AVAILABLE ON DVD
RUNNING TIME: 86 min/ 78 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Tom Penderel, an American car salesman in London, delivers a car to an old mansion in Dartmoor and discovers that his eccentric former roommate, Casper Femm, is dead. The car is damaged by a falling statue in a raging storm, and Tom is invited to stay at the house by members of Casper’s family, who comprise his twin brother Jasper, his nieces the demure Cecily and the seductive Morgana, his aunt Agatha, his uncles Roderick and Potiphar who has been building an ark in anticipation of another great flood, and Morgan’s mute father Morgan. Each of the relatives is required to return to the mansion before midnight each evening or forfeit his share of the family fortune. During the night, another of the Femm family is found dead….
I’ve been praising many of these Hammer films a great deal, and am in some cases finding even more to enjoy and admire in certain movies than I did when I was a youngster and first discovering them. However, The Old Dark House, which definitely qualifies for a full length review, is a major failure, a mostly laboured horror spoof that isn’t very funny or clever, and isn’t very scary or exciting. Even if there wasn’t the very fine 1932 version of J. B. Priestley’s novel [which was also far closer to it – this version bares hardly any resemblance to the book aside from some similar names and another mute guy called Morgan and plays more like a combination of The Addams Family and And Then There Were None], this sometimes genuinely dreary movie still wouldn’t seem much good. It’s hard to explain why it went so wrong, except that the teaming of Hammer with American producer/director/writer William Castle was a match that just didn’t work, and that comedy was just not Hammer’s thing, but this was certainly the kind of film that Castle should have been able to easily pull off. Of course there are a few saving graces, notably some good performances which actually seem to belong in a different and much better movie, and the plot is decently enough handled to make the revelation of the killer a genuine surprise, but it’s not enough to save a film which, in its first half at least, I struggled to get through, and I never thought I’d say that about a Hammer picture!
Hammer planned to remake The Old Dark House in 1961 for Universal, then for Columbia in 1962, only to find that Castle, famous for his crazy gimmicks that made films such as The Tingler and Homicidal such hits, intended to make his own version. Hammer and Castle decided to join forces to make a much more comedic picture than Hammer certainly tended to make. The impressive cast, none of whom were Hammer regulars, included Robert Morley, who would bribe long time acting companion Peter Bull for his lines as he thought they were better. Boris Karloff, who was in the 1932 version, turned down a part in this due to the comedy outweighing the horror. The film was shot at Bray and nearby Oakley Court with brief inserts at London’s Embankment. The American version was uncut but, for some reason, in black and white. For the UK release, Hammer couldn’t decide on a rating, initially wanting a ‘U’ certificate, but the cuts requested by the BBFC, including removing every shot of a corpse, would have the film unintelligible. An ‘X’ version was considered and even advertised until an ‘A’ rated cut was finally prepared which lost most of the horror content but also some dialogue scenes and was released in 1966 double billed with Western Big Deal At Dodge City to very poor reviews and worse box office, meaning that a proposed second collaboration with Castle entitled Too Many Ghosts never happened.
The opening title drawings by Charles Addams [whose art was much inspired by the 1932 version] of things like spiders, eyes and – of course – an old dark house, get the film off to a good start [he even signs his name in a werewolf glove] and, along with Benjamin Frankel’s mocking music, suggest that we are in for an hour and a half of good chills and chuckles, though that soon turns out to not really be the case. Our hero Tom drives the car which he’s just sold to Casper Femm to the country house where Casper goes home to every night and the car gets progressively dirtier and eventually terribly damaged. Pretty funny ay? Tom then falls through a trapdoor when he tries to ring the doorbell, a gag that is later repeated twice. Considering that I’ll even laugh at things like Carry On Screaming, and even though I certainly didn’t expect the sly, dry wit of James Whale’s classic, I was astonished how little I was laughing during this movie, except for a scene of unintentional hilarity when Tom, dreaming of Morgana, awakes to find himself stroking what is supposedly a hyena, only the camera shots from the front clearly show it’s a stuffed hyena while the rear shots are a dog! I’m sure with even Hammer’s limited budget they could have done something better!
Meanwhile on the horror side there’s precious little atmosphere, and certainly no frights, which is very disappointing considering that, judging by Homicidal, Castle could pull off good scare moments when he wanted to, though the way the corpses keep popping up provide a few surprises. We are kept guessing as to who the killer is, while the ‘romantic ‘ subplot of Tom getting amorous attention by the two sisters Cecily and Morgana certainly doesn’t play out as expected. When Potiphar is found to be hoarding loads of animals in a new version of Noah’s ark because he thinks that the constant rain is leading up to another great flood, Agatha says that she’s knitted 150 miles of wool and wonders how the world would be able to carry on without her efforts, and Tom imagines that a seal has Morgana’s head, the film threatens to get quite ‘out there’ but, despite a game cast, it lacks the light and imaginative touch to make it work. A big climactic slapstick brawl isn’t done with the skill to carry it off and the ending just seems like a throwaway moment because they couldn’t decide how to finish the movie, though by this time I would have hardly expected it to end in a good way.
A comment about a death by needles and a later death that we actually see where someone goes to get a gun out of a cupboard – only to be shot by it – do hint at the movie that could have been, and there’s a genuinely surprising bit involving a bowl of acid where Tom accidentally dissolves his tie. Actually – come to think of it – there’s also a good follow-up moment later on when, presented with another bowl, Tom dips his tie in it to check it’s actually got water in it and is asked: “Is that an English custom? I like it” – but for the most part the laughs and the scares just fail to materialise. With The Old Dark House, very little jells and the film never takes flight. Bernard Robinson does his usual magic with the sets, but the bright, slightly plush approach he and cinematographer Arthur Grant adopt, which works for many of the more conventional Hammer horrors, doesn’t really seem appropriate for this one, which would have surely benefited from a darker, sparser look. Meanwhile Castle’s direction is just bland and lacking in discernable style, as if he wasn’t trying very hard with this film, though I’m not sure if even somebody like Terence Fisher would have been able to do much with the material which really needed some serious rewriting, despite the sometimes decent plotting, to give it some zest and not just sit there doing not very much in particular.
The best thing about The Old Dark House is its cast who appear to be having a good amount of fun onscreen even if some of the eccentric characters just don’t have enough to do. I bet the jokes told on set were funnier than anything in the script. Tom Poston’s breezy, snarky persona is entirely appropriate for the role of Tom, it’s always fun to see Robert Morley, especially with his knack for making the dullest of lines sound interesting, and Peter Bull looks amusingly half dead in both of his parts. Even Janette Scott and an unforgettably slinky Fenella Fielding do well as the two female leads. Bemjamin Frankel’s score eventually brings some of the murkier elements from his great The Curse Of The Werewolf effort, and the composer does his best to enhance both the humorous and the macabre aspects, though there’s not much there to actually enhance and the score ends up overly dominating the film, sometimes providing annoying ‘comedy’ music even when nothing funny is occurring onscreen [which is most of the time]. The Old Dark House should perhaps be best considered a curio, but then again the act of watching it reveals little to actually be curious about. I don’t think either Castle nor Hammer knew what they really wanted to do with this movie and in the end just decided to wing it.