(1963) Directed by William Castle; Written by: Robert Dillon; Based on a novel by: J.B. Priestley; Starring: Tom Poston, Robert Morley, Janette Scott and Joyce Grenfell
Available format: DVD
Rating: *** ½
The Old Dark House is best described as a macabre comedy/mystery. This odd little production was the result of an unholy alliance between William Castle and Hammer Productions. Considering the sensibilities of both parties, it certainly looked like a great match on paper, and for the most part it works. The Old Dark House has the distinction of being one of the least conventional Hammer films and one of the more straightforward Castle films. The film was bereft of Castle’s usual gimmickry, but rife with eccentric characters. It’s easy to see why the distributors didn’t know what to make of it when it was initially released in 1963, then re-released in 1966 (in color, but missing several minutes of footage). The film was based on the same J.B. Priestley story that spawned the classic 1932 movie with Boris Karloff, but this is a different beast altogether, with an emphasis on humor and general weirdness instead of atmospheric scares.
The animated opening credit sequence, with drawings by Charles Addams, evokes comparison with one of his best known creations, The Addams Family. There’s a similar darkly whimsical tone throughout The Old Dark House that combines odd characters with gallows humor. Most of the story takes place within the confines of Femm Hall, and concerns the residents’ efforts to secure their pirate ancestor’s inheritance. The fortune will be distributed among the remaining descendents, but there are some specific, bizarre stipulations. The rudimentary plot is merely a flimsy framework that exists to showcase Femm Hall’s weird ensemble. The fewer descendents that survive, the less there is to share. This results in a rising body count, as we’re left to wonder whodunit.
Tom Poston plays Tom Penderel, who’s probably the only sane person in this film. He’s an American living in England, and shares a flat with Casper (Peter Bull, who also plays his twin brother Jasper). Casper, who’s noticeably absent in the evenings, invites Tom to accompany him to the family estate. Unfortunately for Tom, Casper’s untimely demise plunges him into the middle of the family’s drama. Tom seems bland by comparison to the other characters, but his purpose is clearly to provide an everyman for the audience to identify with -- a safe harbor sheltered from a sea of weirdos.
Fenella Fielding is the amorous Morgana, isolated from the outside world and starving for affection. Fielding provides an over the top, but not off the rails comic performance. Morgana’s overtly seductive behavior makes Tom instantly ill at ease whenever she’s in the room, which only encourages her more. Her advances are continually thwarted by her unstable father, Morgan (Danny Green). We learn that her previous boyfriend fell victim to Morgan’s paternal jealousy, and vanished under mysterious circumstances Tom fears, not unjustly, that he will be next.
Janette Scott is Morgana’s less flashy, but no less enigmatic, cousin Cecily. There is a mutual attraction between Cecily and Tom, but she implores him to get out while he can. In a house full of loonies, she’s arguably the most “normal” of the bunch. Based on Femm Hall’s other residents, we’re left to wonder what secrets she might hide.
Robert Morley portrays the gun-obsessed Uncle Roderick. On account of his dubious hobby and unpredictable nature, he seems the most likely suspect in the recent killings. Rounding out the cast are the elder members of the Femm clan, Potiphar and Agatha. Both are ensconced in their own time-consuming hobbies, which involve building an ark (already populated with animals) and incessantly knitting, respectively.
The Old Dark House could easily be dismissed as a weakly plotted assortment of goofball characters and not much else, and you would be right. It’s not liable to wind up on anyone’s “best” list for Hammer or William Castle films, but that would be selling this film short. It’s certainly fun in its own right, and not without its requisite charms, if you’re up to the ride. There’s a darkly pervasive silliness throughout, that’s oddly infectious, although it probably won’t appeal to everyone’s taste. If you’re in the mood for a twisted house double feature, The Old Dark House would make a good pairing with the even stranger film House (read my review here). Your mileage may vary.
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