Friday, October 28, 2011


Secret panels, stormy nights, dying heirs, hairy hands, Karloff, candles, lawyers; priceless mcguffins stolen from a dead man's watch pocket; maybe a coroner, woken up at this ungodly hour of the night; guys in ape suits for the medium shots, stock footage of a monkey for the close-ups; Bela Lugosi stuck playing a butler with barely any lines because the producers are worried about his morphine addiction; shrieking maids; bats; black cats; skulls on desks; conniving trophy wives everyone wants dead. What could be more Halloween-ish? It's the Old Dark House genre, basically forgotten today because there are no more old dark houses. Now they're either 'haunted' or long-since converted to apartments.

But if you've ever spent a weekend at a rich friend's mansion then you know how weird it can get: a late night trip to the bathroom after everyone else has gone to bed can be a terrifying, surreal nocturnal journey ala THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER river trip. The walls are so thick that if someone were screaming for help downstairs in the study you'd never even hear them, or be able to find them.

And no longer can eccentric millionaire uncles just caper down to Egypt and help themselves to whatever cursed, ancient artifacts they care to dig for. The colonialist yard sale is closed! But the films, thank Ra, remain open! Here's five I know like the back of m'hand: 

1933 - ***
British studio Gaumont's attempt to make a 1930s Universal horror reveals just how great Universal horrors were by contrast. At any rate, GHOUL's foggy and cozy as a cup of Earl Grey at a midnight graveyard picnic. Karloff is an eccentric Egyptologist who spends 75,000 pounds on an emerald he thinks will bring him back from the dead. He dies soon after and is entombed to the strains of Wagner's immortal "Sigfried's Funeral March" but apparently without the gem. Soon thereafter a cast of skulking emerald seekers materialize out of the fog including Ernest Thesiger (Dr. Pretorious!) and a grumpy Dickensian lawyer who employs rather elaborate strings of words like "I intend to grant myself the pleasure of calling on her this evening." They're all either looking for the emerald, stealing it from someone else, having sadomasochistic fantasies (how very British!), writing notes, making peace with angry cousins, or being strangled by a Karloff back from the dead!

The grand guignol moment is when Boris carves a bloody ankh symbol on his bony chest, cut from many prints. Overall THE GHOUL would make a fine, weird double bill with the original MUMMY (1932), and possibly even stole its props, but alas, like so many British-Egyptian Museum horrors of the era all the supernatural elements must be conveniently explained away by film's end. One mustn't leave the queen's subjects thinking such things are true, you know... a gullible lot they are, I'm afraid, sir. That's not to say this jewel still isn't a little loose in its setting, if you know what I mean, guv. Say no more...

1939 - ****
My favorite Bob Hope movie! I've seen it 1,000 times! Dragging my canoe behind me! I taped it off 'Spotlight' in 1980 and, in some ways, I'm still watching it. Bob Hope is the perfect mix of romantic hero and scared goofball quipper as Wally Campbell. The leading lady is Paulette Godard, who turns out to be the sole heiress to her eccentric Uncle Cyrus Norman's estate, which is an old house way out on le bayou, where an escaped maniac who calls himself 'The Cat' is prowling for victims. Guest must take canoes to get to the mansion, and Hope's stoic creole paddler has already heard Hope's jokes "last year... Jack Benny Program."

George Zucco reads the will and is the first to get murdered. Gale Sondergaard is the housekeeper in tune with the mysterious chimes and 'murmurs' of the old house. The other relatives all play up the notion Paulette is insane (she keeps seeing hands come out of walls) but it's mainly so they can lay claim to the fortune, thanks to the sanity clause, and don't tell me there ain't no Sanity Clause because if there's one movie I've seen even more times than CAT it's NIGHT AT THE OPERA (I taped it off Prism).

You lucky stiffs, Uncle Cyrus' ghost must be holding bank night because CAT AND THE CANARY has been restored on DVD and glows like never before so you don't have to put up with my olde dupe which I once would have been happy to dupe for you in exchange for REMEMBER LAST NIGHT? Now it's available in that Thanks for the Memories - Bob Hope DVD set, which is a must even if you already have ROAD TO MOROCCO and GHOST BREAKERS (which everyone says is better than CAT, but I disagree. CAT is the shit!).

1932 - *1/2
An old creep in a wheelchair with a big old dark house? Check. Ape in a cage in the basement? Affirmative. Mischa Auer as the illegitimate son of the old creep in the wheelchair and the maid, angry he's denied any of the family fortune after all the hours he's slaved for that old man? Check but ick, now it's depressing in its offhand illumination of social injustice. Willie Best furthers the social injustice angle as the shuffling, uber-cowardly stereotype chauffer to the bland honky hero. Ape man hands coming out of the wall to strangle blonde poseur to the fortune are cool, but not enough. It puts the 'ugh' back in enough.

I know the Leonard Maltin review by heart: "Willie bests Mischa for laughs, but it's a close race." Lenny, you're my racist wheelchair-bound true father who taught me to write like a subliminal weisenheimer. Still, the stormy night-rattling-sheet metal makes it nice to fall asleep to as the sun comes up on another frosty November 1st, your blood levels of alcohol, ecstasy, nicotine, and candy now dwindled to a shudder no amount of coffee can allay.

1932 - ****
I had such high hopes for this film, the 'lost' Universal horror of 1932. For decades it was a holy grail for Universal horror nuts like me. Old VHS copies were nth generation dupes, horrifically murky. Then Kino came to the rescue via a restored, lone surviving print, and its star Gloria Stuart even did an audio commentary for the laserdisc! I never had a laserdisc player, but James Cameron did, loved the commentary and that's how she came to narrate TITANIC! It's awesome to hear this no-nonsense 1932 starlet tell you about shooting in the rain with James Whale and Boris Karloff and putting up with a cast of intellectual thespian Brit eccentrics and their clique-ish tea rituals, as meanwhile the shots all go down smooth as a Knobb Creek skinny dip... death where is thy sting?

The stranded travelers include: Charles Laughton as a blustery captain of industry; Lillian Bond as his chorus girl traveling 'ahem' companion; Melvyn Douglas the cheerful forgotten man; Stuart and her taciturn husband Raymond Massey as Mel's sophisticated, supportive friends. The old dark's residents include: Ernest Thesiger ("Dr. Pretorious again, sir!") as the brother of the bitchy no-nonsense, no-teeth old pious Christian woman Rebecca Fem (Eva Moore), who shouts "No beds! They can't have beds!" Decent old Thesiger lets them park it by the fire anyway, and even busts out his secret stash of gin - much to his pious sister's disapproval. Karloff is a bit underused as the  violent, scarred, mute, horny, and exceedingly drunken butler ("a night like this could set him off!"), he'd have been great as Saul... not that... oops, four o-clock! Break for tea, everyone!  Sorry Gloria,  intellectual thespian Brit eccentrics only... there's a dear.

1943 - ***
When I'm having a travel-induced panic attack this is my go-to PRC for nonstop black-and-white storms,  muffled dialogue, and George Zucco's silken voice all serving to make things extra cozy, and it all takes place--as do all the best old dark house films--over one wild-ass crazy 'dark and stormy' night, ending as the sun comes up. Zucco plays a kind of posh Moriarty-ish version of the Dude from Big Liebowski, moving around the waterlogged cardboard sets in his robe and slippers. He's the titular Raven, a retired criminal par excellence who now runs a small inn which he uses as a front for an operation that ferries criminals over the Canadian border. No actual ravens appear in this film, but Glenn Strange is the idiot manservant and Charles "Ming" Middleton is the dour but clueless sheriff. An assortment of would-be border-jumpers check in because the bridge is washed out; a suitcase of embezzled cash changes hands, corpses accrue and if you're me, a dark part of you really responds to the killer's climactic rant against smelly garlic-eating working class bus commuters! Make sure to get the best available edition as there's lots of crappy public domain copies out there where everything is too dark and and half the dialogue is hopelessly muffled. Though if you get a little dark and muffled yourself tonight, you just may not notice... a night like this could set him off! Hmmm?

Special shout-out to Verdoux! - it seems to contain the same eerie alchemical magick as celluloid itself!

1 comment:

  1. The only one I've these I've seen is The Old Dark House, rather recently, but I loved it (and just wrote it up last week:

    What's your take on the silent Cat and Canary vs. this version?