Saturday, January 16, 2010

'The Hearse' is a so-so ride

The Hearse (1980)
Starring: Trish Van Devere, David Gautreaux, and Joseph Cotten
Director: Gregory Bower
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Jane (Van Devere) is recovering from a nervous breakdown when she decides to spend the summer in a remote house she just inherited from her mother. Once there, she finds the townsfolk less than friendly, with the handsome and mysteriously alluring Tom Sullivan (Gautreaux) being the one exception. Worse, whenever Jane travels the road into town, she is pursued by a massive hearse that no one but she can see... and when its driver starts appearing in the house, it's clear that something strange and possibly supernatural is going on. Or is Jane merely coming unglued?

The flaws with "The Hearse" are many, but two major ones is that the script establishes a level of creepy tension early on and stays there instead of building, and the fact that Trish Van Devere is the only decent performer in the film. She out-acts everyone, partially due to script issues (Jospeh Cotton has nothing to do other than be an obnoxious old man, for example) but also because with few exceptions none of the other "actors" show any acting ability.

Perhaps the greatest problem with the film is the characterization of the sullen citizens of Blackburn town. It's a requirement of a gothic thriller that our mentally troubled protagonist be isolated from any possible help, but "The Hearse takes it a step too far, particuarly in its characterization of the town's sheriff. Even the most corrupt cop wouldn't behave the way he's shown as behaving. Finally, the film's ambigious non-ending leave the viewer wondering, "Hey, shouldn't there be at least three more minutes before those credits start to roll?"

The film does have some technical highpoints, though. The multitude of night scenes are genuine night scenes--no lame night-for-day blue camera filters here!--and they are expertly lit. (There are some issues with the climactic hearse chase scene, but otherwise the crew does a bang-up job.) Also, the sequence where the hearse driver appears in Jane's house for the first time is a genuine shock and fright. It is rare that I am surprised anymore by a "Boo!" sort-of scare in a film, but this one got me good.

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