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" ... (Assistance would be appreciated!) ..."
1981 wasn't just a good year for slasher movies (actually, regular readers of HYSTERIA LIVES! will know that I think it was actually the best year for slasher movies), but it was the year that slasher movie victims looked their funkiest (by 1982 they'd all morphed into proto-Kelly Osbournes!).
HOUSE OF DEATH starts with a double whammy: a couple, Angie (Penny Miller) and Ted (Larry Sprinkle), are necking on a motorbike under a bridge, besides a bubbling river. She keeps squeaking, "Tell me you love me!"; (to shut her up I expect) he coos back, "I'll make this a night you won't forget for the rest of your life". Of course, she won't forget it (unless she has an unfeasibly short memory that is!), as an unseen assailant steps in and messily garrotes them, before chucking their lifeless bodies into the river in slow motion (accompanied by such a inappropriately bombastic score I thought I was in for Danielle Steel's FRIDAY THE 13TH!).
After all those ominously squealing synths you could be forgiven for thinking we had a swift side-step into The Brady Bunch dimension: a hum-along perky ditty serenades a picture of classic small town Americana (twinned with Haddonfield, no doubt, given all those lingering long shots of streets lined with white picket fences), all sunny sidewalks and kids delivering the daily newspaper on their bikes. And it seems that everyone in this small town gets at least one line in HOUSE OF DEATH (whether they can avoid looking at the camera, or not!). There's a dizzying array of characters in this movie: the requisite fat butterball Sheriff (William T. Hicks) (what early 80's slasher movie would be complete without one?); the Greg and Marsha look-a-likes: Bob (Kurt Rector) and Kathy (Andrea Savio) (just discovering their love after spending the Summer teaching brats baseball) and the hunky coach, Neil Marshall (Martin Tucker); Lily (Susan Kiger), the timid blonde waitress, and her grouchy Grandmother; Casy (Hanns Manship), the teenager with learning difficulties who spends the movie spying on people and bounding across the screen for no particular reason, and his doting Mother; and Ramona (Jennifer Chase), the comely, nubile waitress (yeah, another one) and her boss, Jackson (with the disconcertingly sweaty moustache). Now, you might think that's a lot, but, believe me, I haven't even listed half on them!
The bodies of Angie and Ted go undiscovered, even as they float slowly downstream (in what looks like three inches of water!). The Sheriff is starting to wonder where the missing teens are after Ted fails to show up for work. Then the fair comes to town and you just know there'll be blood in the candy floss before the night's out!
It'd be fair to say that not much happens in the first three quarters of this movie after the opening double homicide, and it's easy to see why many viewers hit the eject button before long. Bizarrely, I got quite a kick out of seeing endless footage of the gaggle of over-aged teens tramping round the fair: watch in amazement as the pretty blonde teen stretches her embroidered hot pants to breaking point as she bends over to grab a mallet to whack that thing with the bell on it (you know what I mean!); oooh at the hair-like-a-bell mushroom and then deflate on the big wheel; aaah at billowing flares and jiggling breasts on the bouncy castle. All the fun of the fair! ... It'd be easy to forget you were actually watching a slasher movie until one young madam, who is so annoyed by Neil's attention to Lily she sprays foam all over his car, is shot through the shoulder with an arrow (as she's adjusting her head band); fleeing to a deserted merry-go-round (why would there be one of those near a fair?), the killer suffocates her with a plastic bag.
The problems really start, though, when the teens arrange to party in the woods that night - "We're going down to the river tonight. It'll be a night to go down in history!", blabbers one chirpy corpse to be. And, as we know, a little reefer smoking, a lot of drinking and some tipsy skinny dipping is a red rag to any red blooded psycho ...
HOUSE OF DEATH certainly isn't going to beat the behemoths of 1981 slasher movie cinema (MY BLOODY VALENTINE it ain't), but what it is is solid slasher movie fun. It's true that it spends far too much time on the incidentals (we really don't need to spend quite so much time at the fair for a start), but this is forgivable as the central cast is pretty likeable and are certainly having a grand old time. The film itself is pretty well shot; it's obviously aping Carpenter's HALLOWEEN (1978) and has some nicely evocative shots. It's a shame, though, that apart from the exciting finale the director doesn't seem capable of (or even particularly bothered about) conjuring up and sustaining suspense (there's one potentially scary scene when Ramona goes to check outside the shop (after the obligatory cat jumps out and gives her a fright); she walks back inside and shuts the door, when a knife comes into frame and 'stabs' the door with all the menace of an old lady with arthritis doing her crochet).
However, the grand showdown is nicely setup when the teens decide to go and tell ghost stories and tall tales at the local cemetery. Lily tells the urban legend about the psycho under the bed who licks his prey's hand, before they all run for shelter at a local, deserted house when the heaven's open. It's here that the knives come out and the body parts start a' flying as the surviving teens play a deadly game of peek-a-boo with the insane killer (whose motive is typically loopy-loo). A few hapless fools try and get away across the graveyard so we're treated to a double decapitation and one poor guy gets his hands chopped off and he falls back into an empty grave (which is convenient if nothing else). Also, one poor lass gets a very unkind cut when she falls through some rotten stairs (did Michele Soavi really copy that for a similar kill in STAGEFRIGHT (1987)?). It's really wham-bam-dismember-me-Mam showdown worth sticking around for. It conveniently all ties up in a bloody but neat little bow when the fat Sheriff huffs and puffs his way up the hill to save the day in a enjoyably overblown bit of head popping hyper violence. They just don't make 'em like they used to!
HOUSE OF DEATH is very probably dreadful (and most people are sure to hate it) but HYSTERIAN's will find much to dine out on here.
BODYCOUNT 11 female:5 / male:61) Female garroted