All Nerdoween season long, I’ve been writing about and looking at movies starring the great horror icons of all time. Naturally, as many of these people were contemporaries of each other, they tended to star in movies together in some combination or other. As the final Ween-based Schlock & Awe of the year, I tried to find a movie that starred as many of them as possible. So happy was I to find out that Kino was releasing a brand new Blu-ray of the last film in which three of the greats starred together: Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, and Peter Cushing. Throw in John Carradine, a dark and stormy night, and a creepy old manor and you get a movie straight out of the 1950s… except it’s 1983’s House of the Long Shadows.
This is such a weird movie—from concept to execution—but I have to applaud the balls it took to make it. Cannon Films heads, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, made a name for themselves for churning out hundreds of crappy action movies starring the likes of Chuck Norris and Sylvester Stallone. They also gave indie horror directors the chance to do stuff nobody else would let them do, like Tobe Hooper and his trio of Cannon films, Lifeforce, Invaders from Mars, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre II. But one thing they really wanted was an old-timey, classic spooky movie with people like Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Too bad both of them were long dead. Luckily, though, there were four other aging icons still around and kicking.
Another strange choice was to coax 44-year-old British director Pete Walker out of his self-imposed retirement for one last film. Walker was sort of like the UK version of Tobe Hooper, making incredibly grungy, violent horror movies with names like Frightmare and House of Wipcord, movies where people got their heads drilled or their bodies bisected. Naturally, let’s give Walker a relatively quiet and atmospheric chamber piece. To his credit, though, Walker does a great job and the movie is suitably spooky, even on the very low budget.
The story follows American writer Kenneth Magee (played by famous offspring Desi Arnaz Jr.) who is in England to give his latest manuscript to his publisher. He says writing is a super easy and he could probably turn out a good novel in the vein of Wuthering Heights in 24 hours. The publisher bets him $20,000 that he can’t and even gives him the keys to an old Welsh manor called “Baldpate”—because who can pronounce the weird Welsh language?—in order to attempt it. Magee also becomes enamored with a blonde woman (Julie Peasgood, though her name should grammatically be “Julie Peaswell”) that he sees in his publisher’s club. The house is particularly hard to find, especially in the rain, but he manages to get there but discovers he’s not alone.
Two old people (John Carradine and Pete Walker staple Sheila Keith) are there, claiming to be the caretakers. The blonde woman also shows up, attempting to scare Magee away, but it’s revealed she’s actually Mary, the publisher’s assistant—and he told her to mess with the writer to get him to not write the book. However, the publisher reveals over the phone that there are no caretakers, and soon other people arrive, including a man claiming to be lost in the rain (Peter Cushing), and another claiming this to be his ancestral home (Vincent Price).
Before too long, the pretense is lifted and we discover that Carradine is the patriarch of the clan Grimsbane and that Keith, Cushing, and Price are his children. It’s a family reunion of sorts. Magee and Mary are still uncertain about them, and why they’d want to be there on such a cold, late night. Before too much longer Christopher Lee shows up, claiming to be the manor’s soon-to-be owner, and a plot is revealed about the Grimsbane’s youngest son being locked up in the house for crimes that would have shamed the family name. Except he’s gotten out…and people start dying. As ever, things are not as they seem.
Now, overall, I really enjoyed this movie. How could I not?! It’s exactly the kind of swansong you’d want for these actors. This is the second film, after Scream and Scream Again in 1970, to feature Price, Lee, and Cushing; it’s the third film to feature Lee and Price, also including The Oblong Box in 1969; the fourth film to have Price and Cushing together, with Dr. Phibes Rises Again in 1972 and Madhouse in 1974; and the—get ready—24th (and final) film to feature Cushing and Lee together. These really were the royalty of horror and it’s to the movie’s complete credit that they come together so nicely here, along with genre stalwarts Carradine and Keith. This is, as the poster proudly says, the only film to feature all of them. And they’re great! Price as the haughty older brother; Cushing as the speech-impeded alcoholic brother who is wracked with guilt; Lee as the mysterious outsider trying to piece everything together. Great stuff.
The set-up is sort of hokey, and Arnaz is playing it like he’s in a completely different, and much more shouty, movie, but it’s a really fun premise and features some great, whodunit-style murders, especially once a vacationing English couple show up as well. You probably know the outcome early on, but it’s fun watching it get there. What doesn’t work quite as well are the two (yes, two) fake-out, rug-pulling endings. The movie, though traditional, would have worked just fine without them, but because this is a movie about a writer writing fiction, you can’t quite be sure what’s real and what isn’t. It’s a little too cutesy for my liking, but it doesn’t spoil the otherwise lovely send-up of “Old Dark House” horror films of the ’50s and ’60s.
If you enjoy horror of this nature, with a bit of a campy edge, or any of these actors, House of the Long Shadows will be a delightfully Gothic time. Provided, of course, you’re not looking for an ending you’re going to like. But you truly can’t go wrong with the cast, can you?
Happy Halloween, everyone!
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!