The Hearse (1980) / Horror-Thriller
MPAA Rated: PG for sensuality, scary images and adult themes
Running time: 95 min.
Cast: Trish Van Devere, Joseph Cotten, David Gautreaux, Donald Hotton, Med Flory, Donald Petrie, Christopher McDonald
Cameo: Dennis Quaid(?)
Director: George Bowers
Screenplay: William Bleich
Review published February 13, 2011
Trish Van Devere (The Changeling, Going Ape) plays Jane Hardy, a recently divorced San Francisco woman recovering from a breakdown who inherits a house in a rural town from her deceased aunt. She's not quite sure if it's the kind of place for her, so she decides to stay there for a bit to get away and test out whether she's going to keep the place, or if she's going to sell to one of the locals. But the locals don't seem to want anything to do with the place, treating her like a pariah, and refusing to make deliveries or set foot on the property. Jane picks up bits of information through her aunt's diary regarding her love affair with a Satan worshipper, who has seduced her into devil worship, resulting in a death more mysterious in the events that happened after than any rituals they were involved with before. Meanwhile, an old hearse makes an appearance at night for reasons she can only guess. Is it her aunt come to visit, or is the town's avaricious real estate lawyer out to scare her to claim the property he feels is properly his?
Fairly nonsensical as horror movies go, with only mild scares too cliché and predictable to raise many pulses. It's never unwatchable, but it also lacks much new or novel qualities to set it apart from countless haunted house and occult flicks to come out, especially in the era of The Amityville Horror and The Exorcist. The actors are the best part of the film, with Van Devere portraying well her everywoman to identify with, and supporting players like Cotten (Under Capricorn, Shadow of the Doubt) and Hotton (Soul Man, Brainstorm), as the town's minister, make for engaging, duplicitous cohorts.
The plot does suffer from not only being obvious, but its continuation requires Jane to continue to put up with all manner of spooks, scares and bullying that most people, even if convinced that the townsfolk were just out to scare her away, would put up with. She does run out of her house on multiple occasions, jump in her car and speed away, yet we always see her back again the next day acting as if nothing has happened. The diary aspect is a shortcut solely to push forward the Satanic back story, which Jane just so happens to read aloud to herself for our benefit. Jane eventually meets a handsome stranger named Tom (Gautreaux, Star Trek), and savvy (and even not so savvy) horror movie viewers will easily guess there's much more to him than appears.
The hearse of is just one of many supposedly scary plot devices, and definitely does not appear enough to merit the title, given how little screen time it garners. It also is never fully explained, as there is a driver who has some sort of creepy jones to scare the crap out of Jane for reasons that are never fully explained. But explanations are in such short supply altogether that, in order to keep the story moving along, the screenplay by William Bleich (The Midnight Hour, A Smoky Mountain Christmas) ignores, probably for fear that the entire story would fall apart. Jane has some crazy dreams about her own death and seeing people she's never met, but then sees in real-life, but those connections also are left as loose ends. More subplots abound involving the locals, including teenage boys and the do-nothing sheriff (Flory, The Boogens), wanting to get into her pants -- scenes that have absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the film except accentuate Jane's supposed hotness.
Unless you're someone who thinks that the sound of windows breaking, cars screeching, lights going out randomly, or first-person views of someone climbing stairs is horrifically scary, The Hearse is too tepid to recommend as a good b-movie fright-night feature. Like its titular hearse, this atmospheric vehicle comes by now and then to taunt and tease you, leaving you wondering which ominous road it's going to take you down only to drop you off right where you started again. Someone should have tossed this script in the back, as it's as lifeless as they come.
©2011 Vince Leo