Monday, November 29, 2010

SECRET OF THE CHATEAU (1934)

It's not uncommon for a murder-mystery-in-an-old-dark-manor-house to masquerade as a horror movie. Some people feel cheated by this; I know that, as a kid waiting all week for a monster flick and then sneaking out of bed in the middle of the night to see it, I was furious when this sort of bait-and-switch happened. For instance, I can recall being particularly incensed to learn that CASTLE IN THE DESERT--- which is a delightfully evocative horror movie title to see listed in a TV guide--- was actually a Charlie Chan picture without a monster.

But I've mellowed in my old age, and I'm far more tolerant of these titles. Truth be told, I admit that I enjoy them enough to actively seek them out. The plots are ridiculously improbable, the action is contrived, and the characters are shallow caricatures meant only as future murder victims or red herrings. But I like the mood and the ambiance and the art direction of these spooky murder-mysteries even if no monster ever materializes (a typical example would be one that finally came out on DVD a few months back, 1939's THE CAT AND THE CANARY).

But SECRET OF THE CHATEAU is not a spooky murder-mystery pretending that it is a horror movie. It's even more frustrating than that--- it's a crime film pretending that it is a spooky murder-mystery that is trying to slide in under the "horror movie" radar. It's not a bad picture on its own merits; it is competently made and features perfectly acceptable performances. But as it is put forward as a Universal horror movie, it is exasperating. The Brunas brothers and Tom Weaver in Universal Horrors blame the studio's publicity and marketing offices that promoted the movie in 1934 with eerie old-dark-house tag lines such as "Shadows Come to Life! Traps Snare Women! Trunks Swallow Men! Bells Toll Out Death!" in order to lure in audiences:

Clearfield [PA] Progress, December 31, 1934

And look at the one-sheet (designed by Karoly Grosz, maybe?) at the top of this post: an ectoplasmic monster with hooked claws looming over a frightened, fleeing crowd of silhouetted figures backlit by what appears to be a lightning strike. The titular chateau appears at the right, dark and foreboding (here's how it actually appears in the movie, bathed in bright sunshine:)

The most "horror movie" thing about SECRET OF THE CHATEAU (and there is no "secret" about the chateau, by the way, other than it has no electricity and has only one bathroom for 27 bedrooms) is the threat of the infamous murderer/rare-book thief known only as "Prahec." For at least ten years, Prahec has been cutting throats to obtain rare books, and this time around she or he has set his sights on a previously undiscovered Gutenberg Bible from the mid-1400s (there's only twenty or so complete Gutenberg Bibles today) whose value is set at a million francs. The Bible is stashed in an alarmed cabinet-trunk at a chateau in south-central France in the town of Aubazine, and there are a couple of heirs vying for it. An ex-con rare-book thief named Julie Verlaine (a charming Claire Dodd) weasels her way into the chateau just as the executor of the estate has assembled a small group of interested persons.

Pursuing Prahec is the Sûreté inspector Marotte (Ferdinand Gottschalk); he had previously arrested Julie and he turns up at the chateau just as bodies begin piling up. Marotte gets a morbid thrill from the crimes ("What a beautiful murder!" he says at one crime scene. "How delightful!") and he likes to brag about himself in the third person singular, but his ratiocination skills aren't much in evidence right up to the time that Prahec's identity is revealed. Mention should be made, as well, of the irritatingly un-funny comic relief (George E. Stone, who you might recognize from the Boston Blackie pictures of the 1940s).

Julie prowling around the chateau after dark

Within the context of my viewing project, I found the most interesting thing about SECRET OF THE CHATEAU was how its release to TV as part of the SHOCK! package has horrorized it over the years--- it's as if the deceptions made by Universal publicity agents in 1934 have continued unchallenged for decades afterward, even when it is clear that this is not even an old dark house mystery, let alone a horror movie. But it somehow attained a horror movie momentum on TV for decades. In fact, based on my (admittedly limited and perhaps statistically unsound) research, it would appear that SECRET OF THE CHATEAU was programmed as late-night horror movie fare far more in the 1970s than it was from 1957-1968.

SECRET OF THE CHATEAU turned up a lot in those Friday and Saturday night horror/sci-fi movie TV showcases in the 1970s. Sir Graves Ghastly, Son of Svengoolie, and the Fearmonger have all hosted (and, presumably, roasted) it; I've seen listings for SECRET OF THE CHATEAU that have double- and triple-featured it with SON OF DRACULA, MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, THE CONQUEROR WORM, THE MUMMY’S CURSE, WEREWOLF OF LONDON, and TARANTULA. In one 1974 listing for the Boston television market, I saw SECRET OF THE CHATEAU screened as part of the "Classic Horror Feature" showcase at 1 AM following the horror-hosted "Simon's Sanctorum" on WCVB-Channel 5. Here are some other instances of SECRET OF THE CHATEAU's horrorization in the 1970s:

Salt Lake City [UT] Tribune, Saturday July 2o, 1974



Simpson's Leader-Times, Kittanning, PA, Saturday September 3, 1977


I think that, more than any other non-horror movie included in SHOCK!, SECRET OF THE CHATEAU has succeeded in passing for a horror movie for decades. So how did this happen? I can understand if it was shown a lot when it first came out in SHOCK! in 1957 since the novelty was fresh and the movie pickings were slim. But why so prevalent in the 1970s, when folks presumably had had about ten years to realize that this wasn't really a horror movie at all? And why does SECRET OF THE CHATEAU have a horror movie afterlife that it may never shake off, but other non-horror mysteries that were "Shock!"-packaged for TV by Screen Gems (like THE LAST WARNING, NIGHTMARE or MYSTERY OF THE WHITE ROOM) have managed to avoid being classified as such throughout the decades?


NEXT: "A night monster...prowling, killing, terrifying a countryside. Don't miss the Hollywood SHOCK dramatic feature-length sensation THE WOLF MAN starring Lon Chaney and Ralph Bellamy on this channel! For thrill-packed drama at its best, see THE WOLF MAN!"

3 comments:

Mirek said...

I've no idea if I saw this film. But if I did, it was not that long ago, perhaps within three years.

Some films seem to have lived in Shock packaging simply because of their titles, which conjured up chills and frights the movies themselves never delivered.

kochillt said...

Perhaps the simplest explanation why this mystery-drama has a greater horror pedigree than the others mentioned, is that it was marketed as horror on its initial release, unlike the others. Nice early effort for Claire Dodd, who gets top billing over a fairly dull cast, especially for its period at Universal. Osgood Perkins is quite droll, but I much preferred THE CROSBY CASE to SECRET OF THE CHATEAU. This aired only once on Pittsburgh's CHILLER THEATER (check the Kittanning clipping dated September 3 1977), paired with THE MAD DOCTOR OF MARKET STREET. THE CROSBY CASE aired two weeks later on CT, paired with THE MAD GHOUL, a much better double feature (CROSBY would make one other appearance during CT's last season in 1983).

kochillt said...

Titles such as this one are becoming more obscure as time marches on, so it's always a treat to find anyone who has actually seen it, or reviewed it.