It’s a wonderful time for fans of slasher cinema’s Golden Age — whether you first made the genre’s acquaintance while browsing lurid VHS box art in your favorite Mom & Pop video stores, or are just now discovering the bizarre bounty of early indie slasher titles.
Over the last few years in particular, fan-operated labels are rescuing obscure prints of vintage slasher flicks that even the most hardcore fans have written off as lost to the sands of time, and blessing them with glorious high-definition restorations… but some of those films, for whatever reason, continue to elude the transition to DVD and Blu-ray.
One of these ubiquitous VHS titles from those bygone days was FUNERAL HOME (originally titled CRIES IN THE NIGHT), a small Canadian production that first got my attention via a lurid trailer reel at the head of most Paragon Video horror tapes.
While the more dreamlike tone set it apart from the hilariously lurid teasers for BOARDING HOUSE and DR. BUTCHER, M.D., the trailer’s creepy atmosphere compelled me to seek the movie out… and I was rewarded with a spooky, low-key thriller that subtly re-shapes the slasher formula with a little help from the genre’s classics.
Not that this early effort from prolific director William Fruet (KILLER PARTY) is anywhere near classic status, but if you’re in the mood for a character-driven rural slasher, FUNERAL HOME may offer you a warm welcome.
Part of the film’s charm is supplied by star Lesleh Donaldson — a very familiar face to fans of Canadian horror cinema, who would go on to appear in cult faves HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME, DEADLY EYES and CURTAINS. FUNERAL HOME is an impressive debut for the prolific actress (who, thankfully, has finally returned to the genre for the upcoming ABNORMAL ATTRACTION), who takes on the Final Girl role here.
Donaldson plays Heather, a quiet-natured teenager we first meet en route to the title locale — a former mortuary and funeral parlor which is being converted into a (sort of) cozy bed & breakfast by her grandmother, Maude Chalmers (familiar character actress Kay Hawtrey), who has fallen on hard times after the mysterious disappearance of her husband James (Jack Van Evera).
While helping her grandmother prepare the house for its new guests, Heather begins to suspect something is amiss… especially after hearing strange, disturbing sounds and hostile whispers in the middle of the night. Sounds that seem to be coming from the house’s incredibly spooky cellar.
After striking up a casual relationship with likable townie Rick Yates (Dean Garbett), Heather learns more than she probably wanted to know about her missing grandfather; as told by Rick and revealed in fuzzy flashbacks, it appears “Chalmers the Embalmer” was not a particularly nice guy. In fact, most of the local kids were terrified of the mortician — not only because of his profession, but because of his unpredictable and often violent temper.
When the guests inevitably start disappearing, Heather begins to suspect that her sweet grandma is hiding something from her. When she and Rick decide to do a little amateur sleuthing, it seems they might be the next ones to vanish…
While FUNERAL HOME is a pretty bloodless affair — especially compared to its Canadian slasher brethren like MY BLOODY VALENTINE — it’s clear Fruet is opting for mood over shocks, and he largely succeeds, crafting what could easily pass for an effective made-for-TV thriller from the late ‘70s or early ‘80s (I love those, and will probably write more about them in a separate column soon).
It’s not too hard to make a mortuary look frightening (if you doubt this, see PHANTASM), but the director makes optimum use of the eerie gothic house to give the story a surreal, nightmarish feel — in particular, the dusty, cobweb-strewn shadows of the massive cellar, which is still fully-stocked with the tools of Chalmers’ trade.
The film is also sprinkled with some odd but effective moments which don’t necessarily forward the plot, but certainly enhance the unreal ambiance of the film. For example, there’s a scruffy black cat which seems to have an unnatural attachment to Heather, much to her dismay; it’s never explained why she’s frightened of the animal, which seems pretty friendly to me.
One of the film’s creepiest highlights takes place in a flooded quarry that serves as a summer hangout for the local kids, one of whom nearly collides with a woman’s bloated, submerged corpse. It’s a truly nightmarish sequence, reminiscent of a similar scene in Francis Coppola’s early horror feature DEMENTIA 13.
FUNERAL HOME is not without its faults, of course; the story plays out a bit too leisurely for slasher fans looking for higher body counts and splashes of gore (although there is a nasty kill involving an embalming trocar), and the “twist” ending will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Hitchcock’s classic PSYCHO. But for those seeking a no-frills, moody gothic thriller with slasher elements, it’s worth checking in to the Chalmers’ house… at least for one night.
Here’s hoping someone is soon able to rescue FUNERAL HOME from the purgatory of murky VHS and dubious DVD releases, and secure the original elements (or at least a decent print) for a hi-def transfer, so that its merits can be properly appreciated by a new audience.