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Friday, 23 October 2009

The Old Dark House (1963)

Director: William Castle
Stars: Tom Poston, Robert Morley, Janette Scott and Joyce Grenfell
This 1963 remake of The Old Dark House proves itself utterly unlike the Universal original before it even begins. Most obviously it's in colour and in a widescreen format, but it also has bright and cheesy music, accompanying chuckles and opening credits painted by Charles Addams. Then instead of a hillside collapsing in a torrential rainstorm, we get to visit the Mayfair Casino in London. For those Americans reading, Mayfair is the most expensive property on the British version of Monopoly, so you can imagine how exclusive this place is. No wonder they won't let Tom Penderel in without jumping through a lot of hoops, as he isn't just not a member, he's an American to boot.

He's played by comedian Tom Poston, who knew William Castle well, having played the lead in Zotz!, Castle's pretty successful attempt at an American absent-minded professor comedy a year earlier. Penderel is there because of Caspar Femm, with whom he has a strange arrangement. They share the same flat but rarely see each other there. Penderel lives there at night and sells cars during the day, when Femm takes over in the able form of Peter Bull, about to become the Russian Ambassador in Dr Strangelove. Tom is only bringing him an American car, but he's persuaded to travel to visit him at Femm Hall, Caspar's family's ancestral seat deep in the marshes of Dartmoor, to which he flies back every single night in a private plane.

For some reason Penderel takes him up on his offer, even though the invitation is scarily nervous in its delivery and there are more hints at danger and intrigue than can comfortably be imagined. Something's going to happen there, he's sure of it, and the coffins have already arrived! Nobody in their right mind would take Caspar up on such an offer, so Tom Penderel must be out of his. Sure enough he drives there through the torrential rainstorm, which along with a few names, are about the only similarities to the original film. The car gets destroyed outside the Femm gates and so he's stranded at the house with all its chamberpots everywhere to catch the rain through the holes in the roof. And when he finally gets in, it's to find Caspar dead in one of the coffins that he'd mentioned.
Uncle Potiphar says he fell down the stairs but sweet Cecily doesn't believe that. She's Caspar's cousin, the one he was so set on him meeting and of course they fall quickly in love. His other cousin is rather more active in her attempts to seduce him. She's Morgana, a bizarrely voluptuous creature with an outrageously seductive voice, who dresses for effect, usually in a single colour. The tight red number and the flamboyant pink nightgown are both fine, but the flowing leopard print dress is even better. And yet Tom tries to leave!

Perhaps he doesn't realise that Cecily is played by Janette Scott, who had appeared in a slew of English films over three decades, including The Good Companions, also based on a J B Priestley novel, The Day of the Triffids and School for Scoundrels. She retired from the screen in 1967 but returned last year in Simon Pegg's How to Lose Friends & Alienate People. Morgana is the delightful Fenella Fielding, who took a long retirement too. After fifteen films in a decade, including three in the Doctor series and two Carry On movies, she quit the screen in 1970, returning for another Simon Pegg movie, Guest House Paradiso in 1999 and four more films since.

They're both great here, though they're the minor names in the cast. Caspar's uncle Potiphar is Mervyn Johns, his mother Agatha is Joyce Grenfell and yet another uncle Roderick is no less a name than Robert Morley. Boris Karloff's part goes to Danny Green, though Morgan is now yet another uncle, Morgana's father. There's even Peter Bull again as Caspar's twin brother Jasper. They all have huge fun here, with their bizarre habits and hobbies, all to keep them busy because they can't leave the house. Apparently there's a huge amount of money at stake, left in inheritance by a pirate ancestor who also left codicils that mean that anyone who isn't in the house at the stroke of midnight every single day forfeits their share. So Agatha knits 150 miles of wool a year, Roderick has an armoury in his room that includes cups with the names of his relatives written on them and Potiphar has spent twenty years building an ark to survive the rainstorm that he believes is the forty days and forty nights detailed in Genesis.
Of course this is supposed to be a horror movie, so naturally the bodies start mounting up in innovative ways. No, Robert Morley doesn't get force fed his poodles this time out, he'd have to wait another decade for that. Like most William Castle films, this one is so fast paced and so full of charm that it's impossible not to enjoy it, but it's also dumb enough to compare badly to his better gimmick films such as The Tingler, 13 Ghosts and Homicidal. Still ruling the roost in my opinion is his original version of House on Haunted Hill, even though it didn't benefit from the old dark house he uses here, Down Place. Anyone who's ever seen a Hammer horror will recognise this building, which they used in a hundred different films. It's here because this is a joint effort between Castle's own production company and Hammer Films.

It's a mixed bag really. There's very little gore, though so many people get a violent comeuppance, instead it's the humour accompanying the deaths that's the real joy. Best of all is when Agatha turns up with her knitting needles through her neck. Roderick says, in Robert Morley's joyous deadpan voice, 'It must have been murder, she always knitted so carefully.' There are so many good lines, 'delicious' being a description that comes quickly to mind, and I'm not just thinking of the hints at cannibalism. 'It's not every day we have an American for dinner,' they say. The ingenuity can't hold up to that standard, though it does try. Well, mostly it tries. When Penderel wakes up to find a slavering and growling but obviously stuffed hyena nibbling his fingers, I'm not sure if Tom Poston could really find it in himself to appear scared.

At the end of the day, there's much to enjoy here, but the title notwithstanding this is absolutely not the same film that James Whale made for Universal in 1932. This is a William Castle comedy, more murder mystery than horror film, and that with a very light heart. Even though the film is centred around the old dark house of the title, he even manages to slip in a quicksand scene. There's everything but the kitchen sink, really, and that's replaced by a basin of strong acid. Anyone wanting anything remotely similar to the original, a straight remake or just a thematic one, is going to be very disappointed unless they also have a taste for dark but safe sixties humour.

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