Let’s get one thing out of the way up front. While The Old Dark House (1963) is technically a remake of the superior 1932 version, any comparison of the two is going to automatically devalue the newer version. Therefore, I’m going to make every attempt to judge it on its own. In doing so, for my first-time viewing of it, I kind of enjoyed it.
To say The Old Dark House is a “dark comedy” isn’t exactly true. While the overall setting is intended to be spooky, the humor isn’t exactly related to dark subject matter. However, if “dark comedy” means slightly humorous with only one or two outright laughs, then it qualifies for the term. It’s not a bad thing to say it isn’t funny. I’ll take “cute” and “amusing” over slapstick any day.
Tom Poston stars as Tom Penderel, an American in England who’s invited by his friend, Caspar Femm (Peter Bull), to his family estate for the weekend. He’s frightened of something and says he needs Tom’s help. By the time Tom arrives, though, Caspar, who left ahead of him, has taken a nasty fall and now lies dead in a coffin in the… old, dark house.
Since Tom’s car was damaged upon his arrival, he’s stranded at Femm Hall with an assortment of eccentric family members. Among them are Uncle Potiphar (Mervyn Johns), cousins Cecily (Janette Scott) and Morgana (Fenella Fieldin), Caspar’s mother, Agatha (Joyce Grenfell), and Caspar’s twin brother, Jaspar (also Peter Bull.) In most cases, they have strange characteristics that make them suspects of murder.
They all seem to be afraid of Roderick (Robert Morley), who enters after the others have been introduced and is, in essence, the head of the household. Through him, we learn the family history and the fact that the family members must reside at Femm Hall (getting home no later than midnight every night) to retain their share of the family fortune, from which dividends are distributed once a year.
Then there’s Morgan Femm (Danny Green), a hulking figure that doesn’t speak and perceives Tom as a threat he must stop. In the one comparison I’ll make to the original version, I’ll say Morgan is the character portrayed by Boris Karloff in The Old Dark House (1932) and he’s played here more for laughs than for scares. In context, while it may make you long for a different kind of movie, it’s not insulting.
The story unfolds at a pace that’s leisurely, yet not sleepy. At 86 minutes, there’s not anything I’d trim. Approaching it as an oddity, particularly since this was Hammer Films’ only collaboration with director William Castle, I was skeptical at first, but ended up being pleasantly pleased. It is what it is and, in a vacuum, it is an OK movie. I don’t think it’s nearly as bad as its reputation.
Written by Robert Dillon
Based on The Old Dark House by J.B. Priestley
Directed by William Castle
Starring Tom Poston, Robert Morley, Janette Scott, Joyce Grenfell, Mervyn Johns, Fenella Fielding, Peter Bull, Danny Green RT 86 min.
Home Video Mill Creek (William Castle Horror Collection) DVD
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