The House of Seven Corpses (1973/1974) **½
I confess that I greeted the prospect with some dismay when my fellow B-Masters voted a tribute to John Carradine into our roundtable schedule. Not that I dislike Carradine— indeed, I adore him to an indefensible degree. But when we dedicate a roundtable to some specific actor, I naturally like to review something that presents him to good effect. Ideally, he should be the star of the show, and at the very least, he should have a big, juicy role that demonstrates why he merits the attention. The trouble with John Carradine is that for most of his astonishing six-decade career in motion pictures, he was the guy people hired for a single day’s shooting, so that they’d have an excuse to put a recognizable name on the movie posters. For that matter, he played an awful lot of glorified bit parts even during his 40’s and 50’s heyday. And the inconvenient fact is that I’ve already reviewed virtually all the films I know of that give Carradine the kind of exposure he deserves. So instead, I’m going to take this in the opposite direction. Let my colleagues tell you all about Carradine as dark horse Dracula, mad scientist par excellence, or whatever; I’ll direct my attention toward a less attractive but no less important part of the picture: John Carradine, King of Slumming!
Few of Carradine’s latter-day movies appear slummier than The House of Seven Corpses. Indeed, one of the other B-Masters originally called dibs on it only to abandon it as not worth the effort to review. And to be sure, it is an extremely minor film which all but the most forgiving fans of 70’s horror will justifiably dismiss as a ponderous, feeble bore. But The House of Seven Corpses is a bit like Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, and not just because it’s a showbiz movie in which a pack of thespians and their director come to grief at the hands of the risen dead. This movie also resembles that one in offering secret pleasures to a narrow, specialist audience, even as it drives everybody else away. You see, the characters in The House of Seven Corpses are a low-budget, independent film crew using a purportedly haunted house as a shooting location, and the real filmmakers fill the seemingly endless time before supernatural evil makes its presence felt commenting through their fictional counterparts on life in the movie industry’s least rewarding trenches. The House of Seven Corpses may be a lousy horror movie, but it’s an intriguing look at what it was like to make lousy horror movies in the early 1970’s.
First up, in rapid succession beneath the opening credits, are all seven of the titular corpses. At first I was afraid that the movie was blowing its own second and third acts before the first had even started, but no. Actually, what we’re looking at is a kind of stealth exposition. This parade of murders and suicides establishes how the old Beal mansion acquired its sinister reputation. Then, because this is a horror film about the making of a horror film, we get a fakeout opening scene in which the 19th-century witch who shoots herself to escape the unwanted results of her latest conjuring is ultimately revealed to be down-and-going actress Gayle Dorian (down-and-going actress Faith Domergue, of Psycho Sisters and Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet). Much to the disgust of director Eric Hartman (John Ireland, from Salon Kitty and Waxwork II: Lost in Time), what was shaping up to be a perfect take is ruined by Edgar Price (Carradine, whose other late-period credits include Doctor Dracula and The Howling), the Beal mansion’s caretaker, who pipes up to protest that that’s not how Allison Beal’s suicide went. Evidently old Edgar is very protective of the Beal family legacy, even the terrible parts.
The caretaker’s interruption segues into a guided tour of the mansion for the cast and crew, pointing out all the spots where this or that Beal was stabbed, drowned, hanged, thrown from the third-floor balcony, etc. Gayle and her costar, Christopher Millan (Charles Macaulay, from Tower of London and Blacula), are snidely dismissive of the whole affair. Ingenue Anne (Carole Wells) gets thoroughly creeped out. Makeup man, lighting technician, and clapper-loader Ron (Ron Foreman, of Die, Sister, Die! and The Love Butcher) treats the whole thing as an amusing break from the stressful grind of the shoot, as do cinematographer Tommy (Larry Record, who usually goes by Dennis these days) and Danny the grip (Marty Hornstein). Eric just finds Edgar and his obsessive concern for Beal family history an exasperating distraction and a source of expensive delay. But the real significance of this interlude derives from a book that screenwriter and assistant director David (Jerry Strickler) finds in one of the upstairs rooms. It’s a rather King Jamesy-looking copy of the Tibetan Book of the Dead— which the filmmakers seem to have confused with the Lesser Key of Solomon, since all the passages David reads aloud concern the summoning of Semitic demons rather than what to expect from your periods of existence in between incarnations. Regardless, David gets it into his head that the book could be useful to the movie. Having a legit source of occult practices on hand for reference can’t help but punch up the picture’s spirit-raising and demon-invoking scenes, right?
As usual, things turn weird after David’s discovery of the grimoire. In particular, the caretaker’s behavior grows suspicious as hell, to the point where he’s seen not merely prowling around the old Beal family cemetery (that much can be explained by Eric pressing him into service for some nighttime pickup shots), but even letting himself into one of the crypts. Eric is not satisfied with Edgar’s explanation that he’s been trying since before the film crew ever arrived at the mansion to figure out who is buried in the funeral patch’s mysterious, unmarked eighth grave. Nor can Hartman imagine that Price could be up to anything but trouble in his secret workshop below the mansion’s basement. Then someone ritually slaughters Gayle’s cat, which is obviously a whole new level of no good. It portends even worse, too, although nobody involved (except one, I guess) has begun to guess how much worse. Someone in the house is acting, whether wittingly or not, as a vessel for the murderous madness of the Beal clan, and as if that weren’t enough, those incantations that David keeps adding to the movie script are subtly thinning the local boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead. Too many more recitations, and the filmmakers will be meeting their long-deceased hosts face to face. It’s a pity no one’s in a position to tell Eric about that last part; I’m sure he’d love such an ironclad excuse to limit retakes…
As a straight horror film, The House of Seven Corpses has only a few things to recommend it. The zombie makeup is respectable (I especially like the skeletal toes poking crookedly out from the putrid masses of the creature’s feet), and the grave-rising scene is almost as effective as the famous one in Zombie. The house itself— the Utah governor’s mansion, if you can believe that!— is a terrific location, used to near-optimal effect. Carradine’s performance, by turns jolly, cantankerous, and sinister, is fun to watch, and he gets enough screen time for his presence never to feel wasted, even if Edgar Price is mostly just a puffed-up red herring. Unfortunately, there just isn’t enough substance here to make for a satisfying fright film. The blood-soaked opening credits set up everything with such efficiency that there’s nothing much for the movie to do until the final act, save to run out the clock. And once the zombie murders do finally start, The House of Seven Corpses is annoyingly vague about what’s really going on. I gather that the Beal curse is a sort of cyclical possession thing, and that the tenant of the unmarked grave is metaphysically responsible for all seven of the better remembered historical deaths. There’s no obvious reason for the undead Beal patriarch to want any of the present-day characters dead, however, nor do I understand why the same zombie gets resurrected twice: first by the chant from the book, then again when the Beal sire’s agent among the living falls into his open and seemingly empty grave.
Paradoxically, though, it is precisely during that running out of the clock that The House of Seven Corpses partially redeems itself. Few other movies I’ve seen offer as vivid a glimpse behind their own scenes as this one. The character interactions display throughout a kind of fractious camaraderie that I have no trouble believing to be a norm (if perhaps not necessarily the norm) among people in this profession. The same goes for how everyone but Hartman’s two highest-paid performers has to pull double and triple duty behind the camera, with each day promising a new baptism by fire— or by rain-simulating sprinkler rig, as the case may be. Even Gayle and Christopher are shown to endure their shares of hardship in the improbable quest to get Hartman’s piece-of-shit movie in the can on time and within budget, although their travails are mostly of the psychological and emotional variety. The sizeable egos without which they never would have become actors in the first place are continually battered and bruised not merely by Eric’s merciless motivational hectoring, but also by the simple knowledge that this is what they’ve both sunk to as middle age claims them for its own— unless, of course, this was all the higher they were ever able to climb, which is its own sort of psychic torture. So we shouldn’t be surprised that Chris drinks too much and flirts intrusively with all the actresses, or that Gayle is having an affair with the director which ends up exposing her to even more emotional abrasion. (The lower-billed Anne, meanwhile, must content herself with banging the screenwriter.) Eric, for his part, has learned— we may assume the hard way— that only by being a tyrannical jerk can he fulfill his obligation to the producers. At the same time, though, his regard for cast and crew is unmistakably real, as it should be. Everyone, after all, is pulling hard at the flimsy oars of their common project, and if the shoot is falling behind schedule, it surely isn’t for lack of ass-busting. Finally, there are a few moments along the way that almost have to have come directly from real life— maybe even from the House of Seven Corpses set itself. My favorite has Eric calling “cut” mere seconds into a take because nobody remembered to light the candles on the Satanic altar. It’s all well observed and smartly portrayed, animated by a mix of self-deprecating wit and surprisingly raw self-criticism. For some people, it might even be enough to make up for The House of Seven Corpses’ shabby, rote, and thoroughly exhausted attempts to scare them.
This time, the B-Masters Cabal turns its attention to an oft-neglected great among the pantheon of horror and exploitation movie stars: John Carradine, the Man Who Wouldn’t Say No! Click the banner below to see whether or not my colleagues did indeed focus on his somewhat more reputable work.