“Let’s leave this room of death, and mounted heads, that used to be friends…”
Dark and Stormy Night pays homage to the house-set murder mysteries of the 1930s and 40s, but it’s not a spoof like, for example, Scary Movie; director Larry Blamire cleverly manages to capture the genre’s incoherence and bizarreness without directly referencing any specific examples and, in doing so, creates a film that feels like a low budget gothic horror (and, indeed, is low budget itself, although this fact is concealed well beneath the crisp monochrome), but is played entirely for laughs.
It’s… well, a dark and stormy night and, in an isolated old mansion a group of people have gathered for the reading of the late Sinas Cavinder. Among the ensemble are: Cavinder’s one-time hunting buddy Jack Tugdon (in full safari gear), wealthy snob nephew Burling Famish Jr and his cheating wife Pristy, Pristy’s simpleton boyfriend Teak Armbruster, camp Lord Partfine (sporting a hairstyle and attitude to match that of Ed Wood’s associate The Amazing Criswell), gentleman Seyton Ethelquake, elderly Mrs Hausenstout, and fragile ingénue Sabasha Fanmore. As the evening progresses, even more people pile into the ancient building – two competitive reporters, Eight O’Clock Farraday and Billy Tuesday, and Farraday’s cab driver Happy, who just wants his 35cents fare, a dippy psychic whose car broke down just outside and Ray Vestinhaus, whose car also apparently broke down. Add in an unamused butler, lawyer, working class maid, cleaver-wielding cook, and a gorilla (played by Bob Burns, who reprises a long-standing role as Kogar, first seen in 1965’s Lemon Grove Kids Meets the Monsters), and the house’s guest list is complete.
This grand ensemble, many of whom are regulars in Blamire’s other productions (including Trail of the Screaming Forehead, which paid homage to alien invasion films of the 50s and Ray Harryhausen’s legendary stop motion effects), find themselves in a number of potentially fatal situations. As well as Cavinder’s vast fortune encouraging greedy people to commit murder, Sabasha has received death threats, while a “Cavinder Strangler” is on the loose and legend dictates that a 300-year old witch who cursed the house is due to return this very night. All in all, it’s fairly likely that only a select few will survive until morning.
It’s all rather ridiculous, and the actors are clearly comfortable in each other’s company and familiar with the genre being lampooned. Any claims of over- or under-acting is justified because of this: each plays their role with aplomb, perfectly capturing the two-dimensionality and stereotypical characterisation so prevalent in these old murder mysteries. In fact, all the film is missing is a Bela Lugosi-esque mad scientist and a dwarf. In particular, the two reporters’ constant wise-cracking is spot on; so too is Lord Partfine’s deluded philosophising (“it’s better to stay the night, than be the night,” he claims knowingly at one point). Most inspired, however, is Blamire himself who, as Ray Vestinhaus, is stilted to the extreme. He plays a constant red herring, appearing unannounced, seemingly aware of more than he should, apparently dead on a number of occasions, and the writer/director/actor (yes, he’s another one of those multi-taskers) has saved some of the best lines for himself, delivered flatly and without affectation.
Blamire’s style perfectly encapsulates how important intention is in filmmaking: despite the obviously miniature sets (the mansion itself), the woeful acting, the delirious incoherence of a melodramatic script, and a strange abundance of curtains instead of doorways, Dark and Stormy Night‘s “badness” is intentional and, as such, is entirely successful. In contrast, the likes of Ed Wood’s Night of the Ghouls (surely an inspiration for this film) tries to conform to the conventions of traditional Hollywood filmmaking, but fails at most, making it genuinely bad. Whereas Blamire’s “failures” are deliberate and considered, Wood’s are obviously the result of incompetence; despite the latter’s best intentions, he was so inept that his films are today viewed (by some) as unintentional masterpieces.
Dark and Stormy Night, while evidently borne out of a genuine appreciation of the genre that inspired it, is not perfect. Most films of the 1930s and 40s ran at roughly an hour in length, while Blamire’s is a more contemporary ninety minutes and, in truth, starts to flounder around the seventy minute mark. Essentially one long-running joke, it starts to wear thin – and I speak as someone who genuinely admires and enjoys both the original films and Blamire’s output. It is unlikely that viewers unfamiliar with or uninterested in old, low-budget b-movies will have the patience to persevere; that being said, it is equally unlikely that they would bother to source this relatively obscure movie in the first place. Yet for fans of badfilm, of old Poverty Row productions, of large ensemble casts (in particular, a secret lair concealed within the house immediately brings to mind that of Dr Cadman’s Secret, aka The Black Sleep, in which a collection of the greatest names in horror all act like, as Michael Weldon claimed in The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, “mongoloids”), Dark and Stormy Night is great fun, and a fitting tribute.