Ruth Bennett has broken what is perhaps my strictest horror rule: you should never move into a house you’ve unexpectedly inherited from a relative you hardly know, for that way lies supernatural shenanigans. But, despite a credits sequence filled with disembodied voices over scenes of the house in question, Ruth and her niece move right on in. Then, when a local man (Richard Egan) walks through the door and says, “Hi, I’m an anthropology professor at the local university, your cousin never let anyone in this house, and I’ve always wanted to see it,” Ruth and her niece Sara, who is instinctively afraid of the guy, let him in and even accept his dinner invitation. There they meet party crashers who have been waiting for Ruth’s cousin to die so they can schedule a seance in Ruth’s new old house. What could go wrong? Only possession, nightmares, self-immolating paintings, and attempted murder.
Of course, director John Llewellyn Moxey only had an hour and 13 minutes to work with when making The House That Would Not Die, and can therefore be forgiven for the breakneck pace which I will blame on the producer, noted cheesemeister Aaron Spelling. It also makes sense that the film would be rushed since it is adapted from a novel, Barbara Mertz’s Ammie Come Home, and it can be hard to pare down a novel to feature film length. I cannot forgive one aspect of Henry Farrell’s screenwriting that results from the pace, however. The two women meet two men, Egan and his favorite student (Michael Anderson Jr.), and immediately start dating them. That was silly, and took me out of the story a bit, but maybe it happened that way in the novel. I’m also not sure why Sara, dealing with being possessed, asks her aunt’s boyfriend to hypnotize her so they can talk to the ghost. I didn’t know that was part of the skill set of anthropologists. And of course, the dialogue surrounding any suggestions that Sara is schizophrenic is laughable for its quaintness.
The House That Would Not Die still manages to be creepy because of the subject matter. The mystery of what the ghosts have to tell us is compelling, if perhaps a little sanitized for TV. There’s also the dream sequence, the unrelenting feeling of dread, and the awful 1970s era curtains that come with the 1770s era house. Egan, when possessed by a Revolutionary War general, is imposing. The acting skills of veteran star Barbara Stanwyck as Ruth and Kitty Wynn (seen here in her first feature) as Sara don’t hurt either. I wonder if Wynn was hired to play Linda Blair’s governess in the Exorcist films because she had experience with possession from appearing in The House That Would Not Die. At least no one is serving up pea soup in this film. I can’t make any jokes about Anderson’s career because I know him from what might be the worst dam movie Don “The Dragon” Wilson ever made, and there’s nothing funny about that.
The House That Would Not Die may not be my favorite classic TV movie, but I still had fun watching it, even though it would have better if it had been produced by Dan Curtis. I bet it scared the polyester pants off of a lot of 70s kids!