It's a Christmas horror film that disappeared into obscurity for a reason. These days it's in the public domain.
It's the story of a house. In 1950, its owner burned to death and left a will stipulating that it stand empty forever. Twenty years later, the heir is at last selling it. This isn't a ghost story, but it's got so much backstory that it might as well have been. The movie comes alive when it's talking about the past.
Unfortunately what it doesn't have is protagonists in the present. This is the movie's problem. The historical background is good. I was happy with the menacing guy with heavy-set features and emotional problems. (The actor's called James Patterson and he was about to die of cancer at the age of forty. He died so soon after shooting this film, in fact, that they had to use another actor to dub his dialogue some scenes.) Nothing appears to be broken... but my attention wandered. I thought about other things. I had to remind myself to pay more attention to the movie, or else I wouldn't be able to write this review.
There's a lawyer who has a besotted girlfriend, although he also has a wife and child. There are a bunch of locals, who talk darkly of the house and have been trying for years to buy it and pull it down. These people would have been more interesting if you could believe for a moment that they would ever be anything except victims. There's a girl (Mary Woronov) with almost no involvement in the case.
...and that's it. Woronov's the only one who doesn't metaphorically have a vulture on her shoulder and a target painted on her back, but all she does is talk to James Patterson when he drops in for no reason. Meanwhile Patterson himself is diverting, but we're assuming that he's the killer. In fairness this didn't have to be an obstacle and it might have been interesting to turn this into a Patterson story, but unfortunately the movie isn't doing that either. Protagonists? We don't need no stinking protagonists. Instead the storytelling drifts around like the sea. If normal plotting can be likened to a river, with a clearly defined direction that's channelled by river banks, then this movie has decided that banks are not required. Stuff just happens. Old folks talk and occasionally die. Information is gradually uncovered, but mostly through the movie investigating itself.
The cast is more interesting than it might have been. John Carradine's here, playing the mute who rings a bell when he wants to express something. Patterson is compellingly ugly and good at glowering. Woronov reminded me of Jamie Lee Curtis, but scarier, and she's gone on to have a long career in the business. She was married to this film's director when it was made, incidentally. There's also Patrick O'Neal (The Stepford Wives
) and a lot of people from Andy Warhol's Factory.
The best thing about the movie is the backstory, as I said. This goes back to 1927, which is where you have to do a bit of mental arithmetic to cater for the fact that this is a 1970 movie. (That's when it was made, but then two years elapsed before it got released.) I was impressed by the script's twisted ideas and I particularly liked the German Expressionist silent movie sequence (but with voice-over narration), reminding me of nothing so much as Nosferatu, but with gore. The sepia, the staring faces... that was a good bit.
A few years later it might have been a slasher movie, but Black Christmas
didn't come out until 1974. Theoretically it's still not far from that, in a box-ticking way, but its tone is far more gentle and reflective.
This isn't a good film, but it's not horrible either. Instead it's pudding-like, with spooky story elements and disturbing ideas slooshing around in a shapeless narrative. I don't hate it. There are things to like here. It's just not doing itself justice and failing to be compelling. Note the way that the first seven minutes are mostly driven by their narration, for instance, with the visuals being effectively moving illustrations. It was originally released to the drive-in circuit, but then it fell into the public domain and had been almost forgotten when it appeared on Elvira's Movie Macabre in the 1980s and developed a modest cult following. Me, I have an appreciation for elements of it, in a passive, detached kind of way.
"I have wandered in bitterness until all seasons have become as one... and that is a season of vengeance."