Monday, 4 January 2016

The Terror (1938)

My first post in quite a while, inspired by a viewing of a film considerably older than anything else I've featured here before...

The 1920s: London is being terrorised by a criminal mastermind known as Mike O’Shea, whose true identity is always concealed beneath a gas mask (he’s quite the sinister sight).  It’s even a mystery to his henchmen (Henry Oscar and Alastair Sim), who are eventually caught by the police and sentenced to 10 years in prison, while O’Shea escapes with a fabulous amount of gold.  Understandably consumed with resentment, the pair each plot to track their former boss down and relieve him of the loot once they are released.  When the day comes, the former partners go their separate ways to find O’Shea, but both are eventually led to a curiously inhospitable country guest house run by the conspicuously suspicious Colonel Redmayne (Arthur Wontner), who seems very keen not to add any more guests to the three he already has: self-professed psychic Mrs Elvery (Iris Hoey) and her featherbrained daughter (Lesley Wareing), and mild-mannered retiree Mr Goodman (Wilfrid Lawson). 

Based on a play by the then-exhaustingly ubiquitous Edgar Wallace (whose death in 1932 had, if anything, only accelerated the tide of films based on his work), The Terror’s plot doesn’t hold any surprises, but this is all part of its charm.  Look away now if you don’t want spoilers, but it’s hard to believe that any viewer wouldn’t immediately identify Lawson as the villain due to his character’s excessively underlined pleasantness (everyone even pronounces his name “Goodman” in case we didn’t get it).  Similarly, from the first appearance of pleasingly-named drunken wastrel Ferdy Fane (Bernard Lee) it’s obvious he’s going to both turn out to be the crack Scotland Yard detective everyone’s talking about and get the girl (the Colonel’s daughter, played by beautiful Linden Travers).  But who cares if it's obvious when it's all so entertainingly played by such a brilliant cast? As well as the above-named, there are brief but very welcome appearances from Kathleen Harrison and Irene Handl as the Colonel’s kitchen staff, while Richard Murdoch has a small role as an incompetent detective.  It’s a shame, though, that Wontner, a twinkly Sherlock Holmes in the early 30s, is short-changed by a script that gives him little to do but behave in a sinister manner.

Good fun all the way through, the film steps up a gear in its final third with the return of Sim’s character, who's been absent for most of the film, disguised as a mild-mannered country parson in order to have a good sniff round the ruins near the Colonel's abode.  Even at this early stage in his screen career (he’d made his first film three years earlier) he’s an obvious star, stealing every scene with his facial expressions alone.  The film takes a sharp turn into gothic melodrama territory for its marvellously overripe climax, with Lee and Travers held prisoner in the catacombs of the ruins, garbed in a monk’s habit and giving it the full Tod Slaughter as he exposes the non-existence of his sanity by  promising to marry the luckless pair before killing them (I need hardly add that he then proceeds to play a conveniently-located organ).  They’re saved when Sim, who Lawson thought he’d put out of the way, returns from the grave in a moment of pure Universal Horror.

Obvious though both identities may be, the idea of the identity of both hero and villain being a mystery is makes for a fun twist.  And for modern viewers there’s a good chuckle to be had from a reckless young investigator we first see (with his back to us) being scolded by his crusty superiors turning out to be played by a man who’d become best known as James Bond’s grumpy boss.