Sunday, May 20, 2012


MYTHICITY: (1) *poor*, (2) *fair*

I've a minor fondness for the "old dark house" films that were popular in America from the silent era until roughly the 1940s, though it's a given of the genre that they'll resort to somewhat superficial explanations of the weird events portrayed therein.  Earl Derr Biggers' SEVEN KEYS TO BALDPATE, which begat a play and several film adaptations, was one of the many of these quasi-Gothics.  Like Agatha Christie's ABC Murders, the story hinges on a gimmick that has been recycled not just in official adaptations but in many, many knockoff forms.  I imagine that by the time I saw any version of BALDPATE, I'd probably seen its gimmick in assorted telefilms or television shows.

That familiarity might be the main reason I didn't care for the 1929 BALDPATE, directed by silent-film veteran Reginald Barker, who would direct a sound version of Wilkie Collins' MOONSTONE a few years later.  Richard Dix plays a writer challenged to finish a novel at an isolated inn, the Baldpate, but his isolation ends when an assortment of characters gain entry to the inn and distract him from his purpose with their assorted melodramas.  Dix's role is fairly lightweight, and doesn't challenge him much, in contrast to his lead in 1925's THE VANISHING AMERICAN or his later psychotic performance in THE GHOST SHIP.  Barker maintains a light tone, as well, which made it even harder for me to invest much emotion in the film, given that I knew the Big Reveal: that all the intruders are actors hired to harass the writer for fairly dubious reasons.  Though there aren't any overly spooky moments in this version, and the actors supply a naturalistic explanation for the "weird-family" aspects of the story, I still categorize this as an uncanny film based on the Gothic concept of tricking a victim with the appearance of weirdness.

HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS, however, does a more credible job of conjuring up "phantasmal figurations" with its version of the Biggers story.  Director Pete Walker, who had gained his fame with violent shockers like 1972's THE FLESH AND BLOOD SHOW, evidently decided to go in the opposite direction for SHADOWS, emphasizing Gothic suspense with very little blood or violence.  This time the writer's played by Desi Arnaz Jr. in what proved to be one of his more solid performances.  Yet he was destined to be "overshadowed" (pun intended) by the film's casting of four famous horror-film stars: Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, and John Carradine.

Admittedly, Carradine has little to do and Cushing's role is largely comic (though very well played).  But Price and Lee, playing two brothers with a dark rivalry between them, get a few meatier scenes, particularly a climactic scene in which Lee appears to murder Price with a battle-axe.  Given the frustrations of the two other films in which Price and Lee co-starred, but had no substantive scenes together -- 1969's OBLONG BOX and 1970's SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN-- SHADOWS at least takes *some* advantage of teaming its horror-titans.  Because of this additional lagniappe-- and a mild smattering of phony gore-murders-- I found myself enjoying the creaky old Biggers plot.  SHADOWS, though it was Walker's final film, doesn't represent the director at his most characteristic, but based on my incomplete viewings of the Biggers adaptations, it's the best remodeling of This Old Dark House in my experience.\

ADDENDA 4-3-17:  I'm in the midst of re-evaluating my previous reckoning that BALDPATE is "uncanny" and will probably devote a "dissenting opinion" in a future post. However for my own purposes I will leave the above review in its original state.

No comments:

Post a Comment