Famed British novelist and playwright J.B. Priestley (born on this day ninety-nine years ago) published twenty-six novels before his passing in 1984, most importantly The Good Companions and An Inspector Calls. After military service he attended university and, by the age of thirty, had established himself as a critic with a humorous bent. The film rights to his second novel Benighted (published 1927) were purchased by Hollywood director James Whale and quickly rewritten by R.C. Sherriff and Ben Levy, changing the title to The Old Dark House (1932). Starring Boris Karloff, Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton, Ernest Thesiger, Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart, the film was largely ignored by American film-goers despite the presence of so many terrific actors, but it was a huge hit in Europe – then it disappeared. For three decades it was considered a lost film, the ‘Holy Grail’ of Gothic horror films.
It was about this time that a lanky twenty-three year old film-fan named William Castle went to Hollywood looking for a way in to the industry, and was soon hired by producer Harry Cohn at Columbia Pictures, who was impressed with his outgoing personality. By 1943 Castle was promoted to director of inexpensive B-grade films like The Chance Of A Lifetime (1943) and four of the eight mysteries in The Whistler (1944) franchise. Castle quickly gained a reputation for being able to make movies on schedule and under budget, but was not content to remain working for Columbia, so he started making his own independent productions. Inspired by the popularity of the French psychological thriller Les Diaboliques (1955), Castle mortgaged his house to finance his first film, Macabre (1958). With his first film came his first gimmick, a thousand-dollar life insurance policy against death by fright, with nurses in the lobbies with hearses outside the cinemas. Needless to say, Macabre was a box-office hit.
Other films followed, all with similarly outrageous gimmicks: House On Haunted Hill (1959) is the only film to be made with the quaint cinematic process known as Emergo, an early prototype of a truly holographic 3-D movie process that wouldn’t require the audience to wear silly glasses. Emergo was a simple motion path generator consisting of a skeleton on a wire. There’s a point in the film when the skeleton would be pushed out from the top of the screen along a wire above the heads of the audience, but they stopped it when kids kept shooting at the skeleton with BB guns and, in some neighbourhoods, Uzis. Castle wanted me to tour with the film, but that was during one of my busy periods. I was doing a season of Hamlet with John Gielgud at the time so, fortunately as it turns out, I declined.
The Tingler (1959) had cinema seats fitted with vibrating motors not unlike joy-buzzers. Thirteen Ghosts (1960) had hand-held ghost viewers that would reveal the ghosts utilising 3-D film technology. Homicidal (1961) had a Fright Break during which audience members could exit to the lobby and Coward’s Corner. Mister Sardonicus (1961) had a Punishment Poll during which the audience could decide the fate of the villain and, for Zotz! (1962), each ticket-buyer was given a replica ‘magic’ coin. Thirteen Frightened Girls! (1963) featured a highly-publicised international hunt for a baker’s dozen of the prettiest girls in the world. So it would seem odd that his next film, a remake of The Old Dark House (1963), would feature absolutely no gimmicks whatsoever. Castle wanted gimmicks, yes, but such marketing tomfoolery would not be tolerated by co-producer Anthony Hinds, the son of the founder of Hammer Films (in fact it was on his insistence that Hammer purchased the film rights to the Quatermass television serials, probably the most important decision in Hammer’s history).
As scripted by Robert Dillon, The Old Dark House concerns an American car salesman living in London named Tom Penderel (Tom Poston), who delivers a car to a spooky old mansion only to find out that his client Casper Femm (Peter Bull) has passed away. Tom is invited to stay at the Femm house by Casper’s nieces – the demure young Cecily (Janette Scott) and the seductive Morgana (Fenella Fielding) – and Uncle Potiphar (Mervyn Johns), who is apparently building an ark in preparation for another great flood. The relatives are required to stay at the dilapidated mansion every night or forfeit their share of the family fortune. During the dark and stormy night, one of the Femm family dies every hour. First Agatha (Joyce Grenfell) is discovered with her knitting needles stuck in her throat. Casper’s twin brother Jasper (Peter Bull again) is the next victim, followed by the head of the family Roderick (Robert Morley). Tom discovers that the killer is a woman and accuses Morgana, but then Cecily confesses, explaining that she wanted the entire family estate. She runs outside, and Tom finds out that Cecily has put timed explosives in all the clocks in the house. Literally racing against time, he frantically defuses each of the bombs and, with moments to spare, throws the last bomb out the window, exploding at Cecily’s feet.
With Zotz! (1962), Thirteen Frightened Girls! (1963) and The Old Dark House (1963), Castle took a break from horror and followed his first true love, comedy. After all, House On Haunted Hill (1959), The Tingler (1959) and Thirteen Ghosts (1960) were hardly serious horror films, and one can see why Castle was attracted to the material, as it bears a passing resemblance to the plot of House On Haunted Hill. Castle enjoyed black comedy but he always played it up a bit too much, which is why his horror films tend to be more successful. As a comedy, the humour in The Old Dark House is way too uneven with the laughs few-and-far between, although the opening credits are a highlight, drawn by none other than The Addams Family creator Charles Addams (he signs his name with a pen wielded by a monstrous claw). The slapstick humour is very American, and British wit is sorely lacking. As a horror film, there are one or two good scares, but the intended fright scenes lack sufficient punch. With a duration less than ninety minutes, you’ll still be looking at your watch waiting for it to end.
At least the cast is stellar, if not their dialogue. Lovable clumsy Tom Penderel is played by lovable clumsy Tom Poston, who has worked primarily in television comedy from The Steve Allen Show in 1950 through to The Suite Life Of Zack And Cody in 2006, appearing in over a hundred different television shows. Mel Brooks wanted him to play Maxwell Smart in Get Smart! but was replaced by Don Adams when NBC took over production. A longtime friend of comedian Bob Newhart, Tom appeared in all his sitcoms, imaginatively titled The Bob Newhart Show, Newhart, and Bob. “I really got hot when I saw Janette Scott fight a triffid that spits poison and kills!” Janette Scott, who plays Cecily Femm, started as a child actress, became a BBC announcer providing links for their children’s television programming, and developed into a popular leading lady with one of her best-known roles as April Smith in School For Scoundrels (1960). Her appearance in The Day Of The Triffids (1962) inspired the reference in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) song Science Fiction Double Feature.
Peter Bull, who plays both Casper and Jasper, was an old friend of Sir Alec Guinness who inspired him to go into acting. Best remembered for his performance as the Soviet Ambassador Alexi de Sadesky in Doctor Strangelove (1964) – next time you see the film keep an eye out (ow!) for him near the end, standing behind Strangelove and almost bursting with unintended laughter – Peter has appeared in almost a hundred television shows and movies, including Tom Jones (1963), Doctor Dolittle (1967), Yellowbeard (1983) and The African Queen (1951). Another veteran of The African Queen is Robert Morley, who plays Roderick Femm, the head of the family in The Old Dark House. With more wobbly chins than a Shanghai nightclub, Robert appeared in more than a hundred films including Marie Antoinette (1938), Beat The Devil (1953), Oscar Wilde (1960), A Study In Terror (1965), The Loved One (1965), Way Way Out (1966), Theatre Of Blood (1973), and Who Is Killing The Great Chefs Of Europe? (1978).
Did I mention that The Old Dark House stars not one, but two of my old ex-girlfriends? Two of the most delightfully bright wits ever to come out of the United Kingdom – male or female. Joyce Grenfell‘s comedic talents on stage during World War Two led to appearances in many films while continuing with her writing and recording, producing a number of books and albums. After starring in such films as The Happiest Days Of Your Life (1950) and The Belles Of St Trinian’s (1954) franchise, Joyce traveled to the United States to make several successful stage and television appearances, including The Ed Sullivan Show alongside young Elvis Presley. Joyce collaborated with composer William Blezard from 1954 to 1974 to produce dozens of stage shows and revues, writing music to accompany Joyce’s wonderfully witty songs and operettas, performing to sold-out houses throughout Britain, America and Australia.
Fenella Fielding, who plays Morgana, began her acting career in 1954, concentrating on stage theatrical productions and, by 1959, she was appearing alongside Kenneth Williams in the comedy revue Pieces Of Eight written by Peter Cook and Harold Pinter. Fenella was originally cast as Cathy Gale in The Avengers television series but was dropped when Goldfinger (1964) actress Honor Blackman became available. She appeared in both the ‘Carry On…’ and ‘Doctor…’ film franchises, performed William Shakespeare, Henrik Ibsen and Henry James on stage, and kept a copy of Plato’s Republic under her pillow. In fact you may have heard Fenella’s voice many times before but never realised it, as she played the voice of the Village announcer in the cult television series The Prisoner starring Patrick McGoohan. She’s voiced video games like Martian Gothic: Unification (2000), talking books written by J.G. Ballard and T.S. Eliot, and an album of songs covering artists like Robbie Williams, Kylie Minogue, New Order and The White Stripes. In 2006 Fenella toured Ireland in The Vagina Monologues and, in 2012, narrated the British sketch show Kookyville. That’s right folks, this one’s still alive! My favourite quote concerning Fenella comes from The Independent: “One of the mysteries of British life that Fenella Fielding – whose wit and distinctive stage presence captivated figures such as Kenneth Tynan, Noel Coward and Frederico Fellini – should have drifted into obscurity rather than being celebrated.”
In 1968 filmmaker Curtis Harrington found a print of the original version of The Old Dark House (1932) in the Universal Studio vaults and proceeded to restore it. With an opportunity for it to be reappraised, the critics raved. Ali Catterall: “Impressively atmospheric and hilariously grim.” Time Out: “Whale manages to parody the conventions of the dark house horror genre as he creates them, in which respect the film remains entirely modern.” Unfortunately, the remake was not as well-received by modern critics. Craig Butler: “When compared with the James Whale original upon which it is based, this remake of The Old Dark House is pretty sorry stuff.” Leslie Halliwell: “A travesty which has nothing to do with the 1932 film and possesses no merit of its own. The cast is left floundering.” Marcus Hearn: “One of the oddest pictures Hammer Film Productions ever made. Strangely endearing.” The good news is that you’re now able to decide for yourself! The Old Dark House (1963) was released on DVD in 2009 by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment as part of a William Castle Box Set but it seems that these editions are Region One only. Alternatively, Sony’s manufacture-on-demand service (Sony Pictures Choice Collection) now features titles never before seen on DVD gathered from more than seventy-five years of Columbia Pictures history, available from Amazon, TCM and the Warner Archive. It’s at this point I’ll make my farewells, but not before inviting you to please join me next week when I will take you even closer to the event horizon of that insatiable black hole known as Hollywoodland for…Horror News! Toodles!