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A fragile 1970’s city girl, who’s just gotten over an implied nervous breakdown following her mother’s death, decides to spend the summer at her newly inherited late aunt’s place in the country, left empty for 35 years.

There’s a hell of a lot of culture shock where she discovers the closedmidedness and inhospitability of the rural hick town: store owners refuse to cooperate, yokels leer and hoot, even the sheriff is a sleazy pervert on the make. And with notable grouch Joseph Cotten (Baron Blood, the Hellbenders) as her real estate agent, things are looking a bit ugly.

When she tries to settle in to country life, she discovers some odd parallels between her aunts diaries and events taking place in her own life…and that the few friendly faces she’s gathered round her may bear more malicious motivation than at first appears…

Rural menace, family secrets, satanism, reincarnation and a Lifetime-style
proto-Sleeping With the Enemy vibe result in an atmospheric cross between The Nesting, The Gardener (aka Seeds of Evil) and post-hippie horrors between the coasts/satanic peril films like Race With the Devil or Brotherhood of Satan.

A lazy (and decidedly loose) comparison could be made to Rosemary’s Baby, but in point of fact, The Hearse is far more akin to 1972 TV movie The Devil’s Daughter, where an unsuspecting naïf is half led and half runs into a dark preordained destiny in the arms of dark powers.*

* also of a similar bent, albeit with a very different denouement, is the excellent 1977 film The Sentinel, whose likewise nerve-wracked heroine travels a very similar path, and is also haunted by satanic forces and the spectre of reincarnation and predestination…

Featuring George C. Scott’s wife Trish Van Devere, The Hearse came at a time when both were treading more interesting cinematic waters (Scott had recently wrapped on the wonderfully sleazy Hardcore and both were very recent veterans of the same year’s darkly modern ghost story The Changeling), and while Scott would return to more snooze-worthy mainstream nonsense hereafter, Van Devere would go on to star in the hilarious and similarly sleazy Hollywood Vice Squad (with Frank Gorshin as a coke-snorting pimp!) and the Charlie Bronson Cannon mayhemfest Messenger of Death – both more than worth a viewing for the cult connoisseur.

Also notable in the cast is Donald Hotton as the creepy hellfire and brimstone-spouting local Reverend, who’d just appeared in another favorite of the era, the Native American lore-horror Nightwing, as well as priors in the prescient anti-nuclear power scare film The China Syndrome and even a bit part in Cheech & Chong’s Up in Smoke (!)

An eerie piano and bass-driven score by a Webster Lewis (whose only other
semi-notables include 80’s teen sex comedy My Tutor and the amusingly goofy rap exploiter Beat Street) and dark, intimately lit cinematography by a (possibly
pseudonymous) Mori Kawa (whose sole credit this film represents…seems unlikely, all things considered) strengthen the mood and accentuate the atmosphere of this longtime favorite from the dawn of the 80’s nigh-mainstream horror boom (the sheer number of horror and sci-fi horror films released between 1979 and 1981 is legendary).

The lone extra is a 20m interview with David Gautreaux, whose only notable prior was Star Trek The Motion Picture the year prior, about his strong Catholicism and how it impacted his near-casting in Omen III and his role here in The Hearse, particularly the (rather prudish and subdued) satanic sex scene (which he actually consulted a priest for how to handle his take thereof!). Gautreaux apparently has no compunctions about lying, though, as both (attempted) roles were intended for an older actor, which he presented himself as – go figure.

Rhino’s snapcase release from around the turn of the millenium still looks more than respectable, and while displaying some light ghosting at points, is still nothing to complain about.  Vinegar Syndrome beefs things up into hi-def territory, dropping that extra bit of color contrast and image clarity into the production to make it all nice and spiffy for today’s more demanding viewers.

While a remove of nearly four decades leaves elements of the plot and character touches feeling odd if not quaint (Van Devere comes off very much the Harlequin romance ingenue here), the sense of unwantedness, isolation and outright danger of the small, rural community towards the “outsider” is timeless and perhaps more relevant than it has been in decades.

May be a touch bloodless for those raised on the excesses of the slasher
aesthetic…but as an old school satanic horror and semi-ghost story, the Hearse holds up as well as it did all those years ago.

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