Crimes At The Dark House (1940)

MAY 17, 2010


Like a lot of the movies in these budget packs, Crimes At The Dark House can barely be considered a horror film by today’s standards. I guess back then, simply having a guy kill a few people made it a horror movie, whereas today it might be considered an adaptation of a particular episode of CSI: Miami. I will say though, I was surprised to see a murder occur so early on, and a somewhat disturbing one at that (a railroad spike through the head!). Obviously we don’t see the impact, but most of these things just have bloodless gunshots or maybe a strangling.

In fact one of the things I quite liked about the movie was that it wasted no time in getting going. The movie is about a murderous thief (Tod Slaughter) who impersonates the dude he killed in order to get his inheritance - and he’s accomplishes all of that in the first 4 minutes. I figured it would be like a half hour before they got around to that, but by that point in the movie, he had already offed another character or two and gotten married (in order to rob her as well). Our guy doesn’t dilly-dally.

Of course, his impulsiveness means that his plan is pretty much shit (which is why the body count is so high - he kills everyone that catches on, which is a lot of people). I don’t think a single part of his made up backstory went unquestioned, nor did he ever come up with a good lie on the spot to cover it up. Or he simply goes out on a limb with nothing, like when he tries to get his new wife to sign something that will screw her over. She asks to read it before signing, and at first he says that as a woman she wouldn’t understand any of it (smooth, though she more or less sees his point, hilariously enough), and then accuses her of not trusting him. See, when *I* am trying to get my wife to sign shit that will cause her financial ruin, I make stuff up and walk her through it, using a bunch of jargon and fancy lawyer talk to confuse/bore her to the point of getting her to sign it so I’ll shut up.

I got to thinking during the movie - time has really sort of killed the standard horror movie plots. Look how much trouble he had convincing people of his false identity THEN, without photo ID and Facebook and security cameras on every corner of every street. I cannot conceive of any logical way one could do the “pretend to be a dead/long lost man” story nowadays. And it’s just not this type of story - breakdown/survival type movies are becoming more contrived in order to get rid of the cell phones and other modern technologies that would prevent anything from happening (slashers have fallen prey to this as well), and we don’t need metaphorical giant bugs to deal with the horrors of war - we just need a cable hookup. And people in general are less care-free and adventurous these days - people just stick around home instead of going camping. I think we’re going to start seeing more period horror films, simply because it’s easier to put people in danger in the 1970s than it is nowadays. Who the hell can get lost when so many cars actually come equipped with GPS?

Back on point, the movie is based on Wilkie Collins’ (no relation, as far as you know) book The Woman In White, which was adapted a few times before and has been adapted several times since. From skimming the Wikipedia entry, it sounds a lot more dramatic than this film, which isn’t surprising since the book did not have Tod Slaughter playing the main character. I’m not too familiar with the guy; I only know that he’s usually a scenery-chewing ham, as he is here. Yelling “Curses” all the time, laughing maniacally, and sporting a big twirly mustache, he’s pretty delightful, and I can’t imagine a book version of the character having the same sort of energy, which was pretty much the main draw for me. Plus, I bet the book makes him sort of intelligent, which is no fun. If they were remaking this specific adaptation, they’d probably get Crispin Glover or maybe Johnny Depp (Slaughter actually performed "Sweeney Todd" on stage, so it would be fitting).

As with several Mill Creek transfers, the film is bizarrely off center, with a big black bar on the bottom (none at the top) and a line on the left that’s about three times the width of the one on the right. It’s also very washed out (though less “broken” than most transfers of films from this era - I only caught 2-3 skips). Apparently, my 40 cents doesn’t net me a quality transfer. But it’s also one of the last movies on the set I can qualify as horror, as most of the others that I haven’t watched yet are about gangsters and crooks and such. Mill Creek needs to assemble a new package for me! Chilling Classics II, perhaps?

What say you?

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