THE OLD DARK HOUSE
The Old Dark House is one of the lesser remembered Hammer films, slotted somewhere slightly above their based-on-tv comedies and below their historical spectacles. Even when people make lists of Hammers horror remakes, The Old Dark House is one they tend to forget about. The film was a not a success for them and sat on the shelf until 1966, while it was released to American theatres in a black-and-white print. Part of it may well be that there are none of the names that people automatically associate with Anglo-horror present no Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing or Michael Ripper. Only a single actor ever appeared in another Hammer film Janette Scott who was the lead in the psycho-thriller Paranoiac (1963). Indeed, it is some way down the credits before you get any names you recognise from other Hammer films with cinematographer Arthur Grant, production designer Bernard Robinson and makeup creator Roy Ashton. One of the most fascinating names on the credits however is the one whose hand is seen physically drawing the credits none other than Charles Addams, the creator of The Addams Family cartoons, which made their first screen appearance not long after this with the tv series The Addams Family (1964-6).
William Castle and Hammer Films are not exactly names that you automatically think of on the same bill. Okay, so they were both big names in horror around the same time. And for a time both seemed to mine similar veins after Alfred Hitchcocks Psycho (1960) came out, both Castle and Hammer tapped the psycho-thriller for a few years after, as well as made entries in the Batty Old Dames genre kicked off by What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). On the other hand, Castle and Hammer both had very different styles. Castle was a master of self-promotion and made films in the sensation-seeking approach patented P.T. Barnum but was never much of a stylist. Hammer on the other hand were all about period setting and a heavily layered application of mood, rich colour and set dressing. Castle also preferred to shoot in black-and-white and The Old Dark House was only the second film he made in colour.
In this case, the work that Castle and Hammer have turned to remake is The Old Dark House (1932), a classic from the great James Whale and featuring an amazing cast line-up that included Boris Karloff, Ernest Thesiger, Charles Laughton and Gloria Stuart of Titanic (1997) fame. The original concerns a couple and their friend who are forced to take refuge in the house by a storm where they are welcomed by the sinisterly friendly Femm family. More than any of his other films, this allowed James Whales droll, eccentric humour to find its full flowering and the film is remembered as a classic for its macabre jollity. Castle changes this about considerably, including seeing fit to add a very different plot to the one in the 1932 film. The original was merely about three travellers who strayed into a house of strange people. Here it is one man who has been invited to the house where someone present is murdering the rest of the Femms to get their hands on the family inheritance.
As a director, William Castle never much understood the notion of subtlety. There is very little about his version of The Old Dark House that can be considered horror or even in the vein of macabre comedy any longer a few jokes about corpses in coffins but mostly some not terribly funny gags with Tom Poston getting his tie in a bowl of acid and the like. One of the virtues of the 1932 original was that each of the actors was allowed to craft a distinctively eccentric role, while here most of the characters barely make any distinction Peter Bull plays the dead man and later turns up as his twin, the vampish Fenella Fielding tries to seduce Tom Poston, Joyce Grenfell is obsessed with knitting and Mervyn Johns has a built a replica of Noahs Ark in the grounds of the house but nothing that holds a candle up to the 1932 film. Indeed, Castle plays the film more as a standard comedy of the era you keep thinking of Bob Hopes ventures into Old Dark House cinema with the remake of The Cat and the Canary (1939) or The Ghost Breakers (1940). Even the Bob Hope films mixed the laughs with a number of scares but this is more of a whodunnit mystery comedy than anything that seems an easy fit as horror.
William Castles other films of genre note as producer-director are: as director of Crime Doctors Manhunt (1945), the sixth in a series of Columbia crime thrillers, of which Castle directed several, featuring a forensicologist against a split-personalitied killer; the psycho-thriller Macabre (1958); House on Haunted Hill (1959); the classic The Tingler (1959), probably Castles best film; the haunted house film 13 Ghosts (1960); the psycho-thriller Homicidal (1961); Mr. Sardonicus (1961) about a man with his face caught in a grotesque frozen smile; the juvenile comedy Zotz! (1962) about a magical coin; the Grand Guignol psycho-thriller Strait-Jacket (1964) with Joan Crawford; The Night Walker (1965), a psycho-thriller about a dream lover; the prank phonecall psycho-thriller I Saw What You Did (1965); the psycho-thriller Lets Kill Uncle (1965); the ghost comedy The Spirit is Willing (1967); the reality-bending sf film Project X (1968); as producer of the classic occult film Rosemarys Baby (1968); as producer of the anthology series Ghost Story (1972-3); Shanks (1974) with Marcel Marceau as a puppeteer who can resurrect the dead; and as producer of the firestarting insect film Bug! (1975).