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.