Moldy Horror: FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE (Warner Bros/Amicus 1973)

I’ve discussed the Max Roseberg/Milton Subotsky Amicus horror anthologies before on this blog. All are good, if uneven, little entries in the genre, and FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE is no exception. This was the last of the Amicus tales of terror, a quartet of creepiness based on the work of British horror writer R. Chetwynd-Hayes. I’ll admit I’m not familiar with Mr. Cheywynd-Hayes’s work, so I couldn’t tell you if the movie’s faithful to it or not. I can tell you FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE is about 50/50 in the chills department.

An all-star British cast gives it a game try, though. The segments are linked by horror icon Peter Cushing , looking rather gaunter than usual as the proprietor of Temptations Ltd., an antique shop which serves to set the stories in motion. Unfortunately, the part is a waste of Cushing’s talent; I could see him in any of a number of roles in the stories ahead to far greater effect.

The first involves David Warner as a man who purchases an antique mirror, then gathers his friends around to hold a séance. Warner gets more than he bargained for when he’s possessed by a murderous spirit trapped on the mirror’s other side. This segment is particularly gruesome, and Warner is good as always, but so predictable that it failed to satisfy the horror lover in me.

Next up we find Ian Bannen as a drudge married to a shrewish wife (zaftig Brit ex-sexpot Diana Dors ), who steals a Distinguished Service Medal in order to impress an Army veteran-turned-beggar (Donald Pleasence ). Bannen’s invited to dinner at the beggar’s flat, and becomes spellbound by his daughter (Pleasence’s real-life daughter Angela). This one’s got a pretty neat twist ending that I didn’t see coming, which is rare for a hard-core horror fan like me. Kudos!

We turn now to comedy, with Margaret Leighton as a dotty psychic who aids a couple (Ian Charmichael, Nyree Dawn Porter) rid themselves of an Elemental, a mischievous, malevolent spirit trying to possess the husband. Despite some cool special effects during the exorcism scene, and Leighton’s fun turn as the clairvoyant, this segment was just okay.

Finally, we come to Ian Oglivy , who buys a door with a strange-looking carving on it. Bringing it home to wife Lesley-Anne Down, he installs it as a kitschy cupboard door, only to discover upon opening it that it leads to a mysterious blue room where evil and black magic dwell. This was a very good, scary piece with a Corman/Poe type atmosphere, and for me ranked as the best of the lot.

FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE suffers most from the pedestrian direction of Kevin Connor, making his feature debut. Connor would go on to a fairly pedestrian career, helming the Amicus/Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptations; of his filmography, only MOTEL HELL is a real standout. The movie, as I said, is about half successful, and I’d recommend DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS or TALES FROM THE CRYPT as better representatives of the Amicus horror anthologies. But for genre fans, it’s worth a look anyway.

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Hand-y Man: Peter Lorre in THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS (Warner Brothers 1946)

Warner Brothers was in at the beginning of the first horror cycle with DR. X and MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM , both starring Lionel Atwill. The studio concentrated more on their gangster flicks, Busby Berkeley musicals, swashbuckling epics, and the occasional highbrow films with George Arliss and Paul Muni, but once in a while they’d throw horror buffs a bone: Karloff in 1936’s THE WALKING DEAD, ’39’s THE RETURN OF DR. X (no relation to the original, instead casting Humphrey Bogart as a pasty-faced zombie!), and a pair of scare comedies from ’41, THE SMILING GHOST and THE BODY DISAPPEARS.

Come 1946, Warners took another stab at horror with THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS, a psychological thriller about a dead pianist’s crawling hand out for murderous revenge… well, sort of. The movie was assembled by a host of horror vets, directed by Robert Florey (MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE ), written by Curt Siodmak (the man who brought THE WOLF MAN to life), and headlined by the great Peter Lorre as a pop-eyed astrology nut. It’s even got a score by KING KONG’s Max Steiner, yet despite all this terror talent going for it, THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS isn’t quite the classic it should be. It’s eerie and atmospheric, but the seemingly tacked-on comic ending almost ruined the good will haunting for me.

The story: In a small Italian village, Francis Ingram, a paralyzed concert pianist, assembles his closest acquaintances together to attest to his sanity as they cosign his last will and testament. They include hustling American ex-pat Bruce Conrad, who adapted symphonies to fit Ingram’s one-handed playing, nurse Julie Holden, with whom the elderly musician is in love, sycophant and astrology buff Hillary Cummins, nephew Donald Arlington, and lawyer Duprex. When Hillary informs the old man that Julie is planning to leave him for Bruce, an angered Ingram tries to strangle him. Later, on one of those dark and stormy nights familiar to horror fans, Ingram tumbles down the staircase in his wheelchair to his death.

Local policeman Commissario Castanio investigates and, finding no signs of foul play, declares the death an accident. At the reading of the will, Donald’s stodgy father Raymond shows up, aghast that Julie gets the bulk of the estate. Lawyer Duprex tells the relatives there’s an old will that may supplant the updated one… for a hefty fee, of course! Meanwhile, “there’s a light on in the mausoleum”, and soon piano music is heard, with Ingram’s ring found atop the instrument, and Duprex’s dead body discovered. An investigation finds Ingram’s corpse has had its hand cut off. All signs point to a disembodied hand returned from the grave, and the local villagers believe the villa is now cursed (because that’s what local villagers do in these things!). Nephew Donald attempts to open the safe containing the older will, and another attack is accompanied by the sound of piano music…

The best scene comes when Lorre bugs out upon being visited by the hand, richly enhanced by Steiner’s score. Peter’s at his stark, raving mad best in this movie, his last for Warner Brothers, and though I won’t give away any secrets for those who haven’t seen the film, suffice it to say our boy Lorre does a fantastic job in his role. Robert Alda (Bruce) is glib but good; he’d later have “hand” problems of his own in 1961’s THE DEVIL’S HAND. Andrea King (Julie) was a Warners contract player whose only other genre credit was 1952’s RED PLANET MARS. Victor Francen (Ingram), John Alvin (Donald), Charles Dingle (Raymond), Gino Corrado, Pedro de Cordoba, and Ray Walker also appear.

J. Carrol Naish plays the Commissario, and is the one who gets the dishonor of spoiling the fun with that “comedy” end bit. Naish, a master dialectician and two-time Oscar nominee (SAHARA, A MEDAL FOR BENNY), was no stranger to horror; fans know him as the hunchbacked Daniel in Universal’s all-star HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN . Among his chiller credits are two Lon Chaney Jr/Inner Sanctum entries (CALLING DR. DEATH, STRANGE CONFESSION), DR. RENAULT’S SECRET, THE MONSTER MAKER, and JUNGLE WOMAN. Naish’s final role was in Al Adamson’s DRACULA VS FRANKENSTEIN, reuniting him with old costar Chaney for one last horror hurrah.

Besides my griping about the silly denouement, THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS is worth your time. The good points (direction, music, Lorre’s performance, the cool special effects) far outweigh the one bad. As for Warner Brothers, horror aficionados would have to wait another seven years before they returned to the genre, but it was worth it… Vincent Price in the 3D shocker HOUSE OF WAX!

 

The Horror Stars of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (Paramount 1956)

Last night, as I usually do during the Easter/Passover season, I watched Cecil B. DeMille’s Biblical epic THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. It’s a movie buffs delight, an All-Star spectacle featuring three Oscar winners ( Charlton Heston , Yul Brynner , Anne Baxter ), one who should’ve been (Edward G. Robinson ), and a literal cast of thousands! Something that’s always stood out to me is the number of horror movie stars that appear in various parts, a plethora of Hollywood practitioners from my favorite genre:

John Carradine as Aaron

Carradine’s  credentials in horror films are well documented, and he deserves his spot in the pantheon of Monster Movie Greats. As Moses’s brother Aaron, Carradine has his best “straight” role since THE GRAPES OF WRATH.

Vincent Price as Baka

Our Man Vinnie plays the evil slave master Baka, who gets his just rewards at the hands of John Derek’s Joshua. Price was a few short years away from his work with William Castle, Roger Corman, and horror immortality.

Yvonne DeCarlo as Zipporah

Yvonne DeCarlo  was already an old hand at these costume epics, and would soon find herself wrapped in the shroud of Lily Munster on TV’s THE MUNSTERS!

Sir Cedric Hardwicke as Sethi

The distinguished Sir Cedric was well-known for his horror work at Universal in THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS , THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, INVISIBLE AGENT, and the 1933 British film THE GHOUL, starring Boris Karloff.

Debra Paget as Lilia

 Miss Paget was also no stranger to costume dramas. Her last films before retirement were Corman’s TALES OF TERROR and THE HAUNTED PALACE, both alongside Price.

Nina Foch as Bithiah

Nina Foch  was a legendary acting coach, but in the 40’s as a Columbia contract player headlined the horror movies RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE (opposite Bela Lugosi) and CRY OF THE WEREWOLF.

Eduard Franz as Jethro

Franz plays Jethro, father of Zipporah, and was featured in such fare as THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD , THE FOUR SKULLS OF JONATHAN DRAKE, CYBORG 2087, and TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE.

     Ian Keith as Ramses I

Keith has an interesting connection to horror: he was actually considered for the part of Count Dracula in 1931 over Bela Lugosi , and again for 1948’s ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN ! Thank Cthulhu that didn’t work out!

Eagle eyed fans will spot other horror notables in lesser roles, some uncredited: Dame Judith Anderson (REBECCA’s spooky Mrs. Danvers), Terence de Marney (DIE, MONSTER, DIE!), Patricia Hitchcock (PSYCHO), Michael Mark (FRANKENSTEIN), Gordon Mitchell (FRANKENSTEIN’S CASTLE OF FREAKS), Dorothy Neumann (GHOST OF DRAGSTRIP HOLLOW , THE TERROR ), and Onslow Stevens (HOUSE OF DRACULA). Happy hunting, and Happy Easter and Passover from Cracked Rear Viewer!

Bela Lugosi as Jesus in 1909!

Creature Double Feature 5: THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (AIP 1964) and THE TOMB OF LIGEIA (AIP 1965)

Boston’s WLVI-TV 56 ran it’s ‘Creature Double Feature’ series from 1972 to 1983. Though fans remember it mostly for those fabulous giant monster movies starring Godzilla and friends, CDF occasionally featured some monsters of a different kind… 

Roger Corman and Vincent Price had teamed to make five successful Edgar Allan Poe adaptations for American-International Pictures, beginning with 1960’s HOUSE OF USHER (there was a sixth, THE PREMATURE BURIAL, that starred Ray Milland rather than Price). Studio execs James Nicholson and Sam Arkoff, always on the lookout for ways to cut costs, joined forces with Britain’s Anglo-Amalgamated Productions (makers of the CARRY ON comedies) and shipped Corman and company to jolly ol’ England for the final two, THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH and THE TOMB OF LIGEIA. Both turned out to be high points in the Corman/Price/Poe series.

1964’s MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH is a sadistic, psychedelic nightmare of a film, with Corman ably assisted by ace cinematographer and future director Nicholas Roeg. Price plays Italian nobleman Prince Prospero, a Satan worshipper and dabbler in the black arts, who locks the lords and ladies of his decadent court in his castle while the plague of the Red Death ravages the villagers. He’s kidnapped local beauty Francesca, her lover Gino, and her father to amuse himself and his guests, trying to force the two men to battle to the death while also attempting to seduce the innocent Francesca. Prospero’s lady Julianna is scheming to make herself the bride of Satan, while guest Alfredo humiliates the diminutive paramour of dwarf Hop-Toad.

Julianna, jealous of Prospero’s fondness for Francesca, gives her the key to the dungeon to free Gino and her dad, only to be stopped by Prospero. This ends badly, as the men are made to slice their arms with daggers, one of which is poisoned, then Father is killed by Prospero’s hand, sending Gino out to face the Red Death. Julianna pays for her treachery against Prospero (following a weird sequence of her in a dreamlike state, surrounded by dancing demons and giving herself to Satan) by being pecked to death by a raven. Hop-Toad gets revenge of his own by giving Alfredo an ape costume to wear to the Masquerade, then tying him to a chandelier, hoisting him up, and burning him alive! The Masquerade itself is a bacchanalian orgy of decadence, interrupted by an uninvited guest… the Red Death personified!

Price is a malevolent force of evil, a sadist who degrades the members of his court and delights in his devilish cruelty. He also gives a powerful soliloquy  on the nature of terror: “Terror? What do you know of Terror, Alfredo?… (a clock ticks in the background) Listen. Is it to awaken and hear the passing of time? Or the footsteps of someone who, just a moment before, was in your room? But let us not dwell on terror. The knowledge of terror is vouchsafed only to the precious few”. Jane Asher (then-girlfriend of Beatle Paul McCartney ) is good as the peasant Francesca, as are horror vets Hazel Court as Julianna and Patrick Magee as Alfredo. The wildly vivid color scheme, shocking debauchery, and pervasive aura of death and decay make THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH a horror classic, and a fan favorite.

THE TOMB OF LIGEIA was the last in the Corman/Price/Poe cycle, and in my opinion the best in the series. It’s a melancholy mood piece with supernatural and psychological overtones, and an overwhelmingly gloomy sense of dread. Beautiful Rowena Trevanian (Elizabeth Shepherd), out on a fox hunt, is thrown off her horse, landing at the gravesite of Ligeia Fell. She’s startled by Ligeia’s widowed husband Verden (Price), a sinister sort decked out in dark glasses (“I live at night, my vision is painfully acute”). He takes her to his neglected, cobwebbed abbey home to nurse her wounds, where his only companion is ancient servant Kendrick (Oliver Johnston) and a mysterious black cat.

Rowena’s boyfriend Christopher (John Westbrook) and father Lord Trevanian (Derek Francis) come calling to retrieve her, but Rowena feels strangely attracted to the sorrowful Fell. The attraction is mutual… Rowena is a dead ringer for the deceased Ligeia. Soon the two are married, the abbey is spruced up, and the happy (?) couple give a dinner party, at which Fell gives a demonstration in hypnotism. The results are terrifying, as Ligeia’s spirit temporarily possesses the body of Rowena. The wedded bliss is short-lived, as Rowena is locked away in her room, and Verden is prone to taking long midnight walks. Rowena confides to Christopher she believes Ligeia is still alive, and he unearths her body, only to discover a wax effigy….

Price is appropriately moody, and his slow descent into madness is glorious to behold.  The ending features a battle between Price and that darn black cat ending in one of Corman’s patented frightening, flaming finales. The Vaseline-lensed, slow-motion nightmare sequence with Rowena chased through the abbey by her feline foe is Roger at his trippiest! The whole production looks more expensive than it was, and takes Poe’s story outdoors for the first time in the series. The screenplay by (all in one breath) future-Oscar-winner-for-CHINATOWN-Robert-Towne is dead on point (no pun intended!), and the movie’s score by Kenneth V. Jones is what I consider the best in the series. After THE TOMB OF LIGEIA, Corman grew tired of the horror genre in general, and the Poe pictures in particular, and moved on to more contemporary films. AIP wasn’t quite ready to give up on their cash cow however, and produced a handful of other, lesser Price/Poe outings. With the exception of THE CONQUEROR WORM (which really has nothing to do with Poe), none of them matched the dark, disturbing tales of terror concocted by Roger Corman from 1960 to 1965. Edgar Allan Poe may not have recognized some of them, but I’m sure America’s original Master of the Macabre would approve.

More “Creature Double Feature” posts –

THE BLACK SCORPION and THE KILLER SHREWS

IT CAME FROM BENEATHE THE SEA and 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH

THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD and THE GIANT CLAW

RODAN and MOTHRA

 

Bats in the Belfry: MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (MGM 1935)

Tod Browning’s 1931 DRACULA is a masterpiece of terror, the film that launched the Golden Age of Horror and made Bela Lugosi a star. Four years later, Bela and Browning teamed again for MARK OF THE VAMPIRE, loaded with horrific atmosphere but staked through the heart by two fatal blows – too much comic relief and an ending that’s a trick, rather than a treat, for horror buffs.

Lugosi and his “daughter”, Carroll Borland

The shadow of vampirism is terrorizing a small European village, as Sir Karel Borotyn is found murdered, drained of his blood! Inspector Neumann investigates, not believing in such supernatural hokum and suspecting everyone. Lovely young Irena Borotyn, engaged to handsome young Fedor, stands to inherit her father’s estate, with family friend Baron Otto serving as her guardian. When a peasant is found also drained of blood, the villagers suspect the evil Count Mora and his daughter Luna have risen from the dead to conduct a reign of terror.

The Two Lionels (l-r): Barrymore & Atwill

Occult expert Professor Zelen is called in to consult on the matter, and he concludes the vampires are real, despite Neumann’s protestations. Irena and Fedor are attacked by the undead creatures, and an exhumation of Borotyn’s grave finds his coffin empty. Fearing an infestation, Zelen leads the charge after sunrise to find and destroy Mora and his minions. Zelen then hypnotizes Baron Otto to confront the undead Sir Karol, but we find it’s all been an elaborate ruse to unmask Sir Karol’s real killer – Baron Otto!

The Great Bela Lugosi!

That’s right, the “vampires” have been nothing more than actors hired to smoke out the Baron. We do get a treat in Lugosi enacting the part of Count Mora, silently stalking his prey and skulking about among the cobwebbed, vermin-infested castle. Our favorite Hungarian almost gets the last, delicious word as the film ends on a comic note. But the “comedy relief” from Donald Meek as a local doctor and Leila Bennett as Irena’s maid are a bit too much for my dark taste in horror, and the trick ending spoils what could’ve been a horror classic.

Carroll Borland as Luna

Lionel Barrymore  gets top billing as Professor Zelen, working once again with Browning, as he would a year later in THE DEVIL DOLL. It’s always good to see horror regular Lionel Atwill , playing the first of many roles as an Inspector. Jean Hersholt portrays Baron Otto, and Elizabeth Allen makes a fetching Irena, but Henry Wadsworth is a total twit as Fedor. Carroll Borland, who played onstage opposite Lugosi in DRACULA, creates an iconic vampiress in Luna, and an inspiration for future TV horror “g”hostess Vampira. Miss Borland only appeared in a handful of films, but left an indelible mark on the horror genre with her creepy portrayal of Luna.

The gang’s all here!

James Wong Howe’s  photography is eerie enough, and reminiscent of the best of Universal. But the script by Guy Endore and Bernard Schubert is riddled with holes; Endore also wrote the script for THE STORY OF G.I. JOE and the novel The Werewolf of Paris, which was adapted into Hammer’s 1961 CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF, so I’ll give him a pass. MARK OF THE VAMPIRE is a remake of Browning’s lost 1927 silent LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT, but since I (nor anyone currently alive, far as I know) has seen that Lon Chaney frightfest, I can’t compare the two. Perhaps Browning was trying to make up for the stir he caused with 1932’s FREAKS by adding all that extra comedy and false ending; whatever the case, MARK OF THE VAMPIRE is definitely a lesser entry in the classic horror canon. Without Lugosi and Borland, it would be even less, but as it stands, it’s worth at least one viewing.

 

Creepy Crawlies: WILLARD (Cinerama 1971)

Rats are not cute’n’cuddly little creatures. They’re disgusting, disease-infested vermin that should be avoided at all costs. But don’t tell that to WILLARD, title character in this 1971 chiller that started a regular revolution of “animals run amok” horror movies. Bruce Davison, later to become one of his generation’s finest actors (SHORT EYES, THE LATHE OF HEAVEN, LONGTIME COMPANION), is a regular rodent Dr. Doolittle here, not only talking to the animals, but handling them fondly while he trains them to kill his enemies. Rats – yuck!

Willard Stiles is a lonely loser who shares a rambling, decrepit manse with his  domineering mother (Elsa Lanchester) and works for bullying boss Martin (Ernest Borgnine ), who stole the family business from Willard’s late father. Office temp Joan (Sondra Locke) feels sorry for Willard, but the socially awkward nerd is uncomfortable around people, preferring instead to spend time with the rats in his yard, befriending and training them, then letting the varmints move into his cellar. His best furry friends are white rat Socrates and black rat Ben.

When Willard’s mom finally kicks the bucket, a tax lien is put on the house. None of the mother’s elderly friends want to help financially, and mean Mr. Martin wants to buy the property and erect apartment houses. Socrates is killed by Martin when the little bugger is discovered hanging out in the company storeroom (Willard takes he and Ben to work with him!), and Martin decides the only way to get that property is to fire Willard. This pushes young Willard over the edge, and he extracts revenge on Martin in gruesome fashion. Then Willard, realizing he can’t keep his home, drowns his remaining furry partners in crime. But he forgot about Ben, who carries out his own brand of vengeance…

Davison reminds me a bit of Anthony Perkins in PSYCHO; he’s definitely got some of that Norman Bates vibe, and his slow descent into madness is a bloody good time. Borgnine is a real prick as Martin, and his death scene is as creepy as it was when I originally saw this flick in the theater long ago. I’ve sung the praises of Sondra Locke on this blog before; her part is small, but her presence is always welcome, as is that of THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN herself, Elsa Lanchester, as Willard’s mom.

Daniel Mann directed some powerhouse dramas in the 50’s and early 60’s: THE ROSE TATTOO, I’LL CRY TOMORROW, TEAHOUSE OF THE AUGUST MOON. But after 1960’s BUTTERFIELD-8, his career declined, though on WILLARD he does a fine if unspectacular job. No matter; the material could’ve been directed by anybody (or a nobody) and would’ve worked, and it actually holds up rather well. Alex North delivers an eerie score, and the rats were well-trained by Moe DiSesso, a Hollywood animal trainer who worked with the bird in THE RAVEN , the dogs in THE HILLS HAVE EYES , and lovable Sandy in the musical ANNIE. Dogs and birds I don’t mind, but far as I’m concerned DiSesso can keep his nasty, gnawing little rodents. Rats – yuck!

Happy Birthday Boris Karloff: THE OLD DARK HOUSE (Universal 1932)

William Henry Pratt was born on November 23, 1887, but horror movie icon Boris Karloff was “born” when he teamed with director James Whale for 1931’s FRANKENSTEIN. The scary saga of a man and his monster became a big hit, and Universal Studios boss Carl Laemmle Jr. struck while the horror trend was hot, quickly teaming the pair in an adaptation of J.B. Priestley’s 1927 novel THE OLD DARK HOUSE. This film was considered lost for many years until filmmaker and Whale friend Curtis Harrington discovered a print in the Universal vaults. Recently, a 4K restoration has been released courtesy of the Cohen Film Collection, and a showing aired on TCM this past Halloween. I of course, having never seen the film, hit the DVR button for a later viewing.

THE OLD DARK HOUSE has not only been restored to its former glory, but is a delightful black comedy showcasing Whale’s macabre sense of humor. Karloff gets top billing for the first time in his career as the brutish mute butler Morgan, though he’s not the “star” in the true sense of the word. Instead, he’s part of an ensemble of actors who’re engaged in a mission to send a shiver down the audience’s collective spine. Whale, screenwriters Benn Levy and R.C. Sheriff, cinematographer Arthur Edeson, art director Charles B. Hall, and Universal’s make-up genius Jack Pierce all collaborate to create a memorable mise en scene inside the creepy old Femm house of horrors.

The story: it was a dark and stormy night (as Snoopy would say), and bickering couple Philip and Margaret Waverton, with their wayfaring travelling companion Roger Penderel, get stranded deep in the Wales countryside. They seek shelter at a gloomy mansion, where they’re greeted at the door by the mute, horribly scarred butler Morgan. Entering the foreboding domicile, the three are introduced to brother and sister Horace and Rebecca Femm, he a gaunt looking weirdo with a fondness for gin, she a half-deaf religious fanatic. To say the siblings are lacking in the social graces is an understatement!

During the bizarre supper ritual, two more wanderers knock at the Femm door, boisterous Sir William Porterhouse and his “friend” Gladys DuCane (formerly Perkins). The storm outside rages on, and then a storm front moves indoors as Morgan gets “at the bottle again”, attempting to rape Margaret, and releasing brother Saul Femm from his locked room, a milquetoast looking pipsqueak who turns out to be the biggest maniac of the bunch…

Boris is menacing as Morgan, aided by Jack Pierce’s make-up job, but isn’t given much to do in the acting department. His is a mostly physical role, threatening Margaret Waverton in his drunken stupor, needing three men to subdue him. It’s Morgan who lets loose the psychotic Saul, putting things in motion that lead to the film’s conclusion. Morgan may not be the focal point of THE OLD DARK HOUSE, but it’s an important film in the Karloff canon. It’s his first top-billed role, and the movie’s posters herald him as only KARLOFF, the last name alone now recognized by audiences of the day as the last word in terror! Boris would have many more opportunities to show his acting skills in the horror genre (and others), thanks in large part to his popularity in FRANKENSTEIN and this, his second Universal Horror.

“A Universal Cast is Worth Repeating”, and this one’s a doozy! Let’s start with Melvyn Douglas , just beginning his film career in the part of Penderel. His character’s from ‘The Lost Generation’, a disillusioned WWI vet whose aimless life contains no meaning, until fate steps in. Raymond Massey (Philip) was already an established star, with his iconic role as Abraham Lincoln waiting in the wings. Gloria Stuart (Margaret) was a WAMPAS Baby Star and Universal contract player just getting started; modern audiences fell in love with her as the elderly Rose in TITANIC. Charles Laughton (Porterhouse) makes his American film debut here, bringing both humor and pathos to his role. Lilian Bond (Gladys) never quite made the impact her costars did, but she’s more than good as the ex-chorus girl, and had a long career.

The family Femm are certainly a grotesque lot, with marvelous Ernest Thesiger as the emotionally dead Horace and Eva Moore his completely creepy sister Rebecca. Thesiger, known to horror fans as the sinister Dr. Pretorius in Whale’s BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, is perfect as the cadaverous Horace, so uncomfortable around people he can’t connect with anyone, except his palpable hatred for sister Rebecca. Moore is a revelation as the  religious nut, obviously sexually repressed, especially when talking about her late sister (“She was a wicked one… with her red lips and her big eyes and her white neck”). In a scene that’s pure Pre-Code, Margaret gets out of her rain-soaked clothes, stripping down to her slip. Rebecca feels the smooth fabric, stating, “That’s fine stuff, but it’ll rot”. Then, placing her hand on Margaret’s breast, says “That’s finer stuff still, but it’ll rot too, in time”, causing Margaret to withdraw in repulsion, the vanity mirror behind them distorting both women’s faces. It’s a frightening scene, beautifully staged by Whale and acted by the two ladies.

Brember Wills is Saul Femm, who is feared by his siblings, but looks harmless at first. But as the cameras roll, we see his demeanor change before our eyes, and this little man becomes a psychopath of the first order, obsessed with flame and fire, and determined to burn the family homestead to the ground. Wills was primarily a stage actor, with only six film credits, but this movie elevates him to the pantheon of Universal Monsters! As for 102 year old patriarch Sir Roderick Femm, confined to bed and looking like he’s already past his expiration date, actor John Dudgeon is credited. Only there’s no such person… Sir Roderick is played by 61-year-old actress Elspeth Dudgeon, a Whale in-joke. Loaded up with Jack Pierce’s old age makeup, Elspeth does a gender-bending splendid job. If I hadn’t known beforehand that it was a woman behind all that makeup, I never would’ve guessed it!

James Whale seems to have had a good time experimenting with oddly tilted camera angles and moody lighting on this, a warm up perhaps for his THE INVISIBLE MAN and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. He certainly leaves his stamp on the film, with its expressionistic look and warped sense of humor. THE OLD DARK HOUSE, unlike some films I’ve long heard about, did not disappoint me upon my first viewing, and I’d highly recommend anyone with a Blu-Ray to purchase a copy pronto. Boris Karloff may not be the star of the show, but his Morgan is suitably gruesome enough to satisfy die-hard horror fans, as is the movie as a whole. Happy birthday King Karloff; long may you reign in the nightmares of monster lovers everywhere!