A Month of Horror on the Fringes (Day 16): BoardingHouse (1982)

Early on in BoardingHouse (aka The Hoffman House) there is a moment where some random dude we don’t really care about starts to writhe because of some supernatural horror guided by an unknown hand, and all of the sudden his guts miraculously appear on the outside of his body. He holds them knowingly to the camera (which, I suppose, is totally something I would do if I saw my guts all of the sudden) before collapsing ever-gingerly backwards. It’s so funny, I found myself laughing out loud. Pretty soon, there are women in bikinis prancing about a pool like they’re in either a sitcom or a porno, while the house is starting to kill people with poltergeist activity, and a sleezeball executive tries to keep them all together. Leave it to a film like BoardingHouse to make me revisit Linda Williams’ seminal essay, “Film Bodies: Gender, Body and Excess.” To both butcher and summarize Williams’ thesis, there are three ‘body genres’: pornography, horror, and melodrama, and each of these fantasies is acted out to varying degrees of bodily response (cumming, bleeding, and crying, respectively) in order to perpetuate and release tensions related to gender/sexualized anxieties. So they’re all of a kind, but accomplish their sensations at different stages of emotional release (“on time”, “too early”, “too late”, ideally, er, I mean respectively). BoardingHouse made me both reflect and perhaps even question this thesis. There is no doubt that the film is absolutely all three of these genres thrown into the blender of cinematic no-budget invention. But BoardingHouse made me do one thing Williams never mentioned: laugh. To laugh is always the correct audience response to the unsuspected, the outlandish, and the unknown – a response common to elements found in all three of the above. Perhaps laughter is hidden beneath all these of these body genres, and keeps them united. I don’t know what else possibly held BoardingHouse together – a film of such rare confusion laughter seems the only appropriate response.

It starts off well enough. BoardingHouse uses… wait for it… Horror Vision! As the announcer says, when you hear this sound or see this image, something too gruesome for words will appear! This is for the safety of the theater owners and distributors, they say. It’s for your health, they say. Sure, you say with a knowing smile. Then we get the background of the story from a talking computer like we’re plugged into the terminal in Verhoeven’s Robocop. Some famous occultists owned a house and committed suicide in said house, and then people started dying when they move in. I wonder why. And, it begins with my own personal worst fear: a hand pureed in the garbage disposal.

This whole attitude, when combined with its old-school, impetuous title card, is dare I say charming. It’s a charm that lasted about 45 minutes in, then something else started to happen. By then we get our cast of characters: the new owner of the establishment, Jim (writer/director/man of mystery with four credited names John Watergate/Johnn Watergate/Hawk Adley/Hank Adley), a student of Trump-era business tactics, real estate, and taste in women; the mysterious Gardner (see: Jim), a Vietnam vet with a peevy eye; and a bunch of girls. I truly wish I could tell you the characters’ names, but frankly I don’t think the film cares that much. Two rise to the top: let’s call her the Blonde, who is the initial love interest and has a unique pull to the house’s powers; and the other one the Brunette (played by Kalassu/Kalassu Kay/Mrs. Watergate), who then takes an interest in the owner Jim and starts to develop powers of her own. I almost forgot, Jim is developing some telekinetic powers, and at his prompting, the Brunette rents some books from the Los Angeles Public Library and starts to get pretty good at it, too.

The BoardingHouse starts to attack people by dropping electronics in bathtubs and causing hallucinations of pig heads and bloody showers and eyes poking out. In the meantime, the girls plan a party and sleep around and rub down Jim by the pool. Frankly, I was bored (in a way, I still am) but that’s because BoardingHouse doesn’t really have characters or a narrative to latch onto. Call it an anti-narrative. The film forgets whole people and places and thoughts it once had. That doctor who holds his entrails at the beginning? My days consist of watching films and I could not tell you what he’s doing in this movie. I’m fairly certain BoardingHouse even forgets to add the shock image and sound when people die. So it is also an anti-aesthetic. I would say it’s half-baked but I’m pretty sure that’s precisely what they were when they made this. It’s almost talented how this movie can be put together in a way where the audience’s remembering of scenes – during viewing – make them question their present reality.

The director’s cut is almost three hours long, and I was simply not brave enough on my first go to fall into that much of its wacky wonderland of woe. Much of it is visually and musically offensive (ah, 1979). The score sounds like it was crafted when a guy passed out on a keyboard and his cat ran across the keys. The film’s no-budget background (the first horror film shot on video, apparently) and, let’s call it, laissez-faire approach to cinematography, direction, acting and story, lends BoardingHouse that feeling of watching a porn director’s evening home movies, shot ad hoc while rehearsing for a horror film after the working day was done. It is, literally, a bunch of scenes strung together, almost tenacious in their banality. It is horror film on a bender, revealing a happy drunk. I laughed, I cried, a jump cut worked, and the whole time, I was trying to figure out just what the heck was going on. If that was the goal, it succeeded with commendations.

Each day all through October, I’ll be writing my two cents on 31 horror films from the dark alleys, lost highways, and unexpected corners of cinema history. Here’s to the fringes!

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