I’m glad I’m not a paid critic. If I were, I’d have to watch and review whatever I was assigned, which would no doubt include some pretty dreadful stuff. Imagine you’re five or ten minutes into a movie so abysmal there’s no law in the universe capable of rescuing it (or you). In such cases a mere 90 minutes can seem like waiting in line all day at the Department of Motor Vehicles. At least you can take a book with you to the DMV.
Gene Siskel once mentioned that he was often depressed over some of the movies he had to watch and review. I don’t know if he meant “depression” in a general or clinical way, but I think I understand at least a part of what he felt. On the other hand, Siskel’s frequent across-the-aisle colleague Roger Ebert once said something to the effect that we must occasionally watch bad movies to remind us that life’s too short to watch bad movies.
I recently watched the first half of the 1966-67 epic War and Peace, one of the most stunning, grand-scale creations in cinematic history, directed by Sergei Bondarchuk. In between halves of this seven-hour journey, I decided to take a break with something completely different: Ghosthouse (aka La Casa 3, aka La Casa Fantasma, 1988).
(Let me first say that I know several people who are big fans of this movie. I am glad you enjoy it and do not mean to slight you in any way.) Understand that I had no allusions whatsoever that Ghosthouse was going to be a masterpiece of horror, but since it was on my Letterboxd Watchlist and was (and still is) on Amazon Prime, I clicked on “Watch Now.”
There comes a point in the first few minutes of just about any movie ever made in which the audience quickly determines (1) the level of money expended on the film’s budget, and (2) whether those limitations will become a hinderance or an asset. The list of horror filmmakers who have achieved much with little is a substantial one, including Herk Harvey (Carnival of Souls, 1962), George Romero (Night of the Living Dead,1968), and John Carpenter (Halloween, 1978), to name just a few.
How seriously does the film take itself? Is it aware of its shortcomings, refusing to hide this fact from the audience? Or does it try to break beyond its limitations, at least making at attempt at greatness (or even goodness)? Ghosthouse’s director, Umberto Lenzi (1931-2017) made several movies in various genres: giallo, westerns, adventure, horror, thriller, and more. Lenzi seemed plagued throughout his career by inadequate budgets, but he made the best of each situation. Ghosthouse was shot in three weeks at a cost of 300 million lire (under $200,000). When you consider just how little money that was, even in 1988, you’re probably willing to cut Lenzi some slack. I’m all for celebrating creators who make the most of a challenging situation, even when they fail. I’ve also recognized that sometimes creators with the best ideas aren’t always capable of fully realizing their potential. It has nothing to do with the creators themselves, but rather money. Yet at other times, like the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30), some people simply leave their money (or actual talent) in the ground.
In short, who am I to judge a filmmaker or his work? Well, if you’re a paid critic, that’s what they hire you to do, isn’t it?
Since no one (at least so far) is paying me to do this, I can choose to judge Ghosthouse, find it lacking, and walk away, never to see it again. Or I can enjoy it on its own merits. Or maybe I can do both.
But let’s get on to the movie itself. (By the way, I haven’t been keeping up, but I wonder how many times I’ve referred to Ghosthouse as a film and how many times I’ve referred to it as a movie…)
In 1967, Sam Baker (Alain Smith) discovers his 11-year-old daughter Henrietta (Kristen Fougerousse) hiding in the basement, after she’s taken a pair of scissors to the family cat. As punishment, Sam locks Henrietta in the basement for a serious time out. Sam and his wife are soon murdered by a killer we can’t see, while Henrietta sits in the basement, clutching a hideous-looking clown doll. Oh, and there’s weird lullaby music accompanying the scene. (Don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to hear this again and again and again…)
20 years later, ham radio enthusiast Paul (Greg Rhodes) taps into the sound of two people screaming as they are attacked. Paul and his girlfriend Martha (Lara Wendel) track down the signal to a creepy, rundown house where they meet a suspicious caretaker named Valkos (Donald O’Brien) and four young people who’re just hanging out: Jim (Martin Jay), who’s also into ham radio, his sister Tina (Kate Silver) and brother Mark (Ron Houck), and Mark’s girlfriend Susan (Mary Sellers). By now I’m sure you’ve guessed that this is the house where Henrietta’s parents were murdered. Strange things happen, and every few minutes we’re treated to (or incensed by) a young girl’s singsong chant, “Are you up? Are you there? Are you there?” (The last part sounds just a bit like “Are you dead?”)
Believability was low on the “Things to do” production list for Ghosthouse, and I’m not even talking about the weird stuff. After a brief meeting filled with suspicion and accusation, the four squatters immediately begin working with Paul and Martha with a camaraderie worthy of the Peace Corps, seeking to discover the source of the voices heard on the radio. After Tina survives the equivalent of an earthquake inside a camper, she casually reenters it moments later without a care in the world. There’s also a hitchhiker/practical jokester (Willy M. Moon) whose character really serves no purpose in the movie, other than to have the audience wonder when he’s going to get knocked off. (Sorry for the spoiler…)
And if you’re expecting great dialogue, don’t. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this. I’ve got the feeling that the worst is yet to come,” and “There’s something you don’t know about this place,” are some of the better lines emerging from Ghosthouse. Other than a pretty cool scene featuring a walking skeleton in a black hooded cape (with maggots crawling on its skull), there’s not much here to instill terror. The acting’s not good, but that often goes with the low-budget territory. Yet for all its problems, you can enjoy Ghosthouse, particularly if you watch it at the right time. If you’re in the mood for something like this, it’s not exactly wasted time.
Right now I’m reading The Iliad and Jane Austen’s Emma, two very different classics (so it’s not difficult switching back and forth between them). After I finish those, I’m not going to want to read another classic, not yet. I might pick up Sinners and Shrouds by Jonathan Latimer or The Case of the Velvet Claws, the first Perry Mason novel by Erle Stanley Gardner. I don’t believe these are going to be bad books, but they’re not classics in the same way Homer and Austen are. I know Latimer only from his outstanding film noir screenplays (The Glass Key, They Won’t Believe Me, The Big Clock), and while I love both the old and the new TV show, I’ve never read any of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason novels. I’m sure I’ll enjoy both books, but in a different way from Homer and Austen.
My friend and coworker C. and I were talking about this the other day. He had recently watched a few classic films on the Criterion Channel and wondered how long it would be before he wanted to see something different, perhaps very different. Maybe our minds (or at least mine) just can’t tolerate too much class.
So there’s a place for movies like Ghosthouse. I’m glad they exist. They need to exist. I am, from time to time, going to watch them. And I know I’m going to enjoy them on a certain level. I don’t mean to come across as a snob and don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade, but I couldn’t live on a steady diet of such films, anymore than I could live on a steady diet of the world’s greatest films, not without a breather every now and then.
So excuse me for a while. I’m going to spend a couple of hours watching Sansho the Bailiff (1954), one of the greatest titles in Japanese cinema, followed by, in all likelihood, a very different film released that same year, Stranger from Venus (1954). Go figure.
Whatever you watch this weekend, please do so guilt-free. Be well and stay safe.