Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Old Dark House: "It's not good to be frightened on an empty tummy"

Fenella Fielding and Tom Poston.
William Castle's 1963 adaptation of J.B. Priestley's novel Benighted has little to do with the book or James Whales' 1932 film version. Screenwriter Robert Dillon jettisons the original premise of a group of travelers forced to spend the night in the ancestral home of the unusual Femm family. Instead, we have Tom Poston as an American car salesman who is invited by his "friend" Caspar Femm to spend the weekend at Femm Hall in Dartmoor. Given that Tom Poston is the lead, you may have surmised that the emphasis in this version is on comedy.

The Femm family is still an unusual lot, but that's to be expected when you're home-bound. It turns out that the Femm children's great, great grandfather was the pirate Captain Morgan who, before being hanged, wrote a will with a peculiar provision. Each family member must appear at a midnight gathering or forfeit his or her share of the family fortune. Thus, every time a Femm dies, the survivors grow richer.

Joyce Grenfell as Agatha Femm.
Yes, The Old Dark House boasts a creaky old plot that eventually wears out its welcome. However, that's not to say that the cast, peppered with seasoned pros, don't make it mildly entertaining. Robert Morley makes a dry, surly head of the house, while Joyce Grenfell (the "lovely ducks" lady in Hitch's Stage Fright) has fun as the matriarch (who knits "by the mile"). She has many of the best lines, including the sage remark that "it's not good to be frightened on an empty tummy."

Janette Scott as Cecily Femm.
Mervyn Johns (Dead of Night), Fenella Fielding (you'll recognize her voice instantly), and the lovely Janette Scott round out the supporting cast. Scott, who also starred in The Day of the Triffids and Paranoiac, became a cult movie star of the 1960s. She was immortalized in the song "Science Fiction/Double Feature" from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Singer Mel Torme was the second of her three husbands.

As the hero, Tom Poston executes the required pratfalls and looks of distress. However, he lacks the comic flair necessary to carry off this kind of role (Bob Hope and Lou Costello did it much better). Poston was always more at home as a TV series supporting player, where he found great success. For the record, he also starred in another William Castle picture: the previous year's fantasy-comedy Zotz!

The Old Dark House boasts an unusual production pedigree in that it's a co-production between Castle and Hammer Films. The film's crew includes many names familiar to Hammer fans: set designer Bernard Robinson, editor James Needs, cinematographer Arthur Grant, and others. Allegedly, Hammer's Anthony Hinds co-produced The Old Dark House at Bray Studios in Great Britain. However, his name is missing from the credits. Furthermore, the last two credits are very unusual: "Produced and directed by William Castle" is followed by the redundant "Directed by William Castle."

Speaking of the stylish credits, they were done by the famous cartoonist Charles Addams (creator of The Addams Family). His hand appears on screen as he signs his name in cursive. Hey, even Saul Bass, the most famous creator of credits, never got to do that.


  1. I love the 1932 version of The Old Dark House so much that I even read the book! I haven't seen the 1963 version in a long time, but I'd like to do so again...even though I remember it being pretty uneventful. Thank you for the quality post!

  2. I'm another one who loved the 1932 version so much I read the J.B. Priestly novel. I really enjoyed the 1963 version, too, especially Joyce Grenfell's performance. Time to see both of these again, I think!

  3. I'll watch Joyce Grenfell in anything, but I'm not even sure I made it to the end of this movie.

  4. You are on the money! I like Tom Poston...but in small doses. He's very good as flat, slightly dull-witted characters -- but this is not the combo you want in a leading role.

    Overall, this one left me pretty cold; Castle was known for mixing frights and funnies, but "The Old Dark House" relied too much on flat-out slapstick while underplaying any suspense.

    "Zotz!" was a mess, too; I read the novel long ago and, while cynically amusing in many parts, it's not a comic novel. The protagonist tries repeatedly to "sell" the US military on his ability (to kill, not make things move slowly), only to get bogged down in red tape. He finally makes an unusual -- but quite practical -- career change.

    That's Hollywood, I guess.