I’ve already written about how much I love the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes series of 1940s B-movies, and I won’t go over old ground – you can read my original thoughts in this 2011 review of The Pearl of Death.
This week I dipped into the ‘definitive collection’ of the Rathbone/Bruce films to watch The House of Fear, the tenth of 14 films the pair made together. This one has something of an Agatha Christie “And Then There Were None” feel to it, as it focuses on a group called The Good Comrades who reside in the isolated Drearcliffe House on the coast of Scotland. One by one the group is being murdered in horrific fashion, each death preceded by the cryptic warning of an envelope containing a diminishing number of orange pips being delivered to the next unfortunate corpse-in-waiting. Is it just a simple case of the last man standing bumping off the rest in order to inherit the group’s money?
Holmes and Watson move in to Drearcliffe to solve the case, but the pool of suspects continues to diminish even as the quantity of red herrings seemingly implicating absolutely everyone continues to grow. The Good Comrades themselves are a delightfully sinister bunch of eccentrics (Paul Cavanagh, Aubrey Mather, Holmes Herbert and Harry Cording among them) while the dour housekeeper Mrs Monteith (Sally Shepherd) must also be under suspicion, along with a number of the predictably hostile locals in the nearby village.
Bruce’s Watson is still a bumbling old duffer who contributes little of value to Holmes’ investigations, but at least he’s presented rather affectionately and it’s a hard-hearted purist who takes too much against the portrayal despite how non-canonical it is. He certainly fares better than Inspector Lestrade (Dennis Hoey) who is an out and out comedy stooge and fool – and don’t even try to explain to the US makers of the film how absurd it is to have a police officer from Scotland Yard take over a criminal investigation in Scotland!
Overall it’s a tense and atmospheric haunted house mystery shot on an impressively detailed stage in brilliantly dark and shadowy film noir style by director Roy William Neill, surely one of the most underrated and criminally ill-remembered directors of the 1930s and 1940s. Interestingly this Irishman was the original choice to direct The Lady Vanishes in 1938 but schedule changes forced him to pull out and the task went instead to Alfred Hitchcock – which makes you wonder how things might have played out otherwise.
Rathbone is on top form as Holmes and the story does actually make sense despite at one point looking as though it’s over-egging all the red herrings. What it’s not is any sort of respectful adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original short story “The Five Orange Pips” – indeed, it seems that the cryptic warning in the film is there purely to satisfy Universal’s contract with Doyle that three of the four B-movies they made per year should be based on one of the existing Holmes canon and only one should be wholly original; suffice to say, that isn’t how it turned out.
As a B-movie the film’s length is a slender 69 minutes and all the better for it, never losing pace or interest despite its age. It remains among my favourite of the Rathbone/Bruce films and I was thoroughly captivated and engaged with it all over again this week when it happened to slip onto the DVD player one lunchtime.
While available separately, The House of Fear is included on the 14-film ‘Definitive Collection’ boxset containing all the Rathbone/Bruce Sherlock Holmes films, which is quite the best way of picking up and enjoying the series.