Thursday, January 05, 2017

Cult-TV Movie Review: Are You in The House Alone? (1978)

A teenage babysitter and high school student, Gail Osborne (Kathleen Beller) is stalked by an unknown assailant as she begins to date Steve (Scott Columby), and they go on double dates with her best friend Allison (Robin Mattson) and jock, Phil Lawver (Dennis Quaid).

Before long, Gail finds threatening notes in her school locker, and receives strange, threatening phone calls at home, at odd hours.

The stalking grows worse, even after Gail reports the events to the high school principal, and one night she is assaulted and raped in her house.

After recovering, Gail sets out to use her passion -- photography -- to trap the assailant and prevent him from committing rape a second time.

Are You in the House Alone? first aired on American television, in prime time, on September 20, 1978, and is notable, in part, because it adopts many of the same tactics employed by more well-known, theatrical slasher films, Halloween (1978) and When A Stranger Calls (1979).

Specifically, Are You in the House Alone? adopts the subjective perspective, or the “stalk” P.O.V. shot that has long been associated with the slasher sub-genre, and efforts such as Friday the 13th (1980), or Carpenter’s seminal film. 

These first person subjective shots are remarkably effective in building tension and anticipation in the film, and Are You in the House Alone? veritably comes to life whenever this visual conceit is utilized by director Walter Grauman.  At another juncture, the camera, while in third-person mode, goes hand-held, and in the process creates a kind of immediacy or urgency. This moment occurs at the moment of greatest suspense, as Gail runs to lock the doors and bolt the windows, before a killer can enter the house.

Also -- and significantly -- the landline telephone is a key vehicle for terror here, as it is in Carpenter’s TV-movie Someone’s Watching Me (1978), Black Christmas (1974), and also the aforementioned When a Stranger Calls.  

In fact, Halloween also uses the telephone to horrific effect, though in a different way: Michael Myers uses it as a weapon for strangulation, and at one point, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) thinks a caller is taunting her, when it is really just her friend, Annie, on the other end of the line.

Given that the telephone proved so important to slasher films and telefilms of the mid-to-late 1970s, it’s probably fair to state that all these efforts were playing on -- or tapping into -- a key societal fear; that a vehicle for communication was actually a vehicle for horror, or evil to enter the family house

A stalker can’t easily get inside a suburban house through a locked door or window, but the telephone is a portal, at least of sorts, for terrorizing prey. It is a form of entering the home in an oblique kind of way.

Forecasting both Scream (1996) and I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), the killer in this made-for-TV film utilizes both hand-written notes (which say things like “I am watching you!”) and the telephone to destabilize his prey. The overall effect is that the psychological assault seems to come from all directions.

What may prove most shocking about Are You in the House Alone? is that the predator or stalker “gets” the final girl, a victory telegraphed in the film’s first scene. The rest of the movie plays as flashback of the stalking events, until Gail sets out to go after the boy who raped her.  Usually in films of this type, final girls manage to survive the attack, and kill their enemies. Here, Gail has to go back to the school with the sociopath (Dennis Quaid), and determine a way to prevent him from committing rape again.

She does so  -- and in a plot conceit that mirrors Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill (1980) -- uses a modern technology to do so, in this case, the camera. 

So, intriguingly, Are You in The House Alone? sees technology as a two-edged sword. It can be used to terrorize (the telephone), or mete justice (the camera).

Another strange connection to horror films of the 1970s which merits a mention: Both I Spit on Your Grave (1978) and this TV-movie concern rape, it’s true, but more notably,  both productions view “art” as the channel which can help one overcome a violation of this horrible type. 

In I Spit on Your Grave, the rape victim, Jennifer, tapes back together the ripped pages of her manuscript.   Jennifer is beaten, bruised and hurt in that film, and the arduous process of picking herself up and putting herself back together begins with something apparently small: the stitching together (with that scotch tape) of a single page.  

Part of Jennifer’s difficult re-creation of self involves her returning to and nurturing the personal vision of herself as a writer and artist.  The rapists can rip apart her work, but she is still, finally, a creator…something which they will never be.  They can’t take her sense of artistic expression away from her. It is part of Jennifer, and it is in that place of “self” that Jennifer first re-asserts her identity. 

In Are You in the House Alone? Gail recovers from the rape, and resumes her dedication to photography, r-epurposing that passion and artistry towards the saving the life of another young woman, so they will not endure what she has endured. Once more identity is re-asserted by returning to the pursuit of art.

Some horror fans have suggested that Are You in the House Alone? is actually less a horror film than an Afterschool Special, considering that it involves some tiresome soap opera aspects. In particular, there is a (boring) subplot here about Gail’s parents and their travails. Her father has lost his job, and her mother (Blythe Danner) is harried, attempting to work a real estate job over her husband’s objections.

These moments feel off point, and yet Are You in the House Alone? features so many qualities of the slasher film of the 1970s and 1980s, as I’ve noted above, including the red herring, the character who appears to be the stalker, at various points. 

Here there are at least two red herrings to conisder. The first is Gail’s ex-boyfriend, who grew angry when she wouldn’t sleep with him.  And the second is her high school photography teacher, Chris Eldon (Alan Fudge) who instructs his student to take photos of herself that make her look “sexy.”  He would get fired for that comment, in 2016.  Later, the teacher shows up in his car while Gail is walking home from a babysitting gig, and offers her a ride.  There is definitely something menacing and creepy and wrong about his presence.  But he isn't the stalker, either.

Both of these characters throw the audience off the trail of the real stalker: Phil, a jock/jerk from a rich family. Phil, played by Quaid, suffers from the very modern condition known as “affluenza.”  He is rich, and feels he is entitled to do anything he wants. “I don’t have to account to anyone for anything I do,” he insists, and the movie proves his point.  Rather than facing prison, Phil (apparently) simply transfers to a private school in New Hampshire.  There, presumably, his activities will begin anew.

So where most slasher films use their final act and denouement to suggest that the killer may strike again, or even be supernatural in origin/power, this TV movie suggests that the society is the true monster, and that final girls like Gail will have to fight this “monster” again and again, because the system itself favors monsters, rather than the victims of crimes.  

That's a scary note to go out on, and even with its soap opera plotting, there are moments of pure terror in Are You in the House Alone?.

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