Pop culture junkies like me usually have some forgotten bit of entertainment stuck in the wastelands of our memory, which we can only remember one scene or a few lines from but cannot recall the title no matter what.
For many years, I was tormented by memories of some movie I caught when I was very young on the USA Network. By the way, this was back in the glorious halcyon days when USA showed quite a lot of b-movies, instead of endless Law & Order: SVU reruns. All I could remember was that it was a haunted house movie with a ghost-zombie-something old lady who went around killing some twentysomethings, but the only scene I could remember was when one of the victims climbed a ladder up to a window and the old lady chopped off his hands while he was dangling from the window sill.
I wondered if my mind might have just made it up, or conflated two or more different movies, but one day while consulting the Google oracle I found the movie did indeed exist, and it was called…Dead Dudes in the House? …Whaaaaaat?
If the title makes you imagine amateur rappers fighting off zombies invading a house party while busting rhymes, well, I would have assumed the same. But it turns out my cinematic white whale was one of countless low-budget movies made by people who couldn’t afford a distribution deal and let their movies get snatched up by Troma. For reasons only Toxie knows, it was repackaged as some kind of horror-comedy riff on House Party, even though the movie’s cast is lily white, the only music is when one of the victims-to-be sings some rock song and another whistles “Jimmy Crack Corn”, they aren’t all dudes, the (deliberate) comedy is minimal, and, of course, no one on Troma’s box cover actually appears in the film.
So what kind of blast from the past did I end up with? Well, despite the Troma brand and the sublimely deceptive cover, it’s actually a pretty straightforward if more than slightly odd slasher movie in a haunted house wrapping. This movie’s raison de slaughter is that a guy in his twenties, Mark (Douglas Gibson), has bought an old dilapidated house (yes, kids, there was a mythical time when people in their twenties could afford houses!) and brought a group of his friends to, about two decades before it actually became a term, help him flip it. His pals include…well, let’s face it, even by the standards of slasher movie fodder they suffer from personality deficiency disorder, so I called them Jerk Woman, Jerk Man I, Jerk Man II, Nerdy Man, Nice Man, and Nice Woman.
Jerk Man I proves he is worthy of the title when he needlessly smashes a tombstone near the house’s front door and soon afterward Nice Woman discovers a noose in a tree while the crew finds that the front door is jammed. This inspires some foreshadowy banter (Jerk Man II: “Maybe you woke her up, man!” Jerk Man I: “Maybe [the door] is trying to tell you people something!” Nice Woman: “I’d hate to die by hanging!”) To be fair, Nice Woman is actually killed by an electric saw to the back. Touche, Dead Dudes in the House, touche.
They quickly find that they have much more to worry about than splinters and 1989’s volatile housing market. The doors and windows have become supernaturally sealed and not only is Mark murdered by a mysterious old woman, but he came back undead and malevolent. To their credit, the crew quickly work out what’s going on, wasting no time on arbitrary skepticism. They also get points for sticking together (not that it does too much good, since their would-be killer has the power to separate them by causing doors to slam shut and become unbreakable). Unfortunately, Nice Woman loses any and all points for falling for the oldest trick in the book: your undead, corrupted boyfriend, despite showing pretty obviously fatal injuries, requesting a hug just before you can go get help.
Also Two Dumb Teenagers from the surrounding rural area enter the mix, for no reason other than they were bored and decided to break into the local haunted house (to be fair, given that I am from a rural area myself, I can testify that, yes, teenagers do get that bored). They too get no points for apparently thinking it’s a good idea to go directly to the source of the singing in a house that should be completely abandoned and engage the strange woman in a casual conversation. No, sorry, I don’t care if she was willing to show her breasts!
Thanks to the requisite newspaper clipping they stumble across, the gang learns the nature of their tormentor. Forty years ago, an elderly widow named Abigail Leatherby (Douglas Gibson, in what despite the movie’s obscurity should be remembered as one of the greatest dual roles in cinematic history) living with her adult daughter Anna was attacked and viciously stabbed by a home invader. Abigail barely survived, but lost her sanity, and one day murdered a visiting neighbor in the exact same fashion she’d been attacked. A few days later, Abigail died from a heart attack, and Anna buried her on the property before hanging herself. (In one of my favorite touches in the film, Jerk Guy I grins with macabre delight as he hears the saga of Abigail and Anna Leatherby). As is the nature of these films, no explanation as to how poor Abigail Leatherby got borderline godlike powers to terrorize anyone unfortunate to cross her path is forthcoming, but whatever. It’s an elderly woman who can hold her own against Mike Myers and Jason Vorhees! With that kind of a deceptively frail powerhouse working against them, can the surviving fixer-upper crew and Dumb Teenager make it out alive? I won’t spoil it, but I will say you do get an old woman/buff young guy fistfight before the credits roll!
Whenever I talk to people about why I love b-movies and low-budget gems, I try to explain that it’s because they offer some quirky element you won’t likely find in a mainstream production, especially not from the risk-averse and franchise-addicted Hollywood of today. Dead Dudes in the House is a prime example of what I’m talking about. The weirdness of the killer being an old woman (albeit a young guy in heavy makeup) is just the start; instead of being a jokester like so many ’80s killers, she has a wonderfully matter-of-fact approach, with the occasional glimpse of sadistic satisfaction in her hobby.
In fact, this casual exchange between her and one of her victims, Nerdy Guy, where she tries to get him to follow her to his doom, isn’t just my favorite moment in the movie, but would easily rank in the top three in any list of favorite slasher movie scenes.
“It’s your turn.”
“…What do you mean?”
“It’s your turn.”
Okay, the acting is…well, what you’d expect (although for a movie this obscure quite a few members of the cast did go on to have fairly solid careers), and it gets obvious pretty quickly that the crew didn’t have the budget or the know-how for sufficient lighting for the house they were filming in. However, there were some pretty well-paced and downright suspenseful sequences in this film, like Jerk Woman’s gradual discovery of the fate of Mark and Nerdy Guy trying (and failing) desperately to work up the nerve to follow and fight Abigail.
Granted, the pacing falls back to a snail’s pace in the climax, which really comes across as bloated, especially compared to how well the movie gets down to business in the first two acts. Luckily the film saves some pretty good and gory practical effects for its denouement. Nor are the filmmakers slouches in the creative deaths department.
When I saw this movie as a child, it genuinely freaked me out, even though my precocious self had already been exposed to the oeuvres of Freddy and Jason. I can’t say that Abigail Leatherby stalks me in my dreams now that I am an adult, but honestly I found this lost piece of my youth worth the quest for its rediscovery. It’s just a fun, somewhat off-kilter slasher movie you can catch on YouTube (along with Troma’s other releases) if you got an hour and a half to burn. And while it’s got nothing to do with late ’80s/early ’90s hip-hop, if you got an itch for a slasher flick where the killer is an elderly widow, this will definitely scratch it.