*. The format we see movies in can do a lot to shape our response to them. I first saw House of the Long Shadows by way of an incredibly shoddy DVD transfer that, in addition to being filled with technical glitches, was so dark that you couldn’t make out what was going on a lot of the time.
*. It’s since been restored and had a deluxe release, but that first time has stuck in my mind. The murky candlelight gave it an impressive sustained chiaroscuro, and in the properly restored version I feel like some of that dramatic contrast was lost. Even the fierceness, or sickliness, of the yellow light was toned down. It’s a better looking movie, but for such a movie as this that’s not always preferable.
*. It’s not a movie that’s very well known. This may be surprising given the cast: John Carradine as the elderly patriarch presiding over a brood of “weirdos” including Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, and Christopher Lee. The set-up has a bestselling author by the name of Magee (Desi Arnaz Jr.) accepting a bet that he can write a novel on a par with Wuthering Heights while staying overnight in a creepy mansion. As the night progresses the house starts filling up with the aforementioned oddballs, until it seems Magee will never get back to work.
*. The story is based on the 1913 novel Seven Keys to Baldpate by Earl Derr Biggers, which had been adapted into a play and filmed several times (I tried to watch the 1917 version once and couldn’t make any sense of it, even already knowing the source). It’s changed up a bit here to play off of horror conventions, but retains the original story’s playful sense of indeterminacy. Ironically, this makes it feel ahead of its time, despite being such old material.
*. A side note on inflation: In the 1917 movie Magee was going to win $5,000 for writing a novel in 24 hours. Sixty-five years later the prize money has only gone up to $20,000. That hardly seems worth a bestselling author’s time in 1983.
*. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t do much more than poke some fun at conventions that were already clichés. As Kim Newman, who really didn’t like it, admitted, the only charm was in seeing all the old faces. But what faces! I mentioned in my notes on The Old Dark House how that film was an homage to faces, and that seems to be very much the same spirit at play here. This is also a place where the chiaroscuro effect I mentioned is most effective, grooving the faces with slashes of darkness in the candlelight.
*. Faces, and voices too. It’s worth it just to listen to this cast go at it, from Price objecting to being “interrupted in my soliloquizing” (and calling Christopher Lee a “bitch”!) to Cushing turning his r’s into w’s. Apparently Elsa Lanchester was going to play Victoria Grisbane but was too ill. Drat. That really would have been the cherry on top.
*. It’s also Pete Walker’s last film. I think he was an odd fit for material like this and didn’t bring much to the table. He might have had more fun sending the genre up but I’m not sure he was ever that invested in the genre very much in the first place.
*. I think how you feel about this movie is based on what direction you come to it from. Given the cast and the material it should have been better. If you’re not expecting too much, however, it’s still a pleasant enough experience. I certainly enjoy it on that level, and because I do maybe that’s another reason why I prefer seeing it look like a chewed up VHS tape. It feels more like an artefact than a film. And I mean that in a good way.