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
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.
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.
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!
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 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.
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.