The Italian film industry has a long and proud tradition of cashing in on other people’s success. Due to Italy’s very loose copyright laws, the 1970s and ’80s were rife with rip-off productions, unofficial sequels, and re-titled projects that took full advantage of the fame and success of the era’s biggest hits. Jaws (1978), The Exorcist (1973), Alien (1979), and even The Hills Have Eyes (1977) (among others) all received unauthorized sequels or bizarre namesakes, designed to get the audiences into theatres in hopes of seeing more of their favorite film or franchise. More often than not, these projects bore no resemblance to the films they were supposedly linked to, instead offering a completely unrelated cinematic journey.
One of the biggest franchises, if you can call it that, was the series riding on the name of Evil Dead, appearing to the market after the success of Raimi’s 1981 classic. It all started quite innocently: when initially released in Italy, The Evil Dead went under the title La Casa (The House) and so its sequel Evil Dead 2 (1987) was naturally named La Casa 2. Nothing weird there, film titles get translated and changed all the time. However, before Raimi could get the third installment of his series out in the cinemas, the Italians had already added La Casa 3 (Ghosthouse, 1988), La Casa 4 (Whichery, 1988) and La Casa 5 (Beyond Darkness, 1990) to the franchise, none of which have anything to do with Raimi or the cinematic universe of Evil Dead. Just to add to the confusion, La Casa 6 and La Casa 7 also appeared in the franchise in a form of retitled American films House II: The Second Story (1987), and The Horror Show (1989), both of which had been released before Army of Darkness (1992), and neither of which contain any TARDIS-like cabins or books that summon ancient evil from the depth of the earth.
Title based bewilderment to one side, the La Casa series actually contains some interesting films in their own right, one of them being La Casa 3, or better known as Ghosthouse. Like the English title would suggest, rather than telling a tale of a cabin full of possessed holidaymakers, it’s a story about a haunted house (although holidaymakers still make an appearance). A ham radio operator named Paul (Greg Rhodes), receives an eerie transmission of a young man screaming for help. With the help of his girlfriend Martha (Lara Wendel), Paul decides to track down the signal’s origin, and the search takes them to an abandoned house in rural Massachusetts. While they find a group of tourists (or squatters, burglars, whatever you want to call them), including another ham radio enthusiast Jim (Martin Jay), who has set up his equipment in the house and whose voice seems to be the one heard on the ghostly transmission, it soon becomes apparent that there is more than meets the eye going on in this eerie farmhouse and the bloodcurdling radio messages may not just be a simple prank but something much more sinister.
The mastermind behind Ghosthouse is none other than the legendary Umberto Lenzi (under the name Humphrey Humbert). Lenzi’s name, of course, is familiar to many from his exploits in the cannibal genre with titles like Il paese del sesso selvaggio (Man from the Deep River, 1972) and Cannibal Ferox (1981), but during his rather long and lustrous career, he dabbled in numerous genres, including more traditional supernatural horror. Ghosthouse is the first in a series of Italian-American horror productions involving Lenzi, and on paper, it seems a far cry from his previous works. However, as Lenzi is not only the man sitting in the director’s seat but also responsible for the script, his trademark style does come through loud and clear and there are gory deaths aplenty for those who might expect them.
Let’s start with the main stage of the story. We have a beautiful old farmhouse, which we know to have been a place of a horrific double murder 20 years in the past. Somehow something has gone wrong with Henrietta (Kristen Fougerousse), the young daughter of the Baker family, subsequently resulting in the bloody murders of her parents as well as her own mysterious death. The house has since been long abandoned, with only a crazy old caretaker (Donald O’Brien) checking up on the property every once in a while. Now, if this Victorian beauty looks familiar to you, it is not simply because all old houses look the same, but you probably remember it from another Italian-American production from 7 years earlier, in other words, Lucio Fulci’s Quella villa accanto al cimitero (House by the Cemetery, 1981). Besides sharing the same building, the films bear no relation to each other, but it’s easy to see why Lenzi wanted to use the same location for his ghostly romp. This lonely old place with its unique architectural features and (seemingly) remote location is perfectly suited to be a haunted house. Barren trees and cloudy skies of early spring offer the surrounding backdrop, helping further cement an eerie atmosphere of looming doom. I am sure, in reality, it is a lovely place with enough period charm to fill a whole catalog of real-estate porn, but Lenzi (and Fulci) certainly did a great job in portraying it in as creepy light as one possibly could.
Now, old houses, especially in rural locations, get abandoned all the time for a number of different, perfectly logical, humdrum reasons, so an old house left to rot in the middle of nowhere is nothing unusual. Neither is a bit of urban exploring or even someone taking up residence without the owner’s permission. However, just randomly deciding on holiday in such a location seems like a distinctly odd thing to do. Nevertheless, this is exactly what Jim Dalen, his brother Mark (Ron Houck), their sister Tina (Kate Silver), and Marks girlfriend Susan (Mary Sellers) have decided to do. They have no connection to the house or its previous owners, just simply decided to break in and use it as their own personal holiday house. Along with them, they have brought Jim’s ham radio because apparently, that’s what you do when you are a ham radio enthusiast (is it? Can anyone confirm that?) and it is this pesky radio that ends up luring poor Paul and Martha to the house as well. Soon glass bottles are exploding on people’s faces, severed heads spin in washing machines, and an eerie nursery rhyme heard on the ghostly radio transmission (incidentally resembling something you might hear on a number station broadcast) can be heard all around the house. And if that is not enough, the murderous little Henrietta and her menacing clown puppet make their appearance on Jim’s RV’s TV like some kind of creepy(er) cousin of the British test card girl (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, simply google Carole Hersee) and Jim’s explorations in the house’s basement result in his untimely, yet not unpredicted death. Add the madman caretaker on a killing spree and an unexplained ghost dog hassling the group and you got a really hostile situation in your hands.
Naturally, the authorities need to be alerted, so the only logical thing to do is for Paul, Mark, and Susan to drive off to the night and leave Tina and Martha to fend for themselves against a crazy meat cleaver-wielding maniac and some very aggressive supernatural phenomenon. Makes total sense. Or at least as much sense as Martha returning in the house after seeing a light go on in one of the windows. Luckily for her, instead of running into the maniacal custodian, she gets off quite easily with some light poltergeist phenomenon and getting strangled by the clown puppet, until Paul arrives with the police. And that should be the end of it, right? Your friend is dead, and the police do a grand job of victim-blaming the group for their misfortune, so by any rational this should be the perfect time to bugger off and just forget the whole sordid affair. But no, of course not. Paul and Mark are most upset that the police are not listening to their stories about sinister little girls and their clown dolls and while Mark is left to deal with his broken RV, Paul and Martha rush back to Boston so Paul can run the ghostly radio message through his very sophisticated computer program. After some far-fetched conclusions are jumped to, Paul finds out that the late Mr. Baker used to work as a funeral director and was in the habit of stealing belongings from the deceased. One such item just happened to be little Henrietta’s beloved clown doll and this outrageous crime is indeed at the root of all this trouble. Paul and Martha do their best to resolve the situation by burning the doll, but as so often is the case, this is not enough to stop the hauntings, and the curse of the ghost house follows them back to Boston with deadly results.
There is very little logic to anything that happens in Ghosthouse. No matter what kind of shenanigans takes place the characters keep making the most illogical decisions possible and react to the things around them in ways that have no place in normal human behavior, mostly manifesting itself by everyone returning into the house time and time again, despite it being proven to be an extremely hazardous idea. In fact, from the very beginning, it is blatantly obvious that the most logical solution to the whole situation is to simply leave and never look back, but somehow this gang of sensational masterminds decides to do just the opposite, bravely defying reason in every turn. It’s enough to make you want to shove your face between the sofa cushions in frustration, but you also kind of want to see if they are going to do it again (spoiler alert: they definitely will). Things are introduced to the story (such as the radio message from the future and the crazed caretaker with an insatiable lust for blood), but never really followed upon. They are simply just parts of the preposterous tapestry that is Ghosthouse.
That of course, is a big part of its charm. From the very beginning, the film will suck you in with its absolutely senseless plot development and fantastically stilted performances. There are no great actors here (with perhaps the exception of Kristen Fougerousse, whose speechless part as the ghostly Henrietta is actually genuinely menacing), but a special shout out must go to Lara Wendel and her astonishingly wooden way of delivering every single line she has been given. it is solidly persistent and a total joy to watch. The demon clown doll and the poltergeist activity that accompanies it is of course a blatant rip-off from Tobe Hooper’s 1982 hit Poltergeist, as is the bizarre scene with Mark falling through the floor into a watery pit full of corpses. Except, this sinkhole is not filled with rainwater but with acidic milk, again making no sense whatsoever, but definitely adding a nice extra layer of awesomely absurd nonsense to the mix. The same goes for the mysterious death of Tina, who gets chopped in half by a guillotine blade that for no earthly reason hangs from the ceiling of one of the rooms. Irrational yes, yet also very entertaining.
Unsurprisingly Ghosthouse is not a scary film. Well, unless you happen to be deadly afraid of clown puppets that is. Neither does it manage to drum up much suspense as the foolhardy ways all the characters act quickly dilutes any tension that should and could otherwise be present. Nevertheless, I do find it a perfectly joyous watch. Lenzi has pretty much thrown in every single horror trope he could have possibly thought of and hoped for the best. The result does not so much inspire fear as it does amusement, but in the best way possible. In all its hammy awesomeness, Ghosthouse plays out very much like an insane fever dream where logic is tossed out of the window from the very start and the illogical is embraced with gusto, offering a fun filled joy ride through an absurd series of events.