DVD Review: A Dark and Stormy Night

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.

SuspectsThis 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.

Hand 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.
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DVD Review: The Undying Monster

The Undying Monster is a 1940s old dark house mystery concerning a family legend about a werewolf. It was directed by John Brahm, who also did two much better movies in the “gaslight” thriller genre in the 1940s: The Lodger, and Hangover Square. All three came together in the same boxed set, which is how I got hold of this less well-known work of his.

Hammond Hall

After an opening voice-over that introduces the legend of the Hammond Monster and sets the story we are about to see in 1900, the movie takes us around the interior of an old mansion somewhere on the English coast.

The clock is striking 12 and chords of ominous music play. We end up in the drawing room, lit only by the fire in the fireplace.

Arm A woman’s arm is seen dangling limply over the edge of the sofa. An enormous Great Dane lies sprawled on the carpet. Are they both dead? Victims of the Monster?

No–it’s just a little directorial fake-out. The butler comes in a minute later and both the dog and the woman wake up. “I must’ve fallen asleep,” the latter says apologetically.

Great Dane

This young lady is Helga Hammond, who was waiting up for her brother Oliver’s return from the laboratory of a doctor friend who lives nearby. Oliver isn’t usually out this late. There is some conversation about poachers on the family estate and the butler quotes an old poem about the Hammond Monster: When there are “Bright stars, frost on the ground” (as there are on this particular night), “beware the bane on the rocky lane” (the path Oliver is most likely to take home). The Hammond siblings’ grandfather died on the cliff path along the sea coast 20 years ago–after seeing the Monster, the butler maintains.

Helga scoffs at the old family legend. She believes her grandfather killed himself. She doesn’t seem very worried about her brother, even after the Great Dane barks at something outside before running away into the frosty night, but she does telephone the doctor to confirm that Oliver did leave his house some time ago. She is about to go up to bed when a dog or wolf is heard howling in the distance.
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DVD Review: One Body Too Many

So, have you ever been watching The Wizard of Oz and find yourself looking at the Tin Woodsman and thinking, “Mm–that Jack Haley. I’d like to see him naked holding an armload of adorable black kittens.” No? Me neither. But if there’s somebody out there that’s had that thought, then I’ve found a movie for you.

One Body Too Many is a 1940s comedy that plays with the standard formula and tropes of those Old Dark House movies I’ve been hunting down during the last few years. Haley plays Albert Tuttle, a nerdy but ambitious insurance salesman who has an appointment to sign up a new client, Cyrus Rutherford, an eccentric millionaire so obsessed with astrology that he’s built an observatory on top of his mansion. What Albert doesn’t know is that his prospective client has no need to buy life insurance; he’s just dropped dead.

We cut to the familiar old scene of the family gathered at the mansion to hear the reading of the will–only, it isn’t a will. Cyrus Rutherford’s lawyer instead reads a preamble to his will, which leaves amounts from $50,000 to $1.50 for cab fare to the various people in the room–Rutherford’s sister and her husband, a collection of nieces and nephews, the astrologer who helped Rutherford design his observatory, the housekeeper and butler. (This last is played by Bela Lugosi, who doesn’t really get much to do in this movie besides play out a running joke by offering everyone cups of coffee which the viewer has reason to believe he’s poisoned to get rid of “all the rats.”) The preamble to Rutherford’s will also features some snarky comments about these people so that we get some quick sketches of their characters and can sort out the nice ones from the nasties… for the most part, anyway.

According to the terms of the preamble, Rutherford’s coffin is to be placed in a glass vault on top of the observatory so that he can always gaze up at the stars. This vault will take a few days to be built. No one can leave the house before then without forfeiting their inheritance. Once the body is in its final resting place, the will will be read. If, for some reason, the body isn’t placed in the vault according to Rutherford’s wishes, then the terms of the will will be reversed–that is, the people who were to receive the largest amounts of money will get pocket change and the original recipients of the small amounts will be rich. At this point, no one has read the will and don’t know what they are going to inherit, but from the snarky remarks in the preamble we can all guess who Rutherford did and didn’t like.

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DVD Review: Dark Shadows: The Beginning (first episodes)

Dark Shadows: Collinwood at nigtAs a little girl in the early ’70s, I would come home from school every day and turn on the TV to watch reruns of what we called “Barnabas Collins,” the show about the vampire.

I don’t recall very much about the show itself, however, except that one featured character named Maggie was played by an actress named Kathryn Leigh Scott–a name I am unlikely ever to forget or misspell. Nor can I say that I gave the show much thought in the last 40 years, until the first 200 episodes of Dark Shadows from 1966 and ’67, before the appearance of Barnabas Collins, became available on DVD in the wake of that very silly film remake.

The original concept for the show sounded like the sort of Old Dark House movies I’ve taken an interest in lately, atmospherically spooky and not so overtly supernatural as it later became. I thought I’d rent the first two sets of disks from Netflix and give it a look.

The first episode begins promisingly with a night-time view of a neo-Gothic house on a hill and a woman speaking in voice-over, at once evoking both The Haunting and Rebecca.

When the young woman speaking is introduced, her story also seems vaguely Jane-Eyrish.

Victoria WintersHer name is Victoria Winters (as she will announce at the beginning of nearly every subsequent episode). She was abandoned as an infant and has grown up in a New York orphanage. The only clues she has to her background are a note that was left with her as a baby, bearing her first name, and anonymous envelopes containing money for her care which have been sent regularly from Bangor, Maine, over the past eighteen years.

Vicky has just received a job offer from a woman named Elizabeth Collins Stoddard of Collinsport to be a governess to her nine-year-old nephew.

Vicky has never heard of the Collinses or Collinsport and has no idea how Mrs. Collins Stoddard has come to know about her, but Collinsport is only 50 miles from Bangor. Vicky has accepted the job in hopes of solving the mystery of her own past. We meet her on a train headed for the little coastal town.

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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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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.