Saturday, June 19, 2010

José Ramón Larraz's The House That Vanished (1973)

In a film which only slightly predates his notorious Vampyres (1974), The House That Vanished (1973), directed by José Ramón Larraz, shares its uncomfortable (and for some, effective) mix of sex and violence; however, the Spanish filmmaker's film also contains many of his unique visuals and motifs.
Valerie (Andrea Allan) is a very beautiful photographer's model and content with her life. She has a dodgy boyfriend named Terry (Alex Leppard) whom she accompanies on a short road trip to the country just before the weekend. Valerie does not know the trip's final destination and neither does Terry: he is stopping to consult his map, telling Valerie to "shut up," and then winding on into the forestry, each stop ever-so slightly further from the city. Night falls and the fog rolls in, and Valerie tells Terry that she cannot see anything out of the windshield. Terry spies a house and is "dead certain" that it is the location for which he has been searching. Terry is far from certain but it is late and he commits to this location, an uninhabited country house. Terry tells Valerie to wait in the car, and he goes in alone, keeping the house dark while searching. Valerie becomes cold and bored and eventually follows Terry inside. She catches him in the midst of a would-be burglary; but it seems as if Terry's information about the home's contents were inaccurate. Not only is Valerie now angry that Terry brought her along on a burglary but brought her along to the wrong house. Someone enters the darkened home, a couple, and Valerie and Terry hide in a closet. Only two exit the house, Valerie and a black-gloved gentleman.
One of the typical motifs of the mystery/thriller/horror genre is to have the protagonist witness something incredulous (a murder), and then have myriad other characters in the narrative attempt to convince the protagonist that what he/she saw is inaccurate. The narrative (and the filmmaker) then sides with its protagonist and makes him/her the mark for the killer (the viewer also sides with the protagonist). Genre hijinx subsequently ensue. However in The House That Vanished not only are Valerie's friends able to convince her that things are not what they seem but Valerie talks herself into complacency. Fair enough, for she has a good life: she's young, independent, and although not famous nor rich in her career, Valerie, perhaps, is on the brink of getting the next modeling job which will propel her into a more lucrative arena. Larraz fuels his narrative by siding with Valerie; and only visiting the threshold of the sinister to propel his narrative mystery along. The House That Vanished remains unequivocally throughout its duration a genre film. How long Larraz is able to keep the proceedings rational is the trick.
Larraz is somewhat successful in his attempt with The House That Vanished. Terry is immediately established as dodgy. In a brilliant scene, Terry drops his child off at his mother's home and wants to give him a gift for the weekend. Terry asks Valerie for a fiver and then beams a smile at his son that he's given him such a kind gift. After the weekend burglary sojourn, are you surprised dear Valerie that Terry has pulled a flit? Terry will eventually turn up. Several characters appear in the narrative, the would-be classic "red herrings;" however, Larraz shapes them to be a little strange but no more than that. One of Valerie's friends is introduced sleeping in her birthday suit only to be awakened by her pet monkey. Now read that sentence, again. Valerie's friend has a pet monkey. That is weird. However, Valerie's friend is presented, despite this quirk, as overall a very normal and comforting person. So when the would-be "red-herrings" appear, each can have a strange quirk, and Valerie can rationalize it: her boyfriend and friends are a little kooky, so why cannot the rest of the general public be a little weird?
Larraz is very adept at creating a languid pace infused with a strong atmospheric presence. His later film, perhaps under-appreciated today, Symptoms (1974), is strong evidence. Larraz is also equally adept at creating lurid sequences, usually involving sex, violence, or both. Vampyres is strong evidence of the latter. His adeptness at creating both stems from his undeniable talent; and his fan attraction comes from thrill-seekers seeking one or the other but rarely both. The inclusion of the extremely effective lurid sequences within The House That Vanished undercut his technique with his mystery, keeping appearances as rational as possible. The lurid sequences are too nasty and too well-rendered to be ignored. Larraz wants his viewer to sym/emphathize with Valerie; yet when the viewer encounters these sequences, the exploitative feel is overwhelming. The languid-paced atmosphere is punctuated far too loudly. The House That Vanished performs a schism. The authors of Immoral Tales: European Sex & Horror Movies, 1956-1984 (the link serves purpose for reference and purchase) write:

Scream and Die [an alternative title for House] was a Spanish/English co-production. All the mysterious, atmospheric shots were filmed in England, the rest was shot in Barcelona. It was a transitional film for Larraz, it solidified his links with the British low budget film industry, making it possible for him to do his first completely English film, Symptoms. The credits for Scream and Die implied that it was a British film through and through. Sex film director Derek Ford, for example, was given screenplay credit even though he had nothing to do with it. This played down the Spanish angle, making it easier to get distribution in England, also increasing the likelihood of American companies picking it up for the U.S. market.
The producers of Scream and Die wanted a fairly hefty quotient of sex in the film, and though this wasn't exactly to Larraz's taste he didn't back away from the subject.
If both the languid and the lurid were not so creative and effective, perhaps The House That Vanished would be, overall, more effective for viewers. If one were played down, the other could dominate, and most viewers could easily categorize and subsequently digest the film. Visually, Larraz is without equal in his unique images. For example, Valerie's escape from the house during the first act leads her to hide in a scrapyard. It looks like an auto graveyard (to borrow a phrase from Iggy Pop) and has an odd theatrical feel combined with some real tension, as the black-gloved killer goes searching for her. My favorite scene is (unsurprisingly) a quiet one, where Valerie enters the lobby of her apartment building. The lobby is dark but she ignores it and walks upstairs. The camera lingers in the darkness slightly too long. A door opens giving the darkness little light, so Larraz can capture a shadow in the midst of complete darkness. An obscure film.


Aaron said...

Sounds cool. The only Larraz movie I have seen so far is EDGE OF THE AXE. Have you seen that one, Hans? I really need to watch VAMPYRES soon though since I've been meaning to for a long time.

Hans A. said...

Haven't seen Edge of the Axe. Looked it up and it's one of his later flicks. It has a good cast, so I'll check it out. I'd be curious to read your thoughts on Vampyres, Aaron. Have a good one, buddy.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Sounds like a good thriller.

Stephen Grimes said...

Nice review.Also check out Larraz's superior DEVIATION,this one is not to be missed.

Hans A. said...

@Alex--thanks for visiting and taking the time to comment. I always appreciate it.

@Stephen--Thank you, sir. I hope in the future (later perhaps than sooner), I'll get around to writing on Deviation (agreed, it is superior) and hopefully, Whirlpool.

Ben said...

Thanks for the intriguing write-up of this one.

I've always wondered what this guy Larraz did besides 'Vampyres', as I've always really enjoyed that film's strange directorial style (which of course features a similar mixture of slow-paced 'atmospheric' sections and sudden montages of crazed sex/violence....?)

Hans A. said...

Thanks to you, Ben. I always appreicate it when you visit and take time to share your thoughts. I really enjoy Vampyres, too, despite its flaws. Larraz is a really unique film maker, and I plan on writing some more on his work.

Anonymous said...

Andrea Allan is too hot in this movie !

Elliot James said...

One element I haven't read about is the soundtrack. The discordant sound effects/"music" alternates between nerve jangling and grating. It's not the usual cliched slasher music. Hannibal the TV show took this approach.