Horror Bites - Maniac Mansion


If there was ever such a thing as the quintessential Vincent Price horror picture, this is probably it - at least in terms of those with a period setting. Choosing just one is no easy task of course, but this is certainly a high point. Building on what had been done in The House of Usher, this is another instalment in the Roger Corman series of Poe adaptations - using just some of the original story ideas as a basis. There's yet another spooky mansion in the middle of nowhere, another mystery and another journey into madness in which nothing is quite what it seems.

Our hero Francis (John Kerr) travels to Spain to find out about the death of his sister Elizabeth (Barbara Steele). But he discovers that the story given by her husband Nicholas (Price) is not exactly convincing. It's not hard to see why when the details are so vague. Is he just trying to avoid upsetting Francis or is there something more sinister being covered up? His strange behaviour points to one thing being more likely, at least at this stage. The suspicious chamber of horrors in the basement isn't doing him any favours either. It may just have belonged to Nicholas's father, a notorious member of the Inquisition, but something odd is going on.

Nicholas's friend Dr. Leon (Anthony Carbone) and his own sister Catherine (Luana Anders) seem to corroborate his story about Elizabath's death and a strange case of heart failure, but this plot slowly unravels to provide more sinister details. The way the slow pacing builds this is all up is great, and it allows time for plenty of clashing personalities as they explore the eerie building. As you'd expect the set design and the effects used to create the exterior shots are all pretty atmospheric, something which is soon added to by strange goings on in the house at night

Is the place haunted or is Nicholas just cracking up? It's probably the latter going by the slow meltdown displayed by Vincent Price at his histrionic best. His raving and his twisted expressions get more ridiculous as this all progresses, and while you might consider it over done at times this is probably the highlight of the story. But the real reasons behind all of this are not exactly clear, even when the cracks in his story start to appear. There are several elements that don't quite add up until things take an unexpected turn in the third act, but it's a good mystery despite so many familiar ingredients.

In terms of real horror sequences things are brief as might be expected from this period. But there are some good moments in the family mausoleum as Nicholas begins to fall apart completely, and things really get interesting when the titular pendulum is revealed the major set piece of the finale. The other actors are all a little stiff in comparison, but it's his mania that is the focus here. The film makers knew the strengths of what the character offered and its all build around him. It's overwrought and Gothic and melodramatic in all the right ways.

The sets are moody enough, but while there lurid colours of certain flashbacks offer some dazzling moments it's the big conclusion which provides the biggest visuals treats here. The tension and the sudden moments of violence are used well against the backdrop of the torture chamber. It's something which is expanded by some great matte paintings and a lot of nice camera angles. A few well placed murals depicting hell itself complete the picture as we get a visual depiction of what Nicholas thinks he's doomed to experience thanks to his father's hobbies.

There isn't a great deal of action or any seriously gruesome scenes, but the slow burn mystery works pretty well even if the whole suspicious burial plot has been done before and the moody castle aura is very familiar. The Last Man on Earth offers a few similar moments of a descent into lunacy (as well as more of Richard Matheson's writing) but this is the real showcase of Vincent Price's knack for losing his marbles on cue. If anything this certainly has the greatest closing shot to a film from this cycle. It's not the first in this series of adaptions and is far from the last, but it's certainly the one in which all the ingredients are perfectly balanced -- a must see for fans of anything involving these classic themes and screen personalities.