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, writing notes, making peace with angry cousins, being strangled by Karloff (back from the dead) or having sadomasochistic fantasies (how very British!)
The grand guignol moment is when Boris carves a bloody ankh symbol on his bony chest, cut from many prints, and for that and other things THE GHOUL would make a fine, weird double bill with the original MUMMY (1932), and possibly even stole its props. 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...
THE CAT AND THE CANARY
1939 - ****
Director Elliot Nugent keeps a creepy wind on the soundtrack, and the outdoors around the house is a big swampy soundstage rather than bringing the mood down with drab outdoor footage, and the secret panel-to-the-small-garden-hut climax conjures the expressionist shadows of Cabinet of Caligari, replete with the maniac's dramatic posturing. And the rest of the cast is sublime for fans of the genre: 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; Hope reunited with them both when they played his Nazi pursuers three years later in My Favorite Blonde. Cat and the Canary was a big enough hit that Goddard reunited with Hope in The Ghost Breakers which has more supernatural elements than their original pairing and is generally considered the better film, but man, there's something about the Cat. Hope doesn't know yet just how great he is, but Nugent does, and the atmosphere is electric.
THE MONSTER WALKS
1932 - *1/2
An old creep in a wheelchair living alone (aside from servants) in a big old dark house? Check. Ape in a cage in the basement? Check. 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? Man, that's depressing in its offhand illumination of social injustice, and that's not what old dark house films should be. Willie Best furthers the social injustice angle as the shuffling, uber-cowardly stereotype chauffeur to the bland honky hero. Ape man hands coming out of the wall to strangle blonde poseur to the fortune put 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 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 sugar now dwindled to an early morning frost on the window shudder no amount of hot coffee can allay.
THE OLD DARK HOUSE
1932 - ****
The stranded travelers include: Charles Laughton as a blustery captain of industry; Lillian Bond as his chorus girl traveling 'ahem' companion; Melvyn Douglas as the cheerful forgotten man; Stuart and her taciturn husband Raymond Massey as Mel's sophisticated, supportive married 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). "No beds!" shouts Rebecca. "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 after dinner - 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.
THE BLACK RAVEN
1943 - ***1/2
Special shout-out to Verdoux! - it seems to contain the same eerie alchemical magick as celluloid itself!