Wednesday, September 3, 2014


Delmer Davies, 1947
Starring; Edward G. Robinson, Lon McCallister, Judith Anderson, Julie London

Meg, a sweet, young orphan, is being raised by Pete and his sister Ellen on an excluded farm. She convinces Nath, a local boy she has a crush on, to come work at the farm and help out Pete, who reluctantly agrees. While trying to take a short cut home through the woods, Nath is frightened by Pete’s stories about screams in the night and a haunted red house. Curious, he and Meg begin to investigate the woods by day. Though they are hampered by Pete’s anger and the interference of the frivolous Tilly, Nath’s girlfriend, they soon find far more in the woods than they ever expected.

Part psychological thriller, film noir, and horror movie, The Red House is based on George Agnew Chamberlain’s 1943 novel of the same name. A relatively obscure entry in the noir canon, this is notable for its rural, woodsy, and idyllic setting, and crime and noir regular Edward G. Robinson’s performance as Pete. Robinson is excellent and provides a contrast between kind and gentle, crazed and pathetic, which was so effective in Scarlet Street (1945). His care and concern for Meg transitions from a touching, parental love into something far more sinister as his mind becomes gradually detached from reality. Robinson doesn’t rely to hysterics or scenery chewing to achieve this, but rather an eerie stillness and faraway look in his eyes that suggests it’s only a matter of time before his violent, psychosexual impulses win out.

Dame Judith Anderson (Rebecca, Laura, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) is solid, if unobtrusive as Pete’s sister Ellen and though at first underused, she thankfully has much more to do during the film’s second half. The two more experiences actors are balanced out by Allene Roberts (Knock on Any Door), who is also quite good as Meg, an innocent teenager clearly on the verge of a sexual awakening. Roberts excellently conveys this transition from girlhood to womanhood throughout the film, from her obvious jealousy at Nath’s relationship with the overtly sexual Tibby (Julie London) to her increasingly tense and dangerous relationship with Pete.

Lon McCallister (Winged Victory) and the smarmy Rory Calhoun (Motel Hell) round out the cast as two wholesome-looking farm boys. McCallister’s Nath is forgettable and acts more as a catalyst to ignite Meg’s emerging sexual desire and to come between her and Pete, provoking his rage and jealousy. Rory Calhoun’s character, Teller, is never quite explained. He provides a temptation for Tilly, Nath’s seductive though spoiled girlfriend, to leave Nath. Pete, for some reason, has set him up to guard the woods, though his unexplained overzealousness results in murder and mayhem.

Director Delmar Davies is relatively forgotten compared to many of his peers, though he also directed the Humphrey Bogart-Lauren Bacall vehicle Dark Passage (1947), and westerns like 3:10 to Yuma (1957), among others. His direction here is mostly confident and assured, though The Red House kicks off slowly and is bogged down by some excess scenes early in the film. It does picks up the pace in the second half and gradually leads to a violent, if expected conclusion.

SPOILERS. Possibly thanks to the Production Code, the events are never really explained, though it is clear that Pete committed some sort of violence against Meg’s mother, with whom he was obsessed. The film implies that he murdered the poor woman, possibly along with Meg’s father, which is why Pete and Ellen adopted the child. It’s never really revealed why he was able to get away with murder and why no one suspected it; Ellen, at least, was aware of his obsession and potential to be dangerous. At one point, she asks Meg, “Did he lay his hands on you?” The incestual, sexual nature of this question hints at horrors largely unexplored by the script. Speaking of horror, the screams in the woods that come from the allegedly haunted red house are never explained either. This phenomenon could be the spirit of Meg’s mother haunting the place she died, or it could be that Pete’s memories and delusions (the screams of the woman he loved) have become a sort of group delusion.

Available on Blu-ray or streaming online, The Red House comes recommended to fans of Gothic drama from the period, such as Rebecca or Gaslight. Though it is unequal to either of these, there are plenty of rewarding and creepy moments. One of the best things about the film is the theremin-based score from Miklos Rozsa. Despite the excellent work he did on The Lost Weekend and Spellbound, I think this is among his best.

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