The Nesting directed by Armand Weston
It sits on the crest of a hill overlooking the Hudson River to the west, a mere 18 miles north of NYC … the truly bizarre-looking structure known as the Armour-Stiner Octagon House. Built from 1859 – 1860 in Irvington, NY by financier Paul J. Armour, and expanded from 1872 – ’76 by tea importer Joseph Stiner, the structure is one of the few remaining octagonally shaped Victorian residences in the world; is now the site of a museum that is open for touring by the general public; and has deservedly been designated a National Historic Landmark. It is a site that I have long wanted to visit. OK, that last bit is an exaggeration. Actually, it is a site that I have wanted to visit for the last five days … ever since I watched the truly superior horror outing The Nesting, which features the Octagon House prominently in its story. Released in May 1981, The Nesting is a film that I never got a chance to see during its limited run back when, but have long wanted to experience, for the simple reason that it features one of my very favorite actresses, the legendary Gloria Grahame, in her final screen role. I wasn’t really expecting much in the way of scares and cinematic quality, but let me tell you, this one really did catch me off guard. The film has proved a triple winner for this viewer, having allowed me to catch not only a stunningly effective horror wringer, but also having let me experienced Ms. Grahame in her swan-song act (and, surprisingly, still looking great five months before her passing, at age 57) and learn about a terrific place for a day trip outside NYC. Simply stated, I just loved this one!
The film introduces us to an attractive-looking author named Lauren Cochran (played by Robin Groves, whose filmography seems to be a sadly short one), whose latest novel, The Nesting, we see lying on the table of her NYC home. The cover of this book, like so many other Gothics, depicts a young woman fleeing from a creepy-looking Victorian abode, this one being strangely octagonal in shape. Lauren, who describes herself to her therapist, Dr. Webb (Patrick Farrelly), as “an uptight, neurotic, creative, brilliant nutjob,” has lately begun to suffer from agoraphobia — a fear of going outside her home. As a self-administered therapy of sorts, Lauren gets her boyfriend, Mark Felton (Christopher Loomis), to drive her upstate, where the country air might do her some good. The two stop at the side of Estes Pond (which will later figure prominently in the film), hard by the quaint little town of Dover Falls. They then climb a small hill, at the top of which they find the exact same house that had been depicted on the cover of Lauren’s book!
Our authoress is strangely drawn to the abandoned house, so much so that she decides to rent the place to do her writing. She thus visits the house’s owner, one Colonel LeBrun (John Carradine, whose filmography includes over 350 films, dating from 1930 – ’95), who suffers a stroke the moment he looks at her face. But the colonel’s grandson, Daniel Griffith (Michael David Lally, who would go on to appear in one of this viewer’s favorite films of the ‘90s, 1991’s The Rapture), goes ahead and rents the place to her anyway. Once ensconced in the old abode, unusual things begin to transpire almost at once. Music and footsteps are heard coming from the upstairs floors. Lauren sees the ghostly figures of prostitutes and their patrons in the house’s bedrooms. Her typewritten manuscripts are tampered with in the middle of the night. A man seems to appear in her bed from out of nowhere. When the house’s handyman, Frank Beasley (Bill Rowley), attempts to rape her (you might almost think of him as Frankly Beastley!), the spectral figure of a blonde woman (our Gloria!) comes to her rescue, levitating the man bodily and throwing him about. When Lauren goes to Frank’s best friend, the slovenly Abner Welles (David Tabor), to ask him about the history of the house, Abner tries to kill her, chasing her by car to a lonely farmstead, where the ghostly blonde woman again comes to Lauren’s aid. Thus, Lauren is driven to the inevitable conclusion: Her house is haunted, and peopled by phantoms who used to dwell therein. Eventually, the truth comes out. Yes, the Octagon House was indeed the site of a former brothel, and the site of an unspeakable tragedy. But that is just the beginning of this truly imaginative thrill ride.
The Nesting (and no, we never do learn the meaning of that title, other than the fact that it is the title of Lauren’s latest book) offers the viewer any number of wonderful scare sequences and shock moments. Thus, the initial exploration of the lonely old house; the startling eruption of pigeons from out of a downstairs window; Lauren getting stuck on a high windowsill of the abode, and her catastrophic “rescue” by Dr. Webb; Frank’s getting tossed about by that phantom lady, and his eventual demise in the nearby pond; the entire sequence with Abner chasing Lauren down the highway, with his car repeatedly slamming into Gloria’s imposing image, and that harrowing sequence in the farmyard, with Abner’s demise by scythe being perhaps the film’s most memorable moment; and finally, the sequence during which we learn of the tragic history of the house, via a narration by the Colonel on his deathbed, and see, via flashback, the horrible events that had transpired there decades ago.
Director Armand Weston helms his film with a sure hand, and his script, cowritten with Daria Price, is a clever and imaginative one. (I do believe that Michael Weldon, in his book The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, is being unduly harsh when he says of the director, “Weston previously directed hard-core sex movies. He should go back to them.”) The film’s musical backdrop (by Jack Malken and George Kim Scholes) ratchets up the tension to just the proper key, and cinematographer Joao Fernandes (who, in 1984 alone, shot such films as Children of the Corn, Missing in Action and Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter) has lensed the picture in a wondrously artful manner. The film’s players, although composed of folks who might not be household names, other than Carradine and Grahame, all deliver very effective performances, and Ms. Groves, in the lead, is especially credible and appealing. She makes for a very sympathetic heroine, and also demonstrates that she could have been a fine “scream queen” herself. Her shrieks of terror are truly convincing here, and given what her character is forced to undergo, I suppose that this should hardly come as a surprise.
But perhaps best of all in The Nesting is Gloria Grahame herself, playing the part of Florinda Costello, the madame of the old bordello. Grahame, of course, had been a star of the first rank some 35 years earlier, beginning shortly after her first role in 1944’s Blonde Fever. She would go on to become one of the true queens of the film noir genre, win an Oscar for her role in 1952’s The Bad and the Beautiful, and appear in some 40 theatrical pictures. Her final days were the subject of the 2017 biopic Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool. Gloria is both stunning to look at and the cause of several shivery moments in the picture in question, and her work in this, her final film, has only reinforced my desire to see her in three other horror movies that she appeared in: The Todd Killings (’71), Blood and Lace (also ’71) and Mansion of the Doomed (’76). Grahame, with her sultry sexpot ways and slightly lisping delivery, always managed to add some captivating charm to whatever project she appeared in, and her farewell performance in The Nesting is no exception
And, oh … I would hate to be remiss in not mentioning one of the other true stars of The Nesting: the Octagon House itself, a structure that, once seen on film, exerts a compelling fascination on the viewer, as well as a desire to visit the place in person. The Octagon House has now been put in my Pantheon of All-Time Great Horror Houses to Visit, a pantheon that includes the Ennis House in the Los Feliz section of L.A., from 1959’s House on Haunted Hill; the Ellington Park Hotel in Warwickshire, from 1963’s The Haunting; Wykehurst Place in West Sussex, from 1973’s The Legend of Hell House; the Remsen Street brownstone in Brooklyn Heights, from 1977’s The Sentinel (which I have visited many times and tend to, naturally, think of as the Sentinel House); and the Amityville Horror house, from 1979’s The Amityville Horror. Fortunately for me, the Armour-Stiner Octagon House has been open to the public for tours since April 2019, and I do hope to be visiting it very shortly. I only hope that my experience there is a lot more pleasant than poor Lauren Cochran’s, and that I do not encounter any ghostly ladies of the evening wandering around its Victorian halls…