Director: Paul Harrison
Severin Films

Severin Films gives a high definition resurrection to the residents of THE HOUSE OF SEVEN CORPSES on Blu-ray/DVD combo.

The cinematic fodder that is the violent history of the Beal family – peppered with murders and black magic – is being exploited in a low budget film being helmed by ill-tempered tyrant Eric Hartman (John Ireland, RED RIVER). The caretaker Edgar Price (John Carradine, THE HOWLING) disapproves of Hartman’s version of the story, and the Hollywood actors – including aging diva Gayle (Faith Domergue, PSYCHO SISTERS), Shakespearian lush Christopher (David Macaulay, BLACULA’s Dracula), and ingénue Anne (Carole Wells, TV’s NATIONAL VELVET) – and sniping crew members trudging through the mansion uninhabited since the strange suicide of the last member of the family. It is, however, assistant director/supporting actor David’s (Jerry Strickler) idea to swap out the hokey scripted black magic incantations read by the aging leading lady with more authentic ones from the Tibetan Book of the Dead that might be what shuts this production down… permanently.

THE HOUSE OF SEVEN CORPSES is an uneven yet enjoyable guilty pleasure. Besides the pleasure of seeing Ireland, Domergue, and Carradine together onscreen, a big part of the film’s success is the location: the Utah governor’s mansion, which had by then become the Utah Historical Society; the latter makes a nice departure from the usual Los Angeles-area locations that this film might have used had it not been for the nifty Mormon penny stock deal that funded the film according to the disc’s commentary track. On the level of production and story, we’ve got Hollywood filmmakers out of their element on location (Utah for the shoot, a cursed mansion for story), and violating taboos (smoking and drinking and various other transgressions on the shoot and reenacting black magic rituals – which have nothing to do with the real Tibetan Book of the Dead).

The script and its surprise reveal – unless it’s somehow a case of possession – make absolutely no sense, and it’s further compounded by some suspicious behavior from Carradine’s caretaker (who disappears into the nearby family cemetery nightly) and other characters furtively wandering the halls and grounds at night. The film-within-a-film scenes have the feel of the latter days DARK SHADOWS storylines (albeit a bit more conventional without the time travel and parallel timelines) – indeed it does feel like a 1970s TV movie in some respects (and what a neat one it would have been with this cast and location) – but cineastes may be distracted by the way in which sequences from the film-within-a-film are captured all in one take with the only additional coverage being for effects inserts. For a 1974 film, THE HOUSE OF SEVEN CORPSES may not have capitalized on all of the available exploitative elements, but it can still raise some hairs during a late night viewing.

Just as some of the characters pull double duty as cast and crew members in the film-within-a-film, so to do a number of the film’s actual crew members. Make-up artist Ron Foreman – who went on to work as an art director and production designer on larger films like ROCKY III and COLORS – also plays the film-within-a-film’s make-up artist. Art director Ron Garcia – now a cinematographer with credits like TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME and ONE FROM THE HEART (as well as more recent TV series like NUMBERS and HAWAII FIVE-0) – plays one of the Beal victims in the opening credits and painted the Beal family portraits. Stuntman Charles Bail (THE STUNT MAN) not only took all of the falls for various cast members here, but was also another Beal victim in the credits. Assistant director Matty Hornstein – who would later produce a number of the STAR TREK features – also doubles onscreen as the make-up artist, and local crew member Dennis Record plays both the camera assistant and doubles as the walking corpse. The film’s production manager was actor Gary Kent who does not appear onscreen, if only because he probably didn’t have the time (going by the commentary track and the supposition that with the limited crew he probably did a lot of other odd jobs if there was no one else to do them). Kent was a regular of the exploitation films of Ray Dennis Steckler (BODY FEVER), Al Adamson (SATAN’S SADISTS), and Don Jones (SCHOOLGIRLS IN CHAINS, THE FOREST) who was this film’s cinematographer. The score is comprised of library tracks from the Synchrofilm library (this is one of their films that didn’t recycle Stu Phillips’ THE NAME OF THE GAME IS KILL score) – with choral music arranged by UFO researcher Robert Emenegger (apparently the same guy since he’s also listed as composer of the documentaries he directed on the subject) – but nevertheless effective and atmospheric.

THE HOUSE OF SEVEN CORPSES was released on VHS in a clamshell edition by Video Gems that was almost pitch black during the night scenes and murky during the day shots. Image Entertainment’s later 2000 DVD featured a PAL-converted open-matte transfer that was an improvement visually with a sharper image and better color; but it lacked any kind of day-for-night tinting so there were cuts from the moon in the clouds to the mansion grounds in shaded daylight (this is particularly ruinous in the climax when a body is visible to the audience long before a character shines a handheld spotlight on the area). The same transfer was reissued a few years later by Geneon.

Severin’s 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC-encoded 1.78:1 widescreen Blu-ray is brighter (bright enough to reveal the powder on the actors’ faces outside the film-within-a-film scenes and dilute some atmospheric shadows inside the mansion) with colors a touch more saturated than the Image disc. This transfer – presumably the same one shown recently on Turner Classic Movies – also lacks appropriate day-for-night tinting and some shots are softer than others (the film was shot on short ends), but it is still a pleasure to re-experience the film in widescreen (the widescreen framing looks accurate throughout, although the open matte version did lend itself a not unwelcome TV-movie feel). The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 mono track is problem free. The DVD side of the package has only a DTS 1.0 option for the feature audio (the commentary is Dolby Digital) which will prove problematic if your DVD player doesn’t have a built-in DTS decoder or your player is hooked up to a DTS receiver. Note: According to the telecine operator who did the transfer for Severin, the day for night shots “were a mess as they were all shot at different exposures. They were averaged for exposure as much as possible without loosing detail. I looked at the Image disc which was very, very dark in those scenes and was missing 75% of the detail so we sorta met in the middle between what the shots actually were (many of which were shot facing the sun, for some reason) and the totally dark look on the Image disc […] we simply lowered the exposure to retain the original color tones as, from the one reel of interneg which was also sent, the timers seemed to be doing the same so that's what we used as our guide.”

The film is accompanied by an audio commentary track by the film’s production manager Gary Kent – who shares an associate producer credit with screenwriter Thomas J. Kelly – a familiar face in front of the camera from the films of Al Adamson (SATAN’S SADISTS), Ray Dennis Steckler (BODY FEVER), and THE HOUSE OF SEVEN CORPSES’ own cinematographer Don Jones (SCHOOLGIRLS IN CHAINS, THE FOREST). He talks about shooting in the Utah Historical Society, working around its everyday business (with secretaries pausing their typing only during takes), as well as beginning his day listening to the litany of transgressions made by the cast and crew according to the society’s head. He also discusses the antics of hard partier Carradine and ladies’ man Ireland (art director Ron Garcia was also apparently a bit of a ladies man as he reportedly charmed several Mormon dowagers out of the antique furniture to furnish the mansion). Kent’s own personal assistant – the Beal hanging victim in the credits – also apparently kept disappearing with actor Strickler who went sightseeing when he wasn’t on camera. He also fondly remembers Wells who had at the time been married to Edward “Larry” Doheny IV (great grandson of the California oil tycoon whose name is all over streets and buildings in Los Angeles) – who committed suicide in 1973 – and her sister-in-law Lucy appears as one of the Beal family (the drowning victim) in the opening credits. The commentary track's moderater, the Alamo Drafthouse’s Lars Nilsen, is a good match for Kent, asking some good questions and making some non-disruptive joking asides.

The disc also includes a 1983 videotaped interview with John Carradine (28:03) who does not seem particularly enthusiastic about discussing his work in horror movies, although he is aware that his face and his voice are what made him the ideal horror actor. He underestimates the number of horror movies he has done, seemingly holding the Universal films in higher regard; although he does mention that one of the places he had played Dracula was in Manila (a sly reference to VAMPIRE HOOKERS). He recalls working with Boris Karloff both in film and on TV (either THE VEIL or THRILLER), and his ambitions to be a Shakespearian actor. Also included is an extremely rare trailer (2:08) for the film's release through International Amusement Corporation (who released THE VAMPIRES NIGHT ORGY, THE THIRSTY DEAD and THE SEX THIEF the same year). (Eric Cotenas)