“Very stupid to kill the only servant in the house. Now we don’t even know where to find the marmalade.”
My choices for the ten best Old Dark House films
- And Then There Were None
- The Spiral Staircase
- The Hound of the Baskervilles
- Dark and Stormy Night
- The House of Fear
- The Old Dark House
- The Phantom of Crestwood
- De Spooktrein
- The Black Room
Old Dark House films are a blend of horror and mystery. They are the descendant of drawing room who-done-its and the ancestor of Slashers. They are haunted house films, without the haunting. That rule is absolute: if the terror comes from actual ghosts, it’s not an Old Dark House Film.
The subgenre started not in film, but in literature (if we don’t count telling stories around the campfire), and then moved to the stage. The subgenre owes a great deal to its stage-bound roots. The films tend to take place in a single house with little movement outside of it. Murders tend to happen off screen, and there’s a great deal of talk, between the screams. Old Dark House movies were common in silent form, and easily made the transition to sound (I mentioned all the talking). They ruled the horror genre in the ‘30s and slowly faded in the decades that followed, with parodies of Old Dark House films outnumbering true Old Dark House films. In more recent years it’s known primarily as the subgenre of Scooby-Do.
The characteristics of an Old Dark House film include:
- An Old Dark House
- A short time-span and limited locations
- An atmosphere of dread
- A mystery
- Secret passageways and hidden doors
- A group of identifiable and often quirky characters
- A storm to strand the characters
- One or more murders
- Threat of an insane killer
- Threat of a ghost
- A secret or treasure
- A will-reading or other inheritance
- Comedy relief
The more elements a film has, the more it fits into the subgenre, though if one or two items dominate, it takes the film outside of the subgenre. Since it almost always includes some comedy and a mystery, it becomes just a matter of opinion where you draw the line between Old Dark House horror, drawing room mysteries, and farces. The number of the subgenre characteristics that are present is important, but tone is even more important. These are “spooky” stories. The “Dark” in Old Dark House doesn’t simply refer to lighting. I exclude Charlie Chan’s Secret as its focus is almost entirely the mystery, while Tangled Destinies doesn’t make the cut as it lacks the horror tone. And Amos and Andy’s Check and Double Check is a just a comedy…a terrible, racist comedy.
Because of the somewhat strict rules of the subgenre, particularly not allowing the ghostly terror to be real, Old Dark House films tend to closely resemble each other. The same can be said for most subgenres; Slashers are well known for repeating themselves. And like most subgenres, there are foundational films that most of the others are based on or borrow from. For Old Dark House films, those are:
- The Bat (1926), based on a 1920 play of the same name by Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood, and remade as a talkie with the title The Bat Whispers (1930). It was remade again as The Bat (1959). And yes, this was the inspiration for Batman.
- The Cat and the Canary (1927), based on the 1922 play by John Willard. In 1930 two talkie versions were made simultaneously in Hollywood, The Cat Creeps (1930) and the Spanish language La Voluntad del Muerto (1930). Both are lost. It was next made as a Bob Hope vehicle, The Cat and the Canary (1939), and then a final time under its original title in 1978.
All of the basic element listed above were established by those two intellectual properties.
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