Made-for-TV movies - I grew up with them. ABC, CBS and NBC all put out their own film ventures that capitalized on some of their biggest stars while letting them, somewhat, step out of the roles they were best known for. It was also a chance for older Hollywood stars to find work in an industry known for not banking on them. So when The Love Boat wasn’t sailing with a crew of guest stars, you might find one of them in a made-for-TV flick.
One of these films was Death at Love House. This ABC film from 1976 starred Robert Wagner and Kate Jackson as Joel and Donna Gregory, a husband and wife writing team who take an assignment writing a book about a long dead Hollywood legend named Lorna Love.
The couple travel to Lorna’s estate, where they’ve arranged to stay as guests in the late actress’ home. The house is empty, save for the caretaker Clara (Sylvia Sidney) who has been maintaining the mansion and grounds since Lorna’s passing decades earlier.
Lorna’s home is in excellent condition, but more surprising is the condition of her body. Being known for her vain ‘Goddess of Hollywood’ persona, it was no surprise that upon passing she had her body preserved and put on display in a glass tomb/monument located on the estate grounds. Joel and Donna pay a visit to the tomb and Joel seems captivated by the long dead beauty.
Joel and Donna weren’t picked at random to write the story of the late Lorna Love. Joel’s father was one of her many lovers. A painter and artist, Joel Sr. was apparently one of the few men who could resist Lorna’s charms enough to leave her before she ruined his life. His legacy for her was a giant portrait of the actress that is prominently displayed in the house. The portrait is said to have ‘captured the soul of a woman without one’.
The couple begin their research by watching old news footage of Lorna’s funeral and life, then interviewing some of her surviving friends and associates. It becomes clear soon enough that Lorna earned her reputation as a soulless and vain manipulator as few friends have anything good to say. The investigation also turns up links to witchcraft, which it was rumored Lorna was trying to use to keep her beauty as she aged.
Joel and Donna soon begin to drift apart as they work on the book. Joel is becoming more and more obsessed with the late actress and Donna is becoming more fearful. Donna’s fears appear well-founded as an ominous black robed figure locks her in the bathroom with an open gas line, clearly out to murder her.
Joel dismisses the incident as an accident and refuses to leave the estate. He begins experiencing strange, lucid dreams in which he is his father during Joel Sr.’s tumultuous affair with Lorna. As these fantasies begin to replace reality for Joel, Donna struggles to uncover the truth behind Lorna Love before it’s too late.
Death at Love House clocks in at a fairly typical TV movie run time of just under 80 minutes. I bring that up because the film would have been better served by a shorter run time. The movie tries to walk the edge between being a ghost story and a thriller, but doesn’t quite work as either. The witchcraft angle comes up repeatedly, but it feels forced and not quite right with the way the story plays out. Wagner never really seems engaged in the role, looking bored even during some of the film’s few scenes of tension. Kate Jackson gives a solid performance as his distressed wife, but the pair don’t make for a convincing couple overall. One bright spot is the film features numerous Hollywood legends including John Carradine and Dorothy Lamour. Otherwise, it’s a film worth seeing for the esthetics of the mansion where it is set and little else. So if you’re nostalgic for some 70s made-for-TV entertainment check out Death at Love House. Otherwise, don’t disturb this one’s eternal rest.