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Monday, 28 December 2009

The House of Fear (1945)

Director: Roy William Neill
Stars: Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce
Knowing that it has a mere 69 minutes to run, The House of Fear gets right down to business, as an insurance agent explains why he's asking Sherlock Holmes to come to Scotland. It's a standard mystery setup, centred around an extraordinary club of seven men living together in an isolated mansion. It's called Drearcliffe House and it's perched on a cliff on the west coast of Scotland, the ancestral home of the eldest of them, Bruce Alastair. They're all past middle age, all without next of kin and all reasonably well to do, and they've all signed their insurance policies over to the group, apparently utterly oblivious that any group who set up such a scheme is bound to start getting bumped off. Don't they watch the movies?

Sure enough that's what's happening and there's a definable pattern. As they sit down to dinner together each night, Mrs Monteith, a housekeeper so austere she could have played Frankenstein's Monster, brings in an envelope that's been stuck under a door and delivers it to one of the club members. It contains nothing but orange pips, beginning with seven and decreasing one each time, and it's a particular omen of death. By the next night the recipient will be dead, two of them having already succumbed: Ralph King, retired barrister, driven off a cliff and burned up in the wreck; and a former actor called Stanley Raeburn who drowns. All are identifiable but none go complete to their grave.

Holmes leaps at the challenge, especially when he looks at the photo of the seven members of the club and recognises one of their number. He ought to, given that he'd argued with him two films ago in The Scarlet Claw, but that was merely yet another example of actors coming back over and over again to play new characters. Actor Paul Cavanaugh would soon be back again for the next film, The Woman in Green. Holmes really recognises Dr Simon Merrivale, a man who disappeared years ago after being acquitted of the murder of his young bride, so it's the Flying Scotsman and the first cart to Inverneill for Holmes and Watson, though they find a third man burned to death by the time they get there, Guy Davies.
This is textbook stuff, as even though we're set up from moment one to believe one man is the killer we're also given plenty of hints that it could be everyone else too. Every man of the seven could have done it, except the dead ones of course, and we're given good reason. Alan Cosgrave came up with the idea in the first place, putting him under obvious suspicion. Capt John Simpson is an irascible soul, the easiest to believe would have the mentality to murder in cold blood. Dr Merrivale doesn't just have suspicion through his past history but is an avid reader of lurid murder novels. Even their host, Bruce Alistair, is suspicious because he's so utterly cheerful that he's too good to be true. We could easily believe that he's a cult member yearning for the day he'll get to take his kool aid.

It certainly kept me guessing all the way to the end and while the revelation isn't the most surprising one in the world, it's a lot more surprising than previous films in the series. In fact some of them, like The Spider Woman, dispensed entirely with all such guesswork and told us whodunit in the movie's title. This is by the far the most traditional mystery, at least thus far, even if it's not perhaps up to the quality of The Scarlet Claw, and it bodes well for the series that it's stayed so strong, even built up to this level of quality ten movies in. There's certainly precedent if you look at such a B movie series as the direct equivalent of a modern TV series. Even now we're cursing the cancellation of Dollhouse, which has consistently improved as it's run on. If they'd have cancelled the Rathbone/Bruce Holmes movies at this point, I'd be cursing Universal in precisely the same way.

I'm sure I've seen the Victorian era Holmes movies made for Twentieth Century Fox before, albeit as a kid, and more recently I've seen the four Universal ones that lapsed into the public domain because they're so easily available, on dollar DVDs and 50 movie box sets everywhere. Yet working through the complete series in order I'm coming quickly to the opinion that it may be some of the others which I quite possibly haven't seen before that are going to stay with me. In particular, the five Universal films from Sherlock Holmes Faces Death to The House of Fear are pure entertainment, very different stylistically but consistent in their outlook. A few closing comments notwithstanding, they feel fresh after the slightly forced propaganda trilogy that preceded them and Rathbone and Bruce, not to mention Dennis Hoey as Lestrade, settle more into their characters with every film, working off each other blissfully. I've seen at least three of the last four before. It's going to be interesting to see how they play a second time around.

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