James Whale followed up his iconic horror classic Frankenstein (1931) with the strange, sly, and sardonic The Old Dark House (1932), part haunted house terror and part spoof executed with baroque style.
Boris Karloff (fresh from his star-making turn in Frankenstein) takes top billing in the supporting role of Morgan, the scarred, mute butler with a penchant for drink and a vicious mean streak, but the film is really an ensemble piece. Melvin Douglas is the wisecracking romantic lead caught in a raging thunderstorm in the Welsh mountains with bickering couple and traveling companions Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart. They take refuge in the creepy old manor of the title, lorded over by the gloriously flamboyant Ernest Thesiger and his dotty, fanatical sister Eva Moore, when a landslide wipes out the goat-trail of a mountain road, and are later joined by more stranded passengers: a hearty Charles Laughton, whose Lancashire working class accent and blunt manners sets him apart from the social graces of his companions, and his “friend” Lillian Bond, a chorus girl with a chirpy sunniness in the gloomy situation.
William Castle is the carnival showman of horror cinema. Once a journeyman director in the B-movie basement of Columbia Pictures, he became so frustrated with his assignments that he went independent and recreated himself as a drive-in Hitchcock with a P.T. Barnum sense of ballyhoo and self-hype. It was a cagey make-over that he nurtured carefully with goofy gimmicks (his first was an insurance policy—backed by Lloyds of London—to insure all ticket buyers against “death by fright” during his 1958 film Macabre; needless to say, no one tried to collect) and personal appearances promoting and introducing his films, just like Hitchcock was doing on TV. And in some ways it trapped him in that identity: the director as huckster, successful but not taken seriously as a filmmaker. The William Castle Film Collection (Sony) collects eight newly remastered films—three of them making their DVD debut—in a box set offering a cross section of his most entertaining films, his most creative gimmicks and his most lighthearted efforts.
Among the latter are two tongue-in-cheek productions starring Tom Poston: Zotz! (1962), a whimsical fantasy about a magic coin, and a remake of The Old Dark House (1963) as a comic romp of eccentrics killing one another off for an inheritance. Both make their DVD debuts here, as does 13 Frightened Girls (1963), a light espionage thriller with a Nancy Drew heroine in the form of a diplomat’s daughter (Kathy Dunn) at an exclusive European private school who turns sweet sixteen Mata Hari. It’s not a horror film (despite the title, a reference to his earlier 13 Ghosts) and not really a thriller. The girls may be frightened in the first scene, but by the end of the film they’re just having a grand time goofing with the Chinese assassins. These are the films that Castle completists have been waiting for, but are lesser titles compared to his gimmicky classics like The Tingler (1959), Castle’s third feature in this vein and his second and final film with Vincent Price. “Ladies and gentleman, please do not panic,” Price cautions the audience. “But scream – scream for your lives!” Given that the creature of the title is a cheap rubber model that looks like a lobster crossbred with a centipede, such encouragement is necessary. Theatergoers were goosed into a reaction with a device that Castle dubbed “Percepto,” a fancy name for a small, motorized vibrator placed under select theater seats and wired to the projection booth. Home video audiences are left to imagine the effects.