THE HOUSE OF SEVEN CORPSES (released in December of 1973), is an obscure, low budget Gothic(ish) horror film starring the lovely 1950s scream queen Faith Domergue. John Ireland gets top billing and old-time horror movie actor David Carradine appears in a supporting role.

There are some gems within this campy, sometimes silly, movie, primarily Ms. Domergue, who was forty-eight or forty-nine during filming. The narrative is straightforward enough. A supernatural horror movie is being produced in an old mansion where seven residents met mysterious, violent deaths. The main star of the production, Gayle Dorian (Domergue), reads from the TIBETAN BOOK OF THE DEAD as part of her screen role. In the nested film, Ms. Dorian is playing a 19th century witch in New England (or so it seems to take place there). Just outside of the house, her reading in the scene being filmed inadvertently, actually animates a long-dead resident. Violent incidents begin to happen, starting with the sudden death of Ms. Dorian’s pet cat.

The movie opens with Faith delivering a monologue in which she has cast a witch’s circle and is summoning a spirit. She brings pure elegance and intrigue to the rather routine, cliched material she is left to work with here. A pleasant foil to the character of Gayle is Eric Hartman (John Ireland), an impatient, veteran movie director. He and Gayle are old flames who maintain a romance-filled friendship and working relationship, including on this current project. Their brief moments of chemistry and tension seem genuine.

Ms. Domergue delivers at least one good one liner that I can recall, this occurring in a scene where she and a makeup man argue about her eye wrinkles being “laugh lines” vs. “crow’s feet.” She may have said another one elsewhere that I’ve already forgotten. Regardless, the actress’ delivery is consistently smooth and elegant, due to her beautifully unique sloe eyed face and seductive voice. Her dyed-brown hair enhanced with a fall is visually remarkable, a holdover from 1960s fashion. While watching, I wondered if the project was all largely built around this underrated star of B movies. A quick Google search indicated this was the second to last film she appeared in before retiring from cinema altogether. I got the sense that THE HOUSE OF SEVEN CORPSES was a homage to Faith.

Some particularly colorful supporting characters are Edgar Price (Carradine), the long-time caretaker of the home, and the drunken, frustrated Shakespearean actor Christopher Millan (Charles Macaulay). They offer more amusing moments to this campily entertaining screenplay. Writers Paul Harrison (who also directed) and Thomas J. Kelly go for the tongue-in-cheek, which comes through in many of the players’ sardonic responses to others on the set.

For people who enjoyed watching DARK SHADOWS and/or STRANGE PARADISE, this movie will likely seem to be inspired by those slightly earlier produced television series. I appreciated the look and feel of both of those shows (which I admittedly hardly watched) and this film, in each of which the grand house is a central character.

The movie within a movie approach is both fun and effective here, a classic means of turning a mirror on Hollywood and the movie making experience. We the audience are allowed both distance/larger perspective while also being drawn into the actors’ lives, especially Gayle’s and Eric’s. When reality outside of the dramatized, nested film production finally converges with the actual movie we the audience are watching, a sweeping sense of the theatrical happens. I often laughed out of amusement while smiling with a wistful respect for both the characters and actors playing them. It looked like everyone was having fun within this simple, now dated script and set up, even if this may actually not have been the case and only an illusion. But, playing with illusion is what movies are usually about in some way or another, and THE HOUSE OF SEVEN CORPSES is often a play of sorts and very much filled with verbal and visual play.

Movie Review: THIS ISLAND EARTH (from 1955)

While recently ill with Covid-19, I finally watched the 1955 science fiction movie classic THIS ISLAND EARTH, starring the interestingly beautiful, unusually sloe-eyed Faith Domergue. Probably almost thirty years ago, I had seen some parts of it, but not the entire film, until just the other day. For those, like myself, who enjoy the small amount of well-made, extant 1950s movies in the sci-fi genre, THIS ISLAND EARTH is impressive. Its then state-of-the-art special effects and, towards the end of the movie’s well-paced eighty-six minutes, beautiful animation, matte background set, and artistic large-brained, insectoid alien costume all render this production aesthetically on par with THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951) and THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953). The acting quality is sufficient, conventionally emphatic (verging on over-acting in places) for the time, so not particularly remarkable. I generally do not watch this category of movies for their cast’s acting abilities.

The plot is straightforward and intriguing. A pair of male humanoid aliens from the far away planet Metaluna have come to earth to recruit a select group of top notch nuclear scientists from around the world. We viewers eventually find out that this advanced civilization is at war with a neighboring one and desperately needs help from intelligent earthlings to save their dying world. Enter the tall, baritone-voiced Dr. Cal Meacham (Rex Reason). Upon his arrival at a secret Metalunan research site, he meets up with a colleague and romantic interest from his recent past, Dr. Ruth Adams (Domergue). They are not long at this facility before getting whisked off by a flying saucer bound for Metaluna. The journey there and back is a mix of the scientifically credible and inaccurate, but visually colorful and entertaining nonetheless. Jeff Morrow plays Exeter, a sympathetic alien scientist who leads this plan to involve human beings in saving his planet of origin.

In addition to the aforementioned impressive technical aspects of this movie, what I also found noteworthy is how the leading female character, Dr. Adams, is portrayed. She is single and a highly respected scientist, along with at least one other female scientist within a small, elite group. There are eventually a few requisite moments of her being put in danger and screaming. Hence, due to this movie and others she starred in, Ms. Domergue became known as a “scream queen,” like many other actresses of her time, before, and later. However, her overall competence in the role of independent, unmarried professional scientist in both this film and the far inferior, yet also entertaining, IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA (also released in 1955), come through as primary, intact identities. The fact that Faith Domergue played this type of central, on-screen persona twice in one year impresses me. Her portrayal of Professor Lesley Joyce is actually more active and crucial in IT CAME… than in THIS ISLAND EARTH. But, in both productions, her identity remains that of a single professional at the end, albeit more explicitly so in IT CAME…. I found this pleasantly surprising and encouraging, given how so many movies from this era tended to relegate women into playing less competent and empowered roles. I am glad for Ms. Domergue and the exposure of audiences to these two characters of hers back in the 1950s.

What I did find irritating yet not at all surprising is how the leading men in both of these screenplays are presented. They are positioned as the necessary physical strength and stoic presence to both protect and “complete” Ms. Domergue’s “weaker” feminine vulnerability. Ridiculous. A well-educated, competent, single woman can draw from her own inner strength to get through life as a complete feeling person. Indeed, these two movies are conventional products of their times, albeit with some semi-feminist overtures.

Ultimately, THIS ISLAND EARTH is a visually entertaining movie that lightly explores a deep ethical dilemma: the ongoing cost of war on civilizations. Other than these positives, the script adheres to the ancient assumption that women– even intelligent, resourceful ones– are the “weaker” sex. Additionally, the movie is a product of the early years of the nuclear age, when splitting the atom was marketed as healthy for society, a major solution to many of humankind’s problems. Admittedly, the film is quite dated. But, the lovely Faith Domergue and all the colorful spectacle, such as (to name just a few images) many explosions and a giant flying saucer that produces a glowing green tractor beam, make it a joy to watch.