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House of Fear (1939): It’s the Old Theatre Game

[no vault review last night–I headed out to a concert–so we’ll start off today with the one that didn’t get posted last night]

House of Fear (Joe May, 1939)

[note: review originally published 5Sep2010]


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The guy in the back? That really IS the old ghost-in-a-sheet trick…

Solid, if not terribly original, mystery from May (The Invisible Man Returns). Based on a play that was based on a novel, and each adaptation added a little bit of kludge to the mix. Oddly, May saw no reason to do anything different when filming the picture that they’d done in the stage play; there are very few times when you won’t be wondering why he didn’t just put a camera halfway back in the audience and let it run.


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“Seventy years from now and we’d all be on an episode of Law and Order: SVU!”

A while back, an actor was murdered during the performance of a play. The subsequent hullabaloo closed the theatre down. Now a slick businessman from out of town, Arthur McHugh (William Gargan, nominated for Best Supporting the next year for They Knew What They Wanted, but probably best-known for being the bootlegger who supplied the original Brown Derby restaurant during Prohibition), has bought the place and is re-opening it. To throw more salt in the wound, he wants to stage the same play as they were showing the night it closed, with as many original actors as possible. A surprising number of people take this at face value, but the former leading lady, Alice Tabor (The Count of Monte Cristo‘s Irene Hervey), isn’t convinced everything is on the level. McHugh lays it all out for her—the killer was never caught, and he’s actually an undercover cop who thinks this ploy will get the killer to reveal himself. Tabor agrees to go along with the ruse, but as rehearsals get underway, mysterious occurrences start up, and the superstitious cast are more than willing to believe that the late John Woodford is cursing the production…

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If you’re going to lure a ghost…


If you’ve seen a handful or so of early supernatural mysteries along these lines, you should know what to expect; the “supernatural” portion never really gets off the ground, leaving it a straight mystery with a sprinkling of comedy, a couple of dashes of romance, etc. It’s nothing out of the ordinary for the time. Which probably means that if you’re a mystery buff and this is the first pre-WW2 mystery you happen upon, you’ll get a big charge out of it, but otherwise, you’ll likely end up thinking “more of the same”. Still, it’s not in any way awful, and if you enjoy this sort of thing you’ll have a good time with it. ** ½

About Robert "Goat" Beveridge

Media critic (amateur, semi-pro, and for one brief shining moment in 2000 pro) since 1986. Guy behind noise/powerelectronics band XTerminal (after many small stints in jazz, rock, and metal bands). Known for being tactless but honest.

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