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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A Cottage on Dartmoor

This is a long overlooked British silent film, directed by Anthony Asquith in the early days of his career. I’m posting my review of it here because the cottage reminds me of Orlan’s at the end of the novel–one large room below, and a partial loft above. The story is not at all similar.

A man breaks out of Dartmoor prison and runs across the darkened moors to the title cottage, where a woman is putting her baby to bed in the loft. He breaks in just before she comes downstairs. When she sees him, she is naturally alarmed… but they call each other by their first names.

Most of the rest of the movie is a flashback to when the escaped prisoner was a barber and the woman a manicurist at a posh hotel barber’s shop; he is smitten with her in a shy-but-slightly-creepy way and believes she returns his affections due to a misunderstanding about some flowers he sent her. When she falls in love with one of their regular customers, he goes into full-blown jealous stalker mode and follows the couple on a date to the movies (They’re in a silent movie, but they’re going to see a talky).

The scene in the theater is one of the movie’s high points: we never see what the audience is watching, but we observe all their reactions. I guessed that the short before the main feature was a Harrold Lloyd comedy from the way a boy in the audience reacts to Lloydish-looking man in glasses sitting near him. At one point, the scene features enough quick cuts to keep the shortest of modern attention spans happy. And while nearly everyone else is the theater is enthralled by the movie–and the manicurist and her boyfriend are cuddling up during the suspenseful parts–Stalker-guy is seated in the row immediately behind them and never takes his eyes off them.

The next day, the boyfriend comes into the barber shop for his usual shave and manicure. While the couple flirts as she works on his nails, guess who is holding a straight razor near his throat? This scene is a forerunner the sort of suspense work we’ll later see from Alfred Hitchcock. And since the man holding the razor escaped from prison at the beginning of the movie, the tension of the moment increases only toward dread.

The movie is worth seeing just for these two sequences alone.

New Amazon review

“Kathryn Ramage effortlessly transports you to the Northlands, an alternate Earthly reality of magick and wizards. Once again, she delivers an unusual, unexpected — but very satisfying — take on the journey of becoming a wizard. Her world is vivid and believable, and the story very much character-driven; I didn’t want to leave, and I fell absolutely in love with Laurel — this is a perfect fantasy read for long weekend.”
Escape for a Weekend to the Northlands…, by Molly Kiely, June 23, 2011

New Maiden in Light review

Maiden in Light is beautifully written, vivid descriptive passages alternating with well-paced action, poetry intermingling with natural dialogue. Laurel herself is a likeable heroine, strong yet with understandable human failings, impulsive yet given to procrastination, and playful while capable of being ruthless; her story is reminiscent of the Romantic literary legend of Lorelei, a nymph inhabiting a rock above the river Rhine, who siren-like attracts the attention of would-be lovers, though her fate is somewhat different from Laurel’s. How the youngster gets to grips with the distractions that life throws at her while attempting to be single-minded about her calling and its associated responsibilities makes for engrossing reading, repaying the investment the reader pays in empathising with her character.”
GoodReads, by Ed Pendragon, May 24, 2011

Jubercat review of Maiden in Light

“The story begins with Laurel, who has never felt comfortable or accepted in her home town of New York, being called for by her Uncle Redmantyl to join him at Wizardes Cliff and become a magical apprentice. Laurel is happy to leave New York, and her adventures at her uncle’s home as she learns the ways of magic and makes friends with the other apprentices make for a delightful and charming read. Things change when she is sent back to New York on a mission for her uncle.”
Maiden in Light, review by Jubercat, LibraryThing, May 8, 2011

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.