The last of these Crestwood House books I found is also the other one that covers a movie I’ve never seen. In this case, that’s Joe May’s 1939 film House of Fear, itself a remake of Paul Leni’s 1928 film The Last Warning, which was an adaptation of a stage play of the same name that was, itself, an adaptation of a story with this film’s title, written by Wadsworth Camp, who was the father of Madeleine L’Engle.
“The people who bought tickets probably thought they were going to see a horror film,” the authors say in the book, by way of introduction. “They knew that most of the films with similar names took place in haunted houses. In addition, Universal was famous for movies about monsters, vampires, and werewolves.” (Less the werewolves in 1939, since only Werewolf of London had hit screens by then, and The Wolf Man wasn’t coming until the following year, but we’ll let them have it.)
“The audiences must have been surprised,” the authors continue. That seems somewhat unlikely, given the fare that surrounded House of Fear was frequently of this “murder mystery by way of Scooby-Doo variety,” and such old dark house films and plays had been de rigueur for years by ’39. It’s a good way to distinguish House of Fear from the other books in this set, though.
This isn’t a monster movie, nor even a gothic in the House of Seven Gables vein. Instead, this is very much a whodunit, just that the “who” in question wants the characters – just as the filmmakers want the audience – to believe that there’s a ghost loose in the theatre, until the mask is pulled off the proverbial Old Man Withers at the end.
It starts with a murder during a live production of a stage play. Then, the corpse vanishes, as corpses were so often wont to do in these old movies. “A dead body can’t walk away, can it?” one of the characters says. From there, the action jumps forward a year. The theatre has been sitting empty, because anytime anyone tries to put on a play in it, there are ghostly happenings that scare everyone off.
We’re treated to some of these spectral goings-on, such as an impossible phone call from a disconnected phone (“You didn’t talk to anyone on this phone,” the phone company rep tells our lead. “It’s as dead as a graveyard.”) We just hear about others, such as the genuinely creepy story of an actor looking through the keyhole into the murdered man’s dressing room and seeing the body “rolling around on the floor.”
Because this is a whodunit with an ultimately naturalistic explanation (even if they never bother to explain how the bad guys pulled off things like the phantom phone call), we have to establish a number of possible motives for potential perpetrators, while also telling both the story of the detective pretending to be a Broadway producer in order to catch the killer, and sprinkling in the eerie happenings that are meant to convince us there really is a ghost.
All of which means that House of Fear actually feels unusually dense compared to the other books in this set, even though I don’t think it’s any longer.
I’ve seen a lot of people argue that the film itself is a minor effort, especially compared to its silent predecessor, but I love these kinds of spooky whodunits, and the book makes it sound like something I’ll really enjoy, whenever I finally get to see it! Until then, I’ve got this nice little book…