I feel as though it says something when a movie’s trailer likes to linger–repeatedly, no less!–on the film’s poster. It’s kind of an odd thing to do, though in this case I can’t blame them too much–it’s a pretty great (if surreal and confusing) poster.
Maggie Walsh (Katharine Ross) and Pete Danner (Sam Elliott) are called to England to perform an interior decoration job with a $50,000 advance, but little to no explanation. Though Pete is suspicious, Maggie convinces him and off they go. An unexpected accident drops them at the lap and estate of Jason Mountolive (John Standing), who invites them to stay for tea and then the evening. Soon, they find more guests arriving: Clive (Roger Daltrey–yes, that Roger Daltrey), Karl (Charles Gray), Jacques (Lee Montague), Barbara (Hildegard Neil), and Maria (Marianne Broome), all of whom are there at the request of Mountolive, but who begin to die in fashions that cross the line from accident to, “there’s probably something supernatural happening here.”
Richard Marquand’s name as director was sticking in my brain somewhere and I couldn’t figure out why–oh, right. He directed Return of the Jedi! He also directed Eye of the Needle, which is one of those movies I owned, and “watched” and failed to pay attention to (Shame on me! It’s Donald Sutherland!). I’m not one of the haters of Jedi (insofar as I still have an opinion, it remains my favourite of the Star Wars movies). I know Ross best from Donnie Darko (I’m not kidding), but know her in something closer to contemporary context from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, of course. Elliott I know from…um, The Big Lebowski? He apparently did have a bit part in Butch, too, so that’s kind of fun. Daltrey at first seems shaky, but rapidly becomes quite admirable in his still rather small role.
And, with that: this is a rickety movie. It’s tonally out of its own mind, and shudderingly lurches between competent, beautiful, and mind-bogglingly stupid. Elliott and Ross come off oddly in the opener alone (especially Elliott), but later both have numerous scenes that really shine (Ross’s trailer-captured moment of madness, for instance). The guests other than the famous one are far more consistent, but they’re in the mostly-more-consistent portion of the movie, so I’m not sure what that says about any of the cast. The score is alternately pretty great and incredibly insipid, encouraging anyone to think very strongly before considering the hiring of Michael J. Lewis, who was responsible for it.
Some things are left weirdly unexplained–it’s hinted that this meeting is the actual reason they were called over to England, but no one seems to want to tell them that directly, letting both of them stew in confusion over why they are there and no one seems surprised. Your usual haunted/possession/creeping-up horror mystery stuff gets the more usual, “IN CASE YOU HAVE NOT CAUGHT ON, LET US OPENLY STATE THIS PART” explanations a few times, which seems weird, with what’s not mentioned. There’s some fun to the way they’re left to their own devices when attempting to escape–particularly in the sardonic smirks everyone gives them in the distance (at least one instance of which is exceptionally great, since it defies all expectations–even though that makes other scenes rather questionable).
But let’s go back to the score. Kiki Dee sings a flaccid singer/songwriter pile of dross (lyrics by Gary Osborne) that is so awful and wildly out of place that one wonders what possessed anyone to put it in there at all–but, apparently, John Coyne’s novelization of the film was pushed (via marketing) up the bestseller list, so the cynical explanation is, “Let’s put a song in here and push that up the charts!!” (instead, it was never released as far as I can see–so, I have no idea). This schmaltzy, saccharine nonsense is used as a thematic point in the score, too, drippy strings and even a bloody harp, and it’s almost funny how totally ridiculous it is–well, until the wah-based guitar escape track when they manage to do something interesting with their attempt to escape and accidentally fall into some kind of temporally confused escape scene from a cop movie.
I don’t know–it’s so weird, the movie seems to falter on direction and get carried by the good bits of the score and the script, then the script falters and the direction catches up, but then the music falls apart again..it’s an amazingly ramshackle beast, that somehow lumbers its way all to the end without completely collapsing, even if you are left kind of scratching your head when it pulls into the station–“This is the thing that we heard coming down the track…?”