Boris Karloff`s series of Mexican films is anything but routine. Of the entire ill-reputed group, House of Evil (1968) has something that most resembles a traditional plot. It is orthodox only in that it is a retread of the old dark house scenario. However, that genre is filtered through such bizarre ineptness that it would be an incredulous stretch to claim House of Evil is a film bordering on coherency. The movie is available via that valuable distributor, Sinister Cinema. Their brief assessment of House of Evil is telling: “not bad.”
As with Fear Chamber, House was co-directed by Jack Hill and Juan Ibanez and co-stars south of the border sexpot Julissa. A murdered girl has been found by local villagers and, just like another recent victim, her eyes have been torn out. Upon hearing the news, Matthias Morteval (Karloff) is mightily upset. His friend and doctor, Emery (Angel Espinoza), tries to simultaneously caution and calm Matthias. Dr. Emery reminds Matthias of similar murders in Vienna, involving Matthias’ brother Hugo. Before a painting of his late father, Matthias pulls himself together and vows to rid their garden of the evil weed that has sprung up. The camera pans, revealing that the eyes have been cut out of the fatherly figure in the painting.
With the aid of Dr. Emery, Matthias calls all of his relatives to spend the weekend at Morhenge Mansion. Most of the greedy relatives believe the aged Matthias is going to include them in his will. Lucy Durant (Julissa) is Matthias’ niece and, although she is not given to avarice, she too arrives for the weekend with her fiancee, the bland Charles (Andres Garcia), who also happens to be an inspector investigating the recent murders of young girls.
Given Karloff’s health, his portrayal of Matthias is surprisingly sprightly, and he imbues the character with eccentricity, cynicism and a degree of empathy. Unfortunately, his co-stars are all painfully amateurish. Among the relatives are Ivar (Quintin Bulnes doing his worst Peter Lorre imitation), Cordella (Beatriz Baz), and Morgenstern (Manual Alvarado). Matthias greets them from behind his ominous organ (ala Dr. Phibes), insults them, and issues a warning about the family curse: a genetic “shrinking of the brain” that causes madness and murderous tendencies, such as those his late brother Hugo suffered. Hugo died after gouging out his own eyes (so, that’s what happened to Ray Milland’s X!).
After Matthias retires for the evening, Lucy is introduced to the family vocation: the Mortevals are the last toymakers to the king, but neither Fred Astaire nor Mickey Rooney are anywhere in sight. The Mortevals make killer, diabolical toys, which sadistic kings used to eliminate their enemies.
Of course, the introduction of a mansion filled with life-size Chucky dolls should guarantee a considerable body count. In this, the film does not disappoint; but there are plenty of other disappointments on hand. Boris seemingly dies off early in the film, leaving us alone with the rest of the cast, which is not a good thing.
The slipshod cinematography makes much of the film quite difficult to see. On the other hand, we hear far too much vapid dialogue which bogs down an epic middle section. Ideas are introduced, then dropped. The dialogue is equally wretched, but even worse is the inept, shrieking score.
Fortunately, Matthias’ death turns out to have been greatly exaggerated and Boris returns, not a moment too soon, for a grand, albeit brief, ham-fisted, fiery finale. Poor, mad uncle Matthias! The finale, with the red-robed Boris madly pounding away at his organ of death, almost makes this endeavor worthwhile. Almost. The surviving protagonists do get the traditional escape from the collapsing ruins, even if you really can’t see them through the poor lighting.
House of Evil is so haphazardly composed that any potential is squandered. This first of Karloff’s films with Hill and Ibanez (and the only one released during the actor’s life) at least maintains the facade of being a standard period horror yarn. Yet in this, House of Evil only winds up an aesthetic cousin to Ed Wood`s Bride of the Monster (1955). The attempt, in both films, to adhere to genre cliches actually undercuts their potential for inspired lunacy. The younger siblings of Karloff’s Mexican quadruplet show no qualms towards anecdotal waywardness.