Thursday, August 20, 2009

A House Is Not A Funeral Home

In the late '70s and early '80s, the Great White North exported a number of home-grown horror films that went on to become fan favorites. Besides the early work of David Cronenberg, films such as Prom Night (1980), Terror Train (1980), Happy Birthday to Me (1981), My Bloody Valentine (1981), and Curtains (1983) all hailed from Canada. But despite those impressive titles, not everything from Canada in those days was so golden. Consider the case of 1980's long-forgotten Funeral Home.

Written by Ida Nelson and produced and directed by William Fruet (who also directed 1976's Death Weekend and went on to be prolific in genre TV, with credits including episodes of Ray Bradbury Theater, Friday the 13th: The Series, Goosebumps, and Poltergeist: The Legacy), Funeral Home is what some might call a slow burner. Others might call it uneventful to the point of absurdity. As Funeral Home begins, 16-year-old Heather (Lesleh Donaldson) is arriving at her grandmother's rural home to spend the summer. Heather's grandfather passed away some time ago and to make ends meet, her grandmother Maude (played by veteran character actress Kay Hawtrey) has had to covert her house to a 'tourist home'. 'Tourist Home' isn't a term I'm familiar with but it clearly must be Canadian for 'bed and breakfast' because that's what Heather's grandmother has. This tourist home has a grisly past, however, as it previously was a funeral home. And although it looks as though the town this home occupies is as nothing as a town can get, Maude practically has to turn away business. If Norman Bates had as much luck attracting guests he could've afforded to buy his mother something nice!

Before long, we know that Heather is going to have a mystery to solve while she's on her summer vacation. There's strange noises coming from the cellar and as she investigates, she hears her grandmother talking to someone else - in a room that Maude keeps padlocked. And from her new townie boyfriend Rick (Dean Garbett, in his one and only film appearance), Heather learns that her grandfather was not a kindly figure. In fact, he was something of a hair trigger psycho. And Heather isn't the only one with a mystery to solve. You see, Rick's brother Joe (Alf Humphreys, who played the incorrigible practical joker 'Howard' in My Bloody Valentine) is the newest deputy in the town of Northampton and he thinks there's something to the string of missing person cases that are tied to the town - the latest of which is a real estate developer whose Porsche has been found stashed under a haystack. The sheriff insists that nothing criminal is going on in these cases - people run off to start new lives all the time! - and he instructs Joe to turn a blind eye to them. But Joe cares about being a good cop, even if no one else on the Northampton PD does.

From Funeral Home's poster - which depicts a group of zombie-like figures standing in a cemetery outside the funeral home (looking similar to the poster used ten years later for the remake of Night of the Living Dead), along with the tagline "some thing never rest in peace" - the expectation is that this is going to be a zombie movie. But that is not the case. I guess whoever marketed Funeral Home thought they'd be better off trying to entice people with a zombie movie than a movie about a girl hearing voices in her grandmother's cellar. And I'll admit - they made the right call. Something sinister, though, is going on and Heather needs to find out what it is. And with the latest guests to her grandmother's home being the latest names on Joe Yates' missing persons files, it seems like whoever - or whatever - is in Maude Chalmers' cellar is finding its way out at night. Is Heather's grandfather still alive? Or is Maude's handyman Sam (Les Rubie, in a full retard performance that makes Robert Silverman in Prom Night look like the Will Hunting of Hamilton High) acting on his own disturbed impulses?

Whatever the case, someone driving a pick-up truck pushed an obnoxious travelling salesman and his mistress in their car over a quarry cliff. And someone disposed of an old man asking too many questions about his missing wife. And if Heather keeps venturing into the cellar, she might be the next one to disappear.

When Fruet finally does put all his cards on the table, the resolution to Funeral Home's mystery will likely be a shock to no one. No one except me, that is. I have to admit that I got totally sandbagged by the end of this movie, which is hilarious because even the least genre-savvy viewer will see the conclusion coming from a mile away! But having been eleven when I first saw this on HBO, I'm willing to cut myself some slack. And I think the reveal is actually well done, regardless of whether one anticipates it or not. As the curious Heather, Donaldson isn't much of a scream queen (even though she went on to a mini-run of horror film roles in Happy Birthday to Me, Deadly Eyes, and Curtains) but she's likable enough - and what's especially appealing about her from the vantage point of 2009 is how much like a regular person Donaldson looks like. This is the kind of normal teenage girl that you'd never see in today's Megan Fox world. When she strips down at one point to a one-piece bathing suit, it's amazing what a completely untitillating moment it is. Even though she's a cute girl and she's supposed to be seen as a regular bathing beauty - her boyfriend is so impressed by her bod, in fact, that he snaps a picture of her to put up in his school locker! - from our current standards of what hot is, Donaldson might as well be Mindy Cohn from The Facts of Life. But I think that's something in Funeral Home's favor - I like that everyone that we see in this movie, down to the last extra, looks ordinary in a way that you never see in contemporary movies. Even for 1980, though, it has to be said that Fruet and co. really went the extra mile to get some unglamourous faces. Even the one character that's supposed to be an all-out sex pot - Peggy Mahon as 'Florie', the salesman's mistress - would need to put a bag over her head before seducing a fat guy with a taco.

The standout character in Funeral Home - and the character that makes the movie for me - is Joe Yates. Alf Humphreys does a nice job with this character - and, as written by Nelson, Joe is a surprisingly complex figure. This is what usually would be a role like David Arquette's Deputy Dewey in the Scream films - a step away from Barney Fife, basically. Or else he'd be the cop who keeps poking into something suspicious and pays for it - like Richard Farnsworth in Misery (1990), a character set up to be an obvious victim. But Joe is neither of those things - he's something of an anomaly among horror movie cops. He's ambitious and inquisitive but not in an obnoxious, blatantly career-minded way. He just wants to do his job as well as his big city counterparts. Even though he's set-up early on as someone who can't get any respect in town because the adults of Northampton have known him all his life (like a kid, he even gets told to keep his hat off the counter of the local diner), Joe slowly emerges as an assertive, capable cop - and nobody's fool.

Even though he falls ass-backwards into the solution to his missing persons cases, Joe's in the right place to claim that win because he doesn't give up on his investigation. Some viewers might not make it to the end themselves as Funeral Home's old-fashioned approach can be a challenge to endure. But for patient fans, Funeral Home isn't such a dead place to visit. Even though it's easy to see why this movie didn't set the world on fire, with his nicely atmospheric handling of the material, it's also easy to see why this wasn't the last nail in William Fruet's directorial coffin.

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