It’s the dystopian year of 2020 and I’m still trying to do Slasher Search – looking for interesting, obscure slasher movies that I haven’t heard of and that don’t seem to already have a following, preferably from the FRIDAY THE 13TH era. It gets harder with each review I do, as the chances become slimmer that there’s anything left that I haven’t already seen and hasn’t been dug up by Arrow or Vinegar Syndrome or somebody. It might be a snipe hunt at this point.
The best method I know is to look for things that were released on VHS and never made it to DVD or blu-ray. That’s how I found OPEN HOUSE (1987), which is clearly not one of the weird regional ones I tend to find, since it’s legit enough to have Adrienne Barbeau in it. Seven years after THE FOG she’s no longer playing the radio DJ hero – she’s the girlfriend to one. She gets tied up and he has to rescue her. Not as cool. Joseph Bottoms (THE BLACK HOLE) plays Dr. David Kelley, famed KDRX talk radio therapist. The original Frasier. Barbeau’s Lisa is a Beverly Hills realtor, and therefore one of the doctor’s two connections to a series of murders of Beverly Hills realtors. The other connection is that someone he thinks may be the killer keeps calling in to his show. But the authorities won’t listen.
This is one of the slasher movies that’s made with competence (if not anything approaching style or flair), but dragged down by too much very serious talking about what’s going on and who may be responsible. At least there’s some sick imagination involved in the killings. It seems to be a homeless man (we don’t see his face, just his boots and ragged coat and knitted gloves like the ones on the movie poster for ROAD GAMES). In the first big scare we don’t see him, but his aftermath: a dead woman in the shower with “SOLD” written on the mirror in blood. In another one he attaches twelve razor blades to one end of a toilet plunger handle (see poster, right) and uses it like a mace. Kind of a MacGyvery way to murder, by someone who only has bathroom supplies to work with.
The caller and others slander the local realtors as “bimbos,” with resentment toward them for allegedly doing anything for a sale. They all seem to be women except for this poor-man’s-M.-Emmett-Walsh type guy called Barney Resnick (Barry Hope, “1st Neighbor,” JIMMY THE KID) of Proud Realty, who is introduced crammed into a tiny office, sloppily stuffing pizza in his mouth, with a picture of Barbeau’s character on a dartboard behind him and a windup penis hopping around on his cluttered, crooked desk. He gets into hostile arguments with her in person, calls her a “broad,” even grabs her wrists and yells at her. She says stuff like, “Resnick, when was the last time you so much as read the ingredients on a stick of deodorant?”
I think he’s supposed to be a red herring, but it never seems like he could be the same guy doing the stalking, so he’s only a red herring for the other characters, who know he’s a misogynistic and physically abusive asshole who openly hates the women realtors and brags and giggles about breaking into the houses they’re selling and trashing them. Including the one where the first body was found. Oh well, he’s not the killer, so he’s allowed to do all that.
It’s strangely low on that low budget horror movie thing where you get joy from weird, inexplicable choices. One exception is that you hear an owl hooting sound effect during one of those candlelight romantic floor sex scenes. There are a few actually cool touches. I wasn’t totally sure if this was intentional, but I liked when they cut from a sign for Dr. Kelley’s show “Survival Line” to other characters being stalked and trying to survive.
Like every movie ever made about a call-in radio show, there are some ham-handed attempts at depicting differences of opinion. There’s a scene where a guy calls in just to say whoever’s doing the killings should get the gas chamber. We don’t see his face, but he has an array of weapons, ammunition and miniature flags laid out on the table in front of him and he’s loading guns as the doctor debates the death penalty with him.
There’s also a class tension built into the plot. In a cold open that’s either unrelated or explained in some part I wasn’t paying enough attention to, a distraught young woman calls in to the show from a phone booth. She mentions she’s been “sleeping with” her father, and when Dr. Kelley tries to soothe her she says resentful things about him supposedly being rich. (Then she shoots herself – a similar thing happens in PUMP UP THE VOLUME. It’s not just the pro radio shows.)
The killer (SPOILER), Harry (Darwyn Swalve, “Bordello Bouncer,” CITY HEAT, “Ox, POLICE ACADEMY 6: CITY UNDER SIEGE, “Biker #1,” DEAD BANG, “Wrestler,” BARTON FINK) ends up indeed being a homeless guy. The murder spree started because he’d been squatting in a home when one of the realtors showed it to potential buyers. He’s angry about housing prices. The can of dog food found in one of the houses is, I think, a reference to the horrors of being poor enough to resort to eating dog food. His complaints are based in real societal ills, but of course our sympathies have to be with the idle rich he’s lashing out against, since he’s a serial killer, and hatefully rants about “bitches” and stuff in between his legitimate complaints.
One small aspect that’s a little interesting is that Dr. Kelley genuinely believes Harry should get psychiatric help, not get shot. He never turns against his discipline like Dr. Loomis did when he decided Michael was pure evil. He says, “You’re a sick man. You need help,” while cops are outside loading their guns.
Harry himself kind of looks like a hobo Dr. Loomis, with his bald head, beard and trenchcoat. And there’s maybe a play on the ending of HALLOWEEN: he gets shot, then gets up again, shot again and lands in the grass outside, just like Michael Meyers. But before he can disappear he’s surrounded by six different guns.
Not that there’s a whole lot of action, but the stunt coordinator is John Stewart, who directed ACTION U.S.A. two years later.
OPEN HOUSE is co-written by David Mickey Evans, who soon became a major director of family movies including THE SANDLOT, FIRST KID, BEETHOVEN’S 3rd and 4th, and ACE VENTURA: PET DETECTIVE JR. But I’m more interested in the director and co-writer, Jag Mundhra, who was born and raised in India but got a scholarship to Michigan State University to study engineering, and decided to switch his major to advertising, eventually earning a Phd. for a thesis comparing the marketing of movies between Bollywood and Hollywood. He became a teacher in California, hoping to find an entry into the movie business. Then he bought an old theater and decided to try showing Indian films in it. It was such a huge success that major Bollywood figures started booking premieres there and coming to introduce their films.
On one such occasion the actor Sanjeev Kumar learned that Mundhra wanted to become a director, and hadn’t been able to make it work in Hollywood. So Kumar helped him find an Indian team and investors for his first film, SURAAG (1982), which was promoted as the first Hindi film shot in the U.S. His second film, KAMLA (1984) was a serious drama about sex trafficking filmed in India. The drastically different OPEN HOUSE was his third film and began his career as an American exploitation director. It was followed by HACK-O-LANTERN (1988) and THE JIGSAW MURDERS (1989) and then he started doing thrillers like NIGHT EYES (1989), LAST CALL (1991) and TROPICAL HEAT (1993), occasionally returning to India to do Hindi movies.
I found an interview with a publication called Little India where Mundhra talked a little about his American career:
“Well after KAMLA I lost a lot of money and both my wife and I went back to work to support ourselves and that time suddenly I realized that the video market was emerging in 1986 and a lot of small time producers were getting ready to make films with a half a million dollar budget in the genre of horror and erotic thrillers. The Blockbuster Video chains were opening up and needed products and the studios had a large window of one year before the movie releases would come to the video stores. The B and C grade movie market was opening up. I quickly wrote a couple of stories and sent them to a company and told them I would only give them the story if I was allowed to direct them.“
When Mundhra died in 2011, a BBC obituary quoted a newspaper called The Hindu (?) as saying, “If some were too keen to hail him as a genius, others were equally enthusiastic in dismissing him as nothing more than a purveyor of sleaze. The reality lay somewhere between.”
Though I didn’t notice any traces of Indian culture in OPEN HOUSE, his experiences may have informed the treatment of a Japanese couple being shown a house near the beginning. We don’t hear them talk for a while, and the realtor keeps making dumb faux pas like sending them to look at the bonsai garden and calling it “the origami garden.” When Mr. Yoshida (Eddie Wong, “Bad Guy #2,” CAGE) finally speaks he firmly corrects some of her mistakes, and I think we’re supposed to be surprised that his accent and attitude are entirely American and not some stereotype. A little bit of welcome enlightenment in an otherwise very broad and crude movie.
And that about sums up everything I got out of OPEN HOUSE. I’m not recommending it but it’s actually surprisingly good for what I worry is the scraping-the-bottom-of-the-barrel stage of the Slasher Search journey. Maybe there’s hope.