It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents
—Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford, 1830
After I had watched all the silent films on my classic horror list (and the first few sound pictures), I started to get a sense of how I might break down my list for posting. Maybe it’s because of my ongoing Agatha Christie reread, but I immediately knew I wanted to start with the “old dark house” trope.
In classic horror, old dark house movies are probably the least “horrific” as there is rarely a supernatural premise driving the narrative. Though the atmosphere is foreboding, and people may think that the paranormal is involved in the goings on, usually the menace to the characters is something fairly mundane, a criminal posing as an innocent member of the party, a criminal behind the scenes, or an escaped lunatic. There can be a ghost, but this is rare. Much more common are rumors of a ghost.
The setting is an old dark house (duh), a castle, or a hotel, often with secret passages used to scare people or steal something. There also may be portraits used for spying. Little to no scenes take place outside or off the grounds, probably because many of these mystery whodunnits are based on stage plays. Often the story begins with the classic “dark and stormy” night, and strangers gather to escape the weather or family members gather for the reading of a will. Sometimes the gathering is by invitation—for a mysterious dinner party or to test haunted house rumors. Problems with outside communication or lighting are common. A stock character is a creepy housekeeper or caretaker. Despite the gloomy aspect, these films often have a comedic edge to them; I suppose it helps break the tension.
The film that gave its name to this subgenre is The Old Dark House (1932); however, as previously mentioned in my post on silent horror, there are a couple of prior films which use the devices common to this trope. The Monster (1925) does to some degree, but the most obvious example from the silent period is The Cat and the Canary (1927).
The Cat and the Canary is an excellent silent film that I highly recommend. In fact, I liked this first incarnation of the play better than the second one (see below). Filmed by German expressionist Paul Leni, it displays extremely creative filmmaking that uses dramatic shadows and other effects to heighten the gloomy atmosphere as well as the comedic aspects of the plot. One favorite touch was the hand wiping away cobwebs to reveal the title in the opening credits. Moreover, I really felt I got to know all the characters and their quirks, despite the fact that it is a silent picture.
All men are alike, only some are worse.
—Flora Finch in The Cat and the Canary
Unsurprisingly, The Old Dark House is the best of this genre. Based on Benighted, a J.B. Priestley novel, the plot and script are excellent. And the film boasts an incredible cast to make that script come to life, including Boris Karloff, Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton (in his first Hollywood role), and a young Gloria Stuart (of Titanic fame). Furthermore, it has strong female roles and some lovely romantic bits (and being pre-Code is refreshingly frank at times). The story is perhaps wrapped up a bit too quickly at the end, but that is a minor quibble. I’m sure when all is said and done with this horror series, The Old Dark House will be in the running for most underrated.
Gloria Stuart also stars in Secret of the Blue Room (1933), a Universal remake of a German film that was later remade twice, as The Missing Guest (1938) and Murder in the Blue Room (1944). I can’t remember how I came across this title but it was available at the library so I decided to add it in to the mix. It plays more as a locked-room murder mystery than horror, but then I guess a lot of these do. I was happy to see Gloria Stuart again and also the great Edward Arnold as the police commissioner.
Oh, it must be terrible to be a man and have to be brave. Thank goodness I can be a coward with a clean conscience.
—Gloria Stuart in Secret of the Blue Room
One Frightened Night (1935) is one of those B-movie pictures you don’t get to see unless you purposely seek it out. I thought it was quite fun. As per usual, we have an old man, his money, and his family, with the added twist of a two women showing up claiming to be the same long-lost granddaughter. The production values leave a lot to be desired but there are a few creative touches I really liked. For one, it has a great opening credit sequence involving window shades and shutters. It also stars Hedda Hopper as one of the greedy relatives.
As I stated above, I didn’t like the second incarnation of The Cat and the Canary (1939) as much as the first. I can’t really explain why, maybe it’s because I already knew the basic plot. It also might be because there was such a strong focus on the two leads (Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard) that the other characters didn’t seem as fleshed out as in the silent picture. I did like the change of location to Louisiana and the bayou. But overall it just felt like it was plodding along.
Do you believe in reincarnation?
—You know, that dead people come back?
—You mean like the Republicans?
—Nydia Westman and Bob Hope in The Cat and the Canary
Regardless of my thoughts on The Cat and the Canary, it must have done relatively well as Hope and Goddard teamed up again just a year later for The Ghost Breakers (1940), another old dark house comedy mystery—though it takes them some time to actually get to the old dark house since the movie starts in a stormy New York before cruising down to Cuba (where Goddard has inherited an island with a creepy mansion). Even though it spends a bit too much time on tangential events, I very much enjoyed this one. I thought Goddard and Hope had much better chemistry here and the stakes seemed to be higher all around.
It’s worse than horrible because a zombie has no will of his own. You see them sometimes walking around blindly, with dead eyes, following orders, not knowing what they do, not caring.
—You mean like Democrats?
—Richard Carlson and Bob Hope in The Ghost Breakers
I really would have liked to have seen Abbott & Costello’s Hold That Ghost (1941) as part of this review, but I couldn’t access it through any of my usual sources. I hope to see it at some point since I’ve discovered I enjoy this genre quite a bit. For that reason, there are a few other minor examples in the 1940s that I may seek out eventually, but that seems to be when this genre peters out. I didn’t find any sign of major “old dark house” stories until House on Haunted Hill (1959).
House on Haunted Hill, starring Vincent Price, was the film I was most looking forward to on this list. I wouldn’t say I was disappointed exactly, but it wasn’t what I expected. As ridiculous as some of the premises are in these films, this one really takes the cake. There were just too many unanswered questions for me to lose myself in the plot. The movie can’t seem to decide if it wants to be campy or creepy and ends up just being cheesy. And the characters remain cyphers throughout; I never was able to get a hold on any of them. This is another one where I’m glad I saw it but don’t know that I’d revisit it.
Have you seen any of these old dark house mysteries? If so, do you have more you might recommend to me? Let me know in the comments below.
Horror Filmography: Old Dark Houses
The Monster (1925)
The Cat and the Canary (1927)
The Old Dark House (1932)
Secret of the Blue Room (1933)
One Frightened Night (1935)
The Cat and the Canary (1939)
The Ghost Breakers (1940)
House on Haunted Hill (1959)