Although detective stories frequently revolve around a missing person (a crime that allows a little bit of chaos to pervade our brains with destabilizing questions) and murders, most end with tidy conclusions that attempt to restore some semblance of justice or order. A glaring exception to this rule is Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1958 novella The Pledge (Das Versprechen), an anti-detective novel that calls itself a “requiem” for the genre. In the novella, a retired police chief devotes his private life to solving a murder after making a pledge to the dead girl’s parents. Ultimately, after the detective fails to convince others about the legitimacy of his favorite suspect, the readers (but not the detective) learn that the suspect was in fact the killer, but his death during a random car accident prevented the police from finding any meaningful evidence of his guilt. Read a certain way, The Pledge, which muses on the corrosive nature of humanity’s unwillingness to live with mystery, is both a horror story and an ultra-black comedy.
Still, over 50 years later, mystery fiction remains the province of rationalism. Fictional detectives are there to demystify seemingly occult problems. Our favorite detectives, like the groovy teenagers of the Scooby-Doo franchise, are there to pull the mask off the monster. This is why the mystery genre is so often added to horror stories. Audiences can only take so much grotesque anarchy before they start calling for a resolution, a salvific police officer or a private investigator.
During the 1920s and 30s, a slew of stage plays appeared in New York and beyond that commingled not only horror and mystery, but also comedy. Known collectively as “old dark house,” these plays, in the words of film lecturer Gary Rhodes (author, Edgar G. Ulmer: Detour on Poverty Row), “typically involved the gathering of a family, or a group of strangers, at a creaking and neglected property.” The reading of a will, often one penned by a rich, old eccentric, is the reason for the assemblage, and not long after the concluding paragraph a murder occurs. For the remainder of the play, the cast bumbles their way through the secrets of the dead man’s fading mansion, which always full of secret passages, trapdoors, and revolving bookshelves until the murderer (who was sometimes a gorilla) is caught. This is the old dark house genre in miniature. At their peak, old dark house plays had popular runs on and off Broadway—while the very best either wound up with Hollywood adaptations or helped to inspire original productions such as D.W. Griffith’s One Exciting Night (1922) and Midnight Faces (1926). Others, like Ralph Spence’s The Gorilla, which specifically labeled itself as a “Mystery Comedy,” proved so enduring that multiple adaptations flooded the 1930s and ‘40s.
The big three of the old dark house plays are The Cat and the Canary, The Monster, and The Bat, and each were made into successful films. Each play is decidedly tongue-in-cheek, with mad scientists and super criminals terrorizing hapless Jazz Age types. Women are frequently targeted, while egghead and masculine males engage in feuds stemming from unrequited love. Money predominates as the driving factor, although not all of the criminals have such sane motivations. This is the case in Crane Wilbur’s The Monster, a light-hearted and very American take on the French tradition of Grand Guignol, a once well-known theatre in the Pigalle section of Paris that trafficked in gory and grotesque stage plays.
The Monster became a moderate success with Wilton Mackaye performing the role of the insane Dr. Gustave Ziska. According to Marvin Lachman in The Villainous Stage: Crime Plays on Broadway and in the West End, The Monster ran for a total of 112 performances overall and earned plenty of attention from Hollywood producers. Central to The Monster’s success is the lead protagonist Johnny Goodlittle—a small town yokel who dreams of becoming a private eye. Like a lot of The Monster’s audience, Goodlittle spends his working hours wrapped up in fantasies about being Sherlock Holmes, or at the very least being like the rough, hardy, and capable men who filled advertisements in the pages of 1920s pulp magazines. Goodlittle’s chance at greatness comes when a disappearance strikes his hometown of Danburg. The case leads him and others (including a love interest) to an abandoned sanitarium, where Dr. Ziska holds court as the chief torture doctor interested in operating on the human soul.
If The Monster had been made in France instead of America, the play would have been colored an entirely different shade. Whereas Dr. Ziska and his henchmen, all of whom were once patients inside of the sanitarium, help to foster comic relief in Wilbur’s play, their counterparts in the Grand Guignol tradition would’ve removed Goodlittle’s eyes before further eviscerating him. In fact, André de Lorde, the chief scribe for Grand Guignol, wrote a bloody number entitled “Crime in a Madhouse” about the ultraviolent lives of psychotics inside of a French asylum. Miraculously, despite Ziska’s obsession with esoteric surgery and his clear state of mental deterioration, Goodlittle and company make it out of their ordeal a-ok, thus highlighting that although old dark house plays contained lots of murder, they were rarely dour or even scandalous.
Like The Monster, The Cat and the Canary, which was penned by John Willard, did a hot run on Broadway before becoming an even more successful film. Paul Leni’s movie version is a must-see, and is frequently regarded as one of the greatest old dark house films ever made (the greatest of course is James Whale’s ribald send-up, The Old Dark House). The original play is no less fun, with a secluded Westchester mansion being the gathering point for an entertaining selection of cousins. First and foremost among them is Annabelle West, an innocent flapper and one of the few relatives not guilty of watching the dead patriarch’s wealth like a cat watching a trapped canary. Because she bears the West name, Annabelle is named the sole heir of Cyril West’s vast fortune. Because of this, her night inside of Glencliff Mansion is fraught with havoc, from the murder of solicitor Roger Crosby to the romantic rivalry between cousins Harry Blythe (a role that was played by Willard himself on Broadway) and Charlie Wilder, both of whom seek Annabelle’s hand in marriage. While trapped in the supposedly haunted house, the extended members of the West family also learn that an escaped lunatic is on the loose, which of course means that he’s somewhere in the house already. Can Annabelle live through the night without losing her mind and thereby forfeiting her right to Cyril West’s fortune? That is the question.
The Johnny Goodlittle role in The Cat and the Canary is named Paul Jones, a self-declared horse doctor who introduces himself by saying: “I have felt better—but on the other hand, I have felt worse.” Such simpleton simpering is reminiscent of the characters portrayed by Don Knotts, especially the scaredy cat journalist Luther Heggs in the very old dark house film The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. Although the Jones character borders on the ridiculous, The Cat and the Canary ultimately ends as a clever mystery story with a somewhat plausible reveal. Whereas The Monster feels like the forced transformation of a grotesque splatter punk drama into family-friendly fare, The Cat and the Canary is a uniquely comedic Gothic mystery play that clearly inspired one of American literature’s most enduring tropes.
Finally, when speaking of old dark house plays, one cannot overlook the most important of them all: The Bat. Co-written by mystery fiction legend Mary Roberts Rinehart (author of The Circular Staircase and originator of the phrase “The butler did it”), The Bat is a potboiler set in and around the wealthy summer mansions of upstate New York. This time around, however, the villain is a costumed super-criminal named The Bat. Part Fantômas (the pre-World War I French pulp villain favored by the Surrealists) and part Professor Moriarty, The Bat is a master cat burglar and murderer who terrorizes not only New York City, but also the isolated summer home of heiress Cordelia Van Gorder. As it customary in old dark house yarns, The Bat worms his way into Van Gorder’s rented mansion just in time to witness other greed-based machinations take place.
Although a better-than-average piece by Rinehart standards, The Bat has enjoyed a certain level of cultural currency not only because of numerous film adaptations, but also because the character of The Bat (especially the version portrayed in 1930’s The Bat Whispers) directly influenced Batman, the caped crusader of Gotham City. Bob Kane, the co-creator of the Dark Knight, stated in his 1989 autobiography that Rinehart and Avery Hopwood’s masked criminal did indeed provide the blueprint for Bruce Wayne’s alter ego.
As an American art form, old dark house helped to establish not only a narrative trope that remains strong in the horror movie industry, but it also helped audiences to accept a little slapstick comedy and mirthful anarchy in otherwise tension-filled productions. And, by continuing large portions of the gothic tradition, the old dark house plays of the 1920s and 30s helped to produce a transatlantic approach to suspense that embraced detective fiction’s rationalism rather than running away from it. The old dark house genre reminds us that disparate elements are sometimes closer than first glances would lead us to believe. Like a lonely old house during a summertime storm, we often fail to recognize every hidden recess. Inside there is a little bit of comedy, a little bit of horror, and a lot of mystery — the main ingredients of old dark house, to be sure, but also the major components of any modern story.