The House that Would Not Die (John Llewellyn Moxey, 1970)
[note: review originally published 2Apr2011]
If you don’t know the name of Argentine-born director John Llewellyn Moxey, you’re not alone. While he directed episodes of some of the world’s most beloved television shows (from the British soap Coronation Street to American detective fare like Murder, She Wrote, his last regular gig before he died; he directed eighteen of them), he worked in relative obscurity until 1970. It was then that he made the acquaintance who would shape the rest of his career: he met mega-producer Aaron Spelling, who was already a superstar, with hits like The Smothers Brothers Show and Burke’s Law under his belt. Spelling had a property, the rights to a novel written by an obscure novelist named Barbara Michaels, called Ammie, Come Home. (Michaels, the pen name of Egyptologist Barbara Mertz, would, of course, go on to literary superstardom, both as Michaels and as her other pan name, Julie Peters.) He had someone to adapt it already, Henry Farrell (who wrote the novel Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and adapted Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, so he could do mystery), but needed a director. Enter Moxey. It proved such a success, in Spelling’s terms, that the two of them would work together extensively in the following years; Spelling started tabbing Moxey for his current series smash, The Mod Squad, in 1971, then when that went south, for what was, arguably, the biggest hit either of them ever worked on: Charlie’s Angels. But we’re getting way ahead of ourselves.
If you’ve read Barbara Michaels, the setup will seem very familiar to you. Lovely young thing inherits an old, Gothic-style house where there are supernatural goings-on. The lovely young thing part, Sara, was the debut of Kitty Winn, who would later go on to the Exorcist franchise; can’t go wrong there. The maiden aunt who accompanies her, Ruth, is played by Barbara Stanwyck, and did she really need the money that badly coming off The Big Valley, which had been hugely successful in the late sixties (and is still in syndication forty years later)? But never mind that. They get to the house, coincidentally run into two very eligible bachelors (The 300 Spartans‘ Richard Egan and Logan’s Run‘s Michael Anderson Jr.), and the four of them, with a bit of help from the community, set about getting the house un-haunted. Or something.
It’s all a great deal better when Ms. Mertz, a wonderful novelist, is writing it. The difference between novel and screenplay is, in this case, characterization; Barbara Michaels novels are remarkable for how well-drawn and realistic her characters are (though one would think that eventually you’d find one who didn’t disbelieve the ghost stuff for way too much of the book), while Farrell’s screenplay—or, one suspects given his earlier work, Spelling’s editing of Farrell’s screenplay—has characters about as deep as the Persian rugs on the drawing room floor. It’s a letdown, to be sure, even more so because the principal cast is usually pretty darned good at what they do. Here they spend their time flailing about, trying to solve a mystery that’s never fully fleshed. One does have to lay a bit of the blame for this on Michaels’ novel, which is an early specimen (it was her third, published in 1968; she would publish the first Julie Peters book and her first nonfiction under her real name that same year) and is nowhere near her best, but still, it’s acres better than this movie. Worth watching for Stanwyck, and a couple of effects that still come off kinda creepy, but otherwise you can give it a pass. **