In defense of George Bowers’ effective and classy 1980 haunted house thriller
1980 served as the dawn of a sort of American horror film and the last stop of another. With Friday the 13th‘s graphic gore, quickie and punishable-by-death sex and mechanical body count plotting baiting the box-office and birthing the unyielding, blood-spattered slasher sub-genre, the comparatively quaint ghost story was on the way out; 1979’s The Amityville Horror and Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining – with their reliance on adult themes and dread as opposed to ultraviolence – serving as the final “big” blockbuster haunted house movies of the era.
Nestled among those terrifying titans was director George Bowers’s modestly-budgeted, PG-rated Crown International potboiler The Hearse. At the time, Roger Ebert famously called the movie a “garage sale” horror film, as it shamelessly cobbles and cribs its identity from those aforementioned hits as well as other notable spook shows as Dan Curtis’ Burnt Offerings and Peter Medak’s The Changeling. After a theatrical run, the film was well-rented on home video and became a staple on late night television throughout the ’80s and has since faded into obscurity, a chiller devoid of any serious respect and lacking any kind of cult that I’m aware of.
But another look at The Hearse is sorely needed. While suffering from its budgetary restraints, it’s still a serious, atmospheric and solid female-fronted supernatural thriller that’s smart, sophisticated and often scary. It certainly needs more love…
The Hearse stars Trish Van Devere (who also co-starred in The Changeling with her husband, George C. Scott) as Jane, a recently-divorced woman who inherits a charming country home in the town of Blackford, left to her by her dearly departed aunt. Upon moving in, Jane soon realizes that her lovely aunt was not all that she seemed. After getting shunned by the townsfolk for whatever reason, Jane does a bit more digging into her relative’s life and discovers that she was mixed up with a secret sect of Satanists and that the hearse carrying her corpse crashed on the nearby road but that the driver and her aunt’s body were never found. Now, the suspicious townies believe that both the house and the roads around it are haunted. And they’re correct, of course. Soon, Jane is experiencing all manner of hostile phenomena: doors slamming, pianos playing themselves, walls creaking and, most alarmingly, a creepy, ghostly hearse chauffeur keeps popping up (shades of Burnt Offerings), grinning and menacing Jane and driving her bonkers.
Thankfully, she’s not totally alone in her terror. She’s soothed by the odd looking local Reverend (Donald Hotton) who keeps telling her that the sounds and visions she’s experiencing are all in her head, the result of nightmares, isolation, anxiety and grief over her aunt’s death. She finds a friendly port in the storm in the form of Paul (actor and now notable workman director Perry Lang), a lovestruck teen working at the local hardware store who has a hardcore crush on the older, sensual woman, much to the delight of his teasing and taunting pals (playing one of his mates is Donald Petrie, another actor turned director). But Jane’s favorite distraction is Tom (David Gautreux), the handsome, cultured local man who becomes her lover. One of these gents is not what he seems, however and, to be fair to The Hearse‘s detractors, it’s not hard to figure out which one it is.
The Hearse is not perfect. The red herring angle mentioned above never works and there’s far too much exposition. Jane picks up the phone and recaps events to her friend in useless waves of dialogue that serve to purpose outside of padding out the running time. But Bowers is a solid director and editor (outside of directing a few Crown International exploitation pics, like the amazing My Tutor, he mainly worked as an editor, cutting pictures like the underrated Johnny Depp flick From Hell) and he knows how to milk atmosphere and shocks. He’s aided by his ace leading lady; as Jane, Van Devere is a heroic, strong presence who stands tall in the face of the forces that threaten to drive her out. She veers between thinking her troubles are the acts of the hateful locals to believing that the powers of the Devil are indeed coming for her. And no matter what, she refuses to buckle. It’s a solid character and its expertly played by the veteran actress. And then there’s the presence of the ailing, aged Hollywood legend Joseph Cotton (Citizen Kane, Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt) who plays the caustic property lawyer trying to convince Jane to sell the house and get the hell out of town. The Hearse would mark one of Cotton’s last roles and though clearly in poor health, he provides a professional, lively presence and adds class to the production. Gelling it all together is a moody, frightening score by jazz musician Webster Lewis, a classic piano and strings soundtrack that is as sincere and un-ironic as the rest of the movie.
They just don’t make movies like The Hearse anymore. And that’s sad. Find a way to see it, watch it late at night and flash back to a time when horror wasn’t slimy and self aware and even low budget efforts had class, craft and restraint.