Haunted or demented house? That’s what we’re here to find out. Husband/wife Scott and Nancy Campbell (Ron Foster and Merry Anders) look into a Spanish-colonial mansion in the Hollywood Hills. They’re on an architectural job sent by their lawyer friend Joe Schiller (Richard Crane). The owner, an eccentric (read: mentally incompetent) Priscilla Rochester (Georgia Schmidt) has been skulking in and out of an asylum.
We know were in for something odd when there’s characters known only as the Giant (Paul Kiel), the Legless Man (John Gilmore), the Legless Woman (Frieda Pushnik), and, yes, The Corpse (John Gilmore).
The house is suitably creepy, both inside and out. Sort of neglected gothic-chic. “It’s like something out of Dickens!” remarks Nancy, looking at the chandelier from the main balcony. More like out of Freaks, though, is the Legless Man’s nocturnal visit to their bedroom. Of course the power is out when Scott goes to check on the mysterious noises.
Next morning they discover some of the house keys (just 2 of 13) have been filched. By cunning deduction–trying to see which rooms they can’t open–they hope to find out what if anything is hidden from them. Schiller’s wife Loy (Erika Peters) shows up. “Sounds like Joe needs a marriage counselor, not an architect” notes Nancy. But the Campbells actually get busy surveying the house. Joe pops in “I could use a drink” (sounds like the requisite social greeting in 1963).
Immediately, Loy and Joe start squabbling. Loy discovers the Giant in her closet (isn’t there a spray for those kind of pests?). I realize that its a big house, but I don’t see how none of the other people heard her scream. “There’s something wrong arond here” notes Scott. Yes. They talk about Priscilla, Joe lets on that she’d once shot an intruder, thus her confinement. Joe calls the sanitartium; at first the nurse can’t find her, then the cronish Priscilla jumps her. I guess the nurse has seen it all, as her only comment back to Joe is that “you don’t have a thing to worry about, Mr. Schiller.” In the sense that he’s safe, anyway.
Meanwhile, back at the mansion, Loy’s still missing. Something cool–Nancy discovers a headless Loy. But, naturally, when the guys check it out, it’s just a vacant room. For the hundreth time they talk about calling the police. They find the Corpse in another room; he’s really an excellent corpse. More great stuff: Joe finds the legless woman in a cabinet, as Scott finds a passageway into a cellar/dungeon. Way down there the giant jumps him. Luckily, as if by magic, “freaks” show up–the Fat Woman (Allene Gibbons) with the Legless Man. They call off the Giant and retrieve Loy, who hasn’t really lost her head.
The “freaks” are sideshow carnival people who’d worked for the Captain, a.k.a., the Corpse. When he died, they just stayed on. The denouement is interesting, in that the secret is neither of supernatural nor mentally-disturbed origins. In fact, it’s horrible that these people are literally trapped, hiding out from society because their benefactor can no longer help them.
House of the Damned has a good premise, a very consistent and convincing atmosphere, and some really good devices and scenes (the corpse, Priscilla and the nurse), and an implicit strangeness that is pitiful rather than menacing (the sideshow folks). Unfortunately, the plot sits still for most of the movie.
Loy’s issues sort of hijack this into a melodramatic subplot that is both too underdeveloped to be interesting, and completely irrelevant to the main plot. The performances are fairly good; everyone plays it straight, except for Loy’s distracting antics. It did seem odd that Priscilla was sort of forgotten, her character was certainly interesting, and frightening.
All in all, this is worth watching–it’s just kind of maddening that so much good material was underused. Farmermouse wanted to explore the pond, but the Giant scared him off: six lily pads. 6/10.