Josh Soriano’s FIVE BEST “OLD DARK HOUSE” FILMS

JSOn a stormy night, amidst the the trees on a fog-shrouded​ hilltop, a large house sits. Inside, a group of people have come together to hear the reading of a will. As the night continues, the ​​storm’s grasp strengthens and renders it impossible for the group to leave. They’ll have to spend the night. However, one amongst them is a murderer and will do anything in his/her power to be the next heir, including killing the guests off one by one. Before daybreak the killer will traverse throughout the house by secret passages, terrorizing each guest and creating a panic, while our protagonists race to solve the mystery.

Sound familiar? It should. It’s the classic scenario ​of what are known as ​”Old Dark House​​​” films that were popularized in the 30s and 40s in cinema. If you’ve ever watched a Saturday night horror film on basic television, chances are you’ve seen one of these films because there are dozens of them. Most of our classic murder mysterious were born from the sub-genre. While minor details may change from film to film, they all have the same touchstones; a spooky old house, a group of stranded/invited guests, the storm that keeps them trapped there and a murder mystery​ or stashed fortune/inheritance. A key element that differentiates these from haunted house films is, in an “old dark house” film, the ghosts always end up to be hoaxes.

After researching online, I noticed that there was a complete lack in “Best Of” lists on the sub-genre and since these were my introduction to the horror genre as a child, I wanted to create a list for others as well. A few of these films were born from stage plays and the technical limitations within three acts (hence them usually taking place in one house on one evening). Since they share similar beginnings from two plays produced in less than three years of each other, I’ve started with the earliest example of their origins.

j2THE BAT (1920,1926,1930,1959)

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1920 saw  release of the stage play, THE BAT, adapted by Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood from her novel “the Circular Staircase​”​. The play follows an aging writer named Cornelia Van Gorder and her companion Lizzie Allen who have rented an old estate for the summer. Unbeknownst to them, hidden in the house, is a small fortune embezzled by a slimy banker. Soon Cornelia and her guests are terrorized by a killer, known as “The Bat”, in his search for the missing loot.

The film has been lensed three times with the most prominent versions being Roland West’s 1926 silent version, his 1930 sound remake THE BAT WHISPERS and the 1959 version of THE BAT with Vincent Price, which tends to be the most well-known. All three versions are fantastic films and part of me secretly wants to see a modern faithful retelling of the Price version. In a way, the latter also has hints of a slasher film running through it. (Fun Fact: Bob Kane, the creator of BATMAN, cites Rinehart’s villain as his inspiration for the caped crusader).

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THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1922,1927,1939,1979)
 This had an equal hand in launching the old dark house traits we’ve come to love so much. Secret panels that threatening hands reach out of. Revolving bookcases. John Willard’s 1922 follows a group of estranged family members who gather at an estate for the reading of an inheritance. Naturally, once the heir is revealed, people start turning up dead.

Cat has much more of a humorous vibe running through it which makes watching it all the more entertaining. The silent 1927 version has some great Gothic imagery ​that has become the template for what we imagine spooky old houses are supposed to look like on film. The 1939 version with Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard may not be as stylized but it’s still a lot of fun. Even if you don’t really care for Hope, he still kills every scene and the marriage between comedy and horror has rarely been done with such fluidity as this one. A 1979 remake, which I only recommend for completists, tries its best but falls rather flat.

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THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932)

If you aren’t familiar with James Whale, you should be. FRANKENSTEIN. THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (a rare sequel that actually rivals the first). THE INVISIBLE MAN–I could keep going. He’s known for his sharp-witted dark humor that modern audiences find to be ahead of its time. The eponymous OLD DARK HOUSE is one of his lesser-known crowning achievements that follows a group of travelers who are stranded at a house during a wicked storm, only to find that the family that takes them in is–not very normal. Boris Karloff, one year after his amazing FRANKENSTEIN performance, stuns again as a mute character that would even make The Frankenstein Monster blush. He’s frightening, unpredictable, and yet, adds a softness that only someone of his caliber can. But it’s Ernest Thesiger, another brilliant Whale regular, who steals the show and dominates every scene he’s placed in. The picture builds to a climax that leaves your mouth agape, with everyone turning out stellar performances wound tightly around a sharp script. Add to all that Whale’s eye for haunting imagery and this is one “old dark house” film you simply must see as a horror fan. (And as much as I love William Castle, feel free to skip his 1963 remake.)

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HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959, 1999)

Speaking of William Castle, his 1959 film is the fourth on the list. HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL is the quintessential Castle film; schlocky, silly, entertaining, awesome. Some like to dismiss his work as typical 50s kitsch but what William may have lacked in some departments, he made up for in showmanship and enthusiasm. Sure, his films weren’t Hitchcock, but they were always a good time and he was just as important to cinema history as ole Alfred was. In Haunted Hill, five guests are invited to a supposed haunted house by Vincent Price and offered 10,ooo dollars to spend they night. Naturally, shenanigans and deaths ensue. Long before M. Night Shyamalan thought he invented the twist-ending, Castle was a master of them. I’ll refrain from giving away any other details but once you’ve seen the film, you’ll understand why it makes the list. (There is a 1999 remake but it doesn’t capture the spirit of the original.)

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HOLD THAT GHOST (1941)
You can’t get much better than Abbott & Costello. The comedy duo had their fair share of horror/comedy mash-ups. Some weren’t so good, however, HOLD THAT GHOST is a perfect synch of the elements just like ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN. In it, the boys inherit an old tavern from a dead gangster where he may (or may not) have stashed his fortune. When a storm strands them with a few fellow travelers, the ghosts come out to play. By “ghosts” I mean a guy who’s literally wearing a sheet over his head. Even though it’s never taking itself too serious, HOLD THAT GHOST is still a great “old dark house” film with amusing gags and set pieces that deserves its mention among the others.



Now if you enjoy these films, there are still more that didn’t make the cut but are worth checking out like THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE, THE GHOUL (with Karloff again), THE BLACK CAT (1941), THE GORILLA, TEN LITTLE INDIANS, YOU’LL FIND OUT and many more. So if you’re ever in the nostalgic mood, or you just need a break from the nihilism of modern films, add these to your watch list. I guarantee they’ll leave you wanting to revisit the shadowy halls of an old house and traverse among the hidden passages and billowing curtains. We’ll be waiting for you.

3 thoughts on “Josh Soriano’s FIVE BEST “OLD DARK HOUSE” FILMS

  1. Great page! I have been searching for a movie I saw in the late 50’s, early 60’s on TV. It could have been from the 40’s or 50’s.

    Old house, fortune hidden with clues built into the structure of the house. At least one death trap for the unwary. Semi-comedy, with straight man hero and funny side kick.

    Secret is the combination to a ship’s wheel clock above a mantle. Turn the handles back and forth like a safe’s knob and when you are correct, a little trap door opens in the ceiling and a bell rings. When you look up at it another trapdoor under your feet open and you fall many feet into an underground raging river.

    At the end the hero steps back and wins the fortune for the girl and he wins the girl. The last scene is the sidekick hanging over the trap, holding onto the mantle clock for dear life and yelling for his buddy.

    I hope that this rings a little bell overhead for you and a title comes to mind. 😎 Thanks,

  2. Thank you! I have been hunting down every classic old dark house film AND haunted house film I can find. These are amongst the most wonderfully atmospheric films. I feel that the atmospheric element is a major part of what creates “classics” including the modern classics now being made. In a time when there weren’t the myriad special effects to lean on, atmosphere received much more attention by film makers. This is probably why I am a die hard old movie fan!

  3. I’m looking for a bob hope movie, where he’s in a mansion, sharing a bed with another man for safety, when a hand comes out of the wall to get him, but the sit up
    . The other man says, something fishy going on here, then bob says sure ain’t fried chicken

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