Schlock Value: The Hearse (1980)
This week, we’re finally breaking into the 1980s, but only just barely. Released in the spring of 1980, The Hearse was looking to cash in on the 1970s’ “devil craze” and it draws plenty of inspiration from such films as The Amityville Horror, The Omen, and Rosemary’s Baby, but unfortunately, the subgenre was pretty tired by this point, and it was just too little, too late.
Helmed by editor-turned-director George Bowers, and starring Trish Van Devere (who had just appeared alongside her husband George C. Scott earlier that year in the brilliant The Changeling) and the legendary Joseph Cotten (Citizen Kane, Shadow of a Doubt, Soylent Green), The Hearse tells the story of a young woman, who has just gone trough a painful divorce, moves out to the country to live in a house that belonged to her late aunt (who may or may not have been a witch), seeking a hard reset on her life. What was meant to be a relaxing getaway turns into a nightmare as all sorts of weird things begin to happen. It’s a little bit of a witch movie and a little bit of a haunted house movie, but more importantly, is it a scary movie? Not particularly.
The film begins in San Francisco as Jane Hardy (Van Devere) is about to head out to her aunt’s house. After a few goodbyes and a final meeting with her therapist, she hits the road. Before long, it’s nighttime, and as Jane approaches the town of Blackford, she is sideswiped by an old black hearse which immediately takes off down the road. A little shaken, Jane arrives in Blackford, and calls up Walter Prichard (Cotten), a grouchy old attorney (and caretaker of the house?), who is none too pleased to be called so late at night. Once she gets into the house, she begins to settle in and it’s not long before strange things begin happening. Throughout the film, all of the cliches are present: a music box begins playing on its own, a door slams shut, windows break, Jane’s spectral aunt appears in mirrors, a big black hearse appears outside. Each night in the house, it’s something else. Hoping to fix up the house to eventually sell it, Jane heads to the local hardware store where she is greeted by the owners, who become very cold to her once they discover who she is and where she is living (FYI: this becomes a trend). Their son Paul, however, develops something of a crush on Jane, and offers to help her however he can. So, when a contractor refuses to do the work to repair the house, she hires Paul to do it.
As the house comes together and spookiness persists, Jane finds an old diary kept by her late aunt. As she reads through the diary, she begins to unearth details about her aunt’s mysterious Satanic practices. Soon after, she meets a nice, old-fashioned guy named Tom, and finds herself strangely attracted to him (this coincidentally happens around the time Jane discovers in the diary that her aunt was also smitten with a young man). As their courtship intensifies, so do Jane’s spooky encounters. One night, she experiences a nightmare wherein she is picked up by the hearse, and taken to the local church. Inside, she is surrounded by mourners clad all in black as she makes her way down the foggy aisle towards an open coffin which, sure enough, contains her body, with a fearful expression frozen on her face. The rest of the film mostly treads water, and struggles to stay afloat. More of the same general weirdness and strange encounters with the locals. Eventually, Jane receives a visit from Mr. Prichard, who explains the macabre event that took place following her aunt’s death. Apparently, the hearse carrying her coffin crashed and no one ever saw a driver. In a fun bit of scenery chewing from Joseph Cotten, he explains that some say “the devil himself reached up and grabbed that hearse and dragged it down to the fiery depths of hell” and that it’s been haunting the town ever since.
The film eventually meanders toward the climax as good ol’ Tom arrives in the old hearse, in the most obvious plot twist ever, intending to take Jane with him and be with her forever (i.e. kill her or sacrifice her to Satan or whatever). Upon learning that the man she’s been seeing is some sort of ghost or something, Jane flees the house, hops in her car, and takes off down the road to leave Blackford for good. The hearse, of course, is not far behind. The film culminates in a high speed car chase down the dark, dusty roads of Blackford, but by this point, it doesn’t really matter.
To call The Hearse a sleepy little horror film would be sort of accurate. After all, about halfway through, I did contemplate taking a nap. As for the horror, there are very few scares to be found, if any. The film is supposedly based on an idea by Mark Tenser and written by William Bleich (neither have any noteworthy credits), and I would love to know what that idea was because as far as I can tell, everything in The Hearse was stolen from other films. Sure, the nightmare sequence is decent, but it’s the sort of thing that’s been done before in countless other films, and the rest of the gags are just cliche after cliche after cliche with virtually no attempts at originality. Hell, even the twist is so incredibly obvious, it can be seen from miles away. It’s clear director George Bowers tried his damnedest to make something halfway decent, but the script is so incredibly dry, he would’ve needed some kind of minor miracle. To the film’s credit, though, it doesn’t want for talented actors. Trish Van Devere occasionally manages to make her awful dialogue somewhat palatable (despite Jane being an absolute moron), and the wonderful Joseph Cotten hams it up perfectly as the crusty old attorney. Eagle-eyed viewers will also catch an appearance from a super young Christopher McDonald making his feature film debut.
I think there’s a decent haunted house movie in The Hearse somewhere. Perhaps if it had been made as a short film, and/or some better creative choices had been made, it would be worth recommending, but as it stands, it’s horribly mediocre, and unless you’re a Joseph Cotten completist, it’s not really worth your time. Just watch The Changeling instead.
The Hearse has just been released on Blu-ray from Vinegar Syndrome, but it is also available in Mill Creek Entertainment’s Drive-In Cult Classics Vol. 2 set.