Directed By: George Bowers
Starring: Trish Van Devere, Joseph Cotten, David Gautreaux
Tag line: "There is a door between life and death and now, that door is open!"
Trivia: William Bleich originally devised this movie as a more teen-oriented slasher outing when he was first hired to write the script
The Hearse, a 1980 horror film, harkens back to an earlier time when a haunted house and a creepy mystery were all that was required to give an audience a good scare. Unfortunately, director George Bowers and his crew forgot that one basic element that even a classically-styled horror movie can’t do without: imagination. From start to finish, The Hearse is a routine fright flick, and never once does it bring anything new to the table.
In need of a change, recently divorced schoolteacher Jane Hardy (Trish Van Devere) decides to spend the summer at a country house that belonged to her late Aunt, who died 30 years earlier under bizarre circumstances. The house has been abandoned for decades, and Pritchard (Joseph Cotton), the lawyer who handled the aunt’s will, was hoping to buy it from Jane’s family. Needless to say, he’s none too happy that Jane is suddenly interested in the old place, and does what he can to discourage her from staying.
But Pritchard isn’t the only one in town who treats her badly; aside from Paul (Perry Lang), a lovestruck teenager Jane hires to work as her handyman, the rest of the townsfolk want nothing to do with their newest resident, especially when they discover whose house she's living in.
According to local legend, Jane’s aunt spent her final days romancing a man who worshiped Satan, and in so doing made an unholy pact with the devil. Jane dismisses these stories as rumor and innuendo, but after a while begins to experience some strange phenomena of her own, including a black hearse that follows her wherever she goes. Things improve temporarily for Jane when she meets Tom Sullivan (David Gautreaux), with whom she falls in love. But is Tom really who he claims to be, or does he know more about the house’s history than he’s letting on?
Trish Van Devere delivers a solid performance as the strong-willed Jane, who won’t let anyone or anything (living or otherwise) run her out of town, and Perry Lang is also good as the young man who develops a crush on her. In addition, The Hearse marked the big-screen debut of Christopher McDonald (Requiem for a Dream. Happy Gilmore), who plays one of Paul’s friends, and while I can’t find him listed anywhere in the credits, I’m 99% certain that Dennis Quaid makes a cameo appearance in the film (as a repairman who is on-screen for about 10 seconds). As for Joseph Cotten, the role of Pritchard won’t be remembered as one of his finest screen portrayals, but it’s always fun to see him in this sort of movie.
Alas, try as they might, the cast of The Hearse can’t save it from the throes of mediocrity; the scares are of the generic variety (banging doors, quick glimpses of a ghost in a mirror, etc.), and while Jane is, indeed, a determined, strong-minded woman, she also isn’t very bright (she doesn’t go to the police when someone breaks into her house one evening). Yet the film’s worst aspect is its central mystery, which is anything but mysterious. In fact, it’s as predictable as they come, making the “big reveal” at the end a major disappointment.
Even in 1980, when slasher films were all the rage, it was still possible to make a decent haunted house movie; The Changeling (which also co-starred Van Devere, playing opposite her real-life husband George C. Scott) was released that year and is a damn scary motion picture. But then, The Changeling wasn’t afraid to try something new, whereas The Hearse gives us nothing we haven’t seen before.