‘A mind ripped apart by madness’
Keep My Grave Open, also known as The House Where Hell Froze Over, is a 1974 American horror film directed by S.F. Brownrigg. Assistant director Larry N. Stouffer had directed Horror High (1973). Camilla Carr, Stephen Tobolowsky, and Ann Stafford star.
Lesley Fontaine (Camilla Carr), a troubled single woman in her thirties, lives in an isolated farm estate miles from the nearest town. Someone is committing murders in the vicinity, and the only suspects are Lesley or her brother Kevin (Chelsea [Chelcie] Ross).
Among the victims are a hitchhiker (Bill Thurman) looking for food, a local girl called Susie (Ann Stafford), Bobby (Stephen Tobolowsky), a young farmhand, and ‘Twinkle’ (Sharon Bunn), a middle-aged prostitute.
Despite the attentions of compassionate Doctor Emerson (Gene Ross), Leslie sinks further into depression and sexual frustration; her only source of happiness is her own brother, to whom she is attracted. But is Kevin real, or a figment of Lesley’s imagination?
Keep My Grave Open, the fourth film by Texan director S.F. Brownrigg (Don’t Look in the Basement; Scum of the Earth), can seem dauntingly slow and minimalistic to those unfamiliar with his earlier work. However, if the viewer can set aside the desire for gory thrills and prepare for a slow psychological mood-piece there’s a great deal to be enjoyed.
Any of Brownrigg’s earlier movies would make a better introduction to the charms of his cinema, and yet, despite an almost static plot, this fourth and final horror film is in many ways the culmination of his work.
The film’s lead character (a withdrawn, isolated, mentally ill woman) is emblematic of Brownrigg’s difficulties as a storyteller. He is drawn to creating minimalist character studies involving isolated or hermit-like characters (the ‘forgotten’ residents of an asylum, a reclusive Bayou family, a friendless young woman in a house of bad memories), but the pressures of commercial genre film-making require him to provide typical moments of excitement, tension and release; in a word, action.
Keep My Grave Open sees Brownrigg rebel as never before against this requirement. He devotes an uncommon amount of time to shots of the heroine doing the washing up, unpacking groceries and generally wandering around. The slender narrative struggles to keep this introverted woman attached to possible sources of story interest, often resorting to desperate measures (such as the hungry hitch-hiker who wanders in and raids the icebox, or the young farmhand comically obsessed with horses).
In Brownrigg’s first three films there’s a compromise – the narratives follow the trajectory of outsiders who must enter tightly-knit groups far removed from ‘mainstream’ society. A new nurse at a run-down asylum, a woman fleeing into the bayou to elude a murderer, a relative called back to her rambling childhood home – these women are audience identification figures as they enter disturbing new environments. The tension between their innocence and the situations they encounter keeps the narrative engine ticking. What makes Keep My Grave Open different and less commercial, is that the lead character is no longer someone who gets tangled up in other people’s craziness – she embodies it herself.
This change of emphasis seems to have short-circuited Brownrigg’s fragile grip on genre structure. Although there’s an interesting shift, from the earlier films’ terrorised innocents to Grave’s schizoid protagonist who is the author rather than the victim of horrors, the film never quite makes the leap into subjective storytelling. As the sole focus, here, is a deranged central character, it would have been a bolder move to convey her perceptions ‘raw’ in preference to the objective views provided by her victims.
What ‘subjective’ scenes there are come with explanatory reverse angles that give the game away too readily. We have plenty of opportunity to see the heroine as demented and self-deluded, whereas, if seen through her eyes, the film would have profitably included ‘Kevin’ all the while, just as Robert Altman gave priority to the delusions of Catherine (Susannah York) in his marvellous film Images (1972). Indeed, Keep My Grave Open shares quite a few qualities with the Altman film; certain camera angles and music cues are similar, and Camilla Carr even resembles Susannah York at times. In this context, the bizarre twist ending is perhaps best regarded as Brownrigg’s final, gallant but implausible reiteration of his favoured theme – the woman isn’t to blame, man is still the agent of destruction!
For all its limitations, there’s still a great deal to admire in this swansong to a special sort of deep Southern cinema. Most importantly, Camilla Carr is excellent in the pivotal role of Lesley. She’s tense, distracted, introverted, and yet sensuous, aggressively so at times, caught between repression and sexual fire. Strikingly different in appearance from scene to scene, as befits a depiction of multiple personalities, she effortlessly switches from depressed housebound spinster to sexually provocative siren and conveys the character’s slide into madness with a vigour that stays just the right side of actorly excess.
There are moments in this movie that give a sense of what Brownrigg might have achieved with a little coaxing and recognition. The opening shot of a vagrant surveying the road, his back to the camera, sat on the rear end of a pickup truck as the open road stretches away like a memory sliding out of sight, conveys a sweet melancholy that by now has become the sine qua non of Brownrigg’s cinema.
The sense of time having passed the characters by, both in terms of their life stories and the psychogeography of the region, is subtly worked into the emotional fabric of the film; “There is no now,” Lesley declares at one point when asked to compare past and present. Such is the mood of the film, soaked in languor and a subtle sense of decay. Nostalgia, regret, melancholy, a sense of life running down; these are the emotional hues of the film.
Brownrigg had the ability (rather like Hitchcock) to marshall other people’s skills whilst always ending up with something uniquely his own. He didn’t write his own scripts and the actors to whom I’ve spoken all stress that ‘Brownie’ was not the sole arbiter of what happened on set: he needed technical assistance, and he had help dealing with the performers. Yet the four films he made between 1972 and 1974 share such a powerful linking ambience that mere ‘organisational’ talent has to be put alongside something more elusive; the ability, desire, and determination to convey a particular compact of emotions; horror and fear mixed with sadness, tenderness and regret.
Keep My Grave Open was made sometime in 1974, but the date has frequently been misattributed as anything from 1976 to 1980. There are no dates on the available video prints, but testimony from the cast indicates that all four of Browrigg’s films were made within two years of each other.
Given that Don’t Look in the Basement was shot in the late fall of 1972, this puts Keep My Grave Open somewhere towards the end of 1974; the partially denuded trees, chilly-looking weather and sunlight angled low in the sky suggest late October to mid-November.
Furthermore, the actor who plays Kevin (Chelsea – now Chelcie – Ross) left Texas in 1975 to join a theatre troupe in Chicago, which puts a definitive outer limit on the possible shooting date of the film.
Interestingly, Keep My Grave Open marked the beginning of two notable acting careers. Chelcie Ross went on to roles in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, Basic Instinct, A Simple Plan, and Drag Me to Hell, while Stephen Tobolowsky, who plays Robert, has carved a busy and varied career working for Mel Brooks, Alan Parker, John Carpenter, Paul Verhoeven and Christopher Nolan.
The familiar and wonderful Brownrigg repertory cast (Carr; Weenick; Ross; Stafford) were also joined this time by Bill Thurman, a fellow stalwart of Texan exploitation movies, who worked frequently with Larry Buchanan on films like Mars Needs Women and Zontar: The Thing from Venus, along with classic deep South drive-in movies like Gator Bait, The Creature from Black Lake and The Evictors.
A recent photo of Mimosa Hall as it looks today
Location work for the film centred around a handsome brick building called Mimosa Hall, near Leigh, Harrison County, Texas. Built in 1844, and once the hub of a 3000-acre plantation, at the time of shooting the estate had shrunk to one-hundred and fifty acres and was owned by Douglas V. Blocker, who gave Brownrigg permission to shoot there.
Lesley’s favourite shop, in Jonesville TX, seen here in 2011
Another fascinating location is the general store in which Lesley shops, found in the tiny, almost abandoned settlement of Jonesville, Harrison County, TX. A treasure trove of antique Americana, seemingly caught in a time warp, the store was established in 1847 by the Vaughan family, who still run the business today. For more info and some beautifully atmospheric shots of the rest of Jonesville – population 28! – visit Daniel Barnett’s excellent blog Texas Ghost Towns.
Stephen Thrower, Horrorpedia
Camilla Carr, Stephen Tobolowsky, Ann Stafford, Gene Ross, Sharon Bunn, Bill Thurman (Mountaintop Motel Massacre; Creature from Black Lake; It’s Alive!) and Chelsea Ross.
The artwork for this VHS sleeve recycles imagery for The House That Dripped Blood and Tenebrae!