Both fiction forms flourished between the wars, and today the two genres often, though not always, appeal to the same people. Certainly they both appeal to me. One of the things I wanted to do for Halloween in 2018, with this look at classic films, was to look not at country house mysteries, per se, but at country house horror, often adapted from literary sources. So, here we go, in chronological order, my favorite vintage country house horror films, from the Thirties to the Sixties. Order may be restored by the end of many of these films, but there certainly is serious travail along the way.
1. THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932)
Source: Benighted (1927), by J. B. Priestley
|Won't you come in?|
Boris Karloff as Morgan, the butler from hell
The film that gave its name to a whole subgenre of horror films, The Old Dark House is my favorite of the path breaking Universal horror films of the Thirties. Directed by the brilliant and eccentric Englishman James Whale, the film may not rise to quite the heights of Whale's Frankenstein (1932) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935), but it's just so much darn wicked fun.
|Margaret Waverton (Gloria Stuart) |
gets a helping hand
Yet it's also a darkly funny film, mainly due to the presence of world treasure Ernest Thesiger and Eva Moore, mother of Laurence Olivier's first wife, as those highly eccentric and beyond belief bizarre siblings, Horace and Rebecca Femm.
At their crumbling and drafty old stone house in the rocky Welsh countryside, the Femms are forced to play reluctant hosts, on a dark and stormy might (naturally), to stranded travelers Philip Waverton (Raymond Massey), his beautiful blonde wife Margaret (Gloria Stuart) and their constantly quipping war veteran friend Roger Penderel (Melvyn Douglas). Soon joining the company are a wealthy north country businessman with a chip on his shoulder, Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton), and his chorus girl chippy, seemingly, Miss Gladys DuCane (Lilian Bond).
|the knives are out at the Femms |
Roger Penderel (Melvyn Douglas)
Was this the best assembled for a Thirties horror film, I would think so. I haven't even mentioned the fearsome drunken, lustful, scarred mute butler Morgan, played so memorably by Boris Karloff. And, aside from Morgan, there are manifold unmentioned and indeed unmentionable horrors in the old dark house as well, some of which by comparison make Morgan seem almost angelic. It's like a carnival thrill ride--of terror.
An extraordinary film, in my view, with amazing cinematography and editing and set design. Don't fault the film for the countless bad imitations over the years, including the 1963 alleged "remake" by horror showman William Castle. However, if you like humor and horror, try Bob Hope's The Cat and the Canary (1939) and The Ghost Breakers (1940) and Abbott and Costello's Hold That Ghost (1944).
2. REBECCA (1940)
Source: Rebecca (1938), by Daphne du Maurier
|Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) and the second Mrs. de Winter (Joan Fontaine)|
Anderson is scarier than Karloff. Just ask the second Mrs. de Winter.
British novelist Daphne du Maurier's modern Gothic novel was a massive bestseller in the US and it's no surprise that it was quickly adapted into a prestige Hollywood film, by American producer-impresario extraordinaire David O. Selznick and recent English import Alfred Hitchcock no less (and co-scripted by another British emigre, mystery writer Philip Macdonald). The film won best picture at the Academy Awards and received numerous other nominations, including Actor (Laurence Olivier), Actress (Joan Fontaine) and Supporting Actress (Judith Anderson), though its only other Oscar win was for the splendid cinematography. (How did Judith Anderson not win, ugh.)
A horror film, you say? Yes it is. When the second Mrs. de Winter (Fontaine), a painfully shy, young former lady's companion, arrives at Manderley, a massive Cornwall country mansion, as the new wife of handsome and brusquely charming aristocrat Maxim de Winter (Olivier), she finds that Maxim's ancestral pile is haunted (okay figuratively) by Rebecca, the first Mrs. de Winter, and guarded by a pale gaunt Gorgon dressed in black, housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, who is obsessively and indeed rather scarily loyal to the memory of her former mistress--the bright, beautiful, well-born and now very dead (at least physically) Rebecca.
|Dramatic Revelations: Mr. and Mrs. de Winter|
(Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine)
In the second half of the film, after an impressive lengthy near soliloquy from Olivier, who was already an old hand at such things, the story takes an unexpected turn and we enter the world of the Golden Age detective novel, with investigations and inquests. (That wonderful rogue George Sanders, playing Jack Favell, the cad to end all cads--and who better to do so--pops up too around this time.)
But there are some memorably eerie moments up till then, mostly involving the seriously creepy Mrs. Danvers and magnificent Manderley itself, the superbly designed, seemingly impossibly sprawling de Winter mansion. And the ending is unforgettable. For once Alfred Hitchcock, under pressure from the interfering Selznick, was mostly loyal to his source material (though censors did force a significant change) and thank goodness. This won't be the last we see on the list of Alfred Hitchcock, however.
3. THE UNINVITED (1944)
Source: Uneasy Freehold (1941), by Dorothy Macardle
|a spirited discussion|
Alan Napier, Ray Milland, Gail Russell, Ruth Hussey
In a scenario familiar in both classic detective and supernatural fiction, Rick and Pamela purchase a gorgeous, unoccupied--by humans anyway--cliffside home in Cornwall, for a positive steal of a price--or so they think! They then befriend a pretty young woman in the nearby town (luminous Gail Russell), whose grandfather owned the house.
Russell's character becomes the love interest of Milland, who was then pushing forty, though she's not even out of her teens, Meanwhile, 32-year-old Ruth Hussey is stuck with a kindly but dull local doctor who is played by Alan Napier, doomed forever to be known to the world as Alfred the butler from the Batman television series (hope he got residuals), who always manged to look about twenty years older than he actually was. Here he's actually only forty, but, yup, he could pass for sixty. Heck, he wasn't much older than Ray Milland, Maybe they should have paired him with Gail Russell--just kidding!
Anyway, the brother and sister to their discomfort begin to learn, from their sweet, ingenuous neighbor and the kindly doctor, a great deal about the house's very strange--and rather frightening--history. In addition to the actors above, all of whom give fine performances, there is a memorable Cornelia Otis Skinner in a decidedly Mrs. Danvers-ish role, who holds in her highly capable hands many of the keys to the mystery.
4. DEAD OF NIGHT (1945)
Source: mostly original, I believe, though one story in the film is based on an EF Benson horror story
|ventriloquist and friend|
Michael Redgrave and Hugo
A hugely influential anthology of tales with a shocking wraparound story (see all those Amicus horror anthologies from the early 1970s), this British film is best known for its disquieting final installment, about a nervous ventriloquist (a superb Michael Redgrave) and his increasingly obnoxious and assertive dummy. It is creepy as hell (even if the scenario is cliched now), but the film's frame story is decidedly scary too.
After having a terrible nightmare, an architect (Mervyn Johns) decides to spend the weekend working on renovations he is supervising at a country house. Once he is sitting down with his client and the client's assembled guests and they share eerie stories (like the dummy story above), he begins to get the uncanny feeling that he is living out the exact events that take place in his nightmare....
This is one that really gets its cold clutching fingers around your throat....
5. THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE (1945)
Source: Some Must Watch (1933), by Ethel Lina White
|some must watch|
Probably the best film that people think was directed by Alfred Hitchcock but which wasn't directed by Alfred Hitchcock. In fact it was directed by Robert Siodmak, no slouch himself when it comes to the horror/mystery/suspense genres. He directed the odd noirish horror film Son of Dracula (1943, set back by the incongruous casting as Dracula of Lon Chaney, Jr.), Phantom Lady (1944), The Suspect (1944), Christmas Holiday (1944), The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945), The Killers (1946), The Dark Mirror (1946), Criss Cross (1949) and, a sort of noir coda, The File on Thelma Jordan (1952). An impressive roster indeed!
With my partiality toward proper British horror (you'll notice that all of the films which I have chosen have British settings so far), The Spiral Staircase may be my favorite Robert Siodmak nail-biter, though all of the films above that I have seen have superb shudder sequences. Based on (and intelligently altering) British mystery writer Ethel Lina White's ahead-of-its-time crime novel, the adaptation was scripted by Mel Dinelli, who started off writing plays for the classic American radio series Suspense and later did fine film adaptations of Cornell Woolrich (The Window, 1949) and Elisabeth Sanxay Holding (The Reckless Moment, 1949, aka The Blank Wall).
|woman with flickering candle dares|
the depths of the spiral staircase
an iconic mystery/horror image
(with Dorothy McGuire)
Though the setting is archaic, the film feels path-breaking, for it's essentially a stately precursor of the modern-day slasher film (aka Halloween, Friday the 13th, etc.) It seems there's a mad serial killer (and very early in the film we at times see things from this person's point-of-view) running loose in and around the town, slaying women with physical disabilities. This is bad news for shy, pretty Helen (Dorothy McGuire), who works as a domestic servant/companion to the bedridden but still decidedly peppery Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore), widow of an outsize big game hunter. (Her bedroom is decorated with elephant tusks and a lion skin rug.)
Sweet young Helen, you see, is mute, though her condition, we learn, is actually more psychological than physical. (Dorothy McGuire, a natural for such roles, gives a very good performance.)
Also living at the house are: Mrs. Warren's callow and quippy blond playboy son (back from Paris), Stephen (Gordon Oliver); her stolid dark-haired professor stepson, Albert (George Brent); the professor's pretty live-in secretary Blanche (Rhonda Fleming, still with us, bless her); put-upon Nurse Barker (Sara Allgood); and Mr. and Mrs Oates (Rhys Williams and Elsa Lanchester), the domicile's cook and handyman. And then there's the mild village constable (James Bell) and Dr. Parry, the kindly, handsome physician who seems to have his eye on Helen while he attends Mrs. Warren.
With all these people around, Helen can't be in any danger, can she? Think again!
|some must cease|
Elsa Lanchester, though comparatively underused in the film, is such a treat, and George Brent, who usually seems quite forgettable in his films (at least when he's beside Bette Davis), is actually memorable here.
Good as well is the ever-reliable mild "nice guy" B-film leading man, Kent Smith, most known to people today as the object of twisted affection in Val Lewton's and Jacques Tourneur's superb shocker Cat People (1942). He also has a good part in Joan Crawford's underrated noir The Damned Don't Cry, 1950, and his first film appearance was in the SS Van Dine mystery The Garden Murder Case in 1934.)
Blink and you'll miss Hitchcock favorite Ellen Corby, who would secure a supporting actress Oscar nomination in 1949 and achieve fame in the 1970s as Grandma Walton in The Waltons television series, and the killer's unblinking eye is played by...well, ask me in the comments if you don't know!
Perhaps there is too much "love interest" for some in this short film, but the last 20 minutes or so is superbly scary and overall it's a very smart script in my view. Making the heroine mute (she emphatically is not in the book) was a stroke of genius, I think.
6. DRAGONWYCK (1946)
Source Dragonwyck (1944), by Anya Seton
|life at Dragonwyck offers many surprises--many of them unpleasant|
(Vincent Price and Gene Tierney)
This film seems not as well known as it should be today, I'm not sure why. It's a terrific period Gothic film, sumptuously set and shot and with a powerful performance by the leading man, Vincent Price. There's mystery, murder, madness and ghosts--and did I mention Vincent Price?
For me, growing up as a kid in the 1970s who loved vintage horror films, of course I was well-familiar with Vincent Price. But at that time he was a genial, campy elderly veteran of television. Oh look, there's Vincent Price guest starring with Don Ho on that Brady Bunch two-parter (or was it a three-parter?) in Hawaii! (Don't wipe out, Greg!) Hey, there he is on The Donny and Marie Show! I'm surprised Price wasn't in the Star Wars Christmas Special. (Wait, was he?) Well, at least he got to do that spooky rap on Michael Jackson's hit song and video Thriller, that is pretty damn cool. I remember him talking about it on The Tonight Show when Joan Rivers was subbing for Johnny Carson.
Not being a great fan of all those William Castle and Roger Corman drive-in shockers which titillated kids in the Fifties and Sixties, for which Price became best known, I never really saw anything he was in that seemed actually scary to me until I saw those two Dr. Phibes films from the 1970s, which were full of the colorful mod style of The Avengers television series, episodes of which director Robert Fuest also directed. (I forgive him for giving us The Devil's Rain and Ernest Borgnine as Satan.) Vincent Price was larger than life, and these cheeky but stylishly gory films work, for me anyway.
You have to go earlier in Price's career for the fine "serious" film performances (well, there was that very late turn in the tad slumberous The Whales of August, with Bette Davis and Lilian Gish). He's good in the classic mystery Laura (1944) and the melodrama Leave Her to Heaven (1945), but those are actress Gene Tierney's films, not his. However, Dragonwyck, another Forties film which he did with Gene Tierney, sees Vince stealing scene after scene from his gorgeous gal co-star.
|tyrannical yet tormented|
At first Miranda is awed and thrilled with her new surroundings, but she starts to finds things at Dragonwyck decidedly...strange. Nicholas and Joahana's relationship doesn't seem quite...right. And what is it about all the white oleander in the house? And just who is playing that haunting harpsichord tune in the dead of night?
Oh and there's some political stuff about the Van Ryn estate tenants and their dissatisfaction with their rents (Harry Morgan, later of M*A*S*H, pops up here) and there's that kindly young democratic doctor neighbor, Jeff Turner, played, woodenly, by Glenn Langan (Kent Smith where were you?). Just how many kindly doctors were in these films, anyway? But let's get back to Vincent Price.
As a leading man Price was banished to horror films, the point of no return being that string of popular sci-fi and mystery horror flicks he made in the late Fifties (The Fly/The Return of the Fly/The House on Haunted Hill/The Tingler/The Bat). Hollywood just didn't know what to do with him as a "straight" leading man, seemingly, though Dragonwyck showed the way, had it but been heeded. (Glenn Langan's dull Dr. Turner can't be taken seriously as a leading man.)
Price makes a magnificent Byronic hero/anti-hero type, proud and regal, autocratic and aristocratic, defiant yet tormented. Price and his second wife were, incidentally, great friends indeed of Hugh Wheeler, who, as readers of this blog will certainly know, was one-half of the Patrick Quentin mystery writing team. What a shame Price was never cast in a Patrick Quentin film!
|Mary Grant Price, Hugh Wheeler and Vincent Price in Tijuana, Mexico in 1950|
four years after Dragonwyck
Dragonwyck was the first film directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, who was soon to win back-to-back directing Oscars for A Letter to Three Wives (1949) and All About Eve (1950). His last directing Oscar nomination was for the classic mystery film Sleuth (1972, with Laurence Olivier again and Michael Caine.
Well, that's all for now. Come back to visit the rest of the haunts I've chosen for you--if you dare!! Be warned, it's a dark and stormy night....