Relatives gather in a dead millionaire's mansion for the reading of the will, but there is a creepy prophecy that they will all die in the house that night
A remake of the stage-derived silent hit which epitomised the old-dark-house sub-genre of comedy mystery, this boosted Bob Hope as a major screen comedian and reminded the studios that sliding secret panels, disguised killers lurking in hidden passageways, wills read at midnight and gatherings of suspicious heirs never fail to raise a creaky chill.
In too many later films, star comedians just play scared or stupid (witness: Lou Costello); here, Hope’s smart lines come through what seems to be a real fear for his life and the fast-talking comic is also clever enough to handle the detective work rather than haul on a colourless leading man to take the strain. The visuals are less extravagantly gothic than the 1927 Paul Leni version, but it makes its claw-gloved and masked killer a genuinely unpleasant threat, frequently reaching out of the shadows to clutch at the lovely Paulette Goddard or staring out through the eyes of a portrait hanging in the gloomy Louisiana swamp mansion where everyone is confined for the duration.
The cast includes fine red herring work from perennial villains George Zucco (as the lawyer whose corpse tumbles from a secret nook in a textbook scare) and Gale Sondegaard (as the slinky, sinister and somehow sexy housekeeper). The mystery was never that mysterious, but the jokes remain snappy – ‘Don’t these big old empty houses scare you?’ ‘Not me, I was in vaudeville.’
With jokes like this: Old lady: "Don't big empty houses scare you?" Hope: "No, I used to be in vaudeville.", this little gem is top dollar