“The ghost of a general from the Revolutionary War prevents a family from living in peace.”
Welcome to 4:3 & Forgotten — a column where I get to look back at TV terrors that scared adults (and the kids they let watch) across the limited airwaves of the 70s. This week’s entry is a good old fashioned haunted house tale set in the heart of Amish country. Do Amish people believe in ghosts? Are Amish ghosts less scary because they don’t have electric lights to ominously flick on and off? Am I confusing Amish people with pioneers?
None of those questions will be answered today as while The House That Would Not Die is set in Amish country Pennsylvania it’s completely free of the Amish themselves. We do get the great Barbara Stanwyck in her TV movie debut, though, so that’s a pretty good trade-off.
When: October 27th, 1970
A presence moves about an empty house, from room to room, before ending up at the front window through which we see a car pull up and two women exit. Ruth (Stanwyck) and her niece Sara (Kitty Winn) are new to town and to this house, but they immediately fall in love with its visible history and atmosphere. That love becomes mutual, though, when something takes a shine to young Sara. Pat (Richard Egan) swings by to greet his new neighbors, and as he looks at the young woman it’s clear something supernatural is afoot.
Comments by a few other locals raise the possibility of the house being home to a wayward spirit, and while Ruth has a moment of cautious clarity — “Maybe we shouldn’t have a seance in this house after all?” — she goes ahead with it anyway, and soon all hell breaks loose. A face is visible above Sara’s own, the basement door opens of its own accord, and a painting of a Revolutionary War officer displays suicidal tendencies.
So, an Aaron Spelling-produced TV movie from the 70s kind of hell I guess.
As TV Guide taglines go this one can suck an egg. The ghost of a general from the Revolutionary War you say? The House That Would Not Die is a 73 minute movie and doesn’t reveal that tidbit until 50 minutes in, but viewers in 1970 knew it before the title screen even hit their brains. And now you do too. I’m not sorry. It’s been nearly 48 years.
Happily, even if you know the ultimate cause behind the haunting the film holds the ghost’s motivation well through to the third act, and it ultimately lands with an enjoyable amount of emotion. The script by Henry Farrell — who also wrote TV’s How Awful About Allan (1970) but is best known for penning What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) — teases out story beats but finds its momentum in character actions.
The house’s secrets run parallel to Pat’s before coming to a head with a pair of violent attacks. He turns a soft kiss with Ruth into a near assault, and Sara attacks her aunt while sleepwalking. Both appear to involve supernatural possession, but the times being what they were (are?) Pat’s response to it all is delightfully sexist. Ruth’s outburst is clearly due to mental illness, schizophrenia perhaps, but his own loss of control? Eh, who knows.
Ruth rolls with it all — ghostly manipulations, possessions, dick neighbors — and Stanwyck proves herself difficult to rile while still offering a compelling and engaged lead performance. Egan’s equally strong, and his shifts in control from “himself” to “someone else” come with a menacing change in his eyes and expressions. John Llewellyn Moxey‘s (The City of the Dead, 1960) direction carries that menace throughout the film from broad beats like the psychic warning everyone to exit the house sooner rather than later to more subtle sequences involving the detached POV of the house’s resident spirit.
The House That Would Not Die is a solid, if unspectacular, tale of ghosts, lost love, and possession, and while some Amish history — seriously, are there Amish horror legends? — would have enhanced the film’s overall value, it remains a fun piece of 70s TV horror.
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