Joe May, 1940
Starring: George Sanders, Vincent Price, Margaret Lindsay
“AN ANCIENT HOUSE! A MURDER SECRET! A HIDDEN TREASURE!”
While it’s not quite as exciting as all that, The House of the Seven Gables is a compelling tale of betrayal, revenge, death, and obsession fueled by a family curse and an alleged hidden treasure. Clifford Pyncheon plans to sell his family home, the titular House of the Seven Gables, which suffers from a curse going back several generations and has a lot of bad history behind it. His brother Jaffrey, an up and coming judge, is determined that Clifford should not sell the house, because he believes a fortune in gold is hidden somewhere on the premises. Their father also doesn’t want him to sell, but he has many unsettled debts. Clifford and his father argue and his father has a heart attack, hits his head, and dies. Though he knows it is a lie, Jaffrey accuses Clifford of murder and he is sent to prison for life.
Clifford was planning to marry his cousin Hepzibah, who is heart broken. Much to Jaffrey’s surprise, Hepzibah is left the house in his father’s will. She throws him out and shuts herself up for many years. Meanwhile, Clifford gets a new temporary cell mate, the young abolitionist Matthew Maule, who becomes his friend. When Maule is released, he becomes a tenant in Hepzibah’s home under the name Holgrave, along with the young and pretty Phoebe, Hepzibah’s cousin, who develops feelings for Maule. To Jaffrey’s horror, they open a shop in the front of the house that becomes successful and learn at the same time that Clifford was pardoned by the new governor and released.
Clifford and Matthew make Jaffrey believe that there is gold in the house, though Hepzibah comes to suspect that “Holgrave” is spreading rumors about Clifford. She learns that Holgrave is actually Matthew Maule and warns Clifford, but he reveals that it is all part of their plan. Jaffrey announces that he is going to have Clifford committed. In turn, Clifford wants Jaffrey to sign a document clearing his name, but Jaffrey refuses. Unfortunately for Jaffrey, he has gotten himself into a pickle over money leant to him, which allows Clifford, Matthew, and Hepzibah to turn the tables on him once and for all.
Though based on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel of the same name, a number of elements have been changed, which will no doubt enrage Hawthorne fans. Despite the complex and somewhat dry plot, there is enough here to like, namely the central mystery and the rivalry between Clifford, played by Vincent Price in a somewhat rare role as the protagonist, and the roguish George Sanders as Jaffrey.
George Sanders, fantastic in everything, is wonderful as the thoroughly unlikable Jaffrey. It’s a shame he didn’t have more screen time, though his scenes are all entertaining, particularly the conclusion. It is certainly difficult to imagine another actor making this role remotely compelling. A young Vincent Price is good as the suffering Clifford. Though he was framed and wrongly imprisoned, there is the sense that he brought it upon himself somewhat with his unconventional ideas and proud character, but he eventually gets his revenge.
The film is entertaining mostly because of Price and Sanders, though Margaret Lindsay (Scarlet Street) as Hepzibah carries the film and shows a good amount of range. It’s really a shame that Price and Sanders aren’t given more scenes together, though they are almost equally good on their own. There are some nice supporting performances from Dick Foran (The Mummy’s Hand) and Nan Grey (Dracula’s Daughter), who regularly appeared with Price in some of his early films such as Tower of London and Invisible Man Returns. Horror regulars Cecil Kellaway (The Mummy’s Hand, The Invisible Man Returns) and Alan Napier (Cat People, Invisible Man Returns, House of Horrors) round out the cast.
Joseph May was one of many actors and directors that emigrated to the U.S. during the ‘30s. His most important films in Germany were The Indian Tomb (1921) and Asphalt (1929). In the U.S. he directed two horror efforts for Universal with Vincent Price, House of the Seven Gables and the first Invisible Man sequel, The Invisible Man Returns (1940). He used much of the same cast on both The Invisible Man Returns and House of the Seven Gables.
This will honestly not appeal to a lot of horror fans, as it is a pretty pedestrian mix of historical melodrama, thriller, and family drama. It is a beautifully shot film, but despite all the mention of ghosts, a family curse, and buried treasure, this is really just about one brother betraying another and the family working to clear his name. This only comes recommended to fans of Price and Sanders. If you’d like to check it out, House of the Seven Gables is available on a basic DVD from Universal.