Monday, April 17, 2006

The Red House

I have a notion to try and introduce a new film genre. This genre exists somewhere amongst film noir, the family drama, and the horror film – of the 40’s and 50’s. The films have the veneer of happy, well-adjusted family life, but there are terrible forces lurking underneath. You can go back to stuff like the old Ronald Reagan film “King’s Row”, and through movies like “Night of the Hunter”, “Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte”, and “Blue Velvet” right up to “A History of Violence” today. I’m going to call them “Norman Rockwell Gothic”.

That brings me to “The Red House”, a lesser known little marvel from 1947, directed by Delmer Daves. It is set in an idyllic little farming community, where the schoolkids wear letter sweaters and use the word “gosh”, and where farmers wear a suit to the dinner table. It’s the kind of portrait Rockwell would have come up with, but buried under its surface are lust, madness, and murder.

Farmer Pete Morgan (Edward G Robinson) lives on a quaint little farm with his sister, and his adopted daughter Meg. The Morgans are a nice bunch, but their isolation means that the townspeople talk and gossip about them, as their young hired hand Nate tells them his first day on the job. Nate says the rumour is that Meg’s parents ran off, but Morgan gently tells him that isn’t true - that they were killed in a car accident.

This first visit by Nate also provides the first indication that there’s something not right around the Morgan place. After dinner, Nate starts out for home and casually mentions that he’s going to take a short cut through the Ox-Head Woods. Morgan tries to dissaude him, gently at first – but then more forcefully and finally in a panic.“Nothing will prepare you for the screams that you will hear for the rest of your life!”

“Screams from where?”

“From the Red House!”

Nate won’t be talked out of it, and sets out at night with a gale force wind blowing. Once in the woods, of course, he hears or thinks he hears the screams, and the film brilliantly evokes a sense of disorientation and panic. The shaken teen ends up back at the Morgan place for the night.

Nate is not the type to scare easily, and the experience in the woods makes him really curious about the red house, and what is spooking Pete so much. A second trip into the woods results in being knocked unconscious after getting attacked by an unseen assailant.

Soon afterward, there is a meeting in the forest between Morgan, and Teller, a shadowy hunter that we have met briefly at the start of the film. It is revealed that Teller has been given hunting rights in the woods, in exchange for “Keeping trespassers out”. The attack on Nate is thus explained, but this also amps up our curiosity about the red house, especially when Morgan tells the hunter, “I don’t want to see anyone hurt, but if a bullet were to just miss someone….”

Meg has by now begun to act upon her own curiosity about the red house, and whilst on a walk by herself, actually finds it. There is no masking the fact that Meg has some connection to the house, as Theremin music wells up on the soundtrack, and her attention is drawn to the farm’s icehouse. She relates this experience to Nate. “ I don’t know how I know it was the ice-house, but I just do."

Morgan begins to lose his grip on reality as the two teens get closer to the secret of the red house. In visiting Meg in her room, he makes a telling slip, calling her “Jeannie.” This goes uncommented upon, but in a later exchange at the swimming hole, Morgan appears to suffer a breakdown, as he addresses Meg as Jeannie again. This time it’s clearly not just a slip – He actually is speaking to Jeannie, and Meg has now figured it out.

Meg ventures back to the red house, this time going inside, and she now understands that it was her home once upon a time. Morgan follows her there.

“Who is Jeannie, Pete? Is it short for Genevieve? My mother?”

Finally, Morgan spills his terrible story – About a woman who he loved and how he came to kill her and her husband, and how he disposed of their bodies in an icehouse.

Robinson is simply marvelous in this role, as he was in most of his roles. He watches with mounting unease as his past comes back to destroy him, and in his final act, sits stonefaced as the water in the icehouse comes up and over him. There’s a tiny, but perfect little coda, as well. As Morgan truck goes under the water, a lone surrey wheel floats to the surface – A reminder of a long-ago crime finally uncovered.

Footnote: A couple of points. I mentioned the use of the Theremin on this soundtrack. It might seem a strange choice, but the way it creates unease and tension is invaluable.

Also, as great as this film is, it has a lot of padding. There is a silly subplot about Nate’s mother which should have been taken right out, and there’s another about Nates girlfriend Tibby and Teller, which is notable only for the presence of a white-hot young Julie London


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