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Made in Texas: 'Ghosts of Hanley House' (1968)

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'Ghosts of Hanley House' (1968)

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It's all Sonny Bono's fault, really.

Before the musician-turned-politician met his end in January 1998 by allegedly skiing into a tree*, he had introduced a piece of legislation, the Copyright Term Extension Act a/k/a "The Mickey Mouse Protection Act," a bit of corporate welfare that damaged cinema in the name of preserving it. While the law was good for the studios, it was bad for film preservation, and film appreciation in general.

Hundreds of films had already fallen into the public domain by the time of the bill's passage, and rather than vanishing into obscurity, these films became staples of local and cable TV, free content that programmers used to fill hours of broadcasting time. Law professor Dennis S. Karjala, who opposed the bill, explained it thusly: "When Senator Hatch laments that George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue will soon 'fall into the public domain,' he makes the public domain sound like a dark abyss where songs go, never to be heard again. In fact, when a work enters the public domain it means the public can afford to use it freely, to give it new currency."

There are many films that are now lost, thanks to nebulous ownership issues, the untimely death of a producer, or other nefarious circumstances. If these films had entered the public domain, they would have been preserved, reproduced, and reached a whole new audience. As Howard Besser stated, "a rich, continually replenished, public domain is necessary for continued artistic creation."

Although the Copyright Term Extension Act retroactively protected works produced after 1963, there are still a significant number of films made in 1964 and beyond that are now PD, most famously George Romero's 1968 horror classic "Night of the Living Dead" (original prints of the film neglected to include copyright information).

Another 1968 film now in the public domain is "Ghosts of Hanley House," a micro-budget black and white regional horror flick shot in Victoria, Texas.

What is remarkable about the film is that it was written and directed by a woman, Louise Sherrill.

What is not remarkable about the film is pretty much everything else. The hoary plot (a character daring to spend the night in a haunted house on a bet), laughable special effects, community theater-quality acting, amateurish lighting, and incongruous sound design all combine for an underwhelming cinematic experience. Edward Wozniak described the film's "air of ineptitude and low-budget hopelessness." There are pleasures to be had nonetheless, most notably on the soundtrack, especially if you dig late '60s Texas psychedelic boogaloo, and the gauzy negligees sported by the female leads provide some retro eye candy (not unlike PD horror "The Screaming Skull").

In a piece in The Balladeer's Blog, Wozniak cataloged the movie's various crimes against cinema: "Head shots of the characters linger on their nonplussed faces long before and after they spout their ridiculous lines of dialogue. The 'story' meanders aimlessly from moment to moment...Much of the footage could be edited out with no loss to the narrative especially a long, boring, pointless interlude where our five leads wander the forest in a futile attempt at escaping Hanley House’s supernatural grip...There is hilariously awful day for night shooting during the forest interlude...Lamest of all A PAINTED PICTURE OF LIGHTNING is used over and over again as the one and only 'special effect'...A very cheap red-tinted solarization effect like something from the original Dr Who series is used repeatedly throughout the film with no rhyme or reason and representing God knows what."

The film, like other public domain titles, gained new life on local TV in the '70s and '80s, and was featured in a memorable 1985 installment of "The Texas 27 Film Vault" (“the few, the proud, the sarcastic”) on KDFI Dallas.

"Ghosts of Hanley House" is available free on YouTube.

* It has been theorized that Bono was actually murdered by hit men.

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J.M. Dobies, Austin Classic Movies Examiner Facebook Page

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