Monday, May 22, 2023

"This Murderous Pack of Scumbags" - Fright House (1989)

We have unfairly neglected the body of work of noted director Len Anthony, but it is time to make up for that oversight by considering part of his masterpiece Fright House (1989), starring the great Al Lewis. We will only be considering the first part of this two-part anthology film, which is called Fright House, which is also the title of the overarching film.

As usual, some of your universe's critics unfairly malign Fright House. For example, critic Zantara Xenophobe writes, "This whole story is both tired and stupid, and I think they were writing this as they went along." Reviewer blurnieghey writes, "This is low budget trash at its worst." And reviewer BA_Harrison writes, "I was totally lost not long after it began thanks to the sloppy direction, terrible writing and crap acting."

Read on for a more balanced appreciation of Fright House...

A youngish couple carrying a picnic basket steps in front of a big house, the eponymous fright house. The woman says, “This house scares me.”

The man replies, “Oh come on. Vincent Mansion’s been empty for years. It’s turning into a college fraternity. But, since it’s contested, we’re all alone.”

The man proposes to the woman and she says yes. They immediately lie down on a flowery lace blanket and make love.

At that moment, the boiler in the house’s basement catches fire. And also a hippie with long brown hair and a mustache named Brian sneaks into the house. Brian is looking for a doctor, but he finds nobody in the abandoned house.

At night, Al Lewis drives at a snail’s pace onto the grounds, gets out of his car, and looks up at the sky.

The next morning, Brian’s body is found on the grounds of the fright house. The police tell us his wrists have been slit and he has a head wound. In a matter of seconds, a detective tells a female police officer, “What I want you to do, I think I want you to go undercover at the college, make out like you’re a student. See what you can find out.”

“Okay,” she agrees.

The filmmakers cut to a student named Carl constructing astrological charts. He calls a priest to tell him he is close to predicting an event about which he needs to warn people, but the priest dismisses him. Then we see the priest, who drinks alcohol from a flask, bending over a gravestone. Next, the priest is in a confessional when someone begins breathing heavily on the other side of the screen. “What is it, my child?” asks the priest. “Only by your confidence can we destroy the power of darkness.”

In a striking shot, we see red eyes against the screen. The priest has a hear attack. The entity facing him wheezes, “I…am…powerful.”

Meanwhile, Carl arranges over the phone to meet with his brother Les (the man from the couple introduced at the beginning of the film) at the Vincent Mansion. They meet in the daylight and Carl explains his astrological theory about the deaths that have been occurring at the fright house. (It must be noted that both brothers speak their lines so quickly that some audiences might not follow their dialogue.) “Horace Vincent, owner of this place, supposedly died in a boating accident. Pluto is the god of Hades. In this configuration, the gates of Hell could literally burst open. And the gate is here. All this will take place any day now.”

Les quips, “Carl, all’s I know from Pluto is he’s Mickey Mouse’s dog.” He adds, revealing his identify as a police officer, “The scientific community might love your theory, but guarantee you Captain Levy in my precinct will have me out on psychiatric disability, if not a strait-jacket, if I went back to him with that story.”

In a surprise to those who value predictable story construction, Les leaves and Carl stoops near an outdoor fireplace, only to find a zombie hand grab his shoulder. The film then cuts to Carl’s funeral—though we did not see him die, he was killed, presumably, by the zombie hand.

At Carl’s funeral, Al Lewis, who plays Les’s police captain, walks up to Les and his fiancee Delissa. Groping Delissa’s hair uncomfortably, Mr. Lewis says, “I know how you feel, I do. My son Danny died the same way, a couple years ago.” (He does not explain further, so we can only assume Al Lewis’s son was grabbed by a zombie hand as well.)

Capt. Lewis looks at a dirty tombstone with the name VOORHEES carved on it. “Will you look at that? How could anybody in this town…I mean, how could anybody in…the devil’s name do something like that?” Les explains that the dirty headstone is for the hippie found dead earlier—apparently, the hippie’s body was dug up.

In a Carpenterian manner, the filmmakers next intercut Les walking through the woods and fending off a German shepherd’s attack with Delissa wandering into the chapel and hearing a mysterious ghostly voice. She runs outside and finds Les, who says nothing about the dog attack, and then suddenly Les wakes up in bed. It was all (or at least part) a nightmare!

After Les and Delissa fight over which is more important, their upcoming wedding or the suicides of a few dozen college students, Delissa refers Les to a psychiatrist, which makes him angry. The psychiatrist is Dr. Sedgewick at the local college, a woman who was treating Carl. Les picks up a pile of books. “I think she was treating all these kids,” he says, referring to his list of the many local suicides. “Yeah, she was.”

An unspecified time later, Capt. Al Lewis calls Darlissa and gives a master class in phone acting (as he is the only participant in the phone call that we see). Because Darlissa is concerned about Les’s obsession with his brother’s death, Capt. Lewis suggests that Darlissa meet with him tonight at the Vincent Mansion. Perhaps unwisely, she agrees. As the scene ends, we see that there are black candles in his room.

Meanwhile, Les sees Dr. Sedgewick at her psychiatrist's office (or perhaps, based on the decorations, it is a brothel).

When Les tells the doctor Carl was infatuated with her and even called her by her first name, she replies energetically, “I allow all my students to call me Victoria, Detective. You see, I’m only eight to ten years older than most of them.”

Les does not correct the doctor, who called Carl a student rather than a patient. Instead, Les grills her about what he believes is Carl’s murder. “Yes, murder! Carl didn’t slice his own wrists. Why should he?” As Les suggests Dr. Sedgewick is involved in the murder, she stares at him ominously.

In what can only be described as a strange interlude, Les watches a nude Dr. Sedgewick (now with blonde hair, for some reason) strip and seduce him; however, this is only Les’s fantasy.

Next, the filmmakers cut to the college campus where one of the students, wearing garish suspenders and an oversized tie, delivers his stand-up comedy routine (of course, the comedy routine is a staple of high-quality regional horror films). “I took a dream analysis class,” he begins. “That was my favorite last term. I was sleeping a lot. In fact, toward the end of the term I was sleeping more…at the last week of classes…is everyone still awake? The last week of classes, I was sleeping 18 hours a day. When I was asked why I was doing that, I said I’m cramming for my finals!”

He goes on about the low quality of the food in the cafeteria. “I was eating here for three months before I found out ‘burnt’ wasn’t a flavor.”

The routine is unfortunately interrupted when a college student brandishing a knife is approached by his fraternity brothers, who want to prevent the student’s suicide. Jerry, the suicidal frat brother, slices his own wrist.

Surprisingly, the suicide turns out to be a fraternity prank (more shocking than the fake blood is the students’ chorus of Michael Jackson’s song Bad). Les interrupts the practical joke, yelling accurately that suicide is no joke. After the commotion, Les sits with a female detective named Taylor and explains that his girlfriend has disappeared without explanation. (In fact, we see that Darlissa is now at the fright house, hypnotized by Satanists.) They also learn that the fraternity has acquired the Vincent Mansion, so Les assigns Taylor to go to the fright house and see what she can find out.

Les confronts Capt. Al Lewis, who believes that the rash of wrist-slashing suicides (including Mr. Lewis’s own son) were really murders. Capt. Lewis deflects him somewhat suspiciously, and with much arm waving. “It’s a possible suicide pact, with that damn fraternity they all belonged to. Let me tell you something. That frat house should have a slogan that says ‘Join now and die later.’”

At night, Detective Taylor breaks into the fright house basement. She hears someone breathing and draws her revolver, then sees a grotesque head in the darkness that opens its eyes and mouth to reveal bloody, pointed fangs. Then a topless, hypnotized Dr. Sedgewick (in her redheaded form) drags her to what appears to be a gymnasium, where she proceeds to slit the detective’s wrist.

At the same time, a group of fraternity brothers and their dates, having learned that the fraternity has inherited the fright house (making it a frat house), breaks into the mansion surreptitiously. One of them whispers, “You guys know we’re doing this on the lam, right?” (It is difficult to understand what word he meant to use, but it certainly was not “lam.” Perhaps “sly.” Or “down-low.”)

The group gathers in an upstairs living room. They sit by the ornate fireplace as one of the fraternity brothers relates the film’s backstory. “Horace Vincent was this weird old dude who was the leader of this bizarre religious cult? He wasn’t such a bad guy, though. I mean, at one time he was president of Psi Kappa Beta. Anyway, the older he got, the weirder he got. And then he totally lost it when his two sons were killed in what the police called a ‘hunting accident.’ Their bodies were found with huge claw marks all over them.” The friends are unaware they are being watched by a shadowy presence nearby.

In a shocking twist, the watcher turns out to be Les. When a couple breaks off from the group, Les uses a sword to slash the fraternity brother’s throat, saying, “This is for murdering my partner, you piece of garbage! How does that feel?” (It goes without saying that we don’t know how Les found out who killed Taylor, or even that she was killed.)

Seconds later, some of the fraternity brothers and their dates are chased by what appear to be zombies in the forest outside.

In the basement, the Satanists (more topless women) continue their ceremony over Taylor’s dead body. Eventually, the college students stumble upon the ceremony and are chased by the Satanists carrying swords. The students disperse through the fright house, and each is attacked by Satanists and/or zombies. However, some are rescued by Les, who has dressed up like a Satanist, even applying white face makeup and glitter, ostensibly to blend in with the evildoers.

The surviving students encounter a man who tells them he is Horace Vincent. He also tells him he has discovered a way to cheat death, giving a stirring monologue that explains the plot and that is, for some unexplained reason, played over shots of one of the students hiding in the basement. Also, it is nearly impossible to make out what the man is saying.

In the end, Les confronts Dr. Sedgewick on a staircase. She says, “I’d like to thank you for coming and viewing our ceremony this evening, Detective.”

“You’re gonna suffer for all the innocent lives you’ve taken!”

“That’s quite possible,” she replies. “It’s you, I’m afraid, that’s going to suffer. See, you’ll want me just as much as your brother and the others did.”

“No! I’m much stronger than all the rest. You’re certainly no match for me, you bitch!”

“We’ll see.”

“You are the lowest form of life.”

She quips back perhaps self-defeatingly, “See, I’m not. You may want to employ use of your sword. It’s the only weapon that in the right hands can destroy me.”

Instead of killing her, however, Les runs outside and stumbles upon more Satanists attempting to sacrifice Darlissa. Al Lewis reveals himself to be one of them. 

“Captain Levi? You? You’re the head of all this? This murderous pack of scumbags?”

“Thank you, Les. Murderous evil is our business. I accept your endorsement.”

Les tries to get Darlissa away from the group. He yells, “If you harm one hair on her body, I’ll kill you!”

When Les calls him a monster, Al Lewis, in a cheeky reference to his most famous role, says, “No, no, Les. That’s a vampire. I am a demon! And this is the day that the gates of Hell open and we shall go home!”

In a somewhat confusing finale, Al Lewis reveals his true, doglike face while a demonic arm emerges from the ground.

Then Les throws a crystal at the Satanists and everything explodes.

Les wakes up in the forest with Darlissa. “I guess that crystal really did the job, huh?”

Darlissa replies, “I guess.”

After Les kisses his fiancée, however, she turns straight to the camera and smiles.

Fright House is a horror film that expertly achieves its effects by keeping the viewer off balance and avoiding traditional, boring narrative tropes like having a main character and following a story from start to finish. In this way, it is similar to the inventive Spookies (1986), though that film, sadly, failed to feature a movie star as iconic as Al Lewis. Also, Spookies does not have a clever pun as a title ("frat house" becomes "fright house"), so it must be said that Fright House is the superior film.