Monday, November 19, 2012

Old Dark Houses: The Phantom of Crestwood (1932) and Dark and Stormy Night (2009)

The old dark house mystery films of the 1920s and 1930s offer great pleasures to Golden Age mystery fans.  Even the bad ones (and there are plenty of 'em) can be a lot of fun, due to their very badness.

Who can resist the decaying, isolated old mansion, the dark and stormy night, the washed-out bridge, the flickering lights, the dead phone line, the clutching hands, the maniacal laughter, the terrified screams, the sliding panels, the secret passages, the hidden lair, the killer stalking darkened halls, the house guests bumped off one by one....

Two of the best known old dark house films are silents: The Bat (1926) and The Cat and the Canary (1927).  The Bat was based on the Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood hit 1920 Broadway play of the same title, which in turn was based on Rinehart's famous novel The Circular Staircase (1908).  It was remade as a talkie, The Bat Whispers, in 1930 and remade yet again in 1959, with Vincent Price.

The Cat and the Canary, based on the 1922 John Willard play of the same title, was remade as The Cat Creeps in 1930, as a Bob Hope comedy-thriller vehicle in 1939 and a final time in 1979 (probably due to the success of recent adaptations of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile).

a terrified Gloria Stuart, in her famous white evening gown
Another key old dark house film is, appropriately enough, James Whale's The Old Dark House (1932), based on the J. B. Priestley novel Benighted (1927).  This delightfully bizarre chiller has brilliant direction by Whale and a dream cast, including Boris Karloff, Raymond Massey, and Charles Laughton, Melvyn Douglas and Gloria Stuart.  It's one of my favorite films, of the horror/mystery genre or even just in general.

The old dark house form itself soon to be cliched and then parodied.  Parodies include, besides the aforementioned Bob Hope version of The Cat and the Canary, Hold That Ghost! (1941), with Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, and The Gorilla (1939), with Bela Lugosi, Lionel Atwill, The Ritz Brothers (the latter a very down market comedy team version of Abbot and Costello) and, of course, some guy in a gorilla suit.  The Gorilla itself was based on a Ralph Spence parody stage play of the same title from 1925.

There were also English old dark house films, such as The Terror (1938), with Alaister Sim and based on the hit 1920s Edgar Wallace play of the same name (an American silent version of The Terror was filmed in 1928).

And such films continue to be made, of course, long after Hollywood's Golden Age.  Besides the 1959 remake of The Bat, Willam Castle's The House on Haunted Hill, also from 1959 (and remade in 1999), comes to mind.  Identity (2003)--to offer another example--is not an old dark house movie, but rather an old dark motel movie.

 Last week I watched another old dark house film I had only recently heard of, The Phantom of Crestwood (1932).  It's quite good, even without a gorilla.

Hard-nosed call girl Jenny Wren (Karen Morley) has decided that she wants out of the business, so at a house party at an old mansion on a California hacienda she lowers the boom on four rich former clients with a new commercial proposition.

She wants the men to turn over thousands of dollars to her for her retirement fund, or she'll make her relationships with them public (one of them happens to be running for the United States senate).

All too predictably, Jenny ends up dead that very night, stabbed with a dart at the base of her skull (rather gruesome, that).

Besides the four former clients Jenny Wren was putting the screws to, suspects include the elderly New England banker creepily obsessed with Wren, Wren's brassy personal maid, Wren's beautiful younger sister, the sister's handsome fiance and the fiance's doting spinster aunt.

Ricardo Cortez
In an unusual twist there is an amateur detective, but he's a gangster (Ricardo Cortez)!  He was on the scene to retrieve some blackmail letters from Jenny Wren.  He did so (non-violently), but couldn't make his escape because the house (you guessed it) has been cut off from the outside world by a  storm.  Now with his henchman holding the others at gunpoint, he's decided to solve the case before the police arrive, so that Wren's murder can't be pinned on him.

Though The Phantom of Crestwood uses old dark house devices--an old house cut off by a storm, secret passages and a stalking "ghost"--it actually offers more than chills.  There's real detection and a good murder puzzle.

Ricardo Cortez (the first Sam Spade; he starred in The Maltese Falcon the previous year) is a winning sleuth and Karen Morley is smart, tough and sexy (which doesn't prevent her from getting murdered, of course, but through flashbacks she appears in the film even after her death).  Thankfully, the film is pre-code, so it's made sufficiently clear that Morley is, yes, a prostitute (and she looks stunning in her backless gown).

The Phantom of a Crestwood is  a smart, effective and atmospheric thirties mystery thriller.  Recommended!

Karen Morley
 The much more recent Dark and Stormy Night (2009) is an affectionate parody of the old dark house genre by Larry Blamire, the man who brought you such classic parodies as The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra (2001), Trail of the Screaming Forehead (2007) and The Lost Skeleton Returns Again (2009).

At Cavinder Manor, grimly isolated in the Cavinder Moors, a group of people has gathered to hear the reading of the late (very late) Sinas Canvinder's will, thirty years after his death.

Eerily, old Sinas promised to return from the grave this very night!

Concurrently, the psychopathic Cavinder Strangler has been quite active in the immediate area, viciously strangling people to death.

Oh, and coincidentally, the Cavinder Witch, killed 300 years ago, promised to return this very night as well.

It promises to a busy evening!  Too bad the bridge was washed out by the storm and the phone lines are down....

In a house....
Everyone can hear you scream!
The basic situation in Dark and Stormy Night echoes that of The Cat and the Canary, though numerous others films are referenced as well, such as The House on Haunted Hill and, indeed, The Phantom of Crestwood itself (we have the Phantom of Cavinder, you see).  The opening and closing scenes are highly reminiscent of The Old Dark House, and specific plot elements are drawn from that film too.

The male reporter (Eight O'Clock Faraday, played by Daniel Roebuck) and the cabbie (Happy Codburn, played by Dan Conroy) are a swell comedy team.  They really reminded me of the great Abbot and Costello (as I'm sure was intended).

Dan Conroy--playing the terrified cabbie who just wants his toidy-five cents!!!--is a hilarious pint-sized Lou Costello.  As the female reporter, Billy Tuesday, Jennifer Blaire has a definite Rosalind Russell, His Girl Friday vibe.  Blaire's sparring banter with Roebuck is delightful.

Then there's Brian Howe, in the Vincent Price role of Sinas Cavinder's sniveling nephew, Burling Famish, Jr.  Howe is spot-on and a joy to watch, especially when he wails Pristy!!! (watch and see).  This guy is brilliant.

two intrepid reporters battling for a scoop and a frightened cabbie
who just wants his toidy-five cents!!!

I'd say these four steal the show, were it not for the fact that there are so many other great performances too, including:

Brian Howe as Vincent Price
Wait, I mean Burling Famish, Jr.
Jim Beaver as the Great White Hunter Jack Tugdon (what deadpan delivery!); Trish Geiger as the maid Jane (she's the only one who can ever figure out how to get the lights back on after they go out--which they do, quite frequently); Bruce French as the (mostly) unflappable butler, Jeens; the octogenarian James Karen as the avuncular Seyton Ethelquake (Craig T. Nelson's oily boss in Poltergeist, thirty years ago); Mark Redfield as the extremely snide lawyer Farper Twyly; Andrew Parks as Lord Partfine, the British twit to end all British twits; Fay Masterson as Sinas Cavinder's weepy ward Sabasha Fanmoore; and Alison Martin (surely a relation to Andrea Martin of SCTV?) as the wacky spiritualist Mrs. Cupcupboard (and don't forget Marvin Kaplan as her Borscht Berlt spirit guide, Gunny Gunny Luckcakes).

There's also a cameo by the late, great Betty Garrett--then 90 years old--as an old lady with an interesting pet.  Larry Blamire has a role too--and he's very funny.

I have to say I really enjoyed this movie.  You can tell Larry Blamire really knows and loves the old old dark house flicks.  If you do too, you should love Dark and Stormy Night (and The Phantom of Crestwood).  Both are available on good quality DVDs.


  1. The Phantom of Crestwood is indeed surprisingly good.

  2. I haven't seen it in a long time, but I liked The Phantom of Crestwood a lot. Quite creepy.

  3. Brush with Fame (sort of): I did summer stock with Dan Roebuck when we were in our 20s, back in Allentown, PA. He was thin and still unknown. Three years later he was cast in his first big film, THE RIVER'S EDGE, and he only got it because his agent told him to gain weight. He blew up to an immense size barely recognizable from the lean beanpole guy I knew and stayed there for too long, I think. When he lost the weight he eventually got his recurring role on the TV show Matlock. So much for listening to your agent. He was a very funny guy when I knew him -- one of the most decent, likeable men I ever knew in theater. I bet he still is.

  4. An old dark house movie that's "quite good, even without a gorilla," is a bit hard to imagine, but I'll keep an eye open for this one even so. It's a great sub-genre and you can go to to see a lot of the old ones for free.

    1. I know! No gorilla! Hard to imagine. But it's still good though.

  5. Thanks for the comments, everyone. I was pleased with Crestwood, had never even heard of it until a few weeks ago.


    That's very interesting, thanks for commenting. I found all the actors really seemed to get into their parts, which helped make it a delightful parody. Roebuck was great, he really got the tempo of the 30s/40s performances. His exchanges with Blaire and Conroy were hilarious, I thought.

  6. I love the post! So much to look for now, I'm off to archive .org to look around too. Thanks

  7. Peggy, so glad you liked, thanks for the comment. I love these old films (and this modern parody).