Halloween Every Day (for a Month)
By Andrew Neil Cole
Day 21: The House of Seven Corpses (1974).
In the history of American cinema, the 1970s is a decade marked by great contradictions. While the works of Coppola and Scorsese were sharpening the definition of the word auteur and Spielberg and Lucas were redefining the word blockbuster, the world of underground cinema was producing a veritable wellspring of low-budget exploitation pictures that perfectly suited the many thriving local grindhouse and drive-in circuits. Most of these films focused on extreme violence and outrageous sexual content. It was the time of gritty urban drama/action/blaxploitation pictures and kung-fu/horror pictures and monster/nudie pictures and funky soundtracks and big hairdos and loud fashion statements. Every street corner was home to a ho with a heart of gold and a pimp with a thirsty switchblade, and The Man was always hasslin’ somebody.
And then, in 1974, The House of Seven Corpses, a quiet, moody little PG-rated horror film, was released right in the middle of all the exploitation craziness. Though the film isn’t nearly as extreme as its fellow low-budget releases, its story of a film crew shooting a horror movie in a right-and-truly haunted house is every bit as contrived and underwhelming. The fake blood really hits the fan when, in an attempt to capture a more realistically sinister tone, an actress reads an incantation directly from The Tibetan Book of the Dead, stirring the property’s supernatural forces into a frenzy (and literally causing the dead to rise in a surprisingly effective sequence). Equally effective (and surprisingly subtle) is the way in which the film openly mocks Hollywood hierarchies. There’s the taskmaster-style director who is so driven to make his movie he doesn’t care who he hurts along the way. There’s the aging leading lady, desperately clinging to her waning beauty and fading popularity. There’s the beautiful young ingénue, doe-eyed, simple, sweet, and naïve to both the ways of the film industry and to the simple fact that her presence is a constant reminder to the older actress of what once was and will never be again.
The House of Seven Corpses is not likely to really scare anybody, especially hardcore horror fans, but the performances are strong, the story, though contrived, is more clever than you might think, and the atmosphere is truly the stuff of good old-fashioned spook shows. For those true aficionados who appreciate that breed of ’70-s style horror that spotlights spooky mansions, creaky staircases, and fog aplenty, The House of Seven Corpses is well worth a visit.