From the DVD case: Architect Scott Campbell (Ronald Foster) and his wife Nancy (Merry Anders) join another couple, Joseph and Loy Schiller (Richard Crane and Erika Peters), for what promises to be a pleasant stay at an empty castle set on a secluded California hillside. Soon, however, tension mounts as terrifying things begin happening: A group of ghoulish circus performers who once inhabited the castle become increasingly hostile towards their “guests,” turning their mini-vacation into a life-and-death challenge of wits! (1963, b&w)
Mark says: The premise of House of the Damned is not unique, but it did hold some promise. Lawyer Joseph Schiller (Richard Crane, The Alligator People) hires architect Scott Campbell and his wife, Nancy, played respectively by Ron Foster and Merry Anders (Women of the Prehistoric Planet) to survey the Rochester Castle, a piece of real estate saddled with a dubious past. Joseph and his wife, Loy (Erika Peters, undoubtedly thrown in for sex appeal), are to join the pair later in the week.
The Rochester Castle was built by a wealthy and eccentric woman, Priscilla Rochester (Georgia Schmidt, see image above), who was “put away” because of a scandal that embarrassed the family. We learn later that a bum ventured onto the property and she “blasted his head off.” Priscilla is a crafty old woman, though, and has been known to escape her sanitarium confines occasionally and return to the estate.
After Priscilla’s eviction, the castle was leased to a furtive Captain Arbuckle. He apparently made his money in “tent shows,” but after his lease ran out, he left the property without even turning in his keys.
It’s a classic haunted house set up: Two couples meet in a mysterious castle that is cursed with a questionable history. The title itself suggests we are in for an eerie haunted house tale featuring plenty of “damned” spirits. Unfortunately, what we get is quite different.
House of the Damned has far more in common with Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) than a true supernatural feature such as The Uninvited (1944). Because of this, and the incredibly disappointing conclusion, the film suffers immensely. I have not been so discontented with a film’s “climax” since the cop out ending of I Bury the Living.
This is not to say that House of the Damned doesn’t have redeemable qualities or eerie moments, because it does. The acting is adequate, or at least what you’d expect for such a budget, and some of the camerawork shows ambition. I especially enjoy the voyeuristic point of view of the armless and legless woman (Frieda Pushnik) as she watches Mrs. Schiller disrobe from within her screened box (obviously reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Psycho).
The most startling scene, though, is when The Legless Man (John Gilmore) creeps into Mr. and Mrs. Campbell’s room. Because I did not read the DVD description beforehand (or this review, for that matter) I was not expecting to see Mr. Gilmore’s unsettling silhouette. His gait and the sound of his hands dragging across the floor are quite disturbing. It was obvious this was not a special effect but indeed a real life “carnival performer,” similar to the character Johnny Eck played in Freaks.
Throughout the movie we are thrown one red herring after another to explain the strange occurrences. Perhaps Priscilla Rochester escaped the sanitarium again, or maybe that “screwball” Captain Arbuckle is still lingering about. Even Mr. Schiller’s character is called into question leaving us suspicious. Of course it’s the “ghoulish circus performers” who ultimately hold the final key.
Of the “freaks” featured, you’ll undoubtedly recognize The Giant, Richard Kiel, who would later play, among other countless roles, “Jaws” in the James Bond films. Ayllene Gibbons (Chamber of Horrors) plays The Fat Woman, who ties everything up so neatly at the film’s abrupt conclusion. It’s this tidy Scooby-Doo finale that negates the other positive aspects of the picture. It’s such a horrendous and awkward finish that I found myself a little perplexed when “The End” flashed on the screen. That’s it?
It really is. The entire film plays out in approximately 63 minutes.
Look for Dal McKennon (The Cat from Outer Space) in the comic relief role of Mr. Quinby.
House of the Damned was written by Harry Spalding (Curse of the Fly) and directed by Maury Dexter (The Day Mars Invaded Earth).
Scene to watch for: Mr. Quinby gets caught perusing a girlie magazine.
Line to listen for: “Funny thing, airline hostesses, department store buyers, secretaries, they look all pretty much the same when you come right down to it.”
Mark’s Rating: ! ! ½ out of 5.