Friday, October 21, 2016

Past Misdeeds: Deadly Manor (1990)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

A group of ex-teenagers is planning a nice outdoors vacation at a lake with a quite unpronounceable name, situated, it seems, somewhere in the deep dark woods of New York State.

The friends pick up the shady yet helpful hitchhiker Jack (Clark Tufts). The new-found acquaintance informs them that they have gotten themselves a little lost and are still hours away from their destination. Everybody's getting a bit cranky and stressed out now, and the odious comic relief is beginning to get to them too, so the friends decide to look for a place to hole up in for the night.

After a bit of driving, they do indeed find an old, dark and seemingly abandoned house in the middle of the woods (as you do) and decide to try their luck there.

It's a peculiar place. What must once have been the building's garden is now dominated by a wrecked car that is propped up on a marble slab as if it were some sort of shrine. One of the friends, Helen (Claudia Franjul), is prone to hunches - and would be a clear candidate for being the final girl in most other slashers - and declines categorically to enter the house that frightens her with its "aura of evil". Her friends, not even her boyfriend Tony (Greg Rhodes), don't care much about what she says, so Helen decides to make her way back to the road in the hope to hitch a ride with one of the millions of cars that must be driving around in the woods. That's the last anyone will see of her alive.

The rest of the merry band decides to break into the house through its barn. Inside, the place is even more peculiar than from the outside. In a cellar that connects the barn to the main house are two empty coffins, yet that's still not enough to dissuade the rather dense friends from getting the hell away from there.

The main house isn't any less creepy. Most of its walls are plastered with (frequently nude) photos of a dark-haired woman (Jennifer Delora) in strangely disquieting poses. A little later, the friends find a cupboard full of human scalps.

It also seems as if someone had been living in the house just the day before. Still, they being in a horror film and all, the young people decide to stay the night. It's cold outside after all, and who wants to sleep in a car?

It's not a very good decision. Throughout the night, ever more peculiar things begin to happen. Someone uses the horn of the enshrined car outside, a coffin opens, Tony finds a photo album full of pictures of the neatly posed corpses of bikers and then dreams (but is it a dream?) of having sex with the creepy woman from walls. A masked woman sneaks around. A crack opens in one of the walls. And finally, someone starts to murder the friends.

Deadly Manor is the next to last film in the long and difficult career of Spanish genre film specialist Jose Ramon Larraz (probably best known for the most disturbing of all Lesbian vampire films, Vampyres). At this late point in his career, Larraz had the usual problems of interesting genre filmmakers of his generation in scratching together enough money to realize any movie at all, so making something that could be interpreted as a slasher movie must have sounded like a good idea at that time to him and his producers. Commercially speaking, it wasn't. The film turned out to be a hard sell to distributors and was never widely seen.

It's quite a shame, really, because Larraz does a few interesting thing with the tired slasher movie formula. Of course, getting surprising inside the context of the slasher isn't too difficult a proposition. The sub-genre is so heavily codified, so set in its ways that even the most minimal of variations feels fresh and exciting - at least to someone who has inflicted as many of these films on himself as I have over the years. A film like this one, in which what would be the final girl dies early on, and in which people die in an order that goes quite against slasher rules, feels like a real breath of fresh air.

Larraz also adds neat little flourishes of realism (for a slasher movie), with scenes of body transportation that seem to hint at the director putting a bit of thought into the logistics of his killings.

The logistics of dragging bodies around aren't the only thing Larraz has put a bit more thought into than usual in this sub-genre. I wouldn't go as far as to call the film's characters deep, but where the usual slasher kiddie is just a one-note victim, the characters here show signs of being people. Except for their staying in the house of doom, they even tend to act halfway believably. The acting is quite alright too, and only helps to strengthen this aspect of the film.

Of course, being a bit better thought-through than the typical late-period slasher movie doesn't make a movie that interesting for anyone outside of the genre completist. Surprisingly enough (or not, when you keep the experience of its director in mind), Deadly Manor has a lot more going for it than just that.

Although parts of the film are trying to be a little more believable than usual, the other half of the film, what I'd call its heart, comes from a completely different direction. Larraz, old hand at the slow, slow build-up of atmosphere and the cinema of the weird, seems to have set his mind onto the re-weirdification of the slasher formula. Too many films of the sub-genre are satisfied with just fulfilling the requirements of formula, losing the ability to be truly disquieting in the process and not getting much (by 1990 not even an audience anymore) in exchange. Larraz' film isn't. Instead, the director piles on the strangeness once his characters have left the prosaic world and entered the house, giving his movie a very dream-like/nightmarish mood slasher movies seldom consciously try to evoke. There's something about the way Larraz films his old dark house, branches scratching against windows and the photos that fill the house that puts the film as much into the tradition of the director's older European horror movies as in that of the slasher. One could also argue that the interest in mood before anything else closely connects the film to proto-slasher movies like Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre or the earliest full-grown slashers like Halloween, and that might well be true.

Still, I think even that part of the American slasher tradition is only a thin veneer of paint put on top of something strange and frightening very much Larraz' own.

This, however, is only Deadly Manor's strength if you want it to be. Go in expecting a quick revue of kills and excitement, and you will probably be terribly disappointed by the film's sedate pacing, and its insistence on creating a mood of the weird more than one of outright horror. But if you give the film a chance at being the more personal creature it is, you can find much to like in it.

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