On 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.
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.
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).
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.
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.)
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.)
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.