Edward Sloman, 1931
Starring: William Boyd, Lilyan Tashman, Irving Pichell
Since I first heard the rough plot premise for Murder By Clock, I was dying to see it. According to IMDB, “An elderly woman installs a horn in her crypt in case she’s buried alive.” I had never been able to find out much more than that, but it really is an excellent premise that could make a great mystery-horror film. Unfortunately the film itself is much better in theory than practice and feels like a much lesser version of James Whale’s Old Dark House. A selfish, greedy, and very rich old woman, Mrs. Endicott, is paranoid that she’s going to be buried alive and routinely checks her crypt, which is outfitted with a loud horn. She has a mentally deficient son, Philip, who is more interested in fantasizing about casually killing people than continuing the illustrious family line. The only other heir is Herbert, Mrs. Endicott’s alcoholic nephew with an absolute shrew of a wife.
One night when her son is in a particularly murderous mood, Mrs. Endicott decides to change her will and leave everything to Herbert. Almost immediately afterwards, she is strangled to death. Though the police blame Philip and hold him in jail, the suspect list is fairly long. Herbert and his wife Laura move into the Endicott mansion, but more bodies pile up and Laura stirs up as much trouble as possible.
While I don’t typically like to give away spoilers, everything in this film is fairly obvious and routine. Laura has persuaded a series of men to commit murder with the promise that they will one day be with her. She convinces all the men in her life to kill someone: Herbert, her husband, Tom, her boyfriend, and Philip, who she visits in jail.
Thanks to Karl Struss (Island of Lost Souls) there is some lovely cinematography and spooky atmosphere with fog, secret passageways, and the Endicott family crypt. Sadly there is just not enough to keep this film interesting. Silent actress Lilyan Tashman (Pretty Ladies) is the only thing that propels the film forward, but even she is boxed into an unlikable, two dimensional role and it is thoroughly unbelievable that she could manipulate so many men into committing murder. Irving Pichel (Dracula’s Daughter, co-director of The Most Dangerous Game and She) is amusing as the inept Philip and he is clearly having a lot of fun with the role, but, again, the script prevents him from doing anything interesting. Though this is a Pre-Code film, the film abandons many instances where they could make Lilyan Tashman's seduction scenes a lot sexier and the murder scenes far more horrifying.
I can’t recommend Murder by Clock. I’ve heard that the novel by Rufus King is a lot more compelling and - I can’t believe I’m saying this - I think it would be interesting as a remake (with several re-writes, of course). If you want to see the original film, I don’t believe it is available on DVD, but it’s in the public domain and is on YouTube. Instead, I would recommend The Cat and the Canary, The Bat, or The Old Dark House. Even later films of a similar nature, like Vincent Price-vehicle House on Haunted Hill prove that this genre has way more to offer.