As the 1980s began, the horror legends found themselves moving out of the spotlight and the leading roles diminishing. Peter Cushing was now approaching 70 years old and, while he was still acting in supporting roles, his career was coming to an end. Vincent Price was still busy but his roles were now more supportive and he too was approaching 70. But Sir Christopher Lee was only approaching his 60s and was still very much in demand. The offers were more diverse and, as we know now, he had decades of entertainment left to share with his fans and admirers.
By 1983, these three legends knew each other and had worked together in various capacities. Lee and Cushing had done countless films together by this point. Price had worked with either Lee or Cushing a handful of times but the three would appear together in a film only twice. In 1970, the three would headline Scream and Scream Again but that was a bit of publicity deception. Peter Cushing would have one scene and appeared without the other two. Lee and Price would only have one brief scene together. It wasn’t until 1983s House of the Long Shadows that the three would truly appear together in roles that were more than cameos and had all three on screen for prolonged periods of time. Add in another semi-legend with John Carradine and you had what appeared to be the recipe for a cinematic masterpiece. Unfortunately, the end result was a little less thrilling than hoped for.
House of the Long Shadows is based on Seven Keys to Baldpate, a play written by George M. Cohen. It played on Broadway for 320 performances between 1913 and 1914. Essentially, the film is an old, dark house flick and director Pete Walker did fairly well in creating a spooky atmosphere in what was his final theatrical film. Despite the horror legends receiving top billing, it was Desi Arnaz, Jr. who had the most screen time in the lead role of writer Kenneth Magee.
Magee has become blinded by the money and forgotten about the true meaning of being a writer. His publicist Sam Allyson (Richard Todd) is upset when Magee claims anyone can write a classic novel and the two enter a bet in which Magee has 24 hours to write such a novel. It is arranged for Magee to go to a deserted Welsh mansion for authenticity and solitude. However, once there and with a perfectly timed stormy night raging outside, Magee soon discovers he is not alone.
He quickly encounters the “caretakers” of the home, soon to discover they are actually Lord Elijah Grisbane (John Carradine, Horror of the Blood Monsters) and his daughter Victoria (Sheila Keith, House of Whipcord). It seems there will be a family reunion that night as his sons Sebastian (Peter Cushing) and Lionel (Vincent Price) are returning home. Add in Mary Norton (Julie Peasgood), the damsel-in-distress of our story, and two wayward travelers, and our story is almost set. With the addition of Mr. Corrigan (Christopher Lee), a potential buyer for the mansion, and our cast of characters are now complete. As can be expected, there is a mystery afoot and someone is not who they appear to be. Murder lurks in every dark corner and there may very well be a madman running loose, unleashing grisly deaths such as acid baths and poison punch.
House of the Long Shadows actually works very well at times. Cushing puts in a wonderful performance as the foppish and timid Sebastian. Price is his usual charming and sarcastic self while Carradine merely walks his way through his smaller role. The part of daughter Victoria was originally for Elsa Lanchester but, at age 81 and living in California, she was too ill to travel. She would pass away some three years later. Lee turned in a great performance, playing off as the slightly bothered and mildly concerned spectator. But he gets to shine when things take a rather murderous turn. So where does the movie fail?
Casting Desi Arnaz, Jr. in a lead role was the major misfire of House of the Long Shadows. He is not a good actor and when placed alongside such amazing talent, his lack of acting chops becomes even more apparent. The movie is full of fun plot twists and elements of then modern-day slasher flicks. But, the ending is a bit of a cheat. I won’t give away what happens but it might leave you just a little disappointed.
Nonetheless, I enjoyed the movie for what it was despite what it could have been. I recommend you track it down. While it was released in the early days of VHS, it remained quite impossible to find for many years. Thankfully, it is currently available as an MGM burn-on-demand DVD and is getting a full-fledged Blu-ray release from Kino Lorber on September 15. For now, check out the trailer and prepare yourself for some fun from the masters of horror.
This would the last time Lee worked with either Cushing or Price. After 24 films together, Cushing and Lee would end their cinematic partnership as Cushing was only a few years away from retiring. Price would have quite a few roles left but most were small parts. Price would die in 1993 at the age of 82 and Cushing died in 1994 at the age of 81, both victims of cancer.
However, Lee had decades worth of material ahead of him. He would return to Hammer in 2011 with The Resident and add the Star Wars and Tolkien franchises to his long list of accomplishments, doing what he did best no matter the size of the role or the quality of the film. Sir Christopher Lee died on June 7 of heart failure at the age of 93.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief journey and look at the films of this horror legend. There are countless other films I would have loved to revisit or experience for the first time. For now, we allow Sir Lee the rest he so richly deserves. No sadness here, just joy in the catalog of work he left behind for us to relish whenever the sun sets or the lightning crackles on a dark and stormy night.