The old dark house movie is a genre that has perhaps not aged all that well. The best movies of this type can however be quite delightful and One Frightened Night is definitely one of the very best.
This 1935 release from Mascot Pictures follows the established formula rigidly but it does it very well indeed.
Needless to say we start with a Dark and Stormy Night. In a textbook example of an Old Dark House. Jasper Whyte (Charley Grapewin) is the inevitable irascible old millionaire. He has decided not to wait before dividing his fortune among his heirs - he believes that the money will bring the grasping members of his family and household nothing but trouble and he wants to be alive to watch them circling one another like sharks. He’s the sort of man who enjoys such things.
There’s a million dollars (an enormous fortune in 1935) for each of these hungry sharks - his outrageously greedy niece Laura (Hedda Hoper) and her even greedier and currently financially very embarrassed husband Arthur (Arthur Hohl), his cheerfully irresponsible playboy nephew Tom (Regis Toomey), his physician Dr Denham (Lucien Littlefield), his lawyer Felix (Clarence Wilson) and his long-suffering but scheming housekeeper Elvira (Rafaela Ottiano). Jasper would have preferred to leave his entire fortune to his grand-daughter Doris Waverly but he’d cut his daughter off without a penny when she married an actor and he’s never seen Doris and all attempts to locate her have failed.
At this point the sharks are feeling very pleased with themselves but then disaster strikes - Doris Waverly (Evalyn Knapp) turns up at the house. She will now get all of Jasper’s money and they won’t get one red cent. That’s obviously a fine setup for a typical murder mystery but there’s a twist. Shortly afterwards a second Doris Waverly (Mary Carlisle) shows up! Obviously one is an impostor, but which one?
Murder inevitably follows. And of course everyone in the house has a very strong motive for committing murder, or even multiple homicides. This includes the second Doris Waverly’s friend Joe Luvalle (Wallace Ford), a slightly shabby stage magician who goes by the name The Great Luvalle.
Of course there’s plenty of comic relief but the bonus here is that the comic elements are genuinely amusing and not irritating. Wallace Ford’s bumbling magician provides much of the humour, along with the obligatory bumbling Sheriff Jenks (Fred Kelsey) and his inept deputy Abner (Adrian Morris). Whoever solves this mystery we can be pretty sure it’s not going to be these less-than-stalwart representatives of the forces of law and order.
Director Christy Cabanne made a lot of movies, none of them particularly noteworthy, but it’s hard to fault his work here. Most importantly the pacing never slackens for an instant. Wellyn Totman's screenplay from a story by Stuart Palmer provides a decent mystery plot and plenty of deliciously vitriolic dialogue.
It’s also impossible to fault any of the performances. The players all give the impression that they’re not just going through the motions, that they’re actually enjoying themselves.
This is very much a low-budget B-movie with very few sets but the necessary atmosphere of spooky mystery is achieved very successfully.
The Alpha Video DVD is not too bad by Alpha Video standards (which admittedly isn’t saying much). The sound is a bit crackly but image quality is acceptable, and this is after all a budget-priced DVD.
One Frightened Night ticks all the right boxes for old dark house movie fans. It really is great fun. Highly recommended.