Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Home sweet home

So, the Missus finally convinced me to move to her native land. And now we are living in a big house out in the countryside in the west of Ireland, surrounded by cows and stone walls. As we have been sitting in this place with no functioning kitchen, no furniture and no curtains or shades on the windows, it has gotten me to thinking about movies about people moving into new homes. As far as I can tell, they fall into two general categories. And neither one of them is very promising, for someone in our situation.

One category is what I would call the “fish out of water” story. For one reason or another, an individual or a couple or a family move to their dream house out in the country. But since they are city people, they have lots of misadventures in dealing with country life, the eccentric locals, and a house that almost always seems to be falling apart. (The best television example of this genre would be Green Acres, which was actually a reversal of the country-yokel-out-of-his-element-in-the-big-city story, as exemplified by The Beverly Hillbillies.)

Examples of this genre include the 1947 comedy The Egg and I, which was based on a book by Betty MacDonald about her real-life experiences when she married an egg farmer and moved to Bainbridge Island, across the water from Seattle. I can attest that the lifestyle on Bainbridge Island has evolved a bit since MacDonald’s day, but her book and movie immortalized many of the conventions of the fish-out-of-water story. Claudette Colbert played the city-bred heroine and Fred MacMurray was her egg farmer husband. The film is mainly remembered for two minor comic-relief characters who were spun off into their own series of movies: Ma and Pa Kettle.

But The Egg and I wasn’t the first to tell this sort of story. In the 1942 movie George Washington Slept Here, a radiant Ann Sheridan surprises her city-bred husband Jack Benny by buying a dilapidated country house and proceeding to pour all their money into fixing it up. This is not a comforting tale to someone in my current situation. The film featured pre-Pa Kettle Percy Kilbride playing yet another hayseed. The 1948 film Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House featured yet another couple of city people trying to establish themselves in the country, this time by building a house. This couple was played by the very attractive Cary Grant and Myrna Loy.

The familiar story of hapless urbanites being befuddled by disintegrating houses and inscrutable neighbors and workmen is a popular one. It appears regularly in film history, spawning such movies as the mediocre 1986 comedy The Money Pit, which starred Tom Hanks and Shelley Long. If any lessons are to be gleened from these types of movies is that undertaking a new home, especially in the country, is frustrating and humbling but entertaining for onlookers. Great.

The second category of movies about people moving into a new house is even more ominous. It is the one where the house has A Terrible Secret. The most representative, if not best, of this genre is probably the 1979 thriller The Amityville Horror. Like The Egg and I, it was based on a book, which was in turn (supposedly) based on actual events. The couple who move into their new home in this case are James Brolin and Margot Kidder, and they have a lot more to contend with than mere chickens and yokels. Their house is possessed by the devil. Or something. There is no Ma and Pa Kettle, but we do get Rod Steiger in one of his more painful performances, as a local priest. Three years later Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg made a much better family-besieged-by-ghosts-in-their-house flick in the special effects extravaganza Poltergeist. (Note to the Missus: did we run a check of old graveyards in the vicinity of our new abode?)

The people-moving-into-a-haunted-house movie is definitely a film staple. Other examples include 1944’s The Uninvited, in which Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey buy a house haunted by a dead woman (and the song “Stella by Starlight” is introduced); the 1945 James Mason film A Place of One’s Own; and Roman Polanski’s 1976 turn as a young man who moves into a Paris apartment where a woman committed suicide, The Tenant. And I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention the 1971 second big-screen spin-off of the TV series Dark Shadows called Night of Dark Shadows. In that film, a couple (David Selby and Kate Jackson) move into the husband’s ancestral mansion, apparently oblivious to all the violent and horrible things that happened in the previous movie. No sooner do they get moved in when, you guessed it, an evil spirit takes over the husband and, well, things go literally to hell in a figurative hand-basket.

Needless to say, this is the family-moving-into-a-new-house genre that concerns me the most. Not that I am superstitious or believe in ghosts or anything. But at some point late at night, as I lay on the floor in an empty bedroom listening to the creaks and groans of the radiators and the wood floors, I started referring to our new house, in my own mind anyway, as Collinwood.

-S.L., 3 October 2002

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