Sunday, September 6, 2009

House of Mystery (Monogram, 1934)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I eventually ran a movie last night: House of Mystery, a 1934 Monogram production more or less based on Adam Hull Shirk’s 1927 play The Ape — I say “more or less” because their 1940 film The Ape also claims a basis in Shirk’s play but the two plots have nothing in common except that they both involve murders committed both by a real ape and by a man in an ape suit. Just an hour long, House of Mystery was directed by William Nigh (his name in the credits caused both Charles and I to groan) from a script by Albert De Mond, and the first 20 minutes actually promised a genuinely interesting movie.

It starts with a scene in a bar filmed through a native grate — the opening title gives the location and date as “Asia, 1913,” and though the title doesn’t specify where in Asia it quickly emerges as India — and though this bit of Sternbergism doesn’t develop into much of anything, the scene is still interesting. Archaeologist John Prendergast (Clay Clement) has taken money from backers to do a scientific expedition, but what he’s really after is to steal as many golden artifacts as he can and cheat his backers from any profits, selling the objects and pocketing the proceeds. He’s somehow won the affections of Chanda (Laya Joy, described in the American Film Institute Catalog as “a well-known interpretive dancer”), a dancer in the local Hindu temple, even though his attitude towards the rest of the indigenous population consists of hurling racist epithets at them and backing them up with his whip. The priest of the temple where Chanda works (Brandon Hurst, one of only two cast members I’d actually heard of before) looks into his crystal ball (I’m not kidding!) and “reads” Prendergast’s character correctly, and Prendergast responds by trashing the temple and fleeing with Chanda’s aid.

The setting then moves 20 years forward to the U.S., where Prendergast — having since abbreviated his last name to “Pren” — is living on a large estate bought with his unearned profits, with Chanda still living with him. He’s also apparently disabled — at least he spends all his time (so far as we can see) in a wheelchair — and he’s nursed by a young woman named Ella Browning (Verna Hillie) — and he manages to maintain his incognito until Mrs. Potter (Mary Foy), the wife of one of the expedition’s backers, spots him and reports to her husband (Harry Bradley) that she’s seen him and they should challenge him to get their money back. They visit an attorney, who writes a letter to the other surviving expedition backers: insurance salesman Jack Armstrong (Ed Lowry, top-billed and looking far too young to have made an investment of any kind 20 years before!); wealthy hypochondriac Geraldine Carfax (Dale Fuller, veteran of some of Erich von Stroheim’s silents) and her companion, medium Stella Walters (Fritzi Ridgeway); and gambler David Fells (George Hayes). The letter demands that they assemble at the same time at Pren’s estate, whereupon he informs them he’ll give them the money if they agree to stay in his house for one week. Stella sets up a séance to contact the Indian god Kali (annoyingly pronounced “KAY-lye” throughout the whole film — at least the Beatles’ movie Help! got the correct pronunciation, “Kaah-LEE”), and during the event tom-tom drums are heard, the lights go out and Geraldine Carfax is found murdered.

From this point the movie disintegrates from 20 minutes of relatively exciting melodramatic thriller into a remaining 40 minutes of typical William Nigh-directed snooze-fest, as more down-cast characters get killed; Fells is found dead inside an ape suit; but the other murders, it turns out, are being committed by a real ape whom Pren, who’s actually not crippled at all, has been hiding in the closet and has trained to kill at the sound of drums — only when Pren declares his love for his nurse (who in the meantime has fallen in love with Armstrong, mainly because they’re the only two young people in the cast!) Chanda decides to sic the ape on him, killing him, helping Scotland Yard inspector Ned Pickens (Irving Bacon) solve the case before he’s recalled to his native country, and setting up a happy ending. House of Mystery is yet another one of those annoying bad movies that has a good movie locked inside it struggling to get out, but the slovenliness of Nigh’s direction (at least in the final two-thirds of the film) and the risibility of the plot complications of De Mond’s script (especially towards the end as he starts to resolve his various plot lines) make this one just plain dull despite a professionally competent cast — at least some of these actors deserved better than to be forgotten in a film like this!