As one of the last films by Spanish exploitation director Jose Ramon Larraz, DEADLY MANOR is not without charm. The 1990 horror is familiar in setup, but overachieves in terms of atmosphere and characters. The screenplay by Larraz, Larry Ganem and Brian Smedley-Aston makes great use of the titular Hillburn Manor, a century-old mansion slipped into a New York village.
By articulating a sense of place and using things like a cracking wall and a spooky upstairs boudoir, DEADLY MANOR achieves respectability as a haunted house slasher. Its eventual plot revelation leaves little to the imagination, but the intoxicating effects of cryptic wine and an implacable car horn create a pretty eerie ambience.
The story features three couples on their way to spend time at a lake, but they get lost and pick up a hitchhiker (Clark Tufts). The Zack Morris of the group, Rod (Mark Irish), decides they should camp out overnight and somehow arrives at a mansion in the middle of nowhere.
As the gang tucks in for the night, creepy shit starts happening. One woman (Claudia Franjul) takes off, while others find coffins and about a million photos of the same woman (Jennifer DeLora) plastered all over the walls. Tony (Greg Rhodes) has some wine and dreams about getting busy with the woman from the pictures. Then the killings start.
There’s nothing particularly novel about this sort of “old dark house” approach, but DEADLY MANOR pulls a lot of intrigue out of a little. Perhaps it’s because the story is so believable as a revenge yarn, complete with a mutilated murderer and a spouse that totally shares the vindictive goal.
What makes DEADLY MANOR better than it should be is the way the characters merge around central tension. There aren’t many movies where the reluctant character actually leaves, although the results in Larraz’s movie are less than ideal and her pursuit of safety carries its own ironic implications. The hitchhiker adds charm without indulging the thrills, another plus.
DEADLY MANOR isn’t particularly graphic, but there’s sharpness to the killings that makes it horrific. A swift tear of a blade across the gullet makes for a disturbing end, while the mood-altering qualities of the manor threaten to lull others into a false sense of carnal security.
DEADLY MANOR tests the sexual waters with a pretty steamy scene, but other potential sexual encounters are foiled. Tony’s wailing discovery later in the movie underlines the character’s glib attitude toward his girlfriend’s prudence – another sign of this movie’s commitment to character, detail and the crushed dreams of young love.