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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

THE STRANGE DOOR (1951)

Boris Karloff and Charles Laughton hadn’t worked together since THE OLD DARK HOUSE/’32, James Whale’s knowingly playful ‘dark-and-stormy-night’ pic.* Two decades on finds them still playful, but infinitely coarser in this modest programmer. Taken from a Gothic gloss by Robert Louis Stevenson, the revenge plot has Laughton forcing marriage on a lovely young thing, the daughter of the girl he loved & lost to his own brother, while secretly holding her insane father in the dungeon below. Karloff plays the old retainer/jailer, a man who knows all the secrets, but who may not be as loyal as Laughton thinks he is. Plenty of stuff for a neat little fright flick, but Joseph Pevney is an awfully dull dog of a director, and he lets everyone ham things up in a smorgasbord of styles. Still, the young couple (Sally Forrest & Richard Shapley/aka Richard Wyler) are a cut or two above the norm for these things, and it’s fun to compare Laughton’s understated over-acting with Karloff’s overstated under-acting. (Or is it the other way ‘round?) The climax works up a bit of steam with a water wheel, a prison cell with walls that are closing in, and a key our hero can almost reach, but it’s a long 80 minute trip before you get there.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: *It’s a bit of a litmus test, but Whale’s THE OLD DARK HOUSE is tremendous fun for them that ‘gets’ it . . . and a complete head-scratcher for them that don’t.

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