Of any gen­re of film, hor­ror is the one that lives and dies by atmos­phere. If a hor­ror flick can estab­lish and sus­tain the prop­er atmos­phere, that makes it easy to over­look a lot of oth­er prob­lems. An inter­est­ing exam­ple of the­se con­cepts in action is The House Of Seven Corpses, a low-bud­get chiller that presents inter­est­ing ideas with an uneven sense of how to achieve them. The results are flawed but have an eerie, ‘70s-redo­lent hor­ror vibe that can be hyp­notic to a cer­tain type of gen­re fan.

The House Of Seven Corpses quick­ly estab­lish­es the his­to­ry of the title loca­tion in a creepy titles sequence out­lin­ing the mys­te­ri­ous deaths of the fam­i­ly that once occu­pied this home. Horror film­mak­er Eric Hartman (John Ireland) has decid­ed to cap­i­tal­ize on the film’s unsa­vory his­to­ry to make a low-bud­get hor­ror film on the site. Along for the ride are aging lead­ing lady Gayle (Faith Domergue), ingénue Ann (Carol Wells), assis­tant and occult enthu­si­ast David (Jerry Stricker) and hard-drink­ing actor Christopher (Charles Macaulay). Looking on with dis­ap­proval from the shad­ows is the house’s care­tak­er, Edgar (John Carradine). As the crew under­takes a gru­el­ing shoot, eerie occur­rences start to pile up but Hartman is deter­mined to press on… and unwit­ting­ly sets the stage for the house’s creepy his­to­ry to repeat itself.

The results are odd in that The House Of Seven Corpses has a plot that seems to lend itself to a straight­for­ward treat­ment yet it takes every oppor­tu­ni­ty to exper­i­ment. For instance, the sto­ry opens with an intrigu­ing fake-out scene that is revealed to be a scene from the film-with­in-the-film. There is also a fun scene lat­er on where a res­ur­rec­tion and mur­der hap­pen­ing before the cam­era is con­trast­ed with the real ver­sion off-cam­era.

However, the frame­work the­se moments exist with­in feels odd­ly dis­con­nect­ed. There’s nev­er a real attempt to explain the his­to­ry of the house and attempts to con­nect it to the present-day events nev­er quite add up. There is also a notable red her­ring that goes nowhere with John Carradine using a secret entrance in the grave­yard. Finally, it’s worth not­ing that the actu­al hor­ror part of the film doesn’t real­ly get rolling until the final twen­ty min­utes, a choice that has earned this film a bad rep­u­ta­tion with a lot of hor­ror fans over the years.

That said, The House Of Seven Corpses is com­pelling despite the nar­ra­tive short­com­ings for a few rea­sons. The first is that the film has a real sense of per­son­al­i­ty. The script by Paul Harrison and Thomas Kelly plays kind of like a schlock-hor­ror ver­sion of Day For Night in its first hour, offer­ing a pret­ty well-observed ver­sion of low-bud­get film­mak­ing and a lot of snap­py dia­logue. The per­for­mances are also pret­ty good, espe­cial­ly from the film’s old-Hollywood cast mem­bers: Ireland is wit­ty in an acidic way as the direc­tor, Carradine ful­fills his expo­si­tion­al role with style and Domergue brings a believ­ably weary pres­ence to her role as an aging scream queen.

However, the major hook of The House Of Seven Corpses is its doomy, dreamy vibe. The creepy title sequence, which con­trasts fam­i­ly por­traits with the vio­lent deaths of the por­traits’ sub­jects, cre­ates a tone of hope­less­ness that rever­ber­ates through the rest of the film. Paul Harrison’s slow-burn approach direc­tion puts demands on the audi­ence, par­tic­u­lar­ly for mod­ern view­ers used to rock-em, shock-em hor­ror fare, but it’s worth stick­ing with for the film’s third act. The final twen­ty min­utes offer a grim finale that pays off the film’s hope­less vibe nice­ly, cap­ping things with an appro­pri­ate­ly chilly and des­o­late end titles sequence. 

In short, The House Of Seven Corpses is an acquired taste — but if its blend of old-time actors and goth­ic atmos­phere res­onates with you, you’ll find that it scratch­es an itch that more crit­i­cal­ly accept­able exam­ples of the gen­re can’t always reach.

House of Seven Corpses Trailer from Severin Films on Vimeo.