House of the Long Shadows (1983)
"Room for every nightmare... a nightmare in every room."
Making a bet with his publisher that he can write a trashy horror novel in just twenty-four, American writer Kenneth Magee heads off to an abandoned manor house in Wales so that he can write in peace, quiet and, more importantly, in a suitable atmosphere. However, upon arrival at the old house, his expected solitude is disturbed by a number of individuals who arrive at the house throughout the night. Magee soon finds himself at the centre of a decades-old family secret that is to be put to rights tonight.
House of the Long Shadows is what I would call the horror equivalent of The Expendables. The only film to feature four of the biggest names in horror, if not the four biggest, the film was a last dying gasp from an Anglo-horror cycle which had started back in the late 1950s by Hammer, had a glorious heyday which changed horror films as we know them today, and had gradually died out as audiences flocked to modern shockers such as Friday the 13th and The Exorcist. Though they had individually worked with each other over the previous decades, this would be the first time that Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Vincent Price and John Carradine would all star in the same film…and better yet, they would all share screen time in a historic moment for horror fans. Reuniting these legends for one last hurrah was designed to capitalise on their names alone and hope that they could still draw at the box office. Sadly, House of the Long Shadows was not a commercial success, though it’s not for the want of trying on the part of the four men.
It’s a shame that House of the Long Shadows is such a dull affair because Cushing, Lee, Price and Carradine are all excellent in it, it’s just the script that falls completely flat. More of a whodunit murder-mystery set inside a creaky old haunted house, the film is slow, lethargic and doesn’t really kick in until two thirds of the running time have passed. It spends the bulk of its early running time introducing the setting and trying to build up a sense of Gothic atmosphere. Whilst the haunted house setting, with creaky floors, secret passages, grand staircases, furniture covered in white sheets, gloomy basements and such like, complete with requisite thunder and lightning, might have worked back in the 1930s, it fails miserably to generate any sort of atmosphere in the modern setting. With audiences de-sensitised to violence, this old school throwback appears quaint and antiquated and the clichés just aren’t scary anymore.
House of the Long Shadows spends far too long putting all of the pieces in place. As great as Cushing, Lee, Price and Carradine are in it, there’s only so much time you can spend listening to them talking to each other and slowly expanding upon the plot (I mean in a character sense - I actually could have sat and listened to them all night if they were doing a round-table discussion about their careers). It gives them nothing worthwhile to do for ages – a crime against humanity when you one of the greatest casts in horror history. The film does begin to pick up as the mystery begins to unravel and the final third, when the characters start to wind up on the receiving end of some unpleasant treatment, definitely hits the right notes. There is a bit of blood and a bit of violence but with the elder actors involved, it was never going to be a bloodbath. The narrative leads up to a number of convoluted plot twists (one of which is predictable from the very beginning) which begin to make little to no sense if you think back over the course of the film and begin to pick holes.
Not only was House of the Long Shadows the first time the four horror maestros ever teamed up, it was sadly the last time that Cushing and Lee were to pair up, having done so twenty-three times prior. The film brought down the curtain on one of the most, if not the most, prolific horror partnerships of all time. Cushing went into semi-retirement after this which was a pity as he clearly had a few more good roles left in him.
**Spoiler alert – though it was to be their last film together, House of the Long Shadows ironically marked the only time that Lee managed to kill Cushing on-screen, with Cushing doing the honours in a previous six horror films.**
As I’ve alluded to, the four men all work wonderfully together and it’s a crying shame that they never had the opportunity to do so previously when they were all a little younger and spritelier. Each actor gets a fantastic entrance in the film, with Price’s being the highlight (and which plays upon expectations that it might be someone else), and a few moments to shine on their own before they’re joined by the others. Carradine, starring in films since the 1930s, gets the least screen time but nearly crippled with arthritis, he does what he can with his smaller role. Carradine had the lesser of the careers in comparison with the other three men, appearing in a number of low budget films in glorified cameos in his late career, so his reduced part is fitting with his reduced status. Lee is his usual stern and authoritarian self, playing his part with command and control and keeping a lid on the proceedings with a no-nonsense approach. Lee came off like this a lot in his films which is a shame because when he was able to let loose a little, be it on camera or behind the scenes, he was actually a very warm, approachable individual.
Cushing gets to have a lot of fun, playing around with a bit of a speech impediment in his role as the cowardly, nervous Sebastian. In something of a role reversal from his early career, Cushing’s character is scared of everything, can’t make rational decisions very quickly and isn’t much use in a tricky situation. Unlike a lot of his ‘evil’ roles, this Cushing character is actually very sympathetic. It’s Price who steals the show, delivering his lines with all of his flamboyant gusto and faux Shakespearean delivery. His “Please! Don't interrupt me when I’m soliloquising” moment is an excellent nod to his reputation as something of a hammy actor. The younger supporting cast are dreadful is had to be said. Dezi Arnaz Jr., as Magee, deserves a lot of stick for his wooden performance (if acting against those four men didn’t get you to raise your game in the slightest, you didn’t deserve to be an actor) and the least said about his ‘love interest’ Mary, played by Julie Peasgood, the better. Every line she delivers is woeful. If this is the best that director Pete Walker could find to play off against the titans, they he really needed to look harder.
A unique slice of horror history that will never happen again in cinema, House of the Long Shadows falls pretty flat as a feature film in itself but let’s face it, everyone will watch this to see the four veteran actors do what they had been doing for years… only this time on the screen together and doing it with a lot of obvious fun. No matter what the quality of the end product, horror audiences were always going to hold this in a special place in their heart. The film is pretty rubbish, however the history and legacy make it essential viewing.
House of the Long Shadows
Director(s): Pete Walker
Writer(s): Michael Armstrong, Earl Derr Biggers, George M. Cohan
Actor(s): Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, John Carradine, Desi Arnaz, Sheila Keith, Julie Peasgood, Richard Todd
Duration: 102 mins