Saturday, October 10, 2015

THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1963)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological*

For a long time I disdained William Castle's 1963 remake of James Whale's same-titled film from 1932. It's true that director Castle and screenwriter Robert Dillon aren't in Whale's class as far as depicting weirdness and perversion, which is the main attraction of the original OLD DARK HOUSE. The focal characters in both films are the "Femm family,"a weird group of relatives living in a crumbling English mansion (Wales in 1932, Dartmoor in 1963). In Whale's hands the Femms are mad and potentially dangerous; in Castle's, most of them are a harmless bunch of English eccentrics. (I've no idea what they were like in J.B. Priestley's source-novel.)

Other changes abound. In the first film, a group of American travelers end up taking shelter from the elements at the Femm house. In the second film, there's just one American, Tom Penderel (played by Tom Poston in the second of two leading-man films he made with Castle in the early 1960s). Tom, rather than being a traveler, has been based in England for some time as a car salesman for an American company, and he's been rooming with an Englishman named Casper Femm. For reasons that are never entirely clear, Casper stage-manages things so that Tom ends up delivering a newly-purchased automobile to Femm House, little aware as what he's getting into.

Throughout his career Castle showed a penchant for gimmicky plots revolving around assassination, and so does this old HOUSE. Tom learns that the eccentric Femms are forced to live together by a bequest from their piratical ancestor, who predicted that they would have to stay together until the house was destroyed. In the 1932 film the house simply gets burned down. Since Femm House is built in a marshy area, one might wonder if Castle thought about giving the viewer some HOUSE OF USHER-like denouement. However,the prophecy turns out to be a no-show.

Tom unhappily discovers that in the time it took him to drive to Dartmoor, Casper Femm has been murdered and is lying in state in the mansion. Tom reluctantly agrees to stay the night, and the list of eccentricities is quickly reeled out: the eldest female in the family does a lot of knitting, another member thinks that the near-constant rain means that another Noah-level flood is on the way (he even builds an ark for the occasion), and Casper seems to come back to life-- except it's actually his twin brother, Jasper. The 1932 film had a ferocious, unspeaking butler named Morgan, but this time, Morgan's one of the family. He still doesn't speak (much) in this film, but he's constantly seeking to do Tom an injury for coming anywhere near his daughter Morgana. Morgana is one of two sexy young women-- the other, name of Cecilia-- whose charms encourage Tom to stick around. One of the Femms theorizes that Tom himself may be distantly related to the family based on a physical resemblance, and this is as close as one gets to an explanation for Casper's bringing Tom to this haunted house.

However, Tom soon learns that there are perils in being a Femm. His appearance for some reason sets off a killer within the brood; a killer who repeatedly knocks off other members of the family in order to clear the way to the inheritance. Nothing is said about why the killer waited until Tom's arrival to commit all these dirty deeds, or how the killer hoped to maintain the illusion of innocence once all the other inheritors were dead.  Tom, in typical American-slapstick style, is forced into the position of ferreting out and defeating the mystery murderer.

Though HOUSE isn't any sort of comic masterpiece, I found it blandly amusing on a recent re-watch. Perhaps once I abandoned any notion that the film was trying to be scary, or even creepy, the comedy was easier to take on its own silly terms. Poston is no Jerry Lewis, but he handles the slapstick reasonably well, and HOUSE is certainly better than the Castle-Dillon comedy-film released earlier the same year: 13 FRIGHTENED GIRLS.  About a year later Dillon scored much better with two beach-comedies for William Asher, but even in HOUSE one can see some of the forced antic-ness that dominated the Asher comedies. At one point, Tom gazes at a seal, one of the critters owned by the guy making his own ark-- and for some reason, Tom imagines the face of seductive Morgana superimposed on the head of the seal. I think the weirdness of that association beats out all of the fictional eccentricities of this particular Femm family.


4 comments:

  1. I saw the William Castle Old Dark House in the theater upon its initial release and enjoyed it immensely. It was like a British take on a Chas Addams cartoon. Loads of fun, an immensely likable Tom Poston in the lead, plus some fine (and in a couple of cases) cute supporting players. The house was nicely realized, well designed (real old dark house?,--possible).

    The plot twists were amusing to this at the time eleven year old, and when I saw it on television several years later it still held up, though this was one small scale black and white movie that really looked better on the big screen., where it draws the viewer into the action and suspense more effectively.

    As to comparing it to the supposedly "sublime' and "outrageous" 1932 James Whale original this is a (very rare for me) case of preferring the remake to the original. The print of the original is poor, and I've never seen a good one. The opening storm scenes on the back roads of Wales are nicely handled, the cast is more distinguished than one in the remake; but it's arch humor and dank atmosphere make its feel chilly. It could make me want to put on a sweater in mid August! The ending is, I suppose, better than the one in the remake, but aside from Ernest Thesiger most of the cast are not in top form.

    Overall, I rate James Whale a better director than William Castle by far, but they had at least one thing in common: their output was never consistently good. The quality of their films vary. Whale's films, the best of them, are way superior to Castle's but some of Castle's best work is better than Whale's worst.

    Good stuff on this blog, Gene, and by all means keep up the good work,


    John (aka Telegonus)

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  2. I wanted to review the Whale OLD DARK HOUSE as well, but couldn't lay hands on a copy for re-viewing. Just going on memory I don't think it's one of the stronger Whale vehicles. I only remember a small handful of images, rather than the whole story. Moreover, I've seen other "old dark house" films that I found more interesting.

    At least in this case Caste's ODH was lively, which is more than I can say for some of his comedies.

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    1. I'm curious, Gene, if you saw the black and white or color version of the Castle ODH. The black and white is the only one I know, and it's a beauty. I can see why, though it was filmed in color, they released in in b & w. It plays like a Thriller episode that way. I find it rather ironic and fitting that Tom Poston appeared in one of the few comedy Thrillers (TV series), Masquerade, and he was very good in it. Was this why William Castle went on to use Poston in two films over the next two years?

      Poston's co-star in that episode, Elizabeth Montgomery, went on to do more horror comedy as well when cast as Samantha the witch on Bewitched. The Thriller ep, btw, used the Psycho house, still looking inside and out as it did in the Hitchcock picture from a year earlier. That Hitchcock presumably made Psycho to "cash in" on the horror cycle that Castle was such a huge part of sort of brings us all back to the original ODH, in which Thriller host Boris Karloff had a prominent supporting role. No, the movie isn't what it might have been but the Whale-ophiles over on the Scarlet Street board love it, and it's definitely a cult classic

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  3. I'd never heard that Castle's ODH was released in b&w, and though I can't swear that I didn't see it broadcast in b&w earlier, I'm pretty sure the broadcast version I most recently saw was in color. Probably the color version was more salable to current film packagers. It's possible that the Castle version might've seemed a bit more creepy in b&w.

    I can see Poston's appearance on THRILLER leading to the movie roles, all right. Though Castle's best known for biting Hitchcock's style, I can imagine that he'd tend to follow an ahthology series like THRILLER, which used a lot of character actors, just as Castle did. Supposedly comedy was Castle's first love, so maybe if John Wayne was the persona through which John Ford worked his magic, Poston was actually closer in spirit to Castle than Vincent Price.

    I hadn't heard that "Masquerade" was shot at the PSYCHO house; interesting. And yes, Montgomery's career in fantasy-comedy certainly went on to bigger things, including a cameo in one of her husband's "beach films," though not one of the two Robert Dillon scripted. Still an interesting "six degrees" connection.

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