31 (More) Days of Fright: Hell House LLC

The horrors of local news programming.

This January, in support of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape, friends and family have raised over $1,500 (which, when matched by my employer, totals $3,000). As a result, I now have to watch and write about thirty-one horror movies: one each night. Any donors who contributed over $30 were given the option to choose one of the horror movies I must subject myself to. After each viewing, I will write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers, and many of them will refer to unpleasant and potentially triggering situations. Today’s film is a recommendation by friend and author Pasha Malla, the excellently titled Hell House LLC, a found-footage film from 2015 directed by Stephen Cognetti. I watched it on the Shudder streaming service.

What happens:

Trigger warnings: Suicide, sexual harassment.

The premise of Hell House LLC is a fictional documentary about a 2009 tragedy at a haunted house attraction in Abbadon, New York, in which 15 people died under mysterious circumstances. As talking head Robert Lyons (Theodore Bouloukos) explains, “Hell House was a real tragedy on many levels.” (Mainly just the one level, though: all the deaths.) The documentary, produced by Diane Graves (Alice Bahlke) informs us that on October 8, 2009, an old hotel that had been refurbished for Halloween amusement purposes became the site of tragedy, then they run a YouTube video that emerged following the attraction’s closure, shot by one of the surviving tour-goers.

A young couple tapes their experience in the haunted house, and it starts out with the usual shocks: spooky skulls and strobe lights. Then a man in a clown costume races by in a panic, and he’s later followed by a woman wearing civilian clothes. This doesn’t seem like something that’s supposed to happen. Once they reach the final stop on the haunted house tour – the basement – they encounter a logjam. People are screaming more than usual – actual terror! – and the crowd, packed in the basement like sardines, struggles to free themselves. Everyone rushes out as fast as possible; we see tables and carts topple in the rush to escape.

This only publicly available video of the night’s events is paired with a 911 call that was recorded from within the haunted house: a woman gasping about something on the wall. The official cause of the 15 victims’ deaths is “severe malfunction” (whatever that means). But the documentary crew then speaks to journalist Martin Cliver (Jeb Kreager), who controversially snuck into the hotel after the incident and snapped some photographs. The photos revealed dried blood on the floor, which doesn’t jive with the generally accepted theory of a gas leak. But even Cliver doesn’t venture into the basement; too scared, he takes his photos from the top of the stairs.

Enter Sara Havel (Ryan Jennifer Jones), who was part of the Hell House company that sets up haunted house attractions in the New York area every Halloween. She meets with Diane Graves for an interview and warns that if people knew what really happened in the old hotel, they wouldn’t accept it. She then gifts Diane and the crew a bagful of VHS tapes, a record of everything they saw and witnessed while setting up the house. When Diane asks why these tapes weren’t submitted to the police, Sara ominously says, “You’ll see.”

Ideally, your documentary subject will look like they’re being interrogated by police. (Directors: take note.)

The remainder of the film is mostly comprised of these Handicam recordings made by Paul O’Keefe (Gore Abrams), a moustached member of the Hell House company whose interests seem limited to women and different ways to sexually harass them. The tapes begin in the drive to Abaddon, which we’re told is about a 40-minute drive from New York City. The white frat-like crew consists of the aforementioned Paul and Sara, but also Sarah’s boyfriend and founder of the company, Alex Taylor (Danny Bellini); his lifelong friend Andrew “Mac” McNamara (Adam Schneider); and Paul’s buddy, Tony Prescott (Jared Hacker). They soon arrive at the vacant Abaddon Hotel and realize most of their set dressing has been done for them already: the hotel is creepy as hell!

Our heroes scope out the inside of the long-condemned hotel: it’s in disarray. The roof leaks, the electricity (obviously) is out, and tables in the dining room have been overturned. “It smells like a sweater,” Sara notes. They find a shattered plate with an illustration that bears a passing resemblance to Sara. One other thing: though the company doesn’t notice at the time, we viewers see a black hooded figure in the background. The creepiest part of the old hotel is the basement, which already has disturbing wall art. Alex’s plan is to chain a paid actor to the wall as some sort of fake virgin sacrifice, and feature a number of clown mannequins (including one actor) along the far wall. They notice a ton of discarded old books on the floor – all of which happen to be Bibles. “It’s a hotel,” Alex reasons. “There are Bibles in every room.”

Paul and Tony get the electricity up and running within two weeks, and the members of the crew begin to live in the hotel. That’s when, Sara suggests, “things began to change.” Tony sets up security cameras throughout the house, but he can’t get them to function in the basement. This is a serious security issue – especially if they have an actress in a state of undress chained to a wall down there. Between creepy comments, the boys decide they’ll hire a really beefy actor to portray one of the clowns in the basement, and he can double as security.

Paul records himself, confession-cam-style, late at night, complaining, in the most unpleasant way possible, about how #thirsty he is. Spookily, we see a figure moving around in the dark behind him, but when Paul calls out and asks if it’s Sara or one of his other friends sleepwalking, there’s no answer. Paul next peeps on Alex and Sara in their underpants before announcing the hired actors have arrived. The camera zooms in on one actor in particular, Melissa (Lauren A. Kennedy), who will portray the “damsel in distress” chained to the wall. (Need I remind you that Paul is a sex pervert with no boundaries.) However, the documentary breaks to interview the journalist, Cliver. He spoke to one police officer who said the first body he found was a member of the Hell House crew with a self-inflicted throat wound. Additionally, Joey Steffler (Phil Hess), the beefy actor stationed in the basement, made it out of the house alive, but refused to talk to police and killed himself nine days later.

Her LinkedIn profile suggested she’d be perfect for being chained up in their creepy basement.

Alex goes over the role with Melissa, and Melissa informs him of rumours about the hotel. That the original owner hanged himself and guests kept going missing. Paul, behind the camera, does about eight things that could get him fired for sexual harassment, but we then move on to our talking heads, who tell us the history of the hotel. Andrew Tully allegedly built the hotel in Abaddon because the name of the town reminded him of a demon who guards the gateway to hell. But some time after opening, a mother and daughter vanished, having last been seen at the hotel. Though nothing could be tied conclusively to the hotel, business suffered and Tully hanged himself in the dining room. (We even see a file photo.)

Back in 2009, our team sets up the creepy clown mannequins in the basement but are frustrated that the mannequin heads are immobile. They begin to hear strange noises at night and hang out a bit with Joey, their clown actor who they “discovered” at a local gas station. He can pop out his eye on command. (Gross!) While Paul and Mac are in the hotel alone, Tony goes missing. Paul searches him out. He finds Tony, in the clown garb, staring into the basement. The clown slowly turns to him. When Paul goes to tell Mac he found Tony acting strangely, there Tony is (looking conspicuously not like a clown). Paul loses it, flipping out that someone else in a clown suit must have broken into the house. He shows the others the video evidence, but they think he’s played some sort of camera trick on him.

The gang films a commercial for their haunted house in the hotel’s yard and Sara drifts away to stare eerily at a statue of the Virgin Mary. Stranger things continue to happen: during a dry run of the haunted house tour, Paul sees “creeps” through the strobe lights that don’t match the models they placed there. There are supernatural forces at work in the house. Paul begins to actively freak out, but Alex pressures him to calm down. The attraction is two weeks away from opening night, and he doesn’t want Paul to scare the actors.

Arguably a creepier clown than Pennywise.

That night, Paul is awakened by a terrible noise. When he leaves his room, he sees the super-scary clown on the stairs. Paul summons Mac, who – braver than Paul (or I) – approaches the clown and confirms it’s just a mannequin. Someone was messing with them. But Sara, however, is standing in the other room, Blair-Witch-style against the wall and speaking in backwards tongues. Paul and Mac rouse her from her trance and she begins to panic. When they turn back to the stairs, the clown mannequin has vanished! Then the clock strikes in the dining room. When they take a look, a candelabra has been lit at the dining table. Everyone panics and runs upstairs, past the clown mannequin (now holding a lantern).

Paul returns to the confession cam with three days to go. He notes that Sara is not looking good, though “she usually does.” When he wakes up that night, there’s a woman slumped against his bedroom wall. She stirs and slowly moves toward Paul, who hides himself under his blanket like a three-year-old. When he peeks out from behind the covers, she’s suddenly very close. Paul screams.

Paul discovers hostel living can be affordable but has definite drawbacks.

Tony is the next person to turn on the camera. He and the others are looking for Paul, as he’s gone missing just days before opening. Mac, however, is unconcerned: Paul has flaked out on them in previous years and can’t be relied upon. Tony asks Alex to try calling Paul’s cell phone and all they hear is a squeal of angry white noise. In the evening, they are awakened by the sound of the piano downstairs. Assuming Paul has returned, they descend the stairs, but can find no sign of him. The sounds however, seem to have moved to the basement, so they continue downward. The basement, naturally, is pitch black, lit only by their flashlights. When Tony trains his light on the clown mannequins, he sees all their heads have turned. But their heads were supposed to be immobile! He screams and pushes Mac and himself into a locked room to hide. When they extract themselves, the clowns are back in their normal positions, but Paul has appeared. He’s lying slumped against the basement wall. And while they determine he’s alive, he’s not nearly as jovial as he usually is. (The first warning sign is he’s stopped being a total lech.)

By this point, Tony is convinced that they need to scuttle the whole haunted house idea. Too many scary and inexplicable things have been happening; Paul is back but is not himself. When Alex refuses to shut things down, Tony threatens to quit and storms out of the hotel. Mac chases him down and says he needs to tell him something. The tape omits what that “something” is, but it convinces Tony to stay on. Some secret that only Mac and Alex know has tethered him to the project. Tony is resigned to the fact that this haunted house has to happen; he can’t leave now.

The documentary producer, Diana, asks Sara if Alex was of “sound mind” going into opening night. Sara says he was, but the tape shows him on opening night wearing a T-shirt and vest, so just how sane was he? In fact, he’s not his usual confident self when giving a pre-game pep talk to the costumed actors and is visibly shaken. Mac, who has taken over camera duties, goes to check on Paul, and he’s lying unresponsive in bed. But in good news, they have a large opening-night crowd, eager to get into Hell House. The team adds the final touches to the house, which concludes with Mac tearing open the shackled Melissa’s dress in the basement. (Why they didn’t just have costuming for this already is anyone’s guess.)

“Overture! Curtain, lights! This is it, we’ll hit the heights …”

The team’s walkie-talkies begin to malfunction, so Tony and Alex, in the control room, have no way of speaking to everyone else. Sara runs into Mac, who’s hidden behind a lattice to oversee the night’s festivities. She notifies him that Joey, in his clown suit, just blew past her on his way out of the hotel. They hear intense screaming from the basement – nothing they planned was quite that scary – so Mac asks her to find Alex. Meanwhile in the basement, something is very much amiss. A few black hooded figures that look essentially like Dementors from Harry Potter, have arrived to menace the crowd and the chained-up Melissa. The audience intuitively senses this is not part of the show and pandemonium erupts.

Mac guides as many guests as possible out of the house, but finds himself locked in immediately after. He and Sara run around the house in a panic, finally making their way up the stairs to the attic, where Alex has hanged himself. Mac tries to pull his friend down, but the imposing Dementors arrive and swarm him. The camera falls to the ground.

Diana asks Sara what happened after that, and she says she left the attic and went downstairs. The police arrived soon after. The interviewer is dubious she could just waltz out, but Sara asks to be excused. Sara leaves, encouraging them to look in the Abaddon Hotel themselves. She will be in Room 2C at her own hotel if they need to reach her again. The camera crew makes a hasty decision to break into the site of the crimes at 5 in the morning. Before they go, they try to leave a message at Sara’s hotel, but find there’s no ‘2C’ nor ‘Sara Havel’ at the hotel.

Crew member Mitchell is left behind to catalogue further footage that Diana really should have watched before leaving. In the new footage, we see Sara leaves the attic and finds Paul on the ground floor. Paul, looking intense and distraught, begins to punch Sara a few times, and we next see her on the ground, beaten and bloodied. She is then dragged out of view and the camera records Paul from the knees down. He picks up a shard of broken glass and cuts his throat, which we realize has happened once his dead body drops into the picture frame.

But it’s a bit too late: Diane and her cameraman have entered the hotel and spotted the path of dried blood that marks where Sara was dragged. Diane is gleeful to spot a bloody handprint in the basement, but the cameraman isn’t so excited. He refuses to enter the basement. Mitchell tries to call Diane on her cell phone to warn her of what he saw, but she won’t answer. They head upstairs and see one of the bedrooms marked ‘2C.’ (It’s honestly the most chilling thing.) Though the cameraman doesn’t want to, Diane insists they enter. They see Sarah, seated on a mattress on the floor. Diane asks if Sarah is okay. She slowly turns, revealing a face that is partially rotted away. Diane and her camera guy begin to yell, and the mysterious hooded figures in black approach.

Mothers, don’t let your daughters grow up to date haunted house CEOs.

Takeaway points:

  • Though it did not concern this film, my sometime horror film companion David Demchuk asked an astute question: “When do characters realize they are in a horror film?” So often, the answer is never. The characters in Hell House LLC never do, which I suppose is why they persist in sleeping in the haunted hotel (despite having videotape evidence of something demonic), why they seem unfazed by the fact that Paul has become an entirely different person after mysteriously disappearing. Likewise, the reporters who are making a documentary literally about how the hotel is the site of many recent, inexplicable deaths – who zoom in on mysterious figures in raw footage – decide it’s a good idea to enter the house again, to check out the basement. It’s like they haven’t been involved in the very movie they are purportedly making. Obviously, characters in horror movies are going to do dumb things sometimes, but disbelief can only be suspended so far.
  • Hell House LLC answers the question that no one really asked: what if a bunch of bros bought a haunted hotel? The entire Hell House team are unpleasant to spend time with, as they relentlessly creep on women, joke about topless actors, and act like extras in an early Blink-182 video. Even in the depths of his utmost terror, Paul (ringleader of the sexual harassment circus) still manages to skeeve out on Sara. My wife remarked, partway through, “I hate every one of these people.” (We were in a bit of a hurry to watch them die.) It’s unclear if the characterization is meant to depict the real dynamics of a bunch of privileged white guys who grew up together and decided they wanted to spend a lifetime scaring folks, or just the side effect of making film that has similar human resource issues.
  • Once again, we see the forces of unfettered capitalism are to blame for supernatural doom. From Poltergeist to Aliens, the profit impulse is what causes so many people in horror movies to die grisly deaths. Though we’re not informed of the reason Tony decides to stay in the company when thoroughly spooked, from numerous hints, we can assume Hell House LLC is close to financial ruin. So in this case, it’s not even individual greed that drives them to death – rather an effort to not see friends bankrupted. In late-stage capitalism, even personal friendships will be abused by the company. Horror seems primed to turn the current wave of tech “disruptors” into new horror premises, though my wise wife informs me that’s essentially the idea behind Black Mirror.
  • Though the town of Abaddon is completely fictional, the hotel seems loosely based on the very haunted Shanley Hotel, in Ulster County, New York. Built in 1895, the hotel was the site of many accidental deaths and said to be one of the most haunted spots in the tri-state area. Among the phenomena on tap at the Shanley: chiming of clocks, footsteps, objects moving, ghost cats, piano music and more. (You can currently stay in the Shanley Hotel, if your nerves can handle it and you’re over 16 years of age.)
Just catching a breather in the Insane Clown Posse chill-out tent.

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: If you watch Hell House LLC, I have no doubt you’ll be scared. There are chilling moments. For me, the initial encounter with a clown was terribly unsettling. And merely the discovery of a Room ‘2C’ in the hotel gives me chills just thinking about it. There are scares to be had, but it’s a bit of a one-trick pony. It’s like a haunted house itself. Scares you in the moment, but there’s nothing particularly thoughtful behind those scares.

Best outfit: As with most found footage movies, fashion is not its strong point. The commitment to realism means the characters are not stylish, because most real people aren’t stylish. This is especially so in Hell House LLC, where it’s a lot of basketball shorts and Teva sandals. I liked Sara’s Pac-Man shirt, though.

Best line: “Tully considered himself a modern-day Dante.” – interview subject Robert Lyons, clearly confused about the Satanic powers of Italy’s epic poet.

Best kill: Most of the film, I wanted Paul dead, so I guess Paul slashing his own throat with a piece of broken glass was pretty satisfying.

Unexpected cameo: Unless you’re a die-hard indie film aficionado, you likely won’t recognize any of our actors from another place. (Such is the terrible fate of found-footage actors, cherished for their non-celebrity.) But Jeb Kreager who plays the reporter talking head, has been getting a fair amount of work, including a role as Gunner Henderson the new Punisher Netflix series.

Unexpected lesson learned: Never date the CEO of a company specializing in haunted house experiences.

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Abaddon Hotel.

Next up: The Devil Rides Out (1968).

31 (More) Days of Fright: The Old Dark House

“Can I interest any of you in tonight’s specials?”

This January, in support of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape, friends and family have raised over $1,500 (which, when matched by my employer, totals $3,000). As a result, I now have to watch and write about thirty-one horror movies: one each night. Any donors who contributed over $30 were given the option to choose one of the horror movies I must subject myself to. After each viewing, I will write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers, and many of them will refer to unpleasant and potentially triggering situations. Today’s film an early classic of the Universal horror cycle, The Old Dark House, directed by James Whale (Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein). I watched it via YouTube, and so can you!

What happens:

Trigger warnings: Suicide.

In rural Wales, an automobile runs aground in the midst of a turbulent storm. The couple in the car, Philip Waverton (Raymond Massey) and his wife Margaret (Gloria Stuart) bicker about his driving, and while he complains about the terrible weather and poor visibility, he won’t cede the wheel to his wife. (What is he, some sort of cuck?) Their passenger, a Mr. Penderel (Melvyn Douglas), a foppish sort with a pencil-thin moustache, awakes from his slumber in the backseat and has nothing but witty asides to offer. (It’s kind of like being chauffeur to Frasier Crane.) The car continues on, basically driving through a river, as their road map becomes a damp rag and Penderel joyously sings.

After a close call with a landslide, the trio decide they’d better find shelter. Luckily, they just happen to be driving past a creepy old house. When they ring at the door, a imposing bearded man with a scar across his nose answers, but only mumbles incoherently to Penderel’s inquiry. “Even Welsh ought not to sound like that,” he quips. The manservant beckons them inside, where they’re greeted by Horace Femm (Ernest Thesiger), a thin, haunted-looking gentleman, who camps up every scene he’s in. Horace explains that his servant, Morgan (Boris Karloff) cannot speak. Then Horace’s sister, Rebecca Femm (Eva Moore), the owner of the mansion, enters to meet the guests. Rebecca is mostly deaf and can’t hear much of what Horace or the three guests say, but she’s certain of one thing: these strangers definitely can’t stay.

Guess who’s coming to dinner? These three!

The Wavertons and Penderel explain the landslides and flooding and Horace becomes so frightened he drops a vase. Rebecca mocks her brother for his fearful nature: both she and Morgan are well aware the house will be safe in any storm. Though Rebecca reluctantly allows the travellers to stay, she shouts, “No beds!” The guests are more than happy by the fire in the living room. The Wavertons and Penderel park their car in the stable outside, and join Horace Femm in a drink of gin. We then learn that Penderel is a man who was damaged by the War (World War I) and has been drifting ever since. (Horace, for his part, looks like he’s stepped in dog shit when he spits out the word “war.”) Once Morgan is out of earshot, Horace warns the guests that the man-mountain Morgan can be dangerous when drunk, and a storm like this is a perfect opportunity to get hammered.

Margaret Waverton asks the lady of the house if she can direct her to a room where she might change out of her wet clothes. Rebecca takes Margaret to her departed sister Rachel’s old room. While Margaret disrobes and changes into a gown, Rebecca tells her about her dead sister, who she says was a promiscuous sort that died after a horse accident in her youth. Though Rebecca told her sister Rachel to turn to the Lord, she never did. Rebecca then reveals their father, who is 102 years old, is still alive. The wicked man (as she calls him) lives on the top floor of the house. While Margaret changes, Rebecca eyes her closely, noting that Margaret looks a wicked sort, too, all long legs and white skin. She paws at her gown and unsettles Mrs. Waverton. Once the old Mrs. Femm leaves, Margaret is relived to be on her own. But she’s spooked by a roaring gust of wind that blows through the bedroom window, and even moreso by her maddening thoughts of Rebecca’s words of sin and wickedness. She returns to the sitting room, just in time for dinner.

Horace announces suppertime, and they all take a seat at the long dining table. Horace wields a machete-like carving knife and barbecue fork and is chided by his sister for not saying grace before serving dinner. The two have a squabble over religion, but eventually progress to a nice meal of roast beef, potatoes, and – of course – vinegar. (Delish!) Horace’s constant entreaties to “have a potato” are interrupted by another bang at the door. The Femms are forced to welcome two new guests stranded in the storm: the seemingly wealthy Brit, William T. Porterhouse (Charles Laughton), and his companion, a chorus girl named Gladys DuCane (Lilian Bond). They arrive like a hurricane, clearly drunk and boisterous, and make themselves at home rather quickly. Penderel, clearly enchanted by Gladys’s arrival, offers the young woman his shoes, as hers are soaking wet. She puts on the new shoes and immediately begins to dance. Soon, they join the assembled strangers for dinner.

Two hours pass, after which Porterhouse notes they still know nothing about one another. But Margaret isn’t so sure: her woman’s intuition tells her certain things. “Can you tell if I am wanted by the police?” the nervous Horace asks. But the group moves on to what Gladys’s intuition tells her about Mr. Penderel. She divines that Penderel is a man out of time, uncertain in his place in the world. Penderel admits this assessment is more-or-less correct, and that he wishes he could be more like her companion, William Porterhouse, who seems able to focus on earning money and lives without existential worry. Porterhouse takes umbrage at this simplification and tells an illustrative story from his past. In his youth, he married a Manchester girl named Lucy. But Lucy, having grown up poor and unsophisticated, was snubbed by William’s associates and their wives. So much so, she ended her own life. After that, Porterhouse threw himself into work, focused solely on making money.

Nothing like a good game of Would You Rather to establish trust among strangers.

Porterhouse then, out of spite, reveals that Gladys is an impostor: her real name isn’t DuCane. It’s Perkins. Penderel jumps up to defend her honour, but Gladys admits it’s a stage name: “These people know a chorus girl when they see one.” She regularly spends her weekends with Porterhouse; they have an arrangement of sorts. That’s when Rebecca interjects to say that she’s spotted their servant Morgan in the kitchen and he’s quite drunk. The report agitates Horace to no end.

Gladys joins Penderel by the window and thanks him for leaping to her defence. He suggests they sneak out to the car in the stable, where he has some whiskey hidden. Penderel leaves for the car first. When Gladys joins a bit later, she sees a woozy Morgan at the window, who growls and smashes the glass with his fist. Gladys runs to find Penderel and tells him about her scare. He helps her calm down and they help themselves to his jug (it’s a jug) of whiskey. Penderel notices Ms. Perkins has got her feet soaked once again, so he removes them and dries her feet with a towel. (This has to be Quentin Tarantino’s favourite classic horror movie.)

Back inside the house, the flickering electric lights go completely out, just as Horace (who is turning into a real doom-and-gloom Eeyore) expected. The remaining guests request a lamp, but Horace offers a bunch of excuses as to why he can’t retrieve it. Rebecca reminds him the lamp is on the top landing, but he’s clearly too afraid to journey there. Mr. Waverton offers to accompany him, and the two men scale the house’s darkened stairs. Outside his own room, Horace stalls and asks to show Philip a few things. Philip suggests they do that later – after they retrieve a lamp. Then Horace is like, “What if we just said we looked for the lamp, but we couldn’t find it?” Mr. Waverton can’t understand Horace’s anxiety, but then he hears a muted cackle and begins to see Horace’s point of view. Still, Philip is made of braver stuff than the gentleman of the house, so he progresses further, while Horace pretends he’s too weak to continue. At the top landing, Philip finds the large gas lamp, but also a heavy door festooned with locks. A table outside the door holds a plate with fresh food scraps.

Rebecca hears rushing wind and rain and is outraged that her guest Margaret left open the window in Rachel’s room. Porterhouse offers to shut it. While Margaret Waverton is left alone, she amuses herself by making shadow puppets until she encounters a phantom shadow, seemingly cast by nobody. Startled, she makes to run outside. From the front door, she calls for Penderel and Gladys, but no one can hear her over the storm. We then see the hairy hand of Morgan pull the door closed. Like a drunken zombie, he lurches toward Margaret with ill intent in his (somewhat glazed) eyes. To get to her, he flips the (large) dinner table and pursues her up the stairs. Margaret, in her escape, runs into Philip, who’s on his way down with the lamp.

Shadow play dramatizing the “Girls Just Wanna’ Have Fun” music video.

Seeing his wife in danger, he tries to stop Morgan, then punches him directly in the face. Morgan doesn’t take kindly to this, and they scrap on the stair landing. Morgan has close to 100 pounds on Philip. He punches Phil in the gut, and it’s not looking good for Mr. Waverton until he smashes the hard-won lamp across Morgan’s face. Morgan topples down the stairs, but when they check his unconscious body, he’s still breathing. Margaret moans about how horrible the house is, and Philip agrees with the greatest understatement in horror history: “It isn’t very nice, is it?” He then tells Margaret about the sounds and locked door upstairs. He wants to investigate the source of the strange laughter, but insists they travel together. (Philip won’t leave his wife alone in this house again.)

In the stable, Gladys and Penderel, continue to chat and smoke. Penderel talks a bit about his war experiences and the girl he left behind. He asks Gladys about William, and she admits she likes him quite a bit. William provides her with money and “doesn’t expect anything” (if you know what we mean). She has no pretensions about who she is, but suggests that William has no interest in her sexually; just that he’s lonely. It’s possible he’s still in love with his dead wife. Over the course of a stormy night, Gladys and Penderel have fallen in love. Gladys gets a crazy idea: that she can move in with Penderel and maybe he’ll get his groove back. (No more existential dread!) They kiss passionately at the thought. Penderel has another idea, but decides to wait until morning to share it. They head back to the others in the house, even though Gladys has an ominous feeling about the house.

Porterhouse has fallen asleep and is awakened by a racket at the front door. He finds the newly formed couple of Gladys and Penderel on the other side and is not pleased by these rapid developments. Gladys tells her weekend companion she’s fallen in love, and while Porterhouse thinks she’s “a lunatic,” he’s not angry at all. Penderel then, in confidence, reveals to William that he plans to propose to Gladys in the morning. Porterhouse is invited to the wedding in a bit of true magnanimity. The gents decide to right the fallen dining table and clean up a bit of the mess that they’re unaware was caused by Morgan’s lusty rage.

Mr. and Mrs. Waverton, meanwhile, hear human activity from behind an unlocked door. They enter to find a roaring fireplace and an ancient man with a beard and long white hair in the master bed. The man is Sir Roderick Femm (Elspeth Dudgeon, in drag), father to Horace and Rebecca, who asks what his children have told them about the house. Roderick reveals that two of his children died at twenty, and the ones that survived were all a bit mad. The eldest son, Saul, was the worst of the lot: he just wants to kill and burn down houses. This the first the Wavertons have heard of a Saul, and they’re alarmed to learn that Saul is apparently still alive. In fact, he’s who is kept behind the bolted door upstairs, and why they keep a brute like Morgan around. So he can keep Saul under control. But if Morgan drinks too much, he’s just as liable to open Saul’s door and let him run free. (Seems like a serious problem with their security system.)

Drink responsibly, everyone.

Philip instructs Margaret to stay with Roderick and heads downstairs to check on Morgan. He doesn’t find Morgan, just Horace, who frets that Morgan went upstairs to Saul’s room. The Wavertons return to the sitting room to warn everyone about Saul and his pyromaniac tendencies. Just as they do, a hand grasps the bannister on the landing. Then Morgan staggers down the stairs and tries to barge past the three male guests to reach the women. Our three dudes restrain Morgan and drag him forcefully to the kitchen, battling his incredible strength every step of the way. Penderel leaves Philip and William Porterhouse to battle the giant servant and returns to the two women. He takes them to a cupboard and hides them within, while he returns to the stairs to confront the newly arrived Saul (Brember Wills).

An older bearded man, Saul tells Penderel his family only locked him up because he witnessed Horace and Rebecca murdering their sister Rachel. He wants to tell Penderel a story, but can’t help noticing someone is in the cupboard. He demands to know who. Penderel attempts to calm the clearly troubled old man, and they both take a seat at the dinner table. While brandishing the prodigious carving knife, Saul tells Penderel that he’s become an expert in fire: did you know that fire is like a blade, cold and sharp? Penderel feigns interest while looking around for a way to subdue this Femm brother, but Saul catches on. Waxing poetic about the Biblical Saul, he begins to threaten Penderel with the knife. When Penderel makes a break for it, Saul hurls the knife at him, and it embeds in the nearby chair. Failing to impale his victim, Saul picks up another chair (he’s very strong for his age) and smashes it against the visitor.

With Penderel incapacitated, Saul grabs a firebrand from the hearth and runs up to the landing, immediately setting the curtains aflame, cackling all the while. Penderel comes to and tries to knock the torch from his hands, but Saul is vicious, even biting the other man’s neck. In their struggle, they break through the railing and fall to the ground.

One of our heroes narrowly avoids becoming a Pendrel-kebab.

Margaret and Gladys, trapped in the cupboard, try to free themselves. Unfortunately, Morgan has somehow extricated himself from the other two men and ends up opening the cupboard for them. The hulking man stands between the two women and the unconscious bodies of Penderel and Saul, but Gladys won’t be intimidated. She tries to shove past, but Morgan twists her arm and she falls to the ground in pain. Margaret pleads with the angry servant, pointing out that both Penderel and Saul have been seriously harmed. The mention of Saul somehow gets through to Morgan and he checks on the eldest Femm brother. Morgan sees that Saul is dead, and cradles his body as if he were his newlywed bride, and carries him upstairs.

Philip and Porterhouse show up, a day late and a dollar short. Gladys recovers from her arm injury and runs to Penderel’s side. Philip attempts to stop her, as he fears Penderel, too, has expired. But Gladys swears he’s alive and sobs uncontrollably. In the morning, Horace comes downstairs to see his guests, the Wavertons, in a hurry to get to their cars. Rebecca doesn’t give them as cordial a goodbye – more a “feh” – and Penderel, it turns out, is alive. As Gladys cradles his bandaged head, he asks for her hand in marriage. Our five guests have survived a wild night, and only one Femm sibling lost his life.

But will Margaret Waverton’s heart go on?

Takeaway points:

  • As many film historians have noted, James Whale, who is often touted as the finest director of the Universal horror stable, somehow simultaneously invented the old haunted house shtick and satirized it in the same film. There weren’t many spooky house movies before The Old Dark House. (This was 1932, after all.) The plot is familiar: some city squares stumble upon a kooky, yet deadly family of weirdos. The Femms are half-menace, half-quirk. One could make an argument that the film almost single-handedly invented the comedic macabre: you can see the DNA of this movie in everything from The Munsters to Texas Chain Saw Massacre to The Burbs.
  • An unanswered – and, to be perfectly honest, possibly unimportant – question lies at the heart of The Old Dark House: did Rebecca and Horace kill their sister Rachel? Rebecca, at least, seems to despise the long-dead Rachel for her “wanton” ways, and Saul claims that’s why he’s been locked away. (Though Saul has other problems.) The question is: do Horace and Rebecca just present well – are they the sociopaths able to hide their homicidal tendencies beneath a veneer of respectability and manners in a way that Saul and Morgan cannot? Are they just as “savage” as those other two, but clean up nice to blend in with everyone else? Though we viewers align more strongly with these more comic residents of the house, they may be just as (if not more) sinister.
  • Religion comes into play in The Old Dark House – after all Rebecca blames all types of misfortunes on sin – but it’s a religion against female flesh. Rebecca attributes Rachel’s death to her wickedness (and by “wickedness,” she means sex). She suggests that Margaret, too, is wicked, if only because of what she wears. Rebecca shouts “no beds!” like an anthem, in hopes of preventing any rutting under her roof. “You shouldn’t have come here,” Rebecca warns. Misfortune befalls Margaret simply for existing as a young woman in the same house as Morgan. Rebecca, like so many men’s rights activists, suggests that a brute like Morgan (i.e. your average man) can’t control himself when drunk and in the presence of a beautiful woman. The Old Dark House presents religion as a crutch for men’s bad behaviour. But despite the oppressive atmosphere, the old dark house and its occupants are unable to repress the women of the film: no one is going to tell Margaret what sort of evening gown she should wear during a monsoon! The film even features a positive portrayal of a sex worker – for that’s what it’s implied Gladys more or less is – who is not a tragic figure of pity.
  • As director James Whale was one of the first openly gay men in Hollywood, his films – particularly horror films – are often read through the lens of queer criticism. I don’t need to tell you that horror is a goldmine for queer criticism. (There’s even a “Queer Fear” film series at Toronto’s Royal Cinema.) And The Old Dark House certainly features a number of gay subtexts. There’s Ernest Thesiger, playing Horace Femm as the highest camp this side of Jonathan Harris’s Dr. Smith on Lost in Space, who wrinkles his nose at the barest hint of traditional masculinity. (This may explain his aversion to his sister’s Puritanical religious beliefs) There’s the patriarch of the family played by a woman (Elspeth Dudgeon) in an early filmic drag performance. And if so inclined, we can read into the tender manner by which Morgan carries Saul away (in a mirrored reflection of the bridal night), or the fact that Porterhouse pays for Gladys to keep him company, but has no interest in her, sexually. Keep in mind that the strange family’s surname is Femm (or “Femme”). Leave it to James Whale to somehow queer a film in which youthful lust is punished the ultimate sin.

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: If nothing else, this horror movie marathon is reigniting my interest in classic film. The Old Dark House likely isn’t going to give anyone nightmares, though – to give Whale and company credit – there are a few genuinely creepy moments and jump scares (mainly regarding Karloff’s Morgan). But it’s an engaging and at times, downright funny film. Like a really dark episode of The Addams Family.

Chorus girl Gladys DuCane has the look that men of all nations and sexual orientations go for.

Best outfit: I realize we are supposed to fall in love with Margaret Waverton’s gown, and it’s very nice, but my heart belongs to Gladys DuCane’s collared shirt and floral-print dress.

Best line: When Gladys and Penderel return from the stable, Porterhouse notes she’s lost her shoes. “So ya’ got your feet wet,” he says. “And that wasn’t all,” Gladys answers, in some of the finest pre-Code innuendo ever written.

Best kill: Only one person dies during the course of The Old Dark House, so – by default – when Saul plummets to his death from a second story landing is the winner.

Unexpected cameo: Though children of the 1980s and 1990s might not readily recognize Gloria Stuart, the fantastic female lead of The Old Dark House, they would most certainly recognize the elderly version of her who portrayed Rose in James Cameron’s romantic blockbuster, Titanic. And Torontonians will recognize Raymond Massey as part of the family that once owned most of the city.

Unexpected lesson learned: Who could have guessed it would be a mistake to put the burly man who likes to get drunk and wreak havoc in charge of keeping the murderous pyromaniac behind locked doors?

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Roderick Femm.

Next up: Hell House, LLC (2015).