Do I need to give you all another commentary on remakes and horror movies? No, of course I don't. These days remakes go together like reality TV stars and failed marriages. (I really don't watch any TV, but I hear that analogy works, no?) And, let's face it, this isn't at all a new trend. Once studios recognized how much money there was to be made in horror, sequels and re-tellings became all the rage in even the earliest days of cinema.
But one of the more curious remakes I'd never encountered up til now is William Castle's version of The Old Dark House. The original film was one of the most bizarre horror films of the early 1930s, as Frankenstein director James Whale filled a house that fits that description with odd characters ranging from a pyromaniac to a bedridden grandfather to - most importantly - an angry mute bearded giant played by the unmatchable Boris Karloff. So when I learned that Castle - working with Hammer Films at the legendary Bray Studios(!) - had created an updated color version of that story in the 1960s....well, that's when my head exploded.
From frame one, it's pretty clear that Castle's version of The Old Dark House takes a drastically different approach than Whale's film. The color film follows a comical lead character - I use "comical" very loosely here, because really this guy's just a big honkin' doofus - played by Tom Poston. The character, Tom, is an American who is invited to a secluded mansion by the man he shares a flat with, and who is soon stranded with the kooky Femm family in the house, which is referred to by its residents as "old and dark" on at least two occasions.
(Speaking of kooky, one of the highlights of this version has to be the opening title sequence, which were drawn by the legendary Charles Addams - who knows a little bit about kooky families himself.)
Once Poston's Tom is in the house - via a trap door that keeps him contained a bit too often - he meets this family, which is not near as bizarre as the original family. Instead, Castle's film sets out to provide a comedic take on the classic tale. This isn't surprising considering Castle's output - his most famous film is probably House on Haunted Hill, which also ends up more tongue-in-cheek than most horror films - but this House is much further down the comic spectrum than most films that would be called horror comedies. It seems like it's playing off a lot of the same tricks that the recent spoof Dark and Stormy Night would use almost fifty years later, but that 2009 film seems to have a better understanding of '30s "house" flicks than Castle's film does.
Part of me thinks Castle's Old Dark House is as bad as I sound like I'm saying it is, but part of me really wants to say I had fun with this film despite its silly comedic tone. Poston's character definitely wears on the viewer as the non-stop slapstick antics increase throughout the film, but there are plenty of moments in the flick that do provide good chuckles. The supporting cast is more interesting than the lead is by far, with the lovely Janette Scott playing it straight while a host of British character actors - Robert Morely, Mervyn Johns, and Peter Bull (in a dual role) add to the mysterious events of the film. The most odd part of the film might be when we find out that one of the Femms is building an ark and believes the world is about to end, especially when his logic echoes that of the "prophet" who recently predicted the world to end in May 2011.
The film's madcap style of comedy misses as often as it hits - and there's absolutely no real substitute for Karloff - but there's a simple charm to this British comedy version of a Hollywood horror tale. I'm certainly not going to replace my copy of Whale's version with this one, but it's a unique movie that I'm glad I saw. It's far from being Castle's best, but at least it's a cute little adventure (with a lot of the cute little Ms. Scott) that's not completely annoying. If you're a Castle completist you might have fun with this one. If you're one of those folks who loses sleep over remakes, you're best to just stay away.
(Speaking of Castle completists, I got a feeling (not a feeling that tonight's gonna be a good night, though that is a distinct possibility) that we might hear more about Castle in the upcoming weeks at FMWL. The William Castle Collection came to me via Santa this year, which means the schlock business is about to pick up for The Mike! Oh yeah, here's the trailer....)