As the late 1950s faded into the early 1960s, perhaps the two most interesting things happening anywhere in horror cinema (change "perhaps" to "absolutely" if we limit the conversation to the English-speaking world) were the heavy shift over to Gothic horror pictures made by Britain's Hammer Film Productions, and the brief but intense and unbelievably charming cycle of "gimmick films" made by director-producer William Castle in Hollywood, mostly for Columbia Pictures. There's really nothing in common between these two brands other than the raw fact of their chronological proximity (also, they both made multiple Psycho knock-offs), but it probably makes a kind of sense that they'd be put into contact with each other. Especially given that Columbia was Hammer's primary distributor in the United States at this point, and sometime co-financier, and Castle was a very reliable moneymaker for the studio. At least, I have to imagine it was at Columbia's instigation that Castle ended up working with Hammer producer Anthony Hinds on a remake of the 1932 Universal Pictures filmΒ The Old Dark House (though officially, it's a new adaptation of the source novel, J.B. Priestley's 1928 Benighted); it's presumably a sign of the companies' respective enthusiasm for the project that it was released by Columbia in America in October 1963, but Hammer didn't get around to releasing it in the UK until September 1966.

But let's stick with the point, anyway. Castle and Hammer, two very particular & very different practitioners of the art of horror cinema, working together for the first and only time. And why not? Sometimes, two seemingly incompatible things getting mashed together turn out to produce something sublime & good from the exciting creative friction, throwing into relief the greatest strengths of each. You know, sometimes the impossible happens, and we get the Bing Crosby/David Bowie "Little Drummer Boy".

On the other hand, sometimes we get The Ethel Merman Disco Album. And despite all my prattle there, it's absolutely no shock that the Castle-Hammer The Old Dark House is much more in that line. After all, there's British, and there's British; there's American, and there's American. And both halves of this particular partnership are quintessentially italicised. Hammer, for all its run-ins with the censors who viewed its output as uniquely depraved and decadent, really cannot be imagined anywhere else in the world: where but the UK do you get that exact mixture of traditional weight and Old World gravity with a certain flat pragmatism and lack of poetry, topped off by the sweaty lustful prudery of a schoolboy who is very excited to see young woman with large bosoms, and very horrified by the thought that other people might discover this about him. To put it another way, the culture that produced both the Church of England and Benny Hill could only ever have its national horror cinema take the form of the prurient conservatism and transgressive classicism of Hammer Films. And as for Castle, that's easy: he embodies the American's loudness, jokey insincerity, love of kitsch, and admiration for the big con. In the industry that more than any other runs primarily on pure hucksterism, I don't know of a bigger huckster than Castle - the guarantor of life insurance policies for anyone who died of fright during Macabre, the mind behind The Tingler's "Percepto" and House on Haunted Hill's "Emergo", a man whose occasional onscreen appearances reveal that he was overjoyed by all the silly bullshit they let him get with, more than even the most indiscriminate 8-year-old in the Saturday matinee audience could ever imagine being.

Where in God's name there was meant to be affinity between the stately gloom of Hammer Film and the braying ebullience of the man who interrupted the climax of his 1961 Psycho knock-off Homicidal with a 45-second "fright break" to allow the more tender-hearted members of the audience to safely vacate the theater, that I cannot even start to say. But since I'm at 650 words and I haven't said anything else about The Old Dark House than its title, I suppose I should get into it. It's the absolute nadir of both Castle's and Hammer's horror films, how's that for something to say? I mean, it's a reckless claim - I haven't seen close to every Hammer horror picture, and some of the ones I've missed are supposed to be real stinkers - but it's easy to be reckless in the face of a film as totally devoid of positive characteristics as The Old Dark House. Do I say "totally?" Then I am reckless again, for there is the matter of the sets, designed by Hammer's guy Bernard Robinson, proving as always that when all else fails, a Hammer film still knows how to get the best bang for its buck in production design. And there are no fewer than three good jokes, of which the best is Robert Morley admiring a painting of his ancestor, Robert Morley as a pirate.

The script, by Robert Dillon (who also wrote Castle's film immediately prior to this one, 13 Frightened Girls), is a ramshackle mess, at least partially on purpose. Tom Penderel (Tom Poston) is an American selling cars in England - which makes him at least kind of a decent surrogate for the director, really - and living in a strange room-sharing arrangement where he sleeps at night in the apartment occupied during the day by one Caspar Femm (Peter Bull). Caspar has finally arranged to have the two "roommates" cross paths, when he invites Tom to his club in order to buy a car, requesting that it be delivered to an, as it were, old dark house out in the country. Here, Tom finds the rest of the extremely eccentric Femm clan: apparent leader Roderick (Morley), a gun fanatic; knitting fiend Agatha (Joyce Grenfell), mother to Caspar and his twin brother Jasper (Bull); apocalypse theorist Potiphar (Mervyn Johns); nymphomaniac Morgana (Fenella Fielding), daughter of unspeaking psycho Morgan (Danny Green); and last, the most normal one, Cecily (Janette Scott), with whom Tom is instantly smitten. He also finds that Caspar has died sometime in the last several hours, and all the other Femms are rather idly certain it's murder.

For it turns out the family has an kind of materialist cure; their ancestor, Captain Morgan, infamous pirate, decided on his deathbed to attach a peculiar proviso to his fortune. No future member of his family could receive their income from his enormous fortune unless they lived in the house he built in the most landlocked part of Devonshire, and gathered in its central room every night at midnight. By this odd rule, Morgan intended to prevent any of his heirs from sailing the high seas to live a dissolute life like the one he abandoned. And since the income is doled out proportionately, every living Femm has an extremely obvious reason to wish to be the only one to maintain their inheritance, with the death of all the others being the most obvious way to increase each share. That's busy enough, but Roderick is the first to notice that Tom has a more than passing resemblance to Morgan's portrait, and to suspect that the car salesman might be part of the distaff American branch of the family, long rumored to exist but never encountered for certain.

This has very little to do with the '32 film, and I cannot say how much it has to do with Benighted, but it at least has the merit of putting a whole menagerie of crazies at each other's throats. There's something there; or, at least, there could be. As it stands, The Old Dark House does very little besides rotate Tom through encounters with one or two Femms at a time, as Castle stages brutally unfunny slapstick routines to smack Poston around. The supporting cast is at least tolerable, with everybody leaning into the zaniness of their characters (Morley is by far the best; Fielding is a decent second, owing in large part to her bizarre, enormous hairdo and manic sexuality, though she's somewhat undone by the film's insistence on framing her in shots to draw more attention to her breasts than her acting. This feels more like a Hammer thing than a Castle thing). Poston just kills it, though: he's got no comic timing and really no other trick as an actor than to look suitably agog when something wacky happens. Over the course of the film's 86 minutes, that agog look will wear pretty fucking thin.

Frankly, the other person who turns out to have no comic timing, I am heartbroken to say, is William Castle himself. I haven't seen his earlier pure comedy, 1962's Zotz! (also starring Poston), so I don't know how much of what I'm about to speculate is true, but I think this might be a case where he can be funny as hell only as long as he's not telling you he's funny. House on Haunted Hill and The Tingler are campy as all hell, but look them straight in the eye and they'll assure you that nope, they're just horror pictures. In those films, and some of his others, there's a vague sense of getting away with it; all those gimmicks and all those corny plot twists and all that Vincent Price makes his best work feel like he was pranking Columbia or Allied Artists, and they were sighing and letting him have his way. Even though 1963-era Hammer was a pretty much totally humor-averse place, so making a comedy there should feel transgressive, The Old Dark House never pretends to be anything but silly froth, pile of dead bodies or no. It lacks even the veneer of sincerity, and perhaps that veneer is what Castle needed to give his goofball flights of fancy their snap. By all means, this is a far worse Hammer film than it is a Castle film; but somehow, it is the Castle fan in me that's more disappointed. Hammer making a murder comedy sounds terrible, but Castle making a murder comedy sounds like it's got some potential, and for the results to be this shrilly anti-funny, this flatly-paced, and this all-around stupid is actually kind of heartbreaking.