I’ll come right out and say this, at the risk of being mocked: Ghosthouse makes my top five list of Italian horror movies, something I’ll bet few have ever said about an Umberto Lenzi flick from the late 80s. I don’t like it ironically, either. It makes the flesh crawl off my bones and I can’t get enough of it. I know it’s supposed to be a bad movie, and that’s why there’s a Rifftrax version of it, but it’s not a bad movie at all. It does have the good old spaghetti plot holes, and it’s an unofficial sequel of Evil Dead that Raimi and pals never asked for, but a lot about it really works. And yeah, I bought the Rifftrax version the day it came out, but only because it means I can watch Ghosthouse alone at night and not be as scared, because I feel like I’m watching it with friends.
The story of a pair of college students who catch the sound of a murder being broadcast over ham radio before the murder actually happens, Ghosthouse is filmed, at least from the outside, at the House By The Cemetery house in New England. So there’s a creep factor of 10 right there, because House By The Cemetery, which is riddled with even more plot holes, is also a dark and disturbing film. The students, Paul and Martha, find out somehow (via math I don’t understand) where the signal is coming from, and travel to the old house to find that another group of young people is camping out in the abandoned mansion. Although they try to prevent the murder, it happens anyway, and only then they find out that the house has always been cursed, and is now haunted by an earlier victim: a little girl with an evil clown doll. It turns out to be a curse from which no one can escape.
The first thing that frightens me so badly is the backmasked song that plays whenever the girl’s ghost shows up. I know I’m afraid of listening to backmasked music because of all the satanic panic around backmasking from the early 80s, but knowing why it bothers me doesn’t keep me from feeling like my hair is literally standing on end when that song starts up.
Another trigger for me is that the ghost girl shows up on a TV that is turned off. I had recurring nightmares of TVs and even radios that keep working after you unplug them when I was a kid, before I’d ever seen that happen in a film. I must not be the only one, seeing as how possessed electronics figure into horror so often. I remember those dreams very well, and it always made me feel helpless and out of control.
Next, there is some excellent use of foreshadowing that I actually only noticed the most recent time I watched Ghosthouse, while I was preparing to write this. The main character, Paul, complains about the local sheriff by saying something to the effect that the sheriff should be helping old ladies cross the street and not trying to solve murders. About 20 minutes later, Paul goes to visit the town funeral home to try to learn more about the original homeowner, who was a mortician, and what should we see but a coffin containing the gruesome corpse of an old woman who was hit by a bus while crossing the street. But it doesn’t end there. Guess what happens to Paul at the end of the film?
Finally, I have to give props to Lenzi and fellow writers Shelia Goldberg and Cinthia McGavin for thinking of transmitting the curse over ham radio. This predates similar horror films’ unescapable electronic curses, which can travel through channels such as videotapes, phones, and the internet, by at least ten years. Ham radio may seem kind of weird now, but it was only 4 years after Ghosthouse that I and many other college students would spend all our free time on BBSes talking to people from all over the world using computers at the library, the internet not being available yet in our dorms or in most houses. If the internet hadn’t caught on as quickly as it did, ham radio might have become more popular. There is this strange urge some people have to talk to people they don’t know (I’m doing it right now) and that is what Paul is doing at the beginning of the film, bullshitting with other young people about stupid pop culture stuff like who is hotter, Kim Basinger or Kelly LeBrock.
It is clear at the end of the film that Paul was cursed from the moment he heard that message from beyond, but it’s compelling to watch him try to solve the mystery anyway. And although lead actor Greg Rhodes (Greg Scott in some credits) only did two films, he does a convincing job as Paul. He has a great acting partner in Italian horror favorite Lara Wendel as Martha, whose dog attack scene in Tenebre stands as one of my scariest Argento scenes of all; she also did a great turn as a small child as the ghostly former self of Mimsy Farmer in The Perfume of the Lady in Black.
I hope I have convinced you that there’s more to Ghosthouse than just a bunch of Nick Nolte jokes. You can find it streaming in its original form on Shudder, or with the riff on Rifftrax.com.