mandag 18. februar 2013

The House of Lost Souls/La casa delle anime erranti

Italy, 1989

Directed by Umberto Lenzi

Stefania Orsola Garello, Joseph Alan Johnson, Matteo Gazzolo, Laurentina Guidotti, Gianluigi Fogacci, Costantino Meloni, Licia Colò, Charles Borromel, Hal Yamanouchi, Dino Jaksic, Beni Cardoso, Massimo Sarchielli, Giulio Massimini, Fabio Branchini, Vincenzo Menniti, Fortunato Arena, Marina Reiner

Umberto Lenzi has long been one of my favorite Italian directors. His films range from excellent to utter nonsense but they’re always fun to watch. For my money’s worth, though, Lenzi was always better at making thrillers and cop movies than he was at making straight horror. Nevertheless, he’s made his share of horror, and after his haunted house flick Ghosthouse (1987) became a surprise hit and garnered a series of semi-sequels, Lenzi was approached to make two haunted house movies for television in 1989. The films would be part of a 4-movie package named ‘Houses of Doom’, with the other two films in the series being made by Lucio Fulci. Fulci made The House of Clocks and The Sweet House of Horrors, while Lenzi made The House of Witchcraft and The House of Lost Souls but ultimately the films were deemed too violent for television and were distributed on VHS instead.

Nice-looking sales sheet courtesy of Mediaset Distribution

The House of Lost Souls was both written and directed by Lenzi, and it tells the story of a group of young geologists studying fossils up in some Italian mountains. As the film starts they’re in the process of wrapping up and plan on heading back home the next morning. But one of the geologists, Carla (Stefania Orsola Garello), is having trouble sleeping because she is plagued by strange and disturbing visions. Flashing before her eyes are images of a ghoulish-looking Buddhist monk (Hal Yamanouchi) swinging an axe, a Buddha statue getting its head gorily smashed with an axe, a skeleton in a wheelchair, tarantulas crawling over someone’s face, and a little boy with blood on his hands.

Carla has freaky visions

Carla screams in horror, and her boyfriend Kevin (Joseph Alan Johnson) comes rushing to her aide. “The doctors gave you a reasonable explanation. They said that you have psychic powers. You’re a medium!” he soothingly tells her. Mmmkay! I’d like to know just what kind of doctor told her that! But Carla won’t let herself be calmed down easily. “I don’t wanna be a medium! I don’t!” she complains.

Anyway, the next morning the group embark on their long drive home, and we get acquainted with the rest of the gang, which consists of Carla’s handsome older brother Massimo (Matteo Gazzolo – dubbed by the ubiquitous Ted Rusoff), the wise-assed Guido (Gianluigi Fogacci), Guido’s girlfriend Mary (Laurentina Guidotti), and Carla and Massimo’s extremely annoying and badly dubbed kid brother Gianluca (Costantino Meloni). Unfortunately for the group, they discover that the roads are closed due to some landslides, and they’re forced to find somewhere to spend the night. Gianluca notices a sign pointing to the Hotel dell’Eremita – i.e. the hermit hotel – but when they get there, they find the desolate hotel looking crumbled and abandoned, with a sign reading ‘closed’. But as luck would have it, the lights suddenly come on and the hotel’s sinister-looking proprietor (Charles Borromel) appears. After a bit of consideration he reluctantly allows the youngsters to spend the night. Everybody’s thrilled – except Carla, who feels uneasy around the creepy hotel proprietor.

The group meets the scary-looking hotel proprietor

Later that night, Carla experiences another one of her strange psychic visions. This time the visions manifest themselves through an old, unplugged television set – showing a scary-looking old guy killing a woman and her little son with an axe – and as Carla screams in terror, the TV explodes.

More weird visions

But Carla isn’t the only one to experience strange things. Little Gianluca is frightened when blood starts dripping from the lamp, and tarantulas come crawling into his bed. But did it really happen, or was it just a dream?

However, the worst fate befalls Mary when she decides to peek inside the cold storage. What looks like a rotting zombie hand pushes her inside and quickly locks the door. Inside, there are two frozen corpses hanging from hooks, and poor Mary completely freaks out but none of the others are able to hear her desperate screams for help.

Frozen Terror

Fortunately, Mary is discovered and rescued just in time but there’s no sight of the two corpses. Did Mary just imagine seeing them? As a new day dawns, the groups finds that the roads are still closed – forcing them to remain at the spooky hotel. The mysterious hotel proprietor is nowhere to be found, the telephone cord has been cut, and there’s dust and cobwebs everywhere. It doesn’t look as if the hotel has been in use for a very long time, and indeed, all of the calendars on the walls are from 1969.

Somebody's cut the telephone cord...

Kevin and Massimo decide to drive into the small town to learn more about the history of the hotel, and discover that it’s been closed for 20 years, when it was revealed that the owner had a bad habit of beheading his guests with an axe. Apparently, the souls of his victims still reside in the hotel – ready to exact their revenge on anyone unfortunate enough to set foot there. And, naturally, the ghosts’ preferred method of disposing of the living is to cut their heads off...

The lost souls exact their revenge on the living

As far as haunted house movies go, The House of Lost Souls brings nothing new to the table. A stranded group seeking refuge in a creepy house with a macabre history, and undead souls haunting the place is stuff we've seen a thousand times before and Lenzi’s lazy rehashing of these tired clichés feels rather uninspired. The only fresh spin on the tale is Carla's psychic powers and her ability to see events from the past but, unfortunately, this plot point eventually turns out to be moot and inconsequential since all the other characters end up having visions too. It's a shame to waste a good idea like that but at least it gives Lenzi an excuse to throw in a couple of psychic visions, which are quite stylish and atmospheric.

The characters are for the most part poorly written, and laced with dialogue and English dubbing which is every bit as silly as you’d expect from an Italian late 1980s horror movie. Unfortunately, the characters are also annoyingly stupid, and they constantly put themselves at risk by wandering off on their own as if they were actively looking for trouble. I suppose I can forgive that, seeing as such behavior is pretty much a given in horror films of this type. But what I cannot forgive is the fact that Lenzi is too damn lazy to properly trap his characters at the hotel. Yeah, the road leading back home is closed, but the road to the small friendly town they just passed through is not. It is clearly established that the ghosts are strictly confined to the hotel itself, so why on earth does the group choose to stick around and get murdered when they could hang out safely in the town while waiting for the roads to open!? This sort of cringe-worthy stupidity is detrimental to the film and makes it hard to care too much about any of the characters. Then again, it does make it all the more fun to see them get what’s coming to them, and Lenzi has fun chopping their heads off in various inventive ways.

Amazingly enough, the first one to get killed is actually the annoying little kid brother! Yup, you read right: The kid gets killed – and in a pretty gruesome way too! In the film’s coolest scene by far, the ghosts’ supernatural powers cause him to get sucked into a washing machine, which slices his head right off! A decapitation by washing machine must surely be some kind of cinematic first and this is just the kind of inspired craziness we’ve come to admire Italian horror films for. In the late 1980s, Italian horror movie directors were apparently eager to kill annoying children in rather gruesome ways (see also Mario Bianchi’s The Murder Secret, 1988), and while it may sound a little awful to say so, unpolitically correct scenes like this work like an invigorating jolt of adrenaline.

This scene alone is worth the price of admission

Luckily, there’s more head slicing in store, because let’s face it, gory deaths are the bread and butter of film’s like this – weighing up for the predictable story and boring characters. And, thankfully, Lenzi gives us heads being lopped off by axe, knife, chainsaw and guillotine. None of it is as gory as one might expect, though, and the severed heads do not look entirely realistic but the beheadings nevertheless provide some much needed visceral thrills.

Ghostly mayhem

The score credited to Claudio Simonetti (under the anglicized name Claude King) consists entirely of music cribbed from earlier films scored by Simonetti – most notably Demons (1985) and Bodycount (1986) but there's also some stuff from Opera (1987) and Dial: Help (1988). The use of recycled music is a bit of a two-edged sword. On the one hand, the music is very good and atmospheric, but on the other hand, it serves as a constant reminder of how it was originally utilized to better effect in superior films.

On a technical level, the production values are slightly lacking but the film is slickly shot and the cobwebbed, old hotel makes for a suitably atmospheric backdrop to the spooky going-ons. Lenzi also adds to the mood by throwing in a shower dripping blood, tarantulas, bear traps and lots of exploding bottles.

The film boasts a fair share of stylish imagery

The acting isn’t really that great but to be fair to the actors, the script leaves them little to work with and saddles them with some pretty stupid dialogue (and dubbing), so it’s hard to properly evaluate them. Female lead Stefania Orsola Garello clearly tries the best she can, though, and delivers an adequate performance given the circumstances. Unfortunately, the film suffers somewhat from a lack of familiar faces. Some may recognize the male lead, American actor Joseph Alan Johnson, from Lucio Fulci’s infamous The Ghosts of Sodom (1988), but the rest of the main players will be largely unknown to most Euro cult viewers. A couple of familiar faces might have made the characters a bit more engaging. We do, however, get treated to appearances by Italian cinema’s most prolific Asian actor Hal Yamanouchi, bug-eyed character actor Charles Borromel and Jess Franco regular Beni Cardoso as some of the menacing ghosts. None of them have any dialogue and their limited screen time pretty much sees them putting on scary faces and waving knives or axes, but it’s still nice to have them around and they do look effectively sinister.

The best acting is done by the walking dead

In the end, The House of Lost Souls is a pretty unoriginal affair – marred by an uninspired script and characters who behave annoyingly stupid. It does have its cheesy charms, however, and the creepy ghosts, stylish visions and inventive decapitations keep it interesting. If you liked Ghosthouse and the rest of Lenzi’s late 80s efforts you’ll probably enjoy this one too.

© 2013 Johan Melle

The cast:

Stefania Orsola Garello as Carla

Joseph Alan Johnson as Kevin

Matteo Gazzolo as Massimo

Laurentina Guidotti as Mary

Gianluigi Fogacci as Guido

Costantino Meloni as Gianluca

Licia Colò as Daria

Charles Borromel as Eraldo Covatta, a lost soul

Hal Yamanouchi as Asha Krisna, a lost soul

Dino Jaksic as Isacco Levi, a lost soul

Beni Cardoso as Rebecca Levi, a lost soul

Massimo Sarchielli as Cemetery Caretaker

??? as Daria’s Cameraman

??? as Gas Station Attendant

Giulio Massimini as Librarian

??? as Maresciallo

Fortunato Arena as Alcide Nardi

Marina Reiner as Gina Brandini, a lost soul

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