Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Haunted House of Horror

The room spreads out from the seated individual at its core. Sandwiched between walls wrapped in a coat of books, the body hunches over a desk. Pens, pencils and other assorted paraphernalia of the literary kind lie scattered over the hardwood desert. The torso of flesh stirs from its stillness and tilts its head. It’s a man. His eyes, crinkled by years of straining to peruse miniscule footnotes, and the dry skin ruffled on the back of his hands speak of month-long sojourns locked within the ambit of this room. With the feathers of his grand mutton-chops motioning back and forth to the tune of a nearby window ajar, a wad of papers reside clenched in his mitts. Tears well as memories of adjectives looked-up and lacklustre ‘classics’ read front to back are mentally spun into existence. In his hands, the sweat-drenched manuscript. One of those terror tales, the sort that scream at every page-turn, that was the target, and here it is, finished. Dashed with portions exhumed from Balzac and stylistic fervour borrowed from Joyce, wearing the inspiring prose of Rimbaud, Shakespeare and Wilde on its sleeve, the novel rests gently on the quivering knees of its author, the former to be canonised as soon as it hits the shelves, the latter to be elevated to the highest of high culture literary circles. And what is the title to this tender tribute to language, this transcendent masterpiece, this artefact of artistic desire? It went by the profound, engaging and sorrowful name of The Haunted House of Horror.

Right, ok, so I’m speculating as to how the creation of such a succinct and weighty title occurred, one can only assume it was the work of a tortured genius, incarcerated in a tiny writing-room, surrounded by more books than oxygen, fighting his way through years of regimes of constant oscillation between reading and scribbling. Only the finest master of prosody could have the cerebral powers to allow for the gestation of that level of aptness.

It’s not actually the loving title assigned to an epic tome, but the name of a cinematic fragment born on the tip of the sixties. The concision of those words is of such grandeur that one need not even view the film to fully comprehend its trials and tribulations. Alas, I watched it anyway.

Opening with promising aural melodies that draw parallels to its Tigon cousin, the enjoyable Blood on Satan’s Claw, The Haunted House of Horror concerns a group of twenty-somethings who like nothing better than to swing their sideburns and suggestive hips amid the roundels of London circa 1969. During a particularly fashionable party, jam-packed with copious quantities of melotrons and yellow, alongside a few triangular sandwiches for the older denizens, the congregation decide to ditch the West End studio in favour of a stroll around an anonymous bourgeois purlieu, wherein dwells a large house that may or may not be haunted, and may or may not be full of horror. In the course of the visit, a fatal knifing befalls one of the swingers, and the rest of the film is given over to repressing anxieties about the uninformed police and the possibility of some homicidal crazy inhabiting the group.

Horror houses have a long and illustrious history, the question undoubtedly is: how does this one compare with some of the others we’ve had cascade across our screens in the past?

Well, first of all, in contradistinction to Clownhouse, this house has a noticeable absence of clowns, unless one were inclined to throw into that melting pot of red noses and big shoes the personage of Frankie Avalon, leader of the youthful rogues. Unlike the aforementioned film, this one seems to foreground its most clownish of tropes: rather than relegating them to the position of villains perpetually attempting to get to a few adolescents locked in a suburban house, here it’s the protagonists themselves that are afflicted with the caricatured mannerisms of a clown, with IQs suitably lingering amidst single figures. Just watch as they wander the corridors of the house, swathed in candlelight, evaluating the pros and cons of a proposition the like of which would have sent Wittgenstein into spasms: Orgy or Séance?

After much deliberation, they opt for the second option, but not before partaking in the activity of ghost-hunting. What hideous phantasms might they stumble upon whilst doing this? Perhaps that tall fellow from Phantasm and his flying mirror-ball? How about the Vietnam War zombie from House? The pointless, dumb creature that cheapens the finale of House by the Cemetery? The flying vampire thespian, with all his campy goodness, from The House That Dripped Blood? Ghostly effigies of the flies from The Amityville Horror?

Not even a bootlegged DVD! Nothing terrifying is unearthed from their trawl save for a few lusty glances at the legs of the group’s nymph population. It’s like a slightly more energetic episode of The Liver Birds, that is to say of course, up until when the murdering happens. But the shoddy ghost-hunting is inexcusable – when one can nowadays gawk at Michael Parkinson leading us on a startling journey in Ghostwatch, I can think of no reason why one would invest any ghost-related enthusiasms into The Haunted House of Horror.

Despite the intimations of manslaughter at the opaque hands of an apparition, the truth is that this nasty business is orchestrated by the tangible hands of a real person. In this respect, the film is like Scooby-Doo meets the sleaze of Porky's meets the milieu of Blow-Up, only with more titbits of insightful wisdom. While ruminating about the horrors the house has instigated, following the shocking extermination of their buddy, one astute observer notes that: “any psychopath can have superhuman strength when aroused.”

Lacking a degree in criminology, I was unaware of this fact. However, I was not unaware that great caverns of knowledge await the intrepid explorer of the motion picture. This is evidence to that.

So, what started as a potential excursion into waters frequently charted by Lucio Fulci ends up morphing into a fairly banal Hitchcockian thriller, siphoning nuggets of talent from the footsteps of Psycho, as well as the magnificent Peeping Tom. Ghoulish vagaries change into comprehendible motives, entities straddling the boundary between life and death – thus igniting a plethora of ontological problems – transform into human passions distorted by psychological instability.

It’s a shame, you might say. But no, forgiveness is at hand. For a site of wonder is excavated for the concluding confrontation, when an event transpires of such inspirational and uplifting joy that it fully vindicates all that has come before it. This miraculous event is homologous to Lyotard’s theorisation of The Sublime, where he defines the concept as: “it happens.” It surely does happen, and is wholly stunning when it does, by fuck!

The event takes place in the eponymous house after some thirty-odd minutes of procrastination. With his lady-friend checking out the blackened catacombs below, Avalon is hard on the case, investigating with deep rigour some tricky epistemological questions. Then he’s served a hot dish of The Truth, with a side-order of eschatological tension, as it comes out that the pal he’s having assist him in his efforts is, in fact, a very bad man (I won’t spoil the revelation by naming the killer, but watch the strange guy). Facing each other in, it must be admitted, a nicely composed shot, the killer whips out a knife and the two have a moment’s standoff. Sane and insane eyes each cast determined looks at the sharp slice of weaponry clutched by the volatile hands of the newly-unveiled maniac. A pouncing gone wrong later and Avalon finds himself stabbed in the crotch!

In his Ethics, Spinoza remarks that: “pain is man’s transition from a greater state of perfection to a lesser.” Old Frankie had little screen-time post-crotch stabbing, but I feel it safe to presuppose that he had indeed switched to a lesser state of perfection. Perhaps that truncated perfection was tapped off into the form of the film itself, therefore giving us a reason for such a dazzling ending to what had been a plodding preceding runtime. Whatever the phenomenological significance, I thank thee Haunted House of Horror for giving us the most sublime knife-thrust into the crotch in the history of cinema.