Friday, October 4, 2019

Old Dark House: A Chilling Genre

Not to be confused with Haunted House movies, which tend to involve ghosts or some other supernatural entity in a horror setting, one subgenre of mystery films that have only recently become popular again in that cycle of pop culture interest is that of the Old Dark House mystery. These include such recurring denominators as a dark and stormy night, secret passageways, a group of strangers having to spend the night in a house, mansion or castle, and a killer, madman, or creature on the loose. 

During the silent era such films offered cutaways and trick shots involving nervous could-be culprits, a highly suspicious sleuth, and cast members who suddenly disappear one by one as the criminal lurks behind bedroom curtains. Inspired by the stage plays that predated them, the best of these classics were the inspiration for the early talkies that were to come: The BatThe Cat and the CanaryThe Monster and The Last Warning. The latter of which was recently restored and released on DVD and BluRay.

Each of these plays was decidedly tongue-in-cheek, with mad scientists and super criminals terrorizing hapless Jazz Age types. Women were frequently targeted, while egghead and masculine males engaged in feuds stemming from unrequited love. Money predominated as the driving factor, although not all of the criminals had such sane motivations. 

As sound merged with celluloid, so did the elaborate gimmicks as each movie applied a variation-on-a-theme motif that oftentimes lent towards comedy, farce and bumbling detectives who were no match for the amateur protagonist drawn into the caper. As an American art form, Old Dark House movies helped to establish not only a narrative that remained strong in the horror movie genre, but also helped audiences to accept a little slapstick comedy in otherwise tension-filled productions. 

The best of these – and frequently discussed – include The Bat Whispers (1930), Universal’s The Old Dark House (1932, with Boris Karloff), followed up with Universal’s Secret of the Blue Room (1933, with Lionel Atwill), and Mascot’s One Frightened Night (1935). In most cases the sets for the old dark houses were elaborate, then masked by candle-lit cinematography. The houses in early offerings were often Gothic Victorian mansions, but by 1941 they were noted as being denigrated (such as Universal’s The Black Cat), sometimes broken or destroyed at the conclusion of the mystery. In Paramount Pictures’ One Body Too Many (1944), the old dark house received a modernized spin by adding an observatory at the top.

The advantage to producing such films was oftentimes budgetary. Throughout the 1930s, movie studios with a reputation for producing movies on the cheap took advantage of the Old Dark House popularity with their own renditions. Oftentimes these pictures were a tad talky, but anyone who takes time to seek out these films would discover a number of hidden gems. In 1931, Supreme Pictures released The Phantom, a chilling tale of a group of people who are stalked by a masked killer in an old mansion, and the heroine is threatened not with supernatural terrors but with a brain transplant. In 1932, Mayfair Pictures released Tangled Destinies, concerning a plane making an emergency landing, forcing the passengers to take refuge in a deserted house… only to discover one of them is a demented killer. In 1934, Columbia Pictures gave us The 9th Guest, concerning eight strangers who are invited to spend the night in a penthouse apartment. After being wined and dined, a voice on the radio informs them that they will be murdered unless they manage to outwit the ninth guest: Death.

In 1943, Monogram Studios produced The House of Mystery, about an adventurer who kills a sacred monkey and as a result learns that someone put a curse on him. He returns to America where his shareholders want a return for their investment, but before he can make good on his promise, he finds himself spending a week in an old dark mansion where all sorts of strange things are going on. This film avoided the puppet or projection excuse that was fairly routine in films of this nature and instead featured both a real gorilla and a guy in a gorilla suit.

For those of you who enjoy watching old horror movies in October, consider the Old Dark House genre. If you can find a copy of Murder by the Clock from 1931, you will find this one very rewarding; a thriller that combines the atmosphere of the Universal horror films of the 1930’s with the feel of the sophisticated pre-codes of Paramount. From the mystery novel by Rufus King, this movie told the story of a man who was murdered twice by the jealous hand of a woman. This is a rare chance to see Lilyan Tashman in a leading role, and she is spot on as a woman who wants wealth and comfort by any means possible and sees her ability to manipulate men to do her bidding as key to her plan. Released by Paramount Pictures in 1931, this mystery contains the atmosphere of a horror film, in an era where the studio had announced months prior that it was making Old Dark House pictures to compete against the gangster movies being produced by Warner Brothers. 

There is a crypt with an installed horn that blares to warn people the occupant has been buried alive. There is a drug that revives the dead. There is a brute with the strength and the mind of a beast. And there is a sinister woman (played by Lilyan Tashman) who seduces men to commit murders for her own gain. It is Tashman, as the nefarious Laura Endicott, who dominates the film. Adorned in tight satin dresses that showcase her lithe figure, she vamps with sinuous style, as bewitching to the audience as she is to her pawns. She definitely had the potential for stardom but would sadly pass away a few years after this movie was completed. With an opening scene that takes place in a murky old Gothic-style graveyard, to a scene where a corpse is disinterred making certain she is really dead (no, we are not joking), Murder on the Clock is a great entry in the Old Dark House genre worth watching… if you dare.