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August 15, 2017

Movie Review: The Hearse (1980)

Directed by George Bowers                        

Jane (Trish Van Devere) decides to chuck her job in the city to move to her late aunt’s isolated mansion in the country.  Perhaps it wasn’t the best decision, as the townspeople are unexpectedly unfriendly and on top of everything else are as RUDE as FUCK. When they aren’t openly sneering at her at the country store, they pop up unexpectedly – without knocking the door or calling ahead or anything – right dab in her house! Jump scare. The reason for all the antipathy becomes obvious later on. It seems like her aunt was a devil worshiper who romantically took up with a black-clad no-goodnik and made the local area highly uncomfortable. According to local old soak Walter Pritchard (Joseph Cotton, who probably did a little too much research for this role) claims that Jane’s aunt, following her funeral was carried away in a hearse that spontaneously combusted – her aunt’s remains never found. Jane begins an affair with the vaporous, mysterious Tom Sullivan (David Gautreaux) who lacks a vampire cape to make his intentions even more obvious. Oh, yes, it’s called The Hearse – Jane has a bunch of nightmares involving a ghostly chauffeur (Dominic Barto) chasing her about in an old Packard, but it doesn’t really add up to much.

In the Eighties, when I made it my business to see every last horror movie on VHS, I never was in a rush to see The Hearse. Finally catching up to it now, thanks to Vinegar Syndrome, I can see why. It confirmed my suspicions that it was just a blatant rip-off of Dan Curtis’ Burnt Offerings (1976) that likewise had a ghostly chauffeur (Anthony James). The chauffeur in The Hearse, Barto, is bigger, beefier, but not the slightest bit scary. Whereas James creepy, grinning specter chilled spines, Barto imposes a physical menace but is as frightening as a second-string football player on a bender. Even worse, The Hearse skates around the devil worshipping angle with a few read-aloud diary entries but no tangible dread. While beautifully photographed by Mori Kawa, the film’s main setting is brightly lit and Country Corny. One hopes that Jane will stumble into a dark alcove full of pentagrams and occult kitsch – but no luck. Even the overly serious, overbearing The Blackcoats Daughter (2015) threw the audience a bone in this respect. The closest The Hearse gets to this is a mist-laden nightmare sequence in a funeral home that is over far too soon.

Forever on public domain compilations, which this writer always seemed to miss, The Hearse gets the usual cracking good transfer courtesy the geniuses at Vinegar Syndrome. The disc’s main extra is a lengthy interview with actor Gautreaux, who reveals that he lost out the lead role to The Omen III to Sam Neil, and was thrown this Crown International cheapie as a “consolation prize.” A role early in to his career, Gautreaux, with a mile long list of credits to his name today, and still very much active, reveals how intimidated he was working alongside Devere, actor George C. Scott’s wife. Gautreaux has lots of funny stories to share about Devere, Scott and Cotton but imbues them all with a high degree of respect. He shares that he felt especially nervous about a sex scene with Devere (who wouldn’t be, boffing George C. Scott’s wife?) but was relieved by how the extremely tame scene played out.

A TV spot, along with clippings of the film’s release holds an interesting nugget of information. It appears that The Hearse played concurrently in theaters with George C. Scott’s much more respected The Changeling (1980), suggesting that “dark forces” were in collusion in this couple’s career. 

Fangoria magazine at onetime held up The Hearse as an example of how a “PG” rated horror film ultimately failed to deliver the goods required by contemporary audiences. In spite of its shortcomings, The Hearse keeps on a rumblin’ in the Digital Age. File this next to your copy of The Car (1977) and Christine (1983) for some auto-themed terror.

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