Saturday, 14 April 2018

Flesh-crawling movies - The Old Dark House, The Ghoul, The Maze, Quatermass and Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte

The Old Dark House (1932) was both English director James Whale's and actor Boris Karloff's follow-up horror movie to their smash hit of the previous year, Frankenstein. Based on the J.B. Priestley novel Benighted, it sounds like a routine "bunch of disparate people locked up in a spooky, isolated house on a stormy night" number - but the essentially parodic script is witty, and Whale and his sparkling, first-rate cast manage to make it genuinely funny and genuinely creepy. Karloff is effectively menacing as a deranged, alcoholic brute of a butler (a bearded version of Frankenstein's monster without the neck bolts or most of the pathos), particularly during the scene where he chases a young lady around the house in a drink and lust-fuelled rage - and Brember Wills as the house's resident pyromaniac, the pixie-like Saul, is, if anything, even more alarming...

...Charles Laughton, in his first Hollywood movie, is terrific as a bluff, self-made Northern businessman, Wilfred Thesiger hams it up nicely as the gloomy owner of the gloomy house, and Melvyn Douglas (a poor man's William Powell) and Raymond Massey do a decent job as stranded travellers forced to seek shelter after their car breaks down. The film did well at the British box office, but poorly in America: the New York papers reviewed it favourably, while the Hollywood trade press gave it the thumbs-down. Its reputation has grown over the years - deservedly, because it's a clever, funny, spooky classic.

The whole film is available on YouTube, but for those of you with better things to do, this modern trailer is fun:

The Old Dark House was considered a lost film for many years, until a director friend of Whale's discovered a print in the Universal vaults in 1968. Good work, that man. The Ghoul, a 1933 British horror movie, was also considered lost until a print surfaced in the Shepperton vaults in the early '80s - it wasn't until 2003 that the resulting high-quality version replaced a crappy Czech copy circulating on VHS. Although he isn't on screen for that long, the star of the film is Boris Karloff, who was persuaded to sail back to Blighty to make it, basking in the success of Frankenstein and, more recently, The Old Dark House (in Britain, at least) and The MummyThe Ghoul borrows elements from all three films. Karloff plays a dying man who gives his manservant strict instructions to bury him in the family vault, clutching "The Eternal Light", an ancient Egyptian jewel which - together with some mumbo-jumbo mystical incantations - will enable him to enjoy a pleasant, untroubled retirement in The Beyond. If he isn't buried with the jewel, he will rise from the dead and indulge in some serious smiting. What could possibly go wrong?

Karloff - who gets a chance to show off his impressive physique - is in impressive good form, as are Ralph Richardson in his very first film (as a vicar who turns out to be a wrong 'un), Cedric Hardwicke, who would become a Hollywood horror stalwart, until a sordid sex scandal severely dented his career, and Wilfred Thesiger (again) as the unfaithful servant who unleashes the wrath of Anubis - or whatever - by switching the precious stone for a fake.

The first half of the film is very atmospheric, and well worth watching, but it all goes a bit pear-shaped in the second half, when it morphs from The Mummy into an unfunny and unscary version of The Old Dark House, with a bewildering number of characters dodging death in Karloff's isolated mansion. This section of the film isn't helped by an extremely annoying performance by a young Kathleen Harrison, playing the common, comedy-relief chum of the posh heroine (she never shuts up and never says or does anything remotely funny - Arthur Askey presumably modelled his whole acting style on her performance), while Anthony Bushell (who would go on to do better things) has the unenviable task of playing the dashing young hero whose main characteristic is that he's a rude, stupid, thoroughly unpleasant prick.

I can't find a good trailer for The Ghoul - so here's the whole film:

I've no idea how I managed to miss Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte for 54 years - but I'm glad to have finally caught up with it. It was director Robert Aldrich's follow-up to his surprising smash-hit, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? - and it's a really enjoyable slice of over-the-top Southern Gothic horror. Bette Davies is a supposedly mad, wealthy old lady who, despite court orders to the contrary, is refusing to vacate her vast ante-bellum mansion to make way for a new highway. Everyone believes that Bette decapitated her lover during a house-party many moons ago, while Bette believes her dead father did the dirty deed. Enter Olivia de Havilland, a sensible, pleasant, once-poor distant cousin who grew up with the family, to take care of everything (Joan Crawford started off in the role, but was fired for being a despicable, lying ratbag, and Aldrich had fly to Switzerland to beg Ms de Havilland to take over) ***SPOILER ALERT*** Turns out cousin Olivia, in cahoots with Joseph Cotten, a sleazy, dissipated local doctor, are gaslighting Bette, trying to  convince her that her headless lover has returned, so they can get their mitts on the old lady's dosh. Only, Bette overhears them discussing the plot, and... well, it's a good ending.

Aldrich's four days in Switzerland were well spent, because Olivia de Havilland is simply perfect as the poised, sweet-natured carer who turns out to be a vicious psychopath - but then she'd already managed a similar trick, playing identical but very different twins, in Robert Siodmak's 1946 thriller, The Dark Mirror,  which I saw for the first time last week. And Bette Davis was evidently having a ball, while Joseph Cotten demonstrates once again that he's more convincing at playing creeps than heroes. Agnes Moorhead and Mary Astor are also terrific (as you can tell, the film is stuffed with oldies but goodies).

The film isn't available online, but here's a trailer:

Now, the 3-D horror film, The Maze (1953). A young man holidaying with his fiancée and her chaperone/friend in Monte Carlo is summoned to the Scottish castle of his uncle, who is dying. When his fiancée, having not heard from loverboy for several weeks, receives a letter telling her to stop trying to make contact and to forget him forever, she and her friend turn up at the castle, demanding admittance. Truculently, and refusing to say what the problem is, he agrees to let them stay for one night. The two male servants in the house are a pair of surly thugs, the guests find themselves locked in their rooms, there are all sorts of weird noises and comings-and-goings in the small hours, both from inside the castle and from an adjoining maze, which has a pond at its centre.
Long story short - turns out the current laird ("the old gentleman") is several hundred years old, and a bit of an evolutionary throwback. In fact - and I don't know how to put this any less baldly - ***SPOILER ALERT*** he's a frog. The surly servants' job is to look after him, and to ensure that he doesn't hop off. At night, they carry him down to the maze, where he likes to frolic in the pond (as any decent frog would). His nephew - his heir - knew nothing about his uncle's little peculiarity, but has agreed to keep the secret in order not to shame the family name (McRibbitt, presumably).

The Maze works rather well until the very moment when we realise the true nature of Uncle McRibbitt's secret - after which one sits, open-mouthed, staring at the screen like a member of the audience at the first performance of Springtime for Hitler.  The end of Uncle Hoppy - what is plainly a rubber frog plummets down the outside wall of the castle to its doom (although I bet it bounced at least 20ft in the air after hitting the ground)  - is, unfortunately, hysterically funny. It was shot in 3-D, but I'm not sure that would have helped much. Here's the trailer:

I'll end with a British TV series - Quatermass and the Pit (1958/59), the third and last of the BBC's ground-breaking dramas featuring the rocket scientist with possibly the best horror name ever. It's nominally science fiction - but, as I watched the whole of the series in its entirety on YouTube for the first time, it soon became apparent that it was pure horror: it features ghosts, legends concerning ancient murders, weird knocking sounds emanating from decaying, empty houses, bizarre, unidentifiable noises which drive the hearer mad etc. The sets are cardboard, the special effects are rudimentary (as is some of the acting), the plot is bafflingly complicated, it's all totally ridiculous - and yet it just somehow works, to the extent that one still experiences a faint echo of the fear that gripped the nation when it was first broadcast. Yes, Andre Morrell is convincing as Quuatermass, but the series' effectiveness as horror must be credited to the scriptwriter, Nigel Kneale, who was evidently some sort of genius, because he repeated the trick 13 years later with The Stone Tapes which remains one of the scariest TV dramas of all time.

Here's the whole series - all six episodes - in one glorious package:


3 comments:

  1. I am confident that I speak for the limnology community at large when I thank you for bringing to our attention yet another case of thoughtless discrimination against some of our amphibian fellow beings. Why is it that there are just so many films in which the frog is the villain and never the the hero? Our grandchildren will look back in wonder at the barbarian time when to be called a "toad" was an insult. (Apologies to all denizens of the Barbary Coast except imperialists.)

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    1. Toad of Toad Hall? Jeremy Fisher? Kermit (and, of course, his nephew Robin)? All those frogs who turn out to be princes? I reckon these critters have enjoyed a good press for far too long!

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    2. I wish I could share your optimism but frankly, until all policemen attend unconscious herpetophobia training, outrages like the murder of the martyr Mr McRibbitt and the silencing of Newt Gingrich will continue to go unrecorded in the crime statistics.

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