Monday, July 26, 2021

“How Can We Leave With All This Money Just Lying Around?” - Rest in Pieces (1987) - Film #209


Although Spanish director José Ramón Larraz has received a fair amount of acclaim, his near-masterpiece Rest in Pieces (1987) is rarely included in a list of his best films. This is curious, as the film is a perfect example of the violent, supernatural, murder mystery with no mystery, one of the most underrated of the horror subgenres.

Some of your universe's critics dismiss Rest in Pieces unfairly. For example, reviewer TeenVamp writes, "Movies like this being released on blu ray makes my brain hurt. Why? It sucks." Reviewer soggycow writes, ""Rest in Pieces" is not a very good movie. In fact, I found this movie to be quite a bore." And reviewer In_tru_der writes eloquently, "This movie is not good, it's supposed to be horror, but it didn't frighten me at all."

Read on for a fair, unbiased appreciation of one of José Ramón Larraz's finest films, Rest in Pieces...

The film opens with a slideshow of still pictures showing a couple being dropped off at Los Angeles International Airport and suffering through 1987’s apparently difficult procedures for catching a plane. Switching to moving picture footage, their plane lands in Spain, then the filmmakers cut to the viewing of Dorothy Malone’s dead body, which suddenly sits up, frightening everyone in the room except the mortician. “Chemical reflex,” he lies. “Often happens.”

As the couple, Bob and Helen, walks out of a building that might be the funeral home, Helen, startled by a gust of wind, drops the decedent’s urn, smashing it on the ground as the ashes fly away, all the way into her house, where her maid and gardener intimate that the dead woman has returned, just as she had promised.

In another room that seems as if it must be in Dorothy Malone’s house (but is not), someone who might be a lawyer tells Bob and Helen, “She committed suicide in front of her video camera.” He plays the unfortunate videotape, on which Ms. Malone plays the piano, grimaces, and addresses the camera as if it were Helen. Ms. Malone explains she will kill herself because of chronic pain. “You were the spitting image of your mother,” Ms. Malone says helpfully. “The sister I hated. You should have been my daughter, you know, but your mother tried to steal away the only man I ever loved. But she failed.” She says Helen will get everything, then drinks strychnine and passes away.

Helen and Bob take a long drive to Ms. Malone’s house, which is in a suburban neighborhood named “Eight Mannors” — a neighborhood that features a dour man mowing a lawn and another man riding a white horse. Bob parks in front of the house where the maid and gardener stand in the front yard. He asks where Ms. Malone’s house is. “She has no house,” the gardener, Louis, replies cryptically. “She is dead.”

While the others move the bags into the house, Helen parks in front of the garage, where she watches as a Rolls Royce mysteriously starts its own engine. Meanwhile, as Bob hangs his clothes in a closet, he finds they have been mysteriously rearranged. Also, Helen experiences a mysterious occurrence in the bathtub when the shower curtain tries to drown her.

Quite reasonably, Helen infers that her aunt Dorothy Malone’s ghost is trying to kill her, but Bob is not convinces. “The shower curtain just came loose, that’s all.”

“No,” Helen says, lying in a robe on the bed. “Everything started vibrating.”

Rather tastelessly, Bob glances toward Helen’s robed private area. “Look, this house is great. It’s got two swimming pools. The other ones are probably just like it. Your aunt left all of this to you. Why would she want to hurt you?”

 Later, Bob finds a picture of Helen’s mother, who looked exactly like Helen at this exact age. “It’s amazing how much you look like her.”

“I barely remember her. I was very young when she died.”

“It’s no wonder you never learned how to cook,” Bob quips, a witty response to his wife’s mother’s premature death.

In the kitchen, the maid Elisa gives helpful backstory to Bob and Helen, explaining that several neighbors are American but one is a British writer, Stuart Whitmore (“Book-of-the-Month Club and all that”). Elisa continues by listing, as if she were a character in a murder mystery, all the other people living on the housing estate: the Irish Reverend Flaherty (pronounced, of course, “Flirty”), the blind David Hume, Gertrude and Jack (who directed Helen and Bob to the “mannors”), Dr. Anderson, and of course Louis the gardener. The film then cuts to a meeting of the entire group, minus Helen and Bob. Dr. Anderson suggests cancelling tonight’s “concert” due to the arrival of  Helen and Bob. “Well, maybe we can still have the concert, but we’ll have to, uh, change the ending.”

Dr. Anderson, the writer, and the reverend visit Bob and Helen just long enough to tell them they never pay rent and that Ms. Malone kept all her money somewhere on the extended property, then they attend their concert (actually a concert), given by a string quartet. The concert’s audience includes Jack, one of the tenants, dressed in a Nazi SS uniform. Also, it is intercut with Bob and Helen making love in their bedroom in slow motion.

Late at night, Bob gets out of bed and begins searching the house for Dorothy Malone’s fortune. This takes a long time, as one would expect. He even fondles the protrusions of the fireplace, which continues to burn in the middle of the night. Eventually he finds a closet full of rotting lettuce and rats. Meanwhile, Helen has a vision of Ms. Malone standing outside in the rain, and another vision of a piano playing a repetitive, somewhat annoying note over and over. She picks up a ringing phone to hear breathing on the other end, then is startled by a barking dog. Most frightening of all, she wanders into the garage, where all the cars have their headlights on!

Meanwhile, the string quartet finally ends its concert, after which the leader demands to be paid. The audience members tell him that Dorothy Malone will pay them, and that she is expected any minute. “We can take you to her now, if you wish.”

“Don’t listen to them,” the reverend says. “Mrs. Boyle has not returned yet.”

The guests “pay” the quartet by slicing their throats in an orgy of shabby violence.

(One might wonder how the group continues hiring musicians if every “concert” ends in mass murder, but such a notion would be pedantic and uncharitable to such a fine film.)

Elsewhere, Helen finds herself trapped in the garage when the cars’ engines start mysteriously. She almost dies but Bob opens the garage door and rescues her. 

In the morning, in one of the film’s most grotesque scenes, the tenants dismember the string quartet and burn their parts in an oven.

Helen starts packing her clothes to leave, but Bob says, quite logically, “How can we leave with all this money just lying around?” He adds, “How can we just walk away from all of this?”

“We were happy before all of this.”

“Well that was before all of this,” he concludes. The rest of their conversation does not include the words “all of this,” so I will not transcribe it here. Bob decides to stay even if Helen leaves, but Helen relents to stay with her husband, despite her fear of the house.

At breakfast, Helen finds one of Stuart Whitmore’s books, which says he died in 1982, six years earlier—in fact, he killed himself in the mental institution where Dorothy Malone had been locked up. Helen finds an exceptionally helpful book whose pages each show one of the tenants, their picture, and their death dates. Helen concludes that all of them committed suicide at the same sanitarium in the past decade. “What about Dr. Anderson?” Bob asks.

Helen looks at Bob, not reading anything, apparently having intuited the entire backstory of the film. “He was the director of the psychiatric ward and he committed suicide too.”

Bob is skeptical, assuming everyone is trying to scare them off to look for Dorothy Malone’s fortune. He tells Helen to lock herself in her room, then he walks across the street to an apparently abandoned building to keep looking for the money. He runs into Elisa on her bicycle. “Do you believe in eternity?” she asks Bob. “I do. I’m sure of it.”

Bob can’t find the keys to the abandoned building so he goes to Reverend Flaherty’s church, where all the tenants are signing “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah” over and over. Shockingly, Bob finds the toupee of the leader of the string quartet underneath a piece of furniture. In the next room, the tenants discuss what to do with Helen and Bob, and Bob steps into the room, having overhead only Dr. Anderson saying, “She will return.” Bob confronts them and they tell him they know where eight million “dollar” is, and also that they hope Helen will spend eternity in the housing tract.

Bob returns to Helen. “I was just talking to them,” he says about the tenants.

“But they don’t really exist. They’re the living dead.”

He brushes off her nonsense. “Do you realize that your aunt left you eight million dollars? And they’re going to show me where it is.” He tells her he made a deal with the tenants: They will show him the money if they are allowed to remain on the land. 

The tenants conduct yet another meeting. They agree to allow Dorothy Malone’s ghost to choose which of them will be allowed to murder the lawyer when he arrives to arrange the tenants’ eviction. She chooses the blind David Hume. Mr. Hume accomplishes the task by wandering in the middle of the road, forcing the lawyer to swerve and stop. Mr. Hume then, eventually, stabs him with his sword-cane.

Unable to sleep, Helen wanders around the house for several minutes, eventually hearing Dorothy Malone say her name. She wanders into one of the house’s indoor swimming pools, where she is assaulted by the tenants. They pull off her robe and she falls into the swimming pool, (topless) with lawyer’s body (not topless).  When Bob runs in to rescue her, he fends off a German shepherd, then is attacked by the tenants, who stab him (bloodlessly). 

After the tenants drug Helen and she has another vision of her aunt, she realizes Dorothy Malone wants her to die so she can become another tenant of Eight “Mannors.” Helen walks in on another meeting of the tenants (the third or fourth in the same day). She asks where her husband is, and they tell her they had to kill him. “No,” she says quietly. Dr. Anderson explains still more about the backstory, which reveals the impetus for everything was Dorothy Malone’s insanity due to being rejected by her sister’s husband: “Your aunt’s mind could never recuperate from being abandoned. She sponsored my research and purchased the Devonshire Clinic so that I would have a place to experiment. I conducted about a dozen tests unsuccessfully, till the Reverend Flaherty became my first triumph.”

The climactic sequence begins when Helen sees the corpse of Dorothy Malone’s lover sitting in a chair reading a newspaper.

Helen runs through the house, tearing off a chunk of the flesh of David Hume before running through the house again and behind subdued by ghostly clothes flying out of the closet. She passes out, then escapes by jamming a hypodermic needle into Elisa’s throat. She wanders back through the house, eventually encountering an apparently alive Bob, upon which she faints.

The tenants step into the room. “Perfect,” Dr. Anderson says, helpfully explaining the plot again. “I’m certain this drastic shock has destroyed your wife’s defenses.”

Shockingly, Bob has been collaborating with the tenants so he will end up with the money — but everything is not part of the plot. The tenants are actually dead, and they plan to drive Helen to suicide so she can join them. 

Later, on a stage set dressed to look like a cemetery, a guilt-wracked Bob attacks one of the tenants who is digging graves for both Bob and Helen. The confrontation ends when Bob somehow decapitates the man with his bare hands.

Back at the estate, Helen is about to slice her own throat when Bob runs into the room. Bob and Helen kill several tenants. “It’s all over now,” Bob says.

“What about Dr. Anderson? As long as he’s alive, we’re not safe.”

Bob leads Helen to their car, but he is dragged into the garage by Dr. Anderson. Helen finds his body on the floor, then takes a battle axe and starts smashing her aunt’s cars.

The film cuts to the airport, where Helen is a passenger on a plane flying out of Spain. In a surprise ending, most of the passengers on the plane are the tenants, and Dr. Anderson is the pilot (a fact Helen might have noticed while boarding, but did not). The filmmakers freeze on Helen’s face and we hear her scream.

The End

Rest in Pieces is admirable in part because of its clever use of misdirection. Several of the tenants of the housing estate are named after famous people from different eras: David Hume, Gertrude Stein, and Jack Ritchie. However, the tenants/ghosts/zombies appear to have nothing to do with their famous counterparts. In another use of misdirection, the eight million dollars making up Dorothy Malone's fortune is said to be locked into the eighth building on the estate, but this is never confirmed as Bob and Helen attempt to escape the estate before finding the fortune. Finally, even the structure of the narrative is a misdirection, patterned after a murder mystery with the introduction of various suspects, though all of the suspects are collectively a murderer and the ringmaster of the group, the ghost of Dorothy Malone, is revealed at the beginning of the film. Although José Ramón Larraz has made many fine films, none of them may be as complex and subversive as Rest in Pieces.