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March 2013

The Old Dark House

cast: Tom Poston, Janette Scott, Fenella Fielding, Joyce Grenfell, and Robert Morley

director: William Castle

86 minutes (unrated) 1963
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Sony DVD Region 1

RATING: 5/10
review by J.C. Hartley

The Old Dark House

J.B. Priestley's 1927 novel Benighted, an allegory about post-WWI angst, was marketed in the USA as The Old Dark House, and subsequently filmed under the same title for Universal in 1932 by the great James Whale. Fairly faithful to the book, the film was a horror comedy, reunited Whale with Boris Karloff, and featured Charles Laughton in his first film role. The film also starred Ernest Thesiger who found lasting fame with horror fans as Dr Pretorius in Whale's The Bride Of Frankenstein, opposite Karloff, and Laughton's wife Elsa Lanchester.

Karloff and Thesiger also appeared in The Ghoul in 1933, another gothic spin on tormented families in creepy houses, a film later remade as the British comedy What A Carve Up (1961). A selection of random characters racking up at old dark houses is one of the great tropes of horror comedy. The 1922 play The Cat And The Canary by John Willard, with the reading of a will, a strange assortment of eccentric relatives, and a lunatic on the loose, spawned some seven film versions, including a Bob Hope vehicle in 1939, and a late made-for-TV effort Night Train To Murder (1983), starring Morecambe and Wise.

The storyline in this 1963 remake of the Universal original, concerns an American car salesman Tom Penderel based in England. Penederel is played by Tom Poston, who collaborated with Bob Newhart on American TV, was Mel Brooks' original choice for Maxwell Smart, and appeared in Mork & Mindy with Robin Williams. Penderel has a 'Box and Cox' arrangement over an apartment in London with wealthy gambler Casper Femm. Caspar uses the flat during the day; Tom uses the flat at night. Caspar buys an expensive American saloon car from Tom, and insists that the latter deliver it to the Femm ancestral home where Caspar must return every evening.

Penderel drives the car but is caught in a storm and then wrecks the vehicle in an accident with an ornamental lion at the gate of the Femm estate. Allowed into the house, Penderel meets the rest of the eccentric Femm clan, and hears of the curious ritual that binds them to the house each night. The Femms must spend every evening in the house or forgo their inheritance rights; unfortunately the Femms are being killed off. Tom discovers that his friend Caspar was a twin; Caspar is dead and twin Jasper (both played by Peter Bull from Dr Strangelove) will soon follow.

Tom falls for the pretty Cecily played by Janette Scott who won her genre credentials in films like The Day Of The Triffids (1962), Paranoiac (1963), and Crack In The World (1965). Tom is also pursued by the voluptuous Morgana, played to perfection by the wonderful Fenella Fielding. Also present are dotty Aunt Agatha (the perennially superb Joyce Grenfell), head of the family Roderick (Robert Morley, Go To Blazes), Morgana's mute and violently protective father Morgan, and Potiphar, building an Ark against the coming apocalypse. During the night the Femms are imaginatively killed off before the killer is revealed in a plot twist. Tom gets the girl as the flood waters rise.

A pleasantly inoffensive hour and a half's viewing, raised by the playing of the cast of British character actors. The film isn't very suspenseful but some of the deaths are original, Aunt Agatha is stabbed through the neck with her own knitting-needles! The twist is a good one too. A couple of other points (excuse the pun) make this minor outing of interest. It's a Hammer film, and the director is horror legend William Castle.

Castle gained notoriety, possibly apocryphal, from his imaginative gimmicks to entice audiences into theatres to see B-grade schlock horror movies in the United States. Insurance policies to indemnify Cinema owners against deaths in the audience from fright, vibrating motors placed under seats to replicate the attentions of The Tingler (1959), floating luminous skeletons and the like, all served to enhance the qualities of questionable material. However, Castle did have a nose for quality; he bought the rights to the Ira Levin novel, and was the producer of Rosemary's Baby (1968), still one of the greatest horror films ever made.

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