Mary Lou turns out to be Adrienne Barbeau, who used the first letters of the words Multiple Listing to signal to Dr. Kelley that she would be using a name with the initials ML to flirt with him. We find out the two are having a clandestine relationship, though the reasons for it being clandestine are both unspecified and unfathomable.

In any case, the two make love in an empty house, decorated romantically with candles and colorful balloons, while an owl hoots repeatedly outside.

After their romantic night of love-making and balloon-inflating, Ms. Barbeau drives to a mansion that is new on the market. The mansion, though it appears to be a ski lodge built in the late 1960s, is seen as overpriced by a sexist realtor who tells a young woman, “Everything is negotiable. Your rear end is negotiable if I want it to be.”

Meanwhile, the Pataki-esque detective takes a browbeating from his boss. “I suggest you work up a psychological profile,” says the captain.

“And when has that kind of thing ever worked?” asks the detective.

Later, the detective speaks to a psychiatric specialist in an office with a file cabinet labeled “Exhibit A-A Wrath of God,” which suggests that Los Angeles detectives deal with a wide variety of fascinating criminal cases.

The case, however, begins to solve itself as the killer continues to call in to Dr. Kelley’s radio show. Through a series of oblique edits that director Jag Mundhra seems to use to confuse the audience, we watch both the detective and the radio station staff listen in on the killer’s complaints about conspiracy theories and the evils of female realtors.

In a suspense set piece at the ski lodge/mansion, a realtor closes up an open house and is then stalked, appropriately given the setting, by the Open House Killer. He ties her up, douses her with champagne, and then electrocutes her by wiring her cleavage to a light switch.

At the radio station, the detective visits Dr. Kelley and the station manager in a classic bit of fast-paced dramatic dialogue. The station manager says the police have suggested putting a tap on the phone line to trace the killer’s calls.

“What about you? What do you think?” asks Dr. Kelley.

“Don’t start with me, Kelley,” says the station manager. “You know what I think.”

“Now that we know what everybody thinks about it,” says the detective, “are we gonna do it?”

“No,” says the station manager.

“Yes,” says Dr. Kelley.

“Yes?” asks the station manager. “And what about that doctor-patient confidentiality bullshit?” (Perhaps confidentiality is not the most judicious word, considering that everything the killer says has been broadcast across Los Angeles.)

Later, Dr. Kelley and Ms. Barbeau unwind in the magenta lighting of the good doctor’s mid-1980s bachelor pad. They also use their time to give an extended summary of the plot and the central question of the film: Who is killing the female realtors of Los Angeles?

After much talk about the politics of the real estate business, and an unsuccessful attempt to get the killer to call in to Dr. Kelley’s program again, the killer strikes by hanging a realtor in front of a bay window.

Later, accompanied by a cleverly inappropriate funk that would not be out of place over a montage of ethnically diverse high schoolers pulling amusing pranks in 1975, Ms. Barbeau’s nemesis realtor, an overweight misogynist, enters an empty condo at night. The reasoning behind the funky music becomes clear—or rather, becomes even more disturbingly confusing—when a woman dressed in a revealing bondage outfit greets him at the top of a staircase.

For unexplained reasons, there is an axe embedded in a tiny tree stump outside. The killer finds the axe and carries it through the condo complex, past the pool. He decapitates somebody (possibly the nemesis realtor), gets distracted by an adorable kitten, and forgets his axe. Then he kills the bondage woman by hanging her from a dog leash.

Dr. Kelley is woken up in the morning by his radio show producer banging at the door. The producer tries to explain that Ms. Barbeau’s nemesis is not the killer because he was murdered, but Dr. Kelley does not understand. “It’s very early,” he explains, and he uses the familiar expression “I still got the sugarplum fairies dancing in my head.”

Shockingly, while Dr. Kelley, the producer, and Ms. Barbeau discuss the murders, we watch the killer walking around upstairs in Dr. Kelley’s house!

The suspense climax of the film occurs at the radio station. While Ms. Barbeau wanders through the corridors of the station, the killer enters the building and calls Dr. Kelley on air—from inside the building!

Defying expectations, however, the phone call goes nowhere. The killer does manage to abduct Ms. Barbeau. The killer’s face is finally shown, though it means nothing to the audience as the character has not been in the film previously except in his role as the killer.

Dr. Kelley deduces that the killer is holding Ms. Barbeau in a house that was circled in the multiple listing printout. Instead of calling the police, Dr. Kelley rushes to the house to confront the killer. The killer is confused. “What happened to the news people? And the TV people? I got something to say. I want to make a statement, man.”

The killer explains his motivation. He is killing realtors because they are responsible for making all the houses too expensive.

In the end, the killer is shot by the Pataki-like detective, who has a choice catch-phrase aimed at either the killer or for Dr. Kelley: “Psychoanalyze that!”

Horror movies that exploit the economic anxieties of their times are always welcome, and Open House bases its entire concept on the difficulty of finding affordable housing in Los Angeles. The killer is thus both a victim of economic forces beyond his control and a cruel psychopath who blames real estate agents for the price of housing. Such a nightmare was timely in 1987, and it might even be considered more timely today. Kudos to David Mickey Evans for writing such a perceptive, timeless film.

Undoubtedly, Mr. Mickey Evans's script was groundbreaking and dangerous for its time in ways other than its economic commentary. For example, this is one of the rare slasher films that shows its mask-less killer from the beginning, hiding his identity not at all (though director Mundhra skillfully focuses on the killer's shoes most of the time).

To its credit, Open House is adept at bringing viewers back to the time when all realtors were women in their twenties, when cans of Dog Food, Chicken Flavor lined the shelves of grocery stores, and when detectives resembling Michael Pataki solved crimes and made quips about psychoanalysis. What more could one want?