Imagine a blonde joke, written by Ruth Rendell and adapted for the screen by a pre-Zombie Lucio Fulci -- and you've got José Larraz's The House that Vanished.
In other words, it's a slowly-unfolding murder mystery, deliberately paced to the point of lethargy, in which all the "psychological" situations, clues and red herrings are based on the (blonde) heroine's thick-headedness.
The heroine is an English model, whose current boyfriend takes her for a long drive in thick fog. He tells her he's trying to find a certain house, where he has to pick up some unspecified things. He's never been to the house before, but he knows more or less where it is.
In spite of the girl's repeated requests to be taken home, her scroungy boyfriend keeps driving as mist and darkness close in on them. At last, they come to an old dark house. The girl's boyfriend warns her to wait in the car. As she sits waiting in the darkness, the boyfriend forces the lock on the back door and lets himself in.
Several minutes later, the girl looks up at the windows of the still-darkened house and sees her man's flashlight beam playing furtively about the windows. Slowly a thought begins to form in her mind: perhaps he's up to no good! Having come to this tenuous conclusion, she slips into the house to find him.
She sneaks upstairs, and is frightened at the top by the sudden appearance of a stuffed animal. Regaining her composure, she continues exploring the darkened rooms, until the inevitable false scare: she is grabbed by her boyfriend, who angrily reminds her that she was supposed to stay put.
The girl confronts him with her deduction that he's come to rob the house, but he is unfazed. Rather, he's upset because he can't find the valuables he'd been led to expect. Apparently it's the wrong house; all he's found are a bunch of passports and other identification papers, belonging to attractive young women.
Suddenly, there are noises from below. The pair of housebreakers have just enough time to hide when a young woman enters, followed by a figure in a long, dark coat, hat and gloves.
Now, we've never seen this young woman before, and we know nothing about her -- but you'd think she would be a little alarmed, driving out to a deserted house in the mist, with a companion dressed like a psychopath from any Italian slasher movie. You'd hope she would be particularly worried when her friend responds to her attempts at seduction with stony silence. After all, he (or she, perhaps?) doesn't even take of his (or her?) gloves as the woman removes her clothing and settles into his (or her?) lap.
Of course, when the figure takes out a knife, the woman finally gets the point.
While the killer is off cleaning up, the heroine makes a dash for the door. She makes it out, but her boyfriend is left behind.
Before we go any further, let's consider a few points:
I'm mentioning all these points because they explain how the house vanishes later in the flick. Can you guess the explanation? I hope you can, because you'll have to guess; the movie isn't going to tell you (Anyone who is really desperate to find the solution may visit the SPOILER).
Back to the movie: the heroine flees into the night, with the killer in pursuit. Stumbling through the woods, the girl comes across a junkyard. She hides in one of the cars, and evades the killer until morning.
Hitch-hiking home, she does what any girl might do, who's just left her boyfriend for dead in a house with a psychotic killer in it: she makes tea. The camera lingers as she washes out the tea things, then plugs in the electric kettle. Hmmm, what will it be this time? Darjeeling? Orange Pekoe? Assam? Or perhaps a call to the FREAKIN' POLICE??
Imagine her surprise when she looks out the window and sees her boyfriend's car parked outside.
This is one of those movies where the plot thickens simply because it hasn't been stirred enough. We are introduced to a raft of supporting characters, including a young boy (who appears in the opening shots and is never seen again); the heroine's two close friends -- a swingin' dude and his girlfriend who walks around nude a lot; a sleazy photographer who seems to be the girl's principal employer; a boyish young man who makes stylized masks; the young man's overprotective, middle-aged aunt (with whom he's sleeping); an enigmatic pidgeon fancier who moves into the heroine's building; and the girl's room-mate, who returns from a trip to France just in time to be raped and murdered. Any of the characters (with the obvious exception of the girl who gets killed) could be the killer, according to the usual rules of this kind of film. For instance, the friends are lovable eccentrics, whom nobody would suspect -- and consequently we have to suspect them. The pidgeon guy wears black and sports a sinister goatee. The photographer has no other point being in the movie than to be a suspect. You get the idea.
Trouble is, when we're introduced to the real killer, we immediately know who it is. Not only does he seem IMMEDIATELY to be the most likely suspect, he's also the only character we really learn anything about. When his part of the story starts to take over a larger and larger share of the plot, it becomes obvious -- to everybody but the girl -- that he's the mad killer.
As for our heroine, even after the murder of her flat-mate, she doesn't go to the police with her story. Even though the police have come to her. Even though her boyfriend is almost certainly dead (or else is involved in all these terrible things); even though her friend is dead; even though she and everyone around her are in terrible danger; even though she's found the junkyard near the house; even though she's found her boyfriend's car again, wrecked in the same junkyard... she refuses to talk to the police. Why? Because she's an idiot.
To cap it all off, she accepts an offer from the ki-- er, one of the characters to go stay at a lonely old house.
In the woods.
In the fog.
From that point on, it's all downhill. The end is as perfunctory as it is obvious. Just as the girl begins to let her guard down, she (finally) begins to put the pieces together. Naturally, the killer's equally mad accomplice arrives, not realizing she is there. The girl runs to hide in a closet... only to discover the body of her boyfriend, along with several other naked victims. Apparently she doesn't have a sense of smell, or she'd have noticed the pile of bloody and none-too-fresh corpses once she's opened the door (Amusingly, when her boyfriend's body topples over onto the others, one of the "corpses" blinks her eyes noticeably).
The House that Vanished is certainly atmospheric, with fog-bound exteriors, dark prowls through empty houses, dream-like photography of birds in flight, and long, languid builds before anything actually happens. There are some astonishing moments: for instance, the opening scene, a slow, deliberate track which reveals the heroine asleep and vulnerable, and lingers on her for a disturbingly long time; a brief shot in which a girl is awakened by a pet monkey; the explicit, passionate but sickening love scene between the young man and his aging aunt... But the individually powerful moments don't add up to anything, and in the end, the stupid script overpowers all the movie's better points.
The film's original title was Scream and Die. I can think of several dozen movies that deserve such a dry, unimaginative title, but this is not one of them. There's comparatively little out-and-out gore in Larraz's movie, and its most ghastly scene involves lurid sex rather than lurid violence. The more familiar title, The House that Vanished, is suitably atmospheric, but doesn't really fit the movie either. It's true, the heroine is unable to find the house again after fleeing in the fog, but that's only a minor plot point. It's such an unimportant detail that the explanation is never stated flat-out. Still, I suppose the replacement title is a better hook for an audience than the more truthful House that the Heroine was Too Stupid to Find by Daylight.