Let’s get one thing straight.
Listen to us, Dear Reader; forsake these naysayers. We think that if you’re ever in the mood for a rather dark and twisted comedy, The Old Dark House will be just the ticket.
But first: Who is this guy by the name of Castle?
William Castle (1941-1977), American producer and director, is best known for low-budget horror flicks that have gained a sizable cult following over the decades. Castle was also famous for his innovative movie “gimmicks.” For example, when 1959’s House on Haunted Hill was released, Castle rigged a plastic skeleton in movie theatres to fly through the audience at a crucial moment during the film.
SO! How do you like him so far?
The Old Dark House was the only movie that Castle made at British Hammer Films. The film itself is a remake of the highly-praised 1932 version, and is loosely based on the 1927 novel Benighted by J.B. Priestley.
The only trouble with this film, in our opinion, is that you’re supposed to figure out which character is a murderer but you end up having too much fun to even try.
Tom Poston plays Tom Penderel, an American car salesman who lives in England. One stormy night, he is asked to deliver a car to Femm Hall, his friend’s old stone fortress. When he arrives at the decrepit citadel, Poston discovers his friend is newly and suddenly deceased. Poston is invited to stay the night with his friend’s bizarre but delightful relatives, some of whom will come to an untimely end during the night.
By the time the movie is over, there will also be several attempts on Poston’s life via acid, quicksand, a meat cleaver and – worst of all – an angry father.
The utterly fantastic Robert Morley, who portrays the head of the household, has some of the funniest lines in the movie. We marvel that he is able to deliver such droll lines with a deadpan face. For instance, when he invites Poston to stay, Morley says meaningfully, “It’s not every day we have an American for dinner. It will be a treat for us all.”
Another wonderful cast member is Joyce Grenfell, who plays the mother of Poston’s deceased friend. She is a habitual knitter who knits the story of her life into her creations. In one scene she shows Morley her knitting and cheerfully explains, “[This is] the day I lost my earrings, the day we lost mother.” It’s a pity she’s killed off so early in the film.
Every character is outlandish and entertaining, but we’ll leave the rest to discover for yourself.
We also wanted to touch on the brilliant set design of Femm Hall. Light fixtures are askew, curtains are disheveled, and expensive china is placed everywhere to catch leaky rainwater. You almost want to watch the film again to gaze at the abundance of quirky props: mismatched furniture, stuffed animal heads and a painting that says, “Don’t Worry – It May Not Happen.”
And what of William Castle in all this? Castle takes pains to develop the plot, with all its intricacies, but the movie doesn’t feel long. It clips along at a fast pace and when it’s finished you can’t believe it’s over already.
The Old Dark House was not well received by critics when it was first released, and there are folks today who dismiss it. But we think you’ll find this movie charming in a dark sort of way. You’ll have as much fun watching it as, we suspect, William Castle had making it.
The Old Dark House: Starring Tom Poston, Robert Morley, Janette Scott. Directed by William Castle. Written by Robert Dillon. Hammer Film Productions, Colour, 1963, 86 mins.