Film Review: Edgar Wallace’s “The Terror”

Edgar Wallace is known for his crime dramas that often feature brutal and grotesque acts of violence. A number of films were made from them through the 1930s through the ’60s in the UK and Germany. Not my usual cup of tea, but this film featured a haunted house, so I put it in my queue to watch.

The Terror‘s story begins with two career criminals named Joe Connor and Soapy Marks (the latter played by Alastair Sim) who have just participated in the theft of a large shipment of gold in transit between Paris and New York; before they can enjoy their ill-gotten gains, however, they are betrayed by their unseen third partner-in-crime, known to them as Micheal Shea. It’s Shea’s phone call to the police that leads to the arrest of Connor and Marks, while he keeps all the gold for himself.

Ten years in prison give Connor and Marks more than ample time to think about revenge. The police, meanwhile, are still searching for the gold, which has never been recovered; they believe that the two about-to-be ex-cons know more about its whereabouts than they admit. Marks and Connor don’t know, but they do have some idea of where to hunt for Shea once they’ve been released.

Which brings us to my reason for watching this movie: Monk’s Hall Priory, an ancient building in a remote location in the English countryside. It has been restored by its present owner, the retired Colonel Redman. He runs the place as a guest house, but the very few people who actually stay in the Priory wonder why the Colonel turns prospective guests away when there are so many available rooms. The people that the Colonel does allow to stay at the Priory are the fey Mr. Goodman, who looks after the hothouse orchids, the psychic Mrs. Elbury, and her daffy daughter Veronica. Mrs. Elbury keeps a scrapbook of the crimes she has aided the police in solving with her psychic powers. She also claims that the Priory is haunted. Organ music has been heard echoing through the house at night. The black-cowled figure of a monk has also been seen on the grounds, especially in the neighborhood of some ruins known as the Monk’s Tomb. Mr. Goodman gleefully shows the ladies some panels in the drawing room wall where a secret door once was; he spooks them with stories about how the “black” monks performed satanic ceremonies in a hidden underground chapel, accessible only through the now-bricked-up door. All very good, creepy stuff!

These ghostly elements come into play that evening after Colonel Redman’s daughter, Mary, arrives. She’s been away at school for many years and has never been to the Priory before. On her first night in her new home, Mary hears the organ music and, like any spirited heroine, puts on her robe and goes downstairs to investigate. Sadly, like many a heroine in her position, she faints when she sees the figure of the monk through the drawing-room windows and hears “mad” laughter echoing through the darkness.

The last important character we meet is a young man (played by a surprisingly youthful Bernard Lee) who hangs about the place asking to be given a room. He must be the person Mr. Goodman and Elburys were talking about earlier, since his request seems to be a repeated one and the Colonel’s refusal just as often repeated. I can’t say I blame the Colonel, since this prospective guest appears to be in a permanently tipsy state. After this latest rejection, the young man wanders the Priory garden long enough to flirt with Mary and introduce himself by the name of Ferdie Fane. Like his drunkness, this name has a suspiciously false ring to it. Who is he and why is he so desperate to get into the Priory? Could he be Shea? Connor, who’s been lurking in the shrubbery, seems to believe he is though he’s never set eyes on the man who betrayed him.

Fane is still near the Priory the following night–a dark and stormy night, by the way. When he shows up at the front door, Mary pleads that they can’t throw him out in such terrible weather. The Colonel finally relents and shows the spurious Mr. Fane to a room.

That same stormy night, the butler makes a show of shutting up the house, but deliberately leaves one of the drawing room windows unlatched. This enables Joe Conner to enter and search around with a flashlight. He doesn’t find the hidden gold, but he does encounter someone else in the dark. When the lights come on, Connor is lying strangled on the carpet.

The police descend upon the Priory the next morning to question everybody. Mrs. Elbury is especially eager to show them her scrapbook, but the police decline her offers of psychic assistance. They are more interested in talking to Mr. Faux-Tipsy Fane. A second possibility about his identity arises when they question him, however. If he isn’t Shea, could he be working undercover for the police? One hopes so for Mary’s sake, since she’s been developing some tender feelings for him since they met in the garden. In the midst of this investigation, another guest arrives to ask for a room, a kindly old vicar who looks very much like Alastair Sim in a white wig. The vicar drops his teacup when he hears the name of the man who’s been murdered, but decides to stay on anyway and have a look around the house for himself that evening. He’s as suspicious of Fane as his late partner-in-crime was, and there appears to be a second strangling amongst the drawing-room draperies.

Colonel Redman, meanwhile, has made arrangements for his daughter and the Elburys to go and stay at a nearby village inn while there’s a murderer on the loose; somehow, Mary fails to drive off in the car with the other ladies. Her growing attraction to Fane draws her back into the house, where she finds him gone from the drawing room where two had parted mere minutes before. While she puzzles over his abrupt disappearance, that secret door that was supposed to be sealed off slides open and the menacing shadow of a robed figure emerges and reaches out toward Mary with a fiendish chuckle….

The Terror packs a lot of plot into a movie that’s barely over an hour long. While that’s great in terms of keeping things moving at a brisk pace, I could’ve done with some more trappings of the so-called haunting, since that’s what I was watching this for. (I don’t think I’m giving too much away by revealing that a living human is behind the nightly organ music and the ghostly monk, not to mention Connor’s murder). Mary’s midnight wanderings are the high point of the story in that respect. At least, The Terror was an entertaining little early British thriller, and I’m always happy to see Alastair Sim even in a small role.