The Old Dark House (1963)

The Old Dark House (1963)Synopsis: An American car salesman living in London, is invited to spend the weekend at the Femm Estate. The Femms, trapped in the house due to an ancestor’s will, live in fear as they are taken out one at a time. Tom is left to figure out who the killer is before he becomes a victim himself!

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The Old Dark House (1963) 5.75

eyelights: its whimsical quality. the ensemble cast.
eyesores: its lackluster humour.

“Every night in this house, with just a whole family of Femms.”

I have a weakness for ensemble casts. I also have a weakness for the spooky large mansion genre of films (ex: ‘Ten Little Indians‘, ‘Clue‘). It’s the only way that I can explain why I sort of enjoyed this version of ‘The Old Dark House’, which is claimed to be a remake but which has nothing to do with the source material – either the book or the 1932 motion picture.

This 1962 production was made jointly by William Castle (of ‘House on Haunted Hill‘ and ‘13 Ghosts‘ fame) and Hammer Films, and is actually a comedy with mild horror overtones. Yes, a comedy. But again, aside for retaining the name of the family who live the mansion, and some characters, there’s very little commonality here with the original – not even plot-wise.

This one tells the story of an American living in Britain who is invited by his flatmate to come visit him at his ancestral family home. He does, only to find out that the man has passed away, and that his eccentric family members may have had something to do with it. Trapped there, out in the country, due to his car breaking down, he spends the night fighting for his life.

While the others drop dead, one by one.

It doesn’t sound so bad written up that way, and the picture was off to a great start with its opening credits animated by Charles Addams (which are quirky fun – particularly when he signs his name. Of note, it was made in 1962 and yet it’s 100 times better than the ones for ‘Saturday the 14th‘), but it goes downhill from there, no thanks to a pretty impotent brand of humour.

‘The Old Dark House’ is intended to be goofy, but it really doesn’t work. Firstly, Castle has no flair for comedy, somehow screwing up even the most obvious gags, like having our lead, Tom, fall through a trap at the front door extremely poorly – and repeatedly. Secondly, some of the actors’ delivery is like a frying pan in the face: all googly eyed and over-articulation. Ugh.

The worst of the lot are Tom Poston as… um… Tom, who affects a poor man’s James Stewart demeanour. Let’s face it: only James Stewart can do James Stewart well – and not all the time. Then there’s Fenella Fielding as Morgana Femm, the supposedly sexy one who looks so much like a drag queen that I couldn’t stop staring: her pursed lips and strange delivery pained me.

Peter Bull (who might be familiar to fans of ‘Dr. Strangelove‘ as the Soviet Ambassador) popped his eyes out and acted stiff even when his character wasn’t dead. So strange. And Robert Morley showed very little true emotion but always affected unnatural poses to better show off the weaponry that his character wielded. Supposedly, this was meant to be threatening.

And that’s a large part of the problem: ‘The Old Dark House’ is beyond unsubtle. I don’t know what crack William Castle was on when he made this film but his staging of each scene is absolutely horrific – in that “not good” sense. It lacks such a basic understanding of comedy and/or horror that I’m sure even the youngest audiences rolled their eyes when they were subjected to this.

Of course, the script isn’t particularly funny to start. And to make matters worse, it makes no sense whatsoever.

For example:

  • Tom is invited to Femm Hall by Casper, but the latter refuses to join him on the ride there – even though Tom has just delivered a car to him. Instead he asks Tom to drive the car all the way to Femm Hall while he takes a plane. He’s all mysterious and doesn’t explain himself whatsoever. And Tom falls for it.

Um… what?

  • Tom and one of the Femms holds a conversation through a door, while the latter brandishes a gun threateningly through the entry way. Strangely, neither of the interlocutors can see each other, but Mr. Femm is supposed to be mysterious and threatening even though the gun wasn’t directed at Tom and and Tom could easily have moved around without the other man knowing.

Uh…

  • After Tom is shown Casper’s casket, he hears weeping. For some reason, he seems to think that it’s Casper even though he’s dead, and it’s clearly a woman’s cries.

Was this meant to be funny somehow?

  • Cecily, one of Casper’s cousins, tells Tom he must leave before “he” returns. She doesn’t say who “he” is, why Tom should be concerned, or anything. Naturally, Tom stays – even after they suggest they’ll have him for dinner (har har). And even after someone makes an attempt on his life.

Le sigh…

  • The Femm family stay in the house because they want an inheritance that is conditional on them living there until the house “dies”. What’s surprising is that they haven’t killed each other yet, just to get the full inheritance. Even more surprising is that they didn’t take the house apart to precipitate its so-called death. The only excuse given is that they tried burning it down, but it’s built on rocks…

Um… which can be blasted! Hello?

  • Potiphar is convinced that the end is nigh and has been building an ark in the yard for when the world ends. I’m sure that this was meant to be funny, but it was just lame, and it took a large bite out of the picture by taking us on a meaningless side story. And as if the other Femms would allow him to build this anyway.

Weirdos.

I don’t know how much money this picture was made on but it was clearly not a high budget movie; it could be compared to the original ‘The Addams Family’ show in quality. You know, one set that looks very much like a set. Coincidentally, it was presented in black and white, even though it was shot in colour (sadly, the DVD only presents the picture in colour!).

To truly give you a sense of what to expect, Tom wakes up to find a growling hyena at the foot of his bed. But in the close-ups, it’s so obviously inanimate, a fake animal, and drool was added to its mouth to make it look more realistic. Problem is, given Castle’s poor direction, we can’t tell if it’s intentionally campy. Or was this just one of many symptoms in a plagued production?

At least they tried to be creative with some of their kills – the trite but nonetheless deadly acid bath excepted. My favourite of them all is the death by knitting needles – which were stabbed in a cross formation through the character’s neck. It looks silly and it leaves a mental imprint, so that was fun. And there were the fire tongs twisted around another victim’s neck.

Look, I did enjoy ‘The Old Dark House’ to some degree (and even rated it higher until I watched it a second time), but it’s simply not a very good picture. This might explain why it was produced in 1962 but was actually released four years later in some markets. It may very well be a product of its time, stylistically and tonally, but it’s a period that is well beyond me.

I’d stick with the original.

Story: 6.5
Acting: 6.5
Production: 6.5

Chills: 1.0
Gore: 1.0
Violence: 2.0

Date of viewing: October 24, 2015

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