Tune in Tonight: "This House Possessed"
Season 2 of American Horror Story opened with an inexplicable guest appearance by Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine, playing a photographer who, along with his super-horny new bride, makes a habit of trespassing on private property. They engage in graphic sex, and then almost immediately afterward Levine’s arm is even more graphically torn off. It was a good example of how far television had come, for better and for worse, in depicting both sex and violence, and it’s only gotten more over the top since then.
1981’s This House Possessed opens in much the same fashion, with an attractive young couple, who just gotta have it if you know what I’m sayin’, breaking into property that doesn’t belong to them for the express purpose of fooling around. They too pay for their uncontrollable lust, not to mention their failure to recognize what a locked gate means, albeit in a rather less horrifying manner – they’re simply chased off by a garden hose that operates by itself. It was a good example of 70s and 80s TV horror being so diluted that it ended up being funny rather than scary. A movie about a sentient house that falls in love with its occupant should be incredibly, unforgettably bad, particularly when you factor in “special guest star Slim Pickens,” but instead it’s ninety minutes of spooky house noises, flickering television screens, and not much else.
Parker Stevenson plays Gary Straihorn, a musician who drives audiences wild with his lite rock schmaltz and his exposed, hairless chest. Gary is hospitalized after collapsing in exhaustion, and immediately falls for his nurse, Sheila (Lisa Eilbacher), mostly due to her caring nature and ability to give good back rubs. Though they generate all the heat of a single votive candle, and Sheila is cagey and vague about her background, Gary begs her to take a leave of absence from her job so that she can help him in his, ahem, recovery.
They move into the house from the beginning of the film, a real monsterpiece of modern architecture, and an early version of a smart home, where everything is controlled by computers and giant closed-circuit cameras are in every room (including the bathroom, because why wouldn’t you want one there). Gary and Sheila barely have their suitcases unpacked before weird things start happening. Sheila hears a ghostly voice calling for “Margaret,” the same name she’s called by the town’s own version of Friday the 13th’s Crazy Ralph (Joan Bennett), a bag lady who in her thick, costume shop glasses looks like a Carol Burnett character. When Gary puts the moves on Sheila, the house’s alarm system goes off, as the most effective of mood killers. The seemingly dozens of security cameras, ostensibly installed to watch for intruders, instead seem to be watching them, from all angles.
The action picks up ever so slightly when Gary’s obnoxious sometimes girlfriend, Tanya (Shelley Smith), shows up for a visit. Tanya, the type of person who refers to Sheila as “the help” and emerges from a shower in full makeup, is a pushy pill popper, and probably not the best person for Gary in his recovery from nervous exhaustion, but he meekly allows her to stay, because Gary greets everything that happens to him in this movie with meek acceptance. Nevertheless, the house doesn’t like Tanya’s orgasmic swooning over Gary’s newest wet noodle pop ballad any more than Sheila does, and sends her fleeing with the ol’ blood through the water pipes trick. Gary is only mildly puzzled about this, saying “I should probably call her to make sure she’s okay,” and that’s the last we see or hear about Tanya.
Sheila wants to know more about the house, and the local librarian, Lucille (K Callan), hints that it has an “interesting” history, including “a couple of murders” that she mentions with all the casualness of finding out that Led Zeppelin recorded Physical Graffiti there. Before she can tell Sheila more about it, though, the house traps Lucille’s car between the front gates and causes it to explode, somehow. Gary, ever the ideal of masculine bravery and ingenuity, attempts to save Lucille’s life by hitting a couple buttons on the gate’s control panel, then runs back to Sheila and says, almost while literally shrugging, “There’s nothing more I can do.”
Veteran character actor Barry Corbin briefly appears as a detective investigating Lucille’s death, who asks Gary if he’s a “rock musician” with the same tone of voice he’d use to ask him if he was involved in human trafficking. “Was there a party going on?” he asks. “Drugs? Maybe marijuana?” Though the detective grins in predatory glee at the idea of nailing this long-haired weirdo for murder, we never see him again, the case is presumably closed, and that’s the last we hear about poor Lucille.
Gary’s manager (the previously mentioned “special guest star” Slim Pickens) thinks a horrific tragedy at Gary’s house is the perfect opportunity for him to go on tour in Europe, but before the arrangements can be all worked out, he too is killed in a freak accident, this one involving a mirror. Two bizarre deaths and a hysterical guest are finally enough to make Gary and Sheila think maaaaaaaybe there might be something going on with the house. With crack timing, the bag lady who called Sheila “Margaret” shows up, and explains that that’s Sheila’s real name, and that her father built the house. The house somehow “fell in love” with Margaret as a child (ew, gross, house!), and murdered anyone who threatened to take her away from it, including her parents. Sheila, who has no memory of any of this, was found wandering down a road, and adopted by another family.
So, despite all the shots of televisions in the house inexplicably tuned to Gary performing in front of an audience (even before he moves in), implying that it wants him inside it so bad (heh heh heh) that it will go to extreme lengths to get him there, it’s really Sheila that’s supposed to be there. Let’s hit “pause” for a moment to determine how all this has played out so far…
The house, which somehow has developed human emotions, forces Gary from a distance to have a nervous breakdown (by making him think about rising property taxes, I guess?), while correctly anticipating that:
he would be taken to the hospital where Sheila/Margaret works (let’s just assume the house has somehow kept tabs on her all these years)
Sheila/Margaret would be assigned to him as his nurse
Gary and Sheila would instantly fall in love
Sheila would accept without question Gary’s suggestion that she should move in with him and be his private nurse
Gary would purchase that exact house totally at random
Sheila has a lot less time to ponder how stupid this is all is than the audience does, when a gust of wind blows the bag lady into a pool and she’s boiled to death (that neither of them noticed the pool coming to a full, steaming simmer right next to them is the least of this movie’s problems with logic). The jig being up, the house just decides to go ahead and kill Sheila and Gary too, first by trying to freeze them to death with the central air conditioning, then roast them with the central heating. Thankfully, Sheila keeps the audience up to the date with the current condition, whining “Gary, I’m so cold!” followed by “Gary, it’s so hot in here!”
Before you get to thinking that something interesting might happen, Sheila defeats the house simply by asking it to let her go. Because she was nice enough to ask, the house agrees without argument, and even has the good taste to burn itself down so that it never troubles her again. Well, alright. I guess that’s exciting.
You know what? I shouldn’t be sarcastic. If you think shots of closed-circuit camera monitors are terrifying, you won’t sleep a wink after watching This House Possessed. Evidently not trusting the audience to get that the monitors are supposed to mean that the house is watching every move Gary and Sheila make, the movie returns to the same shots over and over, to the point where you’re no longer thinking about how creepy it is, but rather what kind of freak Sheila’s father must have been to put a camera inside a shower stall.
It’s a platonic ideal of early 80s made for TV horror, relying on an over the top score (composed by Billy Goldenberg, who also did the music for Duel and Helter Skelter) to make the viewer think that what’s happening is much scarier than it actually is. It doesn’t help that Parker Stevenson and Lisa Eilbacher are about as boring to the point of being unlikable a couple as you’re ever likely to see in any movie, let alone a horror movie. They have less than none chemistry, and Stevenson reacts to everything, even the sight of a woman incinerated in his driveway, with minor indifference, while Eilbacher operates in two modes: “confused” and “fretful.” Their utter lack of charisma makes it hard to care about what happens to them, so that you end up focusing more on just how plug dumb the plot is, and how much all of it pivots not just on the idea that a house can develop feelings for a person, but on an impossible series of coincidences. This house shouldn’t be murdering old ladies—with that kind of intuition it should be letting it ride in Vegas.
Original airdate: February 6, 1981