Written by: Robert Suhosky (screenplay), James Hardiman (novel)
Directed by: Kevin Conner
Starring: Edward Albert, Susan George, and Doug McClure
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"There's an awful face in my soup!"
If genre trends are like streams, then The House Where Evil Dwells is a confluence of several preoccupations and influences: Japanese ghost lore, residual leftovers from the 70s haunted house phase and The Shining, and even…uh, the era’s burgeoning fascination with samurai spirits. Okay, maybe that last one is a stretch, but if this film has any legacy at all, it’s certainly known as "that haunted house movie with the samurai.” There are worse fates for an otherwise forgettable horror movie, to be sure.
The House Where Evil Dwells certainly doesn’t seem like it should be mostly unremarkable, not when it opens on a 18th century samurai spying on his unfaithful wife’s sexual tryst with his own student. Enraged, he barges in mid-coitus, brandishing a giant sword that will surely help him overcompensate in the most spectacular fashion imaginable—and it does, really. Director Kevin Connor opts for super-slow-mo as he captures the cuckolded samurai’s rampage, which ends with him eviscerating the student and his wife before disemboweling himself. Severed limbs and decapitated heads fly across the room, while blood sprays on the walls as if it were part of a twisted pyrotechnics display, drawing the audience into a loopy, woozy soap opera by way of a feverish, half-remembered gore-stained nightmare.
But then it just goes full soap opera. Flashing ahead 200 years, it shifts its focus to the Fletchers, an American family of three that has recently moved to Japan due to the father’s (Edward Albert) job. When family friend Alex (Doug McClure) informs them that he’s scored an impossibly good deal on a classic, 200-year-old abode off in the hills, they can hardly believe their good luck—even after he tells them it’s supposedly haunted. Naturally, a two-centuries old murder-suicide isn’t about to roll off the tongues of a realtor, so we spend most of the film waiting for the Fletchers to catch up via the father’s conversations with a monk. However, even this is futile, as Ted and Laura (Susan George) remain largely oblivious to the spirits haunting their house and possessing their bodies, dooming them to playing unwitting roles in a reenactment of these damned souls’ own sins.
The audience isn’t just in on these proceedings—they’re practically clubbed over the head with them since the three ghosts mill about the house, brought to undead life by the same special effects that allowed Alec Guinness to return as Obi-Wan’s spirit in the Star Wars sequels. Remarkably, the three have seemingly become decent friends in the afterlife, as they now conspire against the current inhabitants, resulting in hokey, stilted sequences that require the present-day actors to practically stop in their tracks as the ghosts “sync up” with them for composite shots. We watch as they flail about, hilariously unaware of these specters wrecking their lives by hook or crook: if they’re not tipping over soup bowls, then they’re compelling Laura to start an affair with Alex. Whatever works.
This kind of hokeyness pervades much of The House Where Evil Dwells, which is mostly a low-rent riff on The Shining if it were reimagined as an especially cloying daytime soap. Watching the Fletchers retrace the familiar steps from previous haunted house films hardly excites despite the very specific, unique flourishes resulting from the Japanese setting. Sure, the occasional glimpses at Noh theater masks (particularly the creepy demonic ones) echo classic Japanese horror films like Onibaba and Kwaidan, but only in the faintest sense. The House Where Evil Dwells is much more in line with the stolid American ghost films of the age, so it dwells on the tawdry domestic drama surrounding all of the infidelity and fucking. And of course Ted winds up simmering in his own slowly boiling insanity, which spills over with inexplicable outbursts towards his family (and his wife’s soup). Despite ample evidence of a haunting (at one point, a sword materializes out of thin air, much to Ted's nonchalance), he remains obsessed with completing his story, presumably because writing anywhere else is a concept that is foreign to him.
To its credit, this terminally familiar fare does reserve some lively moments, such as a flashback freakout episode involving a witch that all but confirms an entire film dedicated to the prologue’s Japanese trio would be more worthwhile. Some of the modern stuff also works, like the eerie, fleeting glimpses of the wraiths haunting from the bottom of a soup bowl*, and the spirit of the ill-fated female lover haunting Ted everywhere he goes, seducing him into illicit affairs of his own. The real highlight, however, finds the Fletchers’ daughter and a babysitter fleeing in terror from a sudden, supernatural infestation of giant crabs. For no apparent reason (not that there needs to be one, frankly), the crabs warble along, incessantly muttering in a spectral, reverberating Japanese tongue that only heightens the unreality of the moment. Sequences like this—and the gonzo climax—hint at a more jaw-dropping, unhinged movie than the one audiences are saddled with for most of the run-time. Initially, I wondered if this was the only haunted house movie that ends with a martial arts showdown, but then I was reminded about Hausu. I feel like I should commit seppuku after that oversight. Sorry, everybody.
This one’s quite a quandary: on the one hand, there’s no forgetting the crazier moments from The House Where Evil Dwells, a film that will always be remembered for its premise alone. But, on the other, it’s not consistently eccentric enough, nor does it really lean in on its refreshing mythology until it’s too late. Any film that features multiple swordfights, bloodbaths, and Susan George just letting it rip should be more interesting than this. While nobody should ever expect anything to reach the whackadoo heights of Blood Beat, it’s sort of amusing that something as conceptually bizarre as The House Where Evil Dwells can be considered an also-run within this very specific niche. It might be an oddball samurai haunted house movie, but it’ll never be the samurai haunted house movie. That such a statement can even exist is cause for celebration, even if The House Where Evil Dwells only occasionally is.
*Clearly, this film has declared a War on Soup, an aggression that cannot stand.
The House Where Evil Dwells is now available on a Scream Factory Blu-ray double feature alongside Ghost Warrior (a film that involves the thawed corpse of a 400-year-old samurai rampaging through Los Angeles, for the record).
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