The October Project, Day “12”: House of the Damned (1963)

I realized entirely too late that the movie runtimes of previous decades meant that my “Project” was not so completely off-set by my new job’s scheduling as I thought. House of the Damned happens to prove that most firmly: its runtime is a whopping 63 minutes. I squeaked it in before work yesterday, and have a few more I can hopefully wrangle in around a rather special alternate project (a “one-shot”, if you will, though this remains to be seen) this weekend is going to be largely consumed with.

Scott Campbell (Ron Foster) is called late at night by Joseph Schiller (Richard Crane) with news that the rather remote Rochester estate is to be opened up for lease or sale, as its prior tenant’s lease had expired. Schiller encourages Scott and his wife Nancy (Merry Anders) to spend the next day and night there due to the limited availability of hostelries in the area, saying that he and his new wife Loy (Erika Peters) will meet them there the day following. Scott’s architectural background means he’s there to survey before the home is listed, while the rumours about the estate’s origins (and original owner) lead to some questions–and a few rather unexpected events during their stay.

So, first off–I don’t know that I understand the title. Mrs. Rochester (who appears briefly, played by Georgia Schmidt)’s deep, dark history is that she once shot a man believed to be an intruder. The previous tenant was a bit off and disappeared. There’s nothing there to encourage us to think anyone is damned, or haunted. The events that occur are disarmingly peculiar (largely via the silent appearances of John Gilmore, Frieda Pushnik, and a relatively young Richard Kiel) but similarly avoid any such associations. I realize it’s all marketing, but it’s pretty weird all the same.

Now–the film itself, it’s a bit of a curiosity. I think it’s interesting that it does those things that make the title seem off: at no point is the story over-selling itself, and it remains reasonable. The eerie moments are eerie because they are unexplained when they happen, but not impossible despite that. The score…well, it’s not the (awful) score for The Legacy, but it does still over-step itself pretty strongly. It’s oppressive and a bit suffocating in its attempts to define tone and atmosphere, and sometimes seems to be doing so despite itself, and despite the movie–as if it realizes there’s not any greater nuance to tone to be had at the moment, but it simply must do something new! It’s like a non-atonal free jazz, in the worst possible sense, if you will–wandering off and seemingly improvisational, but staying within the expected bounds of the decade’s major film scores, and at least not weirdly juxtaposed.

In the end, it’s not a waste of an hour, but it’s not something I’d leap for, either. Its small cast and indications of budget restrictions are put to good use, and the script has a fine edge to it, as do the actors’ performances–even if sometimes they seem to be juggling the weight between the two, creating a peculiar effect of good performances that seem off, or good dialogue that seems off. It’s its own experience in that, if nothing else.

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