Monday, July 4, 2022

"Some Wires Must Have Moved Around" - Dead Dudes in the House (1989) - Film #233

It is time to discuss the notoriously retitled Dead Dudes in the House (1989), also known by the other titles The Dead Come Home and The House on Tombstone Hill. James Riffel's supernatural slasher movie would be a classic by any name, and it seems to me the most widely known title, Dead Dudes in the House, is not as misleading as some would have you believe, as the film does in fact contain dead dudes in a house. (They simply aren't the dudes who appear on Troma's poster advertising the film.)

Although this film is surprisingly well regarded in your universe, as it should be, some critics are oddly, and mistakenly, unenthusiastic. For example, reviewer Inque writes, "Long story short, this is one godawful film." Reviewer movieman_kev writes, "I don't care if someone spent all his money, or shed all his blood to make a film. If said film is a turd. I'll call it a turd. This isn't a total awful film, but it's damn near close to it." And reviewer udar55 writes, "How did director James Riffell convince so many people to finance and work hard on something so poorly thought out? I mean, some of the staging and early dialog is so awkward and bad."

Read on for a full appreciation of Dead Dudes in the House...

The film begins with a stylized flashback to the 1940s set in a pink-walled parlor where a record player plays a generic tune and two women stand over the dead body of an old man on the rug. The story immediately jumps to the present, to what is presumably the same house—a house designed in the classical architectural “cover every square inch with windows” style. 

Two cars pull up to the house and seven twenty-something’s jump out, ready to renovate the old house. Before entering the place, they find an old but undated tombstone in the front yard. “Abigail Leatherby, surviving is one daughter Ann, may her soul be placed in peaceful hands.”

Of course, the renovations start with one of the group, Bob, smashes the tombstone into two pieces with a lead pipe. “If it bothered you so much,” one of the friends says, “we could have covered it up with something.”

“What’s the big deal, anyway?” Bob says. “It’s just some stupid old rock.” (I’m told that in your universe tombstones mark graves, but clearly in the universe of Dead Dudes in the House tombstones simply sit in front yards).

Shockingly, when Bob breaks the tombstone, an old woman sits up in one of the rooms in the house, having apparently been called back to the living world by Bob’s act of demolition.

As the seven friends attempt to enter the house, the filmmakers demonstrate clearly why they are working on a different level than other low-budget horror movie producers—for approximately 65% of the first act of the film, the friends talk about trying to get stuck doors open. In fact, I believe this film is the only one to spend so much screen time on characters (sometimes simultaneously, sometimes in series) talking about or attempting to open stuck doors.

Unfortunately, all of the film’s screen time cannot be spent on in-sticking doors, so I present perhaps the film’s most effective character-building dialogue sequence, as Bob notices his friend Steve whistling “Jimmy Cracked Corn” while tying his shoes:

“Hey, knock it off,” Bob says. “You want to knock it off?”

“Me?” Steve asks.

“Yeah, Steve.”

“The whistling?”

“Yeah. The whistling.”

Mark steps in. “It’s only whistling.”

“It’s bothering me,” Bob retorts.

Mark asks, “How can that whistling be bothering you?”

“Because it’s annoying and I don’t like it, so cut it out.”

After the whole whistling situation is settled and the others leave the room, Mark tells Bob, “Man, you shouldn’t make such a big deal out of nothing. The guy was only whistling.”

“Do we have to keep talking about it? I just didn’t feel like hearing it. I’m sure there have been times when somebody whistling a stupid song would annoy you, too.”

“Not yet, no.”

“Yeah, well, let’s not talk about it and get started.”

Then Bob has trouble opening his own toolbox, whose lid is stuck.

After the friends notice an electric light that is on despite the assumed lack of electric power to the house, Mark explains it by saying, “Some wires must have moved around or something.”

Then everyone sees the old woman standing in a doorway, leaning on her cane. She says nothing to them, so of course Bob threatens to smack her. She walks away and Mark decides to chase her to tell her to get out of the house while the other six friends find another door to try to un-stick (clearly a six-person job). 

This leads to the film’s first suspense set-piece as Mark’s girlfriend Jamie searches for him after he has disappeared. When she sees streaks of blood on the walls, she of course climbs the staircase rather than telling her friends something unusual has happened.

Eventually, Jamie enters a bedroom and starts poking around, only to be accosted by the old woman, who tells her Mark is dead.

“What do you mean?” is Jamie’s first question.

“I should know. I killed him.” The old woman shows Jamie a bloody knife. “Quite gruesome, actually.”

Instead of doing anything, Jamie simply walks around the old lady and leaves the bedroom, but in the hallway she encounters a bloody, undead Mark. He confronts her, accusing her of spending his money and threatening to smash her head open, in a clear homage to the baseball bat scene in The Shining (1980).

Meanwhile, downstairs, the remaining five friends are still trying to open a door.

Upstairs, Jamie hits Mark with a beam of wood and he falls over, as possessed undead twenty-somethings tend to do.

Downstairs, everyone tries to open the windows, but they realize the house won’t let them leave. Then, in an homage to the Evil Dead films, the outside shutters start slamming open and closed, finally closing themselves and trapping everyone inside the house.

Jamie returns and tells her friends that Mark is dead, his body upstairs. Before investigating to verify her story, everyone decides to choose weapons from among the tools, including an axe and a machete. 

Meanwhile, Joey, one of the friends who went on a beer run, returns and tries unsuccessfully to get back into the house, until he uses a ladder to reach a third-story window, where he is unfortunately attacked by the old woman.

Inside the house, all five remaining characters (including Steve, whose weapon of choice is a circular saw blade) search for Mark’s body. They deal with yet another stuck door for approximately five minutes, then Steve sees the old woman. The other four friends, trapped on the other side of a stuck door, encourage Steve to kill the woman, something he is for some reason reluctant to do. He follows her through the house (it is now dark, and, fortunately, all the electric lights are now on—an anomaly that is never mentioned again).

When Steve gets closer to the old woman, he sees the undead Joey, punctured with a steel pipe. Steve asks Joey how to get out of the house, but Joey says it’s impossible, and that Steve will be the next to die. Then Joey walks into the next room, but when Steve follows, there is only a gory death for him as the old woman kills him by knocking him to the floor and driving screwdrivers into his palms and ankles, then cuts him apart, ironically with a plugged-in circular saw (though we are not shown his actual dismemberment).

In an artful interlude, the filmmakers introduce new characters in the form of two locals who are worried about the characters who went into the haunted house. These two young men are introduced in silhouette against the magic-hour sky as they decide to check up on the friends at the house.

Back inside the house, Jamie finds an almost supernaturally helpful newspaper article about the house. It describes the incident in the 1940s when Mrs. Leatherby was the victim of a home invasion, stabbed in the neck 37 times but miraculously surviving; Mrs. Leatherby then killed a neighbor, thinking he was an intruder, and died of a heart attack, after which her daughter Ann buried the woman in the yard and then hung herself. 

Moments later, Linda encounters the undead Steve. He hugs her and then, in a twist, he, not the old woman, kills her with the saw blade.

The others find Linda but realize she is undead, so they kill her with a golf club and then find a window that can be opened—but it is a trap, as Bob is killed by a sliding pane of jagged glass, his body sawn in half as he cries out, “Ow! I hate this!”

Meanwhile, the two young locals have found a way into the house through the cellar, but they are quick to encounter the ghost of Ann Leatherby, who gives them a sexy peep show reminiscent of Night of the Demons or Demon Wind before the ghost of her mother kills one of the young men. When the dead one pops up, his friend exclaims, “Rick! You’re alive!”

“No,” Rick says, “I’m dead. Take a look.” He then looks off to his right for an unknown reason, revealing his throat, which is quite unharmed. Inexplicably, he then walks out of the room with Ann’s ghost, leaving the survivor to run away and find the other friends, Ron and Jamie—the two men unaware, however, that Jamie has been murdered and has a pair of scissors stuck in her undead back. They manage to kill Jamie with a two-by-four.

In a clever callback to the major plot point of the first act, we watch the undead Steve whistling “Jimmy Cracked Corn” while sharpening his saw blade, a tune that terrorizes the surviving young men. The two of them barricade themselves in a bedroom, where Steve bangs against the door. This scene allows the filmmakers to indulge in the classic trope of low-budget horror films where the heroes desperately hold a door shut against the oncoming monster, only to open the door with slight suspicion as soon as the banging stops. This allows Steve to break into the room and attack the two survivors—but Steve is soon killed, poetically by his own saw blade.

The two final boys are then forced to fight their way out of the house against the undead versions of Ron’s friends. Bob, reassembled after being torn in half, teases the final boys by cutting up Steve’s body with a hatchet before the survivors smash Bob’s head with a ceramic figuring.

Ron does not ask his new friend how he got into the house, and the new friend does not volunteer any information about the cellar, so the two try to break out of the house by attacking the windows with boards, an unsuccessfully ploy. They are confronted by the ghost of Mrs. Leatherby in the living room, where they stick a screwdriver through her head. 

Eventually, Ron cuts the woman’s head off with an axe and she starts screaming and convulsing. 

When the sun rises, Ron is able to open the door and walk outside. The film ends with a stinger, however, which I will not reveal, but bodes ill for an eventual sequel.  The credits roll, accompanied by a chilling rendition of “Jimmy Cracked Corn” performed only by eerie whistling.

Among the many highlights of this film are the fine makeup effects designed by veteran effects person Ed French, who had amassed a large number of impressive credits (Amityville II, Sleepaway Camp, C.H.U.D., The Stuff, Creepshow 2, etc.) even before the apex of this film. The makeup effects fit well with the classic haunted house location and the film's zippy dialogue to contribute to the status of Dead Dudes in the House as a bona fide classic. Perhaps only two questions about the film remain. One: Why does Abigail Leatherby's ghost kill some of the interlopers but allow the zombified/possessed undead kill others? Two: Why was there no sequel titled simply Abigail's Revenge? Perhaps the first question could be answered if one were to burrow deeply into the complex text of the film, but to the second question, tragically, there can never be a convincing answer.