This is one of my favorite movies, right up there with A Room With a View and Horror Express. Watching it for the first time led me to start hunting down movies from that genre, and eventually led to my watching and reviewing Dark Shadows.
This 2009 film was Larry Blamire’s last–and I really wish he’d do some more. As his previous works were loving parodies and recreations of the low-budget sci-fi movies of the 1950s and ’60s, A Dark and Stormy Night spoofs the Old Dark House movies that were popular from the 1920s through the ’40s. Not only is it in black and white, but the actors’ performances, the sets, the musical cues, and even the opening credits are very much in the style of that period.
The plot particularly follows that of one of the very first Old Dark House movies, the 1927 silent film The Cat and the Canary, which shows how little the template for this genre has diverged over 80 years.
A family and various other suspicious people assemble at a huge and spooky old house for the reading of a will during a stormy night. There are multiple murders, secret panels all over the place, and even a phantom arm coming through a bedroom wall to snatch at a hapless young woman in bed.
On the wet and windswept evening of May 10, 1930, our hero arrives in a taxi-cab from the big city (presumably New York, although there’s a certain vagueness about the location of the house). He’s a type you’d rarely see outside of 1930s films, a fast-talking reporter by the name of 8 O’Clock Farraday (Daniel Roebuck, who played Gondreau Sykes in The Lost Skeleton Returns Again and had an unfortunate encounter with a flying skull. If you watched Lost, he was also Dr. Arzt, who had an unfortunate encounter with some oversensitive dynamite). His newspaper has sent him out to isolated Cavender Manor to get a story on the reading of Sinas Cavinder’s will.
Arriving at the house along with Farraday are the cabbie Happy Codburn (Dan Conroy, Ranger / Jungle Brad from the Lost Skeleton movies), pursuing the 35 cents Farraday stills owes him, and a rival reporter, Billy Tuesday (Jennifer Blaire, Lost Skeleton‘s Animala), who was hiding in the taxi’s trunk.
Farraday and Billy have one of those hate-love relationships and engage in frequent arguments of the “Oh, yeah?” / “Yeah!” / “Sez you!” / “So’s your old man.” / “Why I oughta…” variety.
Several other people also show up at the front door claiming that their cars have broken down: nerdy Ray Vestinhaus (writer/director Larry Blamire), chipper, death-foreseeing medium Mrs. Cupcupboard, and Teak Armbruster, who is having an affair with the lady of the house.
Also present are Burling’s friends, upper-class twit Lord Partfine (Andrew Parks) and big-game hunter Jack Tugden (Jim Beaver), and an elderly lady who turns out to be there by accident (Betty Garrett, in her final film).
The household servants are Jane the Cockney maid (producer Trish Geiger), Jeems the cadaveric butler, and Archie the cleaver-mad cook.
That’s a whole lot of people, but the cast will get thinned out as we go along.
Burling extends “the clutching hands of hospitality” to the reporters and other unexpected visitors, invites them to the reading of the will, and sends Jane to the kitchen to have Archie make some “will snacks.”
The group gathers in the drawing room. This is the big scene, central to setting up everything else in the movie that follows; think of it like the Council at Rivendell, without any elves, but just as complicated as it introduces all the main characters and explains the plot ahead.
The one point I’m unclear about is how long Uncle Sinas has been gone. If the story follows The Cat in the Canary, the will in that movie was read 20 years after the old man’s death; Sinas Cavinder may have been dead as long as 30.
Before the will is read, Burling tells the tale of Uncle Sinas’s intention to come back from the grave, in one of those magnificently absurd monologues Larry Blamire writes so well:
“It was on a night just like this. I was but a child then–deep, sensitive, special. Even then, I knew his words meant harm… and mischief.
Uncle Sinas sat here in the glow of the fire, his mottled brow catching the embers like small, flaming children, his knees bent in a manner most pliant, so rubbery were they, his great cloak drawn up like a cloth moat around this human castle, stormed by the breadsticks of a dinner that never happened. And he turned that great, haggard head toward me and he swore that on this night, 30 years hence, he would return and he would do bad, bad things. He didn’t go into specifics.
This horror will begin when the clock strikes 13.
Further pre-will exposition reveals that not only is Uncle Sinas planning to come back, but that witch Sarah Cavinder–who was burned at the stake 300 years ago–foretold her own return on this very same night. Oh, and there’s a strangler roaming the vast, unexplored Cavinder Moor, murdering women named So-So. So-So, as Sabasha sobbingly informs us, was her own childhood nickname.
Once this background for a night of terror is established, the family lawyer finally reads the will. High points:
- Complete stranger Ray Vestinhaus, whose car just broke down, is left $10,000 in small, unmarked bills. (Ray: “Holy smoke, what a piece of luck! I’m so glad I was out driving in the middle of nowhere.”)
- Pristy Famish receives 1 dollar, to purchase a human heart. (Pristy: “Where I am gonna get a heart for a buck?”)
- Her husband Burling receives some odds and ends, but not the fortune he was expecting (Burling: “Curse you! Curse you, Sinas Cavinder!”)
- The Cavinder fortune, including the house, estate, stocks, shares, and complimentary fruit basket, all goes to Sabasha.
- Did he leave Happy Codburn 35 cents? No. Skip it.
In the event that something happens to Sabasha, Burling will get it all–which would give Burling a pretty good motive for murdering Sabasha. The poor, fragile girl is already receiving death threats.
Wait! There’s a codicil that’s to be read separately… but the envelope it was supposed to be in is empty. Fortunately, the lawyer smugly announces, he knows what was in the codicil.
Before he can say anything more, the lights go out. When the maid turns them back on (nobody else seems able to handle a light switch), the lawyer has been stabbed in the back. Judging by the position of the knife.
They can’t call the police; the phone lines are down. Nor can Jeems “flee” to town to report the murder, nor anyone else escape from being the murderer’s next victim; the rickety bridge that connects the house to the main road is washed out. Their fast-talking, wise-cracking eagerness to bring in the big murder scoop results in the reporters acting as detectives and, involuntarily, bodyguards for Sabasha.
After seeing the whimpering young lady to her room and planting the unhappy Happy outside the door to keep watch, the two reporters sneak back downstairs to search the library for that missing codicil.
Unbeknownst to them, Pristy and Teak have arranged to meet in the library to discuss their plans to murder their way into the money. Pristy is already waiting in the library, when the clock strikes 13.
By the time Billy, Teak, and Eight O’Clock reach the library, Pristy is dead on the carpet.
The two reporters are quick to figure out that, since they just came in through the only door and didn’t see the murderer come out, there must be another, secret way into the room. In fact, the hem of the Phantom’s robe is caught by the closed bookshelf panel and we hear the sound of scissors at work during this scene.
One of the most difficult things about writing descriptions of comedy is making it read as funny as it sounds. Delivery of a line is so often crucial to how well a joke works. If I say that they find a note left beside Pristy’s body–“You will be next”–and the meaning of these 4 little words shift and change as the group takes turns reading it, that doesn’t tell you that this is one of the funniest scene in the entire movie. But it is.
Sabasha disappears from her locked room. While everyone is running around the house, Teak and Jack Tugden also vanish. (“Maybe they’re in cahoots.” “They must be, if they’re out in this weather.”) Heading back to the library, they find that Pristy’s body is also gone.
In the midst of this chaos, there’s a knock on the door and Dr. Von Vandervon (H.M. Wynant, who was the grumpy Dr. Applethorpe in Trail of the Screaming Forehead) comes in. He’s been lurking outside the house since the beginning of the movie, peeking in through the windows, and he’s ready now to reveal what he’s hanging around for.
As the dwindling group gathers in the dining room and enjoys some wine and those will snacks that Jane didn’t serve earlier, the doctor explains that he’s from the nearby asylum for the criminally uninhibited and is tracking an escaped homicidal patient named Roka Santachow. He’s never actually seen his patient and can’t describe him/her. (“Is this Roka male or female?” “Yes, definitely.”) But he believes that Roka, a master of disguise, may be one of the people currently inside the house.
Suspicions rise and tempers flair. The obvious thing to do next is hold a seance.
Mrs. Cupcupboard really lets herself go wild as she summons up her spirit guide, Gunny Gunny Luck Cakes (Marvin Kaplan). Gunny, however, is unable to give her any information about the situation except that it’s “Baaad.”
The candles are abruptly blown out and there’s total darkness for exactly 6 seconds. Jane, once again, is the only person who knows how to flick a switch.
The group around the dining-room table turns to see what the servants see.
Jack Tugden has been killed and his head professionally mounted on the wall. (“Golly, that was really quick work.”) No one heard anything during the seconds of darkness apart from some muttering about a doorknob.
Burling ushers his guests out: “Let us leave this room of Death and mounted heads who once were friends…”
Back in the drawing room, there’s another round of questions and accusations, which gives us a chance to get to know our suspects a little bit better. The group agrees that the safest thing to do is stick together, then immediately breaks up to try and find either the missing codicil or the missing Sabasha.
Farraday, Billie, and Happy search the library. They don’t find the codicil, but when Happy accidentally opens up the panel behind the bookshelf, a secret passage is revealed. Also, Teak’s back-stabbed body falls out.
Following the passage, the trio come upon:
- The skull of the Lost Skeleton of Cadavra in a niche.
- Betty Garrett wandering around with her pet gorilla; these two will walk through scenes throughout the movie.
- Sabasha lying unconscious in a rather cool-looking master criminal’s lair.
- Another secret door that takes them into the kitchen where they meet the cook and his meat-cleaver. Jane will convince him to put it down, “Not in the bad way, Archie.”
When she wakes, Sabasha tells a chilling tale of a hand emerging through her bedroom wall–“through the very wall, I say!”–and blacking out to find herself in this strange and completely different place.
This gives Farraday a bright idea. He sets a trap, placing Billy in Sabasha’s bed while he and Happy settle down to watch over her and wait for “a clutching, hooded fiend to abscond with our imitation heiress.”
The hand does eventually emerge from the wall above the bed. They get into a slapstick fight with it, but fail to capture the Phantom or discover that mysterious person’s identity.
Meanwhile, Lord Partfine has regaled (and put to sleep) a number of people in the drawing room with tales of his old school chums damaging or misplacing their trousers. When the reporters, cabbie, and Sabasha come downstairs to join/wake them, there’s another round of suspicious and increasingly ridiculous accusations. Burling completely flips out and the doctor sedates him. (or maybe not; he did first say that that pill was a “powerful and fast-acting poison.”)
Uncle Seyton announces that he’s found the codicil, but then the lights go out one more time and he doesn’t hold on to it for very long.
“It’s like being caught in a confined space when there’s a maniac on the loose,” says Sabasha.
In a truly startling moment, the Cavinder witch appears in a flash of lightning–then disappears again!
Mrs. Cupcupboard gets grabbed by the Phantom, and Happy is lured into a room up at the very top of the house by a woman’s voice.
Jane runs into a horrible, indescribable vision elsewhere in the house, and is prompted to describe it by 8 O’Clock and Billy:
“Oooh, it was awful, Miss! Just awful! Like the very bowels of hell just opened up and vomited forth some unspeakable terror! Like something from your wildest nightmare it was! Something that couldn’t be described in a million years! A thing like that could kill you just in the describing. It was beyond any description, Sir. Like, description just ain’t been invented for the likes of this. Nameless and unspeakable it was! If I do, the very bowels of the pits of Hades would open their great maw and pull me down into an eternal black hole in a sea of fire and pain and horror! …
“I think it was someone wearing a hood.”
Just when it looks like the story is going all over the place, it suddenly comes together and things begin to make sense–as much sense as the Old Dark House movies it copies ever did. The following questions will be answered:
- Who is the Phantom? Who is the Strangler? Who is Roka Santachow? Are they all the same person, or are there two or three different murderers at work?
- Who built that rather spiffy secret lair and what fiendish purpose is it intended for?
- What’s in that codicil that’s worth murdering for?
- What secrets are the servants keeping? Who is Jane taking trays up to in that locked room on the top floor?
- What’s the deal with the Cavinder witch?
- What’s up with Ray?
- Will Happy get his 35 cents before this stormy night is over?
Have I mentioned that I love this movie? I love the period look. I love Larry Blamire’s dialog, whether it’s in the snappy 1930’s style of the reporters and Happy as they engage in Stooge- and Bowery-Boy-like routines, Lord Partfine’s nonsensical witticisms (“It’s better to stay the night than to be the night.”), or complete absurdities. One character in particular steals the show with some great lines I wish I had the opportunity to quote more often, but I can’t say more about that without spoiling the ending.
The DVD has a making-of featurette, a blooper reel, and a color version of the film for people who won’t watch black and white movies–but if you do that, then you won’t be able to play the terrific cast commentary. Like the commentaries on the Lost Skeleton movies, it’s nearly as funny as the movie itself.