Edward G. Robinson, Lon McCallister, Judith Anderson, Julie London
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.