Saturday, January 11, 2014

House of Mystery (1961)

... aka: Das Landhaus des Dr. Lemming (The Country House of Dr. Lemming)

Directed by:
Vernon Sewell

One can't get their hopes up too high when the opening credits contain the four words "Directed by Vernon Sewell." Not to come down too hard on this guy, but his track record in Brit horror is pretty weak, especially considering the amount of talent he frequently got to work with. I'll always associate Mr. Sewell with two films in particular. The first is THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR (1968), a poor and sometimes downright inept monster movie which was such an unpleasant experience for stars Peter Cushing and Robert Flemyng that both lambasted the film in later interviews. Flemyng didn't have many nice things to say about the film nor the director, while Cushing would go on record as calling it the worst film he'd ever appeared in. The second and more distressing film as far as lost opportunities are concerned was the occult chiller THE CRIMSON CULT (1968). It's one thing to make a crappy horror film, but it's another thing to have actors Christopher Lee, Boris Karloff, Barbara Steele and Michael Gough at your disposal and still make a crappy horror film. Other than that, Sewell was responsible for the blandly passably Ghost Ship (1952) and a few other genre offerings I've not yet seen like The Ghosts of Berkeley Square (1947) and The Horrors of Burke and Hare (1972). House of Mystery, currently coming it at a 6.6 / 10, is his highest rated horror film on IMDb. Taking that into consideration I was hoping this would rise above the rest of his work. The good news is that it does. The not-so-good news it that it doesn't by all that much.

Alan (Ronald Hines) and his new wife (Colette Wilde) are looking into buying a home and stumble upon a deal that's too good to be true. Orchard Cottage is a large country estate on the market for just 2500 dollars and, though it'll need some thorough cleaning, that's still an absolute steal. But just why is it so cheap? Well, soft-spoken caretaker Stella (Jane Hylton) is pretty blunt about its reputation: "No one's taken it because of the ghost." She then goes into a series of flashbacks explaining the home's sordid history. Once a farm house, Orchard Cottage was purchased by eccentric hermit and electronics expert / engineer Mark Lemming (Peter Dyneley), who converted it all over to electricity. There was a rumor going around town that Mark's wife was having an affair with Clive Mayhew (John Merivale); a family friend who was staying with them. Both the wife and the friend mysteriously disappeared and, six months later, Mark himself was found dead; ironically electrocuted to death. It was written off as an accident in the coroner's report, a distant relative inherited the place and then turned around and sold it to young couple Harry (Maurice Kaufmann) and June (Nanette Newman) Trevor. It isn't long before strange and creepy things begin happening in the home.

The lights constantly flicker on and off, but inspection by an electrician proves there's nothing wrong with the wiring. June spots a man standing by the window in the living room, but he promptly disappears. The same man's image shows up on a TV screen, but a call to the TV station to verify it proves that no such man was on the program they were watching. Psychic investigator Mr. Burdon (Colin Gordon) shows up armed with all kinds of gadgets to help. Using a camera and light meter, he's able to pick up on strange vibrations in the living room where most of the supernatural events have been taking place. A photograph of Mark Lemming confirms their worst fears: the dead man is the same man they've been spotting around the house. Burdon calls in psychic Mrs. Bucknall (Molly Urquhart) to have a séance and then we get involved in a flashback-inside-a-flashback detailing Mark's revenge against his wife and her lover, who were both plotting to kill him for his money.

Mystery runs just 54 minutes, played as a second feature in British cinemas and was also screened in Germany under the title Das Landhaus des Dr. Lemming ("The Country House of Dr. Lemming"). Because of its compact run-time, it turned up here in America as an episode of the TV series "Kraft Mystery Theatre." Though modest, ultimately predictable and nothing spectacular, it's well-acted and at least manages to maintain interest in several different ways. First, there are some interesting and well-thought-out scientific explanations for the ghostly phenomena as opposed to the then-typical "it is what it is" matter-of-fact approach. Second, the instruments used by Mr. Burdon to sniff out the presence of ghosts - which are pretty much the norm in numerous films and TV reality shows like "Ghost Hunters" and "Ghost Adventures" these days - were fresh concepts when this was made. Finally, how the engineer goes about getting his revenge is pretty ingenious. Apparently this was based (sans credit) on a play called "L'Angoisse" written by Pierre Mills and Celia de Vylars, which Sewell had already adapted two other times; as the short The Medium in 1934 and as the feature Latin Quarter (aka Frenzy) in 1945.



CavedogRob said...

I remember this playing on TV in the late '60's at odd hours in the morning but I've never seen it. Some day I might. You are absolutely right about the director and The Crimson!

The Bloody Pit of Horror said...

This one is pretty tough to find. I don't think it's ever had a VHS or DVD release here in America, but just last year it was put out in the UK in a box set called Edgar Wallace Mysteries Volume 4, which is odd because it has nothing to do with Wallace.

George Williams said...

To watch this again after all those of remembering it from Kraft Mystery Theater, I had to order a copy from a private seller in England. It wouldn't work on US DVD, so I had to watch it on the computer.

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