Tuesday, June 21, 2011

DEATH AT LOVE HOUSE vs. The Destruction Company

A black magic-dabbling Hollywood star from the 1930s named Lorna Love (Marianna Hill) reaches from beyond the grave to fuck up a couple of her married biographers in this priceless 1976 made-for-TV film. Kate Jackson and Robert Wagner play the couple, who move into Love's crumbling mansion (i.e. "Love House") to soak up the atmosphere and groove on the vast cache of mementos. With all the spooky stuff going on--including a ghostly projector showing Love's old films on the wall (wherein she seems to materialize out of the frame, beckoning to drunken Wagner), and a ceremonial knife that appears and disappears from random drawers--this biography is taking forever to start. Like any self-respecting writer, Wagner uses the thick atmosphere as an excuse to to drink and brood over the portrait of Lorna (painted by his own late father, cementing his connection to the subject) rather than write so much as a chapter heading. Like Dana Andrews before him, he's falling in love with a corpse. In a sublimely macabre Hollywood Babylon-worthy touch, Lorna's still-beautiful corpse is even kept on display in a glass case out in the backyard. Wife Kate Jackson better hope there's no Mrs. Danvers skulking about the grounds in jealous guardianship of all that their dead mistress once surveyed.

Relegated mostly towards playing a gaslit innocent, terrorized by a phantom in a purple devil worship ceremonial robe waving around that curved sacrificial dagger, Jackson looks quite sleek in her silk scarves and slacks, her straight black hair extra long, her youth all but crystalizing the air around her with fuzzy magic. A smart sweater worn over a collared shirt adds nerdy class to her beautiful 'smarts' and nurturing soul. We feel her pain, then, as she's way too sweet to be deserve being menaced by a phantom in a pentagram-covered purple robe who's either trying to kill her or just scare her out of Love House, and then to have her legit fears dismissed by dumbass husband Wagner.

He thinks it's her imagination, but it's his that's out of control. As he drinks booze in the den, moons over the Love portrait and screens her old films over and over via a home projector on the wall, he winds up distracted by conveniently-timed hallucinations of ghostly Lorna whenever Kate's in danger in another room. In the most awesome moment, Lorna comes to life in a slow motion, gold-tinted mirage, smiling and calling his name from inside the film he's projecting! As someone who--as a child--believed he could make Kate Jackson fall in love with him if he stared hard enough at her pictures in Teen Beat, I caught the meta frisson from this scene, big time.

But then, in real life at least, adulthood supplants our naive, hopeless wishful fantasies. Once we understand the way these fantasies are structured on the bedrock of their never coming true, the bedrock dissolves and we're set free to find a new illusion. But alcoholism returns the writer to the land of fantasy; the more Wagner drinks, the ruder, more patronizing, and dismissive of Jackson's legitimate worry he becomes. He thinks she's faking that someone is trying to kill her and has left a Satanic knife in her drawer and cut her own face out of their author's photo in order to get his attention. As Kate is so rational and intelligent, you start to imagine what Charlie's Angels would be like if every suggestion, clue, or even event the Angels reported was dismissed by Bosley and Charlie as womanly hallucinations and hysterics. Ick, right? They'd need more than an hour to solve the case, that's for sure...

Anyway, despite all that, the pace is brisk and there's a whole cavalcade of pre-war Hollywood stars in cameos: John Carradine shows up all evil-like as Lorna's old Svengali-style director; Sylivia Sydney is the nicotine-voiced housekeeper (prefiguring her hilarious turn in BEETLEJUICE); Joan Blondell is a deranged fan (and Love's fellow coven member); Dorothy Lamour... OK, I forget what she does. And holding her own as the ghost of Lorna is a leggy tall blonde named Marianna Hill. You may remember as Fredo's rebellious strumpet of a wife in GODFATHER 2, and she's in tons of other shit too, including a couple of STAR TREK episodes, RED LINE 7000 and MESSIAH OF EVIL. Hot damn.

Being a confirmed sadomasochistic Charlie's Angels fan as a child in the 70s, poring, Sternberg-like, over images of their loveliness, you can imagine how I longed to see DEATH AT LOVE HOUSE, which was mentioned on occasion in TV Guide, along with Kate's other big 70s TVM, the equally awesome sounding SATAN'S SCHOOL FOR GIRLS, both TVMs that came and went before I was aware of them due to my parent's strict bedtime laws. Their unavailability made imagining them all the sweeter; I desperately wanted a job at any school with a name like Love House or Satan's School for Girls. I'd even brush their hair for them, and do their toenails. Can you even imagine my weird semi-sadomasochistic / pre-empathic, prepubescent jouissance?

In the pre-Xerox, pre-video 70s, the only way to acquire pictures of your icons was to take them with a camera yourself, off the TV, or buy the magazine and cut the pics out, or trade them (i.e. Charlie's Angels trading cards, Tiger Beat spreads, etc.), or steal them (I'd rip the pics out of newsstand copies when the 7-11 camera had rotated the other way). If you had real money you could send away for real glossies. but they never seemed that cool to me.

As for owning films in the 70s, the best you could do (if you were a kid) was to get a super 8mm projector and buy little condensed reels from the camera store. They had one or two key scenes from the film edited together and running maybe five or six minutes. There was NO other way to see a movie other than at the whim of the TV channel or theater programmer and even then it was contingent on bed times and parental preferentiality.

I mention this for a simple reason: to stress the power of the image in the 70s. It was a power that its proliferation in our current era has decreased. Now one merely thinks of a name and they can find every picture ever, immediately -- we can download them and keep them forever. Kids today take that for granted but the older of us remember maybe how that inability to 'own' movies-- the sheer lack of access --made images more sacred, more ephemeral.

There was no way my parents would let me stay up until 4 AM watching some rerun ghost TVM, at that age. but I was far from tired at 9 PM... so I was forced to lie in bed in a prepubescent miasma, imagining Kate Jackson in all these ghostly, Satanic, and love-death situations. If I knew about how good booze in sufficient quantities would have made me feel, I'd have been drinking like Wagner. But to me it was just gross stuff adults drank that made them act like dazed idiots.


Instead of going the child lush route, we obsessive, morbidly image-obsessed pre-teen pagans used our pent-up energy to dream DVD and the internet into existence. But, like booze, these image multipliers constitute a devil's bargain. The ensuing unbearable surplus--the vast expanse of internet sites, online books, streaming films, etc.--saturates the eye to the point of numb despair, robbing us of our grand masochistic longing, decreasing the value of everything.

Sooner or later, all our deepest fantasies end up in the $1.99 Used -- Very Good bin at Amazon.

So Lorna Love died, for there were no more image-starved minds to conquer.  The center couldn't hold and without that externalized desire. The subject imploded under its own horrid weight.

Don't believe me? Look at these recent revolting news stories about 'the Destruction Company' - where dumb rich kids pay someone else for the right to smash their own TV sets, and you see how universal availability forces a crisis of desire. The more stuff we have, the less it has value... and for the person who constructs their whole identity around ego and ownership this is a truth too horrible to face. The race is lost since you downloaded the finish line before it began. So rather than go back and bet on devout Non-Attachment in the Third, you just buy the horse that already lost the race and pay for the right to shoot it.

Such suckers are what DEATH AT LOVE HOUSE is all about. Rather than admit they can't get their youth back they try to stop time and freeze themselves in amber. They hope to go rigid in their glory rather than let go and flow in the current of anonymity, to relish the disillusionment that comes with attaining your desire in order to move into egolessness. Meanwhile, the aging stars from the golden era all show up as groundskeepers, real estate agents, and neighbors. They collect their checks, and shamble off back into the shadows. They're old and irrelevant, but man they know the score.

Of course, you can always pick your obsession more wisely - find something very hard to attain. Pine with me, then, for that legendary original edit of Orson Welles' MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942), yet to be unearthed in some Brazilian vault, if it even exists.

As you may know, Welles' finished an original three-hour cut of the film while in Rio for the war effort. The new management at RKO who received it butchered it down to under two hours and dumped into theaters. Allegedly they used their own print and didn't touch his Rio copy, so maybe it's hidden somewhere in some Brazilian vault? While the version that sometimes shows up on TCM seems boring and indulgent, and leading star Tim Holt plays a drab and uninteresting fop. I pine and long for the day when the original cut is found... that is my film geek grail.

But! Confident they'll never find it, I'm spared the anxiety of having to actually buy it for $39.99 on Criterion Blu-ray if it is ever is found, and since I paid so much I'd have to endure all three hours of claustrophobic late 19th century sound and shadow. AMBERSONS is Welles' AMARCORD, his FANNY AND ALEXANDER, his STAND BY ME, but with the selfish rich brat who taunts Spanky in OUR GANG as the star, the type who would surely join 'The Destruction Company' so he could buy and then wail on Joe Cotten's prototype horseless carriage.

And what is that crazy translation of the Baudelaire poetry Wagner's reading? We get a long look at the page in his book:

Kisses will I give thee, chill as the moon
and caresses shuddering and slow,
as a writhing serpent uncoiling a tomb.
Like angels with bright savage eyes
I will come treading phantom-wise
Hither where thou art wont to sleep
Amid the shadows hollow and deep.
Alas, the only DVD version of this film--or SATAN'S SCHOOL FOR GIRLS--comes from the odious Cheezy Flix DVD label. These rats with their douchebag logo release hard-to-find films on Public Domain multi-generational dupe-quality discs for premium prices and that's a disgrace. Occasionally some color shows up unfaded, such as the the succulent purple of Lonra's bedroom chamber (below), but mostly its awash in faded, sad mud.

Yet, perhaps that's for the best, again, for when desires are examined under a Blu-ray HD stethoscope, they tend to dissolve like million dollar ice sculptures in the fires of our hellish gaze. So at least we can still long for a 'better' edition of DEATH AT LOVE HOUSE and SATAN'S SCHOOL FOR GIRLS, the way Wagner longs for Lorna, and the way that longing drags her back from the grave, trailing blurry tracking-streaked clouds of shuddering, slow serpents (uncoiling from the tomb where thy parents think thou ought to go sleep, since it's four AM), shambling like a 'Very Poor (VP)' quality first printing of her own sad fanzine; a dupe of a dupe, hollering for her Usher ushers, her worshipful acolytes, and her sweet, sorry Fredo.


  1. Great article !... Bright and clever... Thank you... I've just seen this movie today, and it was a tremendous experience. Sunset Boulevard meets Laura in the Hollywood Horror House... What a trip !...

  2. I agree completely about Cheezy Flix: the idiots even think they have the right to insert their crappy logo into the film itself (see Billy the Kid vs Dracula, where it shows up absurdly, hatefully, at the start of the film's credits, ie after the pre-credits sequence. Bastards!)

    Ambersons is my favourite Welles and I too am haunted by the thought of the original version emerging but for an entirely heretic reason: I am reasonably sure the studio edit - quite accidentally, without the smallest thought or care for narrative or meaning - is going to be vastly the superior. (Joesph Cotten favoured the studio version, apparently. There's some interesting chat about how it would have differed in the comments under this post: http://www.movietone-news.com/2010/12/i-recommend-spending-christmas-with.html)

    As to Love House, I am obsessed with horror-themed tv movies, which seem so fabulously rootless: they play like Monogram movies, with authentic thirties and forties casts, but are nonetheless contemporaneous with Texas Chainsaw and The Exorcist... Love House is a favourite, along with Phantom of Hollywood (another elegy) and The Cat Creature (unclassifiable in its wonder, and even featuring a scene in which a cat woman FINALLY kills Kent Smith!) Love House, as I am sure you know, was shot in the house and grounds of Harold Lloyd, who had only just died, and the knick-knacks and memorabilia seen in the film are his genuine, unmoved items. It gives a third layer to the film (or a fourth, even).


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