Thursday, 23 March 2017

House of Darkness (1948)

House of Darkness is a 1948 British movie that is sometimes labeled as a horror movie. In fact it’s a melodrama with gothic overtones. It does however have some claims to be a ghost movie so it’s at least understandable that it’s been given the horror label.

There’s a framing story which is, as unfortunately framing stories often are, quite unnecessary. The music is provided by George Melachrino, a popular orchestra leader of the time, and the framing story is an excuse to bring Melachrino into the film. Admittedly music does play a fairly important role in the story.

The actual story takes place in 1901 (we know this because the events of the film take place shortly before the coronation of King Edward VII). A rather gothic-looking house is inhabited by a very troubled family. The middle-aged, querulous and ailing John Merryman (Alexander Archdale) inherited the house from his stepmother. The much younger Francis Merryman (Laurence Harvey) is extremely resentful that his mother did not leave the house to him. Francis is irresponsible and willful, and financially extravagant, and being dependent on John for money inflames his resentment even further. John’s timid and nervous brother Noel (John Teed) worries a good deal and conspires with his brother.

Things seem to be about to come to a head over the matter of a forged cheque which offers John the chance he has wanted for years  to force Francis out of the house. John’s steadily declining health (he has a very weak heart) means that his policy of forcing a confrontation with Francis is perhaps a little unwise.

Francis has a beautiful and devoted wife, Elaine (Lesley Osmond) who does her best to keep the peace. Noel is engaged to Lucy (Lesley Brook) but this seems likely to cause more problems - Noel wants Lucy to come and live in the house and Francis is not at all happy about having to share what he considers should rightfully be his house.

It’s an ideal setup for a murder thriller but this isn’t a murder story. What it is is a delightfully overheated melodrama. It does have murderous hatreds and hatred can kill in various ways. It has guilt and it has envy and in fact all the prime ingredients for fine gothic melodrama.

Such fame as director Oswald Mitchell has rests on his prolific output of comedies but in the same year as House of Darkness he also directed another full-blooded melodrama, The Greed of William Hart, which starred Tod Slaughter (probably the greatest melodrama star of them all). Mitchell does a perfectly competent job.

John Gilling wrote the screenplay. Gilling did some good work in crime films in the 50s but his most notable achievements were as a writer-director of gothic horror films for Hammer in the mid-60s.

This was Laurence Harvey’s film debut. He looks absurdly young, because he was absurdly young - he was 19 when he was cast in this film. His extreme youth works in his favour since many of Francis’s character flaws are due to the combination of immaturity, irresponsibility and simmering adolescent resentment and jealousy. Laurence Harvey is not everyone’s cup of tea as an actor. He had a very narrow range and usually came across as emotionally disconnected and cold. In the wrong roles these flaws were fatal, but on the rare occasions when he landed just the right role he could be remarkably effective (an example being the very underrated 1968 spy thriller A Dandy in Aspic. Fortunately he’s perfectly cast in House of Darkness and his performance is odd but compelling.

This is one of those movies which is deliberately ambiguous about the supernatural elements. Are there ghostly forces at work in the house? Or are the ghosts merely a product of over-stressed imaginations twisted by guilt, envy and hate?

Network’s DVD release offers a very good transfer with no extras.

House of Darkness probably has just enough ghostliness to qualify as a low-key gothic horror movie in the style of the 40s. It’s melodrama that is the predominant ingredient though, and as melodramas go it’s fun in its deliriously overheated way. Plus Laurence Harvey’s strange but intriguing performance is a bonus. Recommended.

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