House of the Long Shadows (1983)

Carradine, Price, Cushing, and Lee share the screen in a Gothic inspired horror-comedy.

American author Kenneth Magee (Desi Arnaz, Jr.) heads to London to meet with his English publisher, Sam Allyson (Richard Todd),  prior to a book signing tour for his new novel. Over lunch, Sam laments the lack of character driven literature, like Tolstoy or Dickens. Magee scoffs that anyone can churn out that stuff and boasts he could write a Wuthering Heights style novel in twenty-four hours, even going so far as to wager $20,000.00 he can. Magee requests a place he can work undisturbed. Sam knows of a place in the Welsh Countryside, an abandoned mansion for sale. He’ll arrange with his friend for Magee to stay there.

Magee arrives at the mansion on an appropriately dark and stormy night. Naturally, the Gothic mansion has no electricity so he must work by candlelight. Ken soon discovers he’s not alone, meeting the elderly Elijah Quimby (John Carradine) and his daughter Victoria (Sheila Keith), who introduce themselves as the caretakers. Magee doesn’t mind their presence, as long as they leave him alone. Not long afterward, a woman shows up urging Magee to leave, he’s in danger. It turns out to be Mary Norton (Julie Peasgood), Sam’s secretary, sent to disrupt Magee’s work. Her ruse is quickly discovered. Another visitor arrives, a man named Sebastian (Peter Cushing) who claims his car broke down in the storm. A short while later, yet another visitor, Lionel Grisbane (Vincent Price) appears, having returned to his ancestral home. It turns out, Elijah is actually Lord Grisbane, with Victoria, Sebastian, and Lionel his children, reunited after forty years. Needles to say, the family harbors a dark secret.

Adding to the mix is another arrival, a Mr. Corrigan (Christopher Lee), in the process of buying the property. Passing by, he saw lights and stopped to investigate who was trespassing. The seven sit down to an awkward dinner and the family secret is finally revealed. Danger and mayhem ensues.

House of the Long Shadows is based on the 1913 novel Seven Keys to Bald Pate by Charlie Chan author Earl Derr Biggers. It was adapted for the stage by George M. Cohan, who altered the ending. A number of film adaptations were made, some using the novel’s ending, others the play. Although the set-up is basically the same, those versions (and novel) were mystery-comedies set in America involving an off-season mountain lodge and search for hidden money. This movie took a Gothic horror and old dark house approach, an acknowledgment of the collective work of its four stars.

Filmed on location, the mansion is appropriately grand. The score is quite good, reminiscent of a bygone era. Vincent Price, who had appeared in a number of campy horror films in the seventies, eschews the camp in favor of a restrained performance, more in line with earlier works from the sixties (think the Corman Poe projects). It’s a nice change. Peter Cushing, whose heroes and villains in the past always appeared confident and pro-active, plays completely against type here, another surprise. John Carradine plays the patriarchal role as you’d expect, not a bad thing, and Christopher Lee is solid as Corrigan. Sheila Keith handles the role of Victoria ably. Julie Peasgood is a bit weak at times, and Arnaz, who often gets hammered in online reviews, does have a few bad line readings, but other than that he’s fine. Not spectacular, mind you, but adequate, with a few funny line deliveries. The movie was directed by Pete Walker, an exploitation film maker who came out of earlier retirement to do this picture, from a script by Michael Armstrong.

I hadn’t seen this movie in over thirty years and was looking forward to it, thinking I might not have appreciated or not understood everything going on. Unfortunately, my reaction was the same as thirty-plus years ago. Turns out, I understood it perfectly back then. I did, however, appreciate more of the Gothic elements that I didn’t catch all those years ago. Despite the pedigree of the four horror icons, this movie is not greater than the sum of its parts. The fault lies in the script and the pacing. It starts fine, but once Magee gets to Bald Pate Manor, things seem to slow to a glacial pace. Although they hit nearly all the Gothic tropes, there’s a nagging feeling that something is lacking. I was hoping for more humor of the dry and droll variety, but it’s not really there. Neither does there seem to be a sense of urgency or immediacy. Of course, it’s a treat to see the four all interacting in scenes, but it’s not enough to make up for the flatness that overlays everything.

House of the Long Shadows isn’t horrible, but it isn’t as good as it could have been. A tightening up of the script and brisker pace would have helped lift it out of the blandness that bogs it down. I’d still recommend it for die-hards of the four horror legends, just don’t expect too much. Disappointing. My rating, 5 out of 10 (5/10).

*NOTE: This review is based on the widescreen Blu-ray presentation by Kino Lorber. A DVD-r burn on demand version is available from MGM in 4:3 pan-and-scan aspect ratio. By all accounts, the latter is muddy, made from an inferior source print.

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