Network Releasing has for many years now excelled in distributing to the public TV treasures from a rich and expansive archive of classic drama, comedy and children’s series which together form a legacy built up over decades of British broadcasting history. The company has been responsible for disinterring, and, in some cases, restoring to pristine condition many a cult item or dimly remembered series’ from those still to be found lurking deep inside the television Industry’s dustiest vaults. But Network’s latest project aims to perform a similar act of resurrection on some of the most rarely visited corners of the British Film Industry, with a new monthly programme of DVD and Blu-ray releases designed to raise awareness of a host of obscure or hard-to-get British-made titles that encompass a wide range of genres and which are to be made available in re-mastered editions -- often for the first time. Each release has been selected from over eight decades of British film, covering many of the lesser known works produced and distributed by the likes of Gaumont-British, Gainsborough, Ealing, British Lion, Anglo-Amalgamated, Rank, London Films, EMI and a great many others.
“The Terror” is a breezy, monochrome mystery-cum-horror treasure from one of the most frequently traduced quarters of British film production: the infamous, so-called ‘quota quickie. A plethora of examples from this rarely discussed category of early talkie began appearing on British cinema screens during the 1930s, produced from 1927 onwards as a direct result of the introduction of the Cinematograph Films Act: Government legislation which required a certain proportion of films screened by exhibitors in the UK to be made on home turf in order to combat cultural dominance by the buoyant American market during the years immediately following the First World War, when production of home-grown pictures fell as low as five per cent. The unintended result of this state attempt to boost the industry, though, was to create a flood of cheap, often poor quality films that at one point accounted for as much as half of all British output. Ironically, the majority were commissioned by American distributors as second feature programme filler material and made simply to comply with the letter of the law while not posing a threat to US renters’ own more prestigiously mounted imports -- which had usually already proved a box office success at home.
Although the dominance of the quota quickie has often since been used to buttress the perception that, outside of the work of a few visionaries such as Alfred Hitchcock and Alexander Korda, British cinema in the 1930s largely remained mired in low grade fare and produced little that was worthy of note, some of the many pictures produced under the quota system have recently begun to receive a degree of critical re-evaluation, and the system certainly did provide some fertile soil in which a nascent British horror genre was eventually able to set down some tentative roots.
The other indispensable element required in the forging of British horror in the 1930s, though, was the work of crime writer Edgar Wallace: in the ‘60s Wallace’s extensive library of works was often raided as source material for both a German and a British series’ of B movies and second features, but in the 1930s it was prime meat for the quota quickie industry. The first British film ever to have the distinction of being slapped with the BBFC’s ‘H’ for horror certificate (up till then the sole preserve of imported Hollywood pre-code horrors) was producer John Argyle’s gruesome adaptation of the Wallace tale “The Dark Eyes of London” -- which saw Bela Lugosi being ferried in to play the lead villain Orloff in Walter Summers’ twisted classic -- and the horrified critical reaction to the results didn’t deter Argyle from casting Leslie Banks (of “The Most Dangerous Game”) in another lurid Wallace adaptation a few years later, this time the evergreen “The Door With Seven Locks”. The formula here, was to take the convoluted crime and thriller plots made popular by this 1920s pulp writer, and infuse them with the crepuscular, Gothic tinged atmosphere of Hollywood’s ‘30s horror factories, while at the same time taking care always to underline the fact that these were supposedly thriller/mysteries rather than outright horror, with a real-world solution to any apparently ghostly goings on always reassuringly on hand at the conclusion of proceedings.
“The Terror” is precisely just this sort of a curio: setting itself up as a traditional crime caper in an opening act which establishes a Mabuse-like scenario about a criminal mastermind whose presence is so nebulous and whose identity is kept so hush hush (even from his own trench-coat-wearing gang members) that the cream of Scotland Yard refuse to believe he actually even exists! When a shipment of gold coins from Paris is stolen en route to New York at Southampton docks, Mike O’Shay, aka ‘The Chuckling Crook’ -- a gas-mask wearing criminal genius worthy of the 1960s “Batman” series, who carries out his audacious heists after first drugging security personnel using knockout gas -- is suspected by the top brass at the Yard of being behind the job, with the sound of his raucous laughter as he leaves the scene of each crimes being the only clue as to his true identity. But portly Superintendent Hallick (John Turnbull) has other ideas, and suspects The Chuckling Crook is merely a front for the activities of some rather more prosaic denizens of the underworld. In fact, O’Shay uses his anonymity and his knowledge of Hallick’s mistaken theory to double cross his two partners, Joe Conner (Henry Oscar) and ‘Soapy’ Marx (Alistair Sim). Posing as a narc he provides the police with an anonymous tip off as to Conner and Marx’s favourite drinking haunts, thus ensuring they’re quickly picked up and that he gets to keep the trio’s share of the ill-gotten gains for himself as his former associates are left to serve a full stretch behind bars without prospect of parole, unless they deign to reveal the whereabouts of the missing loot. This is something neither of them can do of course, since they have no idea who O’Shay really is or where the gold might be – and yet Hallick still refuses to believe the criminal mastermind is even a real person. When they’re finally released, both Conner and Marx set out to take their revenge on their double-crossing former boss, both independently turning up at the site at which they were originally expecting to meet to split the proceeds -- an allegedly haunted monastery in the grounds of a quaint priory that is now in use as a guest house in which the guests turn out to be comprised of the expected array of English eccentrics, various mysterious persons under assumed identities, a soon-to-be-endangered heroine and at least one homicidal maniac.
Director Richard Bird manages to imbue the rudimentary sets used for the opening crime melodrama stages of this tale with plenty of dark and moodily rendered visual flair, firmly rooted in the influence of the school of German Expressionism which had previously marked out Hollywood’s flirtation with horror since the early thirties. From the throwaway reference in the opening moments to James Whale’s 1933 film “The Invisible Man” to the shadowy noirish flavour brought to the lighting schemes favoured by cinematographer Walter Harvey (whose horror career peaked eighteen years later with his work for Val Guest on Hammer’s “The Quatermass Xperiment”), “The Terror” harks back visually to the work of Fritz Lang on “Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler”, and “M” -- and art director Cedric Daw (a Gainsborough veteran who would go on to work alongside Terence Fisher on his 1950 mystery thriller “So Long at the Fair” before seeing out his twilight years on ITC series such as “The Saint” ) conjures up some gritty images of cigar-smoke-infused Scotland Yard offices and dingy crime-infested urban backstreets, before the middle portion of the film finally settles into a much more traditional drawing room murder mystery scenario -- along the lines of “The Cat and the Canary” or “Ten Little Indians” – as if it were a comfortable pair of old slippers, despite still sharing enough Expressionist influences in the enactment of standard Wallace thriller tropes (involving mysterious hooded phantoms, secret passageways and underground vaults on the grounds of the Monks’ Hall Priory setting) to satisfy any viewer’s Gothic cravings until the entertainingly histrionic final act … when it then pilfers its horror imagery shamelessly (with tongue firmly in cheek, of course) in reference to everything from “The Phantom of the Opera” to “Frankenstein”. The main body of the film deals in a combination of arch character actor spiels (that veer towards the comedic to offset the horror), and ghoulish Gothic set-pieces involving phantasmal sightings in the dead of night preceded by mysterious organ music issuing from a long-sealed-up underground chapel.
A brisk seventy-minute ‘quickie’ though this may well be, the production company behind it -- the Associated British Picture Corporation -- had its origins in John Maxwell’s British International Pictures: one of the most important players in the early career of Alfred Hitchcock, who made twelve films in all for the company including one of the first British talkies, the ground-breaking “Blackmail”. With its vertically integrated production, distribution and exhibition facilities ABPC was a relatively big player in terms of British cinema, even if the quota quickie system ensured most of its product tended to be rather routine fare. Nevertheless, “The Terror” is distinguished by its excellent cast of character players headed by the Lionel Atwell of ‘30s British horror Wilfrid Lawson, here playing the delicately refined Mr Goodman: a subversively sarcastic, well-groomed gentleman guest of Monks’ Hall Priory who is (spoiler!) revealed to be secretly cacklingly mad by the final frames; then there's the young Bernard Lee, pre-‘M’, as an apparently permanently drink sozzled house guest with an iron grip Ferdy Fane, who is only reluctantly furnished with a room by the nervously-on-edge owner of the priory lodgings, Colonel Redmayne (Arthur Wontner – the 1930’s favourite interpreter of Sherlock Holmes) at the behest of Redmayne’s visiting, lawn croquet-playing young daughter Mary (Linden Travers of “The Lady Vanishes”), who eventually finds herself made the prey of the household’s organ-playing, monk-robed-&-black-gloved killer while simultaneously fending off the unwanted romantic attentions of both Goodman and Fane. Stealing the show from all comers for most of the running time though, despite ninth billing in the cast list, is Alastair Sim in a relatively early role: sinister, threatening and saturnine as one of the double-crossed associates of O’Shay, he inveigles his way into the bizarre goings-on at the oak-trimmed guest house by posing as an amusingly languid tea-drinking C of E vicar. Iris Hoey and Lesley Wareing provide lashings of jet black humour as some more offbeat boarding guests: self-styled ‘psychic’ medium Mrs Elvery and her spinster daughter Veronica, who keep scrapbooks full of press cuttings on the country’s most notorious serial killers (‘… ‘with pictures!’); while lugubrious quickie regular Stanley Lathbury makes for solid support as the establishment’s granite-like butler, Hawkins.
With its stage-bound ‘Old Dark House’ plot full of secret labyrinthine underground passageways and sinister cloaked figures materialising on the proverbial dark and stormy night just as the lights go out; plus numerous characters operating under assumed aliases and the deceased bodies of guests turning up unexpectedly in the morning -- there’s nothing here that hadn’t already been seen before even at the time of release, and nothing that wouldn’t go on to be seen many more times in the future; but the performances and oddball characters are delicious enough to allow this drawing room murder-by-numbers effort to continue to function effectively as a pleasant enough addition to the present archive of early British horror noir thrillers. The no frills, bare bones Network DVD sports a fine, clear black & white transfer, while the mono audio is for the most part free of crackle and hiss. This is an inessential but still thoroughly likable B feature, well worth a look.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!