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Director William Castle, a master at promoting and marketing his gimmick-laden horror films in the flamboyant manner of P.T. Barnum, enjoyed a successful seven year run of major and minor hits (in relation to their costs) from 1958 to 1964, starting with Macabre (1958) and ending with Strait-Jacket in 1964, before his formula began to falter with the changing times. Made toward the end of his peak and one of his rare misfires is a curiosity mostly overlooked in revivals of his movies. Based on the J.B. Priestley novel Benighted which became the basis for the 1932 film, The Old Dark House, Castle's 1963 remake was unique in that it marked the only collaboration between the director and Hammer Studios.
Since both Castle and Hammer Films released their films through Columbia Pictures, the project was driven more by economic than creative decisions plus production costs were lower in the United Kingdom than the U.S. so Castle made a deal to shoot The Old Dark House at Bray Studios near Windsor. A stellar cast of British actors were assembled including Robert Morley, Joyce Grenfell, Janette Scott, Mervyn Johns, Fenella Fielding and Peter Bull in a dual role as the identical twins Caspar and Jasper while Tom Poston, the popular American TV personality from The Steve Allen Show and To Tell the Truth, played the lead. Poston had previously appeared in Castle's comedy-fantasy Zotz! (1962) the previous year but his film career was spotty and mostly limited to minor supporting roles after his top marquee billing in two Castle films.
Screenwriter Robert Dillon (X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes ) takes several liberties with Priestley's novel, dispensing with the original premise of five travelers forced to spend the night in a creepy old house and focusing instead on a central character, Tom Penderel (Poston), an American car salesman living in London. Tom shares a flat with Caspar Fimm whom he rarely sees because Caspar returns to his ancestral home at Dartmoor every evening before midnight due to a condition in the family will. When Tom agrees to sell a luxury convertible to Caspar and deliver it to his country home, he arrives during a thunderstorm and falls through a trap door at the mansion's entrance into the basement. He soon finds himself a virtual prisoner in a family of eccentrics, one of whom is a crazed killer who has already murdered Caspar and is planning to kill off the rest of the family for the inheritance.
Castle's remake pales in comparison with James Whale's atmospheric and macabre 1932 version which cast Melvyn Douglas in the Penderel role and featured superb performances from Charles Laughton, Boris Karloff, Gloria Stuart, Raymond Massey, and Ernest Thesiger among others. Part of the problem resides in Poston's broadly comic performance which relies on pratfalls and his rubber-face reactions to the bizarre proceedings with bulging eyes, japing mouth and numerous double takes. Much of the film is closer in spirit to the British "Carry On" comedies and lacks subtlety or wit and fails to generate any suspense, unlike the Whale version which balanced black comedy and real menace perfectly.
William Castle completists will want to see the movie regardless and it does offer some mildly pleasant diversions. For one thing, the opening credits are drawn by cartoonist Charles Addams who rarely worked on feature films (he also did the title drawings for the 1976 farce Murder by Death). For the screen credit "Drawn by," we see a hairy, clawed hand (is it Addams?) scrawl his famous signature with a feathered pin on the screen. The movie, which was shot in color, is also worth a look for horror/fantasy film buffs as it offers Janette Scott (The Day of the Triffids , Paranoiac ) an opportunity to play against her innocent ingnue stereotype and Mervyn Johns, the man with the recurring nightmare in Dead of Night (1945), has the most eccentric part as Petiphar Femm, a modern day Noah who is building a huge ark, already teeming with animals, in the backyard. Peter Bull in the dual roles of Caspar and Jasper will be familiar to most movie fans as the agitated Russian Ambassador Alexi de Sadesky in Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1964) which he made the next year.
While The Old Dark House was still in production, an article on the making of the movie ran in The Kinematograph Weekly which reported, "Those who are wondering what ghastly, ghostly gimmick will emerge from the Hammer/Castle combination will be in for a surprise. For, according to Castle, "This picture gives equal emphasis to horror and comedy. The days of the straight shockers have just about run their course." In the same article, James Carreras, the founder of Hammer Films, added, "It will take the the mickey out of horror pictures in a most original and entertainingly way."
The critics obviously didn't agree with The New York Times reviewer pronouncing it "a laboriously arch and broad blend of humor and the creeps. It still leaves the old J.B. Priestley property as defunct as a doornail. Even a picturesque cast....can't rejuvenate it." Variety noted that it "succeeds only in neutralizing itself," and The New York Herald Tribune pointed to the obvious: "The screenplay is weak." Unlike his other macabre cinema concoctions, Castle didn't use any gimmicks to promote The Old Dark House and he obviously didn't feel it worked at all because he doesn't even mention it in his autobiography, Step Right Up! I'm Gonna Scare the Pants Off America.
Producer: William Castle
Director: William Castle
Screenplay: Robert Dillon; J.B. Priestley (novel)
Cinematography: Arthur Grant
Music: Benjamin Frankel
Film Editing: James Needs
Cast: Tom Poston (Tom Penderel), Robert Morley (Roderick Femm), Janette Scott (Cecily Femm), Joyce Grenfell (Agatha Femm), Mervyn Johns (Petiphar Femm), Fenella Fielding (Morgana Femm), Peter Bull (Caspar Femm/Jasper Femm), Danny Green (Morgan Femm).
by Jeff Stafford
Hammer Films: An Exhaustive Filmography by Tom Johnson and Deborah Del Vecchio (McFarland)