❉ Vincent Price, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee steal every scene in Peter Walker’s potboiler, writes Johnny Restall.
The gothic comedy-thriller House of the Long Shadows, released on Blu-ray this month by Fabulous Films, boasts almost perfect ingredients for a cult movie. It was the last film made by the infamous director Pete Walker, known for sexploitation horrors such as Die Screaming, Marianne (1971) and House of Whipcord (1974). It marks the last screen pairing of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, joined by fellow horror icons Vincent Price and John Carradine, as well as Walker’s own regular muse Sheila Keith. The screenplay was penned by Michael Armstrong, director of the grim 1970 chiller Mark of the Devil and writer of films as diverse as Eskimo Nell (1975) and The Black Panther (1977). Last but not least, it was produced by Cannon Films, renowned for their prolific run of cheerfully deranged would-be blockbusters in the 1980s. Surely no self-respecting cult connoisseur could resist such a line-up?
As Walker explains in the Blu-ray extra ‘House of Horror,’ the producers wanted to make a film reminiscent of the glory days of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi – despite both stars being long deceased, and the commercial prospects for such an intentionally outdated project seeming somewhat limited in the slasher-dominated market of the early ’80s. When the rights to The Old Dark House proved prohibitively expensive, Walker set Armstrong to adapting Earl Derr Biggers’ 1913 novel Seven Keys to Baldpate instead, and pragmatically wooed a slightly later generation of surviving genre stalwarts to star, with the promise of an affectionate swansong.
Despite its nods to a bygone era, the film is firmly set in 1983. It opens with a jumbo jet landing, followed by the lead Kenneth Magee (Desi Arnaz Jr.) striding through the airport resplendent in his aviator sunglasses and bouffant hair-do. Magee, an author from the US, has come to the UK to promote his new novel. Brash and cynical, he makes no bones about writing for the marketplace rather than for art, brushing off the concerns of his literary agent Sam (Richard Todd). When Sam bemoans the lack of a modern Dickens or a Wuthering Heights, Magee glibly retorts that anybody could write like that, given an appropriate physical situation of “isolation, and above all atmosphere.” The two make a bet: Sam will give Magee the keys to an abandoned mansion he knows in Wales, and in return the author will deliver a completed gothic novel to him within 24 hours of his stay. Naturally, on arrival it turns out that Bllyddpaetwr Manor is anything but deserted; the horror legends arrive one by one, and events turn toward the sinister, with an evening of locked bedrooms, secret passages, mystery, and murder.
Inevitably, the old pros steal every scene, effortlessly hamming their way through the proceedings with charm to spare, and enlivening the fairly pedestrian storyline. Carradine and Keith are a hoot (if somewhat underused) as the supposed caretakers, with Keith’s unhinged, melancholy opera recital a memorably bizarre highlight. Cushing, Price, and Lee are all awarded beautifully staged entrances, with loving shots of their remarkable faces emerging from the shadows, lit to iconic perfection. Cushing’s Sebastian plays to the gentler side of his range, his gaunt face and frailty amplifying the character’s timidity, particularly in his unexpectedly affecting final speech. Lee’s performance is largely an essay in haughty disdain and restraint, but once finally let off the leash, he proves gloriously menacing. Arguably it is Price who seems to have the most fun, his waspish Lionel taking many of the best lines (“Please, don’t interrupt me when I’m soliloquising!”) and archly sending himself up with characteristically infectious glee.
Given the admittedly thankless task of playing against the distinguished older cast, the younger performers struggle to make a particularly strong impression. Arnaz Jr. is saddled with a fairly unlikable part; while his lines could have worked for a hard-boiled 40s lead, they grate coming from the film’s selfish, proto-yuppie author. Julie Peasgood fares little better as the mysterious Mary, given little to do beyond screaming and providing the underdeveloped love interest.
Although the film takes a more visceral turn in its final third, its pacing seems somewhat uneven, lacking a strong enough atmosphere to carry it through its longueurs. It is never particularly frightening and only fitfully amusing, lacking the subversive nastiness of Walker’s ’70s work, or the gothic splendour and energy of the best Hammer or AIP movies. Its knowingly old-fashioned tone ultimately proves its Achilles’ heel, mocking its own gothic cliches without ever adding quite enough wit or originality to sustain them. The double-twist ending may also infuriate some viewers; while it is arguably in keeping with the deliberately playful style, it unfortunately failed to work for me, and rendered the entire story pointless. Despite my reservations, House of the Long Shadows has its admirers and will surely find a new audience with this release. Like many cult films, it is an acquired taste, and my criticisms may seem highly obtuse to those who love it for its easy-going frivolity and self-awareness.
Fabulous Films’ disc comes with a new high-definition remaster of the feature, commentary from Walker with Derek Pykett, a brief interview with the director, a documentary returning to the Rotherfield Park shooting locations, the original trailer (narrated in delicious deadpan by Price himself), and fetching new artwork by Graham Humphreys.
❉ ‘House of the Long Shadows’ is released 28 March 2022 on DVD and Blu-Ray via Fabulous Films Ltd/Fremantle Media Enterprises. RRP: £15.99 (DVD)/£19.99 (Blu-ray). Pre-order from Amazon: House Of The Long Shadows (DVD) | House Of The Long Shadows (Blu-ray). We Are Cult is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.co.uk. Any revenue raised from affiliate links are directly pooled into the upkeep and maintenance of the site (CMS, domain hosting, plugins, industry standard software subscriptions, etc.)