Thursday, 14 July 2016

The House of the Seven Gables (1940)

The House of the Seven Gables, released by Universal in 1940, is based on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s gothic novel of the same name.

We begin with a family curse. In 17th century New England wealthy landowner Jaffrey Pyncheon cheated a poor man, Matthew Mule, out of his land by accusing him of witchcraft. Matthew was hanged but before he died he cursed Pyncheon. Pyncheon built his house, Seven Gables, on Matthew Maule’s land. On the day the house was completed Pyncheon died, his mouth filled with blood, in apparent fulfillment of the curse.

Many years later, in 1828 to be precise, the house is still occupied by the Pyncheon family. The current head of the family has run up ruinous debts. His heirs Jaffrey (George Sanders) and Clifford (Vincent Price) have differing views as to what should be done. Clifford wants the house to be sold to clear the debts. Clifford is a composer and would prefer to move to New York. Jaffrey is against the idea. He claims to be concerned with family honour and tradition but in reality he wants to gain possession of Seven Gables because of the family legend that there is a fortune in gold hidden somewhere in the house. Jaffrey has inherited the worst of the Pyncheon faults - insatiable greed.

Matters come to a head, tragedy follows and Clifford finds himself serving a life sentence for murder. He is innocent but he has made the mistake of becoming an obstacle to Jaffrey’s greed. 

Jaffrey’s plans don’t work out quite as neatly as he’d hoped and he doesn’t get Seven Gables after all. Cousin Hepzibah (Margaret Lindsay) gets the house. Hepzibah and Clifford were to have been married. Hepzibah stands by her man while Jaffrey continues on his scheming way.

Coincidences are part and parcel of melodrama so you won’t be surprised to learn that a descendant of Matthew Maule, the man who cursed the first Jaffrey Pyncheon, plays an important role. 

This is a tale of revenge, spanning two decades, but with a few twists.

George Sanders is at his most suave and most villainous and is a delight. Vincent Price gets to play the hero (this was some years before he became a horror icon). Margaret Lindsay gives a satisfactory performance as the patient faithful Hepzibah. Dick Foran was a lightweight actor and as Matthew Maule he’s totally overshadowed by Sanders and Price. In fact everyone is overshadowed by Sanders and Price, not thyat it matters because they’re the key characters and it’s their fates that concern us most.

The screenplay doesn’t quite capture the full flavour of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel. This is Hawthorne Lite but the ingredients are still there for a fine story.

This is gothic melodrama with the emphasis on the melodrama. Had Universal made this movie a few years earlier it would doubtless have been given the full horror treatment and might well have been one of the studio’s classic horror titles. As it stands the horror is somewhat downplayed although it’s by no means absent. 

It’s also a little surprising that the movie has few of the classic Universal horror visual signatures. Even the house itself does not seem particularly sinister - in fact it really needed to be made more sinister to bring out the gothic atmosphere. Universal however had by this time decided that horror was no longer a commercially viable formula for A -pictures.

The Region 2 DVD release offers a very satisfactory transfer. The only extras is an entertaining ten-minute interview with Vincent Price from a British talk show.

Horror fans will see this film as a wasted opportunity on Universal’s part and will be left wondering just how much fun George Sanders and Vincent Price could have been together had they been given the chance to play their roles in full-blown horror mode. As it stands it’s still an enjoyable melodrama with a few horror undertones and Sanders and Price are still very very good. Fans of these two great actors won’t want to miss this film. Recommended.

No comments: