By Craig Leask
Scary movies have been a standard of the movie industry since the early years of film production. The bar was set with the original classics: Nosferatu (1922), Dracula (1931), and Frankenstein (1931), all of which were set in gloomy, shadow filled castles and filmed in glorious black and white. The success of these initial efforts fueled many sequels, remakes, and copycats. These evolved from monster-based features to ghost stories, while maintaining the common thread of being set in rambling, murky old mansions where these characters reside.
The basic premise of these movies is usually fairly straightforward. Generally the characters are unfortunate travellers, volunteers, or long lost heirs. They are usually the fish out of water types: the male inadequately prepared to cope with his situation and the female companion, usually helpless and prone to screaming and fainting. Through circumstances beyond their control, these unfortunates end up knocking on the door of one of these isolated old estates and, once invited in, spend the duration of the film having the total crap scared out of them.
When I come across a good scary house movie where they successfully pull this off, I am captivated. More often than not, unfortunately, the best thing about the film is the poster, with the actual product usually a low budget embarrassment.
How refreshing it was to have had a Haunted House Genre revival occur from the mid 1970’s to the mid 1980’s and, instead of trying to replicate the films of the past, the better of the “horror” movies produced during this time were intentional camp comedies, poking fun at the genre itself. Some were classic and some, to be honest, were barely watchable, but these vehicles did pull out all the stops in showcasing star-studded casts in appropriately atmospheric and highly detailed locations. They included Young Frankenstein (1974), Neil Simon’s Murder by Death (1976), Private Eyes (1980), House of the Long Shadows (1983), Clue (1985), and Haunted Honeymoon (1986).
Young Frankenstein (1974)
Young Frankenstein was initially the brainchild of Gene Wilder and intended as a consolidation of Universal’s original Frankenstein movies: Frankenstein (1931), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and Son of Frankenstein (1939). During the filming of Blazing Saddles (1974), Gene Wilder connected with Mel Brooks and pitched the idea for the film, requesting Brooks direct the project, with the stipulation that Brooks not be allowed to appear in the film. Brooks agreed and immediately delved into the project.
To be successful, Brooks felt the movie needed to rely as closely as possible to the appearance and character of the original films. Brooks went to considerable lengths to emulate the personality of James Whale’s original sets, style, and musical score. Beyond filming in black and white, (unusual for the 1970s), and incorporating a vintage 1930s’ style to the opening credits, Brooks retained composer John Morris to create an evocative period score. When preparing for the film, Brooks discovered that Ken Strickfaden, the set designer for the original Frankenstein films, was still alive and had stored all of the original laboratory equipment from those films in his Los Angeles garage. Brooks immediately secured the vintage equipment for Young Frankenstein, and credited Strickfaden on the movie, a fitting tribute since he had not been recognized for his work in the original films.
In addition to the style of the filming, it is the perfect casting that really makes Young Frankenstein successful: Gene Wilder as the grandson and heir to the famous mad scientist, Dr. Frankenstein; Marty Feldman as his oddball, hunchback laboratory assistant, and grandson to the original Igor; Teri Garr as the love interest; Madeline Kahn as Wilder’s high maintenance fiancé; Cloris Leachman as the housekeeper whose name frightens horses; and Peter Boyle in the difficult role as the frightening, yet lovable monster. These characters were supported by a stellar supporting cast, notably Kenneth Mars as the detective and Gene Hackman in a brilliant cameo role as the blind hermit.
Part of what makes Young Frankenstein work beyond the cast and styling (other than not having Mel Brooks appear in the film) is the amount of ad libbing. These moments, many of which were spur of the moment gags, were retained in the final cut and have become some of the most iconic moments in the film. Understanding a small slice of these points is one reason this film was such a success. The team had such a great time making this movie and it shows! The more memorable as libs include the following:
- Marty Feldman as Igor continued to shift his hump from his right side to his left and back for several days before the cast noticed. At which point it was then included in the script with added dialogue to draw attention to the gag.
- Cloris Leachman improvised the dialogue in which Frau Blücher offers “varm milk” and “Ovaltine” to Dr. Frankenstein before bed.
- Madeline Kahn ad libbed her line when Gene Wilder leaned in to kiss her good night – “No tongues”.
- Gene Hackman ad libbed his final line as the monster left his home, “I was gonna make espresso.”
Murder by Death (1976)
Like Young Frankenstein (1974), Murder by Death is a spoof based upon an amalgamation of earlier films: in this case, fictional detective characters from the predominantly 1940’s and 1950’s murder mystery film genre, and what was becoming a mainstay for this group of haunted house parodies, a dynamic, star-studded cast.
Written by Neil Simon and directed by Robert Moore, the film is a parody of traditional country house murder mysteries. The spin in this case is the amalgamation of fictional literary sleuths lured to a remote mansion to solve a murder, which has yet to be committed. The sleuths are caricatures of Agatha Christie detectives Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple; Charlie Chan (Earl Derr Biggers’ Chinese police detective); Nick and Nora Charles of The Thin Man series (1934 -1947); and Sam Spade from The Maltese Falcon (1941).
As a parody, Neil Simon brilliantly bastardized each of their names to allude to their famous counterparts, without blatantly saying so. In the movie, detectives Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple become Milo Perrier (James Coco) and Jessica Marbles (Elsa Lanchester), Charlie Chan becomes Sidney Wang (Peter Sellers), Nick and Nora Charles become Dick and Dora Charleston (David Niven and Maggie Smith), and Sam Spade becomes Sam Diamond (Peter Falk).
The supporting cast is just as stellar as those playing the lead detectives: Eileen Brennan, James Cromwell, Estelle Winwood, Richard Narita, and the incomparable Alec Guinness and Nancy Walker as the blind butler and mute maid respectively whose dynamic interaction is pure comic genius. Finally, in a rare appearance, Truman Capote plays the eccentric millionaire Lionel Twain, the weekend’s host and murder victim.
The movie was filmed at the Warner Brothers Studios in Burbank as well as at Oakley Court in Windsor, Berkshire, England (which incidentally was also used as the residence of Dr. Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)).
Private Eyes (1980)
Private Eyes is a thinly veiled spoof of the Sherlock Holmes/ Dr. Watson pairings with the added bonus of setting the action within a haunted mansion. Starring in the “Holmes” and” Watson” lead roles and dressing the parts are Don Knotts (as Inspector Winship), donning an Inverness cape and Deerstalker hat, with Tim Conway (Dr. Tart) supporting in his bowler – both constantly reminding viewers that they were “from The Yard”.
Private Eyes was filmed on site at the Biltmore estate in North Carolina utilizing formal and informal rooms throughout the 175,000 square foot mansion. Due to the nature of the story, the production was able to take advantage of back passages, floor service access panels, and raw unfinished basement service tunnels working them into the plot. Interior rooms were used for the most part without alteration. Even original Vanderbilt family portraits remain hanging in place in the background.
The movie was written by Tim Conway as a vehicle to capitalize on the well-established chemistry between himself and Don Knotts. Think Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello as detectives in a spooky house and you should have a fairly good grasp on the slapstick style and pace of the jokes, some of which work quite well, and some not so much, but the movie has its charms and you cannot beat the setting. Supporting the two leads are a mainly B list cast including Trisha Noble, Bernard Fox, Grace Zabriskie, Fred Stuthman, and Irwin Keys.
Private Eyes is the final pairing of Tim Conway and Don Knotts following the films The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975), Gus (1976), The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again (1979), and Prize Fighter (1979).
House of the Long Shadows (1983)
I have to start by saying that I really wanted to like this one. It met all the requirements: isolated creepy old mansion (check!), stormy night (check!), and a classic ensemble cast including Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and John Carradine (check, check, check, check!). How could this not be a great movie? Throw in Desi Arnaz Jr. as the lead … that’s how.
House of the Long Shadows is a horror-parody film directed by Pete Walker. It is noteworthy as this is the only film where the four iconic horror film stars mentioned above appeared in the same film and in scenes together. Michael Armstrong created the screenplay based upon the 1913 novel Seven Keys to Baldpate by Earl Derr Biggers and it followed the original’s plot line fairly closely.
The story opens with rich young American author Ken (Desi Arnaz Jr.) making a bet with his publisher (Richard Todd) that he can pen a gothic romance novel in a 24-hour period. To ensure he is undisturbed and able to concentrate on winning the wager, he is given the “only” key to a deserted manor house in Wales. Upon arriving at the empty house, during a fierce thunderstorm, uninvited guests begin to show up in the form of mysterious servants and long-lost relatives of the mansion’s owner. From there the movie waffles somewhat, appearing to not know whether it is supposed to be a comedy or a horror. House of the Long Shadows is by no means a horrible movie; it just could have been better.
House of the Long Shadows was filmed at Rotherfield Park, a manor house in rural Hampshire, England with cinematography and lighting by Norman G. Langley. Langley carried this off well even with having to shoot within the confines of an actual house and not in a studio.
Based on the Parker Brothers board game of the same name, Clue is set in in a creepy Victorian mansion perched on a hill in 1950’s New-England. In addition to the floor plan of the house, which mimics the layout of the board game, the movie also features a cast of characters named after the personalities in the game: Mrs. Peacock (Eileen Brennan), Mrs. White (Madeline Kahn), Professor Plum (Christopher Lloyd), Mr. Green (Michael McKean), and Miss Scarlett (Leslie Ann Warren). This cast of original characters is supported by the blackmailer and first victim Mr. Boddy (Lee Ving), the butler Wadsworth (Tim Curry), and the French maid Yvette (Colleen Camp).
What follows is a fast paced sequence of events, motives, secrets, and connections between each of the characters who had all been invited to the house for the weekend. The murder of Mr. Boddy leads to a madcap search of the mansion to locate the killer as more bodies pile up and further associations between the characters are revealed. Much like the board game, which had various conclusions based on the multiple options for the “ who did it”, the “murder weapon”, and the “scene of the crime room”, Clue was filmed with three different endings, each one identifying a different killer and motive.
Clue was filmed at the Max Busch House, in Pasadena, California, which was perched on a hilltop and was utilized in numerous movies including (Rocky V (1990), No Deposit No Return (1976), Mobsters (1991), and in numerous TV shows including Murder She Wrote (1984-1996), Dynasty (1981–1989), Highway to Heaven (1984-1989)). The façade of the house in Clue was enhanced to be made to look more sinister with the addition of towers and other Victorian enhancements accomplished through the use of matte paintings. Tragically, in October 2005 the Max Busch House was destroyed by fire.
Haunted Honeymoon (1986)
Haunted Honeymoon is another haunted house comedy attempt with a star-studded cast and, like House of the Long Shadows (1983), is one I really wanted to like. Unfortunately with the incredible potential the situation presented, none of this potential was realized. Instead Gene Wilder, who directed and co-wrote the film, focused on cheap humor and gags, which for the most part fall flat.
The plot of the film centres on Gene Wilder playing an anxious radio personality by the name of Larry Abbott. Abbott in preparation for his upcoming wedding to Vicky Pearle (Gilda Radner), returns to the Gothic mansion of his Great Aunt Kate (Dom DeLuise) to introduce Vicky to his bizarre extended family. Naturally, a series of daft incidents occur as an unknown killer tries to kill Larry Abbott in order to inherit the family fortune. Oh, and there’s a werewolf … I don’t get it either.
The supporting cast includes some notables: Bryan Pringle as the alcoholic butler Pfister , Ann Way as the maid Rachel, Jonathan Pryce as Abbott’s unemployable cousin Charlie and his flirtatious girlfriend Sylvia (Eve Ferret), and Jim Carter as Montego, the magician. (Like the inclusion of a werewolf, I don’t get this one either).
On a plus side, the score by John Morris is well done, as are the sets (quite extensive and well executed) by Terence Marsh (who also co-wrote the script with Gene Wilder). The movie was filmed at Knebworth House in Stevenage, England. Special effects consultant John Stears was retained for the film and utilized vintage film industry visual effects as an homage to old haunted house movies of the past. With a great back stage team and an OK cast, it was the script that was lacking and the reason the movie was a financial flop.
Haunted Honeymoon was Gilda Radner’s final film prior to her death from ovarian cancer in 1989.
From as far back as Craig can remember he has been passionate about architecture and the atmosphere that can be created through a well-designed building. In movies, he fulfills this passion by gravitating to films where the production infuses the location into the plot as one of the characters. Be it the long dark shadows of mysteries and haunted house films, to classics of the 40’s and 50’s set in big old houses, grand Italian plazas, or remote villages. It’s the locations Craig is drawn to, so much so that, on occasion, he has even been accused of overlooking plot failures and weak directing, having been so engrossed in the set design and location. What he hopes to accomplish with his writing is to share this passion and encourage others to see for the first time – or revisit – movies where the architecture plays as pivotal a role as a character in the plot.