The Hearse: George Bowers’ effective 1980 haunted house thriller gets the Vinegar Syndrome treatment
What a thrill to get my macabre mitts on Vinegar Syndrome‘s new Blu-ray Combo Pack release of George Bowers’ Crown International potboiler The Hearse, a late-night television staple that I previously celebrated here. The modestly-budgeted, haunted house thriller was famously called out by Roger Ebert for being a “garage sale” horror film, as it shamelessly cobbled and cribs its identity from then-contemporary hits like The Amityville Horror, The Omen films, Dan Curtis’ Burnt Offerings and Peter Medak’s The Changeling. But that’s not a slam, really. Because The Hearse is a solid piece of entertainment designed to, y’know, entertain. Another look at The Hearse has been sorely needed and now, finally, this serious, atmospheric and solid female-fronted supernatural thriller gets the love it has long needed in this wonderful little release.
The Hearse stars Trish Van Devere (who also co-starred in The Changeling with her husband, George C. Scott) as Jane, a recently-divorced woman who inherits a charming country home in the town of Blackford, left to her by her dearly departed aunt. Upon moving in, Jane soon realizes that her lovely aunt was not all that she seemed. After getting shunned by the townsfolk for whatever reason, Jane does a bit more digging into her relative’s life and discovers that she was mixed up with a secret sect of Satanists and that the hearse carrying her corpse crashed on the nearby road but that the driver and her aunt’s body were never found. Now, the suspicious townies believe that both the house and the roads around it are haunted. And they’re correct, of course. Soon, Jane is experiencing all manner of hostile phenomena: doors slamming, pianos playing themselves, walls creaking and, most alarmingly, a creepy, ghostly hearse chauffeur keeps popping up (shades of Burnt Offerings), grinning and menacing Jane and driving her bonkers.
Thankfully, she’s not totally alone in her terror. She’s soothed by the odd-looking local Reverend (Donald Hotton) who keeps telling her that the sounds and visions she’s experiencing are all in her head, the result of nightmares, isolation, anxiety and grief over her aunt’s death. She finds a friendly port in the storm in the form of Paul (actor and now notable workman director Perry Lang), a lovestruck teen working at the local hardware store who has a hardcore crush on the older, sensual woman, much to the delight of his teasing and taunting pals (playing one of his mates is Donald Petrie, another actor turned director). But Jane’s favorite distraction is Tom (David Gautreux), the handsome, cultured local man who becomes her lover. One of these gents is not what he seems, however, and, to be fair to The Hearse‘s detractors, it’s not hard to figure out which one it is.
The Hearse is not a perfect film, but that’s why it’s so memorable. Bowers is a solid director and editor (outside of directing a few Crown International exploitation pics, like the amazing My Tutor, he mainly worked as an editor, cutting pictures like the underrated Johnny Depp flick From Hell) and he knows how to milk atmosphere and shocks. He’s aided by his ace leading lady; as Jane, Van Devere is a heroic, strong presence who stands tall in the face of the forces that threaten to drive her out. She veers between thinking her troubles are the acts of the hateful locals to believing that the powers of the Devil are indeed coming for her. And no matter what, she refuses to buckle.
Vin Syn are to be commended for caring about this gem (can other key Crown International movies be far behind?) presenting a crisp 2K scanned transfer from the 35mm negative. Extras aren’t plentiful, but there’s a hugely entertaining interview with co-star Gatrueux, who is so full of himself and theatrical that the piece almost feels like performance art. He tells great stories about how he almost was cast as Damien in The Final Conflict, tells a great George C. Scott/Marlon Brando tale from the wrap party and is fixated on the hot sex scene he shared with the much older Van Devere. It’s a trip!
The Hearse is an amazing little B movie that I hold very close to my heart and if you’re fan, you’re going to love this release.