When a B-grade Hollywood king teamed up with England’s leading horror studio in 1962, the result was somewhat disappointing for all concerned. Mark Fraser discovers why.
Contrary to possible first impressions, William Castle’s odd movie out during his Columbia Pictures mogul phase was not the limp 13 Frightened Girls (1963), but a horror comedy which came out in the US during the same year.
The Old Dark House – which Castle put together in cahoots with England’s Hammer Film Productions – was obviously not one of the director’s personal favourites.
Aside from the fact it didn’t crack a mention (except in the filmography) in his densely-titled 1976 autobiography Step Right Up! I’m Gonna Scare the Pants Off America: Memoirs of a B-Movie Mogul, it was never promoted with the same gimmicky marketing zeal that his other works from this era (1959-1964) were subjected to.
Given Castle’s obvious penchant for showmanship – a trait he had shamelessly displayed while selling earlier Columbia releases like The Tingler (1959), 13 Ghosts (1960), Mr Sardonicus and Homicidal (both 1961), as well as the subsequent Strait-Jacket (1964) – one has to ask: What happened with The Old Dark House?
The answer to this question can be found in the extras of Powerhouse Films Ltd’s Blu-ray issue of the movie, which is a remake of a James Whale-directed 1932 Hollywood production, and was shot in Britain during 1962 using a predominantly English cast and Hammer crew.
While the shoot itself was hampered by some striking electricians, the rot well and truly started to set in for Castle when the Columbia executives were so underwhelmed by the result that they issued it in the US as a double bill with Hammer’s 1963 “mini-Hitchcock thriller”* Maniac.
To make matters worse, the studio also saw fit to release it on the domestic market in black and white, despite the fact it had been shot in colour by veteran British cameraman Arthur Grant.
Meanwhile, over in the UK, Hammer found it couldn’t (in the words of American Gothic author Jonathan Rigby in the Powerhouse short Not Too Spooky) “give it away”, eventually getting it into cinemas by 1966, again as a double bill, with the Fielder Cook-directed western A Big Hand for the Little Lady (known in England as Big Deal at Dodge City).
Furthermore, despite the iconic English studio’s efforts to garner a U certificate for the film, the national censors decided to give it an X, meaning its potential audience was significantly diminished.
And while its release in Old Blighty was thankfully in colour, the movie’s length was noticeably cut.
“So given the fate of the film, I think both Castle and Hammer will almost have considered it a failed experiment – and indeed there was going to be no repetition of it,” Rigby notes.
Although there’s no doubt all of this nonsense left Castle with a bad taste in his mouth – or at least enough of one to make him completely omit The Old Dark House from his memoir – from an artistic point of view it was not his worst effort during his early 1960s heyday, with this dubious honour belonging to 13 Frightened Girls. It does, however, come reasonably close.
From the outset, one of the biggest problems with the movie is it’s a comedy primarily aimed at younger viewers, meaning – despite its title – it is not particularly scary or dark.
Most of its thrills, for instance, are not horror-related, but derived from the moments of standard slapstick which permeate the film.
This all might sound a little odd given, as mentioned above, the movie initially received an X rating in the UK.
However, it must be remembered that, at its comic heart, The Old Dark House is a murder mystery which contains a couple of genuinely grizzly moments, suggesting it might have been perceived by the censors of the day as being a little too strong for its target audience.
The first of these occur when Tom Penderel (Tom Poston) comes across the corpse of his flat mate Caspar Femm (Peter Ball) just after arriving at the titular mansion in Dartmoor, while the second is when the lifeless body of Caspar’s mother Agatha (Joyce Grenfell) is discovered with a couple of knitting needles stuck through her neck.
While kind of creepy, these two scenes are nowhere near enough to carry the rest of the film – at least not in a horror sense.
Instead, the script (by Robert Dillon) overplays the eccentricity card to create what amounts to nothing more than a benign sense of foreboding.
For instance, despite early warnings from the seemingly normal Cecily (Janette Scott), Penderel – who is invited to the old house by Caspar at the start of the story – soon learns that every member of the Femm clan is quite loopy in one way or another. Moreover, he quickly discovers they all have a good reason to bump each other off (namely to inherit the family fortune).
Yet he doesn’t seem too phased when exposed to their peculiar behaviours – even after he finds out that the steaming water in a hand basin offered to him by the seductive Morgana (Fenella Fielding) is actually sulphuric acid, and that her father Morgan (Danny Green) is a raving lunatic who wants to kill him.
Nor does Penderel appear to give a second thought to the fact Potiphar (Mervyn Johns) has built an ark, which already contains an array of captured animals, in the back yard. Of course one could blame the script for these comedic weaknesses, but it may also be argued that perhaps Poston, an American surrounded by Brits, was not really the right lead for this film, despite the fact his director was a product of Hollywood through and through.**
Although The Old Dark House’s killer – in the tradition of any reasonable murder mystery – isn’t exposed until the end, having a diminishing list of suspects as the story progresses means the viewer has a fairly good idea of who the culprit might be once the film reaches its home strait.
Bearing all of this in mind, it’s no wonder the executives at Columbia were unimpressed when Castle returned from the UK and showed them what the “unique blending of the two big horror brands” (as Rigby puts it) produced.
On the other hand, it’s also worth noting an observation made by Dr Paul Frith from the University of East Anglia in the short House and Castle, which also appears in the Powerhouse Blu-ray extras.
The Old Dark House, he suggests, could almost be seen as an early example of the Hammer parodies, like 1966’s Carry on Screaming (directed by Gerald Thomas) and Peter Sykes’ The House in Nightmare Park (1973), which started to appear in British cinema just as the studio’s gothic horror movie market dominance began to slide.
While this was probably not Castle’s intention – plus the Columbia heads most likely felt they needed an American protagonist to help boost the US box office receipts – it’s just possible the director might have enjoyed a more fruitful collaboration with his English counterparts had he cast someone like Kenneth Williams, Harry H Corbett, Frankie Howard or even (and admittedly this is a bit left field) Charles Hawtrey in the lead role.
*A term coined by Hammer stalwart Michael Carreras.
**Rigby also discusses this point, so it’s not really an original observation – just an obvious one.
Words by Mark Fraser
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The Old Dark House was released as part of the William Castle At Columbia Volume Two box set from Powerhouse Films.