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The Murder Mansion

the movie somnambulist

THE MOVIE SOMNAMBULIST #18: The Murder Mansion

No matter how much butchery happens to a Euro horror flick (as opposed to in said flick), the last image is usually what the entire plot is bending toward. Vast amounts of plot can make no damn sense at all, but there’s all kinds of ground work for that final shot. It’s a proven movie strategy; if you hit them hard with the last thing they see, they’ll forgive a lot of crap. THE MURDER MANSION is unusual in that it decides to have two final shots; picture the end of THE RETURN OF THE KING, only the endings all happen in ten seconds total.

I have looked over my notes three times and spat over my left shoulder, but this plot makes less than no sense. In a grumbly moment I even wrote “This movie’s even gonna short me on boobs; I can feel it.” I wasn’t wrong. I don’t dislike THE MURDER MANSION; I think I mistook it for something else initially. The movie’s a mystery, but it’s a horror mystery, which means they’re going to cheat to deliver a surprise. It doesn’t cheat the way the SCREAM movies do, where it cheats then pats itself on the back for cheating. Euro shockers cheat because they never give a damn about their own rules.

Logic is switched on and off throughout the movie. All the characters are lost on a foggy night; for some reason the roads don’t go where they’re supposed to and maps don’t describe the terrain anymore. There’s Porter, the guy with the hot car and the vandyke that’ll grow in just swell in a few weeks; he loses a comely hitchhiker named Laura to a younger buck on a motorcycle—that’s Fred. Fred even gets a red pill/blue pill choice when asking directions in the light of day. There’s the long safe way around and there’s the short, old, possibly dangerous route. Come on, what do you think a dude on a motorcycle’s gonna choose?

Then there’s the impenetrable goings-on around Elsa. There’s a lot of money at stake and Elsa’s the key to it. There’s an older couple in a VW that have something to do with it, and there’s Elsa in her own car. So they’re all out in the fog. Fred and Laura literally run out of road and find their maps don’t seem to indicate where they are. Time has been kind to the movie here; maps used to be considered authoritative, but ask anyone with a GPS device if they’ve ever been left high and dry. Not far off, Elsa has a one-car accident and wanders off. Other characters have near-misses and the like. Elsa sees two figures in the cemetery coming for her, so she runs into Fred and Laura. They all find their way to a mansion (go figure), where Porter and the VW couple have already taken shelter. A young woman owns the place; she has a painting of herself as an old woman over the fireplace. That’s her aunt, a witch. But it’s fine ‘cause she’s dead.

Now the movie wants us to see that the owner’s stories are full of logical inconsistencies. It’s Fred’s job to set up and knock down all this business. Porter, however, has either been in one of these movies before, or just knows to take the long view: “I keep having this sensation, that we’ve crossed the frontier between the real and the unreal.” He’s nailed it. Fred keeps applying rationalism to the circumstances and exposing lies and whatnot; but it’s to no good end. Oh, Fred’s not wrong; but logic is only going to take you so far in this movie. Porter’s attitude makes him the first victim, because the first character to accidentally grok the point of things too early is the automatic black guy of the group. Porter dies of a heart attack when the ghostly chauffeur makes a move for him.

Fred and Laura run around the catacombs under the house and connect lots of dots, but they learn nothing. All the important stuff, they learn it by accident. The whole business is a plot by Elsa’s (ex?)husband, the man in the VW and the owner of the house to make Elsa crazy so they can get her money. Elsa is a piece of work, too. One thread of the movie is Elsa’s impossibly high standards for the men in her life. She had a nervous breakdown when she found out that her dad had sex with her college roommate, some of which is recounted in a long flashback. In her flashback her dad tells her to lighten up. Her crappy marriage is so clearly an attempt to get back at her father that she leaves with her future husband from the very party where her dad vocally disapproves of him and then says I’m gonna go bang your roommate. Later in the flashback, her husband tells her she doesn’t forgive a man for having flaws. It went by faster than the marriage in Charles Foster Kane’s flashbacks. I thought Elsa was going to run for governor next.

Another of my notes, around the 19:00 mark: “The movie no longer makes sense.” But if you take Porter’s statement from earlier about this being a boundary between the real and the unreal, then the movie’s pretty spiffy. The characters’ strategies fall on either side of the boundary. Porter spends his precious movie time drinking and seeing who will have sex with him, and he asks everybody. Fred spends his time acting as if there is sense to be had from the proceedings. Both of these men are doing the right thing. It all works very well until it turns out the whole thing is a goddam plan to make Elsa crazy. That makes all the weird roads and map discrepancies just a patch of group stupidity, a necessary evil in so many horror movies.

The VW Guy has a black cloak and a fake head with a handle on it for making it look like there’s a floating head; there’s latex masks aplenty for the owner when she suddenly looks like the witch in the picture. The ghostly chauffeur is just a hired goon in a mask. When Elsa’s (ex?)husband appears as a surprise player near the end, killing all his accomplices to neaten thing up, it’s just not a surprise. The movie wants to crown Fred right and Porter wrong, but Fred’s rationalism took him way off the map. When the house catches fire and there’s killers around, Fred tells Laura let’s get the hell out of here. But what about Elsa and the other innocents, asks Laura. Well, says Fred. There’s only two seats on my motorcycle. So off they go. The movie thinks Fred’s right because it thinks it shares logic with him. Fred’s right because he got the cutest girl and got the hell out.

So, the final two images of the movie sum it up pretty well. Elsa, pretty crazy by now, wanders downstairs and trips over the carefully-arranged bodies of the accomplices, complete with smoking guns. She takes one and when she sees her (ex?)husband, she doesn’t hesitate. She empties a clip into him as he falls in Peckinpah slo-mo. For about half of the fall, he appears to her as her father. Bang. Bang. Bang. So she got her catharsis, but now she’s extra-crazy, so it does her no good. Elsa, all whacked out and triumphant, is definitely the freeze-frame movie-ender, right? Nine times out of ten, yes. But to underline another point entirely, we get five seconds of Laura and Fred riding off into the rising sun. Like hell, they’re going for help.

Another bit of dialogue: “I keep getting the feeling we’re on another planet.” THE MURDER MANSION really squanders a fun idea, that there’s a place even in movies where logic sometimes works and often doesn’t and that this can be recognized. This isn’t the same as the self-awareness of characters in movies like the aforementioned SCREAM (or the far superior THERE’S NOTHING OUT THERE). To be aware that logic sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t isn’t the same as having information about how things are going to go. It’s like the choose-your-own-adventure books; those things had a brutal perverse logic to them, to the point where they too represented a boundary between the real and unreal. I can remember playing old computer text adventure games where you’d sift through every detail to figure out what to do, and the feeling I got in the vampire’s castle one when (searching for fire or matches or some damn thing) I typed “flick bic”—it said “Oh, you remembered you had a lighter. It is lit.” Imagine you younger folks being trapped in some situation where the only way out was knowing a once-ubiquitous 80s ad slogan; that’s you on the border between the real and unreal.

Like THE ISLAND MONSTER, a much more interesting film could be made here strictly through redubbing. The shift need only be a subtle one. Make the conspirators just as lost as the victims; the conspirators are trying to spin their way out of this strange country by pretending they understand the place and thinking they know how to play along. They fail because they never think to leave. They try so hard to understand this place that can only be murkily understood, or clearly only in parts and moments, that the simple solution only occurs to the youngest characters in the movie. There’s two seats on the motorcycle, folks.

Stayed awake for the whole thing because I foolishly thought I could dope out the plot. Once they started using character names halfway through I was sure I could do it. I forgot there’s two seats on the motorcycle. Six wide awake eyes for this one. (One eye equals 15 minutes of runtime.)

John Ira Thomas writes graphic novels for Candle Light Press. He thinks Kierkegaard probably didn’t think much about the seats on the motorcycle. For more Movie Somnambulist fun, check out the archives!

April 21, 2011

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