A Month of Horror on the Fringes (Day 17): The House of Seven Corpses (1974)

The House of Seven Corpses has one of my favorite horror movie beginnings, and one of my favorite endings. The beginning is legitimate; the ending is purely a matter of personal taste. As the title credits roll, we are introduced to the ghostly denizens of some unknown estate – a zoom into their portraits before each character’s grisly murder. Then we find an empty canvas, ominous music, and a black candle illuminating Gayle Dorian (played by Faith Domergue – one of Howard Hughes’ former flames). She says some random words that are tangentially esoteric and/or spiritual. Ah, yes – a satanic ritual. The candles disappear and then reappear (an effect I do not believe was intentional). Domergue really gives it her all, screaming and stomping on some unseen demon’s face. The scene runs entirely too long. Right before she blows her brains out, a voice from out of frame: “That’s not how it happened. Put that down. Cut the scene!”

This is one of the first forays into meta-horror I can think of (here, a film crew accidentally conjures the dead while making a film about conjuring the dead), with an almost whimsical tone that has no place for little things like facts. Those random words during the seance? These are merely cobbled together from not-scary sources. The whole instigator of the plot, the Tibetan Book of the Dead (aka the Bardo Thodol, ‘Liberation Through Hearing During the Intermediate State’) is apparently what causes the shenanigans in the first place, but anyone who’s read it (including myself) knows full well its purpose is not to resurrect the dead. Far from it. When the characters in The House of Seven Corpses read from it, they read Latin chants and Hebrew names, which is so patently hilarious it reaches a point that is disarming, and hell, practically charming.

In this way the film is almost a love letter to cheapo programming fare, knowing exactly what it’s gotten itself into. The film comes at a turning point in horror cinema, well after independent distribution came off the rails but just before the home video revolution opened the floodgates. It’s like a last breath of a certain style of horror cinema. But one made in a way that isn’t scary much at all. And this passing of the torch is led by the film’s three leads: the director-within-the-film is played by John Ireland, the proprietor is none other than John Carradine, and the aging star-lover is of course Domergue. (Apparently, Ireland smoked marijuana nearly the whole production; Carradine, in dapper form, would put on a suit and tie after the day’s filming and drink himself to sleep at the bar, telling the crew Hollywood tales of yore.) The relationship between Ireland’s director and Domergue’s lover-actress is fraught with this tension of fading movie stars, better times, and lost opportunities. The casting is a coup. As Ireland says skimming the Tibetan Book of the Dead left on the premises: “Well, it’s garbage, but it’s better garbage than what the writers gave us.” The film succeeds in these quieter moments, because the extra-cinematic weight of the leads is heavy, indeed.

Once the lights go down, members of the set start to get picked off, as well as the actress’ cat. The film makes no functional distinction between the horror onscreen for the film-within-the-film – with its slight mugging and camp – and the actual film we are watching. The music cues are very much the same, the jump scares fall in line. When Domergue discovers the remnants of her now-dead cat, she’s on camera in a scene (her scream will most definitely make it into the final cut). A real, important death happens concurrent to the death of a dumb, fake one – and when the actor begins to bludgeon one of the actresses for the shot, we are left with some anxiety as to whether a character died for their Hammer ripoff. It is almost as if the director is orchestrating the real horror, while the real horror takes over the production. We’ve gone passed the point of truth or fiction.

Director Paul Harrison does an admirable job wrangling the meta-logic of The House of Seven Corpses while leaving the usual stuff (gore, frights) by the wayside. The film makes great use of color and darkness (not unlike the Hammer films it mocks), thanks to the rather spacious and objectively odd locales of the Mormon Church’s Historical Society as its backdrop (!!). But the bombastic music really sets the tone. It’s outrageous. For me it seems to purposeful, as if it’s a form of humorous self-mockery.

The ending is a personal favorite of mine simply because the nonsensical reveal of the true villain is directly related to my own family history. As the name of the evil character and last of the seven corpses (or whatever) is finally revealed, I immediately had to message the person under suspicion. You finally found out! he replied in text. Then the film’s director gets killed with an Arriflex.

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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