142. The House of the Dead aka Alien Zone (1978)
Director: Sharron Miller
Writer: David O’Malley
From: Cult Cinema (Alien Zone); Chilling (The House of the Dead)
An anthology horror film where a man takes shelter in a funeral home and learns how each body came to meet their unfortunate fate.
The frame narrative for this movie is Talmudge, a businessman in town for a semi-annual conference who’s meeting up with his mistress. The movie opens, in fact, with them screwing so you know this is going to be a classy flick. By the way, screwing, but no nudity or profanity so the movie’s safe-for-work. She talks about her husband, how he’s not who she loves, and how she needs to see Talmudge more. He generally blows her off and then leaves to catch a cab back to his hotel to call his wife.
The cabbie, though, drops Talmudge off in a random part of town leaving him to wander through the rain looking for shelter. He’s eventually taken in by an odd man who wants to tell Talmudge about the customers the man serves. The man is a mortician and starts showing Talmudge the bodies of his latest acquisitions and relating the tales of their death. We then go from story to story, each a short horror film that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense either individually or collectively, but whatever.
The first story is an elementary school teacher who hates children. She goes home from work, starts preparing her dinner and a shower, but suspects someone’s in her house. Doors are opening, radios get turned off. Finally she’s sure of it, but discovers it’s just a band of kids in Halloween masks. She shouts at them, takes the mask off one only to reveal that they all have weird Nosferatu-style fangs and they descend upon her.
There’s not much tension or personality—it’s one person alone in a house who hears strange noises. Were it longer, you could have the character talk to someone or raise doubts about whether someone’s there or not. The movie itself is 76 minutes long and has 4 stories within the frame narrative. There’s not much time for anything. Ultimately, this first piece feels, at best, like a semi-competent student film, but nothing more.
The second story is a serial killer who records all his murders. He has a camera set up in his living room and invites women over so he can record their deaths. So the found-footage idea, but back in 1978. The first thing we see, though, is him getting arrested by the cops and then shots of journalists asking him why he recorded every death so we’re told in advance everything we’re about to see which kills any kind of tension or suspense. We see the various women being tricked into his home and killed. I was hoping for some kind of twist where something else was killing them or the script was carefully choosing its words so that he was recording something else, but no, it’s just him strangling women.
This is the ultimate issue facing the movie. Since every story is about how its subject died, these pieces don’t have tension so much as inevitability. We aren’t watching to see what happens, we’re waiting for the character to die so we can move to the next piece.
The third story is maybe the most competently done. A genius detective is examining the body of a hanged man and then, by detailing every bit of evidence at the crime scene, is able to name the murderer and send the cops to arrest him. A British detective is watching him and introduces himself. They’re both competing for the title of world’s greatest investigator. They go out to dinner where the American receives a cryptic note threatening someone close to him. He spends the next several days trying to get whatever clues he can from the note while the British detective hovers about making unhelpful comments.
Because of the limited number of characters, you can guess where it goes from there. However, it actually has characters, some personality, and, since it’s more than one person, some doubt as to what the final outcome will be. It’s not a great piece, but it does all right.
The final story, once again, is just one man, some nondescript business type who doesn’t want to associate with anyone. He accidentally gets locked in an abandoned store and, as he tries to get out, falls into an open elevator shaft. The elevator starts to descend and, just before he’s about to be crushed, a door opens and he rushes through it. He turns out to be trapped in a small concrete cell where the walls can move—at one point revealing a wall of spikes that nearly impale him, but stop just short, at another, allowing space for a bottle of beer to be rolled to him. He remains there for an unspecified amount of time, becoming an alcoholic, before a door opens to let him out. He stumbles into the light, asking passers-by for help, but he just seems like a crazy bum. A businessman tells him to “get a job,” and then walks into the same abandoned store, presumably to get trapped the same way, before the original man can manage to shout, “No!”
The last piece, admittedly, felt like something we would see today. Think of things like Saw or even Oldboy where there isn’t so much a logic as a sense of “here are ways to hurt someone.” Again, like the first story, there isn’t any character. He’s just an object that stuff is done to. However, this one does at least have a mystery built into it—what is this place and what is going on? That the short doesn't provide an answer works for me. It’s basically an unnerving tone poem and isn’t trying to be anything more.
Then, of course, there’s the frame narrative where Talmudge is shocked by what’s happened to all these people and the mortician says they all deserved it. He gives an uninspired moralizing speech about people needing to be kind to one another and it feels like the movie is trying to make it seem like each person violated one of the seven deadly sins, but there aren’t enough people to hit all the sins.
After his speech, one casket remains and Talmudge asks what their sin was. The mortician says “infidelity” and reveals that it’s empty. Talmudge flees and is chased through the streets by the cabbie who dropped him off before. Turns out he’s the mistress’ husband and shoots Talmudge. The final shot is an ambulance loading the body into the back while the mortician sits in the passenger seat smiling.
To start, I don’t know why the original version of this movie was named Alien Zone It has nothing to do with aliens. The House of the Dead works because the whole movie is happening in a mortuary. Also, while my copy of Alien Zone on the Cult Cinema set is 1:30 longer than my copy of The House of the Dead on the Chilling set, I don’t think there’s any difference between the two (apart from The House of the Dead being the much better print). They have all the same stories so I think they’re just playing at different speeds. When I manage to sync both copies up, they fall out of sync pretty quickly.
As to the quality of the movie itself, obviously I wasn’t thrilled by it. Anthology pieces are hard to do and you really have to demonstrate some neat idea that’s best served by being a short piece. The man trapped in the abandoned store is a neat idea. The detectives could have been spun out into an actual movie. The camera killer at least had the novelty of found-footage, but the producers couldn’t think of much to do with it. And the first piece was just poorly done. The movie, frankly, feels like a job application for a reboot of The Outer Limits or The Twilight Zone. Only it’s not good enough to land the job.
It’s not all bad, though. The two final pieces are interesting enough and the ideas are certainly useful if you’re trying to come up with an idea for a Call of Cthulhu session. Overall, though, it’s just not that great and it’s not particularly fun. I had mistakenly thought this was in the public domain, but it is not and I've removed my copy from the Internet Archive.