Monday 25 July 2011

House of the Damned [1963]

Maury Dexter's HOUSE OF THE DAMNED is a decent little mystery / thriller, interesting as much for its credits as its entertainment. 

Running little more than an hour, in black and white and with an unfamiliar cast it's clearly a B-picture but remarkably - and fantastically - it's shot in a beautifully crisp 2.35:1 aspect ratio.  Quite why it got the Cinemascope treatment I have no idea but it's always a pleasure to see films shot this way, particularly in genres more often noted for their cheap production values. 

The Pacific coast was made for 'Scope photography
As a consequence, this film looks gorgeous: the long, snaking driveway to the castle; the extravagantly long American cars of the period, the gloomy, empty corridors; the oak-panelled rooms.  To his credit, Dexter also manages to create a spooky atmosphere and some memorable supporting characters, such as the seedy real estate manager and the bored nurse working the night shift.

I love these immense old American cars; compared to British cars of the same period they're from another planet.  You'd have a hard job getting a Vauxhall Victor to fill an entire Cinemascope frame.
As an exercise in style and tone then it's mostly successful; unfortunately, in plot terms it's weaker.  The set up is fine: a husband-and-wife architect team is asked by a solicitor friend to visit an apparently empty castle to assess its suitability for redevelopment.

Greystone Mansion
As they prepare to spend the night there, they begin to realize the castle may not be as empty as they were led to believe.  In fact, the set up and sustained atmosphere of menace is good enough that it deserves far better than the absurd and abrupt climax.  Still worth seeing though.

Cinemascope can make even a garden pond look like the Taj Mahal
Maury Dexter made a good number of genre B-pictures in the 50s and 60s which makes his subsequent career directing dozens of episodes of THE LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE seem slightly bizarre.  Richard Kiel, a familiar face in many delirious films, most notably as Jaws in a couple of James Bond pictures, has a small role.

Richard Kiel (R) is interrupted while knocking seven bells out of Ron Foster (L)
The wonderful property which is as much a character in the film as any of the actors is the Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills, California.  Evidently it has been used many many times as a movie location; a list of some of them can be found here.  The house itself has a webpage here.

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