Ghosthouse (1988)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2015-07-05 21:13

Ghosthouse (1988)
Studio: Scream Factory
Release date: June 30th, 2015

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman

The movie:

Ghosthouse may have arrived when the Italian horror boom was in its decline, but, in many ways, it’s Peak Italian Horror: marketed as an unofficial Evil Dead (aka La Casa) sequel and shepherded by producer Joe D’Amato and director Umberto Lenzi, it gathers all the necessary ingredients for one of the country’s classics, going so far as to tread upon Fulci’s old stomping grounds by reusing the location from House by the Cemetery. And while I doubt few would argue that Ghosthouse reaches those heights, it at least serves as evidence that this era wasn’t a complete dud. If the Italian horror scene were akin to a dying fire here, then Ghosthouse is one of those sizzling embers that pops in defiance and threatens to burn your entire house down if left unattended.

It wastes no time in grabbing the audience by the throat at least, as a prologue opens with the image of a bloodied cat. Startled, an old man scans the basement for an explanation, and a tracking shot slowly reveals his daughter Henrietta (Kristen Fougerousse) clutching both a knife and a clown doll. Believing her to be possessed by the devil, he curses his lot in life while his poor, confounded wife looks on in disbelief. Before either can wonder what has become of their poor daughter, they receive an axe to the head and shards of glass to the face, respectively. Quickly dispensing any traces of pretense, Lenzi’s camera captures these acts of violence in close-up, with the gruesome effects filling the frame to announce its gore-soaked intentions.

A faint story emerges when the film jumps ahead 20 years later to Boston, where a HAM radio operator (Greg Scott, decked out in Marty McFly's digs) and his girlfriend (Lara Wendel) pick up an ominous signal. Tracing it leads them back to the house in the prologue: now abandoned, it sits dilapidated in the woods, with only a strange caretaker wandering its grounds. While exploring the house, the couple is startled to discover that another HAM radio enthusiast and his friends have set up shop; however, they claim to have not been there the night before, when the strange recording was dispatched. Almost on cue, weird, homicidal shit begins to happen, leaving those who survive to sift through the house’s sordid history and break its curse.

As if Ghosthouse couldn’t be even more stereotypically Italian, it bears a passing resemblance to the films it’s titled after, and tosses in some Poltergeist touchstones with the clown doll and the little girl, both of which reappear to wreak havoc on this group of kids. Unsurprisingly, it shows little concern for the atmosphere and suspense building of The Evil Dead, Poltergeist or House by the Cemetery, preferring instead to quickly indulge in the sort of gory, spooky theatrics expected of it.

With the exception of the rare times it stops to deliver the obligatory backstory involving the girl and her doll, Ghosthouse is constantly engaging in some ghastly image or another, be it a throat-slash via a haywire ceiling fan or a bisection courtesy of some poorly stored housewares. Milky acid apparently flows beneath the house, while spectral Dobermans roam the grounds, barking incessantly. Ghosthouse is committed to leading its audience through what becomes a funhouse at every turn: even a simple trip to the house is interrupted by a goofball hitchhiker whose recurring presence throughout ultimately just adds to the body count.

Obviously, Ghosthouse isn’t without its eccentric flourishes: the reverb-heavy dub jobs that make the characters sound as if their voices hail from some ethereal plane, outlandish dialogue (references to the Salem Witch Trials and Jack the Ripper are casually dropped into conversations that barely require them), characters so bizarre that they can only exist in Italian horror movies, a loose regard for logic, etc. As always, the attempt to craft believable human beings is especially amusing: generally speaking, this group is not the brightest--just ask the guy who continuously refers to a cleaver as an axe. Ghosthouse is a hoot, one that I assume must really come alive with an audience—it’d make for a fine midnight movie, especially as it operates under that dreamy, Italian horror haze that’s perfect for late-night viewing.

In this respect, Ghosthouse is also surprisingly legitimate beyond its trash credentials: its cinematography is effectively moody and captures the ghoulish imagery with a slickness that often eludes lesser knock-offs, and Piero Montanari’s score is an evocative hellraiser, particularly the unholy cacophony that accompanies the clown doll. Believe it or not, both the doll and Henrietta are unnerving ringmasters, with the latter communicating only via an icy glare. Where so many of our trashy creepy kid movies pile on absurdities and foul language, this one attempts to genuinely scare audiences with childhood nightmare fuel (the lesson here is—as always—maybe don't gift your children freaky clown dolls with razor teeth).

Granted, that same audience is likely stifling giggles pretty often, but not at the same rate as they would for other late-era Italian offerings. We’re a long way from the likes of Zombie 4 or Troll 2 here, though Ghosthouse does function as a bridge between the two: it is often quite silly, but it’s also a nasty piece of work that ever so faintly recalls earlier triumphs. Maybe nothing captures this better than an abrupt, freeze frame climax that leaves you howling as you acknowledge how fucked up it is; meanwhile, a credits for a “Lieu Tenant” and a “cementery (sic) custodian” roll by, leaving you secure in the knowledge that anything in Ghosthouse not involving maiming, mutilation, and weirdness didn’t warrant much attention to detail.

The disc:

Despite (or perhaps because of?) its lineage, Ghosthouse has gone unreleased on home video in America since its initial VHS release in 1989. Leave it to Scream Factory to remedy that with a double feature Blu-ray release that pairs it with fellow La Casa sequel Witchery. Even though this release is light on extras (trailers for both films are the lone supplements), it’s a solid release, presentation-wise. Considering how so many of us were introduced to Eurohorror via low-grade VHS or below-average DVDs, it’s almost a miracle that one’s first time witnessing Ghosthouse would seem so pristine.

You almost feel like it shouldn’t look so sleek, and, just by finally releasing this film, Scream Factory is going above and beyond as it continues to uncover these stragglers that somehow never managed to make it to DVD. And, if that weren’t enough, Beyond Darkness (aka La Casa 5) is already on the horizon with a release due next month. We can only hope that the trio of unreleased-on-DVD faux Demons sequels is next on their hit list. Okay, maybe that’s only my hope, but humor me.
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