The Old Dark House (1963)
Directed by William Castle
Produced by William Castle and Anthony Hinds
Screenplay by Robert Dillon
Based on the novel Benighted by J.B. Priestley
Cinematography by Arthur Grant
Edited by James Needs
Music by Benjamin Frankel
William Castle Productions, Hammer Film Productions
Distributed by Columbia Pictures
(1:26) Hammer Films: The Ultimate Collection Blu-ray box set, Mill Creek
Perhaps if the 1932 James Whale film of the same name had never existed, William Castle’s The Old Dark House (1963) might have been more enjoyable for what it is, rather than compared to the original, painfully showing what it is not. That is something we will never know, but I doubt it would have made much difference.
What we do know is that Tom Penderel (Tom Poston, left) is an American who shares a London flat with an eccentric local named Casper Femm (Peter Bull). Tom is also in the business of selling luxury automobiles and sells one to Casper, who instructs Tom to deliver the car to his estate in Dartmoor. Driving through a raging storm, Tom arrives at Femm Hall where he meets the member’s of Casper’s family, that is, everyone except Casper.
That’s because Casper has died, being the “victim of a fall.” But Casper’s beautiful cousin Cecily (Janette Scott) informs Tom that her cousin was murdered, and that Tom should leave immediately for his own safety. Goo-goo over Cecily, Tom decides to stay for dinner and perhaps overnight. At the dinner, family patriarch Roderick Femm (Robert Morley) informs Tom what everyone else in the family already knows: Their ancestor, Captain Morgan the pirate, stipulated in his will that no one can ever leave the house for more than a day. If they do, they’ll forfeit any claim to the family fortune. Soon family members begin dying off in bizarre ways, leaving Tom to wonder if he’ll survive the ordeal himself.
Since both Hammer and William Castle Productions released films through Columbia Pictures, the two production companies struck a deal, mostly because production costs were lower in the UK than in America. Castle knew how to make a film pay off, so this seemed a good partnership, yet no one was pleased with the results. The film wasn’t even released in the UK until 1966.
The main problem stems from an attempt to combine two very different styles of film. Hammer’s atmospheric “old world” gothic style was already well established with films such as The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Dracula (1957), The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), The Brides of Dracula (1960), and many more. If you were a fan of gothic literature, you’d probably find something to enjoy with a typical Hammer film. By contrast, William Castle’s pictures are usually filled with gimmicks and hucksterism, low-budget projects that never attempted to rise above their material into “serious” horror. If Hammer films are even remotely akin to the world of gothic literature, Castle pictures seem to appeal to those of the carnival side show mentality. (Don’t get me wrong: I love both.) Hammer and Castle were oil and water, and to the surprise of absolutely no one who was paying attention, The Old Dark House is neither scary nor funny.
The cast does all it can, but the Robert Dillon screenplay is (perhaps purposefully) a hot mess. The inheritance on which the plot hangs is more threadbare than Agatha Femm’s (Joyce Grenfell) knitting yarn. Tom Poston simply bounces from one zany Femm to another, letting his popping eyeballs do most of the heavy lifting, which requires enormous amounts of longsuffering from the audience during the film’s 86 minutes. Most of the family members are barely fleshed-out characters, presenting nothing more than just another family weirdo to pit against Tom. The word “tiresome” doesn’t even come close.
Yet the film has its fans; I’m just not one of them. I am hoping that this version of The Old Dark House is the low point in Hammer Films: The Ultimate Collection. Those who enjoy the film may wish to consider the William Castle at Columbia Volume Two box set from Indicator, which includes this film and three other Castle titles, Zotz! (1962), 13 Frightened Girls (1963), and Strait-Jacket (1964).
Next time I’ll cover The Gorgon (1964)