The double feature is cinema appreciation at its most basic. The mere act of pairing two films together – whether the bond be subject matter, central theme, a certain actor or filmmaker, or something outside-the-box conceptual – causes them to take on a different sort of life. A new relationship is formed with the viewer. You pay attention to new aspects and journey down unfamiliar avenues when you view films through Double Feature Goggles. Even when the linking bond is comically tenuous, the double feature magic is there. And I’m the kind of guy who derives just as much pleasure from creating a double feature as I do from watching one. Aside from amusing myself, hopefully I can give some people ideas for their next movie night.
The Double Feature: The Old Dark House (1932) and Dolls (1987)
The Connection: In my Horror 101 Slasher column I briefly discussed what I call “Stumbled On” films, wherein our Hero’s involvement in the plot is predicated by an unfortunate coincidence – while on a trip/journey/whatever they simply happened to enter the wrong area at the wrong time. These are films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Hills Have Eyes or Wrong Turn, and like those three films, the Stumbled On subgenre is generally about rural paranoia, featuring big city folks falling prey to backwoods weirdos. A subset of this subgenre that is less frequently explored (at least in the past few decades), and thus a bit more virile, is what I’d call Stormy Night movies.
The storm itself is just a macguffin, and the movies always begin the same way…
A car full of weary travels bravely/foolishly struggles through an awful rain storm. Possibly they even get stuck in the mud and must abandon the car. Just when it seems like their night can’t get any worse, they hit a patch of good luck. They see a house! Of course, in the end it turns out they’d have been better off staying in the rain, for the denizens of their savior house turn out to be more dangerous than any storm.
Film 1: The Old Dark House is a weirdly overlooked film from Universal’s horror heyday, especially considering its Universal pedigree. The film is directed by Frankenstein maestro James Whale, written by The Invisible Man screenwriter R.C. Sherriff, shot by Frankenstein/Invisible Man cinematographer Arthur Edeson, and it stars Boris Karloff, Bride of Frankenstein‘s Ernest Thesiger, and The Invisible Man‘s Gloria Stuart (now remembered as the old lady in Titanic), not mention some chumps named Charles Laughton and Melvyn Douglas. Also, the film is great. But by skewing from the formula of centering the film on a monstrous anti-hero, ODH couldn’t generate the kind of iconography and franchise that has ultimately kept the various Universal Monsters in the zeitgeist all these decades (though William Castle did remake the film in 1963).
The story is thus: Douglas and Stuart, two Americans driving through the English countryside, seek shelter from a raging storm in a gloomy Gothic mansion. Inside they discover that two other travelers have already made themselves comfy by the fire (pudgy Laughton and his chorus girl lady-friend played by Lilian Bond). The house is owned by the wealthy Femm family, who are a bunch of eccentric weirdos, lead by the elderly crazy-haired Thesiger. Trouble comes from Karloff’s character, who is the Femm’s mute and thuggish butler, who has the bad habit of getting shitfaced and antagonizing people. And on this particular night, he gets shitfaced, antagonizes people, then releases the Femm’s secret shame, a pyromaniac lunatic brother they keep locked in a special room.
Film 2: Dolls was the third film in Stuart Gordon’s mid-80’s hat trick of horror, following Re-Animator and From Beyond. Beyond Gordon the film certainly doesn’t have the pedigree of ODH, as its most noteworthy star is Guy Rolfe, whose claim to fame was portraying the titular Puppet Master in three of Full Moon’s Puppet Master films (the middle three). Structurally it has a lot in common with ODH though…
This film also begins with some Americans driving through the English countryside during a rainstorm (here it is a young girl and her asshole dad and assholier step-mother). Discovering a house, they seek shelter from an elderly couple who live there. Also seeking shelter from the storm is another pudgy guy, only instead of having a chorus girl lady-friend, he has two British punk rock chicks that he picked up hitchhiking. The elderly couple don’t have a drunk butler. Just a bunch of sentient murderous dolls.
Dolls is not as strong a film as ODH, but it has its silly charms (one of which is not Stephen Lee’s hammy performance as pudgy guy, Ralph). But here is a good example of double feature magic at work, as I think Dolls becomes a bit more stirring when viewed in the context of Stormy Night movies, instead of the Killer Doll subgenre that one would normally pair it with.
Things to Look For: Though the films both have a comedic tone, ODH is more arch, while Dolls is more 80’s goofy. The set-up similarities here are obviously very strong, but I think it is interesting to see how the same basic premise turned out 50 years apart. The simplicity and low body-count of ODH would never have flown in the 80’s, and likely such a wacko idea as Dolls would not have flown in the 30’s.
For those actually interested in doing this double feature, I think the order of the films is important. In any double feature it is wise to put the slower, more sophisticated movie first, as even when dealing with diehard double feature fans, there is still a slight dip in attention spans once watching the second film (especially if alcohol or weed is involved, and let’s be honest, they often are).