Home Video Hovel- The Red House, by Scott Nye
In the realm of horror cinema, much of the thrills lie in toeing the line between the supernatural or inexplicable and the relatively mundane. A smart filmmaker knows that if all the scares come about in some fantastical way, they’ll cease to be grounded in the everyday anxieties from which they spring. Delmer Daves’ The Red House is precariously perched on this ledge, hinting at first at a source of horror well beyond our understanding before winnowing it down closer and closer to earth without ever releasing the tension with which it holds us.
The set-up of the story is fairly simple – there’s something going on in in Ox Head woods that just doesn’t sit right – but the slow unraveling of the truth is the film’s chief pleasure. And while it gets a little lengthy, indulging too often in a not terribly interesting love story or, worse, allowing repetitions that make the eventual revelation a little anti-climactic for canny audiences, it’s still a pretty thrilling experience, due in no small part of Daves’ considerable management of tone.
Daves was a rarity for his time, regularly receiving credit as both a writer and director. While directors of the studio era weren’t unfamiliar with the writing process, to say the least, they rarely took credit for a variety of reasons, but Daves began as a screenwriter and wasn’t ready to relinquish that level of control when he moved to directing. The Red House was his fifth film as director; the same year, he’d pull a groundbreaking move by shooting part of Dark Passage from the first-person point of view. While this does not have any similar flourishes, his basic directorial management – i.e. where to put the camera – is impeccable, and his patience to let certain scenes play out amplifies the creepiness to unbearable levels at times. In managing his cast’s performances, his willingness to hold on his stars’ reaction shots both reveals and imbues talent they do not exhibit anywhere else.
This is not to put down Edward G. Robinson, who gives a characteristically heartfelt performance, but Daves perhaps too often allows his teenage stars to wallow in the golly-gosh performance mode that characterized young adult performances of the era. Robinson, meanwhile, continues to blow my mind. If you only know him by his reputation as a cigar-chomping gangster (which, don’t get me wrong, he’s awesome at, I implore you to dive deeper and discover how tender, haunting, and honest an actor he could be with the right material. I mentioned above that Daves lets his material get away from him, alluding to too much too soon, but one could uncover the entire truth by just looking in Robinson’s eyes.
The rise of Blu-ray has been an interesting one, as public domain titles once again become the province of third-party distributors eager for a cash grab, and HD Cinema Classics doesn’t exactly have the most reassuring name in this regard. And while I’d still highly recommend this disc due to the quality of the film, this does not exactly redefine the reputation that name brings. They provide a restoration demo on the disc, which was useful only in that it confirmed my strong suspicions that they simply boosted the contrast (often to unmanageable degrees, burying details in black that should almost certainly be visible) and scrubbed all the grain out.
Fond as I am of film grain on a digital transfer, I recognize that it need not always be present, but the process also results in considerable loss of detail, and HDCC’s transfer frequently comes up short in this department. Faces fare all right, but wider shots lack density and clarity, often feeling smudgy in pit of black molasses. It’s a serviceable enough transfer, but if this were offered in a separate DVD (they come bundled together at one low price), I’d be hard pressed to find a compelling reason to go with the high-def version.
On the special features side, well…William Hare’s commentary is the only one of note (a restoration demo and a trailer are also provided), and it is the worst commentary I’ve ever heard on a classic film. He obviously digs the film, but the experience of listening to this commentary is akin to sitting in front of an old couple watching the movie and describing it to each other, only with Hare playing both parts. Very occasionally offering a bit of backstory one might find on Wikipedia, but mostly it sounds like he’s trying to explain why the movie’s so great by just repeating whatever just happened. Also, he sounds out of breath much of the time.
Despite HDCC’s efforts to the contrary, however, I’d still recommend the hell out of this. It’s damn cheap (only $10.50 on Amazon as of this writing), and you get yourself a very good film with a serviceable presentation. Though the characters may be trying to bury it, I greatly enjoyed my visit to The Red House (pull quote!).