House of the Long Shadows

Director: Peter Walker
Screenplay: Michael Armstrong (suggested by the novel Seven Keys to Baldpate by Earl Derr Biggers and the dramatization by George W. Cohan)
Stars: Vincent Price (Lionel Grisbane), Christopher Lee (Corrigan), Peter Cushing (Sebastian Grisbane), Desi Arnaz, Jr. (Kenneth Magee), John Carradine (Lord Elijah Grisbane), Sheila Keith (Victoria Grisbane), Julie Peasgood (Mary Norton), Richard Todd (Sam Allyson), Louise English (Diana Caulder), Richard Hunter (Andrew Caulder), Norman Rossington (Station Master)
MPAA Rating: PG
Year of Release: 1983
Country: U.K.
House of the Long Shadows Blu-ray
House of the Long Shadows

When I repeatedly saw House of the Long Shadows on cable television as a kid in the mid-1980s, I had no idea that I was watching four of the towering figures of American and British horror—Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and John Carradine—sharing the screen for the first and only time. Of course, Cushing and Lee had already appeared on screen together more than 20 times, most famously opposite each other in influential Hammer horror films such as The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Horror of Dracula (1958) (they had most recently co-starred in the ill-fated 1979 fantasy Arabian Adventure, although they didn’t share any scenes; one would have to go back a decade, to 1973’s The Satanic Rites of Dracula, to see them on screen together). However, Cushing and Lee had never appeared with Vincent Price, whose erudite, slightly campy gravitas had single-handedly elevated so many Roger Corman-produced horror films in the 1950s and ’60s, nor with John Carradine, who began his career in the stock companies of Cecil B. DeMille and John Ford, but was known to genre aficionados for his roles in the later Universal horror films of the 1940s like House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945).

So, whatever other qualities House of the Long Shadows might have, it immediately earned some degree of immortality just for bringing these aging genre legends together for the first and last time. Each actor is given an appropriately grand entrance, gravely stepping out of darkness into fractured pools of light as Richard Harvey’s delightfully old-fashioned musical score builds to a crescendo (and, in some cases, thunder crashes). Price gets the best entrance, though, as he steps into his close-up, with inexplicable mist swirling behind him, and announces ominously, “I have returned.” The combination of genuine affection for all that Price and the other stalwarts of the genre represent and the clearly campy prodding at how silly it all is is key to what pleasures the film has to offer, playing into all the trappings of the old dark house subgenre while winking one eye.

This is by no means a parody or a satire; rather, director Pete Walker, in his last outing behind the camera, finds a rather delicate middle ground that reminds us why dark corners, locked doors, and brooding family secrets are scary, but also how these ingredients have been worn down into cliché by decades of repetition. The film’s placement squarely in the midst of the horror genre’s dominance in the early 1980s by slasher films makes it feel all the more archaic, but in a strangely good way, as if Price, Cushing, Lee, and Carradine were coming together to show the snotty kids how it was done back in the day. (Although the film certainly bears the influence of the slasher film, with numerous characters being offed in all kinds of grisly ways, including acid, strangulation, and being hacked to death with a medieval axe, all of which managed to stay just under the MPAA’s PG threshold.)

Outside of the venerable star power of its leads, Walker’s film provides a largely entertaining riff on the creaky, cobwebby haunted house comedy. Walker was a muti-decade veteran of horror and sexploitation, most of which were critically reviled at the time, but have since developed a cult following (his most famous horror concoctions were 1974’s House of Whipcord and Frightmare and 1976’s Schizo). He knows his way around shadows and suspense and violence and intrigue, but any time the film demands something resembling ordinary human interaction, the seams start to show. He has no sense of the normal and mundane. This problem is intensely compounded by the casting of Desi Arnaz Jr. in the key role of Kenneth Magee, an American writer who has accepted a $20,000 bet from his British publisher that he can pound out a Gothic novel in 24 hours. Arnaz Jr. is, simply put, not a very good actor, and his awkward, mannered attempts to play the beleaguered straight man lends a bad sitcom vibe to the otherwise foreboding atmosphere. Although he is ostensibly the film’s protagonist, he feels utterly out of place and distracting, which renders every scene he is in (which is most of them) fundamentally compromised.

Arnaz’s character has retreated to a supposedly abandoned manor deep in the Welsh countryside (on a dark and stormy night, natch) to speed-write his tome in complete seclusion. However, he finds that his isolation is repeatedly interrupted by the arrival of various people: the Price, Cushing, Lee, and Carradine characters; an older woman played by Scottish character actress Sheila Keith (a veteran of Walker’s previous horror films), who says she is one of the manor’s caretakers; a younger woman played by Julie Peasgood, claiming to be the publisher’s assistant; and a couple of bickering British backpackers (Richard Hunter and Louise English) who have been waylaid by the storm. Kenneth should have known better, especially given the dire warning about the manor’s cursed status conveniently supplied by the local station master (the many and varied stereotypes of the Welsh countryside being outside of the civilized world are strongly at play here). All of the unexpected interlopers initially claim to be strangers, but they are eventually revealed to be members of the Grisbane family, who claim ancestral rights to the manor, although they had to abandon it years earlier due to a family scandal, thus setting up the Gothic standby of past sins refusing to stay buried (or, in this case, locked in their room).

Interestingly, House of the Long Shadows originated with Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus’s Cannon Group Inc., best known at the time for low-budget horror and bawdy teen comedies, tasking Walker and screenwriter Michael Armstrong (another veteran of British horror and sexploitation) to make a new version of J.B. Priestly’s 1927 novel The Old Dark House (published as Benighted in Priestly’s native England), which had previously been made into a movie in 1932 by James Whale and in 1963 by Roger Corman. However, Corman still held the rights, so Walker and Armstrong settled instead on another (and older) warhorse of the old-dark-house genre, Seven Keys to Baldpate, a 1913 bestseller by Earl Derr Biggers (who would go on to substantial fame as the creator of the Charlie Chan mysteries) that was adapted to the Broadway stage that same year by actor-composer-impresario George W. Cohan. Biggers’s story of a writer trying desperately to finish a novel in a supposedly deserted inn and being constantly interrupted by the appearance of a series of strange characters had already been brought to the screen six times, although the most recent had been back in 1947. The change in title and delaying the screenplay credit until after the film has ended marks a clear desire to distance House of the Long Shadows from its source material, especially since anyone with any familiarity with it would know the multiple twist endings (introduced by Cohan’s stage adaptation) lurking around the corner.

Armstrong kept the basic structure of Cohan’s stage version, but replaced a plot involving gangsters and crooked politicians with a Gothic family’s foreboding family reunion. It works well enough, especially for aficionados of old-style British horror, although it takes a lot of forgiveness to swallow the twists the film has in store. Nevertheless, despite its narrative weaknesses and the distraction of Arnaz Jr.’s central performance, House of the Long Shadows is worth a visit from anyone who appreciates old horror and the veterans of the genre who love it enough to have some fun with it.

House of the Long Shadows Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio2.35:1
Audio
  • ?????
  • SubtitlesEnglish
    Supplements
  • Audio commentary by writer Derek Pykett and director Pete Walker
  • Audio commentary by film historian David Del Valle, moderated by Elijah Drenner
  • House of the Long Shadows... Revisited retrospective documentary
  • “Pete Walker’s House of Horror” featurette
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Theatrical trailers for Die Screaming, Marianne, House of Whipcord, The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Theater of Blood, The Whip and the Body, The Crimson Cult, Dr. Who and the Daleks, The Blood Beast Terror, The Black Sleep, The Astro-Zombies , and Billy Two Hats
  • DistributorKino Lorber
    Release DateDecember 12, 2023

    COMMENTS
    This is Kino Lorber’s second go-round with House of the Long Shadows, having previously released it on Blu-ray back in 2015. At that time, the film had been given a new high-definition transfer, but the image suffered somewhat from being compressed onto a BD-25 disc. This new release features the same HD transfer, but this time it has been encoded on a BD-50 disc, which allows for a substantially higher bitrate and accordingly better image. The overall look is still largely the same, but the details and contrast look improved with better encoding. This is a very dark film—let me repeat that, very dark film—which has some shots almost completely engulfed in gloom, but the transfer handles the material well, avoiding crushing and offering good shadow detail. The colors look just a bit faded, but that also may be reflective of the original cinematographer, which was clearly not going for a big, glossy look. This disc also included the same DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 monaural soundtrack, which works well enough. There is some decent depth to the rumbling thunder and over-the-top orchestral score and screams, although one wishes some of the atmospheric sound effects could have been rendered in surround channels. As far as supplements, everything previously included on Kino’s 2015 disc is here and accounted for: two excellent audio commentaries, one by director Pete Walker and author and British horror expert Derek Pykett and one by film historian David Del Valle that is moderated by Elijah Drenner, producer, editor, and/or director of hundreds of behind-the-scenes and retrospective documentaries and featurettes; “Pete Walker’s House of Horror,” a 14-minute interview with Walker; and numerous trailers, including ones for House of the Long Shadows, Die Screaming, Marianne, House of Whipcord, The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Theater of Blood, The Whip and the Body, The Crimson Cult, Dr. Who and the Daleks, The Blood Beast Terror, The Black Sleep, The Astro-Zombies , and Billy Two Hats. There is also one new addition: Derek Pykett’s 108-minute retrospective documentary House of the Long Shadows ... Revisited, which was made in 2012 and previously appeared on the British DVD from Final Cut. It is a thorough accounting of the film’s genesis, production, and legacy and includes then-new interviews with Walker, screenwriter Michael Armstrong, cinematographer Norman Langley, composer Richard Harvey, and numerous members of the cast (Desi Arnaz Jr., Louise English, Richard Hunter, Julie Peasgood, and others). That is the good news. The bad news is that the visual quality of the documentary is pretty terrible, which is surprising given that is was made only a little over 10 years ago. The video is soft and interlaced, which means that there is a great deal of artifacting and jagged edges everywhere, which can be quite distracting.

    Copyright © 2024 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Kino Lorber

    Overall Rating: (2.5)




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