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Wednesday, May 6, 2015

HOUSE OF MYSTERY (1961)



A young house-hunting couple (Ronald Hines, Colette Wilde), driving through the English countryside, arrive at a quaint, attractive cottage, which is available for sale at an incredible bargain. When queried, the caretaker (Jane Hylton) casually mentions a haunting in its recent history, and relates the story of the previous residents. In flashback, we are introduced to a similarly young, married couple (Maurice Kaufmann, Nanette Newman), who encounter a ghost, when their home begins experiencing electrical problems.

Finding no ordinary causes for either the faulty power, or the silent, mysterious man they think they see in their home, they end up enlisting the aid of a parapsychologist (Colin Gordon), who overcomes their initial skepticism with rational-sounding scientific explanations, rather than the mystical hokum they were expecting. Eventually, he brings in a genuine psychic (Molly Urquhart), in an attempt to solve the mystery of the apparition. This leads to a further flashback, showing the ghost to be a rather brilliant electrical engineer (Peter Dyneley), embroiled in research in his backyard workshop, whose adulterous wife schemes with her lover to murder him in a staged 'accident'... but things don't quite go according to plan...


At a brisk 54 minutes (allowing for slight Pal speed-up on the Region 2 DVD release; IMDB lists the running time at 56 minutes), House of Mystery wastes no time getting to business. Like a good campfire story, it draws you into its macabre tale and holds your attention to the end, without wearing out its welcome. While not particularly kinetic, the (subtle) camera moves and some quick editing serve to compress the story's time-frame down to the bare essentials; and with the professional and (in most cases) understated acting from all concerned, make what would otherwise be a talky, house-bound slog into something rather compelling, while not feeling rushed... quite a feat.


It has a central paranormal conceit reminiscent of a better episode of One Step Beyond, an interesting revenge plot that wouldn't be out-of-place on Alfred Hitchcock Presents and even a tiny bit of sci-fi mixed in... all presented in a crisp, subtle, no-nonsense style that was common to a lot of smaller black-and-white British films of the early-to-mid 1960s. Particularly interesting is that Colin Gordon's 'Burdon' may well be cinema's first modern parapsychologist, beating Richard Johnson's 'Dr. John Markway' in The Haunting (1963), to the screen by a couple of years. Like Markway, Burdon brings in gauges and camera equipment to try to record evidence of the ghost, as well as the qualified psychic, in scenes prefiguring (in their own small way) The Legend of Hell House (1973), Poltergeist (1981), The Awakening (2011) and The Conjuring (2013). Not that House of Mystery necessarily influenced these other films --doubtful, since it was very low-profile-- but it is kind of neat that it was ahead of the curve.


Writer-Director Vernon Sewell filmed variations of this story (based on "L'Angoisse", a French play by Pierre Mills and Celia de Vilyars) several times before, including his directorial debut, The Medium (1934, an extended short subject), Latin Quarter (1945) and a nautical version, Ghost Ship (1952, with Hazel Court). I've yet to see these earlier incarnations, but the consensus, from those who have, seems to be that Sewell really nailed it with House of Mystery. The same year, he made an accomplished little film noir, The Man in the Back Seat, and would return to the world of horror with The Blood Beast Terror (1968), The Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968, a.k.a. The Crimson Cult) and Burke & Hare (1972).


The cast is populated entirely by professional, but lower-profile, performers. Probably best-known is our ghost, Peter Dyneley. Far from a household name, he was a fairly busy actor in supporting parts in the 1950s-1970s, mainly in British films and TV series. He played two roles that gave him a tiny measure of immortality. First and foremost, he was the voice of  puppet patriarch, "Jeff Tracy" (plus a couple of other characters), in Gerry Anderson's Thunderbirds TV series and two 1960s feature films. He also starred as the ill-fated, alcoholic journalist, "Larry Stanford", in the two-headed B-movie classic, The Manster (1959), in which he was paired, coincidentally enough, with House of Mystery's Jane Hylton... or perhaps not so coincidentally, since they were married in real life.

 

Jane Hylton, herself, also has an extensive filmography of supporting roles stretching across four decades, including the James Mason film noir, The Upturned Glass (1947); the classic Ealing Studios comedy, Passport to Pimlico (1949); the women-in-prison film, The Weak and the Wicked (1954, a.k.a. Young and Willing); on TV, as 'Guinevere', in The Adventures of Sir Lancelot; in the anthologies One Step Beyond (Season Three's "The Room Upstairs") and Journey to the Unknown ("Stranger in the Family", also featuring her House of Mystery co-star, Maurice Kaufmann), and as "Mrs. Fisher" in a few of the earliest episodes of the popular sitcom, Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em (1973-78). Fans of vintage British horror would probably recognize her most as Anton Diffring's murderous assistant, "Angela", in Circus of Horrors (1960, also from House of Mystery's Parkyn/Wintle producing team). Her last role in a major production, after years of working exclusively on TV,  was appearing in a very brief bit as the wife of Sergeant Major Sandy Young (Jack Watson), hostile to Richard Burton's job offer for her husband to whip the mercenaries into shape, in The Wild Geese (1978) --produced by her first husband, Euan Lloyd. Unfortunately, she died of a heart attack a year later, at the untimely age of 51.


Maurice Kaufmann, Nanette Newman
Maurice Kaufmann can be spotted in numerous small parts and uncredited bits in British films from the 1950s through the 1970s, such as Three Cases of Murder (1955), The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), Campbell's Kingdom (1957), Fire Down Below (1957), The Giant Behemoth (1959), A Shot in the Dark (1964), The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)  and Vault of Horror (1973). One memorable role was as the on-location radio reporter, giving the play-by-play of the reptilian rampage through London, in the climax of Gorgo (1961). He also played Stefanie Powers' fiance, who doesn't realize she is trapped in the clutches of a psychotic Tallulah Bankhead (and other unsavory types), in Hammer Studio's nifty suspense thriller, Die! Die! My Darling! (1965, aka Fanatic). On the small screen, he can be seen in episodes of H.G. Wells' Invisible Man, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Ivanhoe, The Third Man, The Saint, The Avengers (where he plays Emma Peel's dance partner in the classic "Quick-Quick Slow Death"), Man in a Suitcase, the aforementioned "Stranger in the Family" episode of Journey to the Unknown, Bless This House and Thriller (the early-'70s color series). Interestingly, he also had the lead in an obscure little six-part sci-fi/horror serial on British TV from 1959, The Voodoo Factor, which hasn't been seen in decades, but allegedly still exists, somewhere.

Not long after House of Mystery, Nanette Newman had a few higher-profile parts in some more prestigious films, most of which were helmed by her husband, actor-director Bryan Forbes, including Of Human Bondage (1964); as the distraught mother of a girl kidnapped by phony psychics Kim Stanley and Sir Richard Attenborough, in the excellent thriller, Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964); the comedy opus, The Wrong Box (1966) and The Whisperers (1967).  She was also in the large cast of Oh! What a Lovely War! (1969) and as one of the main supporting characters in Captain Nemo and the Underwater City (1970). Perhaps her best-remembered role was as one of The Stepford Wives (1975), also directed by Forbes.


Theater veteran Colin Gordon was often seen as college professors, policemen, bureaucrats and military officers, in scores of films and on British television, including Edward, My Son (1949), Green Grow the Rushes (1951), The Man in the White Suit (1951), The Green Man (1956), The Mouse That Roared (1959), The Day They Robbed the Bank of England (1960), Disney's The Horsemasters (1961), Burn Witch Burn (1962), The Pink Panther (1963), The Liquidator (1965), The Psychopath (1966), Casino Royale (1967), and recurring roles on The Baron, and in the partially-lost Patrick Troughton Doctor Who serial, "The Faceless Ones". He may be most famous to classic TV mavens for his part as one of the constantly-revolving-door of Number 2 big-wigs overseeing 'The Village', in the uber-cult series, The Prisoner, twice bedeviling Patrick McGoohan's Number Six, in the episodes, "The General" and "A, B and C".


Colette Wilde, Ronald Hines
Ronald Hines is another with a long resume, mostly in television, but also had some small parts in such films as Dunkirk (1958), The Two-Headed Spy (1958), The Angry Silence (1960), Whistle Down the Wind (1961), Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964), Young Winston (1972) and Rough Cut (1980). He did get major guest roles in color episodes of The Saint (Season Five's "The Paper Chase") and The Avengers (Season Five's "Murdersville"), and as Wendy Craig's husband, 'Henry', on the sitcom, Not in Front of the Children (1968-70), in the miniseries Elizabeth R (1971) and Napoleon and Love (1974), followed by smaller roles in the short-lived sci-fi series, Star Maidens (1975), We'll Meet Again (1982, another miniseries), Jack the Ripper (1988, starring Michael Caine) and the BBC/Masterpiece Theatre adaptation of Middlemarch (1994).  

Colette Wilde had a ten-year stretch of small parts on the big and small screens, from the early 1950s to the early 1960s. She's in the same segment of Three Cases of Murder as Maurice Kaufmann; plays the botched plastic surgery case (who's the wife of House of Mystery co-star John Merivale!) at the very beginning of Circus of Horrors; small bits in the intriguing thriller, The Silent Partner (1961), and Maroc 7 (1967); and can be seen as Nurse Jamieson, whom a bandaged Howard Keel flirts with, before the world goes blind, in the first few minutes of Day of the Triffids (1963). Larger roles were confined to a few second-feature crime thrillers: The Clue of the Twisted Candle (1960, part of Merton Park's Edgar Wallace series), The Professionals (1960), and The Night of the Prowler (1962). Like her House of Mystery co-stars, she was in several British TV series that were shot on tape and no longer exist, but what remains includes guest shots on William Tell ("The Trap"), H.G. Wells' Invisible Man ("Odds Against Death"), Danger Man ("The Girl in Pink Pajamas"), Ghost Squad ("High Wire"), and a couple of the Honor Blackman-era Avengers episodes (Season Two's "A Chorus of Frogs" and Season Three's "The Grandeur That Was Rome").


Scottish actress Molly Urquhart had a long career on the stage, before starting in films as a character actress, mainly in small parts. She can be seen as the mother of the body-building title character (Bill Travers) in Geordie (1956); as a prison matron in the Diana Dors death row drama, Blond Sinner (a.k.a. Yield to the Night); as Colin Gordon's secretary in the Donald Pleasance 'B' drama, The Big Day (1960, from Independent Artists, and the likely reason why she and Gordon were subsequently cast together in House of Mystery); in the oddball children's film, Digby, the Biggest Dog in the World (1973), and Don Siegel's underrated thriller, The Black Windmill (1974). Apparently a favorite of director Fred Zinnemann, she had small parts in several of his major, later films, including The Nun's Story (1959), The Sundowners (1960), Behold a Pale Horse (1964), A Man for All Seasons (1966) and Julia (1977). She also did a fair amount of TV work in the 1960s, the majority now lost, unfortunate victims of the common BBC practice of "wiping" videotaped programming for re-use in the 1970s. Of series still intact, she did have a recurring role as Flora, the house maid, in the children's historical adventure series, The Flaxton Boys (you can see her very briefly, in the linked episode, at the 5:07 mark), in its inaugural 1969 season.


John Merivale, looking like a dour, severe version of Roger Moore, also eventually figures in the film's plot. Born Canadian, his film credit list is short but interesting. He had a bit part as a newsboy in James Whale's The Invisible Man (1933), but was more involved in stage work and a stretch as an RAF pilot in World War II, followed by some parts on live television in the U.S. He got his next chance in film with a bit in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Battle of the River Plate (1956, a.k.a. The Pursuit of the Graf Spee), which led to roles as one of the affluent passengers in the memorable drama of the Titanic disaster, A Night to Remember (1958); the lead (!) in the Italian blob classic from Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava, Caltiki, The Immortal Monster (1959); the aforementioned Circus of Horrors (1960); the ill-fated title character in John Huston's The List of Adrian Messenger (1963, which co-starred his stepmother, the great Gladys Cooper); a smaller part in the POW camp drama, King Rat (1965); and as the cold assassin, Maj. Sloane, who kills George Coulouris with deadly eye-drops, in the opening scene of Stanley Donen's Hitchcockian spy thriller, Arabesque (1966). Off-screen, years after working with her on the stage in the late 1930s, he was Vivian Leigh's companion and caretaker during the troubled last decade of her life.



Cinematographer Ernest Steward worked mainly in mid-range and smaller features for the Rank Organization and others, but he did manage some nice, solid work (often for director Ralph Thomas), such as on the first few films of Dirk Bogarde's Doctor series (starting with Doctor in the House (1954)); Campbell's Kingdom (1957); A Tale of Two Cities (1958); the remake of Hitchcock's The 39 Steps (1959); The Wrong Arm of the Law (1960); The Face of Fu Manchu (1965) and its sequel, The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966); the Rod Taylor spy thriller, Nobody Runs Forever (1968, a.k.a. "The High Commissioner"); the two Bulldog Drummond-as-James-Bond features, Deadlier Than the Male (1967) and Some Girls Do (1969); several of the latter Carry On comedies of the late-1960s and early-1970s; the feature film version of Edward Woodward's excellent TV espionage series, Callan (1974); etc. On television, he shot several of the Emma Peel episodes of The Avengers (including the first, "The Town of No Return"), and later, acted as lighting cameraman on some episodes of The New Avengers and The Professionals.


Producers Leslie Parkyn and Julian Wintle formed the tiny Independent Artists film company in 1958. Most of their output consisted of B movies, usually hour-long crime melodramas, along with a few comedies (a couple of which were Julie Christie's first film roles), a few well-regarded horror films (Circus of Horrors, Night of the Eagle (1962, a.k.a. "Burn Witch Burn"), Unearthly Stranger (1963)) and a handful of documentary shorts, but they managed a few more highbrow productions. Notable was J.Lee Thompson's Tiger Bay (1958), which was the starring film debut of Hayley Mills; the Joseph Losey murder mystery, Chance Meeting (1959); the Peter Sellers comedy, Waltz of the Toreadors (1962); and especially This Sporting Life (1963), starring Richard Harris. IA also produced the filmed television psychiatry drama, The Human Jungle (1963-64), starring Herbert Lom, and which had a great title theme performed by John Barry. The studio closed shop after this, Julian Wintle would subsequently oversee production of the Emma Peel era of The Avengers, as well as the campy unsold TV-movie pilot, Madame Sin (1972), starring Bette Davis as a megalomaniacal super-villainess.


I'd first learned of House of Mystery from short entries in John Stanley's Creature Features Movie Guide, Leonard Maltin's long-running Movie & Video Guide and especially Phil Hardy's Encyclopedia of the Horror Movies. All recommended it, but it was a very difficult film for me to track down for a number of years. Understandable, what with no name stars, crew, or even easily-recognizable character actors to aid in marketing it, in addition to its very brief running time.

Rather than getting a theatrical release, House of Mystery originally ran in the U.S. as an episode of NBC's summer replacement series, Kraft Mystery Theater, which in its first season, used edited-down British second features as its programming. The subsequent couple of seasons featured filmed U.S. originals (and recycled episodes from previous anthology series) from Desilu and Revue studios, and eventually morphed into NBC's 1963-65 color anthology series from Revue, (Kraft) Suspense Theater (a.k.a. Crisis).

After many years, I finally got my chance at House of Mystery; Sinister Cinema found an old videotape source, riddled with glitches --but watchable (they noted the marginal quality in their catalog)... and put it out on a DVD-r. It didn't disappoint.


That release is no longer available, but has been supplanted with a quality presentation on Region 2 DVD from Network in the UK. The only hitch is that it is included (almost buried, in fact) as a bonus feature on Network's Edgar Wallace Mysteries Vol. 4 set. House of Mystery has nothing really to do with Edgar Wallace, but the disc producers wisely managed to include it anyway, as an example of a thriller made, concurrently, by a rival studio (Independent Artists, which did tackle a Wallace tale or two, at that time) of the company (Merton Park) making these quick-and-cheap-but-professional suspense films based on the popular author's stories.

I'll be covering a few of Independent Artists' other interesting theatrical releases in future blog entries, and perhaps some of the Merton Park adaptations of Wallace, as well.



"They're coming to sell to you, Barbara..."
"Mystery Date... are you ready for your Mystery Date? Choose your Fate... walk through this gate..."
"Will they be a scream... or a dud? --Mystery Date, from Built-in Badly."
"This is the city... Black Park, Slough, Buckinghamshire. I work here. I'm a bobby."
"Operation! --the wacky electrician's game!"
"I'm telling you, honey... I've rubbed it over a hundred and fifty times, and still no genie; I think we've been had."
"Reach out in the darrrk-nessss... reach out in the darrrk-nessss... and you may find a friennnnd..."

"A marathon of Honey Boo Boo re-runs?!? Oh my dear God, NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!"
"Now, please understand... it's not that Television is angry with you... just very disappointed..."









"My George Will impression needs work, doesn't it?"
"When I eat a York Peppermint Patty, I get the sensation... of communing with the spirits of the dead, in a musty old house!"
"Hylton hopes you've enjoyed your stay."












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