Monday, June 25, 2007

The Other Addams Family

It is said that Sony Pictures Home Entertainment is preparing a number of their Hammer Film holdings for release on DVD later in the year. Though it is not one of the most beloved films in this batch, I'm hopeful that Sony will get around, sooner or later, to William Castle's one-shot collaboration with the illustrious horror studio, THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1963). I watched this film last night, courtesy of a year's old Encore Mystery broadcast, as part of my ongoing tape-to-DVD-R conversion procedure, and was surprised that this movie, about which I've always been lukewarm at best, suddenly kicked in as puckish entertainment.

Scripted by Robert Dillon -- whose other credits include Roger Corman's X THE MAN WITH X-RAY EYES (1963), PRIME CUT (1972) and FRENCH CONNECTION II (1975)-- Castle's THE OLD DARK HOUSE is not really a remake of the 1932 Universal classic directed by James Whale, though it too claims basis in J. B. Priestley's 1928 novel BENIGHTED. I'm told that the Whale film is very faithful to the novel until just before the end, and the Castle film's storyline bears only very loose similarities to the earlier narrative. Castle's film was not accorded much respect upon its release; in the United Kingdom, it was issued in a cut 76m version, while, in America, it was issued at its full 86 minute length. However, US distributor Columbia refused the expense of color prints, releasing it only in decidedly unlustrous black-and-white. It was shown this way on American television until sometime in the late 1980s, when it began to appear on premium cable channels and local commercial stations in color. It looks startlingly good in color, and I was also pleased to discover how much precision and compositional quality Arthur Grant's photography gained when I zoomed the full-frame picture up on my widescreen set. This, too, is the way THE OLD DARK HOUSE was meant to be seen and too often hasn't.

My newfound appreciation of THE OLD DARK HOUSE certainly doesn't extend to comparing it to the 1932 version, which is truly incomparable, nor would I compare it favorably to some of Castle's own work. It's not a perfect-of-its-kind confection as were THE TINGLER and HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL. However, it's fairly assuredly the finest of Castle's many attempts to fuse humor and horror, and the opportunity to work with a thoroughly experienced British cast and Hammer's top-flight technical crew (including production designer Bernard Robinson and composer Benjamin Frankel) put Castle ahead of his usual game, which often made use of some less-than-impressive American supporting players. Top-billed American actor Tom Poston, returning to the Castle ranks from the previous year's ZOTZ!, carries the film confidently and amiably. In the earlier film, Poston played a variation on the absent-minded professor character played so successfully by Fred MacMurray in two then-recent Walt Disney productions, and came off as a likeable if diluted eccentric; here, he's playing a role better suited to his range and qualities and he manages to navigate a narrow and sometimes treacherous path between drama and physical comedy. Surrounding Poston are a motley crew of British players as the creepy Femm family: Robert Morley, Peter Bull, Joyce Grenfell (who fears that, if she stops knitting, the world will end -- as indeed it does), Mervyn Johns, Fenella Fielding, Danny Green, and the seemingly normal Janette Scott. Castle obtains a stronger body of performances than he got in any of the other films he directed in the 1960s, and if truth be told, the performances are uniformly stronger here than they were in the average Hammer film of this period.

So... the performances are delightful, the script's dark comedy plays well, the art direction is splendid, the music is appropriately baroque and doomy -- what is it about THE OLD DARK HOUSE that doesn't quite work? Somehow, whatever was necessary to bond these elements into a happy, organic package simply isn't in evidence. It isn't just that Danny Green makes a poor Morgan when compared to Boris Karloff -- indeed, when this film was first released, the James Whale version was considered all but lost, and few who went to see it knew much more about the earlier adaptation than the stills they had seen; the Morgan in this film isn't even the Femm's butler but rather a super-strong, strangulation-happy family member. Castle was able to cast his films, knew the atmosphere he was after, and had the right sense of humor, but he simply wasn't capable to make all these components move as one. In some ways, he didn't develop as a director beyond the abilities he'd acquired while making films for the Whistler and Crime Doctor series at Columbia in the 1940s: here as there, actors are trotted out in character when they are needed, and one almost feels them disappear as they move offscreen. The action is too stagey to convincingly blend with the mise-en-scène.

The film includes the credit "drawn by Charles Addams" (a monstrous hand actually paints the great man's signature onscreen in moon-pale ink), though the great NEW YORKER cartoonist drew neither the film poster nor designed the production. What he drew was the old dark house visible behind the main titles -- and drawn black on a deep purple background, his work isn't terribly visible, at least not in the print I viewed. Nevertheless, his presence acknowledges the debt that the Femms played in developing his own Addams Family -- indeed, he openly acknowledged that his butler Lurch had been inspired by Karloff's Morgan in the original film. It was clever of Castle to hire Addams, not only for the coup of adding his name to the credits and advertising, but for recognizing the relationship that existed between Addams drawings and the movie that he wanted to make. If you think about it, all of Castle's earlier horror films had been comedic though in a non-diegetic sense; they were genuinely horrific, but comedic in the way he sold them. After the rip-roaring success of HOMICIDAL, Castle's work in horror sought to balance horror and humor; it's there in 13 GHOSTS, in MR. SARDONICUS (if we see the version including Castle's "Punishment Poll" footage), and in I SAW WHAT YOU DID -- and it's in THE OLD DARK HOUSE that this uneasy fusion works best. It works well enough, in fact, to have inspired in other people the idea of developing Addams' cartoons as a television series.

William Castle (who died in 1977) is still about as popular among movie fans as he ever was when he was alive. Most of his best movies are available on DVD and he inspired the character played by John Goodman in Joe Dante's terrific 1993 movie MATINEE. Neither Castle's nor Hammer's most devoted admirers have had much good to say about THE OLD DARK HOUSE over the years, but it's doubtful that a cut or cropped or colorless version of the experience really passes for an intended viewing of THE OLD DARK HOUSE. My memory suitably refreshed and corrected, I think it harbors enough of the mysterious and spooky and altogether ooky to warrant a closer look, should a Sony DVD ever wend our way.

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