A title is always a good start to piquing my interest; the more bold, clever, or assertive the better. So let’s take a look see at Murder Mansion (1972), an engaging Italian/Spanish co-production with a catchy moniker and even better content to back it up.
Released it Italy in August and Spain in September, with a U.S. release November of ’73, Murder Mansion bounced around under various titles for different regions: Maniac Mansion, Exorcism Mansion, The Scream, Quando Marta urlò dalla tomba, and This House is Too Crowded, Let’s Kill Some People all containing the same neo-Gothic graveyard and fog stomper with a better than usual cast and a plot that just won’t quit. Murder is sly and fun. (The movie, that is; I can’t speak to the act. Yet.)
Oh boy, where do I even start? We open by meeting a disparate group of folk on an Italian highway: a motorcyclist, Fred (Andre Resino – The Werewolf Versus the Vampire Woman), weaves in and out of traffic but always keeping up with a car driven by Mr. Porter (Franco Fantasia – Eaten Alive!) and his beautiful passenger Laura (Lisa Leonardi – All the Colors of the Dark); as both parties turn into a roadside restaurant, Laura joins Fred on his bike leaving Porter behind. Meanwhile, at an Italian estate, Mr. and Mrs. Tremont (Eduardo Fajardo and Yelena Samarina) are preparing to purchase said estate from Elsa (Analía Gadé – Exorcism’s Daughter), who is in the process of divorcing her absent and unfaithful husband, Ernest (Alberto Dalbés – Cut-Throats Nine). Elsa leaves the estate to pick up Ernest to sign the papers; the Tremont’s follow.
However, the road to Milan is paved with sinister intentions; a heavy fog and some possibly insidious maneuvering leaves everyone traveling on that particular road stranded at the Clinton manor, which buttresses an abandoned village and graveyard. So we have Elsa, her investors, Fred and Laura, and Mr. Porter all sequestered and welcomed by the lady of the house, Martha Clinton (Evelyn Stewart – The Psychic), who tells them the tale of her ancestor who was buried in the graveyard along with her deformed chauffeur – the same two spectral figures that Laura noticed on their journey through the soupy tombs. As the night wears on, the weary travelers are dispatched, one by one, which sets Fred and Laura off to find the death shrouded occupants. Can they solve the mystery by daylight?
Murder Mansion has a little bit of everything vogue in Euro horror at the time: fashion forward Italian sleekness, breathtaking women, a puzzling mystery, nods to gothic tropes of the previous decade, and lots of death. Where is does show unusual restraint is a dearth of nudity and graphic violence, staples of this particular sub-genre; not a big deal actually, because the elements that do engage the viewer are truly engaging.
At the core of the film is the instant chemistry between our leads, Resino and Leonardi as Fred and Laura, respectively. They have not only chemistry, but likeability; so often the characters are merely there to further the plot, the combination of actor and character really works here and we have a genuine vested interest in what happens to them.
Murder Mansion definitely gives off an Agatha Christie vibe, a drawing room caper of deception and lies; one by one they drop, and if each one doesn’t have a motive, no one other than Fred and Laura seem on the up and up. The focus does settle on Elsa however, and her contentious relationship with her husband; she soon finds herself sedated at the Clinton manor after sightings of the specters sets her ill at ease. Many reviews have mentioned Scooby-Doo as a plot device, and they’re not wrong; but really, how many horror films have used deception as an impetus for terror? A mask is no different than a cloak or black brimmed and lowered hat. Having said that, you won’t need to pull out your Nancy Drew books to solve this mystery, as long as you use the Horror Law of Economics: Whenever a major character disappears for a long stretch of time, the odds increase dramatically that they are the Killer.
Someone forgot to tell that to director Francisco Lara Polop (The Monk) and screenwriter Luis G. de Blain (Knife of Ice) though, as they push so many iconic horror images onto the screen, so lovingly, that one doesn’t even notice the obvious until the time arrives. The film moves, both visually and in the dialogue scenes, where translations often get lost in inanities and unintentional hilarity. There’s a dry wit about this one.
Murder Mansion doesn’t use the normal calling cards of Italian horror to sell its wares; violence and sexuality play a part, but the focus is on a gentler time – a time of parlors, greed, and deception. A whole lot of deception.
Murder Mansion is available on DVD from Rogue Video.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: DOLLS (1987)