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.
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Film Review: The Bat

Last year, when I was taking an interest in Old Dark House movies, I ran across this title. Based on a stage play, it’s the story of a killer dressed in a bat costume who terrorizes the inhabitants of an isolated country house. Sounded like just the sort of thing I was looking for! A silent version was made in the 1920s and another, presumably talkie version, in 1930. These earlier versions were not available on DVD, but since this 1959 remake starred Vincent Price and Agnes Moorehead, I thought it was worth a look.

Moorehead plays Cornelia Van Gorder, a writer of murder mysteries who has rented a country house called the Oaks for the summer from the bank president of the nearest town. The bank president, Mr. Fleming, is away vacationing in a cabin in the woods with his friend, the local doctor. Miss Van Gorder just happens to be at the bank, meeting the nice young cashier who’s been left in charge and his nice young wife, when over a million dollars worth of bonds and negotiable securities are discovered missing.
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CD Review: The Dunwich Horror

The Dunwich Horror appears to be the first of the 1930s-style radio plays on CD produced by the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society (HPLHS). I was sorry to see that Matt Foyer isn’t in this one—I’ve begun to be a fan of his.

H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror is the story of a decayed and nearly forgotten rural Massachusetts farm community and the curious events that occur there in the early part of the 20th century, culminating in the Horror in 1928. The family at the focus of these events are the Whateleys: the old man, “Wizard” Whateley, who practices strange rituals at the ancient stone circle on the hill near his farm; his albino daughter Lavinia, who somehow gives birth to a son with no apparent father (old Whateley has some things to say about Lavinia’s husband, but who pays attention to his lunatic ravings?); and Lavinia’s very peculiar son Wilbur.

Wilbur’s remarkable growth and premature maturity is probably the least weird thing about him. Something else seems to inhabit the Whateley home besides these three persons; the neighbors don’t see it, but they do hear strange sounds, smell odd smells, and make note of the anemic cows that old Whateley has to replace so frequently. It’s only after the old man and Lavinia have gone and Wilbur tries to beg, borrow, or steal an intact edition of the Necromonicon from the Miskatonic University library to replace his grandfather’s tattered and fragmentary copy that the Horror begins to unfold.
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CD Review: The Shadow over Innsmouth

When I purchased Whisperer in the Darkness from the HP Lovecraft Historical Society (HPLHS), I also bought a set of their radio plays on CD, charmingly boxed in a cardboard recreation of an old-fashioned, gothic-style radio cabinet. These plays are performed for The Dark Adventure Radio Theatre–the conceit being that these are episodes from a 1930s radio series, complete with an opening announcer and a sponsor, Fleur-de-Lis cigarettes.

The first one I listened to was The Shadow over Innsmouth, Lovecraft’s story of a young man from Ohio who takes an historical and genealogical tour of New England, including a visit to the decayed port town of Innsmouth. Once he starts poking around and talking to a crazy, drunken old man who knows all about the town’s history, he draws the ire of the rather fishy-looking inhabitants of Innsmouth and his brief visit ends in terrifying events that will change his life.

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Film Review: The Whisperer in Darkness

I’ve been waiting for this film to come out on DVD for a long time, since I first saw and fell in love with the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society’s (HPLHS) 1920s-style silent film The Call of Cthulhu. This latest film from the HPLHS is a talkie, done in the style of an early ’30s horror film.

The Whisperer in Darkness isn’t as close an adaptation of Lovecraft’s short story as Call of Cthulhu. The first thing that struck me when I began to watch it is that there are a lot more people here than appeared in the written story. New characters are introduced, and characters that were no more than alluded to by Lovecraft are present, fleshed out with dialog, and given roles to play in the drama that leads our protagonist Albert Wilmarth to his fate.
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My Old Map of the Northlands

I’ve found my original hand-drawn map of the Northlands, which was called Norelande when I began writing these stories. My graphic skills aren’t up to Molly Kiely’s, who redrew the map for the frontispieces of The Wizard’s Son and Maiden In Light, but this map shows the area where these stories are set in more geographical detail:

Map of the Northlands

Another excerpt from “Maiden In Light”

Laurel follows her uncle one night to discover what goes on during the wizard’s secret vigils:
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After sunset on Midsummer eve, as twilight deepened, Laurel hid and waited impatiently in the shadowed thickets of the chapel garden.

From her first days at the castle, she’d watched Lord Redmantyl go out on the nights of Equinox and Solstice, on May Night, Maryemas, Candlemas, and All Hallows, and she wondered each time where he went. The wizard would never tell. If she looked out of her dressing-room window in the late hours, she sometimes saw strange, glowing lights out on Greenwaters Island—the unnatural color of wizard-fire. Something spectacular was happening and she was eager to discover what it was. Her uncle’s promises that she would understand when she was a wizard herself did not satisfy. She sensed a tantalizing, ominous truth behind this mystery. Her training told her that she was being prepared for great vigilance. Each exercise indicated a magical purpose which required enormous power uncontaminated by external influences. She was armed as a knight errant for battle, but against whom? What foe did she defend herself against? Wizard’s Keep was the key.

She couldn’t wait until she became a wizard; she must know now.
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Excerpt from “Maiden In Light”

Laurel attempts to bring out her timid cousin Igren’s latent magical abilities.
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“Igren, will you have another lesson?”

“If you wish.” The girl rose from the coucherie by her dressing-room windows, where she’d been watching the rain, and came to Laurel. “What shall we do?”

“We must test the nature of your ability. You may command best within the mental medium.”

“The- What-?”

“Some magic has no influence in the material world,” Laurel explained, simplifying the lengthy and tortuous passages she’d gathered from a dozen sources on the subject in her quest to discover an answer for Igren’s talents. “A mental magician exerts her will only in the mental energies of other people and living creatures. She senses them—she reads the thoughts which pass through another mind and she can disrupt them and command their actions.”

“Another of your books,” said Igren, with a smile. “What does it mean?”

“Such magicians cannot cast spells and so are not counted as true wizards, but they are no less magical.”
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Film Review: The Ghost Train

This DVD came up as recommended on Netflix after I rented The Cat and the Canary, but it’s really not an Old Dark House movie as such. Old Dark Railway Station would be a more accurate description, although the story occurs during the usual dark and stormy night.

The Ghost Train was filmed during World War II, and it is a movie about the hardships and privations faced by ordinary British people during the Blitz. When a group of railway passengers on their way to Cornwall miss their connection and are forced to spend the night in a little rail station in the middle of nowhere during a storm, that’s only the beginning of their problems. One of their number is a painfully unfunny music hall comedian named Tommy Gander, who makes every effort to cheer up his fellow passengers; his fellow passengers make every effort not to toss him onto the railway, although one of them does throw out Tommy’s phonograph to put an end to his singing. Before he leaves for the night, the dour station master also warns this hapless group that the station is haunted by a ghostly train that runs past on an abandoned rail line and brings death to anyone unfortunate enough to hear or see it. Trapped between these horrible two fates–deadly ghost train versus sitting up all night with Tommy Gander–the plucky Brits make some tea and settle down to face the worst.

There are two or three nicely atmospheric moments in this movie: the station master tells the tale of the horrible crash that brought the ghost train into being; the sound of echoing footsteps on the train platform, which on investigation turn out to be this same station master, who then falls down dead; a young woman, not one of the passengers, shows up specifically to see the train and, as she tells the group about it in tones of rising hysteria, lights appear far down the tracks and the group hears the distant rumble of a train approaching…

Unfortunately, between these spooky little bits, one has to put up with a lot of tedious comedy.

The Cat and the Canary

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I’ve taken a recent interest in recreations of old-style film genres. A Dark and Stormy Night, which is a spoof and loving recreation of the Old Dark House movies of the 1920s and 30s, has led me to seek out as many of these movies as I can find.

I’ve started out with the 1928 silent version of The Cat and the Canary. On viewing, it’s immediately apparent that this is the movie that A Dark and Stormy Night follows most closely. The Cat and the Canary begins with an old man dying and leaving his will to be read twenty years after his death. His surviving potential heirs–one elderly aunt and five cousins, most of whom must’ve been children at the time of their uncle’s death–show up at his spooky-looking house in the middle of the night for this reading of the will, and are greeted by a dour housekeeper who could give Mrs. Danvers some hints on how to be creepy. Everything is left to one niece, Annabella, but the family lawyer has a second document in a sealed envelope containing the name of an alternate heir if Annabella is deemed insane by a doctor’s examination. Before this second envelope can be opened, however, the lawyer is murdered and the envelope disappears with him. There are secret panels all over the place, and a mysterious hand emerges from the draperies over the heiress’s bed. Oh, and there’s a murderous lunatic escaped from a nearby asylum running around either outside or inside the house.

As the above description suggests, The Cat and the Canary‘s plotting and stage elements introduce several haunted house and murder mystery tropes that would be reused by everyone from Agatha Christie to Scooby Doo until they became standard genre cliches. I’d never seen this film before, but it felt like I’d seen parts of it a dozen times.

In spite of being recycled to death, The Cat and the Canary remains extremely entertaining for a film over 80 years old. It’s a fast-moving story, and features some imaginative and interesting imagery: The opening scene shows the old man sitting in his wheelchair before the silhouette of his multi-towered house, which then dissolves into a collection of enormous medicine bottles, then a group of bad-tempered cats surround this ill and elderly “canary.” A clock’s inner workings striking the chimes at midnight are superimposed over the reading of the will. When a painting of the old man falls suddenly off the wall, the reactions of the family are shown from the falling painting’s point of view.

The movie also seems surprisingly “talky” for a silent film. Title cards are not overused, and the actors appear to be speaking their actual lines so that the viewer can often follow what they’re saying without seeing an accompanying text. When Annabella describes how her diamond necklace–part of her inheritance–was snatched from her by the aforementioned hand emerging from the bed draperies, her agitated gestures and her family’s dubious looks tell us all we need to know about the situation. The mystery and spooky-house elements of the story are balanced by comic relief, mostly provided by the fussy aunt and one nebbishy cousin who is sweet on Annabella. While not all the comedy still works well, the filmmakers also have a little fun with the title cards they do use. When someone speaks of GHOSTS, the word appears in a large and wavy font. When the aunt swears at her nephew, the screen fills with the sort of expletive-deleted characters ones sees in comic strips.