The Comeback

Hip-gyrating devil music
★★★★
☆☆
Released: 
1978
Director: 
Paul Walker
Starring: 
Jack Jones, Pamela Stephenson, David Doyle, Sheila Keith
The Setup: 
Pop singer stays at haunted mansion while recording comeback album.
Discussion: 

So there this was on Netflix instant, luring me with its delightfully 70s cover, and finally I decide I need some 70s horror cheese, ignorant of the wonders that awaited me. What a pleasant surprise to be sitting there going "This is tense! These are nicely-composed shots! This is cheesy AND creepy!" only to go on IMDb and find out that some of this director's movies are in "The Pete Walker Collection," (oh, he has a collection) and his name appearing in several user's lists of favorite directors. And I've never heard of the guy! I feel like someone should have told me.

We open with someone looking down from atop a building as a woman on the street goes inside. She wanders through the empty industrial building, calling "Harry?" as though expecting someone, and takes the freight elevator to the top floor. This whole thing is surprisingly tense. She goes into a souped-up 70s apartment, all glass and mirrors, and takes a phone call, while we sense that someone is in there with her, but see nothing. The woman has an insane blouse, white eyeliner, and this hair that looks like something--oh, a Chinese pagoda--and is just faffing about when we see a hand clutch a nearby-lying scythe. What? You don't have scythes lying around your apartment? I know I do. Then--the woman leaves! No murder today, then. Oh, but she forgot her purse, comes back, and meets the killer on the stairs. A few hacks and her hand goes flying and so does an arm, causing the actress to have to lay on the stairs, fire engine red tempera paint on her face, with one arm pinned behind her back as though hacked off. The killer seems to be a man dressed as an old lady, and we get a nice long shot of him slowly climbing the stairs, admiring his handiwork. Welcome to The Comeback! And ladies--please remember your purses!

Now, you saw the name David Doyle in the credits, and you're like "Well, surely there's some other David Doyle, because I know they don't mean DAVID DOYLE. Like, Bosley on Charlie's Angels kind of David Doyle." But no, they're not kidding. They do mean THAT David Doyle. He's really here. He is Will Webster, aka Webb, manager of pop crooner Nick Cooper, who we have seen landing from an airplane and being ferried to Webb's office. It would seem that Nick was at the height of his fame when his wife, Gail, insisted that he leave the music business, and he complied. That was six years ago, and now they've split, and Nick wants to get back to music. Webb wants to make sure his album is a success, and we sense that there is some resentment on Nick's part, feeling treated like a mere product by Webb, and taking his snide insinuations about Nick's ex, too. Oh by the way, guess who that was murdered in Nick's apartment? Gail. The ex-wife. She's still there, too, as the film will indicate.

In here we also meet Linda, Webb's comely blonde assistant, who Nick takes a shine to. She is played by Pamela Stephenson. As we notice that Doyle has remarkably dead eyes, at least in this role, Webb tells Nick that he has rented a mansion forty minutes outside of London, where he can relax and let his creative juices seep and ooze. Nick goes there immediately, not stopping in his corpse-strewn apartment first, where he meets the caretakers Mr. B, grumpy old man tending the garden, and Mrs. B, creepy blonde, too-pale, too-invasive woman in the Mrs. Danvers mold. That night, Nick can't sleep and wanders the mansion hearing voices, encountering a creepy Mrs. B at the height of his wandering. Flashes show is that Gail is still there, fire engine red tempera paint still on her face, only now with maggots festering in her eye sockets.

Then, like the clouds parting and the rays of God's love smiling on us, we hear Nick's MUSIC. It is this horrendous, unbelievably cheesy post-Sinatra 70s crooning in the Jack Jones mold, so imagine my shock to realize that the man portraying Nick is... JACK JONES! Jones had a modest career and is perhaps best known as the man who sang the Love Boat theme. As an actor, let's say he doesn't embarrass himself, and during his second sleepless night, he seems genuinely freaked out. His friend Harry calls him and encourages him to visit his penthouse, because Gail might be stealing from him, but Nick blows him off for dinner with Linda. Then Harry shows up at dinner, and you're not long in before you're like: WHO is this actor? Because he is bizarre, hilarious, animated, and totally delightful. He says he is going to go check out the apartment, and when Linda expresses interest in going to see it, Nick says "Okay, go go with Harry."

SPOILERS > > >
She does, leading to Harry's blaze of glory in this movie, in which, while trapped in the freight elevator, starts a very inappropriate conversation about the size of her breasts. Then they get to the apartment, where Harry fumbles with the keys as Linda checks out the eerie gas-masked figure arranged on the stairs five feet away, which Harry just doesn't seem to see. Harry also seems oblivious to the flies coming out of the apartment's keyhole, and you're sitting there quite sure he's the killer and Linda is about to get it. This impression is reinforced when Harry claims to have the wrong keys, and on the way out, tells Linda that he won't hurt her because he told Nick that he wouldn't. She runs home, freaked out to Nick, who tells her that she is essentially insane. Yeah--that's the way you built relationships in the 70s. Telling women they're just crazy wingnuts. However, when Nick sees a skeleton and Linda says she wonders what it might be symbolic of (in a dream) he says "It wasn't symbolic, sunshine, it was there!" This causes her to respond "Make love to me."

Nick drives a HOT 70s sports car that is shaped like a bar of soap. After Linda begs him to make love to her, they repair to this tiny car, where I can assure that NO human being would have enough room to do much of anything. It also, when they're doing it, turns to sudden romantic thunderstorm from brilliant sunshine moments before. Meanwhile, Harry returns to the penthouse with the right keys, finds Gail's rotting corpse, and meets the killer in the elevator on the way down. Too bad--I guess hopes for the Harry spin-off movie are cancelled, then. After their cramped interlude, Nick and Linda go to Webb's house, where he is home, putting on women's makeup. He refuses to answer the door, and they go away. By the way, Linda has confessed to having had an affair with Webb prior to taking up with Nick. This is akin to shacking up with Wilford Brimley prior to dating Justin Timberlake, but we'll just accept and move on. This also cleverly makes Webb's annoyance about the relationship bitterness over Linda, instead of homosexual longing for Nick.

By now we have seen irrefutable evidence that Jack Jones does NOT manscape. His chest is the kind of thing that inspired Austin Powers-type parodies that show a guy with a shag carpet glued to his chest. In here Mrs. B complains to Mr. B that she's having a hard time serving "that scum," although to Nick she casts herself as an adorning fan. He can't sleep again, and takes a long trip downstairs and down into the cellar, only to find a gift-wrapped box... with a maggoty decomposing head inside. It was a good, long setup for this shock. He is carried out of the house on a stretcher the next morning. By the way, Linda was sleeping with him, and now she's missing. Suddenly we introduce a kindly psychologist who tells him that he has to face his fears, and that he's experiencing shock from being a star, then not, then coming back from his sheltered life with Gail. Too many life changes. Webb tells him that Linda sent a note saying that she's left both of them.

Nick finally returns to his apartment, which has new carpet and scrubbed walls. He's telling this to Mrs. B, who thinks it's wonderful that someone helped keep the place clean--even if the cleaner is essentially an intruder--when, sudden axe attack! That's right, the killer, dressed as an old lady, is right there in the house, and Nick is running from him when Mrs. B brandishes a knife as well! You see, they had a lovely daughter who was so obsessed with Nick's music--that hip-gyrating devil music (hilarious in the historical context)--that she killed herself on the day Nick announced his marriage! The killer aims another blow, Nick ducks, and Mrs. B gets an axe in the gut. Then he goes and starts hacking at the wall, only to find: Linda has been walled-up alive! She spills the rest of the story, which I think implicates Webb somehow, but I couldn't make it out because she was sobbing the whole time, and normalcy is returned, although he last shot indicates that Nick will have some ongoing psychological difficulties.
< < < SPOILERS END

It was so good! What a surprise. Yes, I suppose those not inherently enthralled by the 70s will be less thrilled, but it has a eerie, off-kilter atmosphere that remains engrossing, an excellent visual sense that creates a number of striking shots, an interesting story, some unbelievably cheesy music, and tangy chunks of real cheese. It would seem that director Pete Walker was known for British exploitation films that combined horror and sex, and was or of those guys that just became a really good, very skillful director along the way. This reminded me of the also-delightful Don't Open Til Christmas in combining humor and horror and just being really clever and tense all the way through. And it's waiting for you on Netflix right now.

Should you watch it: 

If you like cheesy horror that is also creepy and effective.