Friday, December 21, 2018

House of the Damned / La loba y la Paloma (1974)

House of the Damned is that generically titled, sort of misleading, pleasant delight that reminds me of why I still enjoy exploring near-forgotten Eurocult films from decades past with the word “House” in their titles. It’s far from the traditional haunted house horror and is more of a peculiar seaside murder drama that still hits a lot of the right notes for Spanish horror fans. The translation of the Spanish title is something like The She Wolf and the Dove, which I think is referring to Sandra and Maria (played by Carmen Sevilla and Muriel Catalá), the two main female characters who are also featured on the different regional title posters.
Which one of them is supposed to be the wolf and which one is the dove?

There are some notably fascinating characters in House of the Damned, as everyone comprising the small cast of characters seem to have peculiar and memorable performances. I especially enjoyed Donald Pleasence as Martin Zayas. Also, every shot of Maria, who is a seemingly mute character, is just fantastic. The framing, the intense melancholic expression and blank stare (it's a total mood), she is silenced innocence among scoundrels. There’s also something quite angelic about her.

House of the Damned was co-produced by Harry Alan Towers and filmed on multiple locations in Oviedo, Asturias, Spain, the homeland of the film’s director and co-writer Gonzalo Suárez, who is still active in making films, having just written and directed El sueño de Malinche (2018). Suárez also co-wrote Vicente Aranda’s Left-Handed Fate (1966) and The Exquisite Cadaver (1969). 

The music in the film is by British film composer Malcolm Lockyer, whose orchestral compositions infuse it with a kind of magic. House of the Damned looks to be the last film he composed music for before his death in 1976; decades later his compositions have appeared on the soundtracks to a surprising number of TV and movie productions such as Mallrats (1995) and Seinfeld.

House of the Damned is set around a charming fishing village that’s a short boat ride away to the grounds of a pretty rundown but still marvelous looking waterside house, where our “damned” characters reside. The storyline isn’t convoluted but rather simple and easy to follow, and it utilizes the classic "MacGuffin" technique. An ancient solid gold statue is the object behind the characters’ motivations. A small but good cast of characters pretty much treat each other like crap, as they murder, abuse, manipulate, and deceive one another over this valuable artifact. A young girl, Maria (Catalá), the last one seen with the statue, is believed to be the only one who knows where it is, only she seems to have been rendered non-communicative, having spent many years in an asylum after witnessing her father being murdered over the statue.

Everything is setup quickly with a prologue that initially feels more like an adventure genre film before things get pretty serious. Two childhood friends, Acebo (José Jaspe) and Zayas (Pleasence), are seen venturing out to an island before they moor their small boat at the entrance to a water cave. Zayas seems super focused as he hops into a cavern while consulting a map, obviously looking for buried treasure. This ain't no Treasure Island or Goonies, because it doesn’t take long before Zayas finds the gold statue they’ve been searching for, which he hands off to Acebo before falling off a ledge and breaking his foot. Acebo, hearing the painful cries of his friend, flees with the statue, leaving Zayas for dead (when Pleasence can be heard screaming, “my fucking foot!” it almost seems a little funny, like he’s hamming it up a little).

Later that night, while having dinner with his daughter Maria, Acebo’s guilt follows him home as he hears the cries of Zayas outside, who's managed to swim back from the island, bloodied and barely able to walk. Despite being completely disheveled, Zayas only expresses a desire for the statue. Acebo assures him that it is in a safe hiding place, but when he shows Zayas the hiding place, the statue is gone. Zayas, not in his right mind, thinks Acebo is trying to cheat him. A scuffle breaks out, and Zayas murders Acebo. Maria witnesses this as she is standing on the stairs holding the statue (she had taken it thinking it was a toy). Zayas sees her with the statue, after mistakenly killing her father, but passes out cold as Maria crouches in the corner holding the statue. It’s nutty, but I love this prologue.

I like the way the camera roves under the mansion mote, over flowing water, to denote the passage of time, reminding me of the old adage, “water-under-the-bridge”. We flash forward in time and now that what’s-done-is-done, Zayas is out of prison, holding a small sack of his belongings, traveling back to that house on the water, but not before ironically paying respects to the grave of the man he murdered.

With grey neck beard, instability, and constant focus on the statue, Donald Pleasence is gritty, intense, and (for me) memorable in this. He goes all out as Zayas who seems like a team player, true to his word, but he’s so untrusting of others and acts before he thinks. Despite being a murderer, he’s oddly likable and seems to be the most trustworthy. Just don’t cross him and you’ll be just fine. He just wants his share.

Breaking-and-entering is probably not the wisest thing to do as soon as you get out of prison, but it’s pretty obvious Zayas must’ve been brooding over that gold statue his entire time in the slammer, and it's probably the only thing that matters to him. When Zayas enters the house, the old place looks the same, but he’s about to find out that some things have changed. 

It seems like no one is home, as Zayas helps himself to a bottle of rum, but then a small man peers out of the interior kitchen window. This man is Bodo, and he is played by Michael Dunn (Dr. Miguelito Loveless in The Wild Wild West 1965 – 1968), an actor with medical dwarfism. When Bodo comes out of the kitchen to confront him, Zayas is rude to Bodo and intimidates him with hisses and grunts, taking advantage of Bodo’s small stature, and looking amused with himself after he orders Bodo around. I’m not sure what it is, but the food Bodo serves Zayas looks good and kind of reminds me of potatoes in yellow curry sauce.

When the current owners of the property show up, new characters Sandra (who's Bodo’s sister and Maria's cousin) and her husband Atrilio (played by Spaghetti Western bad guy Aldo Sambrell), things start out tense but turn out to be a little comical because of how Zayas handles the encounter. Zayas even gets sarcastic with Atrilio when Atrilio starts shoving stuff around, trying to intimidate Zayas who’s helped himself to a hospitality that was never offered to him. 

Sandra knows who Zayas is and that he murdered her uncle, and yet she doesn’t seem to be bothered by his presence, oddly enough, even when he keeps asking where Maria is, who we find out was sent to a mental home after she was found, half dead, two days after the night she saw her father murdered.

They all break the ice pretty quickly and are soon breaking bread together at the dinner table when Zayas lets them in on the reason for his showing up. He lets them know of the precious golden statue Maria was holding the night he murdered her father. This convinces them to fetch the mute Maria from the asylum to bring her home to see if they can somehow get her to talk about where she may’ve hidden the statue. Obviously, all of this greed and lack of trust isn’t going to end well. 

Maria never smiles, given her dreadful circumstances she has no reason to. Zayas varies from patient to impatient with her and has hope she’ll eventually come around. Everyone tries to get through to Maria in their own way. 

Bodo tries to warm up to her as a friend and entertainer, treating her like she is some kind of precious fairy princess and using puppet shows as a way to better communicate with her and earn her trust, but he’s really no friend. Sandra seems to take on being a kind of protective mother figure to Maria, although she’s oddly compliant to a lot of abuse but does redeem herself in the end, but kind of like Lady-Macbeth isn’t able to live with her guilt. Atrilio is the meanest and the biggest threat to her. Being violent and abusive to those physically weaker than him makes him feel more like a man (toxic masculinity much?).

I do like that Bodo isn’t portrayed as a dumb or moronic servant (his family treats him like he is, though), but he’s actually articulate and well cultured. Bodo does have moments where he gets to act a little on the nutty side too, with clownish giggling and a tendency to hide in the bushes and spy on people. 

I thought that Bodo’s narration during his puppet story time segments to Maria were actually pretty good. Even Maria lightens her usually somber expression a little. Dunn has a talent for narration. I’ll always remember “the great Bodo, king of the seven seas and lord of the thousand winds.” Michael Dunn received an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor for his role in the powerful Ship of Fools (1965).

House of the Damned is such a well-done film. My favorite part is during the storm in the old cathedral when Zayas desperately pleads with Maria to talk, encouraging her as well, guiding her back to reality in a sense, almost like a spell is being lifted. The scene is so intensely dramatic that it gives me the chills.

Zayas is an asshole to Sandra, but for some reason Sandra can’t resist cheating on her husband and going to Zayas’s room at night to reward his boorish behavior with a little adultery. The very brief sex scene between Carmen Sevilla and Donald Pleasence was apparently a selling point to House of the Damned at the time it was released. The director even claimed that Sevilla’s nude scene, where one of her breasts was exposed at a time, to have been "the first tit in Spanish cinema." Unless I'm confused or there's something lost in translation here, I’m afraid Suárez may've been mistaken, as there are earlier Spanish films consisting of exposed breasts, such as The Blood-Spattered Bride (1972) and even in The Exquisite Corpse (1969), which Suárez co-wrote. Perhaps what he might've meant was that it was the first tit in Spanish cinema from a Spanish actress in a Spanish location.  

I do like the way things end up working out and the overall direction, even if a certain clue to the mystery ends up being painfully obvious. House of the Damned is a satisfying experience even coming into it expecting a Spanish horror/thriller but getting a quasi-Shakespearean character drama instead. The old-timey sea element and a beautiful, surreal beach shot really does give it a pleasant and unique feel for something that kind of presents itself as a house-thriller of sorts. Pleasence and Dunn are a couple of expert actors in top form (even if both are hamming it up at times) who fortunately also lend their real voices in the post-dubbing. The other actors aren’t bad either. The story isn’t altogether that unique, but there’s enough peculiarities with the characters to make it seem pretty different, nonetheless. It feels like a near-forgotten film, a status it doesn’t deserve, as far as I can tell. The good characters, Pleasence’s intense performance, Lockyer’s score, and the seaside locations is probably what gives House of the Damned its legs; it has a potential for renewed discovery. It’s heavy-handed but also a good time too. 

© At the Mansion of Madness


  1. My, oh my . . . where did you find this movie? I've been looking for it for ages. Somewhere in the late 70's, it seems Muriel Catala dropped off the face of the earth.

    1. Greetings and thank you for the comment! It's been awhile since I've gotten one. House of the Damned is a peculiar find that I rarely see talked about. I picked up a DVDR of this film from Trash Palace, but it looks like it can also be downloaded HERE (warning: the site is NSFW). I've seen some real pristine looking images of this film online; much better than the VHS looking version that I've found, so I'm hoping it's on the brink of a Blu-ray release one of these days.
      That certainly is strange about Muriel Catala. Hope she's been living a happy life ever since.

  2. Just ordered it from Trash Palace. Thank you, Giovanni! I've been a fan of Muriel's since watching her in Faustine and the Beautiful Summer. It seems when filmmakers stopped hiring her to act and started hiring her to undress, she decided to do something different with her life. Oh well, now I'm off to explore more of the mansion.

  3. You are very welcome! Hope it's a worthwhile purchase! I still really need to see Faustine and the Beautiful Summer.

  4. Carmen Sevilla was terrific in No One Heard The Scream.

  5. Have you seen Vicente Aranda’s Fata Morganna? (Left-Handed Fate) This movie fascinates me. Teresa Gimpera and Mariane Benet were terrific.

    1. Yes, but it was awhile ago. I remember being fascinated as well. I wrote a little bit about it on Facebook a few years ago: Fata Morganna. I also love The Exquisite Cadaver. Judy Matheson is wonderful in it.