By 1974, gothic horror films were falling out of fashion. The year saw the last gasps from the major franchises of Hammer Film Productions, with the releases of Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell and The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires. The genre had come a long way, but by the time this film, The House of the Seven Corpses, was released, seriously bloody slasher horror was making its presence felt. If a filmmaker was going to do gothic horror, it needed to have a twist.
Paul Harrison wrote (with Thomas J. Kelly) and directed The House of Seven Corpses. It stars John Ireland as filmmaker Eric Hartman. He has assembled a cast and crew to shoot a gothic horror flick at the old mansion of the Beal family (the mansion is played by the Utah Governor’s Mansion in Salt Lake City). And there’s the twist. It’s a gothic horror movie within a horror movie.
The Beals are all dead by the time Hartman begins shooting his movie, and they all died violently. There being no more Beals, the house is watched over by Edgar Price (John Carradine), a caretaker.
The movie being made is a fictional telling of the fate of the Beals, with a script full of occult rituals and other black magic. One of the members of the crew, David (Jerry Strickler), finds a copy of the Book of the Dead in the house, and thinks that its strange rituals and incantations would be a great addition to the film, as, being from a thousand-year-old book, they are better than what the writer came up with. Woe be to everyone involved, however, as it turns out the rituals are real, and going through with them, even for a movie, is enough to raise the dead.
As much as this is a horror flick, it’s also a movie about the lower end of the film business. Hartman is perennially pissed off. He appears to have sunk his last dollar into making his movie, and he takes it personally whenever there is a delay or a suggestion that they abandon filming in the old, creepy mansion. His biggest issue is with his star, Gayle Dorian (Faith Domergue). She’s a bit of a diva, even insisting that her cat accompany her on set. Dorian and Hartman have a working history together, which means that, despite how awful Hartman treats her, they still have sex. Meanwhile, one of Dorian’s costars, Christopher Millan (Charles Macaulay) is a grabby drunk.
The cast did quite well with the ample character development material they were given. Each has their own personality that is quite realized, from the angry director all the way down to his trusted cameraman. Some have a lot more backstory than others. Harrison was a deft enough storyteller that his characters all have depth without their pasts being outright explained to the audience. Part of this job was made easier by how clichéd they are, to be sure. It seems like every movie about a film production has an abusive director, a diva, and a drunken Hollywood has-been or never-was. Yet none of it is forced in this film. The cast inhabits its characters quite well.
Even Carradine, that giant of Hollywood, does a decent job in this, one of his latter roles. Carradine was a busy man, cashing checks from over 40 productions in the 1970s alone. So many of these were small supporting roles like Edgar Price. He may have been Hollywood royalty, but he wasn’t above slumming it.
All Hartman wants to do is get his film in the can so he can make his money back, but the house, seemingly, isn’t having it. The Book of the Dead seemed as if it were steered into the path of the production, as if something wanted it to be used. The payoff takes a while to come around, as this film isn’t rushed. Unfortunately, this film is a case where the payoff isn’t as good as the setup.
The incantation from the book raises one single zombie from the dead. That’s it. One. And the film is shot so darkly that when it does make an appearance, it’s hard to see what the cast is getting so shouty about. It’s slow, lumbering, and alone. Which means it should be easy to get away from, but that would make for a silly horror movie, wouldn’t it? The climax isn’t a bad way to wrap up this film, but it doesn’t measure up to what preceded it. That’s too bad. Still, this unsatisfying end, and couple of lazy moments that snuck into the film here and there, doesn’t make The House of Seven Corpses unwatchable. It’s still a decent little horror film.