House of Mystery (1961)

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Mordre wol out!
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UK / 54 minutes / bw / Independent Artists, Anglo–Amalgamated Dir & Scr: Vernon Sewell Pr: Julian Wintle, Leslie Parkyn Story: L’Angoisse (n.d.) by Pierre Mills and Celia de Vilyars Cine: Ernest Steward Cast: Jane Hylton, Peter Dyneley, Nanette Newman, Maurice Kaufmann, Colin Gordon, John Merivale, Ronald Hines, Colette Wilde, Molly Urquhart, George Selway, Freda Bamford, Roy Purcell, John Abineri, Pearson Dodd.

Vernon Sewell bought the screen rights of the Pierre Mills and Celia de Vilyars stage play L’Angoisse and went on to film it no fewer than four times, of which this was the fourth. The other three were The Medium (1934), Latin Quarter (1945) and Ghost Ship (1952); I’ve already written on this site about Latin Quarter—a far more ambitious effort than this offering. What puzzles me is that, despite supposedly being based on the same play, the two movies—the 1945 one being cheerily Grand Guignol and this one being a fairly straightforward, sub-M.R. Jamesian ghost story of the kind you might expect the BBC to broadcast around Christmas—don’t seem to have a huge amount in common. Moreover, while the seemingly supernatural component of Latin Quarter can be more or less rationalized, that’s far from so in this case.

So why am I talking about the movie here? Is it just because I’m a confirmed Nanette Newman fanboy? Ahem. Heaven forfend. Nothing of the sort. Surely. The raison d’être of this entry is that the movie’s a variant of Latin Quarter, which most certainly is of interest within the broadish parameters of this site.

Nanette Newman as Joan.

Somewhere near Barnstaple in North Devon, in the UK’s southwest, a househunting young couple, Alan (Hines) and his unnamed wife (Wilde), arrive at Orchard Cottage. It’s spacious and lovely and it’s in its own grounds, and it’s remarkably cheap:

Alan: “Darling, this is the one that’s £2,500.”
Wife: “Well, the price is ridiculous. Must be falling to bits or something.”

Later, just to remind us how things have changed a tad since 1961, certainly in the area of house prices, Alan qualifies: “Must be worth at least £6,000.”

They’re met at the door by a rather creepy middle-aged woman whom they assume to be the caretaker. She starts to tell them about the house, and the ghosts that inhabit it. Her tale in fact involves two past timelines; while the movie might lack ambition in other areas, we should acknowledge the level of its narrative sophistication, for this aspect of the telling is masterfully done.

The ghost story that surrounds Orchard Cottage began years ago when the place was occupied by rich electrical engineer Mark Lemming (Dyneley) and his wife Stella (Hylton). Their friend Clive Mayhew (Merivale) came to stay . . . and stayed and stayed, until the village began to wonder if perhaps Clive was perhaps a little friendlier with Stella than a houseguest should oughter be. When the two disappeared one night, everyone assumed they’d run off together.

Some while later, the milkman (Abineri) and the local constable (Selway) discovered Mark Lemming dead on the floor of his laboratory annex, dead of electrocution or a heart attack, or an electrocution-induced heart attack.

Well, the would-be house-buyers say, what of it? People die in houses all the time.

But then the creepy lady tells them of the experiences of the young couple who bought the house a few years later, Harry (Kaufmann) and Joan Trevor (Newman).

At first all seems fine, but then the light in the living room starts to become unreliable. One night when they’re fiddling with the fuse box Joan quite distinctly sees the apparition of a man over there in the corner, his hand outstretched and pleading. Naturally Harry sees nothing. But a few nights later he can’t deny it when the face of the same man suddenly intrudes on the cop show the pair have been watching on TV. There’s summat funny going on in North Devon . . .

 The specter of Mark (Peter Dyneley) emerges from a shadowy corner . . .

. . . or even on the Trevors’ TV screen.

At Joan’s insistence, they call in psychic investigator Burdon (Gordon), who proceeds to produce—at excruciating length—one of the more embarrassing rationales for ESP that I’ve come across in or outwith the movies (and, being in the business that I am, I’ve come across plenty that are dire).

Burdon (Colin Gordon), the psychic investigator, explains his reasoning . . .

. . . while  Harry (Maurice Kaufmann) and Joan (Nanette Newman) clearly reckon they’ve got a right one ‘ere.

Burdon fiddles with various bits of pretentious spook-detecting gadgetry and then decides he must bring in cuddly Glaswegian medium Mrs. Bucknall (Urquhart). The room creeps her out and she doesn’t want to go through with the séance, but Burdon persuades her.

Mrs. Bucknall (Molly Urquhart) goes into a trance state.

It’s through her spiritual perception of past events that we learn the story of what actually went on between Stella, Clive and the betrayed Mark. Mark was experimenting one day in the annex on his dog Sally—“Sally, you may not know it, but one of these days you’ll be more famous than Rin Tin Tin”—when it became obvious to him that Stella and Clive were closer than they should be. Thanks to having bugged one of the rooms in the main house he was able to hear them talk:

Stella: “Mark’s a rich man—you know that, don’t you? That last accident he had, when he nearly electrocuted himself, damaged his heart, Another shock, even a minor one, would kill him.”

You can hear, plain as an eggshell, the sound of a plot hatching . . .

Flashback to the cheery lab experiments that Mark Lemming ((Peter Dyneley)) performs on his dog Sally.

Stella (Jane Hylton) and Clive (John Merivale) discuss how to get Mark out of the way.

Their scheme to electrocute him fails. Of course, having dodged that death, Mark quite reasonably feels he’s entitled to electrocute them . . .

As I say, I really admire the narrative cleverness of the movie; it’s a pity this storytelling skill isn’t matched by some of the other elements—in particular, by the unbelievably dumb portrayal of a possible underpinning for psychic phenomena.

Stella (Jane Hylton) is aghast as the adulterers’ heinous plan goes wrong . . .

. . . and the young couple (Ronald Hines, Colette Wilde) are aghast at the tale they’ve heard.

While everyone involved in this movie must have known it was pointed straight at the second-feature slot, that its ambitions (and presumably budget) were strictly circumscribed, we can’t accuse the cast of any halfheartedness. Ernest Steward’s cinematography seems likewise committed, as does the soundtrack, by Stanley Black. One oddity in the opening credits is that we’re told this is

“A Film By Julian Wintle and Leslie Parkyn”

—an overweening description that must have rankled quite a lot with Sewell, who directed and wrote the movie and was the owner of the rights that made it possible.

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4 thoughts on “House of Mystery (1961)

  1. I have a bit of a soft spot for Nanette Newman too, so I might see if I can find a copy of this one. Latin Quarter is still on my list too – so many movies, so little time!

    • The two movies are sufficiently dissimilar that, despite their supposedly sharing a common source, you could easily watch them one after the other as a perfectly acceptable double bill.

  2. Saw this about a year ago on one of the discs in the Edgar Wallace set – not sure if I’d ever seen it before but I think I’d remember so I doubt it – and thoroughly enjoyed it Nice write-up.

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