Director/Producer – William Castle, Screenplay – Robert Dillon, Based on the Novel by Benighted by J.B. Priestley, Photography – Arthur Grant, Music – Benjamin Frankel, Special Effects – Les Bowie, Makeup – Roy Ashton, Production Design – Bernard Robinson. Production Company – Hammer Films.
Tom Poston (Tom Penderel), Robert Morley (Roderick Femm), Janette Scott (Cecily Femm), Fenella Fielding (Morgana Femm), Peter Bull (Casper Femm/Jasper Femm), Joyce Grenfell (Agatha Femm), Mervyn Johns (Potipher Femm), Danny Green (Morgan Femm)
Tom Penderel, an American living in London, sells a car to his flatmate, the strange Casper Femm. Casper asks him to deliver the car to him at Femm House in Dartmoor and seems eager for Tom to meet his family. Tom travels to the remote Femm estate but the car is damaged by a falling gargoyle when Tom stops at the gate. He is welcomed in by Casper’s family – only to find that Casper is now dead. The lovely Cecily urges Tom to leave before it is too late but the others insist he stay. They explain that they are forced to remain in the house by the provisions of the will left by their pirate ancestor that stipulates that if any of them leaves and does not return by midnight they will be disinherited. As Tom settles in for the night, he finds that someone is killing the other members of the family and may also be targeting him.
The Old Dark House is one of the most unlikely collaborations to emerge from 1960s horror – a team up between gimmick master William Castle and England’s Hammer Films. William Castle was an American horror film director/producer known for the sensationalistic sales gimmicks he came up with for his films, including insuring audiences against dying of fright, winching skeletons across the theatre and wiring seats with electric buzzers to give people shocks. (See below for William Castle’s other films). Hammer was a British horror studio who had established themselves with remakes of The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula/The Horror of Dracula (1958). They went on to remake a number of other classics over the next few years with The Mummy (1959), The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll (1960), The Phantom of the Opera (1962) and One Million Years B.C. (1966), as well as make a string of Frankenstein and Dracula sequels and numerous other original works.
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 Hammer’s 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 the reason for this 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 Hitchcock’s 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 Whale’s droll, eccentric humour to find its full flowering and the film is remembered as a classic for its macabre jollity.
Castle changes the original about considerably. He sees 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 Noah’s Ark in the grounds of the house – but nothing that holds a candle up to the 1932 film.
Indeed, William Castle plays the film more as a standard comedy of the era – you keep thinking of Bob Hope’s 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 Castle’s other films of genre note as producer-director are:– as director of Crime Doctor’s 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 Castle’s 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 Let’s 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 Rosemary’s 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).