Column: The Vault of Secrets: The Old Dark House (1963)

By Orrin Grey

The Old Dark House (1963). Directed by: William Castle. Starring: Tom Poston, Robert Morley, Janette Scott.

Welcome back to the Vault of Secrets, where we’ll be unearthing another classic (or not-so-classic) vintage horror film for your delectation. Tonight’s film was one of several screeners sent over as part of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment’s manufacture-on-demand service, “Sony Pictures Choice Collection,” that we’ll be covering here at the Vault, though it was also one that I’d seen before. After all, how could I not have seen it? The lone collaboration between master showman William Castle and Hammer Studios, as well as a remake of one of my favorite movies from the 30s, this was either bound to be perfection on celluloid, or to disappoint drastically. Either way, it was something I couldn’t miss.

Sadly (and perhaps inevitably), on the scale of total perfection to complete disappointment, it’s much nearer the latter than the former. For all that I love him, William Castle isn’t exactly famous for making great movies. Aside from it obviously being filmed in England and the presence of Janette Scott (Paranoiac), there are not many of the usual Hammer trademarks here. As for its relationship to its far superior namesake – or the novel that inspired them both – this is one of those situations where I’m not certain why a remake even bothered to take the name of the original. It’s not as if the Old Dark House title could have carried much cachet in 1963. Aside from some of the character names and the basic conceit of a stranded traveler at a rain-soaked house, they have nothing in common.

This Old Dark House is less the gloomy-but-delightful black comedy of the original film or the Priestley novel and more a slapstick farce, bearing more similarity to a Warner Brothers cartoon about a spooky manor than it does either of its predecessors. (In fact, the opening credits feature art by Charles Addams, and are about as good as the movie ever gets.) In this version, veteran comedic actor Tom Poston plays our version of Penderel (one of the many names carried over from the other versions, if nothing of the character remains intact), who is lured out to the damp and sprawling ancestral home of an acquaintance who, naturally, turns out to already be dead by the time he arrives.

What unfolds from there is more like a highly ludicrous adaptation of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None than any version of The Old Dark House. The Femme family here has been expanded into a much more boisterous screwball horde. Morgan (Karloff’s character in the original) has been upgraded from butler to uncle, though he still has virtually no dialogue, and is done up such that he basically just is Bluto.
While not getting mysteriously murdered, the family gets up to a variety of odd behaviors that are mostly an excuse for bizarre “comedic” scenes – everything from attempting to seduce Penderel to threatening him with a stuffed hyena standing in for the real thing.

In what is no doubt the movie’s strangest addition to the story, one of the Femmes is convinced that a second deluge is upon the earth and is building an ark in the back yard, complete with two of every animal, including a cage for Penderel and one of the Femme women. As if it weren’t already weird enough, the head-scratching sequence culminates in a seal climbing onto the bed and Penderel picturing the head of the lady in question replacing the seal’s head as it barks. We here at the Vault of Secrets dare you to tune in to just that scene on TV in the middle of the night and then try to puzzle out just what the hell kind of movie you’re watching.

The screenplay this time out comes from Robert Dillon, whose uninspiring filmography also includes Muscle Beach Party and the sequel to The French Connection, so perhaps we shouldn’t be too disappointed. At the end of the day, any remake of James Whale’s classic adaptation of The Old Dark House is probably doomed to be lackluster. A collaboration between William Castle and Hammer studios is one of those things that’s probably always going to be better in our imaginations than it ever could be in execution.

So, while this version of The Old Dark House is an intriguing oddity for fans of any of those things – and if you’re not a fan of at least one of those things, what are you doing reading this column? – don’t go into it with your hopes up too high.

That’s it for tonight, but be sure to join us next time when we head to the swamp for a story about a certain kind of people ….