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Spending the Night: Three Old Dark Houses Give Up Their Secrets

Leslie Banks in Chamber of Horrors (1940)

Chamber of Horrors, A Game of Death and Invisible Ghost bring '40s black and white thrillers to Blu-ray.

Chamber of Horrors

Director: Norman Lee
Cast: Leslie Banks, Lilli Palmer
Distributor: Kino Lorber
Year: 1940
DVD Release date: 2017-03-21

A Game of Death

Director: Robert Wise
Cast: John Loder, Audrey Long
Distributor: Kino Lorber
Year: 1945
DVD Release date: 2017-03-21

Invisible Ghost

Director: Joseph H. Lewis
Cast: Bela Lugosi
Distributor: Kino Lorber
Year: 1941
DVD Release date: 2017-03-21

Three obscure B horrors of the '40s have been exhumed for their best possible presentation on Blu-ray, to the pleasure of fans who hardly thought they'd see the day. Although none are outright classics that demand the attention of the casually curious, these B pictures or programmers all boast certain elements to intrigue and delight connoisseurs.

The first and least of the three is Norman Lee's Chamber of Horrors (1940), a British movie known in its own country by the title of the Edgar Wallace novel on which it's based, The Door with Seven Locks. Monogram, one of Hollywood's budget-strapped "Poverty Row" studios, imported the film, lopped off its opening credits, and superimposed its own title and truncated credits after what's now a pre-credits scene of His Lordship dying and being buried in a vault with seven locks, for some eccentric reason.

The plot, as ridiculous as possible, indulges a potpourri of events at once absurd and typical of "old dark house" shenanigans and Wallace mysteries. Somehow a group of conspirators is running a rest home where one of their number is virtually imprisoned, yet he manages to deliver a key that summons lost heiress June (Lilli Palmer) before he's shot in mid-revelation by one of those portraits with moving eyes.

When June is instantly informed by the grim matron (Cathleen Nesbitt) that she's imagined all this and maybe she needs to lie down or see a doctor, our heroine rushes to Scotland Yard and enlists the aid of a posh ex-inspector (Romilly Lunge). Accompanied by her saucy French-Canadian roommate Glenda (Gina Malo), who spends the picture taking baths and making sexually knowing remarks, they crash the ancestral castle occupied for unclear reasons by the effete Dr. Manetta (Leslie Banks), who ponces around in a cape with his adorable pet monkey and shows off his torture tableaus.

If you're not a fan of old-school horror-melodrama, this won't convert you. If you are a fan, you probably can't help yourself and perhaps should lie down or see a doctor, like our heroine, but will go charging in ill-advisedly anyway. Alas, the best this film can offer amid the clunky, overlong mishmash is its pleasing personalities.

We begin with the attractive spunk of Palmer, who spends the last part of the movie tied up offstage in need of rescue, and the comic stylings of Malo, an Ohio girl who made a career pretending to be French and who vanishes from the last act entirely, probably in the bath.

The deliciously menacing presences of Banks and Nesbitt don't have enough screen time for the picture to know what's good for it, while tall Robert Montgomery (billed as R. Montgomery to avoid confusion with the American star) glowers as the mute butler with a Moe Howard haircut. Banks is more or less replaying his famous cultured psychopath Count Zaroff from The Most Dangerous Game (1932), down to the goatee and accent, and by not a very strange coincidence, a remake of that film is next on our agenda: Robert Wise's A Game of Death (1945).

A Game of Death (1945)

The RKO production from 1945 reflects the recent war in that the merciless villain who likes to hunt humans is now a German instead of a Russian, named Krieger instead of Zaroff. As played by Edgar Barrier instead of Banks, though made up similarly with a Cassandra streak in his shiny hair, the scoundrel is a more restrained, unlikeable and even somewhat intimidated figure who occasionally pauses to finger the scar on his temple in moments of indigestion.

This remake is almost shot for shot, allowing producer Herman Schlom to recycle stock footage from the lavish and seminal original for the opening shipwreck. As the big game hunter who finds himself stranded on the island, John Loder is much older and more seasoned than the original's Joel McCrea, while the damsel in distress is now played by Audrey Long instead of Fay Wray.

The casting itself guarantees a faded evocation of the original, which the critical commentary points out was still playing in theatres. While inevitably suffering in comparison, the remake isn't bad as a '40s B picture. Notoriously, the original's "trophy room" scene had to be severely censored, while this postwar version allows the visual shock of a dessicated head floating in a jar. Norman Houston's script also throws in a few new angles in terms of how various characters deceive their aristocratic host.

At the beginning of an illustrious directing career, former editor Wise is efficient without getting inspired, while the beautiful design and J. Roy Hunt's deeply shadowed photography look like a million bucks (or 20 million in today's money) on this terrific high-def remastering. It might be a B picture, but they brought their A game. Effects master Vernon L. Walker's fogbound valley and the matte shots of Krieger's mansion also look great, so this film is always handsome even if the plot and dialogue don't rise above the functional. The best part is naturally the climactic hunt after the characters are finally through jabbering.

Invisible Ghost (1941)

We've saved the biggest treat for last: 1941's Invisible Ghost stars Bela Lugosi in an old dark house picture from Monogram, the aforementioned studio that imported Chamber of Horrors. They'd had success with Lugosi in a good British import called The Dark Eyes of London (1939), which they retitled The Human Monster. Now they starred him in a fresh domestic production that was not only successful, it marked the beginning of nine Monograms he made with producer Sam Katzman.

Invisible Ghost is generally considered the best of Lugosi's Monograms, and deservedly so, not that the plot by Al & Helen Martin makes any more sense than usual. Lugosi plays Dr. Kessler, a kindly father haunted by the fact that his beloved wife ran away with another man, as his daughter (Polly Ann Young, resembling her sister Loretta Young) explains to her boyfriend (John McGuire), who turns out to have a history with the pert blonde maid (Terry Walker).

Poor half-dotty Dr. Kessler is doomed to miss his unfaithful wife while pretending she's present at their anniversary dinners -- except we find out right away that the amnesiac and demented Mrs. Kessler (silent film star Betty Compson) lives in the barn, where she's been stored away after a car crash by the bubble-headed gardener (Ernie Adams) and his wife (Ottola Nesmith). They just can't tell the poor master about his wife because "it would kill him", and they even wonder if she has anything to do with all these terrible murders that have been happening around the place and that the police can't solve!

No sooner has this been established than we understand the Kesslers have a kind of psychic connection such that when wifey wanders too close to the house, hubby heads into a fugue state, signaled cleverly by lighting and focus shifts, and starts sashaying like a zombie. This leads to some stylishly presented murders, which could be interpreted as manifesting Mrs. Kessler's will, and a few more plot twists before the wrap-up.

This film really has three stars. The first is Lugosi, whose performance combines melodrama with moments of subtlety and sympathy that make him endearing. The second is Clarence Muse, a veteran African-American actor who, as a refreshing change, is directed to play the butler as a perfectly normal man with a sense of humor instead of putting on the eye-rolling, scaredy-catting, yassuh-bossing stereotype prevalent in other examples. This choice already makes the film twice as good as usual.

The third star, and possibly the most important, is director Joseph H. Lewis, a true auteur who loved stylish camera moves and had a fine eye for composition, an excellent sense of pace, and a gift for working with actors. He was a total package, and his command is visible throughout. Lewis would become respected for his B westerns and noirs, most famously Gun Crazy (1950), before moving profitably into TV.

The Blu-ray of Invisible Ghost features a print from the Astor Picture reissue of the late '40s, and it's spectacularly sharp and textured with only a few visual waffles. This public domain item may never have looked this good in decades, if ever, although I'm obliged to point out that the Sinister Cinema trailer (see link below) includes important footage of the morgue scene that's not in the print but probably should be.

Even so, this print is three floors above the ragged US print of Chamber of Horrors, leaving us to wonder if a better version of that one exists in England, and I suspect the answer is yes. Various sources state the British version is ten minutes longer, though no one would wish it so.

All the films offer commentaries as their only relevant bonus. On Chamber of Horrors, David Del Valle and Kenneth J. Hall chat in a friendly manner, rambling away from the feature to discuss other, better films. The Wise picture offers well-researched commentary and comparison from Richard Harland Smith, a veteran of this kind of commentary track. Lugosi's movie has a tag-team from the always informative Tom Weaver, Lewis scholar Gary Rhodes, researcher Dr. Robert J. Kiss, and uncredited guests Larry Blamire (an old dark house enthusiast) and Robert Tinnell (a filmmaker fan).


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