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A review of "House of the Long Shadows" (1983)

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

House of the Long Shadows is a comedy / mystery movie from the early '80s that features a host of classic horror actors, together at last.  It's basically The Expendables of British horror in that it's an intriguing concept that doesn't work as well as you'd like, but it's just fun enough to make it worth your time.

My Rating: 3.5 / 5

The Part Where I Warn You About the Amazon Prime Transfer

Before I get into my review, I want to post a disclaimer.  Most movies I watch are of a certain level of technical quality that allows me to review them primarily on their artistic merit.  Unfortunately, the specific version of Long Shadows that I watched was incredibly dark.  As in "the screen looked like a black block 70% of the time" dark.

I know I've complained about dark movies before, but I'm really not exaggerating with this one.  It seriously is unwatchable at times.

This is an undoctored screenshot.  I think it's two people in a bus stop.
(Here's the part where I have some shitty pull-quote like, "House of Long Shadows?  More like House of All Shadows!")

I was able to follow the movie well enough based on the dialogue and what little visuals I was able to pull from it, so I'm still going to review it.  I'm also going to be very forgiving of the fact that the lighting was so shitty because I'm fairly certain this was not a failure on the part of the filmmakers, but rather just a crappy transfer.

Even so, I feel it merits a brief warning to those who may seek out this movie on Amazon based on my recommendation.  The inability to actually see the movie could significantly affect my opinion.  Whether it made the experience better or worse I can't say unless I had something to compare it to, so... I guess take everything I'm about to say with a grain of salt?

The Part Where I Summarize the Plot

Kenneth Magee (Desi Arnaz, Jr.) is a young novelist who has just completed his latest work.  Over a celebratory business dinner, his agent complains that the world is too cynical these days and people are only interested in miserable stories.  He longs for the days when people wrote stories with heart and emotion, like Wuthering Heights.  Kenneth jokes that those kinds of novels are cheap and sentimental, and bets $20,000 that he could write one in a single night.  His agent takes him up on the bet and offers to let him stay in a creepy, abandoned manor he owns out in the Welsh countryside so he can get in the right mood.

(Quick tangent about this bet: what a bunch of bullshit.  Even if you assume that a short novel of only 50,000 words is sufficient for the bet, and even if you assume that Kenneth can continuously type at a rate of 60 words a minute, that's still going to take 14 straight hours without any breaks or interruptions just to physically write the book.  That's not even taking into account the effort that comes with plotting, dialogue, structure, or any of the other things that are actually part of legitimate writing, nor does it account for him having to load fresh paper, replace the ink ribbon, clear out jams, or otherwise tinker with the mechanics of his typewriter.  Frankly, I don't think it matters what kind of novel he's trying to write.  Putting together anything coherent in that amount of time is a sucker's bet.  Is he just going to type "this chair hurts" over and over again for two hundred pages?)

After a long and arduous journey, Kenneth finally makes his way to the manor and sets up a typewriter.  But before he's even had a chance to type more than a paragraph, things start to suspiciously liven up.  First he is bothered by a couple of caretakers (John Carradine and Sheila Keith) who later reveal themselves to be Lord Grisbane and his daughter Victoria, two of the original owners of the estate.

Then he is accosted by Mary Norton (Julie Peasgood), his agent's secretary who may or may not be trying to stop him from completing the novel.  Then, one after the other, the house is visited by two more Grisbanes, Lionel (Vincent Price) and Sebastian (Peter Cushing) - brothers to Victoria - and finally, Corrigan (Chrisopher Lee), a potential buyer of the manor.  Later there's a couple of tourists who randomly wander onto the property, too, but they're kind of inconsequential.

The point of these random intrusions is that the Grisbanes are reuniting for the first time in many decades to right a terrible wrong that they had once committed.  Between fretting over his novel and lusting after Mary, Kenneth is intrigued by the Grisbanes and stops to take in their tales. He learns more about their morbid and terrible history over dinner.

Lionel, Sebastian, and Victoria had one more brother: Roderick, a madman who murdered a young woman and was locked away in a bedroom upstairs for forty years as punishment.  Tonight the Grisbanes have come back together to let him loose...

...and then the murders begin.

The house is suddenly plagued by death, and Kenneth is forced to put aside his suspicions of the cast in order to unravel the mysteries of the house and confront Roderick once and for all.

Also, he's got that novel thing.  It pays off later.

The Part Where I Spoil / Talk About the Ending

I'm giving this a "spoiler" warning because technically I am spoiling it, but let's be honest: you'll guess the ending.  It's kind of impossible not to guess it.  Anyway... spoilers after the pic.

There's like four different endings before you get to the real "twist."  First of all, you find out that Corrigan is actually Roderick, who escaped from his prison room and grew up to be a successful businessman who planned to come back to the house on this night and get his revenge.  (Somehow that revenge also includes killing a bunch of bystanders, but whatever.)  Then you find out that all of the Grisbanes / murder stuff was actually a big practical joke on Kenneth arranged by his agent; everybody involved is an actor.  They have a dinner party and enjoy a good laugh.

Then you get to the part where we reveal - surprise! - that everything you just saw was actually part of Kenneth's book.  This is pretty much inevitable, really.  Has anybody ever made a movie about a guy who sits down to write a story and then it turns out that the outrageous stuff that follows was not his book?

I will applaud Long Shadows a bit for carrying through with its structure.  Since the movie is meant to be an homage to romantic / gothic tales, it's appropriate that it was constructed with multiple narrative arcs boxed in by multiple narrators, the same way that Wuthering Heights was.  As cheap as the "it was a story all along" reveal is, it still works.  That's better than you can say for a lot of horror movies.

The Bit Where I Have Fun With Mixed Messages (This is the Part Where I Enjoyed the Movie Ironically)

Movies like Long Shadows are fun for me because they blur the line between ironic enjoyment and actual enjoyment.  You watch something like College Kickboxers with a bottle of rum and a friend and you have a good laugh, or you watch something like Step Brothers with no alcoholic lubrication whatsoever and you still laugh.  Long Shadows, like The Asphyx a couple weeks back, falls right in the middle.  You like it, but not always for the right reasons.

I'll get to good stuff in my next bit, but first let's talk about the silly stuff.

First of all, let's break down what this really is.  The movie is alternately described as a "horror parody" and a "horror homage."  It's really not either one of those things.  It's actually a romantic comedy set against the backdrop of a murder mystery pastiche.  (Try marketing that, Mr. Draper.)

The bizarre amalgamation of themes, tropes, and genres is precisely what drives a lot of the ironic enjoyment: the movie never really seems to know how to tell the stories it's trying to tell.  There's like a dozen different arcs going on at once and none of them should really be overlapping with the others.

The primary arc here is Kenneth's sneering attitude toward Romanticism.  (You can extrapolate from this a greater conceit of young people who dismiss older fiction or attitudes as being archaic, which works especially well when you consider that the protagonist is played by the child of two classic comedians / performers and he interacts with a host of other classic actors.  The interplay between young/new and old/classic is pretty obvious.)  The movie opens with Kenneth being challenged on his cynical misconceptions, which leads to him making the catalytic bet that leads him toward the mansion in the first place.

You have to think about this like a writer now.  Remember: no matter what happens, you need to drive forward your main story: a young writer is arrogant and cynical and needs to be taught a lesson.  How do you want to do that?

Well, Long Shadows decides that it would be good for Kenneth to have a love interest who sweeps him off his feet and gives him a dose of Love at First Sight.  Enter Mary to be his foil.

So far, so good.  This makes sense - Mary can be a free-spirited, joyful, exuberant type who loves history and fiction and "light" things, while Kenneth is a grump who surprisingly gets swept off his feet in the mysticism and nostalgia of the mansion.

Except... that's not what the movie does.  Mary isn't a free spirit at all. She's just some lady who happens to be in the mansion.  And there isn't any stuff about exuberant joy and love for history or nostalgia or any of that.  Nope, instead, Kenneth just gets dragged into a murder plot out of nowhere.

Why?  How does that make sense?  That's like if you started out Maid in Manhattan with Jennifer Lopez become Ralph Fiennes's maid and they have a lot of lighthearted flirty moments, but then at minute 30 she stumbles onto a dead prostitute in his bedroom and has to figure out how to cover it up before the cops arrive.  (Actually, that sounds like a pretty awesome movie, so maybe I'm wrong here.)

Long Shadows is amusing because it seems like the director really wanted to make a classic horror movie and the studio really wanted to make a romantic comedy, so he decided he would give them what they wanted - just on his terms.  I'd like to think that it was all a big practical joke.  I'm laughing, at least.

The Bit Where I Talk About Horror (This is the Part Where I Enjoyed the Movie Sincerely)

I've always found that horror can be lumped into one of four basic categories: comedy horror (which includes ironic stuff like Troll 2), gore horror (which is entirely about how disgusting and/or creative each death can be), legitimate horror (which is just focused on scaring or unsettling you), and Halloween horror.

The last one is not so much a genre as it is a mood.  Halloween horror isn't necessarily scary; just evocative.  A bunch of orange and purple and green tones mixed together with overly-theatrical horror tropes: piles of Styrofoam bones, ornate set design, rubber monsters, that sort of thing.  Sometimes it's campy, sometimes it's not.  Sometimes it's funny, sometimes it's serious.  But it all adds up to a very specific feeling of whimsy that hits you just right and gets you in the mood for Halloween.

It's an interesting subgenre of film because it's so capricious.  It's the kind of thing that requires a subtle touch of grace and skill or else you devolve into a gross and pale imitation.  It's the difference between Beetlejuice and Dark Shadows.

The reason I bring this up is because Long Shadows nails that mood perfectly.  The set design is unbelievable, but perfect - there's creepy statues that don't make any sense for a normal person to have, but of course they would be there in a horror movie.  There's nonsensical deaths (like somebody inadvertently washing their face from a bowl full of sulfuric acid) and weird, creepy moments (like the scratch marks on Roderick's bedroom door) and melodramatic confrontations between characters with forty year-old grudges.

Long Shadows is at its best when it forgets all about Kenneth and his barely-a-plot romance.  When the movie drops all its other pretenses and just focuses on a bunch of horror masters squeezing out every ounce of drama and gravitas they possibly can from their goofy dialogue, you end up with a pretty amazing movie.

The Part Where I Recommend the Movie

If you're looking for a good film to set the tone for the season, you should definitely take a couple hours out of your day to check this one out.  You can watch it on Amazon Instant right now for free if you have Prime, but given my initial complaints about the lighting, you'll probably be better served by tracking down a physical copy.

In fact, a quick Google search reveals that somebody uploaded it to DailyMotion, and it seems to be in much better shape than the version I watched.  So... yeah, do that instead.