Sunday, 31 May 2020

Squint and die! The House That Vanished (1973)

This film is dark, no, really dark, so dark that for long passages you can’t see what’s happening. Now, whether that’s the original intention or just the result of the copy of an old VHS I watched is another matter altogether. This was Spanish director José Ramón Larraz’s fourth film and the first he made in Britain – he’s probably best known for Symptoms (1974) as well as Vampyres (1974) but he had a long career mostly back home. His style here is deliberate and slow, building up the tension and vulnerability of the main characters and playing against an off-beat background in which things are either not as they seem or entirely as they may well be. So, even without the extra layers of video murk, you’re on your guard throughout, especially as explanations are not always defined.

It features a young photographic model, Valerie Jennings played by Andrea Allan who I thought I’d not seen before but who was a regular in Gerry Anderson’s UFO; I didn’t recognize her without the purple wig! She is very recognisable though and does a good job here as she’s almost ever present throughout the film in a way that reminds you of Hitchcock’s blondes, Larraz turns us all into voyeurs for the duration, bad things happen but we keep on looking at the beauty. We’re all complicit in this kind of film and it is not without some genuinely disturbing moments particularly a sequence involving the always watchable Judy Matheson, which colours the whole film and intentionally so.

The House That Vanished is also known as Scream... and Die! As well as Please! Don't Go in the Bedroom (and you really, really, don’t want to go in that bedroom…) but I think the first title is the grandest for what is ultimately a patchy affair that whilst it is shocks intermittently and engages throughout, ultimately it doesn’t quite hold together.

It starts off with Valerie on a modelling assignment, going through the motions with a photographer who wants her to do some more risqué work with him. She’s not willing to go there as she doesn’t trust his artistic integrity although she is willing to take a chance with her very dodgy boyfriend, Terry (Alex Leppard) who’s idea of a good time is to drive her out, off road, into the misty woods. Terry has a little job to do and finds a grand house in the middle of nowhere before gaining entry in search of something, although he won’t say what.

Dark deeds as seen from the cupboard
They find a draw full of women’s passports, which is odd, and then have to hide in a cupboard as a couple enters the house and begin to strip off on the bed. All of this takes place in almost pitch black and I tip my hat to cinematographer Trevor Wren who, even on this murky multi-transfer, captures enough of the action, admittedly mostly the now naked form of the woman. What comes next is the first real shock as the man brutally slices his companion to death as the two onlookers gasp in shock. Valerie runs for her life, heading into the woods after finding Terry’s car keys missing.

The resultant chase is well handled as Valerie hides away in a scrap yard with the killer not far behind, walking deliberated knife in hand as she shivers in terror in the back seat of a rusted car. She stays there until morning, hitches back home where she finds Terry’s car parked outside but there’s no sign of Terry there or at his flat.

Flats were a lot cheaper in Blomfield Road, London's Little Venice...
Life carries on and her friends Mike (Lawrence Keane) and his girlfriend, Stella (Annabella Wood), more than familiar with Terry’s criminal activities, urge her not to go to the police as she’ll get caught up in the burglary.

So far so mysterious but then Valerie meets a strange and attractive sculptor, Paul (Karl Lanchbury) at Mike’s shop along with his Aunt Susanna (Maggie Walker). Paul makes intriguing ornamental masks and seems a much more interesting chap than thuggish old Terry. Valerie starts seeing Paul but strange things keep happening as she returns to her house to find pigeons in the darkened basement. They’re owned by another odd gentleman a Mr. Hornby (Peter Forbes-Robertson) who has just moved in with his flighty pets.

Seems like a relaxed kind of guy?
Meanwhile, the relationship between Paul and his Aunt is rather odd too and after leaves Valerie after an awkward dinner in their London apartment, the older woman has her way with her young protégé…  The next day Mike and Stella go with Valerie to try and find the house but only manage to locate the scrap yard along with Terry’s car… has the house vanished as the title suggests?

So, by this point I’m counting three suspects and one no longer as obvious as he was before the incest… the film needs to pick up the pace though and does so with the return from holiday of Valerie’s flat mate Lorna (Judy Matheson). Lorna provides the semblance of normality and wrong-foots the audience long enough for the shock of her brutal murder to hit us all the harder. It’s pretty hard to watch if I’m honest and Judy approached it with the same degree of professionalism as all her work, it’s upsetting and unsettling.

Here's Judy
It’s also exactly why Valerie should not go in the bedroom… but she does. Judy is able to quickly extablish the vibrancy of her character and we care what happens and it's horrible. Shaken, Valerie accepts Paul’s invitation to go and stay at his Aunt’s country mansion. A chance to get away from it all with new friends? What do you think?

Dusty verdict: The House That Vanished is a weird film but it’s hardly a House of Mystery. The reveals are shocking for their repeated juxtaposition with sexual intimacy but they’re not especially surprising. It would almost certainly have been more visceral and horrific in the depths of a darkened cinema… after images haunting your steps back home after the late bus dropped you off.

It’s well worth seeking out but is not currently available on home media…

No comments:

Post a Comment