Thursday, October 25, 2018

The Old Dark House (1963)

Back on the 'haunted house' Halloween theme - the latest trailer is for The Old Dark House.  Not the celebrated 1932 James Whale film, which starred Boris Karloff, but the lesser known sixties remake.  Not. strictly speaking, a haunted house movie, but rather a 'spooky old house' horror movie, the 1963 Old Dark House was the result of a somewhat bizarre cinematic marriage: a co-production between the UK's premier purveyors of Gothic horror, Hammer Films, and US independent producer/director William Castle, who had a string of gimmicky low budget horror hits, including The Tingler, House on Haunted Hill, Thirteen Ghosts and Homicidal, under his belt.  On the face of it, they made strange bed fellows, Hammer, with its deadly serious and relentlessly bleak Gothic tales, frequently streaked with sex, cruelty and sadism, and master showman Castle, whose films were usually characterised by outlandish publicity stunts, such as insuring audiences against dying of fright .

The resulting film, however, is characterised less by a clash of styles, than by a general feeling of flatness.  Advertised as some kind of blackly comic thriller, it is none of these things, lacking wit, suspense or atmosphere.  It badly needs either a dose of Hammer blood and gore or a  patent William Castle stunt like a skeleton emerging from the screen or a 'Fear Break' to allow audience members too cowardly to endure the climax to escape.  The film is packed full of well known British characters, but none can make any headway with a weak, plot-heavy script which reduces J B Priestly's satirical source novel ('Benighted') to a creaky Cat and the Canary-style 'killer on the loose in a scary house' mystery.  Even down to the fact that the killer's motivation has to do with eliminating rival heirs to a family fortune.  All of which puts it a long way from the original film version of the novel, which has only the slightest of plots, instead concentrating on the bizarre characters making up the Femm household and their blackly comic antics, and in creating lots of atmosphere. Also, whereas the closest thing to sympathetic characters in the original come upon the titular house by happenstance, in this version the 'hero', is invited there to deliver a car.  Which immediately changes the whole dynamic of the film.

Bearing in mind the two main creative forces involved - Hammer and Castle - the resulting film is very disappointing, failing to exhibit any of the qualities which make their individual films so enjoyable.  Quite why anybody thought that a remake of The Old Dark House was needed presents a bigger mystery than that presented in the film itself.  Indeed, nobody seemed entirely enamoured of the movie, with the US release shorn of colour, while its UK release was delayed until 1966 and was missing some seven minutes of footage. All in all an horrific experience, but not for the reasons intended.



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