Psychedelic Film Criticism for the Already Deranged

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 married biographers in this priceless 1976 made-for-TV film. Kate Jackson and Robert Wagner play the couple. They move into Love's crumbling mansion (i.e. "Love House") to soak up the atmosphere and groove on her many mementos. With all the spooky stuff going on this book takes forever to get started. Instead of working, Wagner begins to drink and brood over the portrait of Lorna (painted by his own late father, cementing his connection to the subject) hanging in the study. He may as well be Vincent Price in a Corman Poe, since he's becoming possessed, and Lorna's beautiful corpse is even kept on display in a glass case out in the backyard as a shrine to her beauty and vanity. What chance does 'the smart one' of Charlie's Angels have against such a powerful REBECCA / LAURA / LIGEIA - ish ghost?

Kate is nonetheless sharp as always in her silk scarves and pants, straight black hair extra long; a smart sweater over collared shirt adds smart nerdy class to her beautiful and warm and nurturing and sweet 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 and no one believes her. Wagner thinks it's her imagination, but it's his that's out of control. As he drinks booze in the den, moons over the portrait and screens her old films over and over via a home projector on the wall, he starts having conveniently-timed gold-tinted hallucinations of ghostly Lorna whenever Kate's in danger upstairs. In the most awesome moment, Lorna comes to life in a slow mo 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.

The more he drinks, the more Wagner gets rude, patronizing, and dismissive of Jackson's legitimate worry that someone is trying to kill her and has left a Satanic knife in her drawer and cut her face out of their author's photo. 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... or would they?

Anyway, despite all that, the pace is brisk and there's a whole cavalcade of pre-war Hollywood stars in cameos: John Carradine as Lorna's old Svengali-style director; Sylivia Sydney as the nicotine-voiced housekeeper; Joan Blondell a deranged fan and coven member; Dorothy Lamour, I forget what she does. And holding her own as the ghost / Lorna, a leggy tall blonde named Marianna Hill --who you may remember her as Fredo's rebellious strumpet of a wife in GODFATHER 2.

Being a confirmed sadomasochistic Charlie's Angels fan as a child in the 70s, writhing Sternberg-like on images of the Angels (and Cheryl Tiegs), you can imagine how I longed to see DEATH AT LOVE HOUSE, which was mentioned on occasion in TV Guide, along with 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. Hell, I'd even mop floors!

In the pre-Xerox, pre-video 70s, the only way to acquire pictures of your icons, you must remember, was to take them with a camera yourself, off the TV, or buy the magazines, trade them, or steal them. Only with great difficulty could you reprint them (in schools during the 70s, copies were done on mimeograph machines - all the print was in blue smudgy ink, and no ability to add photos to the mix). As for films, the best you could do was to get a super 8mm projector and buy little loops from the camera store. These loops had one or two key scenes from the film edited together and running maybe five or six minutes.

I mention that to stress the power of the image in that era, a power that proliferation in our current era has decreased. That inability to 'own' movies-- our lack of access --made images more sacred, more ephemeral in nature. There was no way my parents would let me stay up that late, 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.


Obsessive, morbidly image-obsessed pagans like me have had the last laugh with DVD and the internet--having nearly every film we ever imagined or read about available at our fingertips--but it's a devil's bargain. The unbearable surplus, the vast, the staggering force of ever-expanding 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 worlds to conquer.  The center cannot hold and without that externalized desire, the subject implodes under its own horrid weight. Look at these recent revolting news stories about 'the Destruction Company' - where dumb rich kids need to pay someone else for the right to smash their own TV sets, and you see how universal availability forces the entitled child into 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 won 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; to freeze themselves in amber; 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, collect their checks, and shamble off back into the shadows.

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 cut of the film while in Rio for the war effort; his studio 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 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 serpent 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 release hard-to-find films on Public Domain multi-generational dupe-quality discs for premium prices and that's a disgrace! Have some respect! 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 (Lorna being a no-doubt intentional play on LAURA).  Even if it means she has to come back from the grave, trailing blurry tracking-streaked clouds of shuddering, slow serpents (uncoiling from the tomb where thy parents think thou ought to sleep), 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 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:

    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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