Our mother, an otherwise sane and sensible woman, developed a habit of taking my sister, Diane, and me to the usual kiddie movie fare—Disney, animal pictures, circus romps (I loved TOBY TYLER) but from time-to-time, Diane and I would find ourselves plunked down in front of some of the scariest movies ever made. As long as I live, I will never forget the day Mama took us to the Keith Theatre downtown to see Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO. I thought I was going to have a heart attack.
Diane and I still try to figure out what our mother could have been thinking to bring us to movies that scared the stuffing out of us. Rather than believe she suffered occasional lapses in judgment as a mom, we think she, a very young widow, needed some adult entertainment to rescue her from the burden and stress of raising two, rascally, little kids alone. I look back, too, and feel she maybe did not realize herself how terrifying for her, as well as for us, forays into madness and evil like PSYCHO, ROSEMARY’S BABY and THE OLD DARK HOUSE would be. Or maybe she just wanted to scare the hell out of us so we would grow up brave. Still, I am glad she introduced me to the funhouse of horror films. I don’t know how brave I am but I have loved being scared at the movies ever since!
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Beware people who describe movies like THE OLD DARK HOUSE as “a little picture”. B-movies have a power all their own and this one’s director, William Castle, made a lasting name for himself with other such “little” movies as 13 FRIGHTENED GIRLS, the wonderfully loony Joan Crawford vehicle, STRAIT JACKET and I SAW WHAT YOU DID (To this day, I can conjure up a vivid memory of my friend, Anthony Kalil, and I in his darkened bedroom on a sleepover, watching this movie and screaming like little girls). Castle, like his contemporary, Roger Corman, had a gift for doing a lot with a little. Their production budgets were limited and so they banked a movie’s power on plot and strong characterizations. Some of their films remain among the most-watched of all time.
I have always been a sucker for the menacing charms of Boris Karloff but for some reason, I have never liked the original THE OLD DARK HOUSE made by the legendary James Whale (1932). I find it stagey, stiff and slow (I apologize!). I much prefer Castle’s version. Though critically panned at the time of its release—one review called it “ghastly, and not in a good way”—I still think it is one of the spookiest of Castle’s and the Hammer Studios’ output.
The story is not all that hard to outline. An American car salesman in London, Tom Penderel, played by Tom Poston, reluctantly agrees to deliver an automobile to his flatmate’s country estate. But when Tom arrives in the midst of a violent rainstorm, he finds the flatmate, Casper Femm, played by British character veteran, Peter Bull, dead and must accept the dubious hospitality of Femm’s rather weird relatives. (There are always weird relatives in a horror movie.)
The casting is plum. Funnyman Tom Poston, a staple of 1960s television game and talk shows, remained uncelebrated until a years-long stint as nutty George Utley, clueless foil to Bob Newhart’s innkeeper, Dick Loudon on the CBS hit comedy, Newhart catapulted him into the comic stratosphere.
I like Poston. His deadpan delivery and extra-slow double takes make drywall look alive. His brand of comedy follows in the tradition of other rubberfaces like Buster Keaton, Buddy Hackett and the aforementioned Bob Newhart. Poston upped his cultural appeal when he married another of my favorite actors, beautiful Suzanne Pleshette, an equally gifted comedian, co-star of the very popular Bob Newhart Show in the 70s.
In THE OLD DARK HOUSE, everybody plays off Poston’s befuddlement. If not for his extreme poker face, the performances would seem lame, an assortment of oddball characters like chocolates without a box to display themselves in. And without giving too much of the plot away, I can say that if not for Poston’s reaction to the scary goings-on, what we see and experience would not make us quiver at all. He is us. We see what he sees and as he quakes and shakes, we do, too.
Few people remember Joyce Grenfell now and that is a shame. In the 1950s and ’60s, this Brit skit and sketch artist was at the top of her game. A gifted mimic and also best-selling book author, she was heavily influenced by old-time English vaudeville and her timing, on stage and in movies, can be flawless. As a performer, she was way ahead of her time. Her turn as Aunt Agatha in this movie is both simultaneously funny and macabre, and if you ask me to name one of the scariest scenes I have ever seen in a movie, one involving Grenfell would be on top of that list. (I’d tell you which one but don’t want to spoil it for you!)
The same holds true for Peter Bull. He gives me the absolute creeps in any movie or T.V. show he’s in. To this day, whenever I see a photo of him, I cringe and shiver and go “Eww!” I had nightmares for weeks after seeing him in THE OLD DARK HOUSE.
Robert Morley is also one of my all-time favorite performers. I love his upturned, faux-snob nose, blabbering rubber lips and frog pop eyes. His characters try to be high class but his features and his delivery always do him in. He is too silly to pull snobbery off. He knew this and played off it to great effect. Plus (health concerns aside), I loved his giant whale of a belly, jutting out well past the rest of him, making him a perverse, avuncular Santa Claus, a fat Gandalf. I go all fuzzy and fine whenever he appears on a screen, the same way I do for Mary Wickes or Norma Varden. If you want to see Morley at his best, go to Netflix and watch WHO IS KILLING THE GREAT CHEFS OF EUROPE, a frothy romp in which Morley plays a gourmand deliciously and deliriously eating and drinking himself to death. Funny as it gets!
THE OLD DARK HOUSE is no masterwork. Parts of it are not even that good (the ending goes topsy-turvy on us what with its ticking bombs and choppy editing). Some critics at the time of its release relegated it to the garbage can. But it remains, for me, a picture I always like seeing again and again. Maybe it has something to so with our mother dragging Diane and me to see it, for whatever reason, and in so doing, inviting us early on into a magical world of fright and surprise, gifting us with a lasting attraction to being scared out of our pants. Give us a good old- fashioned frightmare any night of the week and you will be putting us somewhere in a kind of movie heaven…Or Hell!
No time could be better than Hallowe’en time for seeing THE OLD DARK HOUSE. It’s crackerjack entertainment!