The House of Fear (1945)

house-of-fear_posterSherlock Holmes and Dr Watson are off to a remote part of Scotland to investigate the peculiar goings on at Drearcliff House, a gloomy old mansion where its inhabitants are all starting to receive mysterious threats before dying. Has their group insurance policy got something to do with it?

Dr Watson: I’m sorry I’m late. I didn’t sleep very well.
Sherlock Holmes: Didn’t sleep very well? You snored like a pig!

The following review is offered for Todd Mason’s Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme over at his fab Sweet Freedom blog.

Universal Sherlock Holmes # 8
Conan Doyle Source: The Adventure of the Five Orange Pips (1891)
Sample dialogue: “Murder is an insidious thing. Once a man has dipped his fingers in blood, sooner or later he’ll feel the urge to kill again.”
Original filming dates: Starting 9 May 1945
Sherlock in disguise: no
Universal’s Baker Street Regulars: One of the joys of this series is spotting the appearances of the various members of the stock company of supporting actors who appeared throughout the series in a variety of roles, sometimes as villains and sometimes as victims. In this one we have: Harry ‘The Henchman’ Cording (7/8) in one his most substantial roles as the pipe-smoking Captain; Gavin Muir as the insurance agent; and Paul Cavanagh as a very sinister doctor.

The original story: 

Holmes is asked by John Openshaw to investigate a threatening letter that has arrived containing five orange pips, with the initials ‘KKK’ on the outside. This it turns out has happened before, to his uncle and his father, in both cases leading to the death of the recipient. Holmes sends Openshaw home and learns that he was killed shortly after. The case ultimately proves to involve material that could harm men in the upper echelons of the Ku Klux Klan. Although the tale is a bit thin and one element, the use of the KKK initials, will be no mystery at all to modern readers, I’ve always liked this story just for the fact that it is set in Horsham, West Sussex, which is where my mother and her family came from and where I spent many a happy Summer as a youngster.

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The Film

Originally planned under a much better title, The Murder Club, this film is lots of fun but its very generic title really is very indicative of the product as a whole. We have a scary house at the top of a cliff, a sinister servant (Sally Shepherd) who creeps around making odd pronouncements,  a stormy night, yokels, foolish policemen, secret passages, etc, etc. The plot of the movie has nothing to do with the original story – instead, we have our duo hired by an insurance company to find out who is trying to kill off the seven members of a club, ‘The Good Comrades,’ who all live together in a lonely old clifftop manor in the wilds of Scotland, the death of the men presaged by the delivery to them of the eponymous pips. Bizarrely, the insurance company seems to be happy to keep paying out on each individual policy seemingly within minutes of the deaths being reported! No wonder they decide to ask Holmes to intervene … Holmes is particularly interested in the case because one of the men, Merrivale (Paul Cavanagh), was previously accused of murder but got away with it.

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Inspector Lestrade: I like big solid clues and people I can question

In many ways, the best and worst aspects of the film are summed up in a single five-minute sequence, in which Dr Watson has been left to guard the surviving inhabitants of the house while Lestrade and Holmes investigate a murder in the village. A violent storm batters the house with rain and lightning and the doctor becomes increasingly befuddled and ultimately starts shooting the place up, having convinced himself that he is surrounded. The house at night is beautifully shot and is just how you want a spooky old house in a 1940s movie to look like –  but Watson is also at his most comical and foolish. So we have bags of atmosphere, but an approach to story and character that is pretty much playing it all for easy laughs and effects.

Sherlock Holmes: This is a most unique case. Instead of too few we have too many clues and too many suspects. The main pattern of the puzzle seems to be forming, but the pieces don’t fit in.

It is nice to see Harry ‘The Henchman’ Cording get such a substantial role in the film as the ex-sea captain with a taste for very peculiar tobacco. On the other hand, as the mild-mannered leader of the house, Aubrey Mather is portrayed in such a stupid way as to suggest that he must be suffering from a  severe form of mental impairment!

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The ending is a terrific surprise , it has to be said, but is also incredibly silly. I don’t want to include spoilers here, but I think most viewers will be able to drive a herd of elephants through the central hole in the plot and on which the whole story depends, unfortunately. There are some nice jokes though, such a funeral in which one of the villagers decries the death as his friend was ‘in the flower of his manhood’ – only for Watson to discover that the the dead man was 72! On the other hand, a sequence in which Watson is digging up a grave and ends up mistaking an owl’s hoots for Holmes’ voice is very daft indeed.

Sherlock Holmes: At the moment I suspect no one and everyone.

There are lots of messy deaths though the ending tends to undermine this, while Lestrade and Watson prove particularly thick throughout, though this is a movie that is not taking itself even remotely seriously – so if you are in the mood for a black comedy featuring Holmes and Watson, then maybe this is the one for you. I’m less convinced though, so all in all, this movie is a bit of a disappointment, despite its many incidental pleasures – certainly producer/director Roy William Neill and his technical team do their best to paper over the cracks with lashings of Gothic atmosphere – but one wishes they had come up with a better plot and made Watson just a bit less of a buffoon, though it is nice that it is actually he, rather than Holmes, who solves the case at the end.

For my dedicated microsite on the Universal Sherlock Holmes series, click here.

DVD Availability: Available in terrific editions on DVD and Blu-ray the world over, derived from the restorations made by UCLA. All look decent – some, such as The House of Fear, look  pretty good, though the first and fifth reels are noticeably faded and battered in comparison to the rest of the film, which looks tip top! Things aren’t helped by a surprisingly low bitrate on my Koch Blu-ray. None the less, most of the time it looks fab.

The House of Fear (1945)
Director: Roy William Neill
Producer: Roy William Neill
Screenplay: Roy Chanslor
Cinematography: Virgil Miller
Art Direction: John B. Goodman, Eugene Lourie
Music: Paul Sawtell, Frank Skinner (theme music)
Cast: Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes), Nigel Bruce (Dr Watson), Dennis Hooey (Inspector Lestrade), Aubrey Mather, Sally Shepherd, Gavin Muir, Harry Cording, Paul Cavanagh

***** (2.5 fedora tips out of 5)

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This entry was posted in Arthur Conan Doyle, London, Scotland, Sherlock Holmes, Tuesday's Overlooked Film and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

43 Responses to The House of Fear (1945)

  1. You know, it’s funny, Sergio. I very much enjoyed the story of The Five Orange Pips, but I don’t think I’d want it done with such a light touch. Hmm…. You have an excellent review here, as ever. But this is one of those that strike me as a bit too far from the spirit of the original, if that makes any sense at all.

  2. Colin says:

    I like this film a bit better than you do, Sergio, and consequently tend to cut it more slack. You’re right in your criticism of Watson’s dedicated buffoonery here but I just find Bruce such an endearing figure I’m prepared to tolerate a lot of that kind of stuff, see also Lestrade.
    Sure the story is a lot of nonsense yet it is packed with that Gothic atmosphere, and I’ll freely admit I’m a sucker for that kind of thing. So yes, it’s got loads of faults but it has always given me a lot of pleasure too.
    Good to see you digging back into these Holmes movies again.

    • Thanks Colin – I remember you saying that it was a favourite. It is loads of fun no question but when compared with the others in the series up to that point, well …

      • Colin says:

        I do know where you’re coming from with this. It is the very definition of hokey and I wouldn’t try to deny that, it mixes up he goofiness and atmosphere to the point you’re half expecting Bob Hope or Abbot & Costello to saunter on screen at some stage. So yes, it does drift away from the other mid-series entries. Like I said, however, it works for me but I’m well aware it’s not going to be enjoyed by everyone.

        • Tonally it certainly feels quite different from SH FACES DEATH for instance, which to me is the one this resembles most. But it is beautifully shot and highly amusing too – and there should be a variety of approaches to the material. Maybe I just wish that Watson had a stooge so he didn’t have to be quick so thick and blustery all the time …

          • Colin says:

            Yeas, I think Lestrade was there to kind of fulfill that function at times but, as in this entry, it could simply end up as a duel of buffoons.

          • The bit when he gets locked in the closet certainly doesn’t bode well for Lestrade’s chances for promotion … Still not sure why he was omitted from the next one one in the series (review out soonish, even if it kills me!)

          • Colin says:

            Woman in Green, right? I haven’t seen it in an age so I’ll try to fit in a viewing before you post anything. But don’t let it kill you!

          • Yup, that’s the feller! Whatever happens at fedora this year, including death, pestilence and so on, I have to finish the Universal Holmes and the McBains!!!!

          • Colin says:

            As long as you’re getting some pleasure from what you’re reading and/or watching, then that’s all that matters. Writing about it can be fun but if it’s more of a chore then the other stuff needs to take precedence. And that helps keep other life type troubles from becoming too overwhelming as well. Anyway, enough with my wise words/platitudes (delete as appropriate) for now!

          • Quite right mate. And, as always, greatly appreciated. (PS SPRINGFIELD RIFLE has made its way off the shelf and will probably get viewed at my parents’ place on Sunday).

          • Colin says:

            Hope you like it. Just keep your expectations on the modest end of the scale.

          • Will do mate, will do! Of course, if my Dad nods off, then all plans go south …

          • Colin says:

            Just take it as it comes, bro…

        • Todd Mason says:

          I think this is where Rex Stout managed an improvement on the Holmes model…Nero Wolfe’s detective assistant and chief somewhat friendly adversary in the police didn’t need to be dense to be not as intelligent as Wolfe…

  3. Brad says:

    It doesn’t reach the heights of SH and the Scarlet Claw, but I have always enjoyed this one for its “surprising but silly” ending! Thanks for reminding me to watch it again, Sergio!

  4. Santosh Iyer says:

    I haven’t seen this film, but I find that it is available on you tube.

  5. I love Rathbone as Holmes and I could happily watch him in anything, however silly the plot. But I do wish they hadn’t made Watson quite such a buffoon – it would have made these films much more bearable!

    • Yup, I’m with you Karen, especially because Nigel Bruce is great casting and could have easily played it differently if asked to – and indeed, the two Victorian era films they made have him as a more obviously sober fellow. Trouble is, inevitably, the desire will be to great a greater contrast as possible between the protagonists …

  6. Mike says:

    Good stuff Sergio. I watched this one as a kid and it was one of my favourites at the time because the twist completely suckered me in and I loved its reveal! Watched more recently and obviously it isn’t as good. There’s a sense of everyone going through the motions ever so slightly, the main performers playing to their tropes and a plot that ticks the usual boxes without ever offering anything special… And yet it drips with atmosphere, it’s a lot of fun and packs a lot into its economical running time. Not among the series’ best, but not a lot that’s wrong with it either.

    • Thanks for that Mike – there was a time when I probably could have pointed to another 20 or so spooky old house mysteries from the 40s and given you chapter and verse on their relative merits (or lack thereof) but it is all starting to get a bit hard to retrieve nowadays to be honest. As Colin mentioned, if Olsen and Johnson turned up it would all make a lot of sense. Useful maybe to compare it with the Mike Shayne film, The Man who Wouldn’t Die, which uses the standing ‘spooky old house set’ on the Fox lot that got a lot of mileage in the 1940s (UNDYING MONSTER and DR RENAULT’S SECRET and their last Chan, CASTLE IN THE DESERT) which is also beautifully lit but takes a fairly jokey tone, though to me this makes more sense with Shayne, who is played as a wisecracking private eye.

  7. Patti Abbott says:

    I doubt that I have ever seen this one.

  8. Sergio – Thanks for the review. I am in the camp with those who find the whole series a lot of fun, and who can overlook the lame comedy flaws. I saw them all on TV as a kid, and now I still enjoy them and really appreciate the craftsmanship that produced that atmosphere.

  9. I’m sure I saw this years ago – and your v funny description makes me want to see it again, with all its faults.

  10. Never seen a Basil Rathbone plays Sherlock Holmes film yet. I have been off Holmes for a long time now, book and film. Perhaps, it’s time to revisit one or both.

  11. tracybham says:

    If you keep featuring these, maybe I will finally get to watching some of them. Even with its faults this one sounds appealing. I have some of these on the Netflix queue, but there are only so many movies and tv shows one can watch (and get some reading done too).

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