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, and the catacombs of m'mind: 

(1933) Dir. T. Hayes Hunter

British studio Gaumont's attempt to make a 1930s Universal horror reveals just how great Universal horrors were by contrast, especially when made with Karl Freund and James Whale nearby. At any rate, GHOUL used to exist only in fuzzy dupes (in this country at least) so it's nice there are finally coherent transfers/prints around, for the film is lovely and foggy and cozy as a cup of Earl Grey at a midnight foggy moor picnic which, as a few of the other entries here make clear, is not as easy to pull off as it seems. The all-star cast includes Ralph Richardson as a noisy parson (there must be a running joke in English dog-and-pony circles about nosy local vicars cycling from house to house to mooch drinks). Karloff stars and gets almost no lines as an eccentric, dying Egyptologist who spends 75,000 pounds on an emerald he thinks will bring him back from the dead. He's soon entombed to the strains of Wagner's immortal "Sigfried's Funeral March" but naturally the gem winds up bounced around the rest of the skulking cast, starting with Ernest Thesiger (Dr. Pretorious!) as a worried Christian butler, and Cedrick Hardwicke as 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, stealing said notes in the fog, making peace with angry cousins, being strangled by Karloff (back from the dead and in search of his expensive emerald) 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 skulks around nearly harming the ladies (he's really just after the gem and immortality) and the comic relief comes in the form of Katherine Harrison as the daft best friend of plucky heroine (Dorothy Hyson). Believe it or not, Anthony Bushell and Harold Huth steal the show as a bemused Arab and a square-jawed nephew, respectively, 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, sir! Pure 30s horror mood it is, with enough Worcester fog to carry it through if you lose track of who has the jewel, or where it's hid, or where everyone else is relative to everyone else on the grounds.

(1939) Dir. Elliot Nugent

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. It only came onto DVD recently, was never on VHS and hasn't been on TV ever, so if you don't remember it, there's a reason. The silent version is in public domain but who needs it when this one has Bob Hope in the perfect mix of romantic hero and scared goofball quipper as Wally Campbell. It was his first big role and his comedic timing is so sharp he actually heightens the suspense with his whistling in the dark style asides, double takes, and feints back and forth between courageous pose and truthful reveal of (understandable) fear; he puts all the other variations of this character to shame (and I mean you, Wallace Ford). He's also drawn a great leading lady in Paulette Godard, though it's clear that in the original she's a bit more frail and old-school kindness-of-strangers-dependent. Goddard seems way too modern to faint or drop a gun, and way too sane to believably be even remotely as out of her mind as her greedy relatives would like to believe. That's because the she's the sole heiress to her eccentric Uncle Cyrus Norman's bayou mansion, where an escaped maniac who calls himself 'The Cat' is prowling for victims, and where the disparate relatives are gathered for the midnight will reading, a cliche which really got its start with the play version of this, which underwrites not just this film but the entirety of the genre.

So much that could go so very wrong goes just as right instead in the hands of director Elliot Nugent. He keeps the shadows alive and makes sure a creepy wind sound accompanies the fine Enrst Toch score (which never gets cutesy, just creepy). The outdoors around the house is a big swampy fog-bound soundstage rather than drab outdoor footage, which earns it a high mark; the secret panel-to-the-small-garden-hut climax conjures the expressionist shadows of Cabinet of Caligari, replete with the maniac's dramatic posturing - very high mark. What a cast! George Zucco reads the will and is the first to get murdered; Gale Sondergaard is the Creole housekeeper in tune with the mysterious chimes and 'murmurs' of the old house; and nobody sings or titters like an imbecile, not even cousin Cecily and she has to hold her finger under her nose to keep from screaming. Top marks. It was such a perfect lightning bolt synergy of style, substance, and cast chemistry that Hope reunited with Sondergaard and Zucco when they played his Nazi pursuers three years later in My Favorite Blonde and he reunited one year later with Goddard in The Ghost Breakers which has more supernatural elements than Cat and is generally considered the better film, but man, I'll take them both. It's still early in his career enough that Hope doesn't know yet just how great he is, but Nugent does, and the atmosphere is electric. Dragging my canoe behind me!

(1932) Dir. Frank Strayer

This creaky Frank Strayer riff seems recorded on the kind of early sound equipment that was outmoded by 1930. The air is thick with burbling hiss like everyone is underwater (which I like). It's got most of the boxes filled:  big old dark house with a rich dead patriarch? Check.  The will read and an absentee girl heir (the compact Vera Reynolds) breezes in to collect the millions? Check. Ape in a cage in the basement? Check. Willie Best as a frightened chauffeur? Check. But we also get 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. Not even hairy hands coming out of the wall can remedy the social injustice and animal cruelty (the ape, named Yogi, is a real ape instead of a guy in gorilla suit) that lingers in the air while the typical Cat and Canary will-reading resentment simmers and the camera keeps its static distance.

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. Despite the unpleasant angles, the unconvincing 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. Take it from me. "I have a premonition something's going to happen! Something horrible!" Vera says while the painting behind her slowly turns crooked so someone can spy on her. Her dumb boyfriend doctor (Rex Lease) tells her she needs something for her nerves, but then just kisses her. Dude! You should have got the tranquilizer! Then the old creep in the wheelchair tells her she should take one, too. And then the doctor goes to get her one after the ape hand incident and she still won't take it ("perhaps I won't need it"). Ugh.

Still in a movie this slow and strange it's the little things. "Nobody's going to steal their money," snarls bitter Mischa after his mom tells him to bolt the doors and windows. "It's not here." Best gets the last laugh: when he's on the floor panicking because the mouth on the polar bear rug has caught his slipper (he thinks it's "Mr. Yogurt") he seems about as afraid and engaged as if he's reading the script to himself while falling asleep. Vera is such an idiot she won't believe who the killer is, even when he's openly trying to kill her.

(1932) Dir. James Whale

The great 'lost' Universal horror of 1932. I longed to see it ever since I was a kid reading about it in my Creature Features guide, but it was all but lost thanks to the habit of destroying older versions when remakes came out (not that the remake resembled the original in anything but name/s). Then Kino came to the rescue via a restored, lone surviving print (discovered through the perseverance of Curtis Harrington), and co-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! True story!

Not an old dark house movie, Old Dark House is not even really a horror movie or a comedy, but a James Whale movie. As such, it's a combination of many atmospheric, very British elements that don't come together until numerous viewings over decades help the various medicines buried in its flavor tapestry kick in. Getting older, we come to understand the 'that's fine stuff' rant by Rebecca Femm (Eva Moore) to Gloria Stuart, and how it leads to her reflection like that of a skull in the mirror; or the resemblance Rebecca has to a photo of Queen Victoria by her mirror; the general nicety and British crust of Horace Femm (Ernest Thesiger) who "likes gin" (and would still be drinking it a few years later in Whale's Bride of Frankenstein), the way the alcohol passed around by the roaring hearth gives you a feel of being there and feeling the warmth of the cinematic image like that same fire; the honest romance between lost generation lad Melvyn Dougas and Bill's (Charles Laughton) traveling companion Perkins (Lillian Bond); their arrival like a daft breath of fresh working class air in the middle of a stiff dinner, lightening the rich yobbo dryness against which the merry Melvyn Douglas hurls himself like a kid fighting waves on the beach. Karloff as the mute butler portrays the end point of madness and the beginning point of savagery; Laughton becomes the backbone of Britain; the late inning introduction of Roderick Femm--played by the elderly real life old lady of the stage Elspeth Dudgeon --provides a welcome bit of contextualization, change of scene and foreshadowing. And then, in a rage Morgan releases Saul (Brember Willis- the hermit from Bride) who is hopelessly, violently insane... See it 30 times, 300, it's still not enough... my friend.

(1943) Dir. Sam Newfield

When I'm having a travel-induced panic attack, THE BLACK RAVEN is my go-to source of solace. I really respond to the cozy fireplaces, howling wind, torrential rain, muffled dialogue, and the sense of conspiratorial cool amongst the more criminal guests (they all sign the register as 'John Smith'). It all takes place--like the best old dark house films--over one 'dark and stormy' night, beginning as guests learn the bridge is washed out in their rain slashed cars and ending when the rain stops at dawn. Padding around the waterlogged cardboard sets in his robe and slippers, Zucco's great as the enigmatic retired criminal who now runs a small inn (named the Black Raven) just this side of the Canadian border. No actual ravens or border-crossings appear in this film--too rainy--but Glenn Strange is the idiot manservant and the wondrously dour Charles "Ming" Middleton is the clueless sheriff. A suitcase of embezzled cash results in murder; a corrupt politico tries to break up his daughter's newlywed marriage; and an escaped crook is out to settle an old score with Zucco. An eloping young couple try and stay out of the way. Make sure to get the best available edition as there's lots of crappy public domain editions wherein everything is too dark and muffled. (Roan Group's 'Black and Blue' set that includes Ulmer's Bluebeard and Bela's great, incoherent Black Dragons is the best so far, and highly recommended). Your mileage may vary, but for my dark and stormy night PRC 40s money, it's Black Raven all the way.

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


  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?

  2. Re The Ghoul, the actress was actually Kathleen Harrison, a prolfic British actress of radio, film and television who was eventually given her own tv series in the late 1960's, 'Mrs Thursday' she lived unti she was 103 years old and is still remembered with great fondness by the 'older' generation.


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