106 min., 1983
Directed by Pete Walker
My rating: ★★★
All the greats working together. Vincent Price. Christopher Lee. Peter Cushing. John Carradine. Desi Arnaz, Jr. Wait, Desi Arnaz, Jr.?!
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Meet Kenneth Magee (Arnaz). He’s an American novelist who goes to England with a bad mullet and a cocky attitude to schmooze with his UK publisher. His publisher doesn’t really care much for Magee’s books, preferring the works of the masters, WUTHERING HEIGHTS in particular. Magee doesn’t care for that garbage. He says anyone can write an over-the-top gothic romance. Hell, he could write one in a day. In fact, he challenges his publisher to a bet: Magee can write such a novel within 24 hours, and if he wins, he gets 20 grand. If he loses, the publisher gets the money. Grinning, his publisher takes him on, and he sets it up so Magee can have absolute solitude at a Welsh mansion named Bllyddpaetwr Manor. Fair warning, though: Bllyddpaetwr has been abandoned for 40 years. There is no electricity, and oh yeah, it’s got a bad reputation for being haunted.
Magee laughs it off, saying he’ll type by candlelight, and heads out to get down to work. It doesn’t take long before he starts realizing he’s not alone . . . .
Wow. What can one say about this star-studded movie? It’s cool to have all of the then-living all-stars of horror in one movie, but to have them all anchored by Desi Arnaz, Jr.? Might as well make a beach boogie movie with Frankie Avalon. And surely enough, this film has a lot of that kind of quality. While Arnaz is really bad—he sounds like he’s reading off a script the whole time—he actually comes off as funny when he ridicules the clichés of horror movies of the time.
You can’t go wrong with John Carradine as the caretaker of the house. He’s deceptively good in this role. No one even suspects that he’s really Lord Grisbane, the former owner of this manor, not until Magee discovers the dusty paintings of the stately Grisbane family about halfway through the film.
The same goes for Peter Cushing as a traveler whose car breaks down in the middle of a terrible storm and wanders in for shelter. He seems so vulnerable that no one would know that he is actually Sebastian Grisbane until the aforementioned painting scene.
The only one who arrives at Bllyddpaetwr with no pretension is Vincent Price, who introduces himself as Lionel Grisbane, a former occupant who wants to see his decrepit ancestral home and relive some memories.
And then Christopher Lee as Corrigan shows up, telling everyone that he had plans to buy the manor and have it razed. And that’s when things start getting ugly. The Grisbane family is horrified at this prospect, for they have a deep, dark secret they can no longer keep.
You see, there’s a missing portrait from the family paintings. It would seem there is another Grisbane, Roderick, who the world believes died 40 years ago when he was 14. The truth is, he was a monster who vivisected a poor village girl who got pregnant because of him. Instead of causing a scandal, the Grisbanes told the world he’d died, but instead, they locked him up in his room, feeding him through a slot in the bottom of the door.
That’s right. For 40 years, Roderick has been locked away from the world, and if Corrigan buys the place, the world will find out about it.
Talk about stumbling into a weird family drama, fraught with secrets and twists. Do you think Magee is getting any writing done at all? Well, he got through some, but not before a beautiful young woman arrived, telling him he was in grave danger and he must leave at once. But when that turns out to be a monkey wrench thrown in by his playful publisher, he gets a little more work done before getting sucked into the Grisbanes’ lunacy.
But when Corrigan finds out about Roderick? That’s when things go from ugly to murderous. He rushes upstairs to free the poor lad only to find that Roderick has escaped. And then the bodies start piling up . . . .
Director Pete Walker seems to know what people expect of such a story, and he does a fine job of setting the mood. Bllyddpaetwr is the perfect place for something like this to be happening, complete with a relentless storm, animated lightning and classic sound effects and all. The only problem is, sometimes it’s too dark to see what’s going on, even in crucial moments. Also, how many LITERAL cat scares can one movie have?!
It’s a fun movie overall, even if the humor is laid on a bit thick in places. The true sin, however, is the ending. Near the end, after one of the final twists is revealed, there is a scene when one of the characters falls down the stairs and lands on an axe. After this character goes through a death speech, you are advised to turn the movie off and pretend that the credits have just rolled. However, if you must continue . . . SPOILER ALERT! Chances are, you have seen this absolute final twist coming since the beginning: it was all a gag. There are no Grisbanes, no murders, and even the hitchhikers on honeymoon are plants. The whole thing was orchestrated by Magee’s publisher to ratfuck Magee out of winning that 20 grand. The problem with this, though, is that he would have had to prepare ALL of this in the few hours it took Magee to drive out to Wales. Do you think he would have had time to get artists to throw together these paintings? Or to get all of those actors into place? Or to even get the local station master in on the haunted house gag? There is NO FUCKING WAY he could have pulled this off. But even if he could, why the fuck would you screw over your audience by having this garbage ending? This is on par with it-was-just-a-dream. But the rotten egg on top of this bullshit pie is how Magee takes it. He decides it’s a SOUTH PARK-type lesson. He all but says at the end of the movie, “You know what? I learned something today.”
Actually, there is one good reason to watch after the stairs incident. Price and Lee are at the after party, trading barbed compliments, and as Lee walks away, Price calls him a bitch. END OF SPOILERS.
Is this movie worth your time? Yes, provided you stop watching after the point mentioned above. There are times Walker treats his material as a joke, which can be irritating, but the other moments are wonderfully done. If only Walker had treated the movie seriously and had given it a more deserving ending. One wonders if maybe this could have been regarded as a memorable classic.Have You Read...?