Ruth Bennett… has inherited an old house in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania Amish country.
The first line on the back of the box for The House That Would Not Die, I’ve since tried to find a scene in the movie that gives us that information, and I don’t think one exists. That line, though, became the basis of my expectations and it’s not a good indicator of what this TV movie’s about (although similar descriptions appear online, so there is a precedent that Kino Lorber’s following).
My certainty that the Civil War would be involved is on me, because the box clearly says Revolutionary War, but it’s not the obvious context for a ghost story set in that area. Again, though, it’s only the box description that brings up Gettysburg at all.
Instead, The House That Would Not Die is your classic ghost story, one that doesn’t set itself apart by grounding its supernaturalism very deeply in American history or Amish culture, but one which does offer quality performances in a cast led by Barbara Stanwyck and directed by John Llewellyn Moxey.
While everything seems to be going well when Ruth (Stanwyck) and her niece, Sara (Kitty Wynn), first arrive, the movie wastes no time letting us know that something’s up. First there’s the opening scene, a crafty piece of filmmaking where you think you’re being shown establishing shots of the house, but the camera is really taking the ghost’s point of view. The proof is in a long pause at the fireplace pokers, the curtains parting at the sound of Ruth’s car pulling up, and a knocked over piece of glassware when there’s nobody in the house.
Then there’s the odd turn of phrase – “I found my room. I recognized it, like I’d been in it before” – letting you know this isn’t your typical move-in day. Henry Farrell wrote the teleplay based on Barbara Michaels’ book, Ammie Come Home.
Scene transitions happen suddenly, in a way that’s not upsetting but eliminates any filler. When Sara’s boyfriend, Stan (Michael Anderson Jr.), suggests searching the cellar the following evening the next scene is them carrying out the search.
As far as we know none of these characters have dealt with the paranormal before, yet they take everything extremely well, considering. Even Ruth is bewildered by their acceptance of these strange occurrences, noting to Stan, “We say these things so matter-of-factly.” Later, after another unexplainable event, Ruth considers, “Maybe we shouldn’t have a seance in this house after all,” yet these misgivings are never mentioned again. Their medium, Sybil (Doreen Lang), experiences immense strain, yet nobody moves to help her or stop the seance. Even when Sara and their neighbor, Pat (Richard Egan), are possessed by ghosts, so much of the acting in this movie is restricted to facial reactions, yet it’s successful that way. Winn, especially, has to ground a lot of pained expressions and Egan is terrifying. There’s a music cue that indicates when he’s possessed by a ghost, but the film doesn’t need it.
Even the subtitles are in on the act, obscuring what one of the ghosts is calling out in the garden. The House That Would Not Die goes on sale January 8th from Kino Lorber. Bonus features include a commentary by Richard Harland Smith, who talks about watching The House That Would Not Die when it debuted as an ABC Movie of the Week, and an interview with Moxey, who shares an incident that occurred with the wind machines and has only good things to say about working with Stanwyck (who is dressed to the nines in this movie, in gowns designed by Nolan Miller, who gets a special credit in the opening titles).
If winter is the time for ghost stories, then January is the time for The House That Would Not Die. To pre-order a copy of the DVD, click here.