Monday, September 21, 2020

"Evil Got to Be Fought with Evil" - House of the Living Dead (1974) - Film #187

Of all the films with "of the living dead" or "of the dead" in the title, nearly 100% involve the presence of zombies or similar living dead creatures. Therefore, we will now cover one of the most original films of this type, 1974's House of the Living Dead, a film that involves a house but no living dead. The staggering creativity of this film deserves to be heralded.

Some of your universe's critics do not appreciate creativity in film. For example, reviewer TheExpatriate700 writes, "House of the Living Dead disappoints in virtually every way, with absolutely no zombies to speak of, terrible pacing, and an absurd mixture of the supernatural and mad scientist genres." Reviewer dbborroughs writes, "Nothing compares to the endless inane dialog that just bores. Recommended only for insomniacs." And reviewer Chase_Witherspoon writes, "Worse than dull, it promises a great revelation, then fails to deliver."

You decide! Is it necessary for a "living dead" movie to have zombies, or some other form of the living dead? Read on...

The film begins like a million other movies: with a cloaked man with a burlap sack kidnapping a baboon in a burlap sack and walking away through a vineyard while no less than three people look on from a distance. The film then cuts to a red-tinted laboratory complete with beakers, test tubes, and caged rabbits and ducks. A man wearing scrubs and a surgical mask that fails to cover his beard straps the baboon to a table. Using a hand drill, he drills into the conscious animal’s skull, then inserts a needle, all the while bugging his eyes like a madman.

The vineyard is the property of Sir Michael and his family and servants. Sir Michael’s brother, Breck, is the mad scientist experimenting with animals in the attic laboratory.

At night, someone releases a black snake (not a euphemism) into the stables, scaring a horse. At the same time, during a party celebrating the harvesting of the grape crop, a servant named Simeon is attacked outside the villa and dragged away. Oblivious to the attack, Sir Michael finds a woman with a voodoo doll. “Witchcraft’s forbidden at Brattling, Lina. You know that.”

Nearby, the local witch, Aia Kat, says, “Evil got to be fought with evil!”

“There is no evil at Brattling, Aia,” Sir Michael says ominously. “Not any more.” He throws the doll in the fire, though Lina later retrieves it and hangs it over the back of a sofa, apparently for protection.

The next day, Simeon’s bloody body is found in the vineyard. His death is blamed on the horse in the stable, Saracen,who has killed before. (Nobody explains why the family keeps the murder horse around.) Sir Michael goes to the stable and finds the big black snake (not a euphemism).

“So that’s what spooked Saracen,” says the servant Jan.

“A snake will spook any horse,” Sir Michael says.

“He kicked down the door.”

“No. Someone let him out. Deliberately.”

In an artistic touch, the scene ends with the camera freezing on Jan’s crotch as he holds the snake (not a euphemism).

Not being a fool, Sir Michael goes up to the attic to confront his brother Breck. He finds the door locked, however, so he gives up quickly, but not before finding some blood on the floor in the hall outside the attic. As anyone would after finding blood in the house (of the living dead), Sir Michael goes to his mother and has tea. Instead of mentioning the murder or the blood, he talks to his mother about his girlfriend in England, Mary Anne, who has agreed (by letter) to marry him. “If you marry this girl,” his mother says, “You’ll only be adding another tragedy to the history of Brattling.”

Eventually, the conversation turns to Breck. “He’s a Brattling as much as you and me. He has a right to stay here as long as he lives. It’s Mary Anne who has no right here.”

But Mary Anne arrives by train. She has traveled with Dr. Collinson, who says, “It appears that a runaway stallion that killed a man six weeks ago attacked Breck while he was out on a walk.” Dr. Collinson, adds about Breck, “He believed the soul was an organic entity which could be isolated and kept alive outside and independent of the human body.”

Sir Michael meets Mary Anne at the station and drives her to the house (of the living dead). “Welcome to Brattling,” he tells her. “It is rather grim, isn’t it?”

At dinner with Sir Michael and his mother, Mary Anne says, “I can hardly believe it. It seems incredible that this is Africa and not England.”

“Cape Colony, my dear, not Africa,” Mother Brattling says. “But if you will listen carefully, you will realize there is a difference.”

Suddenly, as if on cue, drums start up outside the house. Sir Michael says, “You might call it...the sound of Africa.” He takes a dinner tray to Breck while Lady Brattling and Mary Anne have coffee. In the attic laboratory, we only see Breck from the back, seated in a big rocking chair while Sir Michael looks at the bubbling beakers and flashing lights. Neither brother says anything.

Gothic shenanigans continue, with Lady Brattling warning Mary Anne away from doing anything or going anywhere, Sir Michael trying to protect his mysterious brother in the attic, and the witch Aia Kat making voodoo dolls and pounding on drums. A classical nightgown sequence occurs as Mary Anne wakes up at night, paces her room, and looks out on the darkened property to see a cloaked figure tromping loudly along a gravel path.

Shuffling footsteps approach her bedroom and the doorknob clicks as someone locks her in her room. Then organ music begins to swell. Mary Anne looks terrified as the camera moves toward her.

Nothing happens.

The filmmakers cut to the next morning as Mary Anne attempts to get information from her maid, Lina. “What is Mr. Breck doing, Lina?”

“Collecting the souls of living creatures.” Lina walks away, as if she’s said enough.

“Lina! Lina!” Mary Anne, looking horrified, calls after her, but she doesn’t follow for some reason.

Elsewhere, at a nearby mansion, Dr. Collinson plays horseshoes with his South African friend. Apropos of nothing, the doctor approaches the camera and says, “Miss Carew is engaged to be married to Sir Michael Brattling, Hugo. But somehow I think that she’s in great danger.”

“Let’s go and have some tea,” Hugo says, and the matter of Mary Anne is quickly dropped.

As a Gothic heroine must, Mary Anne climbs the stairs, looks at a somewhat goofy painting of a horse, and decides to investigate the mystery of Breck Brattling.

When she approaches the red curtain hiding the stairs up to the attic, however, Mary Anne is surprised to find Lady Brattling standing behind the curtain, glaring at her. (Lady Brattling’s strategy of standing behind the curtain for hours at a time has paid off, fortunately.)

Meanwhile, Aia Kat is mysteriously murdered and the locals immediately become a torch-wielding mob. They blame her death on the horse, which has recently disappeared. “He’s probably dead,” Sir Michael says.

“Then his soul ain’t dead,” says one of the villagers. “It’s out there somewhere.”

“Your crazy brother up there!” says another.

“Let’s go get him!” says still another.

They are interrupted by the ghostly neighing of a horse, so all the villagers simply walk away with their torches.

Up in his attic, Brett Brattling continues to sit unmoving in his leather chair, surrounded by bubbling beakers and test tubes and colored lights.

Later, Sir Michael and MaryAnne see the dead horse lying under a pond in the gardens. They return to the house, only to find a local lieutenant sent to investigate the recent deaths (he does not believe, for some reason, that the horse was the murderer). The lieutenant investigates the grounds, allowing for a fascinating zoom-in/zoom-out shot when he sees a cloaked figure in a vineyard. The lieutenant is quickly murdered by the figure, who is clearly either Sir Michael or Breck, but the murder is witnessed by MaryAnne’s servant, who has been trying to deliver a letter to Dr. Collinson eight miles away and somehow has wandered into the vineyard. The servant gets away at the last minute, but she has dropped MaryAnne’s letter.

While the servant fetches Dr. Collinson, the local authorities, now represented by a colonel, find the lieutenant’s body and haul it away. Sir Michael wants to postpone the colonel’s investigation. “My brother, Breckinridge. He died suddenly this afternoon.”

Of course, the colonel postpones his murder investigation due to the second unexplained death in one day. “My condolences to you and your mother,” the colonel says.

Dr. Collinson conducts his own investigation, finding out from a local that in fact Breck Brattling has the hoof of a horse instead of a foot, though this unusual feature has been corrected with a special boot.

At night, MaryAnne hears clomping footsteps and embarks upon her Gothic climb toward the attic again, only to be startled by Lady Brattling appearing out of nowhere. The old woman tries to warn MaryAnne to leave the house again, but MaryAnne stubbornly refuses, running away again—running back to her bedroom instead.

As organ music swells, MaryAnne now walks downstairs, where the organ is, and approaches the organist from the back. She touches the player’s shoulder and he falls to the floor, dead, with scars on his face somewhat reminiscent of Herbert Lom’s in the Hammer version of Phantom of the Opera (1962).

The organ continues playing—a self-playing organ!

MaryAnne cries downstairs for several minutes until Lady Brattling attempts to warn her yet again. “MaryAnne! Run! Run for your life!”

Sir Michael, however, throws his mother down the stairs, knocking her unconscious. He clops down the stairs, revealing he has horses’ hooves instead of feet. MaryAnne screams, “Breck!” The man she thought was Sir Michael turns out to have been Breck the entire time (or something like that).

Breck grabs MaryAnne and forces her upstairs. He is interrupted by his mother, but this time he throws her over the railing, apparently killing her but giving MaryAnne enough time to lock herself into her bedroom. However, Breck soon abducts her again, forces her to change into a new dress, and drags her up to the attic where he explains the plot of the film. “I’ve always maintained the soul is not something destined for a mythical paradise but a force that can be isolated and contained here on this earth. My colleagues said I was insane but here is proof. Not one, but many. Not only animals but human beings.”

The jars in the attic, each lit by a different colored blinking light, contain the souls of the people that have been murdered.

“You’re insane,” MaryAnne says.

“Insane, am I? Insane, am I?” To prove he is not insane, he swivels the armchair around to show Michael’s corpse. “I killed him six weeks ago.”

Breck chloroforms MaryAnne and prepares a glass jar so her soul and Sir Michael’s can be together forever.

Dr. Collinson arrives at the last minute. Breck lashes out with a cane but instead of hitting the doctor he breaks open one of the soul bottles. He starts smashing all the bottles and the souls are released, indicated by a mix of voices filling the room. Eventually, Breck screams in front of a painting of Saracen the horse, then falls off the landing, joining his mother in death on the floor.

As she leaves the house, MaryAnne turns to see a black horse galloping through the vineyard.

The End

It would seem uncharitable, at best, to criticize an exotic Gothic horror story because it includes no zombies. So I will not. House of the Living Dead (reportedly shot under the even less accurate title Shadows over Bridge Place) includes ghost horses and a mad scientist somehow bottling the souls of animals and people in an attic full of blinking lights. What is there to criticize?

I will answer my own question and say that if there is a flaw in House of the Living Dead, it might be pacing. All the exciting incidents occur in the last five minutes of the film, despite the presence of a few deaths earlier in the story. Thus, the film might be considered a "slow burn" movie, with many shots of MaryAnne (played by accomplished British actress Shirley Anne Field from Horrors of the Black Museum, 1959, and Peeping Tom, 1960) fretting in her nightgown, along with many conversations in the big manor house, not to mention the brief witchcraft/voodoo doll subplot that vanishes with the death of Aia Kat.

But a film is a great film indeed if the only valid criticism is about pacing. And that makes House of the Living Dead a great, great film.