I have said it before. I will say it again. If you find yourself a character in a 1970’s horror movie and an Old Hollywood actor, particularly Burgess Meredith offers you something that sounds way too good to be true, you are going to die. Mark my words. You are going to die and your family will suffer along the way.
Dan Curtis co-wrote and directed this adaptation of the Robert Marasco novel, bringing along his favorite actress, Karen Black (Trilogy of Terror), as well as Oliver Reed (The Devils, Curse of the Werewolf), Bette Davis (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?), and Lee Montgomery (Ben from Ben!). Surprise, surprise — Bette Davis did not feel that Karen Black respected her enough. Did you see that coming? Here’s even more strange trivia — Bob Fosse almost directed this after Sweet Charity!
The Rolfs’ summer vacation has brought them to a ruined mansion (the Dunsmuir Mansion, which was also used for Phantasm) somewhere in the country. Marian and Ben have a 12-year-old son named Davey and have brought along their beloved aunt Elizabeth. Why would they stay in this ancient abode? Well, it’s cheap. Real cheap thanks to the kindness of the Allardyce family, who only require that their mother stay upstairs and that the family provide her with meals all summer long. They will never see her or probably even speak to her, a deal that Marian agrees to quickly. The house is just too great and she’s fallen in love with it.
Love soon turns to the obsession that only comes from 1970’s horror fiction. Soon, she’s dressing like a Victorian woman and not speaking to her family, content to sit near Mrs. Allardyce’s bedroom and stare at old photos.
The house keeps getting cleaner and better looking the more weirdness happens, like windows locking shut, accidents all over the place, nightmares of an evil chauffeur and Ben flipping out and nearly killing his son while swimming and Aunt Elizabeth dying.
Marian won’t even leave the house for the funeral, so Ben angrily declares that he will leave without her. His attempts to escape with his son ends when a tree blocks the road and his wife becomes the dreaded chauffeur, turning the once strong man into jelly. Yet after the pool itself tries to kill Davey, Marian declares that they should leave once she tells Mrs. Allardyce goodbye.
Easier said than done. She disappears into the house and when Ben goes to confront the old woman, he learns that she and his wife are now the same person. He’s thrown from the attic window in a scene that ends the trailer to the film and even Davey is killed when a chimney falls on him, because the life of children was quite cheap in the movies of the 70’s. To paraphrase John Mulaney, back then “no one cared about kids. I grew up before children were special. I did. Very early ’80s, right before children became special.”
The house is now brand new as the Allardyce family and the chauffeur celebrate mother’s return. The photos on the wall — all of the home’s past victims — now include Ben, Davey and Aunt Elizabeth.
Curtis was a fan of the book, except for the open ending which he thought was unfilmable. His ending is much different, as is the inclusion of the chauffeur, who is based on a childhood trauma where he watched a driver laugh during his grandmother’s funeral.
Some people dislike this film because of its slow pace, but others — like Stephen King — love it. I’m on the fence. I love parts of this, but the pace is truly glacial. Shockingly, this has not be remade, but now that I’ve said that, I’ve fucked it up for everyone.