American car salesman, Tom Penderel (Tom Poston) visits England to deliver a new automobile for creepy Casper Femm (Peter Bull), and is lured back to spooky Femm Hall where he finds his friend stretched out in the parlour. Dead, under suspicious circumstances. Poor Tom finds himself stuck in the old, dark house with the eccentric, sinister Femm family, although pretty cousin Cecily (Janette Scott) makes a bad situation bearable. A strange quirk of fate suggests Tom might be a long-lost heir to the Femm family fortune, which only scares him more once someone starts bumping them off, one by one.
A co-production between Hammer Films and legendary gimmick-horror auteur William Castle (The Tingler (1959), 13 Ghosts (1960), The House on Haunted Hill (1958)), this ought to be something special but never really catches fire until the last five minutes. It was based a J.B. Priestley play, previously adapted by James Whale in his 1932 classic of the same name. Castle takes a more cartoon-like approach, evident from the wonderful animated credits by Charles Addams (watch out for the hairy paw that signs his name!) and Benjamin Frankel’s ooky-kooky score.
At heart it concerns an easygoing Yank befuddled by English eccentricity, a strain that would eventually mutate into darker, more cynical films like An American Werewolf in London (1981). Tom Poston, also in Castle’s strange fantasy Zotz! (1962), is initially affable as the part-James Stewart/part-Don Knotts hero (“I’m not strange, I’m American”), but grows blander as the story grinds through too many mistimed gags and pointless chases with homicidal mute, Morgan Femm (Danny Green). Janette Scott on the other hand, is very winning in a tricky role that springs a typical, William Castle twist.
Much like Terence Fisher’s The Horror of It All (1964), this strains to be kooky and strange, but its self-conscious spoofery can’t match the black humour and genuine creepiness Whale brought to the material. What it does have going for it is a great cast of British comedy icons: Robert Morley as gun-crazy Roderick Femm; dear Joyce Grenfell as dotty, knitting enthusiast Agatha Femm; glassy-eyed Peter Bull as Casper; Mervyn Johns as Petiphar Femm, who keeps an animal-laden ark in his backyard and believes the end is nigh; and the sublime Fenella Fielding as sultry Morgana Femm - introduced with a camera zoom onto her bosom. If Castle had used 3-D you’d lose an eye. Things pick up in the latter stages, with some surreal gags (our hero imagines a seal has Morgana’s face) and a spirited finale where Tom races to disable a series of bombs. Fielding went on to expand her comedy vamp persona in Carry On Screaming (1966), a movie that beats this version of The Old Dark House at its own game - and I say that as a lifelong Carry On hater.