Sunday, January 8, 2023

House on Tombstone Hill, The (1989)

... aka: Dead Come Home, The
... aka: Dead Dudes in the House
... aka: Hexenhaus - Blut für die Zombies (Witch House: Blood for the Zombie)
... aka: Road, The

Directed by:
J. (James) Riffel

Shot on 16mm in upstate New York in 1988 under the title The Dead Come Home (it may have also used that same title during a brief theatrical run in 1989), I originally saw this as The House on Tombstone Hill, which was the properly-packaged A.I.P. Home Video release from 1992. However, the film's reputation would be tarnished somewhat over the years whenever Troma became the primary distributor. They put it out in a goofy looking video box, wrote a ridiculously misleading blurb on the back (referring to the pretty standard college kid characters as "Hip-Hop yups" [?]) and then gave it an even goofier title (Dead Dudes in the House) to falsely make it look like some kind of frat house comedy or horror spoof. However, what worked for barely-salvageable junk like A Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell (formerly titled The Dark Fortress) and FERTILIZE THE BLASPHEMING BOMBSHELL (formerly titled Mark of the Beast) was just sorely inappropriate for this more serious-minded effort. 

While there's a little bit of black comedy here, and the unavoidably campy conceit of it featuring a sprightly undead elderly lady as a killer, this is not a horror-comedy. It actually has much more in common with the very first Evil Dead, which also has some humor but is mostly concerned with creating a gritty atmosphere and providing gory shocks. I'm only pointing out the bad marketing because I've noticed many viewers getting bunched panty syndrome that the film isn't what they're expecting. They then infest movie sites to take it out on the filmmakers when it isn't their fault.

Mark (Douglas F. Gibson) purchases a large, old, run down country home dirt cheap and invites along some of his friends to help him renovate it. Accompanying him are his snobby girlfriend Jamie (Sarah Newhouse), all-around nice guy Ron (Mark Zobian), preppy couple Steve (John Dayton Cerna) and Linda (Naomi Kooker) and a pair of carpenters; obnoxious wanna-be macho man Bob (Victor Verhaeghe) and his redneck buddy Joey (Eugene Sautner). As for warning signs prior to the proverbial shit hitting the fan, this has a few. For starters, there's a noose hanging from a tree outside. And then there's an old tombstone for one Abigail Leatherbee placed right in the front yard. Being the respectful kinda guy he is, Bob promptly takes his sledgehammer to the tombstone and cracks it in two, which unleashes an evil force inside the home.

Seeing how the banter / bickering between the main characters is unpleasant, poorly-written, awkwardly-delivered and not the least bit interesting, the filmmakers have the common sense to not make us wait very long at all (roughly 20 minutes) before the killing commences. As for the reasoning behind the whole haunting, we do get a little bit of a backstory. The elderly Abigail was attacked in her own home by an intruder and stabbed over 50 times. While she survived the attack and eventually was able to return home, she went crazy, murdered her neighbor and then died of a heart attack just a few days later. Abigail's equally unhinged daughter, Ann (Leighann Belair), then dug up her grave, brought her corpse home, buried it in the yard and then hung herself from a tree.

Everyone becomes trapped in the home when the doors lock shut and the windows prove to be unbreakable, and those who are killed return for a second round as possessed zombie-like fiends (who, unfortunately, still talk) to help kill off the others. Ed French and Bruce Spaulding Fuller provide a wide range of mostly-good gore effects to the works. One guy trying to climb in through a third story window has both of hands chopped off with a machete, falls to the ground and then gets impaled with a steel pole heaved at him from above. Scissors and saw blades are plunged into backs, a screwdriver is stuck through a head, someone gets pinned to the floor by knives stuck through their hands and ankles and there's death (or re-death) by saw, knife, hatchet and a jagged window pane (which bisects a body), plus limbs hacked off, guts ripped out and a pretty good decapitation.

There are a few other non-splattery aspects that work really well, too, starting with the ambiance. The grainy film stock mixed with the dim lighting and setting (they've found a really good abandoned home to shoot at) give this the perfect look and feel for this kind of thing. There's also something genuinely creepy about the presentation of the killer grandmother. Could be her latex mask, or the fact she's played by a man but voiced by a woman, or the fact she's so casual in how she dishes out threats and slowly lurches around with her cane as if she's in no big hurry to kill everyone. It was also a smart idea not to overexpose this character by making her the only killer. She only pops in here and there and ends up being kind of like the final boss of the film.

But are these pluses enough to overcome the debits? Somewhat, though not entirely. The characters (aside from the granny) are neither likable nor interesting, the acting is mostly terrible, the direction and editing are sometimes clunky and the pacing is really off, especially in the second half. Since they start killing off the small cast right away, they run out of people by the hour mark, so a couple of boring teen boys (Rob Moretti and James Griffith) are synthetically grafted on to provide additional fodder toward the end. The film would have run smoother had they simply added a few more people to the initial renovation group. The second half also becomes too repetitive and consists mainly of one-on-one encounters with possessed people in scenes that seem needlessly stretched out.

The first-time director, who was attending NYU at the time, also made Night of the Day of the Dawn of the Son of the Bride of the Return of the Revenge of the Terror of the Attack of the Evil, Mutant, Alien, Flesh Eating, Hellbound, Zombified Living Dead Part 2: In Shocking 2-D (1991), a comic re-dub of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD with added film breaks, interludes and scenes shot around New York City occasionally spliced in.

The 2018 Vinegar Syndrome Blu-ray releases comes with a long audio interview with the director and a documentary short titled Three Dead Dudes, which features interviews with stars Zobian, Verhaeghe and Gibson.

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