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A rare example of a horror film shot in Salt Lake City, Utah, The House of Seven Corpses (1974) is perhaps best known in the movie history books as the final film of actress Faith Domergue, the former adolescent protge of Howard Hughes and contract player for RKO who starred in such sci-fi films as This Island Earth, It Came from Beneath the Sea, and Cult of the Cobra, all released in 1955. This particular film was released in 1974 shortly after another low-budget shocker with Domergue, Psycho Sisters (opposite Susan Strasberg), after which she retired to live quietly in California until her death in 1999.
This film marked a reunion of sorts for Domergue with actor John Ireland, the onetime Oscar® nominee from All the King's Men (1949) with whom she had previously appeared in Lucio Fulci's mod 1969 thriller, One on Top of the Other, when both were taking roles in Italy. Furthermore, she had also appeared with costar John Carradine on another old dark house film, Carl Monson's soporific Legacy of Blood (1971), while Ireland and Carradine (who had never worked together before) would go on to drive-in infamy with Satan's Cheerleaders (1977).
Fortunately all three of the actors are given plenty of juicy dialogue to play with here as they enact an early version of the meta-horror trend that would become mainstream decades later with Scream (1996). The concept here revolves around a notorious house belonging to the Beal family, all of whom died under violent and inexplicable circumstances. A film crew arrives on the scene to cash in by shooting a horror movie, though they also unwisely decide to integrate readings from the Tibetan Book of the Dead into the shoot. Naturally that awakens the dead in a less than hospitable mood as the director (Ireland), aging star (Domergue), caretaker (Carradine, basically in a humorous cameo), and nubile starlet (Carole Wells, screaming with all she's got) have to scramble for their lives.
Of the recognizable actors, the Vancouver-born Ireland easily has the most to do here as the financially-challenged filmmaker Eric Hartman. In fact, Ireland was very busy himself at the time, popping up in two made-for-TV thrillers (The Phantom of Hollywood and The Girl on the Late, Late Show) as well as Laurence Harvey's last film, Welcome to Arrow Beach. Ireland continued to remain busy acting until his death in 1992, often balancing TV roles with more exploitation films like Salon Kitty (1976), Guyana: Cult of the Damned (1979), The Incubus (1982), and even his last film, Waxwork II: Lost in Time (1992).
Almost exclusively a TV actress before this film, the Louisiana-born Carole Wells had become a child actor and music performer, winning her most notable screen role a year after this film in Funny Lady (1975) for Columbia. A year earlier she had just become a widow after the death of her first husband, Edward Laurence Doheny IV, heir to the prominent Los Angeles oil family whose name begat one of the busier streets in Beverly Hills. She remains an active presence in Los Angeles promoting humanitarian causes and natural health products. Oddly enough, another real-life Doheny also appears in this film in her only screen role, as the departed Suzanne Beal: Lucy Doheny, Carole's mother-in-law and the reigning matriarch of the family until the early 1990s. Not unlike this film, the Doheny family had its own grisly brush with tragedy in 1929 when Lucy's first husband, Ned Doheny, was shot to death by his male secretary, who then turned the gun on himself.
Eagle-eyed drive-in fans will also recognize another face in the cast, Jeff Alexander, who popped up in character roles in such films as Horror High (1974), A Bullet for Pretty Boy (1970), and an infamous pair of films for director Larry Buchanan: Curse of the Swamp Creature and Zontar: The Thing from Venus (both 1966).
The House of Seven Corpses marks the sole feature directorial effort for Paul Harrison, a TV writer on such series as H.R. Pufnstuf and Doctor Dolittle. More interesting behind the camera is its art director, Ron Garcia, who also appears onscreen as the late Charles Beal. Garcia had previously written a pair of notable drive-in films for producer Harry Novak, The Toy Box and Machismo (both 1971), and on the latter film he also served as cinematographer. That would eventually prove to be his profession of choice as he also worked behind the camera on projects ranging from Schoolgirls in Chains (1973) to more prestigious fare like Francis Ford Coppola's One from the Heart (1982) and David Lynch's Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992). More recently he has gone the television route with series like Numb3rsand Hawaii Five-O, a far cry indeed from his drive-in origins.
However, Garcia didn't serve as the actual cinematographer on this particular film; that duty instead went to a fascinating exploitation cult figure, Donald M. Jones, who had earlier directed the aforementioned Schoolgirls in Chains and would go on to helm the outrageous The Love Butcher (1975), the offbeat slasher film The Forest (1982), the VHS-era staple Project Nightmare (1987), and another Carole Wells film (her last to date), Molly and the Ghost (1991).
A reliable drive-in fixture, The House of Seven Corpses later became a staple of late night TV broadcasts in the 1980s as well as a VHS perennial thanks to its release on a multitude of labels over the years. More recently the film has become more difficult to see, perhaps due to the less than stellar film materials in existence, but it's now easier to see as an old-fashioned gothic shocker made just as Hollywood was about to transition into the rougher waters of slasher films just a few years later. Even more importantly, it's now a snapshot of a juncture in Hollywood history in which multiple generations of actors and Los Angeles players intersected, producing a film whose curiosity value extends well beyond its status as a horror programmer.
Producer: Paul Harrison, Paul Lewis
Director: Paul Harrison
Screenplay: Paul Harrison, Thomas J. Kelly
Cinematography: Don Jones
Art Direction: Ron Garcia
Music: Bob Emenegger
Film Editing: Peter Parasheles
Cast: John Ireland (Eric Hartman), Faith Domergue (Gayle Dorian), John Carradine (Edgar Price), Carole Wells (Anne), Charles Macaulay (Christopher Millan), Jerry Strickler (David), Ron Foreman (Ron), Larry Record (Tommy), Charles Bail (Jonathon Anthony Beal/Theodore Beal), Lucy Doheny (Suzanne Beal), Jo Anne Mower (Allison Beal), Ron Garcia (Charles Beal), Jeff Alexander (Russell Beal), Wells Bond (The Ghoul).
by Nathaniel Thompson