The popularity of Old Dark House movie may seem slightly puzzling to modern audiences but there’s no question that they enjoyed immense success in the 1930s. Tomorrow at Seven is a rather good example of the breed.
The formula for this genre was set very early. A group of people would be isolated in a decaying rather gothic old house and something would happen to ensure that their isolation fro the outside world was complete. A murder, or more usually a series of murders, would take place. There would be hints of the supernatural, or at the very least there would be hints of strange diabolical machinations behind the scenes. There would be a dash of romance and very generous helpings of comedy. From today’s perspective the formula might seem as creaky as the old dark houses themselves but when executed well such films can actually be highly enjoyable. Tomorrow at Seven is definitely well executed.
A mysterious figure known only as the Black Ace has been responsible for a number of daring murders. He always warns the victims of their fate in advance. Detective novelist Neil Broderick (Chester Morris) is planning a book on the murders and since Thornton Drake (Henry Stephenson) supposedly knows more than anyone else about the Black Ace’s activities he is anxious to get in touch with him. On the train to Chicago he meets Martha Winters (Vivienne Osborne), the daughter of Drake’s secretary Austin Winters (Grant Mitchell).
When Drake receives the customary warning from the Black Ace he decides to head for his retreat deep in Louisiana. Drake, Winters and his daughter, Neil Broderick and two hardbitten but delightfully inept Chicago cops (played by Allen Jenkins and Frank McHugh) set off for Louisiana by air. The first murder (in a slight departure from the usual formula) takes place in the air. On arrival at Drake’s remote Louisiana house the classic Old Dark House setup is complete. One of the people on the plane had to have been the murderer and now they are all in the obligatory decaying mansion in the bayous, and of course the telephone lines get cut and the co-pilot decamps with the aircraft. They are trapped in the house and one of them is a crazed killer!
Every Old Dark House movie cliché that you could wish for is here. That’s what makes this movie so much fun - it operates strictly within the conventions of its genre. Once you’re familiar with those conventions you know what to expect and much of the viewer’s pleasure comes from anticipation. It’s like a ghost train ride at a carnival.
Director Ray Enright had a lengthy if not dazzling career. He gets the job done in his customary workmanlike fashion and he keeps the pacing nice and taut. He’d started his career as an editor and when editors turn to directing they have the advantage of understanding that pacing is everything. The original screenplay by the extraordinarily prolific Ralph Spence contains all the necessary formula ingredients and as a bonus it’s quite witty.
Chester Morris was quite a big star in the early 30s. By the 40s he’d been relegated to B-movies but was rarely out of work. He had the kind of looks that allowed him to play tough guys or romantic heroes with equal facility and while he was no great shakes as an actor he was generally fairly reliable in not-too-demanding roles such as this. Vivienne Osborne was a striking actress who’d been successful in the silent era. Her career had faded by the early 40s which was unfortunate since she had a very definite screen presence and gave a superbly creepy performance in the excellent and underrated Supernatural (1933), a movie that can be considered a sort of second cousin to the Old Dark House movies.
Frank McHugh and Allen Jenkins as the wise-cracking big city cops provide the comic relief and they have one huge advantage over the usual run of comic relief actors - they are genuinely funny. They’re provided with decent dialogue as well so the comic relief in this movie actually enhances it.
The other cast members are solid enough.
The movie was clearly shot entirely in the studio on a decidedly limited budget but that was the film-making style of the early 30s and in fact that was one of the reasons Hollywood loved Old Dark House movies so much - the studio-bound feel adds to the atmosphere.
Alpha Video’s DVD release is even worse than their usual standard. The picture quality is quite acceptable but sound quality is atrocious. The dialogue can be understood but the amount of crackling and hissing can get quite distracting. On the other hand it is, like so much of Alpha Video’s catalogue, a movie that would otherwise be just about impossible to find and this one is entertaining enough to be worth grabbing despite the sound problems.
Tomorrow at Seven ticks all the right boxes for fans of this genre. Highly recommended.