Is it a thriller? Is it a mystery? Is it a comedy? Actually, House of Mystery is a light weight little film that manages to be all three at once. House of Mystery opens with a prologue set somewhere in Asia twenty years earlier in 1913. A truly idiotic drunken archaeologist named Prendergast manages to royally piss off nearly everybody he runs into. But his crowning achievement of stupidity is to kill a sacred monkey then insult and whip the priest when an angry mob captures him. The justifiably angry priest pronounces the “Curse of Kali” (or as everyone in the film says: “Kay-lie”) on the dimwit American. Fortunately for Prendergast, his lover is the temple dancer and she manages to whisk him away to safety.
Fast forward to the office of Mr. Jerome Ellis in 1933. Ellis’s clients, Professor and Mrs. Potter, were two of the original investors that financed Prendergast’s disastrous dig. He and his temple dancer absconded with a stolen treasure and the Potters and the other investors never recovered their money. But now Mrs. Potter has spotted a strange Hindu woman. Says Mrs. Potter, “Now I put two and two together and I done a little snooping.” “Mrs. Potter means ‘investigating,’ ” interrupts her somewhat absent-minded husband. Mrs. Potter is very firm, “I said ‘snooping’ and I certainly mean ‘snooping’!” The old biddy…I mean Mrs. Potter discovered that the Hindu woman is supposedly Mrs. Pren and she and her invalid husband, Mr. Pren, live on a huge, isolated estate. Mrs. Potter is positive the Prens are really Prendergast and Chanda the temple dancer and she wants Mr. Ellis to meet with them and get the investment money back.
Mr. Ellis arranges a meeting and poor paralyzed Mr. Pren really is drunken dope Prendergast. He appears totally contrite and eager to make amends. He just has one condition: all the investors must first spend a week living in the Pren’s dark, mysterious, isolated, scary-looking mansion. So Mr. Ellis and the investors, including the Potters, insurance salesman Jack Armstrong, hypochondriac Mrs. Carfax and her spiritualist companion Stella, and grumpy Mr. Fells, end up joining Pren, the dour Chanda, and Pren’s perky and pretty nurse Ella for a week of happy togetherness….Not! Movie fans, keep an eye on doomed Mr. Fells. He’s only around for a short time but he is better known as George “Gabby’ Hayes, sidekick of many a Western film.
House of Mystery is a black and white film that was released in 1934. It runs only 61 and a half minutes so it makes for a fast viewing. This is one of those “Old Dark House” type of films that combines a mysterious mansion “complete with hidden passageways, secret panels, bodies turning up, and a killer ape for good measure”. I love “Old Dark House” films, especially if they have a nice blend of thrills, chills, and chuckles. House of Mystery has some funny moments with the pushy Mrs. Potter and the determined insurance salesman, Jack Armstrong. Chanda the former temple dancer (is she mistress or wife?) is suitably secretive. The Pren mansion is nicely mysterious with secret passageways and lights that suddenly go out. The unfortunate investors drop fast and furious and there is lots and lots of shrieking from the victims. And there is some hilariously corny “atmosphere” provided by the trappings of the “Curse of Kali” – every time someone dies we get furtive tom-tom drums and wafting incense smoke and the doomed houseguests go galloping around in the dark trying to figure out what is going on. You can not watch this movie and expect anything dark and serious. Nope, this is just plain old goofy fun. House of Mystery even has a killer gorilla to round out the entertainment. How many times have I bemoaned the trope of the killer gorilla that populates these old films? At least this gorilla avoids being so dark that you can barely make out its features. Sure, it runs around in the dark but it also comes right out in the open to do its dirty work so you can see that it is actually a pretty nice chubby gorilla costume.
House of Mystery is a Pre-Code film so we get some sexy slinky temple dancing from a scantily clad Chanda. Besides Gabby Hayes as Mr. Fells, none of the stars of the film went on to lasting fame. Ed Lowry (as salesman Jack Armstrong) only made three films before fading into obscurity. Verna Hillie (as nurse Ella Browning) had her career cut short by a spurned movie executive so she retired to raise her children. Joyzelle Joyner (as Chanda the former temple dancer) made around three dozen films, mostly playing dancers and earned some notoriety for the naughty “Dance of the Naked Moon” in the 1932 Pre-Code film The Sign of the Cross. Irving Bacon was a character actor who made 500 films and he is a hoot as the dopey Inspector Pickens.
House of Mystery is a short quick film running barely over an hour. A lot of scenes are set in dark rooms but House of Mystery does not seem quite as dark as some other films I have watched. The film has a few scratches and such damage but it is not really noticeable. The audio is excellent. House of Mystery was very loosely based on the 1927 play The Ape by Adam Hull Shirk. The same play was the basis for several other films including the 1940 Boris Karloff film The Ape. The two films do not resemble each other in the slightest except that each features a killer gorilla.
House of Mystery is in the Public Domain and is available FREE to download or watch online at the Internet Archive. If you enjoy these “Old Dark House” type of horror / mystery / comedy films with killer gorillas I have reviewed several others including: The Gorilla, a 1939 film starring the Ritz Brothers (“The Gorilla: Is It Man or Beast or the Bumbling Ritz Brothers?”), Who Killed Doc Robbin? A 1948 film in the style of Our Gang (“Who Killed Doc Robbin?”), Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, a 1952 film starring Bela Lugosi himself, (“Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla”) Ghost Parade, a 17 minute long 1931 short (“Ghost Parade”), and Law of the Jungle, a 1942 film starring Mantan Moreland (“Law of the Jungle is B Movie Hokum”).