Bite Size: Hollywood Horror House/Savage Intruder (1970)

Hollywood Horror House doesn’t bother to conceal its overt emulation of hagsploitation progenitor Sunset Boulevard. There’s an opening montage of the glamorous life of a 1930’s movie queen, Katherine Packard (actual 1930s Oscar nominee Miriam Hopkins) This is immediately followed by a cut to the age damage and disrepair of the famous “Hollywood” sign, the wind whistling through the hills.

Having established imitation as the sincerest form of flattery, the film makes a quick pit stop into horror territory by panning down to a dismembered body rotting in the sun, and an expository news broadcast warning of a hand chopping serial killer targeting older women in Hollywood. Having already told the audience what to expect, we watch a dirty longhair in a wide brimmed hat follow a middle aged woman home from a bar and quickly dispatching her with a heavy pipe and an electric carving knife.

Meanwhile, present day Katherine Packard is no longer a vivacious screen star, but a hard boozing recluse who daydreams of who she used to be. Industrious maid Mildred (1930s comedian and early television regular Florence Lake) and personal secretary Leslie(1940s character actress and “Red Scare” blacklist victim Gale Sondergaard), do their best to keep an eye on Ms. Packard, but she gets into a bottle and takes a tumble down her own grand staircase.

As the elevator is broken, the pair will need a nurse to attend to the wheelchair bound Katherine. It just so happens a familiar looking scruffy hippie type named Vic (David Garfield, son of Golden Age superstar John) hops off of a Hollywood homes tour bus and cons the women into giving him a job, despite introducing himself with the egregiously fake name of “Laurel N. Hardy”.

At the very least, the movie is self aware enough to know it is working off a familiar template, and the inevitable insinuation of a handsome hustler into a lonely old woman’s life is zipped through via lots of montages. With the resulting time savings, it makes a towering trifle of exploitation trends of the period.

Given the small cast, it’s obvious Vic is the stalk and slasher, with a hell of a heroin habit and a tendency toward penny ante psychedelic visions of his unhappy childhood. In the grand tradition of mommy issues misogyny, his mother was a drunken hooker who sent him to foster care, and now all women of a certain age must pay for her sins.

While Leslie and Mildred both distrust Vic almost immediately, Katherine is basking in the glow of a younger man’s attention. While the audience waits for the protagonist to catch up to the forgone conclusions of the plot, there’s time for hippie parties full of camp loving gays who are delighted to see the former diva, versus bitchily arch young women who seem annoyed at her hold on Vic’s attention. Most delightful of all is Katherine’s breezy decline of the wares of a drug pushing little person, noting “the only trips I take are to Europe”.

Hollywood Horror House was the brainchild of Donald Wolfe, primarily known as a film editor, but credited as writer/director/producer on this project, alternately titled as Savage Intruder and The Comeback. Reports vary on how long it took for Wolfe to secure the financing to finish the film (anywhere from 1969-1972), but it was clearly constructed piecemeal, with John Garfield’s Vic having a roster of out of continuity changes in hairstyle. The film’s distribution history seems to be just as checkered, and the earliest listed theatrical bookings I could locate date to December of 1974.

Hollywood Horror House definitely bears the overly indulgent hallmarks of a troubled self-financed production, wildly careening between subgenres and plagued by the wobbly pacing of a script that is unsure of which of its many ideas will serve as the final narrative destination. Rather than commit to any particular conceptual throughline, the film just keeps tossing various tropes at the wall to see what sticks.

The most unnecessary example is likely the casually racist affair subplot between Vic and pretty young cook Greta (longtime character actress Virginia Wing). Considering that the audience has already seen Vic commit murder before he even enters the Packard house, the melodrama of having him impregnate (and subsequently kill) a naive young woman on the staff is pretty superfluous.

The movie becomes an increasingly frustrating watch as it progresses, burying its strongest cards in a cinematic game of 52 Pickup. Vic’s various hallucinations have a gloriously garish, Satan’s special episode of Laugh-In aesthetic, and the use of silent star Norma Talmadge’s former estate provides the all of the glamour gone to seed that an off brand Sunset Boulevard could ever need. The film certainly isn’t all bad, but where the writer/director chooses to place his priorities is deeply misguided.

Luckily, there’s a consummate professional on hand. The annals of hagsploitation are full of deeply engaged performances, but Miriam Hopkins’ Katherine Packard is one of the trend’s most gleeful. It’s a gutsy turn, and she commits to the bit at all times, be it drunken sing alongs or a brief topless scene. She’s clearly having a wonderful time on a camping trip for the ages, and her big brassy energy lifts up all of the performers around her. Considering that David Garfield’s Vic is often a bit too convincingly sleepy and stoned, it’s to her credit that their verbal sparring is remotely credible.

She’s never less than fun to watch, but Hopkins shines brightest when delivering bitchy one liners that could only come from a woman used to getting whatever it is she might deign to want. Katherine Packard is a drunken, delusional wreck. However, it’s hard not to like a brassy broad with the gumption to answer an otherwise innocuous question regarding her favorite flavor of ice cream with a derisive snort and a decisive “Vodka”.

Hollywood Horror House is too silly and scattershot as an overall film to really rank in the upper echelons of the Grand Dame Grand Guignol canon, but specifically as a showcase for its star, it works. All of the attention grabbing groovy visuals, goopy gore and group sex related PTSD don’t hold a candle to even the most minor scenes where the character of Katherine Packard is on screen. Miriam Hopkins was 67 when she made this film, and died before it received any real distribution. Most of the people who saw Savage Intruder at all did so under the title of Hollywood Horror House on VHS, long after Hopkins’ 1972 death. This barely seen, odd duck genre film was her cinematic swan song.

It takes a special kind of performer to have the same enthusiasm for the top of the Hollywood heap and a fly by night regional filmmaker who never directed again. For that reason alone, Hollywood Horror House is worth a spin, preferably with a glass of vodka in hand. A toast is in order for Ms. Hopkins —as it is the last few hours of the shitty sequel that is 2021 as I type this— and for the hope of happier and healthier new year for us all.