Wednesday, October 3, 2012

31 Chills: The House Where Evil Dwells

The House Where Evil Dwells (1982)
Starring Edward Albert, Doug McClure and Susan George who Empire Magazine listed as one of the 100 sexiest movie stars of all time.

Quick Cut
Supernatural horror, featuring ghosts, possession, love triangles, and moderate sexual situations and nudity.  

It is never scary by today's standards, but it does have some thrills.  Undead crabs.  No seriously, undead crabs. There is a surprising amount of flesh shown, but it was the 80's and the sex scene was king back then.  The film has elements in it that could have made for a really great movie, instead it just trundles along, nearly hitting the high points, but falling short in pretty much every category.  It is not bad enough for it to be ironically enjoyable, nor is it good enough to really forgive it's mistakes.  It would have been a great TV movie, but doesn't work as an R Rated thriller, except for the boobs.

The Meat

Well before the Japanese Horror Movie craze spawned by Ringu America was treated to this flick that did a fair job of telling a traditional ghost story set in modern Japan with an American family out of their depth.  It is a mid level movie, really almost resembling a well made TV movie.  I have little doubt that the success of Shogun contributed greatly to the decision to make this movie and shoot in Japan.  The movie starts off in Japan, late 19th century, as a samurai visits his lover, who at first I believe to be a geisha.  She gifts him with a cool little sculpture of a geisha and red faced oni in a lovers embrace, which apparently is enough to get his motor running.  Another, older, samurai comes to the house and sees that she is with company, and hides in the bushes.  When he sees her naked silhouette through the shoji he goes nuts, diving through the wall with his katana and attacking them mid coitus.  It is a pretty realistic fight scene (and by realistic I mean undramatic and a little silly), full of angry wild swings, slow motion desperate throwing of tables and vases and then, inevitably bloody death.  The older samurai commits seppuku after satisfying his honor.  The sculpture is shown falling under the floorboards. Have you ever seen a flower vase killed in slow-mo?  Would you ever want to?

Fast forward to now and an American family moves into this fantastic old Japanese house, updated with modern equipment, but still with all the traditional charm.  It's only 250 a month, American, and when asked why told, flat out, that it is haunted.  Even in 1982 the rent for this place would have been freakishly low.  If there is one thing any person in a movie should know it is that if you get a badass house super cheap, it is probably going to kill you.  In any event Ted (Albert) and Laura (George) and their young daughter love the place, and settle in.

The ghosts make their presence known almost immediately, the first night actually.  They are weirdly cool with one another, just kind of walking around being ghosty together.  This is one of the biggest weaknesses in the movie from my perspective.  The ghosts are never scary.  Ghostbusters was scarier.  I'm not knocking Ghostbusters here, I am saying that a comedy was spookier than an actual horror movie.
Not only are the effects not scary, the ghosts idea of scaring people are to close doors, turn off lamps, and to make sinks splatter.  Seriously, Susan George's second biggest freak out is when the sink splatters her.

Basically the ghosts want to relive their deaths, so they go about influencing the principal cast into being dicks to each other and having an affair with the husbands best friend.  The first time they go at it Edward Albert is only like 50 feet away.  There is no indication that Alex (Doug McClure's) has been influenced by the ghosts, so basically he is just a wife fucker.  No excuses for him.

For being shot on location this movie does not delve enough into life in Japan.  There is a really cool sequence where Edward Albert goes on a boat to photograph some pear divers, and a couple of scenes out and about in the city, but it never really gets into the isolation and loneliness for a housewife left alone in Japan.  Done right, it could have lent some ambiguity to the events of the movie, and given another plausible explanation for her affair. This movie is not big on subtext though.  There are hints that there was some deeper mythology in the novel on which it is based, but it never really comes through in the movie.  For instance the oni/geisha sculpture is found by Susan George, and she eventually buys a Noh mask that resembles the oni, and he is described as a mountain devil, but no real connection is made.  

Eventually, when the ghosts decide that spooking the family with ghost faces in soup and splashing water is not getting the job done they attack the young daughter with undead crabs.  The puppetry here is awful, well below the standards of the day, but the crabs themselves are creepy enough and their stilted motion almost works in their favor.
This is enough to get Ted to bring in the local shinto priest to exorcise the house.  The ghosts are banished and everything is fine, but they are warned not to open the door.  Of course, Laura just won't stop bawling.  She chooses this moment to shout out "I had an affair with Alex!"  Which prompts Ted to rush out of the house, inviting the ghosts right back in the door.  And, of course Alex chooses this moment to show up.  The resulting sword fight is wholly out of place.  The ghosts possess the two Americans and I guess have out their fight for honor, rather than just murder like before.  It ends, as it was bound to, in decapitation, because well, decapitation.

I'm probably one of Doug McClure's greatest fans, something I say with a surprising mixture of irony and affection.  The man was never a great actor, yet I have thoroughly enjoyed so many of his movies that his giant grinning mug is a welcome sight any time I find myself watching a movie with him in it.  Edward Albert was a popular guy at this time, but I mostly know him for being in some bad science fiction.  Susan George I really only know from Straw Dogs and the similarity of the roles is striking.  In both cases she plays a woman in an isolated position, desired by other men, and emotionally abandoned by her husband.  The daughter in this movie has a terrible part, she looks close to 10 years old, but her lines are appropriate for a 5 year old.  She delivers them terribly, but maybe there was a reason.  If she was developmentally challenged her part would make more sense, but as it is, it looks like just bad directing and acting.  Honestly, no one does a stellar job, but at least Susan George was passably professional.  The script doesn't really help much.  Throughout the movie you can see elements from other more famous movies stolen and repurposed to the plot.  It's predictable, completely transparent, and trite.  There are better movies to watch, but had I seen this when I was eleven I would have loved it.

I never say this, but this movie could be redone to todays standards, with some Japanese horror styling and be really good.  I'd get Freddie Prinze Jr. and Sarah Michelle Gellar to do it, and cast David Boreanz as Alex.  You could swap the men, actually, giving the illicit lover to her actual husband.

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