Running time: 95 mins
Director: George Bowers
Starring: Trish Van Devere, Joseph Cotten, David Gauteaux
Genre: Horror, Mystery
Jane Hardy is recently divorced and off to spend the summer in her deceased aunt’s house which has been willed to her in a remote, and picturesque part of
California. But when it comes to light that her aunt
liked to dabble in witchcraft Jane puts a more sinister explanation to a
mysterious hearse that’s been appearing everywhere she goes.
The most amazing thing about The Hearse is surely the presence of one Joseph Cotten (as Walter Prichard – the town lawyer). That’s not to say there aren’t other things of note in George Bower’s 1980 horror offering but Cotten starred in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt and Carol Reed’s The Wrong Man and if you were able to pose the question to these directors about which of their movies did they consider their best each would come back with the above. To say Cotten is an important actor in twentieth century cinema is to say it’s nice that planes stay in the sky. I’m not one for demented car movies, when watching Christine the calls of “Park it by the sea! Rust will kill it!” are mine so it was less the hearse of the title and more the casting of Harry Lime’s bestie that won we into watch The Hearse.
As a story, The Hearse makes little sense at all. You can’t help but feel there was an twenty minute scene of exposition chopped from it that could have filled in a lot of the canyon-like plot holes that litter the road of the narrative. At times these are not very distracting (as you don’t really require a lot of knowledge to go from one spooky scene to another) yet at others you will find yourself scratching your head and pondering how does this tie-in again? It’s nothing a re-write couldn’t fix, or possibly a re-think as it feels very much like Mark Tenser loved his idea more than William Bleich loved his script as it’s a little heavy on concept and light on delivery.
George Bowers’ direction, for the most part, is conformist and by-the-book; as you would expect from 1980s horror but there are a few moments in particular that hint towards a flair and masterful hand and are simply stunning. One such instance would sit well in the Brian DePalma Hall of Beautiful Shots (please note: there is no such hall). As Jane (Van Devere) showers upstairs an unscene POV shot creeps towards the house, up the porch steps and right when you expect it to cut to a different shot it actually passes through the screen-door into the hallway, up the stairs and to the slightly ajar bathroom door. It’s breathtaking in its level of skill and only the slightest change in lighting between screen-door (exterior) and screen-door (interior) would give it away as a jump-cut. Similarly there are several dream sequences and night time stalkings that allow Bowers to showcase exactly what he can do when he’s allow to let rip and bring out the flair. Perhaps there was an element of showing off for Cotten as more than once you’re reminded of his good friend Orson Welles, and in particular the opening shot of Touch of Evil.
Trish Van Devere (The Day of the Dolphin) is actually a good piece of casting here. In Van Devere the film has a woman who is old enough to carry the emotional baggage that Jane has yet at the same time a sexuality that not only draws in Tom (David Gautreaux) but also teenage handyman Luke who is more than slightly gaga over the new girl in town. Some of her most important scenes in the film are either played to creak in the middle of the night or her aunt’s diary yet Van Devere has a way about her that allows them to feel a lot more natural than they really should. Joseph Cotten (Walter) is in fine form, age has not hampered his ability in the slightest – though he’s not given a great deal of anything to work with. He has one Scooby Doo moment which he plays wonderfully. He’s a high performance sports car that’s barely got into second gear but that doesn’t mean it isn’t wonderful just to marvel at him. Marvel, marvel. David Gauteaux oozes a certain eeriness throughout which is ill-fitting and tips the narrative’s hand more than a little. In the latter stages of the movie it’s perfectly suited but early on it makes it difficult to understand why someone like Jane would find him so attractive.
There’s a lot to like about The Hearse even the moments that have fallen short of admiration have a certain charm to them but it’s the plot holes you could park a bus in that ultimately let the film down. Credit to Bowers, Van Devere, Cotten and Donald Petrie (Luke) for raising it up out of the category of Horror Movies You Can Sleep Through.