Saturday Nite Sublime: House of The Damned (1963) or The Sideshow in the Basement or It Aint Over Til The Fat Lady Says So!

This post contains spoilers! I do reveal the end of the film, as it was the interesting conclusion, that inspired me to write about the film…

House of The Damned (1963):

Behind These Doors… The Unbearable Otherness

But, I that am not shap’d for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass
I, that am rudely stamp’d and want love’s majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deform’d unfinish’d sent before my time
Into this breathing world scarce half made up,
and that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them-

-Shakespeare, King Richard III, I.I.14-23

Merry Anders plays the attractive and likable Nancy Campbell married to Scott Campbell (Ron Foster) an architect who is hired by their mutual friend Joseph Schiller( Richard Crane), to survey a castle up in the Hollywood hills. It’s more like a Hollywood Spanish fortress set in the middle of nowhere, for the reclusive Rochester’s who had it built for privacy.

Upon driving up to the Rochester Castle up on the isolated hill, it brought to mind the long opening driving sequence in House on Haunted Hill (1959), with its similar eccentric mansion, opulent… a monstrosity… Same with Eleanor Lance driving up to Hugh Crane’s twisted damned architectural fiend that was Hill House.

Scott and Nancy really need the work, although their first impression of the house is an eerie and at times mysterious one. They are given 13 keys by Mr Quimby the realtor. 13 Keys for 50 doors.

the silhouette of the legless man creeping into the Campbell’s bedroom to steal the set of 13 keys.

Silhouette of a legless man framed in by the shadowy stairs…

Once Nancy and Scott arrive and get settled into the place, to start measuring the floor plan, strange things start occurring. A dark figure enters the bedroom, moving with a strange gate to his walk, almost sounding as if he’s dragging himself along the floor. This we see in silhouette, the dark form moving slowly toward the bedside table where the 13 keys are set. We see a very hairy, almost primitive-looking hand grab at the keys and then slither back out of the room into the black darkness of the house. The next day the keys are returned to them with only 11 on the ring. Leaving the Campbells to wonder which 2 doors are off-limits.

The original movie posters touted the film this way: ”13 Keys Open The Doors To The House Haunted By The Living Dead!’ or so they wanted to misdirect you!

Also, there is the question of Old Priscilla Rochester (Georgia Schmidt), lurking around the dark hallways, or is she still at the sanitarium? Realtor Quinby already told them that she’d gotten out several times already. What landed her in the lunatic asylum… She blew a man’s head off with her shotgun! She was a recluse, like her father.

Then there is the question of a certain Captain Arbuckle the last tenant who paid a few months in advance and then virtually disappeared, with no one inquiring as to where he went off to!

Once Schiller meets up with the Campbells, along with his new French bride who he’s not getting along with very well, the tame yet, mysterious goings-on start to reveal themselves slowly. I’ll admit, that there are extraneous amounts of walking the hallways, looking indoors, and looking for each other. Yet, I found this film oddly intriguing in a quietly uncanny and freakish way. Not frightening, not spooky, yet oddly absorbing because of the fantastic cinematography of John M. Nickolaus –

(Night of The Blood Beast 1958, and The Day Mars Invaded Earth 1963 2 films that worked really well in spite of a sparse script, the camera work, created a very compelling atmosphere that made both sci-fi films more engaging than they might have been. I took notice of his cinematography on The Day Mars Invaded Earth, and decided that film was also a quiet little gem that grows on you.) Nickolaus’s framing of the scenes was quite striking at times…

Nickolaus’ stark B&W tones, and the use of Gobos to create shadowy patterns in contrast created a very Noir environment. It strikes me as such an odd little film, that doesn’t quite fit into any genre neatly. It’s a curious film, that’s going to stay with me for a bit..

I enjoyed Merry Anders’s performance a lot, She reminded me a bit of Ruta Lee, yet Ron Foster’s facial structure is as if his jawline and cheekbones have been molded out of clay, always tight-faced, or as if he’s constantly grimacing, picking a sesame seed out of his back molar or perhaps waiting for the call from Caesar’s Palace to come to do his secret passion to be an Elvis Impersonator!

I kept picturing a team-up of Ruta Lee and Richard Long as the better fit for the Campbells. They might have breathed a bit more LIFE into the picture.

And as far as Richard Crane as Schiller, his face is just as sculpted out of clay, he appears most of the time as a constipated mannequin. Erika Peters who plays it, is annoyed with her wasted sexiness, the wife Loy Schiller is just added for the provocative. titillating chemistry that’s missing from the foursome. The renegade character needs to stumble first onto the secret behind the 50-door castle.

What strikes me about the film, is the way it culminates, albeit abruptly, and too saccharine by the close of the film, around the subject of Circus Freaks hiding out in the Castle, because they have no place else to go.

Apparently, Captain Arbuckle had taken them all in when the Circus shut down. Here at the castle he could protect them and give them a safe place to live.

Unfortunately, he died peacefully in his sleep one night and left the Circus folk to fend for themselves. Fearing that they had no place to go, they conspired to merely frighten the Campbells away, to buy themselves time to figure out a plan.

The reveal, in the end, is quite precious, and I say that in a condescending way, I intended it to be. While the film might have wanted to first frighten us, only to surprise us with an oddly different kind of twist ending, not sinister not emphatically sympathetic, it still reeks of ‘The Unbearable Otherness.’ I think that’s what makes the film so creepy for me. That director Maury Dexter and writer Harry Spalding manage to maintain the film’s ‘Freaks’ as still outside society. still the other, still monstrous in their own way.

Now the 4 remaining families of Circus folk, The Fat Lady who was Arbuckle’s maid and cook and mother figure to the gang, played by Ayllene Gibbons,  The Giant played by Richard Kiel

John Gilmore who plays The Legless Man and Frieda Pushnik The Armless, Legless Girl wind up realizing that they must move on, walking up the stone stairs, facing their unknown future with dignity as the chic city folk looks upward at them with pity and wonderment, allowing them to leave, as if the film’s conformity or ‘normalcy’ needed to approve of the unorthodox ‘freakery’, the otherness that needed to be hidden away behind a stone fortress to the outside world.

Directed by Maury Dexter (The Mini Skirt Mob 1968) and written by Harry Spalding  (Curse of the Fly 1965, Chosen Survivors 1974, Watcher In The Woods 1980)

Henry Vars’s musical score works really well with the noir stylized use of black spaces, obscured lighting, and well-framed scenes.

Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) didn’t ask for acceptance, it was raw and real, and the people you saw on the screen held formidable confidence. I want to cover Freaks in an extensive post another time, so I’ll only cite it here in regards to the contrast of the treatment of ‘Creating Freakery’.

House of The Damned, it’s not to say that there isn’t some genuine edge of simpatico to these forgotten and wayward carnival folk, that’s indirectly sympathetic, yet ultimately dismissive. The Fat Lady does speak of a positive future. She takes back control and that is a positive standpoint in the end, even while the beautiful people are staring at them pityingly as they slowly ascend the steps to nowhere USA to be stared at by ‘the faces.’ once again.

The film also deals with mental illness as Priscilla Rochester, does ultimately go batty in her house, and winds up being committed as she has taken a shotgun and blown a man’s head clean off, the identity unknown therefore. When Schiller calls the hospital to see if the old lady is still in the facility, the reluctant nurse goes to check and finds a very feral old crone who is ready to scratch the night nurse’s eyes out, with her talon-like old lady claws.

Priscilla is in her bed Mr Schiller I assure you

Priscilla appears in the doorway like a banshee, “I caught you spying” She was a recluse, struggles with paranoia, and aged thing, a discard herself, perhaps SHE is the DAMNED that the house is symbolic of…

As I’ve said, I really like the camera work and lighting. It’s such an odd little film. It isn’t too deep, not psychologically disturbing, but very atmospheric in a way that settles like dust after you’ve beaten the rug. It just all settles down into this queer little tale, with several stand-out moments that I think are without contrivance and uncannily unique.

The Headless scene, for one, the Legless Man creeping into the room to steal the keys all in shadow, and the Legless, Armless girl in the cabinet, who seemed to fade in and out of the box like magic.

People might be expecting The Old Dark House or rather a Modern Dark House, plot, rather than this strange tangent that the film goes on. I would like to have seen the use of The Flashback, to give us a little more developed history of these people who were hiding themselves away. To contribute more about the substance of their experiences, to be ogled, to be other, it might have balanced out the superfluous scenes of roaming the corridors looking for doors that work!

The one door they haven’t tried yet!

Old Captain Arbuckle lying in repose on his peaceful deathbed.

Because the climax ends so abruptly, I am unsatisfied with the plight of this little family hiding out in this eccentric castle. I feel like it only serves to exploit them rather than lend a sympathetic lens. perpetuating the ‘Unbearable Otherness’, instead of embracing their existence and not ending with them walking up stone steps toward an unknown outcome. It leaves them still, almost as the monstrous overshadowing that hovered around the castle. It did not enlighten the narrative properly, nor resolve the question of Otherness, and why they must hide away.

Destined to roam, are these then the Damned ones of the house? They are not ghosts, monsters, murderers, or criminals.

Why is the house damned? Was Arbuckle’s peaceful, yet lonely death a punishment for dealing with side shows? At least he took care of his people. The house was built for recluses. It was meant for people who didn’t fit into the world outside. Does this mean that non-conformity to ‘normalcy’  brings damnation? Who knows. Maybe it was just a good-selling title for an odd film.

The Fat Lady tells Nancy that she didn’t hurt Loy, it was just, “The Headless Woman trick, was just a simple sideshow trick, with mirrors, just like the Spider-Girl and The Mermaid.”

Does the film do a good enough job at the end, with the characters ‘Being Humaned’?

In the credits, she is called The Fat Woman

Scott Campbell meets the Fat Lady and speaks, “Well you, you’re all a….”

The Fat Lady-” You can say it, Mr Campbell…Freaks…”

Scott-“No I was going to say Carnival people….Captain Arbuckle owned a carnival.”

The Fat Lady –“A Circus…a small one, but it was a circus.

Scott- “You mean he hid you here when he retired? “

The Fat Lady- “I was his housekeeper and cook. We took the others in when they needed help…but we never let anyone know because of his lease. “

Fat Lady, explains to the Campbells,

“What you saw was a combination of two old sideshow illusions…the locked room and the headless woman. The Captain has others stored down here. Mermaid, and Spider-Girl, it’s all done with mirrors. You’ve probably seen it dozens of times”

Schiller accuses them of murdering the Captain. She tells him that the Captain was the only friend they had. “We didn’t kill him, he died one night in his bed peacefully. As you can see it isn’t easy for us, the Captain took us in many years ago when the side shows began to break up. When he died we just locked the door, we didn’t know what else to do…”

Schiller- “You could have called a doctor.”

The Legless Man- “We had no place to go”

The Fat Lady- “We needed time to think. to plan…when you came we hoped to scare you away.”

“Where will you go?”
The Fat Lady- “Can we go?”
“The police will probably want to ask you a few questions”
The Fat Lady-“What will they do to us?”
“Under the circumstances, I don’t imagine anything”
“As far as we’re concerned you can go”

The Fat Lady leads her little family:

“Come along…it’s time for us to leave…We’ll have to find a carnival again…it won’t be so bad”

The Armless, Legless Girl- “The faces!”
The Fat Lady- “Oh come along, come along, we’ve all been looked at before…”

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