Colin Timothy Gagnon (sacredspud) wrote,
Colin Timothy Gagnon

31 Days of Halloween: The Old Dark House

First up is The Old Dark House, a 1963 film by William Castle. Bill Castle is a favorite of mine, and the director of such low-brow horror classics as The Tingler and The House on Haunted Hill, which are both worth checking out. This movie is a pseudo-remake of a movie from 1932. Both films center around the adventures of a group of people trapped in a gothic mansion during a thunderstorm, but the comparison stops there.

Tom Poston (who you'd recognize, even if you don't know his name) plays Tom Penderel, an American car dealer who is living in London, and renting half of a flat. That's half in the temporal sense -- he rents it at night, and Casper Femm rents it during the day. Femm is a rich, old Welshman who buys a car from Penderel, and convinces him to drop it off at the family mansion. Penderel arrives to find Femm dead, and is further dismayed to learn that he'll have to spend the night, thanks to the raging storm outside. Meanwhile, he is introduced to the rest of the Femm clan: Riff Raff, Columbia, and Magenta Jasper (Casper's identical twin), Uncle Potiphar, sweet and demure Cecily, sultry Morganna, her father Morgan, and grandmother Agatha. Penderel learns that the Femms are descended from the infamous Captain Morgan, the pirate (presumably not the one who sells rum). The Captain's will stipulated that every Femm is entitled to a share of the family fortune, provided that they return to the mansion every night before midnight. They show Penderel a portrait of the Captain, and point out the strong resemblance to Penderel's face. Captain Morgan had a daughter who ran off with some filthy American pirate, and Penderel is a Femm.

Then people start dying, every hour on the hour, and all the survivors suspect that one among their number is trying to get rid of all the other heirs to the family fortune. When the killer is revealed, the revelation is quite surprising, but not in a way that other screenwriters would envy.

There are some good moments. Morgan is a murderous mute who will kill any potential suitor (i.e., Penderel) interested in his daughter. Uncle Potiphar is convinced that The End is Nigh, and is building and stocking an ark in preparation for the coming flood. I'm wracking my brain for other stand-out scenes, but that's all I've got. Oh, the opening titles are neat. They're done in the style of Chas Addams, the cartoonist behind The Addams Family. He's worth checking out, and so are those titles.

I didn't actually dislike The Old Dark House, but I can't say that I'd recommend it to anyone but William Castle purists. Castle was good at gimmicky, campy horror films, and comedy comes with the territory, but the comedy in The Old Dark House doesn't work very well. Castle's idea of horror comedy is to stock the set with ubiquitous coffins and nooses and vats of acid, and he often had a pun-filled monologue at the beginning of his movies, the way The Cryptkeeper does in Tales from the Crypt. Unlike Tales, however, the camp in Castle Films doesn't always let up, and sometimes it gets annoying. This might just be a matter of personal preference; movies from the middle of the 20th century are very hit and miss for me, and it took me years to realize that I like the ones intended for adults, but not so much the ones intended for general audiences. The G.A. comedies are the worst, because the humor is juvenile and goofy, but simply not funny. I have the same problem with pre-'80s sitcoms ('80s sitcoms have their own very unique problems...). Anyway, point is, The Old Dark House is either a funny horror movie or a scary comedy, but it fails at both. The jokes are dumb and there aren't enough of them, and the scares are -- well, there aren't any real scares, either. The story could be suspenseful, but it's not because everybody is so nonchalant about the murders. Oh, well.

The casting is acceptable. I didn't recognize anybody but Poston (who's good, but stay away from Zotz!, his other collaboration with Castle). The men all have stuffy, British faces in an indefinable way that I always recognize but can't describe. The two younger women are both attractive, and the camera spends a long time hovering on their (clothed) breasts. That's not a selling point, exactly, but it's unusual for a movie of this vintage.

All in all, though, it's dumb -- not scary. Horror movies don't have to be scary for me to enjoy them, but this one is for a younger audience than me, and I'm disappointed because I like William Castle so much. I tend to forget that he was really quite prolific, and that there's a lot of forgettable trash in his oeuvre. There's a good chance that I'll talk about other Castle films this month, as I have a box set and haven't seen all of them yet. Stay away from this one, though. I dunno what it is about Poston and Castle. They're both talented guys, but when you put them together, you get crap.

Do check out the trailer.
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