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OLD DARK HOUSE MOVIES: TWISTY MYSTERIES

For a twisty trip back to that odd time when Gothic Victorianism melded with Art Deco Modernism, check out some “Old Dark House” pictures from the 1920s, 30s, and 40s.

Spooky – but not necessarily haunted – houses are traceable at least as far back as Ann Radcliffe’s Gothic novels (1790s) or Edgar Allan Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher” (1839).

But the films are derived most obviously from 1920s stage mysteries such as Mary Roberts Rinehart’s “The Bat” (1920) and John Willard’s “The Cat and the Canary” (1922).  Agatha Christie is an influence on the later films.

Historians sometimes consider D.W. Griffith’s ONE EXCITING NIGHT (1922) to be the first of these films, but it was THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1927) that defined the subgenre.  It’s a little like HALLOWEEN (1978) defining the slasher subgenre even though it wasn’t technically the first slasher film.

Dozens of Old Dark House films followed CAT AND THE CANARY’s success, most of them released in the 30s, many in the 40s, and a few in the 50s, 60s, or even later, though the latter-day releases tended to be parodies.

Most of the films are short – only about an hour – and quickly paced, if stiffly shot.

It’s notoriously difficult to define the subgenre, but we can at least describe it as a combination of mystery, horror, crime, and comedy.

Common elements of Old Dark House pictures are:

1. AN OLD DARK HOUSE
This would seem to go without saying.  It derived from the necessity of stage plays being performed at a central location with a single set.  While the house itself gives identity to each picture, often functioning as a sort of mute character, it also limits each picture – so latter-day viewers like ourselves must be in the mood for static camerawork and repetitive staging.

The houses themselves are usually Gothic Victorian mansions.  The 1930s films tended to respect the houses, but later films (such as THE BLACK CAT, 1941) often denigrated the houses, sometimes having them broken or destroyed at the conclusions.  ONE BODY TOO MANY (1944) modernizes its house by adding an observatory at the top.

2. SECRET PASSAGES
This includes doors, tunnels, panels, revolving bookcases, you name it.  These passages might lead into a basement or dungeon.  They might (as in SECRET OF THE BLUE ROOM, 1933) even lead away from the house altogether.  Often, a gloved hand might reach out of a secret panel toward an unsuspecting victim.

3. MOTLEY CHARACTERS
Most Old Dark Movies have a large cast of characters, with some characters being very old (like the centenarian patriarch in THE OLD DARK HOUSE, 1932) or very young (with 18-year-old maidens a common type), some being rich, others being poor, some being European, others being American, some being country folk, others being city slickers.  TANGLED DESTINIES (1932) even features a Chinese traveler, treated respectfully by the script.

4. A STRANGE CREATURE
This could be an animal-like creature like a gorilla, bat, or cat.  Or it could be a ghost.  Often, the creature turns out to be a villain in disguise, like on “Scooby-Doo.”  If not a person, the creature may be revealed as a puppet or projection.  HOUSE OF MYSTERY (1934) is rare in featuring both a real gorilla and a guy in a suit.

5. A VOICE FROM THE PAST
This could be a figurative voice, like the words of a Last Will and Testament, or it could be a dire pronouncement from a hidden villain.  The voice (or villain) usually has some connection to a crime or secret or ancestor from a character’s past.

6. SCIENCE NOT SORCERY
While a few Old Dark House classics are supernatural, the vast majority ultimately offer a rational scientific explanation for the skullduggery.  In THE PHANTOM (1931), the heroine is threatened not with supernatural terrors but with a brain transplant!

7. LOW BODY COUNT
Don’t expect a bloodbath.  In fact, don’t expect blood.  While virtually every Old Dark House picture includes a murder, few include more than two or three deaths, and fewer still include bloody or gory deaths.  Usually, victims are strangled offscreen.

8. COMIC RELIEF
Bumbling waiters or silly old housekeepers could provide comic relief, or snappy reporters could crack jokes.  Many of the films could be considered more comedic than horrifying.  Later films like William Castle’s OLD DARK HOUSE (named purposefully for the subgenre, 1963) were almost entirely comedic.

9. BAD WEATHER
You can safely bet on some thunder, lightning, rain, or all three to arrive before the movie is out.  ONE FRIGHTENED NIGHT (1935) even opens with a thunderclap.

Now, here are 10 Old Dark House pictures to satisfy your taste for twisty mystery.

I comment further in my Claws & Saucers guidebook, but I hope you’ll enjoy the comments and links here.  Note that my list emphasizes the more horror-oriented pictures, but you can find more comedic or more detective-type pictures if you prefer.

1. THE MONSTER (1925).  

Preceding the archetypal CAT AND THE CANARY by two years, THE MONSTER is a sort of Old Dark House and Mad Scientist combination.  Lon Chaney plays the madman!  Our hero is an amateur detective trying hard to win the woman he loves.  Excerpts from his how-to-be-a-detective book work well as silent intertitles.

The cast is small, but the movie is an important Old Dark House prototype, featuring secret doors, thunderstorms, and other patterns that later became standard.  A year later, Chaney became famous for PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.

2. THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1927)

This silent standout from German director Paul Leni is so stylized that the camera does virtually nothing normally.  Even the title cards are stylized with swirly or dripping lettering.  One by one, we watch suspicious heirs arrive at the house to hear the reading of a millionaire’s will.  Little do they know that an escaped lunatic lurks in the shadows.  The hero is also the comic relief guy, which is pretty rare.

3. THE BAT WHISPERS (1930)

Although it’s probably the most overrated of all Old Dark House films, it remains essential viewing, if only because (a) the opening shots are Expressionistic, and (b) the villain with his bat costume was an inspiration for Batman.  The villain’s car even sends out a smokescreen like a proto-Batmobile (sort of).  It’s not a bad film, but be aware it is light on action.  It was remade, though not really improved, as THE BAT (1959, featuring Vincent Price).

4. THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932)

James Whale’s third-most-famous feature (after his two Frankenstein films) helped give the subgenre its name.  The house itself is rather plain, but the characters are the key; this is the most fully realized and developed group of characters in the subgenre.

You sympathize with several characters at once, and you wonder how they will fare when the house’s resident pyromaniac lunatic (a grunting Boris Karloff) breaks free of his confinement.  Who is crazy?  Who is honest?  Who will die?  Who will find love?  It’s a tight funny film that gets better with repeat viewings.  Gloria Stuart later made James Cameron’s TITANIC.

5. SECRET OF THE BLUE ROOM (1933)

You know those haunted house stories where characters accept a bet to sleep one night in a haunted room?  Here’s an Old Dark House picture with a similar premise, but it’s three rivals for a young lady’s love.  Will any gentleman survive to win the maiden’s hand?  A Q&A sequence with a detective is too long.  But the deaths in the Blue Room are great.  It’s one of the more serious pictures in the subgenre.  Lionel Atwill is the stern patriarch of the house.

6. ONE FRIGHTENED NIGHT (1935)

With CAT AND THE CANARY and THE OLD DARK HOUSE, this is the third truly great film in the subgenre.  Scene to scene, dialogue to dialogue… it’s nearly seamless.  The killer’s mask is very scary, but a wisecracking vaudeville magician is very funny.  It’s got style, and shadows, and surprises.

7. THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG (1939)

For its first half, this is almost a science fiction film, as our anti-hero doctor (Boris Karloff) develops an artificial heart contraption.  Then we enter Old Dark House territory, as the doctor invites his foes to his mysterious mansion and plots to kill them one by one.  He even provides each with a place card that lists the time each one will die!  It’s a mostly successful and very strange film.

8. YOU’LL FIND OUT (1940)

It’s an Old Dark House musical.  But somehow it works.  Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Peter Lorre all retain their dignity amidst the songs and silliness.  The dialogue is surprisingly intelligent.  Virtually no character is what he first seems to be.  Watch for a standout seance sequence.  The opening credits move across a radio tuner!

9. HORROR ISLAND (1941)

Though the house (or castle) gets little respect from the screenplay, it looks terrific on its little island.  Our characters take a boat ride to the island for a treasure hunt, but – wouldn’t you know it – a sinister “phantom” (who looks like The Shadow) is lurking in wait.  The plot and dialogue are surprisingly nimble for a film coming this late in the subgenre.

10. NIGHT MONSTER (1942)

The style and atmosphere are thin.  The acting is weak, despite the presence of Bela Lugosi and Lionel Atwill.  But the story and concepts are so weird, that NIGHT MONSTER forces us to declare it an Old Dark House standout.  It’s one of the most supernatural of all Old Dark House pictures, blatantly championing Eastern Mysticism over Western Rationalism.  “All matter,” we learn, “is really cosmic substance in vibration.”

A little more:

Two great parodies of the subgenre include MURDER BY DEATH (1976, written by Neil Simon) and DARK AND STORY NIGHT (2009, from Larry Blamire who also made LOST SKELETON OF CADAVRA).  William Castle’s famous HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1958) is a partial parody.  A flawed but notable variant is HOUSE ON SKULL MOUNTAIN (1974) which featured a black cast in a voodoo house.

You can also find Old Dark House elements in Italian Gothic horrors from the 60s like THE GHOST (1963), Italian exploitation films like SEX OF THE WITCH (1973), British horrors like THE BEAST MUST DIE (1974), and American B-movies like CURSE OF THE LIVING CORPSE (1964), CASTLE OF EVIL (1966), or LEGACY OF BLOOD (1971), and even gialli like FIVE DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON (1970).

FURTHER READING:

21 Comments

21 Comments

  1. Todd Sokolove

    Todd Sokolove

    January 8, 2014 at 4:02 am

    This is epic. Adding all to my viewing list now.

  2. Mike Peterson

    April 26, 2015 at 8:34 pm

    Does anyone know an "old dark house" movie where someone is killed by a pin in the head from an old phone handset and another electrocuted at a window?

  3. Anonymous

    June 10, 2015 at 5:12 am

    I'll look them all up!! Great article, and thank you for mentioning Dark and Stormy Night, it's a wonderful flick….

  4. Anonymous

    August 20, 2015 at 9:16 pm

    Mike Peterson – I think you are thinking of "Dr. Phibes Rises Again" (1972) for the telephone handset death – the electrocution/window I'm not sure about

  5. Mike Peterson

    August 20, 2015 at 9:24 pm

    Thank you much for your answer to my old dark house movie question. The movie I'm looking for however, is much older. My brother saw this movie in the '40's when he was young. We've searched and search but have not been able to locate it. Thank you again for you input.

  6. Brenda Buck

    December 5, 2015 at 5:27 am

    Hello I hope you can help me to locate this excellent horror movie that I saw an extremely long time ago < giving away my age > that I"ve been trying forever to find! All I can remember is it was of course in a Haunted Looking Mansion and this Lady wasn't allowed or supposed to go into a certain room of this Mans Mansion whom she was staying with.. She kept on seeing another woman who was I believe supposedly the ghostly wife apparition of the Man' who owned the Mansion. Near the end of the movie the Woman who had been staying at this Man's Mansion went into the room she wasn't allowed or supposed to go into and discovered the apparition of the ghost woman was actually lying on a table in a room that looked like a Mad Scientist Laboratory and the Man of the Mansion was obviously trying to bring his deceased wife back to Life. I hope it's not one of those movies that accidentally got destroyed or anything like that… "Thank You, so very much" Brenda Dossey

  7. Brenda Buck

    December 5, 2015 at 6:02 am

    I apologize, I just re~read my Post and realized that I made it sound like the Widowers Wife's Apparition was laying on the table inside the room that looks like a Mad Scientist Laboratory, when I actually meant to say the Widowers Wife's body was lying on the table inside the room that looks just like a Mad Scientist Laboratory and after he was working on her dead body trying to bring her back to Life, the dead wife sat up on the Laboratory Table and turned towards the Woman who was staying at the Mansion terrifying the Woman into screaming in shock…."Thank You" I deeply appreciate your help

  8. angusscrimm

    December 18, 2015 at 3:54 pm

    i hope this helps,i think it,s a film called the devil's command starring boris karloff.

  9. Mike Peterson

    December 18, 2015 at 4:07 pm

    Hi Angus – got any idea about the movie I'm looking for? (post above). At lest 2 deaths, one by a pin from an old phone handset and another by electrocution by a rigged window. Mike

  10. angusscrimm

    December 19, 2015 at 1:25 pm

    mike i found this movie by going through the original list on a torrent at random via a link to imdb.it is mystery of the thirteenth guest(1943).the original the thirteenth guest(1934)is on you tube.if you go on imdb for the original film and scroll down to the forum, there is a question 'electrified telephone'.

  11. angusscrimm

    December 19, 2015 at 1:40 pm

    mike you need to write it in as 'mystery of the 13th guest' because nothing comes up,angus.

  12. Mike Peterson

    December 19, 2015 at 2:09 pm

    Hi again Angus. I hope everything is going good for you.

    I appreciate you looking into this for me… I have the movie The Thirteenth Guest and although it does have a "bit" with an electrified telephone, this is not the movie I'm looking for. It was a pin that shot out of the phone that killed one person and another died from elocution by a rigged window. The "guests" had been locked into the house and were trying to find a way out. Thanks again… Mike

    • Unknown

      February 10, 2016 at 9:40 pm

      It's House of Secrets or House of Mystery. Both are good though

    • Dave Gordon

      February 10, 2016 at 9:42 pm

      It's House of Secrets or House of Mystery. Both are good though

  13. Mike Peterson

    February 10, 2016 at 10:23 pm

    Thank you very much Dave for the info… I really appreciate you taking the time to check out the FoG website and answering my query. I'll check out both movies… Thanks too to FoG…

    • Ian

      April 1, 2019 at 6:44 pm

      Hi Mike, I’m also looking for this movie. Did you ever find it.

  14. Anonymous

    February 24, 2016 at 6:41 am

    mike, i think that movie is "the ninth guest(1934)". it's on youtube.

    • Michael Peterson

      May 2, 2019 at 7:25 pm

      Hi – I didn’t – sorry to take so long in answering – I did not get an email that you have posted. Probably my email server… It’s already 2019 but after so much help here (and the death of my brother), I kinda just gave up. Would still love to find it though. Thank you for your post. Mike

  15. Ford

    July 10, 2017 at 1:06 am

    One of my fave old dark house movies is Clue (1985). It’s a comedy but not a parody, very witty, fast-paced and fun, with lots of great lines.

  16. K.W. Stryker

    September 12, 2018 at 1:48 am

    Can anybody tell me the title of a mystery with a shock ending. I watched it on tv, when I was home sick with the flu. It is the ending I remember. There is a hooded man throughout the movie and at the end they unmask him to reveal his skull like face! He was held prisoner by Chinese warlords and tortured and driven mad…

  17. Holly

    August 7, 2019 at 9:44 pm

    Glad to find this! Looking for some old movie suggestions that have the old portrait where the villain could watch his guests thru the eyes of the painting? Does anyone remember a movie like that? I remember seeing movies like that and now when I try to find it I can’t! Any recollections of such a movie would be greatly appreciated! 🙂

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