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.

Thursday 2 March 2017

Forbidden Planet (1956)

Forbidden Planet was perhaps the most ambitious of all 1950s Hollywood science fiction movies. It was ambitious in terms of visuals, being made in colour and in Cinemascope with a big budget and special effects that were cutting edge at the time. It was also ambitious in terms of ideas. This is not just a space adventure movie or a western transferred to outer space. It really does try to say things about the human condition, and despite some moments of Freudian silliness it doesn’t embarrass itself too much in doing so. And of course it’s ambitious in its choice of source material - Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

A United Planets cruiser captained by Commander Adams (Leslie Neilsen) arrives at the distant planet Altair-IV in the early 23rd century, its mission to search for survivors of an earlier expedition. There’s only one survivor from that original spaceship (the Bellerophon) and that’s Dr Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), but he’s certainly made himself comfortable. He lives in luxury, pursuing his scientific work, and he most definitely does not want to be disturbed. He’s especially keen to keep his daughter Altaira (Anne Francis) away from contact with visitors from Earth.

It seems like Morbius has turned Altair-IV into a paradise in outer space but there is a serpent in this Garden of Eden. Something killed everyone on board the Bellerophon except for Dr Morbius and that something could return, and Morbius suspects that it has returned. 

It’s a long wait for the action to start but then this is not an action-oriented science fiction film. The action is there because the studio knew the audience would expect it in a sci-fi movie. When the action does begin it proves to be quite satisfactory.

Cyril Hume’s screenplay is workmanlike. There are some big ideas here but while they’re treated intelligently enough they’re not developed in very great depth, which is perhaps just as well. MGM took a big risk with this film and it was important to keep the right balance between ideas and entertainment, and Forbidden Planet does in fact strike just about the perfect balance.

Director Fred M. Wilcox enjoyed his greatest success with family-oriented fare like Lassie Come Home. He was probably the wrong director for this movie - it needed a bit more of a sense of urgency and excitement. Wilcox’s pacing is a bit leisurely and his overall approach is just a little on the bland side. We know that there’s going to be some kind of climactic action scene but the tension possibly needed to be built up just a bit more gradually.

The alien landscapes are rendered using matte paintings and they do look like matte paintings. That’s a characteristic of the technology of the time that you just have to accept, and personally I think they look pretty cool. They do look artificial but that’s not as much of a problem as you might think - this is not a movie that is obsessed with realism, in fact it’s a movie that deliberately chooses to eschew realism, aiming instead for a hint of the dream-like.

The sets are simply marvelous. This is 1950s futuristic style at it its most awesome. The Krell complex is extremely impressive. There’s some truly dazzling production design here.

Dr Morbius, based on Shakespeare’s Prospero, is played with class by Walter Pidgeon. Anne Francis as his daughter (based on The Tempest’s Miranda) looks gorgeous and is quite convincing as a girl who has lived her whole life apart from all human contract other than her father. The role of Ariel in the play is fulfilled, not entirely successfully, by Robby the Robot. He’s a very cool robot but he’s used almost entirely for comic relief. Leslie Neilsen (who was a decent enough dramatic actor before turning to comedy late in his career) does a fine job as Commander Adams.

Forbidden Planet was the 2001: A Space Odyssey of the 50s. It has the big ideas, it has the sense of epic scale (in both space and time), it has the same emphasis on achieving a stunning visual impact. And like 2001: A Space Odyssey it’s a movie that gets better with repeat viewings.

Warner Brothers have done a terrific job with their Blu-Ray release. It looks superb and this is the kind of movie that can only be appreciated if it’s given this sort of treatment. It’s definitely worth the money to have this one on Blu-Ray. There are also plenty of extras.

Forbidden Planet tries to be intelligent sci-fi that is also fun and on the whole it succeeds. It’s a bona fide classic and a must-see movie. Highly recommended.