Monday, August 29, 2016

The Terror (1938)

Few authors have had more films adapted from their work than Edgar Wallace. As late as the 1960s, thirty years after his death, Wallace adaptations were still extremely common and extremely popular. The Terror, based on one of his plays, is a lively 1938 British production that owes something (in fact quite a lot) to the Old Dark House genre so popular at the time.

The story starts with a daring and brilliant gold robbery. Joe Connor (Henry Oscar) and Soapy Marx (Alastair Sim) were sent down for ten years as a result but the mysterious mastermind behind the robbery was never apprehended and the gold was never recovered. Now Connor and Marx are out of prison and they want their share of the gold.

They suspect the answer will be found in the rambling old house of Colonel Redmayne (Arthur Wontner). The Colonel is using the house as a guest house and the inhabitants are an odd lot. There’s Mrs Elvery (Iris Hoey), who claims to have psychic powers, and her mousy daughter Veronica (Lesley Wareing). There’s the Colonel’s old friend Goodman (Wilfred Lawson) and there’s habitual drunkard Ferdy Fane (Bernard Lee). There’s also the Colonel’s daughter Mary (Linden Travers). And more guests seem to keep arriving, including a slightly dotty clergyman.

Naturally murder soon follows. In fact several murders. Superintendent Halleck of Scotland Yard is on the case, assisted by Inspector Dobie (Edward Lexy). They are perplexed and at first can make no connection with the gold robbery. One thing that is apparent is that the inhabitants of the house are not necessarily all that they appear to be.

This is a lighthearted mystery romp and it has the trappings one expects from a Wallace story. The house is a former priory and of course it has its secrets. Secret passageways are suspected, there is a crypt beneath the house (now bricked up) and a spooky tomb in the grounds. Strange noises are heard and sinister monkish figures are seen lurking about. There are more modern touches as well - poison gas and dynamite.

The diabolical criminal mastermind behind it all remains shrouded in mystery. It might have been better if he’d been given more of an opportunity to strut his stuff. Mind you, once he gets going he certainly makes up for lost time.

Alastair Sim, not yet a star, has only a supporting role but being Alastair Sim he manages to steal every scene in which he appears. Bernard Lee looks impossibly young and has to appear drunk in nearly every scene, which he manages with mixed success. Linden Travers and Lesley Wareing get to do a fair amount of screaming and fainting. Wilfred Lawson makes the most of his role as well. It’s a solid and professional cast.

This is a low-budget feature but looks reasonably impressive with some suitably gothic-tinged sets. The opening robbery sequences are done quite well.

This was the start of Richard Bird’s brief career as a director (although he had a more distinguished career as a character actor). He brings enough energy to the proceedings to keep things interesting. William Freshman’s script is adequate if occasionally obscure.

There is a slightly stage-bound feel to the film but Old Dark House movies always do tend to be somewhat stagey.

Network’s Region 2 DVD is barebones but the transfer is pretty good considering the movie’s age and obscurity.

The Terror is lightweight but good-natured fun. The danger with this genre is that the comedy can overwhelm the suspense but that’s not the case here. This is a thoroughly enjoyable potboiler with an excellent cast and with just a hint of horror as an added bonus. Highly recommended. 

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