Hello, and welcome to my 2021 April A to Z Blogging Challenge! This year, I am talking about all of the horror movies Alec and I have watched during the pandemic (so far). We’ve watched, I have discovered, quite a lot of them. We were watching a movie a night for several months of the pandemic, and, though we have fallen out of that habit lately, we still watch maybe 3 or 4 movies a week, on average.
Most of the movies watched in our house are horror movies, because we’re creepy like that. In our house, plastic skulls act as hat-stands, and the lace trim on our front door has a bat-motif. There are gargoyle sculptures everywhere, and antique candelabra compete for space with the cheap plastic ones we keep meaning to put away with the other seasonal stuff but haven’t gotten around to yet. We also go in for splendidly ugly Victorian lamps, which Alec is really good at re-wiring. Seriously, in our house, if you aren’t currently being stared at by the empty eye sockets of a skull, you just aren’t looking hard enough. When we decorate for Halloween parties, we add a few more skull-and-bat-type draperies to the place, and noodle with the lighting, and we’re basically ready for callers. We’re always, in short, Halloween Casual.
Horror movies are kind of our thing.
Today, I only have two movies for you! Both of them bear the same title, and both of them are based on the same book. But they are fairly dissimilar in many ways, and were made about 30 years apart.
Without further ado…
The Old Dark House (1932)
Director: James Whale
This is based on the J.B. Priestley novel Benighted!, which I happen to have read. Weirdly, I read it mere weeks before we saw The Old Dark House, and then I got that thrill that you do get when you realize that what you are watching is absolutely and completely based on a novel you know. Benighted! is both a spooky story and a darkly comic reflection on the English class structure and post WWI-disillusionment.
If I remember correctly, things end slightly more happily in the movie than in the book, at least for some of the characters. But I think we do get exactly the same cast in the movie and the book. You have the businessman, self-made and vulgar, but who turns out to defy stock-character conventions by being likable and ultimately noble. You have the hard-bitten chorus girl with a heart of gold. You have the young misanthropist who has never quite fit in to society since the War. You have the Femm family, the owners of the old, dark house. They are a sinister and decayed family, with a secret upstairs.
There are also, I think, other people. A married couple? Anyway, there’s quite a crowd.
The premise is, there’s a terrible storm, and various groups of people seek shelter in the old, dark house, with the sinister Femm family. Slowly, various horrid mysteries are uncovered. Everyone is, it gradually becomes clear, in terrible danger.
One problem I am having here is that, in this case, the book and the movie are so similar that I am having trouble remembering which thing happens in which. This will not be a problem for my next entry.
In the movie, you also get Boris Karloff, which is always a bonus.
I hear that this movie didn’t do very well when it was released, and that for a long time it was considered “lost.” Then it got found again, and fixed up and dusted off, and was this time received very well indeed.
It is also the source of yesterday’s Mystery Picture! Here it is again:
The Old Dark House (1963)
Director: William Castle
This movie is also based on Benighted! That is clear, because the studio acquired the rights to Benighted! before making this film. Also, there is a sinister and murderous family in this movie, and their last name is Femm. But the Femm family is the focus here; there is only one outsider, an American car salesman, who is there by invitation, not chance. Of course, by the time he arrives, the man who invited him (Jasper Femm) is already dead and looking peaceful in the coffin in the morning room or wherever…
Thing is, we weren’t expecting much from this movie, and we were in for a seriously pleasant surprise. It is actually very funny. We thought that it would just be the usual William Castle gimmicky blah-fest. But no! In this one, everyone is so arrestingly weird that the attention is caught and held. There’s the guy who is building an ark in the back yard, there’s the lady who knits because she fears that a great calamity will ensue if ever she should stop, there’s the guy with the extensive gun collection, there’s the frustrated nymphomaniac with about a bazillion odd outfits and a very direct way with our hero, there’s the dead guy in the coffin and his twin, there’s the insanely protective father of the nymphomaniac… and it makes for a really fun watch.
But it really is a very strange take on the novel, if it is actually doing that. It borrows most of the names from the story (the Femm surname and several of the first names from the story; also, our American is named Tom Penderel, and Penderel is the name of the disillusioned guy in the novel and the earlier film), and a certain amount of the atmosphere and a few plot elements, but it makes a totally different story out of them. This is the dream you might have the night after watching the 1932 film. It has that kind of strangeness to it, and the elements of the other stories are mixed up here in a dream-like way.
I guess the main shift here is that this movie focuses on the Femms themselves, whereas the book and the earlier film are primarily focused on the stranded travelers, with the Femms existing as antagonists to a greater or lesser degree. This movie dispenses with the whole stranded-traveler thing, though Penderel is more or less trapped in the house once he arrives.
We liked this one so much that we’ve watched it twice, over the course of the last year. That second time was a mistake. We should’ve given it maybe five or ten years, not six months. The thing had lost its first freshness, and its ability to charm is deeply linked to its ability to surprise with its delightful morbidity.
That’s it for today, folks! Tomorrow, all going well, I’ll be paying some badly-overdue visits to other A to Zers! And then, Monday… and “P.” There are eleven titles for “P,” some good, some bad, and some in that odd in-between space where you enjoy a movie but can’t really say why. Here is a picture from one of the ones I liked; identify the movie if you can, or make up a story about it if that is more your thing! And regardless, say “hi” in the Comments section.