The Salvage Heap: The House of the Dead (part one)
by Antaeus Feldspar
The House of the Dead (1980)
Welcome to The Salvage Heap! In each edition we'll be taking a look at some movie, TV show or other media product which fails to fully satisfy, and then look at how well it might be salvaged by a reshoot, a re-edit, a remake, or something similar.
This time around we'll be looking at a horror film from 1980 called The House of the Dead. At least this is the title it has on my copy, which is part of Mill Creek Entertainment's "Chilling Classics" 50-movie DVD box, and since that title makes more sense than its alternate title of Alien Zone, I'll just call it by the former title.
The movie is an attempt at a time-honored horror movie format, the anthology. For those of you not familiar with the anthology horror movie, you might guess that it's something similar to prose anthologies, which simply bring a number of unconnected (but frequently similarly-themed) stories together and publish them in a single volume. Or maybe you might guess at a similarity to The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and other television "anthology series" which each week would present one or more self-contained tales, with maybe an introduction by an avuncular host like Rod Serling or Alfred Hitchcock and maybe a few words of wrapup at the end from the same host.
Well, that's not too far off, and there probably were a few movies that followed just that pattern. However, the anthology horror movie usually added something extra, in the form of a "frame story". In contrast to Rod Serling presenting the latest tale from the Twilight Zone or the latest exhibit in the Night Gallery directly to the television audience, the typical anthology horror movie would have strangers meeting and telling each other stories, like the pilgrims of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Except the tale-teller was usually creepier than those pilgrims, because that was what made the convention work so darn well for horror movies: nothing makes a scary tale scarier than not knowing whether the person telling it to you is sane or not (just ask any of my friends!)
Not infrequently, the frame story would end up having its own twist and being more than just the vehicle by which all these stories were introduced: the genteel doctor telling the stories of his patients at the asylum would prove to actually be a patient who had taken the asylum over, or he would be Satan and his listeners would discover they had unknowingly already entered Hell, or... well, it probably made the audience feel that they'd watched an actual movie instead of just a series of short subjects, but sometimes the twist worked and sometimes, inevitably, it didn't, and we'll get back to that.
Our own movie opens with the title, followed by a long string of actor credits "in order of appearance", with a slightly gooey piano ballad in the background informing us that "The saddest melody is the sound of goodbye," (sure enough, this is one of two music pieces credited here in the rather long opening; the other is "Mommy and Daddy's Pride and Joy" and if anyone else who watches this movie can tell me what piece of music that is and when they use it, I'd appreciate it.) As the credits finally prepare to give way to story, we pan through a house, across framed pictures on the wall, across a lit candle on a side table, and finally into a dimly-lit room with a man and a woman in bed, just finishing up a steamy romp. I'm not sure they ever remember to give his name in the movie, so I'll tell you that the man's name is John Talmudge and he's going to be our protagonist. The woman he's with, we shortly discover from the dialogue, is named Marie, and isn't his wife. We can tell this from three early lines of dialogue:
MARIE: I wasn't sure if you'd be coming.
JOHN: I got here as fast as I could.
MARIE: Sometimes I feel sorry for your wife.
If either the acting or the script had been just a little better, this would have come across as a line with strong subtext; it would be clear that what she was really saying is that she feels sorry for herself, that he's betraying her as badly with lack of attention as he's betraying his wife with infidelity. Here, however, it comes across less as a line with subtext and more as a Plot Point Delivery Device to let us know about his wife. So does the subsequent line where she pleads for him to stay because her husband won't be back for another two hours (Plot point!) He insists on leaving, however, and because his acting is a little better than hers, we do get a sense that this really is what he wants; as badly as he's strayed from his path, there's a true if frustrated desire in him to get back to it.
In the taxi, John carries on an intermittent one-sided conversation to the driver, who can barely even be seen as a shadow and who doesn't answer even the most direct of John's statements. John doesn't seem to notice and unburdens himself of small talk as if in small commonplaces he's going to make sense of his life -- which doesn't seem very likely if even the tidbits he's sharing don't make sense. "Seems like it's been raining for a week," John says, adding, "I've only been here two days." I've puzzled over this, trying to decide if it's profound or dumb -- is it excellent screenwriting where John is showing us, through his mask of everything's-all-right-I'm-a-grown-man, that he's lonely and confused and sad? Or is it really just showing that John says things he doesn't think through beforehand? I'll give it the benefit of the doubt, especially since it fits so well with the indecision that follows. "Would you mind driving around a little bit? Never mind, just take me to the hotel. I have to call my wife." After the cab lets him out, however, John realizes he's not where he thought he was, and though he yells and waves after the cab, it doesn't stop or even slow, just rolls away.
Running through the downpour, John heads for a newsstand, being locked up for the night by man in a jacket and a hooded sweatshirt. John calls him from far away, but doesn't get any response until he's up close and the man turns suddenly, staring at John with open hatred in his eyes. Backing away, John pursues the next sign of light, a bar with a blinking neon beer sign; yet knocking on the door brings no answer, and peering in the window apparently shows him no signs of life, either. Honestly, this whole sequence -- from his leave-taking of Marie until now -- is probably the most effective, most successful part of the whole movie. We know that John is an adulterer, and yet we sense that this is not a man going from pleasure to pleasure, trying to get more than his fair share; it's a man trying to deal with his feelings of alienation, it's a man trying to find some shelter from a world that seems unendingly indifferent and rainy and hostile.
John finally resorts to pressing into a slightly inset space next to a decrepit door, and stands there framed by the peeling paint, shivering, staring out at the rain -- until a hand falls on his shoulder. "No need to stand out in the rain," says the hand's owner, a grey-haired, older fellow in dark clothes. "Why not warm up a little, dry out?" John obligingly enters, following the grey-haired man up a long flight of stairs, and down an amazingly dark hallway, coming out in a little apartment area. The grey-haired fellow (played by Ivor Francis, so I'll call him Ivor) portrays an air of slightly sedated geniality, but fairly soon the hints start coming that perhaps he's more than he seems:
JOHN: I was looking for my hotel -- the Ambassador? I thought I was in the right neighborhood -- I asked the cab to let me out...
IVOR: Yes, I know.
JOHN: -- what?
IVOR: I know what you mean! The rain is a deceiver -- a veil over reality. Things don't look the same in the rain. In fact, it's quite easy to get lost in these streets.
More small talk ensues, with John revealing that he's in town for a plumbing convention. Without overtly stating so, the grey-haired man implies that he knows more about John's evening than he lets on, including what kind of "friend" John says he was out in the rain visiting. In response to John's questions, the grey-haired man says that this is not only where he lives, but where he pursues his line of work, which is... "Embalming, actually. Embalming and such." Expanding, he says he's a mortician. "I do get some of the more interesting cases. In fact, the most interesting. Unique... Grotesque, actually. At least some of them."
When the mortician says he wants to show John something, John tries to decline, and the mortician begins mocking him subtly. "I'd better get back to the hotel," John says. "Oh, yes, the one you lost," replies the mortician. "Meeting another friend, perhaps? You must have a business meeting -- a seminar on pipes and fittings! 1001 leaks you should know?" This is well-played by Ivor Francis; it is just palpable enough that we, the audience, know damn well there's something sinister about this guy, and yet it is just muted enough by Francis' dry delivery that John can't use his clear growing sense of unease to leave the situation, as he tries to do. "I'd better get back to the hotel. I have to call my wife," John says. "Well, I was kind enough to bring you out of the rain, give you a hot cup of coffee," replies the mortician. "Why not stay just a few more minutes, and let me show you around? I think you'll be interested." When John agrees, the smiling mortician, with a showman's gesture, ushers him through a velvet-curtained doorway to a dark room lit only by candles and occupied by coffins.
The transition through the doorway marks a new phase of the movie. It not only moves us from the pure frame story about John and the mortician to the telling of the four story segments that make this an anthology, but it signals a distinct change in the power relationship between the mortician and John. Previously John was just a guest, and to keep him from leaving, the mortician had to temper his mockery and play on John's fear of appearing ungrateful. Once within the room of coffins, however, the mortician is the one controlling the conversation, and John is pulled along almost helplessly. "My latest clients," intones the mortician. "This one, for instance..." "It's all very interesting, but..." John offers, only to be cut off in turn. "Please! Let's not be an ungrateful guest! I've just begun to show you around... there's much, much more."
Pausing in front of a particular coffin, the mortician intones, "Very interesting... very bizarre case. Her name was Miss Sibiler... she was a teacher." As John stares, the lid of the coffin opens, and this is our transition into the story itself.
We open with Miss Sibiler (played by Judith Novgrod) stalking out of the school, shoving the door shut behind her. It's evidently an afternoon in winter, from her knitted cap and heavy coat, and probably just after school's let out, as we hear children's voices and see a few running around. As she stalks off in high dudgeon, she mocks children who call out to her, affecting a sneery, syrupy voice: "'Hi, Miss Sibiler! Hi, Miss Sibiler! Isn't she sweet!' -- little brat!" (Unfortunately, poor audio sabotages this scene; it took me three or four viewings to realize that the "Hi, Miss Sibiler!" the teacher is mocking just happened in the scene. There's so much ambient playground shouting that the two shouts which were technically dialogue were completely lost in the background. It left me wondering if she was responding to a previous scene which had been cut out of the film, in the mistaken belief that we don't need any idea what causes her one character trait of hating children.)
In the parking lot, a young boy and girl sit on the hood of a car, taking quiet turns playing a pencil and paper game. Can I just say here that, as small as this is, this rang a false note to me? Because for children of that age to be taking turns in such a well-behaved fashion strikes me as slightly inconsistent with sitting on the hood of a stranger's car. Maybe I'm wrong -- you never know quite what kids will think is appropriate to do -- but it would have raised fewer questions if they had been, say, quarreling over the pencil or over whose turn it was.
Miss Sibiler, without speaking to them, reaches in and blows a blast on the horn, sending them scrambling off. "Get away from my car!" she shouts, after they're already off.
Parking in her driveway and walking up to her door with a grocery bag in her arms, Miss Sibiler bends down, picks up, and hurls away a baseball bat. "Damn kids! Disgusting little litterbugs!" she screeches. But she looks around at some length at a not-entirely-effective evening shot, and sees no kids.
She enters the house, and after taking another long look outside, closes the front door. She takes a roast in a pan from the fridge and puts it in the oven, turns a transistor radio on the counter to some mellow AM instrumental with easy listening flutes and horns. Hearing a noise, she returns to the front door and checks through the window again; as she looks out at the slightly-darker world outside, we hear music much different from the previous easy listening: 'tension' music, heavy on staccato plucked strings and high, tremulous violin. It ends, though, as she closes the door and throws the bolt.
Returning to the kitchen, she gets out a tomato from the fridge, and a knife and cutting board from under the counter, and starts cutting -- until we hear a high, annoying tweetering sound, at which she looks over at the transistor radio on the other counter. Miss Sibiler walks over to the radio, turning it on again to another smooth jazz instrumental. "That's funny..." she muses. "I thought I..."
This segment's biggest problem isn't its choice to mix diagetic (existing in the storyworld) music and sound effects with non-diagetic (existing outside the storyworld, played just to us, the audience) music and sound -- but it really ain't helping. When the plot turns -- as it does now -- on what a major character hears, the audience shouldn't be left wondering what it is she is hearing. Did she look over because she heard the high tweeting noise from the radio? Or was that tweeting only to emphasize to us that she had just twigged to the radio being off when she had left it on? My guess is that it's the latter, but the fact that I have to guess is a problem: the audience's attention should be fully on the story you're telling, not on figuring out what is and isn't actually part of the story.
Finishing the cutting of the tomato, she takes off the apron and carries the radio up the stairs with her to the bathroom. "That was Morris Duke and his Orchestra," announces the radio, "and now Lalo Peranza and his something Strings" (I can't make it out, but trying to research the names suggests they're made up anyhow, so it probably doesn't matter.)
The teacher puts the radio down on the tank of the toilet, turns on the shower, and leaves the room. Strangely, the camera lingers, creeping closer and closer to the door of the bathroom and even noticeably shifting focus downwards from the radio to the toilet itself (!). I say "strangely" because such attention is called to the movement and focus of the camera that it seems as if it is being set up as a POV shot -- and yet Miss Sibiler returns, passing so close to the camera that if there was supposed to be an unknown observer there whose eyes we were seeing through, she could not possibly miss him/her/it! Like the earlier confusion with the radio, this just takes our attention off the story itself and puts it on trying to work out what is and isn't part of the story.
Miss Sibiler returns, still looking just annoyed by life itself. She tests the water coming out of the shower head, strips off her lavender-gray bathrobe (sorry, men and lesbians, no "skin" worth speaking of unless you're a shoulder fetishist) and puts on a shower cap.
Once in the shower, she seems positively orgasmic, oohing and gasping like an Herbal Essences commercial. Her ecstasy is short-lived, however, as -- gasp! -- a humanoid shadow rushes across the curtain! (I could be kinder to this sequence if it didn't convey to us so clearly that Judith Novgrod's idea as an actress of expressing strong emotion, whether pleasure or terror, is "keep mouth open".) This is accompanied by a return of both the high tweeting from the kitchen scene and the tension music heard when she checked the front door. She throws open the curtain, sighs in relief, then does a slow, exaggerated disbelief-take towards the radio. She steps out of the shower, throws on her bathrobe, picks up the radio -- and this is the lulu -- the tension music is stopped just half a second before the radio clicks onto another AM Gold favorite. It's unintentionally hilarious; unless you're watching very closely, it appears that what this mysterious intruder actually did was switch the station to WSPK, Your Number One Spooky Music Station.
Upon hearing a banging noise from downstairs, she switches her acting strategy from "open mouth" to "lower lip tucked under upper teeth" and hurries down the stairs to where the front door is now open. She shuts it, locks it and bolts it, then hurries to the windows, where she looks out for another long "hey, it's evening and I'm not seeing anyone and that's spoooky" shot before locking those too. (No, three times is not the charm. Hey, I'm trying to cut what slack I can, but the stakes were already upped past this. They should have stopped trying to wring tension out of looking out on a street when it isn't even dusk yet and not seeing anything.)
Miss Sibiler returns upstairs to find the bathtub faucet going full-blast, and once again expresses her firm belief than an open mouth is an acting mouth. She rushes downstairs and through the kitchen, turning on lights and checks what looks like a back door, rattling it to make sure it's locked. She turns, for a pretty decent fright moment -- in the kitchen she just left, the roast in its pan is now on the counter on its side, with a long knife stuck into it straight down.
She runs through the kitchen and grabs the knife, and then checks behind another door -- we don't see what's behind it; we just see her pull it open cautiously, then close and lock it. She runs around the house in a circle, puts down her knife to shut the kitchen windows, and then runs to check another room. At first she puts her hand on her chest and heaves a great sigh of relief, then puts her hand to her mouth for an even more pronounced reaction shot when the camera changes focus to show that the phone cord's been cut. Of course, then she realizes that she left the knife in the kitchen. If you guessed that her reaction to this involves an open mouth, give yourself a gold star.
Rushing back into the kitchen, she sees the knife missing from the counter, and scatters what is on the counter, looking under the dish drainer, but failing to pick up a perfectly good cooking pan that's there which would at least be better than nothing. Thus, she's empty-handed as the knob of the white door, the last one she closed, turns back and forth, and finally creaks open.
Miss Sibiler stands there, empty-handed and of course open-mouthed, poised as if caught between crying and screaming, as the door creaks open... and finally out come three child-sized figures. They're dressed in department-store Halloween masks (yeah, the creepy cheapy kind, with the big empty eyeholes); the leader has a zippered jacket from Sears and a scarf tied around his neck and wears a goofy-clown mask, behind him is another figure wearing a weird Uncle Sam mask, and a third wearing a "girl with blonde curls" mask, with a schoolbag strap across her chest. Also, something that Miss Sibiler fails to notice as they first enter is the very long Lee Press-On Claws on their fingers, which is why she reacts at first with relief, and then anger: "Oh my God! Children! Just children! What kind of a stupid prank is this? What is the matter with you, don't you know any better? Stupid prank!"
More children-things enter through the back door with similar masks and similar clothes; most have on those horizontally striped jersey so popular for grade-schoolers in the 1970s, although the leader wears a sweater vest over a nicely buttoned Oxford shirt. How do you button up a shirt like that with two-inch claws on your fingers? Don't the claws ever snag on the sweater? Look, it's hard to take the forces of darkness seriously when they're wearing Garanimals.
"More of you?" breathes Miss Sibiler. "What do you want?!" Maybe she's been hearing the same thing we've been hearing, since the entrance of the second group of child-figures, weird sibilant sounds that seem to combine whispering and squeaking and balloons being rubbed. The lead child-figure lifts his clawed hands to his mask and pulls it back to show two overlarge, jagged incisor teeth and too much Max Factor around his eyes. The other 'children' are doing the same; we get a series of close-up, low-angle shots showing the various dental appliances cooked up by SFX, which are not so effective for purposes of terror when you stop to consider: wouldn't it be pretty hard to chew if your biggest teeth were on your lower jaw?
For whatever reason, maybe a justified fear that grade-schoolers with teeth and claws won't strike a note of real terror, the film suddenly goes into Woogly-Psycho-Vision, using film tricks like rippling the film, switching to the negative of the film, using different chemicals to put the color range square in an ugly green-brown-grey range, and so forth. The childthings back Miss Sibiler into her kitchen; more of them come from upstairs, and to the noise of hissing and weird audio-processed roaring, they corner her, bring her down, and attack her as she screams...
Cut to the mortician closing the coffin with a sigh, as John looks on, spooked. "You -- you don't expect me to believe that story... it's ridiculous!" he says, not sounding convinced. Again, it's a good thing this role has a good actor, because frankly, yes, it is ridiculous.
"Perhaps," the mortician answers. "Yet it's all very true."
"But -- being bitten to death by -- by children?" John asks, increduously, only to be corrected. "I never said children," says the mortician.
"I've no idea; I don't think anyone really knows what... or why. She was very much a mess. Quite a challenge to me, to make something ... acceptable out of her."
John once again expresses disbelief, but the mortician reminds him that he gets the most "interesting" cases. "You sound like you select these people," John says, as the mortician walks over to a second coffin.
"Everyone should be selective in what they do; don't you agree? Take Mr. Growski here, for instance: he was selective, in what he did... though I must say, he was somewhat strange. He had a rather abnormal predilection for cameras, photography, all that sort of thing. Did some very nasty things," he finishes with an almost-hidden smirk, as he raises the coffin lid, ushering us into probably the worst segment of the movie.
The segment starts in a small living room of an apartment; a uniformed police officer pins a tall brown-haired man down on the couch, hands cuffed behind his back, while some detective-types look around the place with their guns drawn. In case you couldn't guess, the brown-haired man is our "Mr. Growski", played by Burr DeBenning (who had starred as Dr. Ted Nelson in The Incredible Melting Man not too long before. If you have yet to see The Incredible Melting Man, I urge you to run, not walk down to your local video store and immediately rent The Incredibles instead, since that is not a piece of crap, which The Incredible Melting Man is.)
"Look at this," one of the detectives says, gesturing at the camera. "A movie camera," he says as Growski groans. "Looks like Billy's tip paid off," says another (we never find out who "Billy" is). "It's running!" exclaims the first detective. "This creep's got a camera!" which seems like a strange thing to say since everyone's already aware that there's a camera there.
To spare mind-numbing, I will not go through the entire segment line by line. It's not good enough to be worth it. We just jump back and forth between scenes of Growski being hustled down a hall with flashbulbs going off, microphones shoved in his face and reporters asking backstory-establishing questions like "Is it true you killed six women, Mr. Growski?", and dreary-long sequences filmed by the camera in Growski's living room showing him inviting various women in for dates and then killing them. The only things worth noting:
- The first woman, "Julie", will make you miss Judith Novgrod's open-mouth thespianism, as she seems to think she can best portray that Julie is not too bright by acting like she can't remember her lines; and
- The script gives Growski the requisite number of "psycho moments", where he takes inappropriate offense at being offered a drink or at Julie's comparison of his movie camera to a model airplane, but nothing in any of it reveals anything. This is a character study without a character at the center. We'd have just as good an idea of who Growski is and why he does what he does if all we saw was him hustled down the hall after his arrest.
And notice that not a damn thing in the whole segment had the least connection with Growski supposedly being "selective".