Ratings Key



★★★★
= Excellent. The best the genre has to offer.
★★★
1/2 = Very Good. Perhaps not "perfect," but undoubtedly a must-see.
★★★ = Good. Accomplishes what it sets out to do and does it well.
★★1/2 = Fair. Clearly flawed and nothing spectacular, but competently made. OK entertainment.
★★ = Mediocre. Either highly uneven or by-the-numbers and uninspired.
1/2 = Bad. Very little to recommend.
= Very Bad. An absolute chore to sit through.
NO STARS! = Abysmal. Unwatchable dreck that isn't even bad-movie amusing.
SBIG = So Bad It's Good. Technically awful movies with massive entertainment value.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Private Eyes, The (1980)

Directed by:
Lang Elliott

This PG-rated spoof of haunted house flicks and murder-mysteries is very hit-or-miss, but many who saw it as children back in the day have a strong, nostalgic love for it nonetheless. A rich, elderly lord (Fred Stuthman) and his wife (Mary Nell Santacroce) are murdered and then have their car sunk into a lake. It's up to a pair of bumbling idiot Sherlock Holmes / Watson clones to get to the bottom of things. Inspector Winship (Don Knotts) and his sidekick Dr. Tart (co-writer Tim Conway), who've received a letter asking for their help, arrive on the scene from Scotland Yard with a car full of pigeons. Hey, some messages may need to be sent back to home office. After somehow managing to blow up a gas station with a cigar, they arrive at the huge Morley Manor to begin their investigation. They're greeted at the door by butler Justin (Bernard Fox), who starts convulsing any time the word "murder" is said and the uptight maid Nanny (Grace Zabriskie), who keeps Justin in check by kneeing him in the groin. Winship and Tart are instructed to meet with Phylis (Trisha Noble), adopted daughter of the victims and sole heir to their fortune. She points out that it's stipulated in the will that if anything happens to her, then everything is to be split evenly between all of the members of the staff.






Because the letter they'd received was signed by Lord Morley himself and was sent after his death, the duo wonder if they've been lured there by the man's ghost. They accidentally find a secret room housing the skeletal remains of Santa Claus (!) before someone tries to blow them up with a bomb. They fall down the fireplace instead and are then face-to-face with the entire staff of freaks who populate the mansion. One of them is responsible for the Morley's murders. First up is an Asian samurai chef named Mr. Uwatsum (John Fujioka), whom Morley won in a card game (?) Then there's bossomy blonde bimbo maid Hilda (Suzy Mandel), whom the Lord kept around because she's full of, uh, bounce. Filthy gypsy Tebit (Stan Ross) is the caretaker and has lived there ever since Lord Morley saved him from an animal trap (which is still clamped to his foot). Jock (Irwin Keyes), an unintelligible one-eyed hunchback who had his tongue cut out was a war buddy of the Lord's. Justin confesses that he killed his wife and all of her thirteen lovers and was found innocent by reason of "justifiable insanity." Nanny is your usual stern, humorless housekeeper.






Basically every single person at the manor has a motive. Maybe even Lord Morley himself, who's supposed to be dead but had a fear of being buried alive so he was emtombed in a vault that doesn't lock from the inside. Just in case. A black-gloved hand pops in from off screen to do things like light a handle and drop acid into tea. People start getting killed off one-by-one and the murderer leaves behind a note each time with a poem. All of the haunted house cliches are here and accounted for, including lots of secret panels and passageways, dark corridors, thunder and lightning, eyes peering through cut-outs on paintings and bodies turning up missing. There's even a torture chamber full of contraptions like a guillotine, a machine that straps someone to a chair and sends them toward a bunch of swinging axes and even a giant trash compactor our heroes almost get squashed in. There's a recurring gag where every single pigeon Tart tries to send off is injured or killed. He even throws one through a shut window at one point and another is struck by lightning.






The non-stop noisy slapstick gags (sometimes accompanied by sound effects) include people getting slapped, kicked, spin on, hit over the head and otherwise laid out, home furnishings being knocked over and frequently destroyed and lots of slack-jawed mugging and cross-eyed looks from Mr. Conway. Knotts (who had already been in a haunted house comedy; THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN, back in 1966) gets to the play the straighter of the two roles here and I'm sure he was grateful for that. The resolution is right out of a Scooby Doo cartoon but there's a surprise appearance by a hog-man called a Wookalar at the very end. I'd say this was primarily targetted toward children, though I'm sure some parents may disprove of some of the content. You know, like frequent death, a couple of boob jokes, doped-up pigeons and someone drinking "buzzard puss."






Despite a Brit-heavy supporting cast, it was actually filmed at The Biltmore House and Gardens in Asheville, North Carolina and became a modest hit in theaters. Interestingly, actress Mandel - a veteran of British soft-core flicks - appeared in this family film and the hardcore porno BLONDE AMBITION the same year. The director was the President and CEO of Sunn Classic Pictures and was one of the co-founders of TriStar Pictures.

★★1/2

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