Fingering through the DVD discount bins, you sometimes come across some genuine curiosities. Recently, checking out the five buck discs at a local Walgreen's, I happened on the low-budget, old dark mansion flick House of the Damned. Released in 2006 on Fox Home Entertainment Video, the 1963 black-and-white featurette (only runs 63 minutes) comes as a flipper disc in both wide and full screen versions. I recently viewed the wide screen "cinemascope" version and found myself charmed by it, though I suspect that some viewers, bamboozled by the movie's wholly deceptive tagline ("13 Keys to Unleash the Living Dead"), might be pissed off at the picture.
The movie concerns a California Spanish-style mansion with dungeon, that is on the verge of being put up for sale since its previous tenant — a former tent show owner named Captain Arbuckle — has disappeared mysteriously and ceased paying his lease. Struggling architect Scott Campbell (Ronald Foster) and his wife Nancy (Merry Anders, a regular on sixties TV series who also had a role in Women of the Prehistoric Planet) have come to the house as part of a possible renovation project. (The only thing vaguely architectural that we see him doing is going around the first floor with a measuring tape.) Because the mansion is, of course, out in the middle of nowhere, the two spend the night, expecting to be joined by Scott's lawyer buddy Joe Schiller (Richard Crane) and his shapely foreign wife Loy (Erika Peters).
Joe and Loy don't show that first night, leaving our couple to be unnerved by a series of mysterious goings on in the house. While they are sleeping, a legless something makes its way into the room and swipes two of the thirteen keys that they've been given by a real estate. An investigation of the house uncovers only one still-locked door, however, though our spooked couple somehow manages to forget that there's a dungeon in the building until late in the movie. Later, when the lawyer's wife Loy is kidnapped by a hulking giant (Richard Kiel, a year after his appearance in Eegah), they still manage to forget about the basement digs until long after they've gone through the rest of the mansion.
Atmospherically filmed by Maury Dexter (The Day Mars Invaded Earth, Maryjane, The Mini-Skirt Mob), House works more on being moody than frightening, though a red herring subplot concerning the mansion's institutionalized former owner contains a decent little jump scare. There's an odd little subtext in the script, pertaining to the two couples' marriages. Scott and Nancy, we're reminded more than once, have just celebrated their anniversary, while the lawyer and his missus are currently experiencing a rough patch thanks to the "excitable" wife's jealousy. Both marriages are meant to be compared and contrasted to the relationships between the house's true denizens, though the script doesn't really do all that much with this theme.
Despite the movie's misleading poster blurb, the solution to all the dark night hi-jinx turns out pretty Scooby Doo-ish (Soon as you learn the missing Captain Arbuckle once ran a traveling circus, you can see where the plot is going: the culprits are all sideshow human oddities!). The flick's troublemakers prove to be benign at heart; even the house's one dire moment — the sight of a headless Loy reaching out for Nancy — turns out to be an old-fashioned carnie gaffe. The whole thing wraps on a somewhat melancholy note, as the movie's mislabeled quartet of the "damned" shuffle up the dungeon steps to venture out into the sunlight. When one of them says they fear "the faces" of the outside world, the group's seeming leader (a none-too-imposing circus fat lady played by Ayllene Gibbons) states simply, "We've all been looked at before." An odd capper to this peculiar little low-budgeter.