Old School Mysteries and Frights
by Kristin Battestella
Nestle in on a rainy day with these retro spookies, crisp black and white thrillers, and classic stars for some all in good fun ominous riddles and murderous suspense.
Fog Island – House of Frankenstein alums Lionel Atwill and George Zucco serve isolated island revenge in this quick seventy minute 1945 mystery. This public print is tough, however, with poor sound, difficult to see darkness, and the titular atmosphere ruining critical action scenes. At times, it's tough to tell who is who despite some intriguing, cutthroat characters. These hacks, frauds, phony psychics, and selling out secretaries are not who they seem to be as they ally or test each other with blackmail and vengeful implications of murders past. Fortunately, no one is hammy or over the top, and furs, hats, skulls, and a melancholy organ add a spooky sophistication to match the moody, albeit slim production and earlier interwar-feeling. The black and white patina creates innate shadows amid the stage-like dressings, with the suspicion afoot thanks to spying butlers, peeping through windows, and rustling through drawers – snooping in search of handwritten letters, clues, and secret compartments. Pesky newspapers send the once convicted into seclusion to avoid the talk of violent family deaths and scandalous investments. Your cellmate and your account should never be one and the same! Depression finances crumbling and the locale's pirate past are mentioned more than seen along with morbid party favors, séances, and occult talk suggesting a not really supernatural. However such red herrings add to the mystery keys, whispered plans, and scenarios in play – we must pay attention to the conversations even if the plot is similar to other more famous mysteries. The ingenue, young hero, and cat and mouse romance may be dry to viewers today, but the MacGuffins, skeletons, and trap doors are well paced. Who's going to pay for these past scams with his or her life? The violence is surprisingly good for the time with suspenseful encounters and a vindicating topper.
The House That Would Not Die – The pretty country autumn, empty house, and covered furniture are almost a little sad to start this Barbara Stanwyck-led 1970 Aaron Spelling television movie based upon the novel Ammie Come Home. Unfortunately, the foreboding echoes of their inherited home suggest worse to come for our sophisticated working lady, niece Kitty Winn (Panic in Needle Park), and their professor neighbor Richard Egan (The 300 Spartans). Old books, pewter, cursive, and classy cars compliment the fur and hats wearing dames while older lace and flowing nightgowns add to the déjà vu feelings, peeping ghost perspectives, and drafty doors opening by themselves. Recollecting zooms, eerie paintings, blue lighting, wispy curtains, sleepwalking, and slow motion nightmares invoke an afoot atmosphere – fog, fade in visuals, footsteps, and ghostly whispers are simplistic yet effective in halting our players mid-fright. Hazy camera focuses become a clouding before the swoon, and despite the occasional melodramatic acting, laughable cat fights, and hysterical slaps; terrified mediums, warnings to flee, and possessions leave the fears to the cast. The past is trying to repeat itself with old fashioned mannerisms and phantom personalities taking over – choking attacks and automatic writing help discover concealed desk panels, hidden scrolls, and once stricken names. Creepy basements and buried secrets accent the research montage, and it's nice to see people not so well versed in the paranormal question how they can be so matter of fact about it. Roundabout ghost attempts do sag in the middle and 1780 colonial mentions aren't always felt, leaving audiences to read the book for the juicy behind the tidy explanations and absolving confrontations here. Fortunately, this seventy-odd minutes moves fast without underestimating its viewers, making for a pleasant, spooky little mystery. She's not one of my classic favorites, but Miss Barbara sitting sipping her tea cup while the men do all the work – you go on girl!
Sting of Death – Boris Karloff has a battle of wits with killer bees in this eleventh episode of the 1955 television series The Elgin Hour. While the show is admittedly obscure, this episode adapted from the acclaimed novel A Taste for Honey is available for streaming – no doubt standing out thanks toold and nosy but witty Mr. Mycroft coughsherlockholmescough. This homegrown scientist and observant layman questions who's behind the eponymous honey makers, and I'd love to have seen Karloff as Mycroft in more of these! Naturally, the dressings are simple – buzzing sounds, bug sprays, a magnify glass, and netted hats add the insect mood with fake plants and rural mural backgrounds creating a fun, bare innocence to stage the drama. The camerawork, however, is tight and up close, matching the unnecessary, over the top arguing at the breakfast table thanks to talkative old lady colloquialisms and an obnoxious stuffed shirt professor wanting to know, “Who ate my honey?!” The back and forth OMG we're out of honey is dated filler – skipping right to knocking on the beekeeper's door inquiring on honey for sale would suffice – and the screenplay can be dry with padding hyperbole, “I deduced your supply of honey would be extinguished in a fortnight.” More time is spent on coming and going explanations perhaps expected at the time before finally getting to Karloff's meaty deductions. Who's next? What happens if these super bees turn on their maker? Turnabout is fair play after all, and our Mr. Mycroft must outwit without being stung. Granted, this is preposterous, but such early television zany can be bemusing – or perhaps not for anyone allergic to bee stings. And don't forget those Elgin watch advertisements, “A beautiful way to tell time!”
And Then There Were None – Barry Fitzgerald (Going My Way), Judith Anderson (Rebecca), Walter Huston (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), and more star in this 1945 adaptation streamlined from the stage version of Agatha Christie's famed best seller. The lovely but perilous English coast, storms, and crashing waves add coldness to the crisp black and white while British mannerisms and humor introduce the guests to the audience without having to say a word. Viewers must pay attention to subtle hints and make our own deductions on a guest's awkwardness over the Jack and Jill bathrooms or harshness toward the servants. Old fashions, furniture, antiques, and dressing for dinner formalities accent the well done wartime production as the assembly plays cards or the piano, tediously waiting until the mysterious Mr. Owen announces their crimes – on a record no less! Accusations and hysterics lead to more clues while power outages interfere with searches about the ominous house. Is another on the island watching them? Some of the invited confess, others deny, yet more drop via poison or worse in the titular countdown – and the whole weekend's ahead of them! Who's next? Is the perpetrator among them? Simmering distrust builds as various pairs suspect one another, test alibis, and vote on who the killer may be, and nobody wants to be alone with anybody else. Although the inappropriate rhymes may be unfamiliar to contemporary audiences, the song lyrics hint on each manner of death, giving viewers the how, maybe the where, but not the when, who, or all the why. It's a great way to give breadcrumbs but leave us wanting more despite the occasionally over the top acting, bemusing nasal accents, and shouts of “Murder!” followed by a punctuating lightning bolt. Today we've also seen too many spoofs such as Clue – right down to butler did it accusations, kitchen knife play, keys in one's pocket, missing guns (1+2+2+1), and even multiple endings from the source. Fortunately, this murderous mystery deepens into a can't look away intensity even when its just two people debating which one of them is the killer. Wise viewers can see the impetus of other beloved murder mysteries as well as the budding horror/slasher format, and this intelligent story holds up by making the audience think or nestle in with a good old Agatha read.