Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Cannon Files: HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS (1983)

(UK - 1983; US release 1984)

Directed by Pete Walker. Written by Michael Armstrong. Cast: Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Desi Arnaz Jr, John Carradine, Sheila Keith, Richard Todd, Julie Peasgood, Louise English, Richard Hunter, Norman Rossington. (PG, 102 mins)

When it came to ninjas, Namsploitation, and breakdancing, Menaham Golan had his fingers on the pulse of what audiences wanted to see. But just as often, he'd keep Cannon cranking out increasingly geriatric Charles Bronson actioners directed by an aging J. Lee Thompson, cheapjack franchise offerings like the one-and-done MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE (1987) and the ill-advised SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE (1987), and misguided attempts at arthouse legitimacy that played to smaller and smaller audiences. When Golan decided to make an all-star horror movie with the screen's titans of terror in 1983, he didn't come up with the kind of horror movie that 1983 audiences had in mind. HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS was born when screenwriter Michael Armstrong (director of the 1970 barf-bag classic MARK OF THE DEVIL) and cult British horror filmmaker Pete Walker (DIE SCREAMING MARIANNEFRIGHTMARE, HOUSE OF WHIPCORD, THE CONFESSIONAL) came to Cannon with an idea for a gory horror movie called DELIVER US FROM EVIL. Golan rejected the idea and told them he wanted a vintage "old dark house" story with all the classic horror stars, so Armstrong and Walker concocted a script inspired by the 1932 James Whale classic THE OLD DARK HOUSE and based largely on the oft-filmed 1913 George M. Cohan play Seven Keys to Baldpate, itself based on a novel by Charlie Chan author Earl Derr Biggers.  According to legend, Golan demanded Walker and Armstrong cast Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi in this all-star horror summit, and was not deterred by minor inconveniences like Karloff's death in 1969 and Lugosi's a decade before that in 1956.

While Karloff and Lugosi were out of the question, Golan did manage to snag four living horror legends: 72-year-old Vincent Price, 61-year-old Christopher Lee, 70-year-old Peter Cushing, and 77-year-old John Carradine. The big selling point of HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS--a playful nod to how beloved its stars were--was these iconic figures not just being in the same movie together, but finally having significant amounts of screen time interacting with one another. Of course, Lee and Cushing were paired up many times over the years (this would be their last movie together), and Cushing co-starred with Price in 1974's MADHOUSE and Price with Carradine in 1981's THE MONSTER CLUB, but usually, it would be a case of them being in the same movie but having no scenes together, like Price, Lee, and Cushing in 1970's SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN or Price and Cushing in 1972's DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN or Cushing and Carradine in 1977's SHOCK WAVES. There was also Price and Lee in 1969's THE OBLONG BOX , where they had one brief scene together very late in the film when Price finds Lee's dead body. In that respect, HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS was sort-of the old-school horror EXPENDABLES of its day. And of course, upon its US release in the spring of 1984, it bombed with critics and audiences, who loved these old-timers on late-night TV and Saturday afternoon Creature Features, but didn't venture out to see a new movie with them in theaters. A gothic Hammer/Amicus throwback didn't really appeal to the slasher and special effects crowd. LONG SHADOWS was recently released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber and on one of the two commentary tracks, film historian David Del Valle and moderator Elijah Drenner also cite Cannon's poor marketing campaign: a tongue-in-cheek, old-fashioned horror mystery set on a dark and stormy night, the film has enough of a playful atmosphere that it never really takes itself too seriously, though it never quite takes the plunge into all-out comedy. Cannon didn't seem to know whether to sell this as a mystery, a horror movie, or a spoof.

Best-selling novelist Kenneth Magee (Desi Arnaz Jr) is good at cranking out books but really only cares about the money. His British publisher Sam Allyson (Richard Todd) wants Kenneth to challenge himself and after dissing the likes of Wuthering Heights, Kenneth bets Sam $20,000 that he can write an old-fashioned gothic novel in 24 hours. To get in the right frame of mind, Sam arranges to have Kenneth spend the night at a desolate Welsh estate called Baldpate Manor, which has been empty for 40 years. After he's interrupted by Sam's secretary Mary (Julie Peasgood), sent there to distract him, things get weird when Baldpate becomes the location of an impromptu family reunion of the Grisbanes: patriarch Lord Grisbane (Carradine), eldest son Lionel (Price), younger son Sebastian (Cushing) and daughter Victoria (Walker regular Sheila Keith). Baldpate Manor was home to the Grisbanes until a terrible scandal brought shame upon them in 1935: the youngest of the Grisbane sons, black sheep Roderick, raped and killed a 14-year-old village girl. The horrible crime was covered up by Grisbane and his other sons, who dispensed their own family justice by sentencing Roderick to live in chains in a hidden, locked room on one of the upper floors of the manor. For over 40 years, Roderick has resided in the dilapidated manor alone, surviving on food brought by Victoria or snacking on whatever rats he encounters, and tonight is the night the Grisbanes confront him and come to terms with their ugly past. Also complicating matters is the arrival of Corrigan (Lee), a sneering businessman who plans to buy Baldpate Manor to demolish it and develop the surrounding area. It doesn't take long before they're all being picked off one by one by an unseen Roderick, who's gotten out of his room, cut the phone line and slashed the tires on everyone's cars, and won't stop until he gets his revenge.

Critics savaged HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS, with Arnaz's performance inexplicably singled out as the film's biggest problem (from the film's listing in the Leonard Maltin guide: "Arnaz Jr. singlehandedly sinks this adaptation..."). He's not the most magnetic lead actor, but he does what he's required to do and graciously steps aside at the right time and lets the masters do their thing. Del Valle, a longtime friend of Price's, even recalls the legendary actor defending Arnaz and his performance in the film. Both Del Valle and Drenner are incredulous over the amount of heat Arnaz took for his work here, and they're right: he didn't deserve the pummeling he got and isn't bad at all. You could almost compare him to Michael O'Keefe in CADDYSHACK: he plays the central character and he's the real star of the movie, but you're actually there to see everyone else around him. Walker and Armstrong do take too long to get all of the players together (it's nearly 50 minutes in and the film is half over when Lee first appears), but they all get some time to shine and seem to genuinely enjoy working off of one another. Cushing amuses himself by adding an Elmer Fudd-type speech impediment, Carradine is befuddled and cranky, Lee is huffy and pompous, and Price is gloriously florid and over-the-top as Lionel Grisbane, gravely intoning "I have returned" upon his arrival and admonishing Magee for asking a question during his eulogy for the Baldpate Manor of old with a hand wave and a firm "Please...don't interrupt me whilst I am soliloquizing."

Cannon could've easily put these guys in a gory, T&A-filled slasher movie, which probably would've been more in line with Pete Walker's comparatively trashy and sleazy B-horror films of the 1970s. HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS was practically a departure for the director, whose cult status has grown in the subsequent decades. A true indie auteur accustomed to working on his own and outside the system, LONG SHADOWS was Walker's first and last gig as a hired gun director--he retired from filmmaking afterwards and in the decades since, has had success owning a chain of movie theaters in London. He remains active in the cult movie scene, recording DVD and Blu-ray commentaries for Redemption's "Pete Walker Collection," and he's on hand for a commentary track on the LONG SHADOWS release. LONG SHADOWS does demonstrate some infrequent concessions to the times in which it was made--there's a couple of mildly gory deaths and a few curse words (where else will you hear Vincent Price hiss "bitch" to Christopher Lee?), but it's a throwback before nostalgic throwbacks became a thing. It unfolds less like a Cannon production and more like a vintage Hammer or Amicus chiller and it does right by its cast, respecting them and the history they bring instead of derisively dismissing them, and when the actors are the butt of jokes, they're in on it.

Drenner points out on the commentary that it's easy to look back at the film now with a sense of nostalgia while seeing that it had to be very out-of-touch with where horror was in the early 1980s. Indeed, while it was enjoyable in 1983, it's a film that's improved over time and it's a rare instance where nostalgia is enough to carry it through. Of course, the story and the final twist are predictable, but watching these legends together is truly a joy that's helped the film out in the long run, especially now that a significant chapter of genre history has closed with the passing of Lee in June 2015 (Carradine died in 1988, Price in 1993, and Cushing in 1994).  HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS has aged like fine wine and sentimental feelings have won out over jaded cynicism, earning it a loyal cult following among classic horror fans enjoying the masters having one last hurrah without the baggage and expectations that came with its era. It may have been released in 1983 but it certainly wasn't made for 1983, and just about everyone back then--critics, audiences, and Cannon--was wrong about HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS.

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