Tuesday, October 25, 2016

THE TERROR (1938)

A notoriously mythic criminal named O'Shea masterminds the theft of a huge shipment of gold coins; in the middle of the night, he pumps knockout gas onto the back road the truck is on, causing the drivers to pass out while he and his two men, Connor and Marx, all wearing gas masks, make away with the gold. But O'Shea himself calls Scotland Yard and turns the men in; they go to jail and the mysterious O'Shea (whose face we never see) keeps the entire stash. Ten years later, Connor and Marx are released and head off, independently of each other, to the place where they were supposed to split the gold, an old priory used in secret, it was rumored, by a devil-worshipping group called the Black Monks.

Now, it's a home owned by Colonel Redmayne who rents out rooms to boarders. Currently in residence: Mr. Goodman, an old friend of Redmayne's; the slightly dotty Mrs. Elvery, who claims to be psychic, and her more level-headed daughter; Redmayne's daughter Mary, returning to see her father after years away at school; a generally unflappable butler named Hawkins and a couple of maids. Mrs. Elvery is sure there are strange things going on, especially after she is awakened in the night by organ playing and chortling laughter, but Redmayne wants to shut down any wild rumors in the interest of his daughter's comfort. But the arrival of two unexpected guests may be just as disruptive: a man named Ferdy Fane who is constantly drunk, and a vicar—whom we know to be Marx, one of the two recently-freed crooks, in disguise. Soon, more midnight organ playing and mysterious monk sightings unsettle the guests until dead bodies start to pile up. Could one of the residents be O'Shea in disguise trying to keep the secret of his gold?

Based on an Edgar Wallace novel, this is a well-made B-thriller of the "old dark house" variety, filled with interesting characters and good performances. The creepy atmosphere could have been kicked up a notch, but overall it's a fun ride. Bernard Lee, best known as the original "M" in the early James Bond films, is the drunk, who, it is painfully obvious from his first scene, is not really drunk and instead will be Our Hero—and romantic partner to Mary (Linden Travers). Wilfrid Lawson is Goodman, who is full of spooky stories about the old priory, and who also comes on, rather out of the blue, to Mary; Arthur Wontner, best known for a series of B-movies he made as Sherlock Holmes, is the Colonel; Iris Hoey does very nicely as the obnoxious Mrs. Elvrey who keeps proclaiming, "I'm psychic!" at the drop of a hat. The delightful Kathleen Harrison has a small bit as a maid. Best of all is Alastair Sim (pictured at right with Bernard Lee) as the crook Marx—even though he has fairly low billing in the credits, he has a good-sized role and steals a couple of scenes in that way he has. There's a good running gag about a tall, skinny cop who keeps trying to make suggestions to the chief inspector and keeps getting sushed before he can get very far. A scene near the end, of the mad monk at the organ, was clearly inspired by Phantom of the Opera, and other dark house clich├ęs abound. Not easy to find, but fun. [Amazon streaming]

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