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The little independent horror picture The House of Seven Corpses is quite an anomaly for its time. Movie screens of 1974 were awash with transgressive gore 'n' mutilation epics featuring victims ripped to bits with chainsaws and women raped and tortured in protracted agony. Filmed in Salt Lake City, this little show is a more civilized throwback to the haunted house genre with a family curse and a vengeful zombie to tie up loose ends at the finale. The blood on view is mostly stage blood being used in a movie-within-a-movie. I can see where a moment or two might want to be trimmed for TV use, but the disc producer for The House of Seven Corpses remembers that the movie was shown constantly on TV. For many kids growing up in the late 1970s it was a first exposure to film fare of this sort.
The screenplay by Thomas J. Kelly and director Paul Harrison is not particularly original, but the movie has something that was in short supply for horror of the time -- characters that made sense, and even some that we like. The cast follows the familiar ploy of using faded name stars, but John Ireland, Faith Domergue and horror favorite John Carradine participate in the spirit of murderous fun.
A small movie company is filming in an ancient mansion long famous for seven grisly, unsolved killings. Fussy star Gayle Dorian (Faith Domergue) gripes about the lack of Hollywood amenities, as the cast and crew are all billeted in the mansion for the filming as well. Director Eric Hartmann (John Ireland) gives Dorian a hard time and is equally abrupt and impatient with the rest of the crew. Hartmann is particularly irked by the house caretaker Edgar Price (John Carradine), who insists on regaling the crew with scary stories about the rooms they're sleeping in. Along the way someone unearths a copy of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which proves to be packed with sinister Satanic mumbo-jumbo just like the script of the film being made. Eric thinks it might be a good idea to incorporate it into the story. All of this is understandably making young star Anne (Carole Wells) nervous, especially when she sees Edgar Price from her window, climbing into a crypt in the family cemetery. What is really going on?
The House of Seven Corpses has a great title sequence, with the seven Gothic killings recounted in capsule form, almost like the murderous countdown that begins William Castle's 13 Ghosts. At that point the professionalism of stars Ireland and Domergue take over, along with the added spice afforded by John Carradine. Director Harrison has the atmosphere of the empty mansion cooking nicely, so much so that we almost don't miss the absence of a real story. We don't really find out why the present filmmakers are being threatened, and neither are we told more about those seven murders from long ago. The film starts in the middle of a Satanic ritual that turns out to be a movie scene being filmed ... which is strange, considering that an unexplained ghostly phenomenon occurs in the middle of the scene. Shots are nicely chosen to suggest that "something" is prowling around for the next hour, but every time we expect a bloody movie death to turn out to be real, the victims leap back to life as soon as "cut" is shouted.
Reading from the Satanic book doesn't seem to animate the walking corpse that eventually turns up, but Carradine's Edgar Price was right - at least one ghost among the mansion's murdered doesn't take kindly to the intrusion. Director Harrison pulls off some clever, effective mis-directs. When we know the zombie is on the prowl, we see a shadow approaching in the corner of a scene as two people talk. More often than not, we're fooled again.
Checking out the cast and crew lists tell us that the group shooting The House of Seven Corpses wasn't much bigger than the tiny company shown in the movie -- several cast members take on roles of crewmembers. They do well, too: we care more about the nice cameraman and the eager-to-please grip than we do the generic leading characters. The film made fortunate choice when it chose a zombie as its main menace. This particular walking corpse is early enough in Zombie History to be relevant: George Romero had made his one Night of the Living Dead picture but zombie imitations were just beginning to surface in Italy. We don't get a clear look at this guy -- or really find out who the hell he is -- but his rotting appearance is impressive.
One would have to be a confirmed Faith Domergue fan to recognize her from her 50s heyday, as she's still beautiful but has a much thinner face. John Ireland keeps the movie afloat with his demanding director, who seems compelled to berate and insult his cast and crew. Unlike his appearances in some cheapies made just a few years before, John Carradine looks relaxed and gives a hearty performance. He must have liked having coherent lines to read.
Severin's DVD + Blu-ray of The House of Seven Corpses is a good-looking HD transfer of a film that we're told was previously viewable only in wormy 16mm TV prints. The widescreen framing shows us that a lot of medium shots would look like long shots in an open matte transfer. The serviceable cinematography comes off well, with the actors handsomely lit; most night scenes are appropriately creepy. One night scene cuts to Day for Night footage that seems a bit light, however.
The choral music composed by Robert Emenegger is a big help ... some of the creepy choral sounds remind us of The Fearless Vampire Killers. The audio track is in good shape.
The audio commentary by Associate Producer Gary Kent, aided by Lars Nilsen, goes into the specifics of the shooting and the careers of the people involved, although I didn't learn much about Paul Harrison. Kent characterizes Carradine as a raconteur who liked to hold court in barrooms, and had a habit of spitting on the floor. Readers interested in some really interesting cast and crew connections on The House of Seven Corpses might check out Nathaniel Thompson's highly informed review coverage. Nathaniel's knowledge along these lines is inexhaustible.
A trailer is included but the best extra is a lengthy video interview with John Carradine. The actor stays pleasant and responsive despite the interviewer's focus on horror movies, which Carradine thinks is the low end of his career. But he doesn't duck the questions and we hear some nice stories about Bela Lugosi and Karloff. The House of Seven Corpses is a good disc choice to learn more about (and grow more affection for) the great John Carradine.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The House of Seven Corpses Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.