The Old Dark House

Ok. I have something of a confession to make.

I love old, dark house movies.

Baronial mansions fog bound on lonely moors or in swamps, trapdoors, hidden passages in the library, sinister butlers, clocks that strike thirteen, Bob Hope, bogus policemen, families with dark secrets, disappearing bodies, clawed hands coming out of the paneling, cats, canaries, Arthur Askey and “Stinker” Murdoch, ghost trains, haunted lighthouses, smugglers, Gale Sondergaard, fifth columnists, Lionel Atwill, mysteries, wax museums, abandoned railway stations, mad scientists, Ghost Catchers, Will Hay, windmills, hidden treasure, Moore Morriot and Graham Moffatt.

Love them. The older and more black and white the better. Even the scratches, dirt and sound clicks give them appeal. I’ve never fully understood the quest for better restoration. A glossy print seems to take away something, and all their old world charm and feeling of a more simpler, elegant age many a time makes me feel I’m lacking something indefinable in my life at times.

The comic-book world doesn’t do this genre often. Like most movies today, it concentrates on the horror format. Having an old tramp telling 30 year old teenagers not to go up to the old house/holiday camp/lake/American South, is easier than evoking a feeling of unease by having Dwight Frye look at you funny (and only the first season of Scooby Doo counts. Hanna-Barbara’s cheapness with the rest of it goes against it.*)

Manic Killer panel 1
Maniac Killer © Richard Sala

There is hope though for the genre and it comes from Richard Sala. Sala’s latest collection, Maniac Killer Strikes Again, brings back all the gruesomeness inherent in such tales. And when you have characters like Mr. Murmur and The Wheezer, you know that you are back in a time when mysterious strangers in trench coats hung around fog shrouded street corners and streetwise female reporters poked their noses into what didn’t concern them.
These short stories are earlier pieces and Sala’s style brings a lot of comparison with the British comic-strip artist Steve Appleby. But with the use of line to create shadow, an almost woodblock like tone with lots of black and quirky, off-putting angles, Sala gives every tale a delicious strangeness that feels like a dark, stormy night.

Dusty libraries and houses where giant curtains billow in the wind are Sala’s playground and I can just see him lugging a curiously shaped sack over his shoulder and taking it down to the docks or strange professor who never leaves his crumbling watch-tower. Creepy, old dark house movies have never had such a better champion, hard to believe he lives in sunny California.
Sala’s other main work is The Chuckling Whatsit. A more well-rounded piece that utilizes Sala’s style better. The weird characters and innocent abroad are given more room to breathe, and the locations and storyline given the right type of serial movie feel. Fell deeds and adventurers are the order of the day, with femme fatales more than willing to let you fall into their trap. For any lover of an older, darker style of detective tale, both these graphics are recommended.
Maniac Killer Strikes Again and The Chuckling Whatsit are both by Richard Sala and published by Fantagraphic Books and published by Fantagraphic Books.

* Little comic-book anecdote here.

Serge Arragones is the writer and artist of Groo, one of the funniest comics on the market. His translator and friend for the series is Mark Evanier, who has also done a lot of television work in animation scripting. At a convention panel once, Arragones and Evanier were asked what was the most embarrassing thing they had ever done. Arragones gave his reply and Evanier then gave his, “I invented Scrappy Doo”.

Silence in the room. A pin dropped.

“And it was at this point”, says Evanier. “Whilst all the rest of the panel was edging away from me in disgust and the audience were beginning to advance with knives and rope. That I finally realized what horror I had inflicted on the world”.

The Chuckling Watsit panel
The Chuckling Watsit © Richard Sala
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