Reviews / October 27, 2020
The House That Bled to Death
Directed by Tom Clegg
Hammer Films (1980)
Apologies in advance to any fellow child of the UK who might be reading this, because for a Brit of my generation, choosing The House That Bled to Death as exemplar of British TV horror is a bit like announcing that your favorite novel is Moby Dick or your favorite food is pizza: so annihilatingly obvious that it looks like either laziness or ignorance. But the rest of the world needs to know about semis. No, not those semis.
Semi-detached houses—the two-family domestic Rorschach tests that made up almost half of all properties built in the United Kingdom from the end of the war until the mid-1960s—occupy an important if strangely unacknowledged place in the country’s collective psyche. I say strangely unacknowledged because the place is rotten with them. Semis can be working-class, like the majority of British council housing, or very posh, but generally tend towards a square, cozy middle class (British middle-class, i.e. mostly with much less disposable income than their US counterparts) averageness that’s very much of its time and place. In 2018, 60% of the UK’s population lived in one. The British haunted house is usually represented in popular culture by some crumbling mansion or middle-class pile with a turret, but from a statistical standpoint, the sheer number of semis makes them far more likely sites for supernatural manifestation, and a series of poltergeists and serial killers of the post-war period did eventually give the semi claim to the paranormal and unpleasant. There’s something implicitly strange about the structure’s floorplan, something that echoes the organic symmetries of lungs or lobes and evokes doubles and distorted mirror-image versions. Perhaps it’s because it resonates with something deep in the British—or more properly in this case, English—psyche, some feeling of only half-inhabiting reality, of only living half of a life. Yet despite all this, it remains something of a marginal presence in British popular culture, so ubiquitous that it’s invisible. The House that Bled to Death is an exception, a fact that confers upon it an odd power.
The House that Bled to Death was the fifth of the 13 episodes that made up Hammer House of Horror, a television anthology series produced by Hammer Films in association with Cinema Arts International and ITC Entertainment in the hope of breaking into the TV market. Houses were very much on the country’s mind on Saturday the 11th of October 1980, when The House that Bled to Death was broadcast, because the previous week the Conservative government led by Margaret Thatcher had introduced the Housing Act. Around a third of the country’s population lived in public housing, and the Housing Act allowed five million of them to buy those houses at discounted prices, but at the same time eliminated vast swathes of the stock of (often poor quality) public housing. It was a hugely divisive move that, while undoubtedly giving a lot of families a financial leg-up, kicked off the Conservative Party’s dismantling of social cohesion and, by placing vast numbers of cheap homes in the hands of private landlords, also helped kindle the vicious housing market the UK enjoys today. In 1980, the average annual salary in the UK was probably somewhere between £5,000 and £7,000, and the average price of a house £20,000, meaning three or four years’ wages. As things stand today, the average price is almost £240,000 and the average salary around £30,000. Consequently, owning a home is nowadays at least twice as hard—and impossible for a lot of people. And in the meantime, private landlords have become ever more greedy and unscrupulous. But anyway.
Perhaps taking its lead from the previous year’s The Amityville Horror, The House that Bled to Death tells the story of young couple William and Emma Peters who, in their desperation to get onto the property ladder, move with their daughter Sophie into the semi-detached house where an awful crime was committed involving a pair of incongruous machetes (weirdly referred to repeatedly as “swords”) that the former tenant kept mounted over the fire, only to find themselves under paranormal attack. A pervasively ominous mood of doom envelops the proceedings, but The House That Bled to Death is mainly remembered for containing the shabby British suburbs’ riposte to the crew’s celebratory meal in Alien–-a scene where a pipe detaches itself from the ceiling and starts belching out blood, drenching a group of children assembled around the dining table to celebrate little Sophie’s birthday.
As is often the case with this kind of thing, it’s the echoes of childhood impressions that trigger unease as much as the “horror”: the perennially overcast weather, the pebbledash, “liver for supper,” nobody wearing seatbelts, the constant rumble of traffic, people carrying plastic bags, how empty rooms were back in the days before full materialism, the mercurial pervery of the great Brian Croucher (even more uncomfortable here than he was as Travis in Blake’s 7) as the Peters’ neighbor. And in this age of spectacularized everything, it’s incredible how much more strange and alien the unaffected voices of the child actors here sound compared to the supposedly unnerving music box melody that plays every time something nasty’s about to happen to poor little Sophie—one of The House That Bled to Death‘s more witless and hackneyed attempts at putting the frighteners on.
I’m not going to try and spin some revisionary interpretation that The House that Bled to Death‘s twist ending is actually a veiled comment on the effects of Thatcher’s housing policy, though to be honest, it would sort of fit. That writer David Lloyd was the same ex-tennis professional David Lloyd who founded that other symbol of those hedonistic times—a chain of private sports facilities—in the early ’80s seems unlikely, which is a shame, as it would provide a gratifyingly neat Hammer-esque twist in the tail. Watching it today, with the country in the final throes of pretending that it knew what it was doing when it took out a high-interest mortgage on the damp-ridden haunted semi that is Brexit Towers, it does seem oddly timely, what with the Peters’ refusal to look reality in the face and their hysterically taking against their neighbors for trying to point out that self-eviscerating cats and severed hands in the fridge might mean there are issues that need dealing with.
Brexit was never really about leaving the EU; it was about leaving behind concepts like equal opportunities and social care and moving the country to the right. And in fact, as we learn at the end of The House that Bled to Death, the terrifying events the Peters have been subjected to were never real—they were just a way of using other people’s credulity and fears to whip up a payday. The House that Bled to Death concludes with them living off their ill-gotten gains in a bungalow with swimming pool that’s nominally in California, despite being so clearly outside High Wycombe that all that’s missing is a sign for Bekonscot Model Village.
Who knows if Britain’s children will one day revenge themselves upon their self-obsessed parents for the pointless trauma they’ve been put through the way little Sophia revenges herself on hers.
Directed by Herb Wallerstein
The reason I was allowed to hurtle through the 9:00 bedtime threshold and watch The House that Bled to Death in the first place was because when it was shown I was staying in Wales with my mum’s auntie, who in broken English insisted on my parents letting me traumatize myself because I was “on holiday.” In fact, until I was able to access a VCR (we never got one), my exposure to horror was pretty much exclusively thanks to elderly relatives either nodding off in front of the telly or brushing away parental concerns. And the beautiful traumatizing of that long evening of Saturday the 11th of October 1980 hadn’t even started at 9:15, when The House that Bled to Death was broadcast—it had started an hour and three quarters earlier when another of the Caravaggios in the Uffizi of TV terror had begun. Yes, I’m talking about Snowbeast with Bo Svenson.
Snowbeast—which, predictably, is Jaws with Bigfoot as the shark—has it all. The perennially underused Yvette Mimieux, the reassuringly enormous and idiotic visages of Bo Svenson and Clint Walker, The Wilderness Family‘s Robert Logan (who can barely keep a straight face), the great Sylvia Sidney as the avaricious ski resort owner who refuses to close things down, and a monster design almost as alarming-looking as the sasquatch from the previous year’s Six Million Dollar Man story The Secret of Bigfoot, which was presumably at least partly the movie’s inspiration. No rationale is given for the Snowbeast’s frenzied hatred of humankind, though it does genuinely seem to detest skis and skiing—which makes at least some sense in the end, as the instrument of its death isn’t a rifle or a revolver but a Bo Svenson-wielded ski pole.
Both The House that Bled to Death and Snowbeast are great, but I’m going to risk opprobrium in my homeland by admitting that though the first doesn’t frighten me anymore, for some reason, Snowbeast, which in many ways is far more ludicrous, still does. The sheer surreal irrationality of the whole thing, its risibly shoddy monster, its obsessive revisiting of the same locales, the terrifying snowbeast POV shots and freeze-frame fade-to-red snowbeast attacks (though as I approach 50, the most frightening scene in the film might be the one where a fleeing Sylvia Sidney is knocked to the ground and bangs her hip), the endless boring scenes of skiing: they all combine into something nightmarish, and watching it I’m immediately transported back to a little Welsh house with only wild countryside thrashing away in the wind outside the window and the awareness gradually sinking in that, as bedtime inevitably approaches, I’ve bitten off way more terror than I can realistically chew.