Wednesday, December 30, 2009
THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1963)
RATING: 1 & 3/4 out of ****
PLOT: Tom (Tom Poston), an American car salesman in London, has an odd living arrangement with his friend Casper (Peter Bull). The pair share a flat, which Casper uses by day and Tom uses by night. When Tom sells Casper a car, Casper requests that Tom bring it to his family’s mansion, where Casper spends his evenings. Tom arrives at the estate to find Casper dead and sharing the home with his very eccentric family. The array of oddballs includes Casper’s twin brother Jasper (also Peter Bull), who loves his orchids; ever-knitting Aunt Agatha (Joyce Grenfell), Petiphar (Mervyn Johns), who has a preoccupation of (literally) biblical proportions; man-crazy vamp Morgana (Fenella Fielding); and Uncle Roderick (Robert Morley), who’s obsessed with guns. Also on hand are Cecily (Janette Scott), a rather normal girl in the midst of the chaos; and Morgan (Danny Green), the mute father of Morgana who disapproves of all her boyfriends. It is soon revealed that the great, great ancestor of the family was Morgan the Pirate, and he left a very peculiar will: If any member of the family refuses to live in the house, they lose their inheritance. If any member of the family gets home after midnight (on any night), they lose their inheritance. Last but not least, the inheritance goes to the house – if the house dies, then the survivors can divide the inheritance. Tom asks why they don’t just burn the house down, but is told “you can’t burn stone.” Tom has one odd encounter after another with the bizarre family, and when they start dying off one-by-one, some try to put the blame on Tom. But Tom is determined to survive at any cost… and he may just find the real culprit in the process!
REVIEW: This is a co-production between American William Castle and England’s Hammer Films. While the focus of this Scared Silly project is to cover American films only, I’ve decided to include this film due to the Castle connection (Castle being the writer-producer-director of several highly entertaining, tongue-in-cheek horror films legendary for the ballyhoo gimmicks he devised to promote them), the inclusion of American comic actor Tom Poston who plays the lead role and of course, the fact that it is based on James Whales’ 1932 Hollywood classic of the same name, one of the “template” films that influenced so many horror-comedies to come.
Having said that, despite the fact that this 1963 film shares the title, some character surnames and of course an old dark house with the original, this isn’t a proper remake, but rather a reimagining filtered through a satirical lens. The original film had its share of humor of course, but the tone was clearly one of eerie suspense and dread, with the laughs coming in the form of black comedy, irony and comic relief at best. With Poston leading the way, the tone of the revamp is decidedly comedic, the same way Hugh Herbert’s presence in “The Black Cat” tipped the scales of that film from the horror film with comedy relief that it could have been to the outright horror comedy it ended up being. Poston is aided in the task by several legendary British performers who excelled at comedy, including Robert Morley, Peter Bull and Fenella Fielding.
Before Poston and the others are even on screen, the viewer is clued in to the firmly comic nature of this film, as the opening credits unfold with spooky music that takes many goofy and silly turns, and a portrait of the Addams Family mansion… drawn by cartoonist/Addams Family creator Chas Addams himself! This bit of whimsy is made more so by the fact that the hand scrawling Addams’ signature is a hairy, monsterly thing indeed. A decade and change later Addams would once again provide cartoons for the opening of another spooky comedy-mystery, Neil Simon’s “Murder By Death.”
Further cementing this film’s comedy credentials are these tidbits from the “Trivia” section of the film’s Internet Movie Database listing: allegedly, Boris Karloff was offered a chance to reprise his role from the original but declined as he felt the remake’s script was too comedic in tone; and Charles Addams’ whole horror-comedy cartooning career was reportedly inspired by the orjginal film, hence his involvement here.
Given all that, I can only wonder whether the only person who didn’t get the memo that this was supposed to be a comedy was screenwriter Robert Dillon, because even though the tone is more merry than macabre, the actual laughs are few and far between. And that’s quite a shame, because the cast is really in there pitching. Poston is likeably comic while his English co-stars alternate between broad and droll, but it is all for naught due to the script. In fact, not only isn’t there much comedy in the screenplay; there aren’t many real scares, either. That the performances remain engaging despite the weak script is nothing short of a miracle, and testament to both the actors and director Castle.
The film gets off to a promising start but a few minutes in practically screeches to a halt. When Tom arrives at the mansion, he lifts the door knocker, which sends him down a trap door into the basement, where he sees a row of upright coffins wrapped in packing paper. He is then greeted by his friend Casper’s shotgun-wielding uncle…. who promptly takes him into a room here Casper’s lifeless body lies in a coffin! Then the odd characters are paraded in one by one and the perfunctory plot devices such as the will and its conditions are introduced… followed by the odd characters getting bumped off one by one. It all reads much better on paper than it plays out on screen, alas.
While I think the major problem lies with the script, part of the issue is the fact that the film IS a Hammer co-production, with their elaborate sets and locations, stately pace and vibrant colors. I think this movie would actually have benefitted more from being a typical low-budget, creepy black and white production along the lines of “House on Haunted Hill,” the William Castle film it most echoes. Sure it has its share of thunderstorms, mysterious voices out of nowhere (which turn out to be a reel-to-reel tape planted by the culprit), acid baths, mounted animal heads and rusty suits of armor, but I can’t help but imagine how much creepier these elements would have been without the perfect Technicolor sheen. Give me that dilapidated, shadow-filled black and white grit any day!
Getting back to the script, it seems Robert Dillon really wanted to see how “odd” he could make the script within the parameters of the producers’ expectations for the film. There are so many weird (but not particularly funny) touches in the screenplay that I wonder if he would have been more at home making a truly adult and disturbing black comedy such as Jack Hill’s “Spider Baby.” But this was never supposed to be “Spider Baby” – it was supposed to be a comedic take-off on a horror classic.
Three completely odd sequences stand out. Actually, they can almost be considered a whole, but I’ll break them down into three scenes for the full effect.
First is a scene where a giant hyena ends up in bed with Poston. The only thing scary about it are the bad special effects. The rear of the creature is clearly a sheepdog’s behind, while the close-ups of its face look alternately like a fox and a Jack Russell terrier. And then there are those times where it just looks like a stuffed taxidermist dummy that the best boy is shaking off-camera.
This wacko sequence leads directly into the film’s single most unique character reveal (actually a non-sequiter): Old Petiphar is convinced the world is ending and is building an ark. As Petiphar, Mervyn John’s may be the best performance in the film, one of pure conviction, as he calmly explains his plan to Tom and encourages him to read the bible’s account of the great flood… and then reveals his giant ark in the backyard, loaded to the gills with animals. And while it is wacko, this may also be the most interesting part of the film… but since it involves neither comedy nor horror in the midst of a horror-comedy, that’s a rather dubious endorsement. Actually, there is a tiny bit of comedy in the sequence when Petiphar reveals he’s included a special room for Tom and Morgana on the ark… so they can repopulate the earth!
This in turn leads to a bizarre scene where Poston imagines a seal with the head of Morgana! Finally, something truly (though unintentionally) scary in this film!
One nice touch in the film is that the family members all have eccentric hobbies. Casper is a big gambler, Jasper loves tending to his orchids, Agatha is a master knitter, Petiphar is devoted to building his ark, Morgana is dedicated to chasing men, and Roderick loves his guns. Most (but not all) end up getting killed in a way that somehow relates to their hobbies, a foreshadow of the black comedy elements in Vincent Price’s 1973 “Theater of Blood,” where the critics were bumped off by disgruntled Shakespearean actor Richard Lionheart in recreations of scenes from the plays they panned.
Unfortunately, the thought given to the characters’ hobbies and the interesting development of Petiphar’s character are the fleeting good elements in the film. Too much screen time is wasted with misfired jokes and gags, not to mention boring exposition. Case in point is a scene where Morgan chases Poston through the basement. It is meant to be comical in a slapsticky way but despite Poston making his funniest faces and getting into the physicality of the scene (such as unsuccessfully running over the scattered coals) the scene comes off forced due to the overdone musical accompaniment, a rousing piece falling somewhere between John Philip Sousa and Benny Hill. The script also forces Poston to get awkwardly tangled in ropes as if he’s going to hang, which also scuttles the scene. Alas, this scene is representative of the wrong turns the film too often takes.
The movie’s denouement will surprise some and be obvious for others. I won’t give away the murderer’s identity, although the previous sentence may be enough to do so. Once the killer and their plot is revealed Poston races through the house in an effort to save the day. Just as he succeeds in vanquishing the villain, the rain stops, leading Petiphar to exclaim that “It wasn’t the end of the world after all!” Unfortunately, it’s still not quite the end of the movie, either, as it insists on offering an awkward coda… and then abruptly ends!
Simply put, Tom Poston was one of the most engaging and creative comedic talents ever. Early in his career he became part of the stock company of players on the influential comedy variety show, “The Steve Allen Show,” appearing in many memorable sketches. Throughout his career Poston acted as the perfect second and third banana, adding just the right accent to many a comic scene. He did many guest-shots on episodic TV, with his role as villainous “Dr. Zharko” on “Get Smart” being a standout. His most memorable recurring roles in TV series would have to be playing Franklin Delano Bickley in “Mork & Mindy” and of course his most famous role as George Utley on “Newhart.”
Poston was supported in this film by a cast of British performers who have many memorable credits between them. Like the best of English actors, their resumes include many period pieces (including the requisite adaptations of Shakespeare, Dickens and Austen), children’s fantasies, comedies and horror films. Many of them even appeared in the same films. We don’t have space to mention all their great credits, so we will concentrate just on those that would be of most interest to horror-comedy fans.
Robert Morley could always be counted on to spice up any project with his larger-than-life (and very British) presence. He was often used in comedies and thrillers, playing rogues masquerading as men of regal bearing, pompous authority figures, tongue-in-cheek villains and the like. Notable credits include the Spencer Tracy/Katherine Hepburn classic "The African Queen," a bit in the Hope & Crosby “Road to Hong Kong,” a part in Jerry Lewis’ “Way Way Out,” the aforementioned “Theater of Blood” and the mystery-comedy, “Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?” Perhaps his most celebrated film is the cult black comedy “The Loved One.”
Peter Bull has the distinction of having appeared in several fondly remembered movies, including Hitchcock’s “Sabotage,” the Ealing Studios Alec Guiness starrer “The Lavender Hill Mob,” the Alastair Sim version of “Scrooge,” the aforementioned “The African Queen,” Benny Hill’s “Who Done It?,” plus a pair of Tom’s (“Tom Thumb” and “Tom Jones”) and a pair of doctors (“Dr. Strangelove” and “Doctor Doolittle”).
Fenella Fielding had an unusual face and a smoky voice and when combined with her curves the result was one of England’s most sought-after comediennes. She played vamps and vixens in several movies and TV shows including a couple of entries in the famed “Carry On" movie series (including the horror comedy “Carry On Screaming”) as well as appearing as the villain in multiple seasons of the comedic British children’s series “Uncle Jack” (each season had its own title, such as “Uncle Jack and the Loch Ness Monster” and “Uncle Jack and Cleopatra’s Mummy”). She also was the voice coming out of the loudspeaker in several episodes of the cult classic TV show, “The Prisoner.”
Mervyn Johns often played reverends and priests. He appeared in “Scrooge” as Bob Cratchit as well as in the classic, “Moby Dick.” He also appeared in “The Magic Box,” a bio-pic of inventor/filmmaking pioneer William Friese-Greene, as well as the fantasy “The Oracle” and the revolutionary war comedy “The Devil’s Disciple,” the latter alongside Burt Lancaster, Laurence Olivier and Kirk Douglas. His biggest horror credit would have to be “The Day of the Triffids.”
Like Johns, Janette Scott also appeared in “The Magic Box,” “The Devil’s Disciple” and “The Day of the Triffids.” She played Cassandra in Robert Wise’s retelling of the Trojan war story from Homer’s Illiad, “Helen of Troy;” and her credits also include another go-round with a murderous family in the horrific suspense film “Paranoiac,” a tussle with Terry Thomas in the comedy "School for Scoundrels" and the role of a doctor in the apocalyptic sci-fi thriller “Crack in the World.”
Another alumni of “The Magic Box” was Joyce Grenfell. She appeared in Hitchcock’s crime drama “Stage Fright,” had a recurring role as policewoman Sergeant Ruby Gates in the “St. Trinian’s” comedy film series about a girls' boarding school and played the Storyteller in “Jackanory,” a TV series which presented Beatrix Potter tales.
All told, this really is a one star film; I'm being generous awarding an extra 3/4 star due to the talent involved. It’s a real shame this film falls flat as it presented a rare opportunity for the enormously talented and funny Poston to carry a project as the main protagonist, something he did previously in Castle’s “Zotz!” but not much if at all after “Old Dark House” (at least he got a nice trip to England for his troubles). In fact, this film is really a detour in the careers of all involved.
Perhaps the most accurate critical appraisal of this film came from director Castle himself. Not only didn’t he use any gimmicks in the film (perhaps that was the gimmick at that point of his career?), but he didn’t even mention it in his autobiography. And anyone familiar with Castle knows he was nothing if not a shameless carnival barker, especially when it came to blowing his own horn about his films.
BEST DIALOGUE EXCHANGES:
AUNT AGATHA (at dinner, describing the meal): It was Casper’s favorite! He’s not like the other one – the other one only eats raw things.
POSTON (when Cecily tells him to try to get some sleep): I’ll count corpses!
BEST GAGS: I’m afraid it doesn’t get much better than the trap door Poston falls through early in the film. And the film knows it because at the midway point he falls through it again. And then the very last sight gag of the film is… you guessed it, Tom Poston falling through the trap door AGAIN! The only variation is the second instance, when Poston falls through the trap door then tries to get to his feet, grabbing the handle on the furnace and releasing coals upon his head.
Another okay gag sequence has Poston carrying on a conversation with Jasper, not realizing he is dead… until the tape recording answers him.
SPOTTED IN THE CAST: John Harvey plays what amounts to a cameo as the receptionist at the casino in “Old Dark House,” but has quite the resume of comedy, horror, sci-fi and suspense credits, having also appeared in Hitchcock’s “Stage Fright” and Ralph Thomas' remake of “The 39 Steps,” six episodes of the “Doctor Who” TV show, the Peter Sellers crime comedy “The Wrong Arm of the Law,” plus many more including “X: the Unknown,” “Horrors of the Black Museum,” “RollerBall” and the legendary “Night of the Demon.”
BUY THE FILM: This film is part of a recently released box set called “William Castle Film Collection” DVD box set. It features eight movies directed by William Castle, including the famous films “13 Ghosts” and “Mr. Sardonicus,” the classic Vincent Price “Tingler,” the infamous “Homicidal” and the Joan Crawford starrer “Straight-jacket.” The must-see’s of the set are “The Tingler” and the documentary, “Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story,” which offers an affectionate overview of Castle’s career and a detailed analysis of the gimmicks he employed to promote those films. Unfortunately, the “must-miss” films are the two Poston starrers, “Zotz!” and “Old Dark House.” You can buy this box set here:
FURTHER READING: You can read noteworthy reviews at Dave Sindelar’s Fantastic Movie Musings and Ramblings as well as The Spinning Image site and Apocalypse Later. The Turner Classic Movies site also features an in-depth article on the film.
I was only able to find a black and white copy of this film’s trailer, which only proves my point that the color really detracted from this film. It features Castle’s penchant to cast himself in his trailers a la his idol, Alfred Hitchcock. Watch the trailer here:
BE SURE TO RETURN TOMORROW FOR A SPECIAL NEW YEAR’S EVE MESSAGE TO ALL SCARED SILLY FANS!