It’s time for some “Classic 70s horror” that you’ve never heard of, which mostly means a couple of well-known actors getting caught up in some supernatural shenanigans until their next big serious role comes along. In this case, it’s Oliver Reed, Bette Davis, Burgess Meredith, and one of the first appearances of the soon-to-be “ooh, I know them! They were in the thing!” Anthony James. It’s all very intense, it’s all very moody, but is it any good? Read on or watch the trailer that follows the era’s trend of giving away all the best bits.
Things start with The Rolfs – Ben (Reed), Marian (Karen Black), and little David (Lee Montgomery) – heading off to the arse end of nowhere to look at the ramshackle Sinister House for reasons not quite explained. In there they meet Arnold and Roz Allardyce (Meredith and Eileen Heckart), a pair of elderly siblings who appear to spend their days chewing the scenery and giving sinister offerings of grave portents to the point that Shakespeare’s three witches would say they’re laying it on a bit thick.
They offer the Rolfs the rental of the Sinister House for a suspiciously low amount for a suspiciously long time, with a suspiciously stipulation about their gran in the attic, and they suspiciously depart, cackling suspiciously as they depart. The Rolfs ignore all of this because the Sinister House is bloody lovely. It’s about 20 rooms with its own, lavish grounds, including a pool, and whilst the outside is shabby the insides are plush and inviting. Honestly, The Allardyce’s could have told them outright the evil about to befall them and I’d put bets on the Rolf’s taking it anyway.
So the Rolfs move in, along with Aunt Elizabeth (Bette Davies) so that Oliver Reed has someone to constantly try and outperform the whole movie through, Not a huge amount happens, in a deeply engaging and tension building way, and they just go about their business of being in The Sinister House. We, the audience, work out the basics of the situation after a few incidents of minor misfortune, and then there is a mild near-drowning incident that firmly establishes Something Is Wrong. Then Anthony James turns up as The Joker driving a hearse, we got a bit more back plot and the possibility of an unreliable narrator, and things carry on slowly but impressively.
It’s important to note that not much really happens for the first hour, other than a lot of really quite enjoyable overacting and ego clashing. The film has 30 minutes of plot beats, so it fills the 90 0r 116 minutes (depending on the version you get) of running time by being just genuinely creepy in a slow-burning and steadily escalating manner. Some people will find that dull, but the cast makes up for it by being at the top of their game. Even the sprog avoids being an irritating nuisance, which is a little miracle, but if you don’t dig extended sequences of people going “is this strange?” about things that blatantly are then you’re going to be upset.
Once the third act finally kicks in, about 20 minutes before the end, things speed up like a baby stroller with the handbrake off heading into traffic. Because of the slow build-up it feels earned, the questionable behaviour from the characters is forgiven, and you get stuck in to find out how it will all pan out. This is also the effects-heavy section, and it holds itself together in this front with some very nice visuals and a couple of good and gory bits. Nothing outstays it’s welcome, except possibly the final bit of exposition for the staggeringly thick kids at the back of the class, and it ends at sufficient a pace to have you feel a deep-seated sense of dread and empathy for what’s happened to the victims. In short, it does what a lot of horror movies of it kind don’t: it unquestionably sticks the landing.
So, there it is. A Treasure of overly dramatic and unrelentingly earnest horror thriller. Or, if you don’t like slow build-ups, an overly long way of getting to an obvious and messy ending. I should have hated it, given how leisurely a pace it went through its minimal plot, but it kept me entertained and never left me feeling bored. For that accomplishment alone I must recommend it as worth