Film Torments Special: House of the Long Shadows (1983)

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WITH Christopher Lee’s sad passing yesterday afternoon, the world lost one of its last living links to an older age. With a career spanning 65 years and 206 films, Lee inhabited the roles of an endless stream of memorable and iconic villains, lending baleful gravitas to each and every one. He was a Sith Lord, Sherlock AND Mycroft Holmes, Rasputin, Fu Manchu, Frankenstein’s Monster, a Wizard, a Bond Villain (one of the best, but we’ll get to that) and, of course, his seminal turn as Count Dracula in the Hammer Horror run of the character.

And that’s not even getting into his colourful exploits beyond the camera, or his French royalty ancestry, or his videogame voice acting, or his metal albums made in his 80s and 90s. Today, as per our Robin Williams tribute, we honour one of cinema’s greatest actors with one of his more strangely overlooked films: A Cannon-produced throwback called House of the Long Shadows from 1983.

The film follows the story of hotshot horror writer Kenneth Magee (Desi Arnaz, Jr.) who makes a $20,000 bet with his publisher (Richard Todd) that he can write a novel of Wuthering Heights’ Gothic calibre within 24 hours. Sequestered in a penumbral Welsh manor called Blyddpaetwr (“Baldpate”, according to the film, hilariously), Magee finds himself arraigned by several members of the Grisbanes, all gathered together to expunge a dark secret… until they start getting picked off one by one in a series of grisly murders.

No prizes for guessing which one.

No prizes for guessing which one.

The horror genre in the 80s was enamoured with slashers like Halloween, Friday the 13th and Sleepaway Camp. The Gothic horrors of the Hammer days in the 50s and 60s were old hat, passé relics of a bygone era. Pete Walker, an esteemed exploitation filmmaker and veteran of films like Die Screaming, Marianne and School for Sex, largely prefers the slow burn approach to the visceral thrills of the slasher, bathing Blyddpaetwr in darkness and dim candlelight.

What makes House of the Long Shadows special – beyond its cookie cutter haunted house premise – is its uniting of four “masters of terror” in Vincent Price, John Carradine, Peter Cushing and, of course, Christopher Lee. It’s also a glibly self-aware and affectionate Gothic send-up that never teeters explicitly into rampant winking at the camera (see: Mark Millar). All four actors, presumably hired with Cannon’s limitless 80s treasury, are given plenty of room to manoeuvre. They’re so comfortable in their surroundings they look like they’re part of the cobwebbed furniture.

Cushing, the first to arrive, lends distinguished grace to Sebastian Grisbane, despite speaking with a bizarre, off-colour impediment that slurs his otherwise immaculate enunciation. Vincent Price’s Lionel Grisbane receives the most unforgettable introduction; backlit and shrouded in fog, his shadow looming on the stairwell, he tersely announces, “I have returned,” as a thunderclap corroborates. Mid-speech, he shuts Magee down with a curt, “Don’t interrupt me, I’m soliloquising.”

And you do NOT interrupt Vincent Price.

And you do NOT interrupt Vincent Price.

John Carradine’s cantankerous Elijah Grisbane, already at the manor and first to greet Magee with his haughty daughter Victoria (Sheila Keith, a Walker alumnus), is all upturned chin, his face contorted into a permanent sneer, dismissive of the brash American. Of the non-legend cast, Arnaz, Jr. gives a spirited performance as the impatient and eye-rolling Magee, while Julie Peasgood as Mary Norton gives some delightfully wooden line deliveries.

And then, of course, there’s Christopher Lee. Here playing an irritable property mogul named Corrigan, decked out with a swanky scarf and tuxedo. It’s a relative departure from his usual, sinister demeanour, his baritone dripping with thinly-veiled contempt. Determined to remove the Grisbanes from the property he legally owns, an interloper into dark familial affairs, he opens the door containing the bloody chamber of the Grisbanes’ woes.

The film is never terrifying but always interesting, concerned more with retro kitsch than any real attempt to unnerve or frighten. House of the Long Shadows is, first and foremost, a vehicle for these horror favourites to flex their ghoulish muscles. The film coasts along nicely with each individual actor sharing the screen with Arnaz, Jr., but it comes alive when they are all assembled together, as with the dining scene where the Grisbane secret is unveiled. The atmosphere is electric; it’s the horror equivalent of all four Beatles meeting up for a jam session.

With Christopher Lee's involvement, there'd be plenty of Rhapsody of Fire.

“You know, I’m a terribly big fan of Rhapsody of Fire…”

It’s clear they’re all having a joy of a time, and that’s the fundamental lure of the film. Walker’s tongue is planted firmly in his cheek, with subtle humour taking an equal place among the lightning flashes and creaky doors. When greeted with the dead Victoria, strangled with piano wire, Price drly notes, “[They] must have heard her singing.” In spite of its macabre tone and gruesome murders, the conclusion is wonderfully light-hearted, buoyed on the back of some legitimately surprising twists.

Lee, for his part, gets some impressive moments of pathos-riddled acting that only makes us wish he’d taken on more straightforward dramatic roles in his long, distinguished career. It’s also a testament to the fact that, even when standing in a room with John Carradine, Vincent Price and close friend Peter Cushing, he still manages to give the most memorable performance in a veritable ocean of talent.

With House of the Long Shadows, the Gothic epoch of horror cinema received its final curtain call. By bringing these legends together for the first (and last) time, the demarcation was made between the campy suspense of Hammer and the arterial load-blower of the slasher. It’s a perfect send-off for all four men, and a perfect send-off to the era, allowing them to bow out of the horror genre with grace and dignity. With Lee’s passing, the last, perhaps greatest connection to that era has gone too. We are all the poorer for it.

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